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Determining the quality of a physics program

  1. May 18, 2015 #1
    Hello, I'm not sure if this forum is the right place for this. My son is a Junior in High School, he wants to have a career in Physics. We have been trying to find the right school for him in the northeast, where we live. It has been difficult, however, to determine which schools have great programs that would provide a solid foundation for him to then pursue a masters and PHd (which is his goal). What kind of questions should he ask an undergraduate Physics department, that would give him an idea of the quality of their program?

    Thank You
  2. jcsd
  3. May 18, 2015 #2
    Last edited: May 18, 2015
  4. May 18, 2015 #3


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    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    What kinds of schools are you looking at? How big? Urban, rural, or suburban? How selective?
  5. May 18, 2015 #4
    The link Greg provided is a great resource. US News also allows you to list schools by region so you could filter them that, so you could do a search for schools in the northeast US, and you can search for the rankings of US physics graduate programs, but not undergraduate. They might have the undergraduate rankings if you're willing to pay for the full report, but you can usually extrapolate from the data they have available.

    My Alma Mater has a very good program, all of my friends that were in it went on to graduate school, it's not in the northeast though. It's a bit further south.

    From an undergraduate perspective, there's usually some concern over what percentage of classes are being taught by T.A.s. Universities are often judged on and ranked on this, The Princeton Review uses it in their rankings. TAs rarely taught courses at my university other than labs they mostly just graded things if you had one. I enjoyed the ones I had though, they were younger, more relate-able, and since they're still students barring any language barriers they're usually pretty decent are explaining things. So, I kind of feel like this one can be misleading, I've actually had some pretty good TAs but overall they get judged unfairly, kind of like faculty that only hold a masters and not a Ph.D. sometimes they're better teachers, but they're it's considered a mark against the school.

    Anyway, people usually want to know:
    The Pedigree Questions:
    1) Percentage of classes taught by TAs?
    2) Percentage of faculty that have a Ph.D.? Percentage of courses taught by staff not holding a Ph.D?
    3) Number of tenured and non-tenured tracked faculty in the physics department?
    4) Percentage of Undergraduates are accepted into graduate programs?
    5) Average GRE scores of their undergraduates? Average score on the Physics Subject test?
    6) Number of physics Ph.D.s that complete their dissertation each year and secure a post-doc position from that university?

    Research at the University
    7) What percentage of the total research dollars does the physics department bring in to the university? Dollar amount?
    8) What notable awards or grants has the physics department of university been awarded? (This can be easily looked up, not necessary to ask.)
    9) What and who has been published recently at the university? (Another thing that can be looked up.)
    10) What are the opportunities and availability like for undergraduates to get to lab experience outside of the classroom?
    11) Are there any research opportunities available for undergraduates?
    12) Do they offer REUs at their university? (REU - Research Experience for Undergraduates --- usually over the summer sponsored by the National Science Foundation.)

    13) Is there a physics club? Do they have a physics honors society?
    14) What is unique about their physics department?
    15) Ask to sit in on a lecture or lab while touring the school.
    16) You can ask if there's any community outreach programs, bringing physics demos to the k-12 schools, science for girls.
    17) Ask about tutoring, supplemental lectures, what kind of guidance they offer for incoming freshmen and first year students to ensure that students successfully transition from high school to college.
    18) Ask if they have an Honors College?

    I think I'll cut myself off here, before I overwhelm you.... Can I just say, shout out to you though looking for the best school for you kid. I think that's awesome.
  6. May 19, 2015 #5


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    I suggest that you not rule out small liberal-arts colleges, if your son finds such an atmosphere to be congenial, and you can afford it. They don't show up on most lists of "top universities" but many of them do a very good job of preparing students for graduate school. Here's a post in another thread today with some links to information in this direction:


    One of the linked articles itself links to another article that I'd like to call out specifically:


    In the northeast, Williams, Swarthmore, Middlebury and Union come to my mind first, but there are others. I went to a small college in the midwest that isn't in their league, but nevertheless prepared me adequately for a Ph.D. at Michigan.
  7. May 23, 2015 #6


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    As a graduate of a small liberal arts college, I wholeheartedly concur. The school I went to was a regional liberal arts school (a tier below places like Amherst or Swarthmore) but I was also more than adequately prepared for my PhD. I'd even go so far as to say that the extra focus on the liberal arts curriculum help develop my speaking and writing abilities, making it much easier to prepare conference presentations and journal articles later on in grad school. I published more than most other grad students in my year and I attribute that not to my scientific ability but instead to my ability to more quickly write a publication quality manuscript.
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