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Am I behind? How to get the most out of a small school.

  1. Aug 8, 2013 #1
    I go to a small liberal arts school. I always wanted to go to the best school I could, but I grew up in a small town with almost zero resources and had to deal with some pretty scary abusive family stuff for most of my life. I got kind of screwed up for awhile and barely scraped my way into college.

    Now that I'm here, and that other stuff is thankfully not an issue anymore, I'm a physics and math double major and at the top of my class, although I'm not sure what that really means. But the more exposure I get to other physics students, mostly through PF, the more I get worried about the quality of the curriculum here. We have no honors classes, and nearly every book we use is simply the standard, nothing exceptional. Same goes for the math department.

    I'm ahead of my class, but not by a lot I guess. For some context, this is the summer after my sophomore year, and I'm working through Griffiths Electrodynamics and Arfken on my own, which seem to be about my level. I can do almost all of the problems in both, but occasionally something in Arfken stumps me. All of this is new material to me, except for basic electricity and magnetism from Giancoli. I'm also working through, at a more leisurely pace, Visual Complex Analysis by Tristan Needham, which I'm loving. So that's to give an idea of what I do outside of class.

    How can I get a high quality education when I feel like all my classes are toned down? I want to really be competitive when I graduate, but I feel like I'm barely making headway compared to kids that get to do amazing things like take graduate courses at Harvard when they're freshman. I'm just feeling kind of lost and frustrated, and I have no idea whether I'm feeling stuck because I have elevated expectations of myself, or because I'm not getting what I need from my school and peers.

    I guess I'm looking for two things, mostly:

    -General advice on how to get more out of my education, and maybe some idea of where I'm at compared to people from bigger, nicer schools.

    -Maybe some kind of (subjective) ideas of what people feel a dedicated undergrad should have a solid grasp on by the time they graduate (a book list would be great!)

    I know this is kind of a wishy-washy post, and I hope I don't sound like I'm bragging or just making excuses. Really, any advice at all would be appreciated. Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 8, 2013 #2


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    I'm happy to hear you made it through some tough circumstances.

    It would be good to get involved in research as an undergrad. Do you have any particular faculty member who does research that you're interested in?
  4. Aug 8, 2013 #3


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    I went to a small liberal arts college myself. It had about a thousand students and three physics professors. There were four physics majors in my graduating class, and one of them was really a math person who happened to double-major in physics. Back in those days, forty years ago, the Internet didn't exist, so I wasn't confronted every day with what physics majors at bigger, fancier schools were doing. I simply did well in my classes, pursued my own projects in the evenings (physics majors pretty much had the run of the department, with keys to labs if we needed them), and participated in a couple of research opportunities. Between my grades, recommendation letters and GRE scores (don't remember what they were, but they must have been at least fairly decent), I got into Michigan for grad school (didn't try for anything "better" e.g. MIT, Harvard...).

    Then I ended up teaching at a small liberal arts college for many years, because I enjoyed my experience as an undergraduate and decided to go that route after I finished my Ph.D.

    Based on all that, here are my suggestions:

    • Do the best you can, in your classes.
    • Do "directed study" or "independent study" courses for topics that your school doesn't offer formal courses in. This will get them on your transcript, as opposed to studying them on your own during the summer or whenever.
    • Take advantage of research opportunities at your school and other schools. Summer REU programs were originally intended for students like you.
    • Do stuff on your own initiative that's "visible" to your professors even though you don't get official academic credit for it. (With me, it was playing with computers in the labs in the evenings, before personal computers existed.)
    • Get to know your professors and make sure they know what you're doing (physics-wise) outside of class. That will help them write strong letters of recommendation for you.
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2013
  5. Aug 9, 2013 #4


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    I also attended a small liberal arts college (and now I'm a professor at one). It sounds like you're right about average as far as the material covered at this point. You shouldn't be worried about the lack of graduate classes because you're not qualified to take them yet. At this rate, you'll be ready for grad classes when you start graduate school. The best thing you can do right now is get involved in research, as other people have mentioned.
  6. Aug 9, 2013 #5
    Thanks for all the advice. It's nice to hear from other people who enjoyed going to a small school. I didn't mean to suggest that I didn't love it here! I also didn't mean to imply that I feel ready for graduate classes or anything. I'm obviously a long ways from that. I just meant that I wish sometimes that more stuff like that was going on here. I feel like I need to read ahead and beyond my classes just to be average, instead of having my classes push me.

    I'm not doing any research, but I have been working with a professor setting up and building new labs for the Junior lab class. He also let me work through a couple of the current experiments over the summer so that I won't have to do as many when I take the class next year. I really enjoy putting these things together from scratch, and I'm nervous that I wouldn't have time for this if I started research. Am I wasting my time working on these labs, or is this worthwhile?
  7. Aug 10, 2013 #6


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    IMO: no, it's not a waste of time. Those skills are very valuable in grad school and industry.
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