Allaying college concerns

1. Jul 29, 2008

Razzor7

I'm entering my senior year of HS next year. Right now I'm almost certain I'll be majoring in physics. I haven't taken chemistry yet (I'm taking a double block of that next year) but I don't think it'll really catch my interest like physics. I figure I'll get a degree in physics and then decide where to go from there (higher degree, private sector, etc.). Does that sound like a good plan? I know I love physics/science in general and I think I'll like research, but there's no way to know until I try it. Are there ample opportunities for undergrads to get a taste of what it's like to actually be a physicist?

I'm also stressed about which college to go to. I have a very solid GPA (4.7 weighted, 3.95 unweighted) and pretty good test scores (2100 SAT, 33 ACT, 800/800 physics/math II subject) but I haven't done any science/math related extracurricular activities. I am going to retake the SAT to try and get a really impressive score, but there's no guarantees obviously. I was going to apply to MIT but now I'm not so sure. They're so selective and I don't think I stand out nearly enough. I'm going to apply to Harvey Mudd for sure, but again they're extremely selective.

The only other schools I even have in mind are the state universities here in Florida. I'm basically counting on acceptance to FSU and UF, but I think I should have more than 4 potential schools in mind, and not just 2 really ambitious choices and then 2 really unambitious choices. It doesn't help that I've heard horror stories about 600 student classes taught by teachers who don't speak English at UF, and their seemingly random acceptance due to a flood of students.

On the other hand, after Bright Futures (Florida scholarship program) and pre-paid tuition, going to school in Florida is going to be dirt cheap. I'm talking only a few thousands dollars a year. I will almost certainly graduate with no debt if I go to school in Florida.

But are these schools any good? When I visited FSU, they told me that there are lots of undergraduate research opportunities and that they spend more than Yale on research. How should I investigate this further? I have yet to visit UF, but I plan on doing that soon. I live like 2 hours from the campus, so it's a matter of me picking a day and driving there. If I were positive that I wanted to attend graduate school, I wouldn't worry about this. But I don't want to graduate, decide I don't want to go for a higher degree, and then get laughed at by potential employers.

Any advice is greatly appreciate. Suggestions of some "middle of the road" schools would help big time. Any information (or suggestions on ways to acquire information) about the quality of education I might receive at UF or FSU would be even better. Thanks for the help, this is extremely stressful.

2. Jul 29, 2008

tmc

Undergrad school doesn't really matter much. Just find a school which has a good undergraduate program and which hopefully will have lots of research opportunities for undergraduates, and you'll be good to go. Going to a top school is much more important for grad studies than it is for undergrad.

3. Jul 29, 2008

Choppy

I wouldn't too much about going to a "top" school (by who's definition). Nor would I place a lot of weight on horror stories about professors who teach a million students at a time and can't speak english and so on. Lots of first year physics classes are large. And not all professors are great. And first year physics at a "state" school generally covers the same topics as first year physics at a "top" school.

As long as the school has a reasonably strong physics department and a program that will qualify you for grad studies, you should be fine. Things to look for are:
- professors who've won teaching awards,
- departments that place emphasis on teaching,
- extra-cirricular opportunities

Someone you might want to talk to is called an "undergraduate physics advisor" that you should be able to contact through the physics department of each school. If the school doesn't have a person in this position they may have a professor in an administrative role who handles these kinds of questions.

4. Jul 29, 2008

Staff Emeritus
According to their respective web sites, FSU spends $193M a year on research and Yale spends$450M. So I am not sure what metric FSU is using. One also needs to keep in mind that there are 4 times as many students at FSU than Yale.

It's certainly possible to get into a top graduate school with a degree from a solid, but not top, undergraduate college or university. However, it's probably easier if you come from a top undergraduate program. It's also often the case that at a top undergraduate school, you will have more exposure to current research, and that will assist you in finding the best graduate program for your interests. For example, Harvard has a bigger name than Michigan State, but if one were interested in experimental nuclear physics, Michigan State has IMHO a much stronger program.

I don't think a degree from FSU would be "laughed at". Would a degree from MIT open more doors? Probably.

Finally, your two dream schools are very different - one is small and undergrad-only, and the other is a medium-to-large graduate school that happens to have some undergrads around. There are dozens of schools similar to one, the other, or in the large area between the two.

5. Jul 29, 2008

jhicks

Recent UF alum here (engineering). I found the quality of education to be fine, though you can guarantee your TA's will have a terrible command of spoken English. I found the qualifications of the professors to be fine, however. Personally, I would stay in state for undergrad. I've already told my story on these boards a few times so I'll just say that going to UF will not hinder your aspirations for grad school anywhere (easily got into the top 5 grad school I'm attending in 3 weeks), should you choose to go that route.

6. Jul 30, 2008

Razzor7

Many thanks, everyone.

I thought this was too good to be true.

I think I'd prefer a small liberal arts school like Harvey Mudd, but any school with a strong physics department is a good thing. Could you give me a few names to look into?

Why is it that the TAs have trouble with English? I don't really understand where we find so many people qualified to be TAs but not able to speak English :\ Could you link me to some of those posts with your "story," I'd like to read them. Thanks for the info, this is quite comforting.

7. Jul 30, 2008

Asphodel

Research spending is something everyone likes to brag about, but unfortunately it's hard to compare since you don't often know much about how the total is derived. FSU does have fairly good undergraduate research opportunities. I wouldn't go into "better than Yale" territory, but it's certainly competitive and Yale isn't on your list anyway.

There seems to be a large number of international grad students in physics generally. Really, I've had more trouble with them in math classes. It's bugger-all fun when your instructor is trying to present a theorem and doesn't know English well enough to avoid presenting it as the exact opposite of the correct statement, confusing proof and disproof.

Where you go for undergrad studies has a much lower correlation to...well...anything, in comparison to the weight entering freshmen usually give it. FSU is a fine school, and you'll do much better for yourself by going to a good school where you will also conveniently avoid incurring as much of the massive debt many students graduate with. A student unencumbered by debt has many more options once they graduate!

8. Jul 30, 2008

Staff: Mentor

Fairly close to Florida, you might look into Furman University (in South Carolina) and Davidson College (in North Carolina). Both are primarily or exclusively undergraduate-oriented, and have good general reputations. I'm slightly acquainted with the physics departments at both. You won't find cutting-edge Nobel Prize level research, but they both have active research programs that are geared towards giving undergraduates research experience.

At the undergraduate level, for most students, research is mainly about learning how to do research in general, and the specific content or field shouldn't make much difference. Of course, it helps if you have some interest in the topic.

At most universities, many physics graduate students (sometimes even the majority) come from abroad and are not native English speakers. There simply aren't enough US-born physics graduate students to staff all those lab and recitation sections.

9. Jul 30, 2008

thewhills

I am stressed on this too...But I try to remember.. MOST universities teach from the same books in the same subjects.
The only reason "top" universities get a good rep is research, and lots of it.
Top schools also tend to inflate GPA more. For example you want to why 97% Harvard grad get into their top Med/Law/Ph.D School...Because Harvard want that to happen it makes them look good.

10. Jul 30, 2008

tmc

That's nonsense. Top universities do not inflate GPA any more than other schools. The reason their grads get their top pick, is because the students were initially chosen among the top high school students, and most then became top university students.

11. Jul 30, 2008

jhicks

Apparently I posted mostly on another board about it, but here's the one I could find on the subject:

I guess I should point out additionally that I didn't just get into my first choice grad school, I was offered despite not being a PhD applicant about 30k annually in the form of a fellowship and a TA. UF served me well.

Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
12. Jul 30, 2008

maze

Ok, a few things about Harvey Mudd, since I did my undergrad there. This is going to be a bit of a tl;dr post, but you should know what you are getting into.

1) It is great if you are absolutely totally sure you want to do math/science/engineering. If you have doubts, STAY AWAY. It is very intense. Maybe not quite as intense as Caltech from what I've heard, but intense nonetheless. I have good friends (they are smart people) who weren't quite dedicated, and the coursework load broke them. A couple of them had to take years to recuperate mentally. It doesn't matter how smart you are, you *will* have to work hard and have good work habits. They say they are a "liberal arts" college and you can major in a humanities subject. This is a lie. There were maybe 3 people I met my whole time there who did this, and they would have been better served elsewhere. Also don't go there to be "tough" because you hear how hard it is. You have to love math/science/engineering (ideally all 3) or you will have 4 years of pain.

2) They have NO grade inflation. none. One of only 3 schools in the US without it, I think. There were about 7 people who have graduated with a 4.0 in the entire history of the school. The average GPA is somewhere between 3.0-3.2, despite the fact that they are very selective and get MIT/Caltech-caliber entering classes. This is good and bad, which brings us to point 3,

3) They have a *very* good reputation with graduate programs in math science and engineering. I got into a lot of top-20 grad programs despite a GPA that would look bad from any other school. For the initial phone interview, one admissions guy literally started the conversation with "So you're from Harvey Mudd. We LOVE Harvey Mudd students". When I visited programs, several professors I met commented on the fact I was from HMC.

HOWEVER, if you are going into law or medicine the reputation means nothing, and it will suck hard when you get rejected from law school while students who had a way easier time at a less intense program at grade-inflated ivy league schools get picked. I know some people who this happened to.

4) Nearly everyone there is smart and works hard, and that is a good enviornment to be in if you want to learn, because it will rub off on you. Most people are pretty interesting and have at least a little bit of weirdness to them, and this is a good thing. There is also a lot of collaboration and sense of comraderie, especially among people in the inner dorms, which function as their own little communities. After a few months you know pretty much everyone in the school.

5) Claremont is a very booring and ugly town. Thankfully there are some beautiful foothills and mountains only a couple miles away.

6) The girl/guy ratio is very poor if you're a guy. You laugh now, but it is a serious concern. When I was there it was somewhere between 1/e and 1/pi. And honestly, among the girls there, a lot aren't all that attractive. There are the other Claremont colleges across the street, which you'll probably need to make use of for this.

7) Professors are very accessible. If they are there, you can just go walk into their office and they are generally overjoyed to help you out. I once emailed a question to the intro CS professor at 4am, and got a detailed response 10 minutes later.

8) Despite the small student body, a lot of the early "core" classes have surprisingly big lectures (150+ people). As you get into your own field later on, the classes get smaller.

9) In terms of research, not only can you do it, it is expected of you. There is research, and then there is "clinic", and you are expected to do either one or the other your senior and/or junior year. Clinic is teams of 4 or so students who spend the year (or more) solving a problem in industry. Research is research. Generally students on the engineering side of things tend to do clinic, whereas students on the science side of things tend to do research, although there are many exceptions. It is easier to find experimental research than theoretical, though this is par for the course at the undergrad level.

Ok, thats all I can think of right now, hopefully that gives you a bit of an insider idea of what its like.

Last edited: Jul 30, 2008
13. Jul 30, 2008

Razzor7

Maze, I can't thank you enough. There are a few things I'd foolishly never really thought about that you brought up. I don't think Harvey Mudd would be the place for me. I don't have the study habits at all. A school like UF might ease me into better work ethics, but from the sound of it I'd get butchered at a seriously intense college like Mudd. The guy/girl ratio is something I never even considered. Finally, it's hard to turn down all the free money Florida is throwing at me in the form of Bright Futures and a pre-paid tuition plan.

I think UF will serve me much better than Harvey Mudd would (that's assuming I'd even get accepted). Thanks for all the advice, guys.

14. Jul 30, 2008

maze

No problem. Good luck in finding a college.

15. Jul 30, 2008

thewhills

sound good, I imagine you might get a higher GPA here too since UF isn't known to be grueling work wise,but it is still a great school.

I imagine you could get a NASA internship if you tried

16. Jul 31, 2008

mathwonk

ok, as a general rule, the competition for faculty jobs in the US is so strong that almost all colleges and universities have very strong faculty. in particular however fsu has among its faculty a few people i know personally as very strong, e.g. paolo aluffi, and jack quine. have no fears about going there.

however be awaRE THAT if the student body is weak at a certain school, then the courses may be weak as well. so talk to the faculty and get advice on which courses to take.

good luck.

17. Jul 31, 2008

Monocles

If you don't have a strong work ethic now, you may discover it after coming to college. I had a horrible work ethic in high school and for most of my first year in college. This past summer though I suddenly changed and became a hard worker, just like that.