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Schools How much notice should I take of the University Rankings?

  1. Aug 6, 2012 #1
    I'm applying to do particle physics next year, with the hope of eventually getting a PhD, although I have been told that if I do theoretical physics it won't really matter because they're very similar and I can still do a PhD in particle (I know someone starting her PhD in particle with a masters in experimental).

    Anyway, obviously I want to go to a reputable university (I'm in the UK) as to do a PhD and get a job in pure physics research, apparently where you went is very relevant. I've been looking at the CUG rankings, but where each university is ranked both overall and in physics changes by quite a bit from year to year, making me think that it's almost a worthless thing to consider, because a highly ranked uni right now can easily drop down several places even by next September when I will start.

    I'm only looking at Russell Group unis, should I just work on the basis that any Russell Group member is fairly reputable and leave it at that or should I try go for the highest ranked ones this year and hope they stay there? I'm at a point where the ones I'm looking at all seem to have equal merits to me and I'm finding it hard to choose one as a favourite.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 6, 2012 #2
    I don't know about the UK, but in the US physics school rankings tend to be meaningless, because they are invariably written by people that know absolutely nothing about physics. The other issue is that there are a lot of excellent departments which are absolutely top in some small field that no one out of that fields knows about. Finally, because of the US political system, there is a very strong incentive to "spread the wealth" which means that funding gets distributed pretty evenly across different schools.

    Something that you should do is to start familiarizing yourself with papers in the areas that you are interested in, and if you find a cluster of people in one of the universities that you are looking for go there.

    Also, this is US-centric. I'd be curious to see how things are same/different in UK and in other countries. I do know things are very different in China, where you have about five or so excellent physics graduate programs, and then everything else is of pretty low quality, so if you can't get into those big name universities, you'll get a better education going to a no name school in the US.
  4. Aug 6, 2012 #3
    I don't have any firsthand experience with UK universities. I have, however, considered attending one a while back, for I did A-Levels.

    The way things are done in the UK is very different to the US. The whole degree is structured differently and it's not just because of the general education requirements which American colleges have.

    At a UK university, you'll start with physics and math right off the bat. If you go for a "with theoretical physics" variant, you'll probably spend less time in the lab and more time taking math courses. UK schools tend to have a much less flexible system than their US counterparts. The courses are generally fixed and it isn't until the later part of the degree (usually the 3rd year of the BSc/MPhys/MSci) that one gets the chance to pick some electives. In the US, what happens is one gets to choose what courses to take and when to take them, depending on availability of courses. For example, if one feels like they want a more thorough approach to PDEs, they'll take the PDE course that the math department offers. Of course, to graduate with X degree, one will have to satisfy certain requirements but even then, there's more wiggle room than at UK universities. Nothing is set in stone. One will rarely (if at all!) find "Physics with theoretical physics" or "Physics with a year in industry/abroad" or "Physics with molecular chemistry" degrees. Instead, one can satisfy all the requirements for their physics degree and then take whatever courses they'd like on the side. No messy transfers required - just register for the course and take it!

    Another factor is that UK students are generally required to write a bachelor's thesis to graduate, while this is a practice that is not widely adopted in the US. More often than not, the thesis is optional. A few schools, Princeton and some liberal arts college for example, have a thesis requirement. However, getting research experience *is* possible. From what I gather, that's available through either REUs (research experience for undergraduates) that one can apply to or e-mailing a professor and asking.

    In any case, what I've noticed is that UK universities do not have their syllabi online. Everything is very well hidden. With the exception of Cambridge, I have not seen any uni which has that kind of information easily accessible. So, on the surface, every physics degree looks pretty much the same. I'd be willing to bet big that the differences are actually more pronounced...

    I don't know the specifics how PhD admissions work in the UK. I stopped looking once I realised that: a) funding is scarce, b) not a big fan of the British system and c) I'd better start and finish an undergraduate degree first, and then worry about that stuff. One thing I do know, though, is that Cambridge's "Department of Applied Math and Theoretical Physics" *require* that one complete Part III of the mathematical tripos for admission their PhD program. Part III is the 4th year of their undergraduate math degree, where one can take lots of math and theoretical physics classes. It's actually 9 months, if I recall correctly. I'd guess that this says a lot of DAMTP and what they think of preparation that's not from their own department.

    P.S: The OP is talking about undergrad degrees.
  5. Aug 6, 2012 #4
    For undergrad, the British rankings decently correlate to the 'best' places.

    Undergrad syllabus really is quite similar everywhere due to accreditation requirements. Weaker universities just don't offer physics. This is possible because all British universities cost about the same for home students (more so before this year) and the distances are very small, so pretty much everyone can go to the best university they are accepted to for physics. The difference at better universities is that you may be have to/be able to take more and harder options, or sometimes have harder courses as core component (for instance, GR is core at Oxford and Cambridge, but not at most other places).

    Cambridge maths with physics is probably the best physics undergrad in the UK. Their straight physics degree is also of a very high standard, but you will have to study two unrelated science subjects in the first year, which may or may not appeal. Oxford and Imperial offer probably the two next best syllabuses in England.

    For British PhDs, they are not "programs" like in the US, you just go right into research. There may be a small taught element from people working in the group, but it's nothing like at undergrad, and there are no 'quals'. The advantage of this system is you go right into research, can't get 'weeded out' based on exam grades after being accepted, and you get a PhD more quickly. Partisans of the US system say people leave these courses with less knowledge. Partisans of the British system say the US only has years of coursework to make up for the highly variable standards of teaching at its non-specialised undergraduate level. I won't comment on that, because I've only seen one side of it.

    One thing to bear in mind is that people in the UK aren't as crazy as in the US. You probably won't meet a lot of people trying to build their graduate "profiles" years in advance, and undergraduate research experience other than your final year dissertation is still something that's somewhat unusual and cool. Different universities have different levels of support for this. The advantage is if you apply for PhDs in the UK, you won't be expected to have as much of this stuff. The disadvantage is you may look weak applying for the US - or maybe not, since if you are a crazy profile-builder, you'll have less competition for undergraduate research experience.

    Nb also, Scotland have a different system to England, and I don't know much about that.
  6. Aug 7, 2012 #5
    Why would you say Imperial's undergraduate physics program is stronger than say, Queen Mary's, KCL's or Lancaster's? Again, none of these universities have their syllabus readily available online. I'd be curious to know how you came to that conclusion.

    I've heard of people who do their PhD's in England continuing to work on that same thing after, usually in a post-doc. While in Holland (and I think Germany) and the US, once one defends the thesis, there's nothing more to be done and one moves on. Is there any truth to that?
  7. Aug 7, 2012 #6
    Apart from knowing people there, the syllabuses are readily available online, eg. KCL's from following straightforward website links: https://www.kcl.ac.uk/nms/depts/physics/Induction/UGhandbook-2011-12.pdf [Broken]

    QMUL: http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/undergraduate/physics and http://ph.qmul.ac.uk/intranet/undergraduates/programme?id=F303

    Lancaster: http://www.lusi.lancs.ac.uk/OnlineC...tudy/Programme.aspx?course=001151&Year=000113

    Imperial: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/ugprospectus/facultiesanddepartments/physics/coursestructure

    The core content is very similar everywhere. The only notable difference I've seen is some places treat general relativity as a core course, and others not, but I think this is more a matter of taste since GR will never be used by most PhD students. The main difference between programs is the number and difficulty of option courses (though if you want, you can probably avoid the harder ones anyway).

    The biggest difference in degree difficulty in Britain is likely to be in the difficulty of the exams and harshness of assessment, but this is pretty much an unknown for students. One way might be to compare the proportion of 1sts awarded with the average number of UCAS points of entrants (http://unistats.direct.gov.uk/), though that's not a brilliant method either.

    For PhDs - I'm on the opposite end of that, so I can't comment too much about what people do after their PhD. I'd guess what you've heard is probably due to the method of funding. You get 3.5-4 years of money without any teaching or research obligations, but once it runs out you either better have savings or get a job outside of university. If your project takes 5 years and the group thinks it is important, they are likely to hire you to continue with it as a post-doc. None of that has anything to do with awarding the PhD, though, so you would still need to have made substantial original contribution from your work so far, and if you want to go elsewhere with your PhD at that point, no one can stop you.

    edit: MSci/4th years work slightly differently. I haven't noticed any significant difference in content anywhere, including Oxbridge, but the research project is half the degree (and imo the most important part), so it matters whether the university you go to has a lot of good researchers, and whether they're in the field you want. Universities also have different methods for allocating students to projects.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  8. Aug 7, 2012 #7
    If you're doing undergrad then the rankings are meaningless. What matters in undergrad is the curriculum and that the school in general has an ok reputation in teaching and grading. Afaik the rankings are formed based on research and not in terms of "quality of degree programmes". So the more publications and the more "important" research a facility does (the rankings usually focus on natural sciences), the higher it's ranked. The ranking tends to correlate with budgets and the amount of professors and researchers though, so it usually leads to that the facility has more extensive course options and obviously also more research funding.

    In terms of a PhD, you can obviously move to whereever they're doing research that is in your own field and which interests you.
    Last edited: Aug 7, 2012
  9. Aug 7, 2012 #8
    Cool! (for those interested: skip to page 50)

    Thanks! Never found those before. I think Manchester has such info as well.

    At first glance, the first three programs look pretty similar! Does content remain the same even further down the rankings? Is that what a standard, accredited physics degree should look like?

    And one can only guess as to what's covered in first and second year "mathematics", "mechanics" or "electromagnetism". I have heard people complain about the difficulty of the program but never been given specifics, as usually it was people talking to prospective applicants.

    Wanted to go there at some point and when I realised that I really couldn't afford their 20k price tag, I tried to see if I could find the same physics degree (which apparently is "great") elsewhere. As it turns out, most of the useful information isn't available.

    Thanks for the PhD stuff.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  10. Aug 8, 2012 #9
    Imperial did used to also have module syllabuses available but now I can't find them.

    edit: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/physics/courses/ug/course_lists/all_courses/ - here you go

    I'm not sure about the much lower ranked universities. The general course description seems somewhat similar, but little explanation of what is in modules and very few option courses. Maybe that's just the ones I have looked at though.
    Last edited: Aug 8, 2012
  11. Aug 8, 2012 #10
    I would put a ton of stock into the ratings. Just look at the difference in the syalabi at harvard/MIT versus even cornell/Upenn and there is a difference. Ranking matters a huge amount in undergrad mat/physics.

    Look at the syalabi of past courses at the universities. If you are having trouble understanding what the syalabi mean find someone who does. Do not just look at the descriptions/names of the offered courses. Find out what was actually taught/
  12. Aug 9, 2012 #11
    To be honest, league tables are, in my experience, largely irrelevant (at least in the UK). Have a look at what criteria they use; in the past, it was things like entry requirements (AAA, AAB, etc), staff:student ratio, etc, which in reality have no bearing on teaching quality. I went to two universities, one very high in the league tables, the other in the middle, and the one in the middle offered much better education, more thorough lectures, good notes, harder exams, and more realistic preparation for the job. Remember, they don't evaluate how "good" the course is. They can't, there are no subjective criteria to do this effectively. They can only make an educated guess based on class sizes, entry requirements, etc., but that's all it is, a guess. The league tables can give you a general idea of how good a course is, number 2 in the tables is probably a lot better than place 88, but you can't really tell the difference between place 3 and place 15. This year, a uni might be place 20, next year place 5. I haven't studied physics, but I imagine it's the same as for other subjects. I know, it is very difficult to know how to select the right university, but all you can realistically do at your age is to get some general idea based on a rough league table position, your impression when (or if) you've visited the uni, what you've heard from people, and then take a risk and choose one. It's to some extent a matter of luck, unfortunately.
  13. Aug 9, 2012 #12
    The main reason you should pay attention to league tables is if you don't want to go into academia. In business, they are taken seriously, and regardless whether this is for good reasons, you have to take them seriously because other people take them seriously.

    Also, in the UK there is no real financial/geographic bar to university admission, and there's a single central admissions service, so most people do go to the 'most prestigious' university they can. This means that on aggregate, the graduates of the more highly ranked universities probably are better than the graduates of lower ranked universities, albeit with substantial overlap.
  14. Aug 9, 2012 #13
    Yes, that's absolutely true. I should have mentioned that, really. For job applications, the higher the university, the better. Employers look at the tables and recruit accordingly. So, let me revise my advice: going to a university high up in the league tables is often preferable for getting a job.
  15. Aug 11, 2012 #14
    Thanks for the great advice everyone, I'll look into getting a more detailed syllabus for the places I'm considering more strongly. My plan was to get it down to a couple of ones that all seem equally good then have my first choice option as whichever of those ranked highest, but I'm not sure what I should take as "highest".

    Within the top 10 or 15 unis, they seem to all move around on a yearly basis; University A can be a place above B in 2011, then B is 3 places above A in 2012, then A is above B again in 2013 (I don't know how they already have rankings for 2013, but they give them on the website).

    They're just so inconsistent that I'm not really sure what to make of them. The ones I'm applying to are all fairly high up but they're so close together there's no clear ranking of them over a period of time; it changes so rapidly I can't determine an order for them.

    Also, I'm not sure what to prioritise in terms of what they rank them by. Overall? Research? Teaching quality? The overall results will be skewed by statistics I don't care about like entry requirements and how good the SU is, but people are more likely to look at the university's overall rank to judge the reputation of where I went.

    As I said, all the ones I'm looking at are Russell group and they all have reasonably good reputations so I don't know how to go about separating them.
  16. Aug 11, 2012 #15
    You don't need to worry about the exact position of the university but focus more on the general position. So for example, Oxford/Cambridge will be near the top - if you go to say Oxford, no one is going to look at the league table - it will just be taken that you went to one of the best. Similarly for the others - there isn't much difference between positions 3, 4 and 5. If you say "I went to Imperial" no-one will pull out the league table to look up its position in 2012 - most will just realise that you went a good uni.

    I would focus more on the course content. Have a look at the different syllabi. Certain courses will have more core content and others will be more flexible on option courses in your final 2 years. Also, you may have a research portion in your final year so have a look at what research the current profs are doing. Is there someone doing particle physics that you might want to work with? (But don't get too carried away with this...your interests may completely change over the course of your degree).
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