Is there a difference between undergrad physics programs?

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My son is a high school senior applying to a mix of large public (two in-state and one out-of-state) universities, a couple mid-size selective private universities and one Ivy-league university. His intended major is physics (doesn't know what specialty although he visited Fermi Labs and is intrigued by particle physics). Additionally, he thinks that with the volume math courses required for the physics major, he might as well double major in math since it's likely just a few more classes. He also knows that a lot of physics research involves data analysis and thinks taking classes in computer science (maybe a minor?) would be beneficial.

In looking at the courses required at the undergraduate level it seems like the curriculum at most universities are quite similar so is there really that much difference between them? And, when looking at rankings like US News, should any credence be given to them? Is a #34 ranking for instance really that different than #20? And how is a top 10 ranking differentiated from the rest?

I guess this also comes down to money...a private school, even the Ivy after aid is going to be 3x-4x more than an in-state university. Knowing that grad school is in the cards, does it make sense to spend that kind of money?
 

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  • #2
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is there really that much difference between them
Class size
Quality of the teaching
Intellect of the other students

But the most important thing is character and work ethic of the student. That matters a lot more than the name of the school.
 
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Good points.
  • I think class size is a fairly easy metric to obtain...though my guess is that the number drops drastically by the time you get to 300 and 400-level classes. So, does this make a meaningful difference after your sophomore year-level classes?
  • Quality of teaching would be somewhat subjective. I imagine there's good teachers and not-so-good teachers in every department. In fact, related to teaching I would think one thing you might look at is whether classes are taught by lecturers and professors versus graduate students. That's not a dig at grad students, only that if you're paying top dollar, one would hope with that comes being taught by more experienced faculty.
  • Intellect of other students - this is just a wildcard. I can see this varying year-to-year and class-to-class though I'd acknowledge it's generally higher at the most elite institutions. My son is planning (at least at the large public universities) being part of the honors colleges and taking honors sections of his classes. One would think this would up the chances of being in class with other similarly bright and motivated students.
 
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phinds
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Michael, as both you and gmax have discussed, all three of those are important but to my mind, the quality of teaching and intellect of one's fellow students are by far the top two items in a successful college career and both are crap-shoots.

I think you might be right in general about the difference between grad students and profs, but perhaps not as much as you think. A really inspiring grad student teacher can be FAR better than a full prof who really is only interested in his own research and doesn't even want to be teaching undergrads. On the other had, if one is lucky enough to get a truly engaging educator such as Richard Feynman that of course would be the best of all worlds.

The quality of one's fellow students is less of a crap shoot since even 2nd tier institutions will have at least some students who are very much worth being friends with and that is to some extent a matter of choice and effort on the part of your son.

EDIT: Oh, and of course THE most important thing (so much so that in my mind it literally goes without saying and thus I didn't put it in the top 2) is the effort put in by the student him/herself.
 
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Comments:
1. Your son should go where he will learn the most, irrespective of rankings. I went to MIT. Not everyone who is qualified to get into MIT would thrive there.

2. Two majors and one minor is probably incompatible with 4 years.

3. I've had good teachers who were grad students, good teachers who were profs, bad teachers who were grad students and bad teachers who were profs.

4. Don't underestimate peer to peer interactions.

5. There is substantial variation in the material taught at different universities, even if the course title is the same. MIT was not grad-level, but I was much better prepared for grad school than many others in my class.

6. Grad schools look for three things - strong grades, good GRE subject tests, and strong letters of recommendation. A strong letter usually involves undergrad research. "He got an A in my class and seems OK" is not a strong letter.

7. Rankings are a blunt instrument. They capture information, but they are not the whole story. They are also lagging indicators. I know of one place that took a nosedive a decade ago and only now is this starting to show in the rankings. Also, there is a difference between #1 and #40, but not so much between #39 and #40.

8. Your son should come here and join the discussion. It's his future.
 
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  • #6
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My son is a high school senior applying to a mix of large public (two in-state and one out-of-state) universities, a couple mid-size selective private universities and one Ivy-league university.
In addition to all of the good advice above, I'd recommend (to the extent possible during the pandemic) that you and he visit some of the candidate school campuses. It can be important to get a feel for the university and the city it is in, since they can have very different feels to them. Since travel can be pretty restricted right now in many places, you still should be able to take some virtual tours of the campuses and their cities online.
 
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  • #7
hutchphd
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Which state universities? There are some excellent ones.
But I am very glad to have attended Cornell (many years ago). The formal education was good but other things I got there were very important to me:
(1) the breadth and intellect of my fellow students across diverse fields ...my housemate now an important architect...the folks who founded the Moosewood Restaurant were friends...really amazing people everywhere
It was also important for me to know people undeniably smarter than I.
(2) the extraordinary physics faculty: several Nobel recipients (and more future recipients) and a cadre of folks who had developed the initial atomic weapons at Los Alamos. People worth listening to.
I knew at the time it was a luxury and I owe a debt to my parents and the Ivy League system which had money to offer.
That being said it was not an easy nor carefree four years. I have since taught at two State Universities and have seen students blossom and grow remarkably in those environs. The common denominator is love of the subject and the opportunities afforded.
 
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  • #8
Dr. Courtney
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Lots of universities gift grades. A 3.x GPA from those schools is underwhelming.

The top pubic school is pretty good in some states, but not in others. Texas A&M, Ga Tech, and Ohio State are much better than LSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Alabama. (And I'm an LSU graduate.) I've been very pleased with the quality of UGA's physics department having worked with several students who attended there.

No need to pay for Ivy League or top 10. But some undergrad schools are much better launch pads into the better grad schools than others. And some will offer much better research opportunities than others.

I recommend against double majors. A second major is not worth a lower GPA or not having enough time to impress a research mentor. Some good research experiences are much more valuable.
 
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When I was an undergrad, only 3 more classes were required for a math major in addition to the math required for the physics major. However, in my grad school applications with faculty members or job interviews, I never heard one interviewer say, " I see you double majored in both math and physics". I think for sure, a higher GPA, a higher GRE score, better research, or graduating on time (as I did) would impress them more. All employers and faculty realize that physics students are good at math, and whether they have the added words "double major" written on their diploma, they are all treated about the same.

Actually, now that I think of it, there might be an advantage in getting a separate math degree, if by double major, the institution awards two separate degrees. At one time, I applied for a job at a community college and they required a math BS (come to think of it, it might have been a MS in math that was needed, it was a long time ago and I don't remember). to teach their math courses, and did not accept a physics BS, MS, PhD. They said (by law?), they needed a bachelor's degree in math. Other than that, (I took another position instead) I never found the math degree in addition to physics to be helpful.

I do not think there is much difference between a 20th ranking and 34 ranking. However, there is likely to be a difference between say, 15 and 80-th ranking. I have met physics majors who had completed their degrees without a course in quantum mechanics, although this was 30 years ago.

Although the curriculum looked similar in the catalog, I found in talking to some colleagues, there was a world of difference between my education at an undergraduate university (around the top 20 ranked at the time) and theirs (around 140 ranked). During my employment, I sometimes completed classes where the professor tailored the class to the level of the students, (typically co-workers, who were rusty in their mathematics skills after a period of long lay-off, rather than full-time students). The homework assigned and grading was not as challenging ,as when I took a similar class in college.

The point is, even when courses look similar in terms of curriculum and the textbooks used, there could be a big difference in the how the student is challenged, and the ultimate outcome.
 
  • #11
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I'll take a contrary view on a math-physics double major. If your interests lie in a more mathematical area of physics, like GR, taking courses like real analysis, topology, and differential geometry can help. Frankly, I think learning more math is generally better, and if you can pick up a degree along the way, why not?

Personally, I found math courses pretty easy, particularly compared to physics courses. If anything, they raised my GPA.

At one time, I applied for a job at a community college and they required a math BS (come to think of it, it might have been a MS in math that was needed, it was a long time ago and I don't remember). to teach their math courses, and did not accept a physics BS, MS, PhD. They said (by law?), they needed a bachelor's degree in math. Other than that, (I took another position instead) I never found the math degree in addition to physics to be helpful.
In California, the community colleges, by law, require a master's or better in math or a bachelor's in math and a master's or better in a related field, like physics or engineering, to automatically qualify for teaching math. I believe there are still ways to get around it if you don't meet those requirements, so a physics Ph.D., for example, could teach a math course after jumping through some hoops.
 
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Thanks everyone for taking the time to reply. We live in Indiana so the two in state schools are Indiana University and Purdue University both rank the same for their physics program but Purdue has significantly better rankings for its math and comp sci departments. The other public is UW-Madison. Funny enough, my son is happy in colder climes so not only does the weather in WI appeal and its got a well-ranked program, but when he found out they run the Ice Cube research station in Antarctica, he was said, "Where do I sign up?!?" I would class all those universities as "safety schools" for him. The three private schools are all "reaches:" and include Northwestern, Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell. The good news is that we got formal visits in at Northwestern, WashU and Purdue before the pandemic hit and all on-campus recruitment stopped. We paid a visit to IU last weekend during his fall break and walked around ourselves (my wife is an alum so she gave a little tour). That leaves UW-Madison and Cornell.

In regards to double majoring...right now he's purely tossing the idea around. What I can say is that his high school schedule has been extremely rigorous. He's an International Baccalaureate Candidate and has managed to also fit in five AP classes. Most of the universities on the list above offer a generous amount of credit for the high scores he's gotten. Consequently, he's under the impression that with most of his general education requirements satisfied (and then some), he'll have enough time to double major.
 
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  • #13
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I have spent a lot of time working in Indiana. The Indiana school whose undergraduates I have found most impressive is Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Really I think it is a gem...give it a look at least. Something to be said for a smaller school . Purdue is good but has the most depressingly ugly campus (I think).
Of course as I mentioned Cornell was good for me. And lots of snow.....I loved it. And waterfalls......Good luck
 
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I have spent a lot of time working in Indiana. The Indiana school whose undergraduates I have found most impressive is Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Really I think it is a gem...give it a look at least. Something to be said for a smaller school . Purdue is good but has the most depressingly ugly campus (I think).
Of course as I mentioned Cornell was good for me. And lots of snow.....I loved it. And waterfalls......Good luck
We looked at Rose...last year during fall break we stopped for a formal tour and info on our way to WashU in St. Louis. My son thought it was way too small, didn't think he'd be happy in Terre Haute but generally wasn't impressed with the physics program there. It's very small and his comment was, "I think the department exists solely to support the engineering majors." As I recall, Rose has just 19 majors so there's not much ability to change directions without changing universities.

I agree with your assessment of Purdue's campus...especially when compared to IU. A friend of mine did her undergrad at Cornell and Ph.D. at IU. She told me that the campuses are similarly beautiful. That's the attraction of Cornell...top tier physics program coupled with gorgeous surroundings.

To someone else point a little earlier about fit and location, my son acknowledges how great MIT is, but has little interest going to a school that's essentially in the middle of a big city. When we visited Northwestern we also did a formal tour of the University of Chicago. My son walked away with little interest in applying even knowing that the UChicago is closely linked to Fermi Labs and that might afford him opportunities there.
 
  • #15
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It's very small and his comment was, "I think the department exists solely to support the engineering majors."
That is true pretty much everywhere there are engineeing majors.

There is not a huge gap in program strength across the schools lifted.
 
  • #16
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That is true pretty much everywhere there are engineeing majors.
Really? I could see this being true at small engineering-focused schools but do you really think that's the case at a large school like Purdue? We toured Purdue before the pandemic and made it a point to see the physics building and a couple of labs. It certainly seems like the physics department stands on its own legs

There is not a huge gap in program strength across the schools lifted.
Interesting. How would you describe the listed schools stength (and why)? Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3?
 
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Purdue has 60 faculty or so. The reason they can afford 60 faculty is not because they are teaching 100 physics majors. The reason they can do that is because they are teaching thousands of engineering majors.
 
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Point taken regarding Purdue. At Rose Hulman there isn't even a standalone physics department - it's the department of physics and optical engineering. I remember walking through building where the department was located and it appeared there weren't more 8-10 faculty which pretty much means you get the same profs over and over again. It also means there's probably not a lot of ability to explore many specialties like nuclear, condensed matter, quantum and other things.

Would you suggest that a school like IU which doesn't have an engineering department but has 35+ faculty is somehow different (better?) because it's exists purely to support physics majors and research?
 
  • #19
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which pretty much means you get the same profs over and over again
The upside is that those profs get to know you well and can write detailed letters of recommendation. I did my undergrad at a small college with three physics professors. My graduating class had five physics majors. After getting my PhD at the big university in the state north of you, I went on to teach for many years (now retired) at a similar small college.
 
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The upside is that those profs get to know you well and can write detailed letters of recommendation. I did my undergrad at a small college with three physics professors. My graduating class had five physics majors. After getting my PhD at the big university in the state north of you, I went on to teach for many years (now retired) at a similar small college.
I too did my undergrad (in history) at a smaller liberal arts college in IL (it had about 4,500 undergrads). I chose the school precisely so I wasn't a nameless faceless person in large lectures. My experiences were mostly positive but I did find a few downsides including: fewer faculty in the history department meant that not every course I was interested in taking was available each semester...and sometimes a course I wanted to take was only a single section at a conflicting time with something else I need to take. I also found that in general there was a one-to-one ratio of professors to subjects. In other words, there was a single professor who taught Asian history, one who taught Latin American, a modern American and so on. There were definitely better faculty than others but if you needed or wanted to take a class because the topic was interesting but the prof wasn't that good, you were stuck without alternatives. I found my way out of the situation by studying abroad in England my entire junior year. And, for my grad work, I went back to England. Anyway, it's not my intent to disparage small schools. Lots of people thrive at them and it fits them and their learning styles. My son happens to be looking at medium to large schools and that's his choice.
 
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  • #21
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I guess this also comes down to money...a private school, even the Ivy after aid is going to be 3x-4x more than an in-state university. Knowing that grad school is in the cards, does it make sense to spend that kind of money?
Actually Ivy schools have such huge endowments they will always ensure it is affordable to any student that can get in. Harvard for example if you earn $65k or under then it costs nothing.

But getting in is becoming harder and harder. I personally would look at schools with reputations just below Ivy schools and their equivalents like MIT, Stanford and Caltech. These are schools like Harvey Mudd (my personal favorite - https://www.marketwatch.com/story/c...of-gives-biggest-payoff-on-tuition-2015-03-05), Georgia Tech, and Reed College. You find them by looking at lists like colleges with the best return on equity or those that send the highest percentage of graduates to graduate school. Another option is 3+2 programs, mostly set up for engineering, but actually available in a number of different areas like physics, math etc. They are particularly good if you want to double or even triple major.

Then there's the often not considered option of studying in another country. There is the degree I did in math which requires a double major - the second major can be physics (it's not an option now, but when I did it you could do what I did - computer science):
https://www.qut.edu.au/courses/bachelor-of-mathematics-applied-and-computational-mathematics

Or if you really want to challenge yourself there is the advanced physics honors course that involves students in research straight away:
https://www.qut.edu.au/courses/bachelor-of-science-advanced-honours-physics

But if going overseas realise that admission requirements are often different than the US - you don't do SAT's etc its usually based on AP results or even better if you do an IB program.

Another option if going to england, but not in the OP's situation, but for those entering grade 11, is the open plus program:
http://www.open.ac.uk/choose/openplus/about-ou-study/physics

When you go to the English School that is part of the program it is only an extra 3 years to graduate with a Masters. Having a Masters is a plus for entrance into PhD programs.

Thanks
Bill
 
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  • #22
Dr Transport
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schools with reputations just below Ivy schools and their equivalents like MIT, Stanford and Caltech

I think the Ivy League schools are below MIT, Stanford and Caltech, not above.
 
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  • #23
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Maybe we can keep things focused?

The OP has mentioned Purdue, Indiana, Wisconsin, Wash U, Northwestern and Cornell with the last three as reaches. So what are we telling him? More Ivies! MIT! Caltech! Harvey Mudd! Go to Australia!

If Wash U is a reach, Stanford is even more of a reach.

Yes, many of these elite schools meet "100% of need", but I can tell you that there can be a lot of daylight between their idea of need and yours. And before you get the aid, you need to get admitted.

That said, Purdue and Indiana have in-state tuitions of $10,000. The private schools, around $55,000. So if they aren't coming up with $45K in financial aid, it's worth asking the question "Are they better? And are they that much better that it justifies the cost differential?"
 
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  • #24
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I have spent a lot of time working in Indiana. The Indiana school whose undergraduates I have found most impressive is Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Really I think it is a gem...give it a look at least.
Yes Rose Hullman is very good by reputation - it is one of those 'second tier' schools I speak about. Evidently it is the school many who can't get into MIT end up at. And it has it's accelerated calculus program that allows direct entry into second year math:
https://www.rose-hulman.edu/academi...tudent-opportunities/fast-track-calculus.html

And one for math-physics as well:
https://www.rose-hulman.edu/academi...cal-engineering/accelerated-math-physics.html.

Thanks
Bill
 
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  • #25
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I personally would look at schools with reputations just below Ivy schools and their equivalents like MIT, Stanford and Caltech. These are schools like Harvey Mudd (my personal favorite - https://www.marketwatch.com/story/c...of-gives-biggest-payoff-on-tuition-2015-03-05), Georgia Tech, and Reed College.
<<Emphasis added>> Could you please clarify the syntax of the highlighted sentence? Which is your intent?

(a) Schools with reputations just below [Ivy schools and their equivalents like MIT, Stanford and Caltech]

or

(b) [Schools with reputations just below Ivy schools] and their equivalents like MIT, Stanford and Caltech

That is, in your estimation, is MIT the equivalent of Harvard, or is MIT the equivalent of Harvey Mudd?
 
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