Choice Between Two Universities: Stay at my Small Undergraduate School or Transfer to a Larger University?

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Hi folks,

I am considering two universities. My goal is to do well enough that I could get into graduate school for physics, most likely here in Canada. I have been unable to speak to an adviser, as my school's science adviser does not meet with students until they finish their second year. So I am hoping for some thoughts on what the better option would be.

I currently study at a small university. There is no graduate program here, and the faculty is small. They are not involved in active research, but they know their stuff and teach it well. It is easy to get to know everyone, we know each other by first name and get along well. To graduate, you are required to do a guided research project with one of the instructors. The school offers all the core physics courses but only four or five physics electives.

I am considering transferring to another larger university. It has a graduate program with active researchers, as well as many more elective options (including a three course sequence in computational physics, which is what I would like to get in to). There is no research requirement to graduate; however, I imagine there are opportunities for undergrads to get involved.

I am better suited to learning in smaller classes with closer contact with the instructors. I believe at my current pace I will finish with good to strong grades and will be able to secure at least a few letters of recommendation. However, I miss out on many class options as well as potential undergrad research opportunities if I stay. I also fear I will not be prepared for the rigors of graduate studies or research -I am not sure what the research project entails or if it compares to what I would do at the larger school, and at times it has felt like my classes like the rigor of other schools.

For someone hoping to get involved in active research, is it a no-brainer to go to the larger school? Or am I thinking too much into the small school vs big school thing? Any thoughts or comments will be well appreciated.
 
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  • #2
Choppy
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Lots of people from smaller undergraduate universities go on to graduate studies at the bigger institutions, so the fact that you're coming from a smaller institution alone likely won't have much bearing where you end up. To double check that, you can try to find out some statistics about where graduates of your current program are ending up. That should give you some kind of indication of your chances.

If you find out specific names, you can also try contacting a few recent graduates and ask them about their experiences. Generally graduate students are happy to answer a few questions about that kind of thing.

It's also not unheard of to undergraduates from smaller schools to seek out summer research positions are larger schools just to get the opportunities. It might be a bit late to arrange that for this summer, but the point is you're not tied to your current school for research opportunities.

Then a lot comes down to the pros/cons list that's unique to you. It sounds like you've got a reasonable handle on it. With a smaller school you tend to have more dedicated instructors and smaller classes. In larger institutions you have more opportunities to take more specialized classes.
 
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I have been out of school for about 40 years so things may have changed, but my recollection is, undergrad physics is pretty full just covering the basics; I don't remember having many electives.

I have been unable to speak to an adviser, as my school's science adviser does not meet with students until they finish their second year.
Are you sure about that? That sounds off to me, especially at a "small school." Either way, you should be able to talk to some of your professors and get their thoughts.

Overall, I would suggest you concentrate on the undergrad basics (mechanics, E&M, thermo/stats, quantum) -- you can't go wrong if you learn that stuff cold. And if you stay in your small school, get to know the professors well, that's one of the big advantages of the small schools.
 
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I went to a low ranking "small" school with no graduate physics program, and got into a top 10 research university. Your physics profs are PhDs themselves, use their connections to try and set up some research opportunities. I was able to do research at the university I now attend thanks to a professor (it wasn't an "official" REU program either!).

Something a lot of people overlook about research (well, theoretical, not sure about experimental people) is how social it really is. There are a lot of meetings to attend, lunches, random talks with profs/fellow grad students, and the constant feeling of not knowing something that you think everyone else just got automatically! Networking is key.

These social issues you can work on easier at smaller schools. Learn to talk to your professors in a professional manner. Learn to engage with the material in a constructive way with your classmates. Learn how to approach a mentor with something outside the scope of your class material if you want that rigor! You'll see a lot of PhDs who are too scared to approach their advisors because they don't know how to formulate their questions properly*. You can teach someone to research, but only you can learn how to be comfortable in these situations. Work out the kinks now.

*Some advisors truly are just scary.
 
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everything @romsofia said applies to working in industry as well. Both getting a job, and then bringing work into the company, depend a lot on how you get along with people.
 
  • #6
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Are you sure about that?
My first email from them came back saying this. When pressed further they said they were overloaded with requests and only second year students were being seen. We only have one science adviser for the whole department!

Overall, I would suggest you concentrate on the undergrad basics (mechanics, E&M, thermo/stats, quantum) -- you can't go wrong if you learn that stuff cold.
Good idea. Focus on the basics and specialize in grad school. Perhaps the computational physics will be something I work on the side.

These social issues you can work on easier at smaller schools. Learn to talk to your professors in a professional manner. Learn to engage with the material in a constructive way with your classmates. Learn how to approach a mentor with something outside the scope of your class material if you want that rigor!
True. The dynamic here is quite nice and the faculty are friendly. It is easy to get along and approach them, so this certainly works in my favor.

I appreciate the feedback fellas. Not sure what I will do yet as there are personal considerations involved, but I am much more comfortable with graduating from a smaller university now.
 
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"Can't see my advisor" and "close contact with instructors" seem to me not to be synonymous. I might even think "can't see my advisor" is reason enough to transfer.
 
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Undergraduate physics programs don't tend to be large regardless of institution and they are pretty much all standardized. Yes as you've indicated there may be greater elective choices at bigger schools but the core curriculum will be the same. My son attends a larger research intensive university in Ontario and I predict that for 2nd year maybe 75 students will declare Physics as a major. The students at his school are far more focused on engineering or degrees leading to careers in health care. I say all this to say that if you do transfer to a larger school chances are your classes will still be relatively small. On the flip side if you want to stay at your smaller school there are programs you can apply to to get research experience at other institutions during the summer (see https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/index_eng.asp). Another idea would be to do a semester or year abroad at another school. The professors at your school should be able to give you some guidance if the science advisor is not available.
 
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@gmax137 said:
I have been out of school for about 40 years so things may have changed, but my recollection is, undergrad physics is pretty full just covering the basics; I don't remember having many electives.
At my son's school out of 40 credits:
14 are core physics courses
4 are senior level physics electives
3-5 are further senior level physics electives that are recommended for students intending to pursue graduate studies
10 are support courses (math, chemistry etc.)
7-9 that can be used as general interest electives or to do a minor
 
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"Can't see my advisor" and "close contact with instructors" seem to me not to be synonymous. I might even think "can't see my advisor" is reason enough to transfer.
I should clarify: close contact with the three physics instructors I've had so far. I've yet to meet the entire science department. However, you may be right. How they respond to my latest email will determine a lot.

On the flip side if you want to stay at your smaller school there are programs you can apply to to get research experience at other institutions during the summer (see https://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/index_eng.asp). Another idea would be to do a semester or year abroad at another school.
I have been wondering about this option, as the nearest university actually has two campuses only a few hours distance from where I live. So there may be options, if I am willing to stomach the living expense.

14 are core physics courses
4 are senior level physics electives
3-5 are further senior level physics electives that are recommended for students intending to pursue graduate studies
10 are support courses (math, chemistry etc.)
7-9 that can be used as general interest electives or to do a minor
This is a strong pull. The bigger school requires three applied lab classes and at least two of three computational physics courses. And there are options such as particle physics, relativity, nuclear, solid state, plasma, nonlinear optics, not to mention all the math options I could consider taking as well. Hard not to get excited at the prospects of taking those classes in UG.
 
  • #11
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Could you take some in the spring/summer semesters at the bigger school?
 
  • #12
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In the last few years they have only offered the introductory courses in the Spring and Summer.
 
  • #13
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I currently study at a small university. There is no graduate program here, and the faculty is small. They are not involved in active research, but they know their stuff and teach it well. It is easy to get to know everyone, we know each other by first name and get along well. To graduate, you are required to do a guided research project with one of the instructors.
I have reservations about the ability of faculty to mentor you in "a guided research project" who are "not involved in active research" themselves. I'm not saying it's impossible, but rather that I've rarely seen it done well. Another reservation I have about many "guided research projects" at smaller schools is that they often are not completed until late in the senior year. Research in your junior year (or earlier) is much more valuable, both in giving you the experience you need to decide if you really want to go to graduate school, as well as giving you more concrete ideas on various fields of study before you complete your graduate applications - which for better schools is often before your final semester even starts.

When I or students I mentor ask the hard questions about the grad school prospects for recent graduates, many smaller schools only provide vague "shell game" answers. How many students have they placed in the tier of grad school you aspire to in the last 5 years? The last 10 years? One student going to a big name school 20 years ago is irrelevant.

At the same time, it's better to be the big fish in the small pond than the small fish in the big pond. If you're good, and they can provide substantial research opportunities, you may well do better there. Are you the best physics major the year you graduate? Are you the best physics major in the last 5 years? That's what you may well need to be. It's easy to get lost and fall between the cracks at a bigger school.

At the same time, you need to get answers and good advice from the physics faculty at your school. If they won't speak to you or answer your email requests for meetings or advice, they are not giving you the proper individualized attention that should be the hallmark of a smaller school.

Another factor worth consideration is the physics faculty to physics major ratio at the two schools. Big schools with plenty of physics faculty and only a few physics majors can be an ideal setting. The physics faculty at these schools tend to give very good attention to their better physics majors and even politely compete with each other to "woo" the good students into their research groups. It's simple supply and demand. If there are 20 physics faculty with room for talented physics majors in their research groups, but only 10 physics majors with good reputations in the department, those 10 majors are going to get opportunities.
 
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Dr. Courtney said:
Another reservation I have about many "guided research projects" at smaller schools is that they often are not completed until late in the senior year. Research in your junior year (or earlier) is much more valuable, both in giving you the experience you need to decide if you really want to go to graduate school, as well as giving you more concrete ideas on various fields of study before you complete your graduate applications - which for better schools is often before your final semester even starts.
That's also the requirement at my son's school and is pretty standard for the larger research universities here. His program calls for a 1 credit/2 semester Research Inquiry course in 3rd year and then for those intending to continue to graduate studies it is followed by a 2 credit/2 semester mentored research project/thesis course in 4th year.
 
  • #15
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Thank you for your thoughts, Dr. Courtney.

I have reservations about the ability of faculty to mentor you in "a guided research project" who are "not involved in active research" themselves. I'm not saying it's impossible, but rather that I've rarely seen it done well. Another reservation I have about many "guided research projects" at smaller schools is that they often are not completed until late in the senior year. Research in your junior year (or earlier) is much more valuable, both in giving you the experience you need to decide if you really want to go to graduate school, as well as giving you more concrete ideas on various fields of study before you complete your graduate applications - which for better schools is often before your final semester even starts.
This is a big selling point for me. I had my reservations as well. And as much as I like the idea of studying physics further after undergrad, I'd like to get a taste of what real research is before I commit to it.

I've decided to go ahead to transfer. I'm thinking this hard on it, I'll regret not doing it. Plus I save money on rent and cost of living.
 

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