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How is UT Austin for graduate work?

  1. Dec 5, 2007 #1
    This is basically the same thread that mgorby created but about UT Austin instead:

    Anyone have some insight on UT Austin's physics department?
    I'm interested in experimental AMO physics and they seem to have a lot of research groups that interest me.

    I'm more concerned if it's a friendly program, if the school itself is a welcoming place, how the town is, and then how well respected the research coming from the department is.

    I'm concerned because it seems that the school is very highly ranked so its research must be good, but it seems like their admission standards for U.S. applicants are not as high as others in the same range of rankings, for example they let in a third of all U.S. applicants. I am worrying that the atmosphere for grad students there is one of attrition and cut-throat competition. I'm hoping that instead it's all nice and friendly between profs and students and each other. I'm also wondering whether it's easy to make friends there (or does everyone just go home after class) and whether UT Austin gives you an individual treatment or treats you like a number (a big worry for me when it comes to big schools)

    Thanks to everyone and mgorby for the idea for the thread!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 5, 2007 #2

    Ben Niehoff

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    I don't know anything about the program, but I can tell you a little about Austin, the city, and also the UT campus. I lived in Austin for internships during 2001-2003, and went to the campus many times to walk around.

    Austin is a bit unlike most Texas cities. It was a popular location for hippies in earlier times, and it still maintains some of its weirdness. The airport even sells "Keep Austin Weird" t-shirts. The social atmosphere of Austin is (thankfully) without the typical Texan braggadocio; there is a slight cowboy contingent, but it is mostly a sane, friendly, and even liberal place (though not nearly so much as California).

    I lived in a small, cheap apartment community near highway 183, about 10 minutes from IBM, where I did the internships. I paid about $525/mo for a furnished studio...so, I'd say Austin is pretty reasonable there.

    Austin is well-connected by a grid of highways that make it relatively easy to get anywhere. Lake Travis is a beautiful reservoir, surrounded by hills and trees, and a popular destination for boaters. There are some restaurant areas overlooking the lake, and many houses, but it's mostly trees.

    Downtown Austin is like most "middle-sized" cities. It reminded me a lot of Indianapolis, only slightly hillier. There are not many trees downtown, and a lot of concrete (I'm spoiled, living near Sacramento, where the downtown area is lined with trees, despite being criss-crossed by a dense grid of numbered and lettered streets).

    The UT campus lies in the heart of downtown, off of Guadalupe (and you will soon learn, nearly everything is off of Guadalupe). Unlike the city streets, the campus is well-treed, and comparatively quiet. It is a bit sprawled out, but it does not have the large expanses of fields and quadrangles you might find at other campuses. The architecture of some of the buildings is interesting, but most of them are pretty utilitarian. I have only been inside the union building and the music building (which has a floor full of glass-walled practice rooms, each equipped with a real piano, usually occupied by music students; you can watch them play over their shoulders, or try your luck at finding an unoccupied room yourself).

    There are a lot of good places within walking distance of campus, such as coffeeshops, a record shop, a Barnes & Noble (which adds some textbooks to their shelves, and which gave me a huge discount once, thinking I was a student), and a decent Thai restaurant.

    The people of Austin seemed mostly friendly and laid back as far as I could tell, but I wasn't competing with any of them for research at the time.
  4. Dec 5, 2007 #3
    With a university this size, it's gunna be VERY hard to make such broad statements, but if anyone is qualified to do so it would be me.

    Let me start of that I attend UT-Austin. From my experience, the grad students are a very tight knit group. They spend all their time in the lab together, so they get to know each other fairly well. As for the professors, it's a toss up. You'll get some really good ones that show concern for you, while others simply could care less. It's kind of to be expected. However, if you stick out, someone will take you.

    With college that has 50,000 plus, even if 50% of the student body went home, it'll be the size of other colleges. The student body is very diverse. Regardless of your interest, personality, or whatever, you'll find someone you can get along with in Austin. Austin is consider the music capital of the world. It has a wonderful indie music scene, great local bars, ACL, culture affairs, and isn't to far of a drive from NASA and the blue bell factory!

    As for being treated as a number. Odds are, you will simply be a number until you prove you are going to say. With the amount of students going in and out of the uni, professors don't like forming relations with students who won't be around for the next semester. Once you make your stay, it'll be more personable. Also, don't worry about the large acceptance. Like most Texas Schools, they have a policy of not to hard to get in, but rather hard to stay in.
  5. Dec 7, 2007 #4
    Thanks or your insight, PowerIso. Having done my undergrad at another big school (University of Toronto), I know what it's like to be alienated by big classes full of commuters and professors and administration who don't care. I'm hoping that if I get in to UT Austin, it might be different somehow. Any other views on UT Austin?
  6. Dec 19, 2007 #5
    I'm currently an undergraduate engineering student at UT, so I can give my two cents. I've met several grad students in physics and I can talk to you about that.

    First of all, it's going to be a good program. The classes will be good and the professors will be well qualified. There is a nobel prize winner in the physics department, in fact, Stevein Weinberg, although he is a bit past his prime. Some of my friends took a "history of science" course from him a few years back and apparently he was pretty loopy.

    Will you be treated like a number? Definitely more than at a small school. UT is very big, like the other people pointed out, so you have to make yourself stand out, you can't expect professors to be fawning on you. Then again, I think it's pretty much the same way anywhere. If you talk with professors and teachers and show enthusiasm, I'm sure you will be successful and be just fine.

    The other thing I would say about UT is that it has a great strength in terms of its multi-disciplinary capabilities. This school has a top-10 department for almost every single science and engineering field; comp sci is great, math is great, chemistry is great, bio is great, electrical engineering is great, civil engineering is great, aerospace (my department is pretty great), and, well you get the jist of it. Also, if you are interested in computational applications, there is a really outstanding institute (arguably number one in the world) known as ICES, the Institute for Computational and Applied Mathematics. There is a lot of collaboration between departments in ICES and a huge number of the top names in the world. Plus, there's outstanding supercomputer resources, with one of the top 10 or top 20 supercomputers in the world on the UT austin pickle campus, about 20 minutes north of the main campus.

    Anyways to sum up I think the program is going to be great, and you don't need to worry about that. There is quite a large student population at the undergrad level, but I think it should be fine for graduate level, where they are much more selective. Don't be frazzled by the "1 in 3" acceptance rate... you should realize that that is still pretty competitive, it's just not the top 10% craziness that you see at those "big name" schools like caltech. Only 33% admissions is really quite difficult.
  7. Jan 1, 2008 #6
    I'm an undergraduate physics major at UT. UT physics is a pretty small group in comparision to most of the other sciences aka chemistry.

    All of the physics professors I have met have been friendly, although I have heard stories about some. There are more graduate students than undergraduates. The graduate students are generally very friendly and helpful as far as I have been able to tell.

    Physics professors love for you to talk to them about physics. If you go and chat with them, you'll be in good shape. I generally see the graduate students grabbing coffee with each other etc so I wouldn't worry about the cutthroat competition.

    This is really what you should look at. Its the survival guide for graduate students in the UT physics department.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 23, 2017
  8. Mar 2, 2011 #7
    They actually mention on their website that they admit HALF of domestic applicants! Thats seems ridiculously high to me. My guess is that even schools that aren't top-10, such as Maryland, UCSD, etc admit close to 10% of its applicants. So I'm also curious as to why thats so high
  9. Mar 2, 2011 #8
    Graduate school classes aren't unusually large. Also the fact that professors are sometimes more interested in research than teaching is a good thing in graduate school.

    Also at least for a few years, you'll likely be a teaching assistant to a large undergraduate class, and you'll be expected to be the friendly face to the students.
  10. Mar 2, 2011 #9
    UT Physics is a rather small department compared to the other ones there. There's also the astronomy department which is separate.
  11. Mar 2, 2011 #10
    More serfs to work as teaching assistant for the undergraduate classes. Not that this is a bad thing.
  12. Mar 2, 2011 #11
    Are you saying that its tough for students to get funded from their research profs? I thought it was the norm at most schools to be a TA for maybe 2 years at most

    But if they admit half their domestic applicants, then they must admit alot of not-so-great applicants. This is in stark contrast to their Astro dept since I just called them today about my application and they told me they only admitted 4-6 out of 160.
  13. Mar 2, 2011 #12


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    Most of the experimental groups will be able to provide RA positions by the time a student has achieved PhD candidacy, if not before.

    As twofish-quant said, more admits means more filled TA positions. I don't know what the numbers are at the moment there, but 10-15 years ago there were over 100 TA positions to be filled in the physics department. This worked out to around 60 positions for 1st year students if I remember correctly. The target for number of admits was directly based on that.

    The quality of applicants did vary quite a bit. I think the percentage of 1st year students that went on to achieve PhD candidacy was less than 50%.
  14. Mar 2, 2011 #13
    Do you know what the situation is for theory groups? I'm primarily interested in working on computer simulations in astrophysics. Also, are physics students who work with astro profs even able to get RAships, or do they have to TA the whole time?

    I was also curious to get more thoughts on the quality of the professors. I've heard that UT-Austin is ranked pretty high because they have Weinberg. But other than for him, they're not that great. Do you guys think thats true?
  15. Mar 2, 2011 #14


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    I don't know the answer. I'd advise you to contact a few graduate students that are working in the groups that you're interested in. If you can't identify the graduate students, you might ask the secretary for the research groups to forward your email to a graduate student.

    National newspaper rankings usually aren't worth the paper that they're printed on (pun intended). It would be a good idea to identify the faculty that you're most interested in working with and then doing your own research. Look up their recent papers, citation count, whether they are invited to speak at other universities and conferences. It's also good to see where their former students are now.

    Weinberg is an exceptional physicist that continues to produce insightful work. He's also partly responsible for attracting excellent faculty and students to the university, so he does have a large impact on the quality of the department. But that doesn't undermine the fact that there are several world-class physicists on the faculty in many diverse fields whose accomplishments speak for themselves.
  16. Mar 2, 2011 #15
    I think the question is more, "why is UT Austin so different?" Other top programs seem to have gotten by admitting just enough students, why is Austin so different?

    From what I'm reading, it sounds like they take in a lot of students knowing they'll end up kicking a fair number out. Other schools seem to take students with the idea that they will all pass their quals.
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