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Advice on choosing an undergraduate school

  1. Aug 30, 2014 #1
    Before I begin, I would like to make it clear that I am only a Junior in high school, so I have at least a little time before any important decisions need to be made about college. As such, this post will likely contain a good number of "what if"s. I am, of course, interested in obtaining a bachelor's degree in physics.

    Essentially, my questions boil down to this: are prestigious universities worth their weight in gold? More specifically, how would a well-known Ivy League school (or a suitable equivalent) compare to UT, where I would get in-state tuition and probably incur less debt? How much do their academic environments differ, and how differently are they viewed by graduate programs? Does anyone know more specifically how good UT's undergraduate physics program is?

    On an at least somewhat related note, I am also interested in computer science (though less so than physics). How advantageous would it be for me if I were to dual major and obtain an undergraduate degree in computer science? Would doing that increase my chances of acceptance to a good graduate program (not to mention the obvious benefits it would net me employment-wise)?

    Thank you all for your time and consideration.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 30, 2014 #2
    I'd say the undergrad physics at say MIT, Caltech, Princeton and a couple others probably does introduce you to things at just a bit more advanced level than at many places and it can be a bit advantageous, especially if you might want to go into theory, especially high energy theory. And then any of the rest of the upper tier 30-40 schools or so probably, to varying degree give a bit of an edge compared to the rest. The better, more major public universities probably do a fairly decent to excellent job though, although you might be a bit more likely to get some foreign TA who barely speaks English teaching an intro or even second year class at some of them, it really depends, the mid and lower tier ones you'd definitely get taught at considerably, far, far lower level that at say Caltech.

    I'm not quite sure where UT would fit. They have a pretty large department and a really top level grad department (better than at many Ivy League schools and it's actually extremely difficult to get into their grad program, perhaps more difficult to get into for say grad high energy theory than getting into many of the tougher to get into Ivies for undergrad). I don't know too much about the actual ins and outs of what it is like to be in their grad program though, sometimes their are gotchas of various sorts (some departments, just talking in general, even admit a lot of people who will fail out after the first year or two just to get a bunch of TAs, etc or might not have someone easy or strong to work with in your sub-field, etc. etc.). I'm don't really know anything about their undergrad.
  4. Aug 30, 2014 #3


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    Staff: Mentor

    UT? Texas? Tennessee? Toronto? Tasmania? :wink:
  5. Aug 30, 2014 #4
    I went to a public university and got a top notch education. I don't know anything about UT, but I wouldn't rule it out if the program is good. I would recommend you apply to the top schools because many have recently been improving their financial aid packages, and it might actually be cheaper, depending on your circumstances.

    On the grad teachers issue, I had a professor or assistant professor as a teacher for every single class I took. Grad students helped with labs, graded papers, and reviewed material taught in class with the students, but the professors were always the ones teaching. Some of the big name schools will have grad students teaching 2/3 of the lectures for certain classes. A lot of these grad students are great teachers, and they get rid of the ones that aren't, so I don't necessarily think having grad students teach is bad thing.

    All in all, I don't think it matters a ton where you go, as long as you put the work in. An Ivy league will offer a great experience and allow you to be surrounded by a lot of smart and dedicated students, but may have little to no impact on your income. There was a study that found that typical students who attended Ivy League schools made the same amount of money as those who were accepted, but chose to go to school elsewhere. The ones who benefited financially from an Ivy League education were the ones who came from low income and disadvantaged backgrounds.

    You could consider Computational Physics if you dual major in Computer Science and Physics. There are a lot of ways to combine programming experience with physics.
    Last edited: Aug 30, 2014
  6. Aug 30, 2014 #5
    The University of Texas at Austin.
  7. Sep 2, 2014 #6
    I might try to contact a few current students and ask them about their experiences. UT-Austin is a pretty good state school for undergrad overall and the physics department is certainly top notch for grad school.

    If you don't hear anything negative from anyone, it might be worth the money saved (at least unless the other options are Caltech, Princeton).

    But also don't forget to pay attention to the general feel the schools and the locations. There is more to life than physics and the overall setting and experience matters a lot for undergrad too.

    And also keep in mind that occasionally people end up changing majors even when they seem to be totally one track, for sure headed a certain direction in high school.
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