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Schools Deciding undergrad physics university in Canada

  1. Sep 14, 2012 #1
    I am from Israel (English speaker, so don't take it in account) looking to study towards an undergrad degree in Canada.
    Eventually my dream is to become a theoretical physicist. I am NOT looking for a so called "re-known" university. Don't understand me wrong, I am not a slacker looking to party 3-4 years. I just prefer a less stressful environmental in which I can understand the material to its fullest.
    From what I gathered so far it doesn't really matter which school you attend in undergrad studies as all the universities in Canada are more or less on the same level. Is this true?
    Thus I am looking for the university with the best learning environment and most interesting physics program.
    So far I came to understand that U of T is considered the best but that the students themselves don't recommend it. If so this is a less appealing university for me
    I found recommendations to University of Manitoba that made it sound like a nice place, does anybody know how it is?
    I also got recommendations to Queen's and others.
    Right now I am very confused looking at all the different websites. I would be grateful for any kind of help.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 14, 2012 #2
    Just for the record, most renowned unviersities I've heard of actually do "party 3-4 years" haha. As for which school in Canada is good for physics: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=565377

    But in my opinion, it's hard to tell which undergrad programs are "better," for a specific major. There isn't a whole lot for rankings to go on, which is why there is such a small amount of them (offical rankings that is). In general, the only qualities that make a program better is based on how they affect admission to grad school (since you want to be a theoretical physicist, a PhD is an absolute must). For physics, this would include two things: overall ranking of the school as a whole, and opportunities for undergrad physics research (grad schools love undergrad research). That's just about all you can go on in comparing undergrad physics programs; unless of course you're referring to schools whose grad programs in physics are very well renowned despite the school's overall ranking being significantly lower than its physics rep (very few -- can't even think of any off the top of my head). But in general, undergrad physics programs are about as effective as the overall ranking of the shcool, because grad schools know that a) people don't always plan on being in physics when selecting colleges and b) no one really has a list of best undergrad physics to begin with.

    Just out of curiosity, why Canada?
  4. Sep 15, 2012 #3
    First off thanks for the reply.
    I read the thread but the interests of that student is a little different than mine. The thread talks about the top school, where they suggested mostly U of T. Again my interests aren't to go to the most prestige program. Yes, I am looking to continue to grad school but is there a way to do it by going to a less intense university? From other resources I found that U of T is pretty unpleasant and very demanding. I'm looking for a university where I can really study rather than just cram for a test and never really get what I'm learning (I'm not living in a fairy land thinking I won't cram for tests but I hope you get what I mean).
    You talked about undergrad research which is something I' very interested in, do you know which universities offer that?
    In general out of experience or knowledge can you get more specific with university names?

    Lastly why Canada? That has less to do with university consideration and more personal stuff like being able to acquire citizenship and such.
  5. Sep 15, 2012 #4
    Hey Orha, I am researching study opportunities available in Canada as well.

    I studied Physics for two years at a reputed British university, but then I interrupted my studies (in June last year) due to financial reasons. Now, I am researching universities in Canada that would like to take me in as a transfer student.

    I appreciate your difficulty in choosing universities that provide less academic pressure and more time to explore the subject, but have you considered the fact that graduate theoretical physics programs are extremely difficult to get into? Wouldn't it be rational to study at a highly reputed university that will put extreme academic pressure on you, so that at the end of your course, your degree will be of higher value?
  6. Sep 15, 2012 #5
    I am going to be attending Simon Fraser University. They have really great research oppurtunities for undergrads even for first year students. They call it "adopt a physicist" where research groups "adopt" undergrads .also i spoke with the department chair and he says the difference between SFU and a more populated university is that at SFU you will be able to be a lot more interactive with the professors due to smaller class sizes. Those two reasons are why want to pursue my mathematical physics degree at SFU. Also Uof waterloo has one of the best co op programs in canada. That is where u can work and study alternating semesters in fields you enjoy. Also SFU is getting more known for undergrad research which is really appealing to many students because they get to have more research experience and is less competitive than other schools

    Sfu website: www.physics.sfu.ca
    Check out waterloo as well i dont know the site
    Last edited: Sep 15, 2012
  7. Sep 15, 2012 #6
    It does not matter as an ungergrad. It is all pretty much the same curriculum at every school. The main thing for undergrad studies is that you are at a campus you are comfortable in and you are learning. For grad studies i believe your research experience and your GPA is more important than where you did your undergrad. Just because you have a degree from UofT or UBC with a 3.0 gpa doesnt mean you have abetter chance than someone with a 3.5 at a less known university. Someone correct me if i am wrong. But ive read enough on this forum about undergrad studies and talked to a LOT of people
  8. Sep 17, 2012 #7
    You make SFU sound great, but for some reason you are the only one to mention it...
    This makes me wonder what the catch is..
    In any case I'm browsing their site and sent them an e-mail because up until now I can't find the bad things.
    Can anybody else speak about SFU from experience? How is the atmosphere really there? How much does the fact that it is less known affect getting into grad school?

    Also I've been recommended UBC and there is a lot of talk about Waterloo for more theoretical physics in other threads. How are the programs there? How is the atmosphere? Professor student relations?
  9. Sep 17, 2012 #8
    i can't speak for others. but the main reason i am choosing SFU over UBC is for the undergrad research oppurtunities because SFU is getting more and more known for promoting undergraduate research. Also, the class sizes are not as big as other schools so there is more one on one interaction with students and teachers which i really like. These are some of the things the department head and i discussed when i emailed him.

    don't get me wrong, UBC is a great school! its just not for me. i feel more comfortable at the SFU campus. i have lots of friends at UBC and SFU, some love it some hate it. Both schools have strong undergraduate programs.

    if you are talking about GRADUATE studies, then of course UBC. but as for undergrad, it would not make much of a difference
  10. Sep 17, 2012 #9


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    If you want some negative points, I'll give you a few (before mentioning the positive ones):

    SFU is a relatively smaller school compared to schools like UBC or UofT, so it's not brought up as often. You can walk from one end to the other within a half hour. The main campus is up on a mountain, which some people find a bit annoying - you have to take a bus to get anywhere interesting. It takes about an hour to get to the Metrotown mall, ~45 min to an hour to get to downtown Vancouver and maybe 10-15 min to get to the Skytrain, from which you can get to Lougheed mall (one stop away) or metrotown or downtown, among other places. If it starts snowing in the winter the buses might get cancelled, which can be frustrating if you're up on campus when they get cancelled and you live off campus, but this is not a common occurrence.

    Being Vancouver, there are a fair number of overcast days, and many of the buildings on campus are greyish colored, so things can often look kind of grey, which some students find kind of depressing. (I found though, that such students were often those who didn't yet know what they wanted to major in and still felt like they didn't have much direction in what they were doing yet).

    That said, the atmosphere in the physics department is very good. It's a relatively small department, so the classes have about 20 or so people in them at the 300-400 level. I did research every summer starting my second summer while I was there on NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Awards (different from the adopt-a-physicist thing), and I didn't find it hard at all to get to know professors there. There's a physics undergrad lounge, so you can get to know the other students in your major. I really enjoyed my time in the physics department there, and I don't have any regrets having gone to SFU.

    As for how easy or hard it is to get into graduate school, I don't know exactly. I only applied to top-tier schools in the US and I only got into one, but that may also be because I didn't score as high as I hoped on the physics GRE, among other factors. I didn't apply to any Canadian schools because their deadlines were all after the American schools' would get back to me, so I figured I'd see if I got shut out of the US before applying. Although I didn't apply, I did win an NSERC PGS M scholarship, and a few schools offered me admission on that bassis. A friend of mine got into basically any top-tier school in the US that he applied to. He did win a rather prestigious fellowship, which helped a lot in that case.

    Otherwise, SFU being a lesser known school probably isn't going to hurt that much. In Canada, it won't really make a difference. As for the US, you have to remember that there are lots and lots of lesser known schools in the US, and the top tier grad school programs aren't only filled up by people who went to Ivy League schools. If you have excellent research potential, good letters of recommendation and good grades, coming from SFU won't be a the single barrier to getting into a good grad school.

    (As for Waterloo, from what I've heard it's not close to Toronto or any interesting cities, which might make it kind of boring to live there. At least SFU is only a bus ride away from Vancouver)
  11. Sep 17, 2012 #10
    i agree with everything you said (especially the grey buildings haha). i am also glad you posted your experience because i will be attending SFU next fall. so thank you!
  12. Sep 17, 2012 #11


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    One caveat I should mention is that I went through undergrad before the recent economic difficulties. Since then, the amount of funding from NSERC (the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) has been reduced, so that may make for fewer NSERC Undergrad student research award positions. (But of course, keep in mind one can always apply to other schools to do NSERC USRAs).
  13. Sep 18, 2012 #12
    Thank you all so much your really helping me a lot.
    So far SFU sounds right about my way to go. A couple more questions that were brought up after Mutes' post.
    How is campus social life at SFU?
    You said its about 45m-1h away from "civilization" and obviously I get how that can be annoying. Was this something that affected life at SFU alot or was it just a little inconvenience?
    I have to admit that right now I'm not such an out goer and I put less priority on stuff like that, but I figure it's never bad to get the whole picture.
  14. Sep 19, 2012 #13


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    I think SFU is a place you should consider, but so far all you've had are people talking about SFU, so you should still look into some other universities.

    Campus social life at SFU... well, there's a pub on campus. The legal drinking age in BC is 19, so you won't be able to get in until your second year probably. There are various clubs on campus; I think there's usually a day where all of the clubs set up booths around the two main buildings and you can check them out and see if there are any that interest you. There's a nice gym on campus, too. If you live in the dorms on campus, each floor always has a "Community Advisor" who will organize events for your floor. Living on campus is an easy way to make new friends as long as you're willing to socialize with your neighbours. Recently an apartment village was built just off campus, so some people rent condos there instead. I don't know how things are in the apartments, but there are a couple of restaurants nearby, and a cafe. It's not far from campus at all.

    The campus isn't 45min-1 hour away from "civilization", just downtown Vancouver or Metrotown mall. Once you take the bus down to the skytrain station, Lougheed mall is only one skytrain stop away, and it's a decent-sized mall. It has a Walmart and a food court. Metrotown is just much bigger. There are also other places along the skytrain route you could go to, like a bowling ally or restaurants. There's also another pub called the Mountain Shadow (or something like that) a 5-15 min bus ride off the campus. (It's been a while, so I don't remember the actual timings very well). Essentially, there are plenty of places like restaurants within a half-hour or so that you can go there on weekday evenings if you feel like it. On weekends people will probably head all the way downtown to go to Stanley Park or just walk around, etc., for daytime activities. Unless a new club has been built, if people go clubbing it's only to clubs downtown. Buses run fairly late (til 2 am or 3am I think), so getting back to campus is usually not a problem.

    The most difficult place to get to from SFU is going to be UBC or the Kitsilano area. That will take over an hour to get to, but you won't be going there often, so it's not too big of a deal.
  15. Sep 19, 2012 #14
    Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia has a really good astrophysics (and general physics) program. SMU is a relatively small school compared to say, Dalhousie, which is also located in Halifax. I go to SMU and I must say, I really enjoy it. The campus is smaller and has a much more...relaxed(?) environment. There are 14 faculty members which make up the Astronomy and Physics department at SMU. The majority of the faculty members have PhD's in astrophysics. We also have (at least) one faculty member with a PhD in nuclear physics and another in particle physics. SMU's approach seems to be coming more from the theoretical side of physics as opposed to experimental and applied physics.
  16. Sep 19, 2012 #15
    First time I've heard of SMU, i'll check it out.
    Do you have more specific info? From a student point of view like I asked about SFU:
    - How are the research opportunities for undergraduates in physics? Do they have any special programs for undergraduates?
    - How large are the class?
    - What is the teaching level? How are the professorial student relationship?
    - How are student relations? I understand it to be more together rather then competitive?
    - As I've been told many times it doesn't really matter where you do your undergraduate degree for the universities, but is there anything out of the ordinary that I need to know about SMU on that regard?
    - How is the campus life in general?
    - Is there anything else special worth mentioning?

    Sorry for the "attack" of questions (I still probably missed some) I'm just trying to get my bases covered and to hear from someone who goes there is a very unique opportunity.
  17. Sep 20, 2012 #16
    From what I know, U of T's undergrad is very respected by graduate schools, and they have a great graduate program, but I've heard mixed reviews about undergrad U of T from the actual students. My brother likened it to a factory. However, last I checked, the THE ranked U of T top in the top 20 in the world in nearly every field (18th in physical sciences), and it is the highest ranked Canadian university overall (19th in the world).

    Also, for what it's worth, U of T's St. George campus (can't speak for Scarborough or Mississauga, but I've heard good things about Scarborough) is beautiful, and that's where the physics department is located.
  18. Sep 25, 2012 #17
    That is assuming you can survive with a respectable GPA after the brutal 4 years. As for rankings, most of them are based on perceived prestige and are hence unofficial and worthless for the most part (for physical sciences, of course). UofT is only ranked well officially for its graduate program. The interesting thing about it is, UofT has rejected its own students due to their poor GPA many times in favour of students from lesser known schools, such as Guelph, UWO, York, etc.

    IMO, if you can handle UofT, I agree that it is the place to be. However, there are much easier ways to get to accepted to a good graduate school, like UofT for example.
  19. Sep 25, 2012 #18
    The same thing could be said for pretty much every school that exists. If your GPA sucks, even the school you attended will not want you back. I don't think that UofT will favour students from other schools over students who attended UofT. I think it is quite the opposite. As a student, if you at least try to network with the professors at your school and make a good impression, GPA won't matter so much. Professors are much more willing to support students they know will do a good job as opposed to students who they've only seen their transcript and a statement of interest.

    Uoft has lots of physics research opportunities and lots of options to make connections with people at other high class schools doing research. Your GPA may not be as good as it could be at many other universities, but if you at least try to do research and make an impression, you should be able to make valuable connections which is more important than anything.
  20. Sep 25, 2012 #19


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    I think you're on the right track here, but to be clear, all the networking in the world won't help if your GPA "sucks."
  21. Sep 25, 2012 #20
    agreed 100%
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