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Choice for particle physics between LAC and university

  1. Jul 11, 2015 #1
    Hi guys, I don't know if there's any similar thread (I didn't find any, but in case I missed it); if so please suggest them to me.

    It's time to apply to college again. I personally think particle physics (experimental) would be my top choice (I understand that only phd has the specialized course in this topic that's somewhat why I need some help here), and I know that if I keep that passion during the next few years I will inevitably take phd somewhere.

    I mainly have 3 concerns:
    1. What do I gain or lost in LAC compare to university in the sense of learning physics (please include possible difference including doing experiments and research opportunity, for example in particle physics there is a UM-CERN which looks very nice).
    2. More percentage of the physics major students graduated from LACs went on for phd later compare to universities. Is it mainly because LAC provided non-specialized (say, for specific jobs) education so that students tend to continue their studying?
    3. If I want to have a decent place for phd in this field, does the difference between LACs and universities matters a lot? Or say, (other than top + specialized STEM LAC like Harvey Mudd College) does the undergrad education in physics in LACs as strong universities.
    I know I am not speaking perfectly clear, so I will explain if any part is missing.

    Any clue would help, thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 16, 2015 #2
    I haven't edited this as much as I might to make it pretty, but it gets my general opinion across.

    No one has responded yet so I'm just going to go for it. Unfortunately I am only an undergraduate so it is harder for me to comment on the PhD side of the equation; however I can talk about how I personally looked at colleges between LAC and university and what I have experienced so far. This is really my opinion and so should not be taken as fact. Furthermore, I am only articulating what I find to be general trend lines; deviations are going to exist when not talking about any one school specifically. I am biased in the fact that I have chosen to go to a university and that is what I have experienced. I will only comment on the first question.


    I personally looked at the course catalog of every college I thought of applying to. Often what I found is that LACs didn't have all of the courses I would have wanted; this is especially true when looking for niche majors that relate to Physics; for example UPenn (the school I go to) offers a major in nanotechnology, which I didn't see really much of anywhere else. However, it is perfectly possible that LACs might pay more attention to you (typically smaller class sizes) and thereby give you a greater depth of understanding with the courses they do offer. Some universities are also really competitive (among the students already accepted) (or so I've heard). Experimentally driven physics is rarer to find courses in so really look at the course catalog for that (although I'm really not sure if you'll find anything, anywhere).

    If you are really focused you may also want to look at course distribution requirements, which I have found seem to be prominent in LACs; they may prevent you from overloading on Physics/Math courses. However, some schools like UChicago and Columbia have very strong physics programs but heavy distribution requirements.


    In terms of research what I get the sense of (again this is only my impression) is that for research that requires high infrastructure (big equipment, like what is often used in medicine) a university might be the way to go. For smaller scale research I won't comment due to the fact that my confidence in my answer is less than 60%. I think for experimental stuff you will probably want to go to a university but it sort of depends. For niche research I would look for niche majors that are kind of close.

    You may want to assume you are going to want to move away from experimental particle physics. Switching majors is pretty common especially for something so specific. I would not recommend only focusing on that aspect. I would not even recommend only focusing on Physics (who knows you might like engineering or something even more). This really depends on who you are however.

    Experimental particle physics oriented research is pretty specific; if you really want that early (in college) you should probably look for specific schools and not even bother sorting between universities and LACs before you do that.
  4. Jul 16, 2015 #3


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    In my opinion, a lot of people hold the false assumption that universities are big impersonal places where the classes will not be of the same quality as those at an LAC. This is part is not true at all. I had some absolutely amazing professors in undergrad and now grad school who are easily some of the very top people in their subfield. You also have the option to take a ton of courses which are simply not available at LACs. In regards to this, a guy I know who went to a small LAC said he initially received a great education and was able to stand out among his peers, but by the time he reached senior year he had nothing to do. He had gone abroad and already taken a ton of grad courses so there just weren't any interesting classes at that level. There are some places where you can cross enroll in classes at universities, but why not just attend the university?

    You can do research at an LAC and some people say it's better not to compete with grad students and postdocs. However, the grad students and postdocs are the ones who do the majority of the work, a lot which takes more knowledge than undergrads have. A lot of them are also great mentors. I learned a ton from my grad student research mentor. The postdocs are also great, they are the future of the field. And then of course there is the issue of equipment. You simply cannot operate a clean room at a place like Harvey Mudd (even though you would get a great education in your undergrad courses. It costs millions of dollars every year and they are very hard to build and maintain.

    Penn has a wonderful undergrad (and grad) physics program. One of the future Nobel prize winners (everyone says its just a matter of time) is there and he is an amazing teacher. He won the top teaching award a few years ago. Since the department is smaller the courses have probably 20-30 students for the most part and are very engaging. There are a ton of research opportunities you can get funding for. The top students attend the very best grad programs upon graduation. However, in most years not as many go to grad school so in that sense it's also easier to stand out, especially in research.
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