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Best US schools for physics? Advice?

  1. Feb 16, 2004 #1
    I'm 17 right now. I'm trying to decide what to do with my life. I think I'd be happiest studying physics. The subject is so broad and important that it seems like I'll never lack interesting things to think about, nor will I wind up feeling like my time spent studying was wasted. I want to perceive the world around me in a more complete way, and to be able to understand why things are the way they are.

    Right now, I have my Associate's degree as a computer programmer. I managed to get a perfect grade-point average at college. I'm looking at what schools I would like to go to, and the reason I'm posting this is to ask for advice on selecting a school. MIT is currently my first choice, since it sounds more like a meritocracy than an aristocracy.

    What schools should I consider? Also, if you have any anecdotal advice, I'm all ears, or eyes, or whatever sensory organ suits the medium.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 16, 2004 #2
    There is a fundamental fact that you need to keep in mind. The larger the school the less one on one help you get from the proffesors. Some classes in large universities can have hundreds of students in them and the prof is usually bogged down with his own research.

    The best schools are

    Cal Tech
    University of California at Berkley

    Personally I find MIT students to be irritating people. They have this smug attitude about them. They're so competitive that it would seem like they'd rather see you fail then help you with class material. So if you go to MIT good luck.

    I'm not sure other of the above are better. However I went to Northeastern University for grad school in Boston and enjoyed it.
  4. Feb 16, 2004 #3
    Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    Something very important you mentioned was that these are all research schools, and as a result: (1) the professors are generally uninterested in teaching undergraduates, (2) the class sizes are huge and impersonal. Big research schools are good for graduate studies, but not undergraduate.

    This is a time in ones life when one need to be learning about more than just your field of interest. A broad education from a liberal arts college would be much more beneficial than the narrow one you'd get at the schools listed about. These kinds of schools have excellent faculty who focus on the students and their success.

    I went to a large research school for undergraduate, and now that I teach at a liberal arts college, I see what I probably missed out on while being too "overfocused" on my goal. Graduate school is the time to specialize full-time; let your undergraduate career be full of learning experiences beyond one field.
  5. Feb 16, 2004 #4
    You reminded me of when I took intensive freshman physics at Yale in 1977-78. I had a full professor as teacher over a class eventually whittled down to ~25 students, and access to graduate level lab equipment. (Just don't inveigle him with stupid questions!) Yale valued their undergraduates.
  6. Feb 16, 2004 #5
    There's no real answer to your question. What might be the best school for one person could be a terrible school for another. A school with a great research reputation may not (or may) ignore undergraduates. A small school won't ignore you but may not have a lot of resources.

    School can be pretty much what you make it in many cases. Do some research. Be guided by looking at schools you've heard of, location (if that matters) and a good measure of common sense.

    Best of luck.
  7. Feb 16, 2004 #6
    Re: Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    Isn't that kinda covered with my two-year degree in a more-or-less unrelated field?
  8. Feb 16, 2004 #7
    I'm throwing my two-cents in...gave someone else this advice, too, here on the boards a few weeks ago...

    Go to a school you like! Can you visit some of them personally? Do some look like they'd be a nice place to attend in terms of geography? Going away to college can be a really fun way to see parts of the country you'd like to experience in terms of weather and nature and culture.

    These folks telling you that you can pretty much make your college days what you will are right...don't have to go to MIT to get really good schooling...if your eyes are on grad school, you want to go into it with good grades & good GRE scores...

    I know many, many scientists who got their schooling from the big-name schools, and can they ever wax bitter about it...about exclusionary behavior, about jealousy, about how they were treated like dirt, about how they were worked to death unnecessarily, about how the foreign students weren't treated right just because they were foreign and not because they were inferior thinkers (they weren't, they were BETTER at physics)...anyway...17 is awfully young although isn't that when Galileo looked at that lantern swinging and started thinking his lofty thoughts? But try to get to a place you'll ENJOY...you're already ahead of the game with your existing degree...btw, I know approx. 12 physicists (PhD kind) who dumped physics after they got sick of it...and had nothing to replace it, they had centered everything on the study of physics and defined themselves by it...so, keep your eyes open for OTHER things you like to do and think about...
  9. Feb 16, 2004 #8
    I feel kind of dumb asking this, but what's the difference between graduate and undergraduate, research shcool and non-research school?
  10. Feb 16, 2004 #9
    The first 4 years of your college education will get you a bachelor's degree. In those years you're refered to as an "undergraduate." After that you may choose to go on to obtain a masters (MS) or a PhD wherein you to school for another two years (MS) to 4 or more (PhD).

    Another thing - some companies are snobbish and only look for students from fancy shamcy schools, MIT, Harvard, Etc.

    However those environments can be a pain in the ass to work in. Tons of arrogant snobs. Not all but most. But they can be difficult to work with. I had a friend who I used to work with. I was testing her stuff. I found an error and had to have her fix her error. It a very long time to get done because she couldn't accept the fact that she made an error. Really irritating!
  11. Feb 16, 2004 #10
    Re: Re: Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    Well, no it isn't. An associate degree from a community college isn't anything near the same as a bachelor's degree from a liberal arts college.

    Additionally, you're 17? So you went to community college at 15? Was that while you were in high school, or after? And if you graduated high school two (or three) years ahead of your peers, why did you just attend a community college instead of a college?
  12. Feb 17, 2004 #11
    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    What kinds of non-major-specific subjects would be covered while getting a bachelor's from a liberal arts college that would not be covered while getting an associate's from a community college?

    It was while I was in high school. I was going to college full time, so in a sense, it was in lieu of high school.
    Geographical convenience. Also, I'm not sure if the program I did this in would have covered it if I had gone to a different college.

    To be specific, I didn't graduate high school ahead of my peers. I didn't graduate high school at all. I'm not sure there would be a point.
  13. Feb 17, 2004 #12
    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    I don't see that there is any. What proof is there of such a claim?

    Try going to the web sites of the universities listed and see what the curriculum consists of.
  14. Feb 17, 2004 #13


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    Undergrad doesn't really matter in my experience, but the quality of the research professor for grad school does.

    Let me add a few schools for experimentalists (btw some of the schools listed above are way overated for physics)

    University of Michigan
    University of Arizona
  15. Feb 17, 2004 #14


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    What type of undergrad you want depends on your personality and what you want to get out of it. I would only recommend Caltech or MIT if you are absolutely sure that you love physics, and can focus on it completely. That applies a little less to MIT. Those schools are very very good, and you can get a much better education there than anywhere else. The students are also much more bright in general, which can be nice.

    I'm very serious about you being committed though. Caltech at least (I assume MIT is similar) leaves many brilliant students mentally broken. I don't want to get into the psychology of it, but its generally a love it or hate it relationship. You will have no social life, you won't sleep much, you'll work a lot, and you probably won't be at the top anymore. That last bit may sound petty, but most people at these schools never opened a book all through high school, and still came out at the top. Its usually a shock to put that sort of person in an environment where they're only average (and working hard).

    Although I have less experience with them, I think that the other schools on the "best in physics" list really aren't going to get you much more than a state school for undergrad (grad is different). The students will be a little better, and the classes a little harder, but not too much.
  16. Feb 17, 2004 #15


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    In general physics programs are pretty serious, the class difficulty is usually pretty standard.

    The difference for undergrads is the quality of the student next to you. Often it will take several years at a state school or a B institute to get the corresponding quality of classmates.

    That can be important for some people, who thrive on competition
  17. Feb 17, 2004 #16
    Re: Re: Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    I can't answer this question unless I knew exctly what you took to get your AA. However, generally speaking a 2-year community college education is absolutely no comparison to a 4-year liberal arts education. The curriculum is different, the courses are different, the students are different, and the teachers are different. They are entirely different kinds of institutions with entirely different emphases on educational goals and standards.

    I agree with others here who say that unless you are absolutely certain you want to major in physics, you should be less strict on your goals for an undergraduate education. Graduate school is the time to specialize. Undergraduate experiences are to expand your horizons.
  18. Feb 18, 2004 #17
    Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    I met a guy from MIT once. He worked for Microsoft.

    He was really nice.

    Kind of effeminate, but nice.

    He was a skinny, short, loud ,Chinese guy with a shrill voice.

    Nice though. Really nice guy with a good sense of humour. I hear MIT and UC-Berkeley are full of Asians. Being of Asian decent, I meet and hear of a lot of fellow Asians that head to these schools. That might be something to think about socially. If that kind of stuff matters to you.

    It might help to look at reliable rankings such as:

    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2017
  19. Feb 18, 2004 #18
    Re: Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    I am also of Asian descend. I hear that the schools discriminate you when you're Asian because of the large proportion of competitive Asians who apply. Is that true?
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 20, 2017
  20. Feb 18, 2004 #19
    Re: Re: Re: Re: Best US schools for physics? Advice?

    If you consider discrimination only accpeting those who are well qualified, then yes they do discriminate.

  21. Feb 18, 2004 #20
    I don't want to open a can of worms, but YES INDEED, THEY DO DISCRIMINATE...and not by "only accepting those who are qualified." My ex got a prized NASA postdoc...why?...was it because he was the best qualified? The nicest? The cleverest at interviewing...Noooooo, it was, as they said right out to him (after meeting with me to make sure I was white, too), "Hey, you're a blue-eyed blond-haired American! You aren't Chinese!" [They lumped everyone Asian as either "Oriental" or "Chinese"]. And furthermore, there are many, many cases of people not even getting into grad school or only into "lesser" schools because of their country of origin. And that makes a further chain of weakening the study of science, because whether you get published or not often depends MORE on who your major professor was than on what you are saying...and where you went to grad school plays a big role in publishing, too.

    It goes both ways, too. We knew a student who got picked up by MIT. Why? He was black. That was why they wanted him. He was struggling, but they still wanted him. It made him angry, but he was no fool and so he went and made the best of it. Ditto for an optical sciences major we knew. A certain good school wanted to be able to point at her and say, "See, we let them in!" There weren't even women's bathrooms in the building when she went! They put one in on the ground floor...she wasn't really welcomed, but again, she tried to turn it to her advantage. But any shenanigans like that are no good for science or any discipline.

    It's real, it's unpleasant, but pretending it doesn't exist does NOT further science...we saw this occur at some very famous agencies too...and hopefully things have gotten better in the past 10 years...

    But don't let the fact that it happens stop you! There are also departments devoted to fairness.
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2004
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