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Admissions: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Become

  1. May 25, 2015 #1


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    Looking Beyond the College Rankings - http://www.wnyc.org/story/looking-beyond-college-rankings/

    I listened to the program, which I found quite insightful. Good hard work on the part of the student/individual is what counts. The name of the college or university is not important.

    Bruni's column in NY Times

    From Bruni's column -
    Bruni's book -
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. May 25, 2015 #2


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    A lot of people get hung up on things like prestige and the reputation or selectivity of their academic institution, but as you say, these things do not have to define who they are or where they end up. Many people seem to not want to believe this fact.

    I think it stands to reason that a physics student from MIT, CalTech, Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley etc. is going to have a bit of a leg up on the competition simply by merit of having had access to better facilities and a more reputable and knowledgeable faculty. However, a college education is what you make it; not only what is given to you. Self studying new material or researching your course material at greater depth is always a possibility. Research experiences and internships are open to nearly anyone. There are many students that have attended lesser known schools and still ended up working alongside graduates from the bigger name schools.

    I think the only (partial) exceptions to this are in fields like investment banking, law, political science, and some areas of business. The more elite schools tend to have greater collegiate and alumni support networks for these types of fields, and many firms recruit specifically at some of these top schools. A graduate from a lesser known school might not have as good of a shot at a job at Goldman-Sachs, because they tend to do nearly all of their recruiting from a handful of schools (see Goldman-Sachs target schools. However, this doesn't mean that the field of investment banking is closed to people from other schools. They may not be able to get a position at this specific firm or some of the other 'top' IB firms, but there are many paths to success in such a field that don't involve working at the 'best' firms.
  4. May 26, 2015 #3
    So there's no difference in the quality of education?
    I'm going to apply for Rutgers University, which is a mediocre university, and I'm going to major in physics.
    I've always wanted to get into Princeton, or any of the highly ranked universities, but my chances to be accepted are very low right now so I feel very discouraged. I may try to transfer from Rutgers to one of these highly ranked universities after my sophomore year in Rutgers.
    However, is it really possible that I'll get the same education in Rutgers as if I were in the Ivy League? Will I have the same physics foundation and understanding when I graduate ?
    Last edited: May 26, 2015
  5. May 26, 2015 #4
    No, Rutgers is not a "mediocre university"; there are some phenomenal physicists and researchers in a variety of disciplines at that institution. In fact I don't see any evidence whatsoever that there is a meaningful difference between any of the schools in the top 50 for physics, and that's only because I assume that once you get approximately below 50 there is probably only a very limited focus on the department.

    I would guess that the overwhelming difference in outcome is attributable to individual character, with the institution you attend for your undergrad (and arguably graduate) serving a distant second.
  6. May 26, 2015 #5


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    The dirty little secret about higher ed, at least in the US, is that the quality of the education you receive at any two particular universities does not correlate that well with the amount of tuition you are charged.

    In certain fields, like engineering for example, accreditation of the particular learning institution is intended to ensure that you receive instruction in the minimum number of course hours and subjects in order to receive a degree. If you decide to pay 2X by going to school A instead of paying X by going to school B for an engineering degree, that's your prerogative, just like some people will pay 2X for a certain brand of car versus X for another. Both cars get you to your destination, but you pay extra for the privilege of driving the more expensive car. Whether the more expensive car is worth the extra money is entirely subjective.
  7. May 26, 2015 #6
    At the end of the day physics is physics and you'll be learning the same material whether you go to MIT or Random Low Level State School, but to say there's no difference in education quality at an Ivy League-esque institution vs elsewhere is patently false.
  8. May 26, 2015 #7
    On what evidence? It might be worse because the professors are even more focused on research, but the notion that it is better is highly dubious. Unless you're at a liberal arts college, the education quality will best be summed up as "You're on your own" whether you go to Humble State or Fancy Ivy.
  9. May 26, 2015 #8
    You are on your own whether you go to humble vs Ivy, but I can say the quality of education at a lower 'ranked' school vs a higher 'ranked' one based on personal experience; my school didn't require engineers or physicists to take Linear Algebra as a requirement (it was 'highly suggested') and most people were highly deficient in that area. I picked up notes from UW-Madison online to study for my E&M course in the physics department and despite having a great E&M professor the quality of what was being lectured on was quite different, UW-Madison was more rigorous, covered more material, used more deph (both mathematically and physically); we didn't even tough special relativity in E&M. Thermodynamics was even worse, the fact that the quality varied according to the professor was a big red flag; this PC notion that education quality is essentially the same everywhere is patently false.
  10. May 26, 2015 #9
    More demanding courses are not necessarily more educational, and more demanding professors are not necessarily better teachers. A motivated, sharp physics student at your lower tier school will realize that taking linear algebra is a wise choice (my undergrad wrapped linear algebra into the mathematical physics sequence, so I opted to take an additional LA course because I'm motivated).

    In particular, research is overwhelmingly more valuable than anything else offered by the school. A friend of mine with well south of a 3.0 is working at IBM's quantum computing center because he concentrated almost exclusively on research. This sort of thing tells me that the coursework simply doesn't matter much anyway. The only criterion a university can satisfy such that it has a truly poor physics program is if there is really no good research going on at all.

    Finally it's a statistical argument; I would argue that most top 50 programs are probably approximately as "good" even if we define good in terms of how demanding the program is, questionable though that may be. In fact, the variance among the top 50 is so high that there are absolutely schools which may be in the 30's but which are more demanding than schools in the top 10.
  11. May 26, 2015 #10
    So it's like the difference between a Ferrari and a Toyota?
    The drivers of both cars can get to the same destination, but the Ferrari driver only has the advantage of looking more fancy.
    Last edited: May 26, 2015
  12. May 26, 2015 #11
    So are there no actual advantage of going to an Ivy League school instead of a humble one ?

    Are Ivy League graduates more employable and have greater chances when applying for a job ?
  13. May 26, 2015 #12
    The result is a function of the student, institution, and chance. Maybe you personally would benefit more if you went to Princeton. I've met several students who went to ivy league schools for their undergrad and wound up at low ranking graduate schools (Princeton->U Delaware, Cornell->Arizona State); these individuals reacted very negatively to the environment of the ivy league schools for some reason. Other students will thrive there. Numerous students at the low ranking school I went to have been admitted to top tier graduate programs.

    It just isn't even remotely clear cut or black and white.
  14. May 26, 2015 #13


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    I don't think it's as simple as saying that there's no advantage. However, I think the advantages are often inflated well beyond what they actually are. When you're looking at something like the US News top 50 or another comparable list, it's important to realize that there's not necessarily any clear, qualitative difference between #1 and #2, #1 and #5, or even #1 and #10. Is there a qualitative difference between #1 and #50? There's more of a difference than there is between #1 and #10. The top rated schools tend to offer more resources and opportunities for their students.

    Are Ivy League grads more employable? Not necessarily. It's also important to understand what the Ivy League is - a sports conference consisting of 7 schools in New England. There are non-Ivy schools that are the equal or the superior of Ivy League schools. One is not going to get a better education at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, UPenn, Columbia, Dartmouth, or Brown simply because they are part of a specific sports conference. MIT, UChicago, Stanford, Berkeley, UChicago, Cal Tech, UIUC, and numerous other schools are on the same playing field or better than most of the Ivy League schools in many fields. There are dozens of better choices for a physics major than Dartmouth, despite Dartmouth being an Ivy League school. Labels only mean so much.
  15. May 26, 2015 #14


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    For a student trying to figure out which school to attend I think the key point is this. Don't fall into the trap of believing that a schools name is going to substitute for hard work on your part. People are going to hire you because of the skills, experience and personality that you bring to the table. Similarly admissions to graduate programs will be based on your performance as an undergraduate. There may be cases where a school name will give you a leg up over the competition. There may also be cases where school name will act as a detriment. Counting on a school reputation will not do you any favours in the long run.
  16. May 26, 2015 #15


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    It's really important to put these things in perspective.

    Suppose two people are competing for a job. One graduated from Harvard, and did relatively little else. The other graduated from UIUC, UT Austin, University of Arizona, or something comparable, spent two summers working as an intern in their field, and did research with professors during a few of their semesters. Which one are you going to hire?
  17. May 26, 2015 #16
    My situation is very similar to your friend's, though I'm working as an engineer in another industry. My experience tells me coursework matters but grades are the thing that don't matter much. I agree research and how closely your desired school matches with your research interests is king vs name. If I wanted to do plasma fusion research I would up the creek without a paddle at Harvard for example because they have nothing of the sort. Regardless quality of research is also not the same everywhere.
  18. May 26, 2015 #17
    I'll surely hire the hard-working student.
    But in the case that two graduates, both of them are brilliant and hard-working students and did much research and have excellent skills, applied for the same job, but one is from Harvard and the other is from University of Arizona, who is more likely to be hired?
  19. May 26, 2015 #18
    I don't think you'll only compete against people from Harvard or Princeton.
  20. May 26, 2015 #19
    That's an example, I mean a prestigious university.
    Last edited: May 26, 2015
  21. May 26, 2015 #20
    Thanks mates for enlightening me.
    Sadly, the idea that the prestigious universities are the only good ones is instilled in most students. Now I know better. ️. Thanks very much !!!
  22. May 26, 2015 #21
    I think this statement is uncalled for. What is less reputable mean? More knowledgeable? really! Less prestigious programs may have as good or better facilities in a given area or even an unique facility. Some popular areas of research are often multi-university collaborations. Some experimental facilities are not even university facilities e.g.,Fermi Lab, LHC, Brookhaven. Good teaching takes time and time is better spent in research for ones survival if you want tenure.

    Ranking of Grad programs put high priority on research and citations. So by and large big prestigious programs have an edge based on quantity. But large can be a bad place for a lot of students who just might need a little more time and/or guidance before they find their groove. .Most undergrads are really unqualified to judge the quality of a program. However I can say this much about the ranking of programs. At least you know who will be applying to those programs because you should know how you rank with respect to those students who you know are good. You don't want to compete with those students. You know they are not going to apply to Ubiquitous University. You don't have to go to MIT to do physics at CERN.
  23. May 26, 2015 #22


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    Nowhere did I suggest that one would have to go to MIT to do physics at CERN. I was saying quite the opposite actually.

    More reputable schools for physics tend to have very active research environments, and professors are often researchers. Taking a quantum mechanics class, nuclear physics class, optics class, etc. from someone who is an active researcher at the cutting edge of this field is going to give an edge because such a professor is far more likely to have a more widely comprehensive knowledge of the field on which to draw while teaching. I'm not suggesting that a physics education at a less reputable institution is going to be bad. I did my first two years of undergrad at a community college, and I don't feel that my physics professor was lacking. He has a PhD from the University of Chicago and he's done research at Fermilab, Lawrence Berkeley, and other schools. He was tenured at the University of Utah for 7 years before moving to Illinois and starting at my community college. He's a very qualified professor who has done research in various areas of neutrinos, quantum cosmology, and other areas. He came back here because he was raised in this area and missed living in a smaller town.

    Point being, there are many reasons for a professor to be at a less reputable institution aside from being inadequate for the 'better' schools...but schools like MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, etc. have a whole department of incredibly qualified professors who are at the cutting edge of their respective fields. One absolutely does not need to attend one of these schools in order to succeed as a physicist, but the opportunities and the environment at such a school are far more likely to be conducive to fostering such success.
  24. May 26, 2015 #23


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    I'm wondering what people who place high importance on the college you attend think the stakes really are? Do you think that if you go to Rutgers instead of Princeton that you'll be living in a cardboard box at age 40 instead of in a million dollar mansion? Any university above half decent (and Rutgers is well above "half decent") can set you up for a nice, comfortable top-10% income if you do it right. Much above that, the air gets very thin and you need either exceptional skill or exceptional luck, regardless of what the name in big letters on your diploma is - though at that level, depending on the field the name may help some (Supreme Court Justice? Must be Ivy League).
  25. May 26, 2015 #24


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    I'm a regular over on the College Confidential forums as well, and such an attitude is quite commonplace there. A lot of people come in thinking that if they don't go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, or MIT that they'll basically be a failure in life who will never succeed at anything. This is, clearly, quite ridiculous. There are far more people in the world who are successful graduates of non-HYPSM schools than there are successful graduates of HYPSM.
  26. May 26, 2015 #25


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    The quality of students is crucially different at top universities compared to that of lower-tier universities. This in and of itself obviously has a noticeable positive effect on a physics student attending such a university. Being around people that are just as if not more motivated than you, just as if not more intelligent than you, and just as if not more passionate than you towards learning and doing research in "advanced" areas of physics is an extremely beneficial thing.

    My best friend goes to CUNY and he's an extremely intelligent person who was even more interested in physics than I was in high school but he completely lost all interest in physics by the end of his 2nd year solely due to the fact that there were basically no physics students around him that were even remotely as interested in the subject as he was. You just won't find such a barren environment at a top university.

    Pretending that there is no measurable benefit in doing physics at the kinds of universities intimated in this thread is just plain silly and an exercise in political correctness. But honestly what's the point of this argument? What are you going to do, as a student, if you don't get into or can't afford a top university and have to "settle" for something else? Are you just going to give up in the face of something that's out of your hands? Or are you going to make the best of what you have and try not to get discouraged (which I admit is easier said than done)?
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