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Are big name schools really that different?

  1. Jul 22, 2013 #1
    I've been working hard academically to meet the requirements to go to Caltech for a while now, though I was recently thinking, other than the benefit, albeit a major one, of having a big name school on your résumé, are there any benefits to going to universities like Caltech, Stanford, Harvard, etc.? My instinct is telling me that in things like physics, it's not a particularly differentiating science, so I'd assume that any university is going to teach the same physics as the next. Is this assumption correct?

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  3. Jul 22, 2013 #2
    Are you talking about undergraduate or graduate?
  4. Jul 22, 2013 #3
  5. Jul 22, 2013 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    I went to one of those schools as an undergrad, and got a lot out of it - more than I would have at Big State School. Others didn't get so much, and others thrived at a school where they would have been steamrollered at Snooty Ivy School.
  6. Jul 22, 2013 #5
    As an undergraduate I went to Pomona College. As a graduate student I went to Harvard. I sort of crept up on "snooty."
  7. Jul 22, 2013 #6
    I went to a community college, then a medium university and I made it into a top graduate program. Going to a top university is not a necessity to making it to a good graduate program.

    That being said, the people I know from Caltech are completely nuts! Academically, I would give so much to have gotten the chance to receive my education from there.
  8. Jul 22, 2013 #7
    My question is why?

    What makes them so much better than a school such as UC Berkeley? (No offense, UCB grads. It's a great school but it's fact that it's not considered a best in the world school like Caltech or Stanford.)
  9. Jul 22, 2013 #8


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    Actually UCB is usually ranked higher than Caltech in world rankings. It's because UCB is across the board brilliant at many things outside of just physics (well at least it used to be-I don't know how it is faring now what with all the money problems in the state of Cali); UCB's physics and math departments are revered so I don't know where you got your information from (hopefully not from college confidential). Regardless, Caltech's undergraduate physics program is just plain hardcore, you can see for yourself. Plus they are about as selective as they come so the environment is extremely competitive (which may or may not be a good thing but I would consider it to be a good thing). You would be pushed to your limit as far as physics goes and really get a rigorous physics education.
  10. Jul 22, 2013 #9
    Sometimes I feel that it can be hit or miss. There are more things to look at. Whether a school is big or small, considered overall top notch or not, does not necessarily speak for the department. I go to the University of Alberta, which is analogous to a big state university over here. UofA is well respected in many areas. I was in the Mathematical physics program to start and to be honest I was quite upset with the overall physics program. It didn't seem that the department really cared all too much about there undergraduate program (and this was an honors program). Oddly enough, the honors math classes were brilliant. The honors math program here is very small: the university has 37 000 students and there are about 8 people in my program only. Yet great care is taken to nurture the undergraduate honors math students into individuals who are capable of doing research level work.
  11. Jul 23, 2013 #10
    I think it all boils down to funding and the staff of the department, from what I've seen this big name schools usually have big name professors and researchers. Doesn't mean you can't get that at big state schools, it's just chances are you'll have less big name researchers, professors and perhaps funding
  12. Jul 23, 2013 #11

    D H

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    While those are very important concerns when selecting a graduate school, they are of much lesser importance when it comes to selecting an undergraduate school. The most important criteria at the undergrad level are the quality, rigor, breadth, and depth of the education one receives.

    These aren't measurable, so like the drunk who looks for his lost keys under the streetlight, ranking systems use measurable qualities that oftentimes have little connection with those important criteria. It doesn't matter at the undergraduate level if a school has a bevy of Nobel laureates if those prize-winning professors don't teach at the undergraduate level. It similarly doesn't matter if a school produces ground breaking research but doesn't communicate this to their undergrads.

    One thing that does matter is the quality of the students themselves, and this is somewhat measurable. There's no dumbing down of the curriculum so that the slow students can keep pace because there are no slow students at those top-ranked schools. Those top-ranked schools instead accelerate the curriculum. Non-honors classes cover material that only honors classes cover elsewhere, and the honors/advanced classes are brutally advanced.
  13. Jul 23, 2013 #12


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    This is a great point. I'm at a Big State school and most of my professors have been willing, and often excited, to help when I come to office hours bringing difficult problems that weren't in the homework.

    Find your own challenges wherever you go; don't expect them to fall in your lap! :smile:
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2013
  14. Jul 23, 2013 #13
    I find that slightly hard to believe, but I will take your word for it. That said - you get my point, and if UCB was a poor example, take your pick of any big state school.


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  15. Jul 23, 2013 #14
    Not that these things are reliable, but just for S's and G's:

    US News rankings:

    Caltech [ 1 Physics ] [ 7 Math ]
    UC Berkeley [ 5 Physics ] [ 2 Math ]

    QS World rankings:

    Caltech [ 8 Physics ] [ 12 Math ]
    UC Berkeley [ 5 Physics ] [ 5 Math ]
  16. Jul 23, 2013 #15
    Which schools in Canada are not state schools?
  17. Jul 23, 2013 #16
    Well technically none are : ) we have provinces! schools are not private in the same sense in most cases, but there are many smaller schools. I could provide a list but I don't think that would be necessary. there are 4 universities based out of Edmonton alone, UofA being a 'provincial' school. There is University of Calgary 3 hours south which is not a 'provincial school', there is Simon Frasier University in BC, University of Victoria, Waterloo, and countless schools in the east. Many are smaller schools considered to be elite in certain fields as opposed to a school like UofA which would be pretty close to a state university.
    How about Carleton, York, Mcmaster (very well respected), Guelph (very well respected), Ryerson, Dalhousie.

    I think you are missing the point. Its not like I am restricted to schools like UofA. I go there because I want to. I could go to the US or wherever If I liked. The divide between schools doesn't disappear at the border. We have the same options here as over there. International students are welcome. The only reason I mentioned it is that my school would fall into the big state university category. How to categorise other students in Canada is irrelevant for this discussion, I am comparing my school to the same schools everyone else is.
  18. Jul 23, 2013 #17


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    I find it hard to believe you would think UCB is nowhere near as good as the other schools you mentioned. I'm not sure you realize just how world class it is. Did you even look up UCB's history in math/physics/chemistry, course offerings in math/physics/chemistry etc. before making those statements? There's a difference between saying one university has a more rigorous curriculum than another in some field at the undergraduate level and a more competitive undergraduate enviorment and saying one university is unequivocally inferior to another.
  19. Jul 23, 2013 #18
    What matters is how good the teachers are at teaching. You can go to the best schools in the world and know everything about science, but if you're not good at putting that information and intuition into the brains of your students, then you may as well teach at a community college, or not at all.
    So do these top schools really have the best TEACHERS? Or do they just have staff who know a lot?
  20. Jul 23, 2013 #19

    D H

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    That is not all that matters. The best schools in the world have the best students. The quality of the students dictates the depth and breadth of the material that can be covered.
  21. Jul 23, 2013 #20
    I think you can get a great education at 'lesser' schools. However, as D H states, one of the big things the top schools have going for them is they have really bright, really hard working students. And they have a lot of them.

    I'd say if you can get into one of those schools and it won't bankrupt you financially, there's a lot to be said for going there. If you can't for whatever reason, don't despair, you can still get a great education if you are motivated. You just might have to be motivated because your classmates might not push the curriculum quite as hard. But you might get more out of physics at a school like Caltech if you have the opportunity.

    I went to a top undergrad liberal arts school. I was in the middle of the pack. I can say that I got more out of being in the middle of the pack at a good program than from being at the top of the class in a 'lesser' program. All those kids who got it easier than me pulled me up.

    That being said, I can honestly say that the teaching quality at my undergrad (top liberal arts college) was lightyears better than the teaching quality at the grad school I went to, a top ranked Ivy.
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