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Schools How do I choose a good university for myself?

  1. Mar 19, 2012 #1
    I'm currently studying pre-IB, which means that two years later I should have graduated from secondary school. Physics and English are my favorite subjects (science and English have always been my favorites), and I want to study physics in university somewhere in the States. I'm not really sure about this, but I think I want to become a physicist (I'm more interested in understanding why things work than in how things work).

    I honestly don't know how to choose a good university. Most of the university websites I've visited tell me the same thing: we've got one of the leading physics departments in the world, we give a lot of attention to undergraduates, we've got professors who are the best in the field...also I don't know of many people who study physics in university (I'll ask my physics teacher this week).

    Can you guys maybe offer some advice? Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 19, 2012 #2

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    That's probably true. At the undergraduate level, the material covered is very similar for snooty Ivy Leagues schools, good state schools and small liberal arts colleges. Different people do better or worse in different environments so it's more an issue of finding a place that is a good match for you than anything else.
  4. Mar 19, 2012 #3
    "Finding a place that is a good match for you than anything else"

    Currently, the factors I can think of are:

    Competitiveness - I think it would be awesome to study with bright minds, so if I can, I want to enter a competitive university

    Campus environment - frankly I don't care

    Facilities - maybe a particle accelerator? :D
  5. Mar 19, 2012 #4
    I am loathe to admit it, but competitiveness of a course is important because it gets your CV read.

    There is a lot of "cultural capital" in attending a university someone has heard of, because it reassures employers that you are of a certain standard.

    You probably aren't at a stage where you know what you want to do (nor should you be, really. At 16 (?) you don't even know what you don't know).

    Everyone does read the same books during undergrad. In most cases, the edge students get is in their extra-curricular activities (summer placements with research groups, etc). That's what you should be looking at. Lots of research = lots of extra cheap bodies needed
  6. Mar 19, 2012 #5


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    'Competitiveness' can mean the school is hard to get into (usually a good sign of academic rigor) but it can also mean the students feel like they're in competition with each other and don't work together. That can be a horrible environment, and hurt you in the long run if you have no experience working in groups or collaborations. Many employers say one of the things they like best about physics majors is the ability to work together to solve difficult problems, but you won't get that at a school where no one will willing to work together.

    Stanford, U Chicago, and Stony Brook have their own (Stanford) or are near (Fermi Labs, Brookhaven Lab) particle accelerators. Of course, their undergrads often don't use them or get the opportunity to use them. You want somewhere with a good-sized department compared to the number of majors they have, and somewhere that lets undergrads get involved in research (which sometimes means you might be better off at a small college with few if any grad students to compete with).
  7. Mar 23, 2012 #6
    I would suggest visiting schools to get a feel for them. That was what made the difference for me in choosing an undergrad school.

    If you have diverse interests, you might look at liberal arts schools. They will have smaller science departments, and they won't have the same opportunities as a big research university, but they tend to have more academic flexibility. As in, if you wanted to double major in physics and English, that'd probably be viable. Plus, smaller departments let you get more individual attention from professors. I'm a creative writing major at a liberal arts school, and I crossed over to the math department a little too late to double major. I love getting to spend time in both fields, and the department is small but awesome.
  8. Mar 23, 2012 #7
    It gets a bit complicated. For example, I've had experience with MIT and UTexas Austin, and while the average MIT student is brighter as far as physics goes than the average student at UTexas Austin, I can't say that there is much difference in the quality of the average *physics major*. One thing that you get if you go to UTexas Austin that you wouldn't get at MIT is exposure to people that are awful at physics but a lot better than you at something else (say filmmaking or football or marketing).

    It's also the case the large public universities have rather open admissions policies, but they put the "weeding out" somewhere else. For example, I'd have to say that freshman physics at MIT is *less competitive* than freshman physics at UT Austin. At MIT, you get "weeded out" on admission and if you don't pass 8.01, then you have to leave the university, so the administration does everything it can to make sure that people pass 8.01. At UT Austin, freshman physics is used as a "weed out" course to get rid of people.

    You probably do, since this is the most important difference between universities. If you are a geek, then you probably want to find a university in which at least some people think that geeks are cool. I'd assume that you are interested in physics, and if you end up somewhere in which no one thinks that physics is a high priority, it's probably not going to work out.
  9. Mar 23, 2012 #8
    I don't think it does really. It's not the reputation of the school that gets the resumes read, but rather the quality of the career services and the alumni network. Some schools have excellent career services and very strong alumni networks. Some are awful at this.

    I get the sense that this is very true in the UK. It's not particularly true in the US, and it's almost totally irrelevant for undergraduate physics if your goal is to get into graduate school.

    Also "quality" is a different issue from "eliteness". For example, in Austin, Texas, everyone has heard of UT Austin or Texas AM, and being a longhorn or aggie puts you at no disadvantage and possibly an advantage over someone with a Harvard degree. This is similar to the situation with other big public universities. If you get a degree from University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill or NCSU, this will put you in good shape, if you want to live in North Carolina.

    One other thing is that the Texas and North Carolina legislatures heavily fund the state universities precisely to get smart people to move to those states.

    This is an important point, because I get the sense that things are different in other countries, particularly the UK. It might have something to do with the fact that some US states are the size of countries in other parts of the world.

    One final point is that I'm a fan of the US university *system*. There are countries with individual universities that are as good or better than universities in the US, but I think that the US has the best university *system* in the world. One reason that I like the US system is that in a lot of countries, you are doomed if you go to the wrong school, whereas in the US, there's less of that. Also, if you compare the *best* universities in the US with the *best* universities in most other countries, they are about even. However, the US university system really shines when you compare *average* universities or the *worst* universities. Even if you get admitted to the worst undergraduate physics department in the United States, you aren't doomed.

    Ironically one reason I think that the US has such good universities, is that they have to teach a lot of what in most places would be taught in high school.
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2012
  10. Mar 23, 2012 #9
    I have looked at the tests for Lewin's 8.01 course, and they are significantly easier than even my community college courses
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