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Schools Harvard and MIT, and my university

  1. Aug 14, 2006 #1
    I read the course syllabus' of MIT and Harvard universities and my university. There is no difference between assignements, labs, exams, etc between those 2 famous universities and my university.

    Then why would someone say their graduates are better trained than me and/or graduates from other universities.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 14, 2006 #2


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    Course syllabus is as accurate at depicting the quality of education that you get as much as a book cover conveys accurately the content of a book.

    How about looking at a citaton index and figure out (i) how many published papers come out of the department (ii) how many citations are made out of those papers (iii) the amount of research funds spent per year, etc.?

    Now, having said that, I'm one of those people who believe that one can get a decent, if not as good, of an undergraduate education at other non-brand name universities. However, going about this simply by looking at course syllabus will not give you much indication of anything.

  4. Aug 14, 2006 #3


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    To cite one example, their graduates don't waste a day reading other schools' course syllabi
  5. Aug 14, 2006 #4
    That was one of the most pointless comments I've ever had the misfortune to read.
  6. Aug 14, 2006 #5
    Got to know who your competition is...;)
  7. Aug 14, 2006 #6
    Typically the best go in, and the best come out. But this is not to say that you have to go to a top school to be equal to their best graduates when you graduate from your school.
  8. Aug 14, 2006 #7
    you control your own destiny, you control your own life, nothing else. don't worry about what everyone else is doing, stick to your own plan and you'll do fine.
  9. Aug 14, 2006 #8
    For one of my course, the syllabus of it says that it was a course about Laplace and Fourier transforms, special functions, systems, signals, and their applications in physical sciences and engineering.
    In fact, the class was mainly about linear algebra, Fourier Analysis, Quternions, and Matrix Algebra.
  10. Aug 14, 2006 #9
    Generally for undergrad school, if the syllabi of the smaller lesser (and cheaper) school is identical to the larger prestigious school and the profs at both unis cover everything on the syllabus (which I suppose some profs do not) then it seems like there is no significant difference. Even at the "lesser" school, at the ugrad level the profs (who are still experts in their fields) are still definitely qualified to teach the courses, and might be better at teaching than the big MIT prof....also, at the smaller uni the profs are more focused on teaching, and less on research.....not to mention at the smaller university you're sitting in a classroom with no more than 20 students in the courses every takes, and many courses have 3-5 students. Also, no ugrad classes at the smaller university are taught by TAs.

    For ugrad, I feel, and many other people feel (such as profs) think that going to a smaller (and often less prestigious) uni with much more personalized attention is the best choice for ugrad school. However, grad school is a completely different story.

    Also, the prof has a much closer eye on your progress in a small uni setting and in that sense you are being scritinized more closely and you performance is being evaluated and corrected more readily.
  11. Aug 14, 2006 #10
    i also would like to add that i have looked at MIT's and Harvard's previous exams and solutions and i honestly had no problem solving their questions. I did not find that they went more into depth than my university had, and i had no difficulty in completing their previous exams. I do agree that graduate studies is a different study. I was just wondering, then why do these universities charge significantly more and find it somewhat unfair how their undergraduate degree's have such a prestige attached to their names, yet its misleading. This reminds my of highschool, and those students who went to private schools in Toronto, you paid and honestly did not gain anything except a high percentage and in most cases had the false belief that they knew their course material but failed at university. So why are these universities seen as significatly better institutions when they did not offer a better education than many other universites?
  12. Aug 14, 2006 #11
    But an undergraduate program isn't all about the academics. Sure, learning in classes is a big part, but students should also interact with the faculty and do research. The big named universities may have more research opportunities, and also allows undergraduate students the chance to talk to and learn from world class physicists. And it boils down to these things more often than not, when applying to graduate schools: what research you've done and recommendations. If you can get a recommendation from a true expert in the field of interest, it will look great.

    And while this is important, I'm not sure if it is worth paying extra tens of thousands of dollars.
  13. Aug 14, 2006 #12
    You can do an REU at another university during the summers, and with personalized attention and professors that know you well (since you were in a couple of their 5 student classes) they really push hard to get you into one.

    And you can talk with profs at other universities also. You are mainly paying for you lecture time.
  14. Aug 14, 2006 #13
    Big School / Small School

    Hi Budala, this general question of "big school" versus "small school" for undergrad has been brought up a couple of times in this forum (I've commented on a few of them). For some background I went to a 'big name school', so you'll probably want to normalize my statements against my background. That being said, I've graduated don't feel any need to validate my undergrad institution. :tongue2:

    Pithy comments aside, you shouldn't think too much about what university you are currently enrolled in versus other universities. There are plenty of students in big name schools who end up doing poorly and there are plenty of students in smalls chools who do very well. Just because a student goes to one school or another it doesn't say anything about their potential as a gradaute student.

    (As a side note, I do believe there is a correlation between the 'prestige' of one's undergrad school with one's performance in high school. But once you're in college, nobody cares how you did in high school.)

    But you did raise a decent question asking how big name universities can justify their tuition relative to smaller schools with, as you note, nearly identical curricula. Here are my thoughts:

    1) Prestige. What's the value of prestige? Not much if you're a scientist. But if you're the son/daughter of an influential politician or someone interested in becoming a politician, then it might be a different story.

    2) Brand-name diploma. This is another thing that I saw around me and that I find disappointing. From a slightly more cynical point of view, it doesn't matter whether or not the students are any better at big-name schools versus smaller schools. If employers perceive a difference between the students just because of their school, then this validates the tuition. It's unfortunate that there are several bums who go to a big-name school who get good jobs over more qualified people who went to smaller schools, but it does happen. There are some companies (such as brand-name consulting firms) that I've heard will only look at applications from a handful of the biggest-name schools. ((Another way to look at this is that students are rewarded excessively for doing well in high school.))

    3) Other students. Now here's something that's a little more reasonable. Big-name schools attract the best students. Do *all* the best students go to big-name schools? Of course not. Nor is it true that all the students at big-name schools are that great. However, I imagine there is a good correlation between the top students in high school and the top 'big name' universities. The value of this is being able to live and work with intelligent students, to network with them, etc. I've seen lots of students (primarily computer scientists) get together and form startups immediately after college.

    4) Research. As mentioned before, research is a large part of the pitch that big-name schools make to prospective students. These schools have the top faculty and large research budgets that often trickle over to undergrads. The opportunities often extend beyond summer REUs, as students can work at their home institution over the course of the academic year as well. Also, the projects tend to be associated with 'hot' research topics. There's a lot one can learn from doing research with top name faculty (how to think about problems, novel approaches, etc.)... this may or may not offset discrepancies in the lecture-based education.

    5) Grad Students. Big research universities also attract the top grad students (in the same sense that they attract the top undergrads). Undergrads benefit from this in two ways: (1) graduate coursework. (2) graduate student mentors (often associated with research).

    6) Silver spoon treatment. Also, at the end of the day, big-name schools have lots of money to spend on undergraduates. This can take the form of extensive overseas programs (actual school-sponsored campuses abroad), NCAA-caliber sports facilities for student use, extensive extracurricular activities that are funded by the school, an alumni association that sponsors lots of activities, having big-name speakers/bands/whatever visit etc, etc.

    Anyway, does all this mean that a big name school is better than a small school? Certainly not. Everyone has to find the undergraduate experience that is right for him/herself. It may not be bad to have an eye on other schools to make sure you're competitive with their students (I felt very similarly about another big -Tech school, even though I went to a big-name school), but don't obsess over it.

    I understand that it can be really frustrating when big-name schools get the 'reputation' for having the best students, especially when you yourself are working hard at being one of the best students yourself. However, you must take these statements in stride and know that some of the best students do come out of smaller schools. Even if the second coming of Ed Witten graduated from No-Name University, people will still say Harvard/MIT/etc. are the best schools with the best students (warranted or otherwise).
  15. Aug 16, 2006 #14
    fliptomato, i read your reply and found it VERY insightful, interesting and i appreciate you taking the time to respond. I believe that you really replied in an honest manner and gave me a real look at how these universites operate. I found it useful when you mentioned that these universites usually had 'hot' research topics, because this is true, i have read several articles on the interesting research topics MIT has done in their engineering research :D anyways, thanks for you post, i really enjoyed reading it!
  16. Aug 16, 2006 #15


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    tell me the name of your school and i will read the various syllabi and see if i agree with you. harvard's course syllabi certainly are a lot more ambitious than those at my school, the university of georgia.
  17. Aug 16, 2006 #16

    Now, I got to say that THAT was a good one!

    :!!) :rofl:
  18. Aug 16, 2006 #17


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    ok i looked at harvards course desriptions and they are very miodest, i do not fault you for not realizing how advanced they are from the descriptions, but the first thing you should notice when you go to harvards website is the names of the professors offering the cousres. many f them are fields medalists. this is just unheard of most places.

    i can assure when a FIELDS MEDALIST GIVES A COUSRE it is not the same cousre you get from a nudge like me at a state university.

    and look at the desriptions of the grad cousres. at harvard the best undergrads always take several grad courses. in fact even i started in a grad course as a freshman at harvard.

    this is the desription of the basic grad diff geom and complex courses at harvard:

    Mathematics 213a. Complex Analysis
    Catalog Number: 1621
    Curtis T. McMullen
    Half course (fall term). M., W., F., at 12. EXAM GROUP: 5
    Fundamentals of complex analysis, and further topics such as elliptic functions, canonical products, conformal mapping, extremal length, harmonic measure and capacity.
    Prerequisite: Basic complex analysis, topology of covering spaces, differential forms.

    Mathematics 213b. Advanced Complex Analysis
    Catalog Number: 2641
    Curtis T. McMullen
    Half course (spring term). Tu., Th., 10–11:30. EXAM GROUP: 12, 13
    Fundamentals of Riemann surfaces. Topics may include sheaves and cohomology, potential theory, uniformization, and moduli.
    Prerequisite: Mathematics 213a.

    mcmullen is a fields medalist.

    Mathematics 230ar. Differential Geometry
    Catalog Number: 0372
    Shing-Tung Yau
    Half course (fall term). M., W., F., at 2. EXAM GROUP: 7
    Elements of differential geometry: Riemannian geometry, symplectic and Kaehler geometry, Geodesics, Riemann curvature, Darboux’s theorem, moment maps and symplectic quotients, complex and Kaehler manifolds, Dolbeault and de Rham cohomology.

    Mathematics 230br. Differential Geometry
    Catalog Number: 0504
    Ilia Zharkov
    Half course (spring term). M., W., F., at 12. EXAM GROUP: 5
    A continuation of Mathematics 230ar. Topics in global Riemannian geometry: Ricci curvature and volume comparison; sectional curvature and distance comparison; Toponogov’s theorem and applications; sphere theorems; Gromov’s betti number bounds; Gromov-Hausdorff convergence; Cheeger’s finiteness theorem, and convergence theorems.
    Prerequisite: Mathematics 135.

    these guys are also giants. i assure you these courses are on a higher level than those almost anywhere else. go sit in on one sometime and see for yourself.

    of course maybe you are at berkeley or ihes, but if you are at georgia tech or univ of washington, or even michigan, or illinois, i am guessing your course is probably not on this level. for one thing the students are not on this level.

    but i could be wrong.
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2006
  19. Aug 20, 2006 #18
    Normally I wouldn't reply to such topic since it's not my place and I don't know a lot about the subject, but I've been reading an autobiography about Ahmed zewail an Egyptian Scientist and a Nobel prize winner, who got his bachelor and master's form the Univ. of alexandria in Egypt, and his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and done his postdoctoral research in UC Berkeley and is currently a professor at Caltech.

    I said this to say that and I'm quoting from his book (with some translation) :

    "In the mean time there was no scientific barrier in my life, but there was something more important that had appeared, it was the type of science itself ,the science that I have learned in the University of Pennsylvania was all the way different from the kind of science that I found at berkeley.

    The University of Pennsylvania has earned it's reputation from the effort of certain research groups that work under great professors, and there is a small number of these groups here in Pennsylvania.

    But Berkley has allowed me to log in into a new and extreme kind of science leading to new and extreme scientific discoveries"
  20. Aug 20, 2006 #19


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    it is not a simple matter. there is a real difference between harvard, mit, etc and most other schools, but that does not stop the talented student at another school from achieving at the highest level anyway.

    in my case going to these top schools gave me a lot of help and advantages, without which i personally would likely not have reached the goals i did, but many of the more talented and accomplished people at my school went elsewhere.

    i.e. going to top schools can help you, but the best people may outperform you even without those advantages. these people do usually wind up eventually at the top schools however. i.e. it is not so exclusively the top schools that produce the best scholars, but they do recruit them after they become visible.

    take a recent fields medalist: curt mcmullen. he went to williams college but then took a phd at harvard, and after winning the fields medal was recruited back to harvard where he is now.

    there are many such cases.
  21. Aug 20, 2006 #20
    you took a graduate course during your freshman year of undergrad?? wow, what course?
  22. Aug 22, 2006 #21


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    math 280, mathematical logic, from Willard Van Orman Quine. This sort of thing was not unheard of then. While waiting to interview, I met a 17 year old senior at Harvard.

    In my dorm was a 15 year old genius named Eddie Ross, who was taking the Loomis and Sternberg math course (taught then out of Apostol's analysis book by Sternberg) while i was taking the "Spivak" course, taught then out of Courant, by John Tate.

    I did not continue though in math 280, as the requirement was for me to read his entire undergraduate logic book the first week, and I only made it through half of it before getting tired and stopping. So the prof said I knew some but not all the prerecs and could decide for myself what to do, so I bailed. After that though the undergrad course was pretty boring.

    There were several other kids there taking grad courses as undergrads, indeed that was normal. Such as Spencer Bloch, Jeff Cheeger, John Mather. Those guys are all famous mathematicians now.:cool:
  23. Aug 22, 2006 #22


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    the loomis and sternberg course was also mostly subscribed by freshmen, and that course would be a grad course at my current school if we even offered it.
  24. Aug 25, 2006 #23
    Harvard's program I don't find equal and/or more appealing than the programs at The University of Toronto or University of Waterloo, Ontario.
    http://www.deas.harvard.edu/press/FactBrochure.pdf [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  25. Aug 25, 2006 #24
    Harvard's engineering program is nothing spectacular though....you're comparing a school known most for its engineering to a school that is really not that good for engineering. A better comparison to U of T would be MIT, for instance.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  26. Aug 25, 2006 #25
    leright, I am sure you are right, thank you very much.
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