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Astrophysics: Does it matter where I do my undergrad?

  1. Nov 28, 2009 #1
    The title pretty much says it all. I'm planning on going into astrophysics, and I'm a bit concerned about the costs of studying out of state, not to mention that one of our state universities just opened up an undergraduate physics and astrophysics program.

    So, will it really make that much of a difference if I do my undergrad at Caltech or another science/engineering juggernaut of a university vs. a state school?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 28, 2009 #2
    Not really. The important thing is to get a good undergraduate education with some research and good letters of recommendation, and it won't matter in the grand scheme of things.

    The important thing is that you go to school somewhere that they put an emphasis on a good undergraduate program. Your main worry is that you'll get caught somewhere with a horrible weed-out class.
  4. Nov 28, 2009 #3
    would it be generally more advisable to look for somewhere with a smaller undergrad program where I can get more one on one time with professors, or would the opposite be preferable?
  5. Nov 28, 2009 #4
    Generally, the smaller the program the better. The reason for this is that you get more quickly involved in undergraduate research and stronger letters of recommendation. However, there are some small departments in large school. Also, some larger schools have more funding so that you have more research opportunities.

    In order to decide where to go, it's helpful to have a campus visit and to talk to people that are already in the program. What you want ideally is a program that's tough but supportive, with lots of opportunity for faculty interaction. The actual formal curriculum for the undergraduate program is pretty standard, but what you are looking for are places with lots of opportunities to learn the informal parts of science.
  6. Nov 29, 2009 #5

    Vanadium 50

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    I don't think I agree. At a larger school, one has a larger selection of faculty with whom to interact. I know one small school with a truly terrible physics department (a friend teaches in another department): four faculty, three of whom ate their brains the moment they got tenure. Number Four is spread very thin trying to hold this all together.

    I don't think there is this general correlation that smaller is better.
  7. Dec 5, 2009 #6


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    What state are you in? IMO it makes a huge difference. E.g., if you're a California resident, then you should be thinking about Berkeley and UCLA.

    When I was a grad student, the big thing that was really noticeable was the difference in the level of preparation of people who'd done their undergrad in the US and those who'd done it in China. E.g., the Chinese students had never touched an oscilloscope before they started grad school. This might be true, to a lesser extent, if you compare an undergrad degree from Berkeley or Caltech to one from a low-quality school. A good indicator of the quality of an undergrad physics program is what they do in the upper-division lab course. At a serious physics school, you'll see things like the Mossbauer effect and cosmic-ray muon experiments.
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