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Schools College choice: UCSB or Cambridge?

  1. May 6, 2016 #1
    As an international student who has recently completed high school, I now need to decide what college I will go to. Since "Cambridge, duh" gets a bit irritating after one has heard it a thousand times, I decided to write up a little list of the pros and cons I associate with each of the two places mentioned in the title:

    College of Creative Studies, UC Santa Barbara


    • One of the best physics departments in the world, with several brilliant professors.
    • Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics: Many colloquia and discussion meetings open to everyone; possibly the best theoretical physics exposure one can get.
    • Many of the big-name professors are also pedagogically active.

      CCS specific points:
    • If a CCS student can show the capability of taking an upper division or graduate class, even without the prerequisites, the college greatly facilitates the process of getting the student in that class.
    • Most undergraduates are involved in quality research with great people (Polchinski and Martinis, for instance, have worked with CCS undergraduates in the past) for a large part of their time at the college.
    • CCS is quite a small college (~15 physics undergraduates) which results in a close-knit community of motivated people.
    • CCS students may drop any class up until the last day of instruction. This privilege is given as a backup if a student happens to try taking advanced classes or more classes than the usual student.
    • CCS students are among the first students at UCSB to sign up for classes each quarter. This gets rid of a big disadvantage associated with large public universities, viz. not being able to register for a class because of lack of space.
    • Miscellaneous: 24 hour building and lab access, longer periods for library check-out, free printing, etc.
    • UCSB is generally regarded as a ‘party school’, and so my non-CCS peer group, should I choose to interact with them, will be composed of a not insignificant number of people I don’t like.
    • UCSB’s general prestige (among non-physicists, at least) << Cambridge’s.

    Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge


    • The prestige factor may be more important than I think. This comes partly from the numerous great physicists at the Cavendish as well as DAMTP.
    • The Triposes’ courses have been ‘tried and tested’ for hundreds of years.
    • Corpus sends its physics undergraduates to Caltech for at least one summer project.
    • The supervision system (weekly one-on-two sessions with faculty or graduate students) is extremely attractive.
    • The physics and mathematics societies are very active, and are full of intelligent and interesting people.
    • [Almost everything that counts as a positive for CCS is absent at Cambridge.]
    • At Cambridge, theoretical physics is ‘segregated’ into the more mathematical work (HEP theory, quantum information, cosmology etc.) which is taught in the Mathematical Tripos and everything else under the framework of the Natural Sciences Tripos. Choosing one of the two subfields early in my undergraduate years does not seem to be a good idea.
    • Cannot take a single course outside my Tripos (while at least 8 courses in the humanities constitute a graduation requirement at CCS).
    Any advice or comments will be appreciated. Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. May 6, 2016 #2


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    I'm surprised that you didn't list as a pro for UCSB that you would get to live in the Santa Barbara area, which is incredibly beautiful and might have the best climate on earth. I think it would be an incredible place to live for a few years. Also, while of course it isn't as prestigious as Cambridge, it is well regarded in the US and you can get into any graduate school from there.

    Also, while it is true there is a lot of partying in Isla Vista (the small town adjacent to campus) there are a lot of serious students as well. In such a large campus you won't have much interaction with the party people unless you choose to.

    I'm not advocating UCSB because I don't know much about Cambridge, just giving you my perspective.

    Also, did I mention that the campus is literally on the beach?
  4. May 6, 2016 #3


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    What I can say is that I regret allowing prestige to be a (strong) contributing factor to my decision because I believe it ultimately led to the wrong decision.

    I haven't attended UCSB, but I lived with three people who did. They absolutely loved it and only had great things to say. I've visited the campus and it's absolutely gorgeous. I think the environment encourages strong academic, but it's also very relaxed and nearby some fun opportunities.

    I also think that schools passing a certain prestige level, anyways, will give you similar opportunities. The names might give you a small boost, but it wont be the dominating factor for your success.

    I have no experience in Cambridge, but I'll be studying abroad next year at one of the London schools, and I hope to explore a bit and learn more. I wish I could tell you more.
  5. May 6, 2016 #4


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    To echo this sentiment from the other side, I got into Stanford for graduate school but I chose to go to a strong (but not prestigious) school instead. It was probably the second best decision of my life (after asking my wife to marry me).

    One other bit I forgot to mention you should consider. Do you intend to go to graduate school? If so do you aspire to go to school in Europe or the USA? It would be easier to stay in a continent for grad school than go to a grad school on the opposite side of the Atlantic. That could be another decision factor.
  6. May 6, 2016 #5


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    Ah! I was just about to quote you from another thread! Just the person I was looking for!

    Would choosing UC Santa Cruz over better schools be bad?
  7. May 6, 2016 #6


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    Another thing to consider is that the education style is completely different in the UK and US. Like you said, you would be much more specialized in the US. The evaluation style is also much different as in the UK, your grades come from an examination you take at the end of the year. That works fine for some people, but that would be a lot of pressure for me personally. There may also be fewer undergrad research opportunities at Cambridge.

    That being said, everyone I know who went to either one of these schools loved their experience and they both have great grad school placement (UCSB students do especially well in that regard compared to other US institutions, arguably as well as places like Cornell).
  8. May 8, 2016 #7
    Thanks for the replies, everyone!

    I do hope to attend graduate school in the US.

    Now, I don't know why I didn't mention this, and it might be a major factor: Cambridge is offering me a full tuition waiver. Assuming my parents can fund me at UCSB as well (of course, the Cambridge scholarship will be much more convenient to them), how much should that change things?
  9. May 8, 2016 #8


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    That's a huge factor. I assume of state tuition at UCSB is around $40k a year and it will definitely rise while you are there faster than inflation. Even if you can afford it that's still a huge amount of money.

    At this point, I think the only negatives with Cambridge are that you won't be able to take courses outside your field and possibly the evaluation system if you find high stakes testing very stressful. As for the social environment, from what it sounds Cambridge students are very happy and you would have more in common with the overall student body than at UCSB.
  10. May 8, 2016 #9
    Full tuition at Cambridge? The choice is pretty obvious then.
  11. May 8, 2016 #10
    Where UCSB gets a big lead over Cambridge is the factors that you mention, plus research opportunities (UCSB CCS >>> Cambridge for that) and being able to experience all kinds of physics and math (see the point about segregation in my list). I would think that these are extremely important for grad school admissions, and ultimately if I want to be a good physicist.
  12. May 8, 2016 #11
    You're very lucky with your parents. You got in one of the best universities in the world for free, and they're actually willing to pay 40k for you to attend a school that is not better.
  13. May 8, 2016 #12
    This is also the first time I've heard Cambridge being described as harmful for your education...
  14. May 8, 2016 #13
    I'm sorry if anything I said makes me look completely idiotic, and I assure you that I am nowhere near making a decision. However, it would be helpful to get a precise response to the argument for UCSB. Thanks!
  15. May 8, 2016 #14
    You say you have more research opportunities at UCSB? Do you? How do you know this?

    Personal experience: I went to three very differently ranked universities during my education. It was actually at the best ranked university that I got my worst education experience.

    Let me go through your list: For UCSB

    Same for Cambridge. Cambridge even ranks higher. And whether the department has brilliant professors really doesn't affect your undergrad at all.

    Not sure how relevant this is. You'll likely won't understand any of the lectures and discussions until very far in your degree. Could be a good place to meet professors though.

    You should learn that just because a course is taught by a big-name professor, that it is taught well. Teaching well and being a good researcher are two very distinct qualities.

    That's a good thing.

    Good thing.

    ...or a very cut-throat environment.

    Not sure why these are so important to be on this list.

    Way to already dislike people you haven't already met yet. You should really try to get a different attitude.

    Completely irrelevant.


    Indeed, they have. Very important.

    Very important points.

    I didn't see many important things in there anyway.

    These seem to be the only relevant things against going to Cambridge. Doesn't outweigh a free tuition at a top university though.
  16. May 8, 2016 #15
    Sorry if this seems like a bitter back-and-forth -- I'm trying to argue against the obvious, really.

    Talking to professors and students at both places.

    Are these unimportant compared to the positive things I said about Cambridge?
    Again, what I know comes from current students and alumni.

    Agreed. This is from when there were other schools on the list. Sorry.

    Maybe I was a bit too rough with my wording (English is my second language).

    Research? Flexibility with courses?

    Again, aren't these significant?
  17. May 8, 2016 #16


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    You most definitely won't be disadvantaged in grad school admissions coming from Cambridge. They know that students from Europe may not have access to as many research opportunities during the year (from what I have heard that is definitely not true over the summer) so they weight that accordingly.

    I hate to bring up prestige again, but if you were talking about paying tuition (since you are international I'm pretty sure it would be full tuition) at Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton (from personal experience and what I have heard, the teaching is very good at all of these places) etc., then it might be worth thinking about if you can reasonably afford it. But in your case, I think the financial incentive alone makes Cambridge the more reasonable decision. $160,000-$200,000 is a ton of money, even for people who are pretty well off.

    Another thing that might encourage you is that I have heard that students in the UK in general tend to be more relaxed. The environment at Cambridge in terms of the intellectual environment is very unique, and I myself would love to be able to spend some time at Cambridge or Oxford during grad school or later on.
  18. May 8, 2016 #17


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    My son is currently a second year international mathmo at Trinity College Cambridge. His experience is no doubt different from what yours would be (different college, and maths is not exactly physics), but there are many things that are likely common to both. And if you are doing theoretical physics you'll end up in the maths Tripos anyway. Of the things that concern you, there are a couple I can say something about. In no particular order...

    Courses at Cambridge are lectured sloooowly so that students can write down everything written on the board. If you are not a note-taker, and you don't like slow, this can get quite tedious. If you tend to like note-taking, or need lectures to go slow in order to think things through then that's a good thing. Many students seem to skip lectures as not being all that useful to them. Supervisions are great, although sometimes they're done badly and therefore aren't so great. The office hours approach which I assume you'll find at CCS rewards initiative; if you are the kind of student who will take the initiative to talk to your professors, then you will likely get just as much or more personal attention at CCS. The small classes at CCS will definitely be more interactive in style.

    As to prestige, in the US UCSB physics is quite prestigious and CCS is known to take only the best. They'll be much, much more open to undergraduate research than at Cambridge. So I'd say it's about even if you're going to grad school in the US.

    You can take all the courses you like at Cambridge. Generally it is difficult to get supervisions outside your Tripos and year, but not completely impossible. Much depends on politics, funding, and your relationship with your DoS. And, of course, you will never get examinations outside of your Tripos, nor will you get official credit in any sense. It's not clear to me that this actually matters in any way. My son has taken many masters and graduate courses (many, as in after two years he has taken more than a typical Part III student would take in his entire year there), but his path has been rather unusual. He will never get any credit for having taken them, but he'll be way better educated when he graduates. The general theory is that the required coursework at Cambridge is rather all-consuming and leaves you little time for anything optional. What may be true for you I don't know.

    The big deal difference in going to Cambridge is that you needn't be distracted by anything outside of physics and math. There are no requirements to do anything else. If that is important to you, then you'll prefer Cambridge. As to the money, three years at Cambridge is significantly cheaper than four years at UCSB for an international student -- in-state tuition at UCSB would make it about the same. If you have free tuition at Cambridge, then you should almost certainly go there.

    Getting to go to Caltech for a summer of research is awesome, but if that's something you want you could probably arrange to do that from CCS too; in fact you might arrange an entire year there as an exchange student. You should ask them about that possibility if it matters to you. It would be quite valuable if you were to want to go to Caltech for grad school. I have a friend who did exactly that (in physics), albeit forty years ago now and from Swarthmore rather than UCSB.

    Happy to provide more details. PM me if you want.
  19. May 14, 2016 #18
    This is a little old, but if the OP is still deciding (or for future reference to others in a similar situation), here is my two cents:
    Choose Cambridge. End of story. Why would you pay the extra $40k a year?

    Let's say that you didn't get the scholarship, or your family is so wealthy that $40k a year means nothing. The answer is still Cambridge. Yes, prestige is not everything, but's that's when you are deciding between, say Harvard and Brown, or UCLA and UCSD. The difference between UCSB and Cambridge is huge. UCSB may have excellent research, but it's not well known outside of academia. And CCS will not help much since many employers have never heard of it. In the off chance that you choose to leave physics and look for a job out of undergrad, the prestige of Cambridge will be a major plus in getting a finance/consulting job in London, or a job in your home country or even the US. UCSB is seen as average in the US and unknown in the rest of the world. (Again, it is world-renowned for its research, but mostly within academia, and we're talking about undergrad, not PhD.)

    Some other points worth mentioning:
    Regarding research opportunities: this is really a UK/Europe vs the US issue. Perhaps it has to do with the more "laid-back" European mentality vs. American working mentality, but it is indeed true that undergrads do more research in the US. In the US it is common to get an internship after your 1st year and do research over the year, whereas in the UK few undergrads do research over the year and most start internships after their second year.

    However, this does not mean that there are fewer opportunities! You can still contact professors and ask if you can work with them. In fact, in some sense this may be an advantage as you will have less competition from other undergrads.

    I disagree that American graduate programs will "factor in" the fact that European undergrads have less research opportunities. If you end up going to Cambridge with the intent of going to grad school in the US, you should plan on getting your hands on some research (and looking for it proactively).

    It is also worth mentioning that it seems that Cambridge actually has quite a strong undergrad research culture, compared to other top UK universities like Oxford. It even started a UROP program modeled after MIT's UROP program. (undergrad research opportunity program).

    Lastly, the benefits of CCS (registering and dropping classes, etc.) are really just compared to other US universities. In the UK the entire system is different so it is not worth comparing.
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