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Disparate academic standards

  1. Nov 26, 2011 #1
    I attend university in Spain. While googling for resources/practice exams for my 2nd classical mechanics course at the sophomore level(which I am resitting, unfortunately), I came across this:

    http://zippy.physics.niu.edu/PhDexam/CM_ALL.pdf [Broken]
    (NIU phd candidacy exams)
    (Rutgers phd qual)

    These are pretty big and important American physics faculties correct? The exam sets are of a difficulty less than or equal to what I have encountered in my first and second sophomore CM courses. Some of the problems could have been pulled straight from my problem sheets or exams from previous years, we generally have one or two variations of problems from Landau's and Goldstein's texts on our finals (100% of the grade). Almost brings a tear to my eye.

    A friend who went to one of the major physics faculties in the country tells me he encountered a E&M problem on a freshman general physics final that was pulled straight from a 3rd year electrodynamics course textbook. I wasn't surprised to learn the median completion time of the physics degree was 11 years at said university, at my uni its around 7-8, so it could be worse.

    Are the academic standards in my country excessively high? Or are grad school standards in the US generally low? Sometimes I question what having such high standards hopes to achieve, because I don't think grad schools in my country or anywhere else care how rigorous your undergrad education is if you only manage to get very average grades (or take twice as long to graduate). Its really making me question whether I have any shot at getting into a msc/phd, because its pretty much generally accepted that passing most courses with grades barely above failing is "good" and taking several additional years to graduate as "normal" by practically every student, professor and secretary I know.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 26, 2011 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Qualifying exams in the US are often intended primarily to ensure that the new student has mastered the undergraduate material, although there is some variation: when I took it, first year graduate questions were fair game. (And it was harder) The variation between the two tests tells you something as well.

    In any event, that's the reason it looks like these are undergraduate problems. They are undergraduate problems.
  4. Nov 26, 2011 #3


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    Every university decides for themselves what will be on their qualifying exams. Some schools give them as soon as you arrive at the university to start grad school; those only test undergraduate coursework. Others give them two to three years into the program, and may only test graduate coursework, or a combination of undergraduate and graduate. Since most graduate coursework builds on undergrad material, it's not uncommon to see the same kinds of questions again and again. My E&M qualifying exam was a mix of Griffiths and Jackson level problems. Most of the classical was Goldstein level, since that was our graduate textbook. Some of your coursework may be more demanding than some of the coursework in the US, but you certainly can't generalize to say it's all better. It very much depends on the actual programs being compared. US physics students spend 10-11 years earning a BS, MS, and PhD on average, but we also require a lot more courses (and in a wider range of subjects) than they do in most other countries, which adds to the length of the program - and we don't kick people out of a PhD program after 3 years, they continue to receive funding if they're doing good work. Which is why most of the US PhD students I know have more publications than those in Europe when applying for the same postdocs.
  5. Nov 26, 2011 #4
    It's incredibly hard to make these sorts of comparisons because systems are so different. You have wildly different processes for when something happens (i.e. most US students enter college earlier than students on other countries, it's also easier in the US to move from major to major and physics graduate school will admit non-physics major who have good records but may have missed certain courses).

    Also you have to define what "standards" are being referred to. US graduate schools don't care about how good your test scores are, but they care about research output, which can be quantified by papers cited.

    One point that needs to be made is that US admissions committees *are* aware that different countries have different educational processes, and they do try to take them into account. One reason that recommendation letters tend to be important is that that's a chance for a professor to say 'In country X, someone that gets a C in their transcript is totally amazing."

    This has been a real problem for Chinese schools, which normally grade much, much more harshly than US schools (i.e. a C would be considered a decent grade, and getting straight-A's is unheard of). Something a lot of schools will do is to provide US universities with a conversion chart that says that grade X means level Y. Something else that has happened is that Chinese universities have been changing their grading systems to match US levels which may not be a good thing since it causes grade inflation to spill over.
  6. Nov 26, 2011 #5
    Not at eighteen years of age? More often than not, students leave high school at 18/19. In Europe and certain parts of Asia, pre-uni education consists of 13 years as opposed to the 12 years which is more common in the USA. However, that is accounted for with the length of bachelor's degrees, with them typically lasting 3 years elsewhere.
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