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BA vs. BS

  1. Oct 23, 2007 #1
    Right now I'm a senior in high school looking at schools to apply to, and I plan to get a degree in physics and pursue graduate coursework. My problem is this: two of my top-choice schools, University of Chicago and Princeton, do not offer a BS in physics--just a BA. I'm wondering if this will affect my chances at going to a graduate school and whether this will make a large impact on my education. I assume education-wise I will be fine, as these schools claim to offer and encourage highly extensive research opportunities for undergrads, often beginning freshman year and alongside graduate students. But will graduate schools frown upon a "mere" BA in physics or recognize the research and notoriety of the physics departments at these schools?

    Both schools state that their physics departments offer a lot of flexibility in which physics courses to take: I don't know if this is why they're BA or if they're BA simply because they don't offer quite enough physics courses total to constitute as a BS degree.

    Thanks in advance! I greatly appreciate any help during this rather stressful decision-making time.
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  3. Oct 23, 2007 #2
    A B.S. in Physics will likely be viewed as more rigorous / better preparation. If it's not your terminal degree (i.e. you're going on to grad school) then it won't matter what your undergrad degree is once you have an M.S. or Ph.D. - just make sure you're adequately prepared for grad school. To that end, check out what courses the program actually encompasses, and what elective courses in physics are regularly offered (not just in the catalog...which will likely be loaded with courses that only show up every few years, or just that one time 10 years ago...). Also make sure the school is supportive of undergraduate research.

    Really, I think most employers will think "oh look, Princeton" and not "oh look, the sap only got a B.A., lol!"...my two cents, anyway. I guess Princeton is more arts than sciences? Weird.
  4. Oct 23, 2007 #3
    I agree with Asphodel. If you can actually get into a school like Princeton to study physics there, I doubt they will notice much if you got a BA instead of a BS
  5. Oct 23, 2007 #4


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    As far as I know, there are no standards set by accrediting agencies or other "outside" bodies on BA versus BS degrees. A college or university is free to call its bachelor's degrees by either name. I got my bachelor's degree at a small liberal-arts college, which called it a BA. I now teach at a similar college with a very similar physics program, which calls its (physics) bachelor's degree a BS. In fact, our psychology department offers both BA and BS degrees, with exactly the same requirements! (At least they did about ten years ago, when I looked at the question of BA versus BS degrees here as part of our re-accreditation process.).

    I can't imagine anyone in his or her right mind looking down on a physics degree from Princeton or U of Chicago just because it's "only a BA!" :bugeye:
  6. Oct 24, 2007 #5
    I don't really have a comment about the BA vs BS, but if you have questions about the University of Chicago I could probably answer some of them since I am a first year (t)here.
  7. Nov 3, 2007 #6
    I believe the theoretical answer to the difference is that a BA is supposed to reflect a broader but less deep education, whereas a BS is supposed to reflect a deeper but less broad education. That is what my advisor here at Berkeley told me. The reason I say theoretical is that in practice, the curricula do not seem to differ noticeably.
  8. Nov 3, 2007 #7


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    In practice, the difference between BA and BSc means nothing. What is important is what you studied; the whole set of what you studied, and what do you understand & what do you know how to do once you complete earning your undergraduate degree.

    In the official sense, what dans595 wrote is correct.
  9. Nov 3, 2007 #8
    It makes sense that Princeton would offer only the B.A. Most B.A. programs require you learn/take a few semesters of a foreign language. If you look at the graduate program at Princeton(math) you'll see they require you to be able to read math in two languages (Choice between German, Russian, and French.) So perhaps other graduate programs require the same thing and they want you to be diverse.
  10. Nov 3, 2007 #9
    It was my impression that most undergraduate programs in the "Arts & Sciences" have foreign language requirements these days (i.e Engineering students get off free, also dating myself somewhat that I say "these days" :wink:). Likewise, it seems common that graduate mathematics programs require you to have at least enough proficiency in another language (often that list, or a similar one...German seems to make it on almost always) to read a paper with a dictionary in the other hand. My university requires both, which may be coloring my perception somewhat...but I think it's fairly prevalent.
  11. Nov 4, 2007 #10


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    Having attended a college where I received a B.A. in biology while those at the same university with the same major requirements and in the same classes, but attending a different college received a B.S., I can tell you it does not matter. The distinction between a B.A. and a B.S. actually is not usually due to the major requirements; they're pretty much the same no matter where you attend university. The distinction is based on what your other course requirements are outside your major. A B.S. signifies that you have primarily focused on the sciences and not much else. A B.A. signifies that you had requirements to learn other subjects in the "liberal arts," such as having foreign language, history, social sciences, literature, or other sorts of core requirements to get a more "well-rounded" education.

    And sometimes it means nothing at all other than the university you're attending decided science majors should get a B.S. and art majors should get a B.A.
  12. Nov 5, 2007 #11
    Thank you all very much for your responses. I figured that grad schools wouldn't care, it's just I've seen sources say that a BS is almost a requirement in the sciences for careers. Some say that a few careers will say "BS only." I'm not sure the extent to which this is true, but if I end up attending grad school like I plan I suppose it won't be a problem. Regardless, I highly doubt my education would suffer because the school I attend only offers a BA: few would argue that Princeton's or UChicago's physics departments do not provide an adequate education.
  13. Nov 5, 2007 #12
    Grad schools will go over your transcripts in detail, examining the courses you've taken and so forth. They don't care what degree you have any more than undergraduate transfer admissions would, since they're forming their own conclusions about your preparation without taking another institution's word for it.
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