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Liberal Arts College then advanced degree in physics

  1. Apr 2, 2013 #1
    I do not know what I want to do. It may be neuroscience, it may be philosophy, it may be physics.

    I want to have an eclectic college experience, and study a little bit of everything. However I'm worried that all of the HYP, MIT, and CalTech kids will be miles ahead of me in grad school if I go to a liberal arts college, maybe major in something other than physics, and then attempt to get a masters/PhD in physics
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  3. Apr 2, 2013 #2


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    It's definitely possible to go to a liberal-arts college and then go to grad school in physics and get a Ph.D. I did it. :smile:

    Major in physics, take at least the basic "core" upper-division courses (classical mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics / statistical mechanics, and do well in them. Get some research experience. Take some initiative and do some projects on the side. (For me, it was messing around with computers, back in the days before personal computers.) At a small school, your profs will get to know you well and be able to write strong letters of recommendation for you (assuming you deserve them, of course).

    If you want to combine physics with something else, get a strong minor in it, or maybe even a double major.
  4. Apr 2, 2013 #3


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    (1) It's certainly possible to go to a liberal arts college, major in something other than physics, and then get an advanced degree in physics. I know people who have done this.

    (2) If you do this, the folks at Caltech, MIT, etc. who focused exclusively on physics will be miles ahead of you. Don't expect otherwise.

    You need to deal with this trade-off.
  5. Apr 3, 2013 #4


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    Many people with a PhD in physics, even some Nobel Prize winners in physics, started at liberal arts colleges. But your undergraduate degree needs to be in physics. You can't get into a physics graduate program with a philosophy degree.
  6. Apr 3, 2013 #5
    Do you have the option of HYP? If so, I'd seriously consider going there. You HAVE to study a bit of everything there to fulfill the distribution requirements, and you have access to small classes and great professors. In addition, you'll have a lot of physics classes that you can take and there's a lot of research happening on campus.
  7. Apr 3, 2013 #6


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    Yes, definitely major in physics if you want to do grad school in physics. Actually, engineering would probably also work, if you can also take the "core" courses I mentioned in the physics department. When I mentioned a minor, I was referring to your "other" field, philosophy or whatever.
  8. Apr 3, 2013 #7


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  9. Apr 3, 2013 #8
    lasymphonie, I probably do have the option of HYP. Top of the class, top-notch test scores, national achievements, tri-athlete, family connections, all that yadda-yadda. But I did all of that stuff for the intrinsic value, not to go surround myself with kids whose lives are their accolades. If you met me, you'd be able to tell that I am the type of kid who would thrive in a very LIBERAL, liberal arts college. Do you guys think St. John's College is out of the question, then? It's a school without tests or anything, it's all about discussion, no GPA's, and all you do is read a bunch of books and talk about them. Apparently when they take the GMAT's, GRE's, LSAT's, etc... they are one of the top scoring schools in the country, but I feel as though with physics it is necessary to get as much background knowledge as possible and there you all take the same classes.
  10. Apr 3, 2013 #9
    I would still go to HYP if you had the option because if you are looking to get into them for grad school it would help given how incestual they are with each other.
  11. Apr 4, 2013 #10
    There's a lot of differences between liberal arts colleges. Top 5 liberal arts colleges like Williams regularly place students into top physics PhD programs. However, many liberal arts colleges like St. John's probably do not offer a sufficient background in physics. You can find where Harvard physics PhDs got their undergraduate degrees here http://www.physics.harvard.edu/academics/phds.html#y2012. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT have the most in absolute numbers but top liberal arts colleges do very well too when you control for the size of graduating classes. Non elite liberal arts colleges aren't well represented though.
  12. Apr 7, 2013 #11
    To the OP, if you're worried about people at HYP just doing things for the sake of it, please give some of these schools another thought as the research opportunities you get here are incomparable (except potentially at schools with similar endowments and large scale research). There are *some* people here who do things just for the sake of it, but those people exist everywhere - including at liberal arts colleges. I'm at one of those institutions and had the good fortune to be admitted to all three, and given that I didn't even consider applying to American colleges until I was a senior, everything I did was out of interest and for its own benefit. Most people I know here are the same and cringe whenever they see people doing things for their resumes. And people here are very quirky (and brilliant!) - actually, you'd probably find that a lot of people here also applied to liberal arts colleges and were faced with a difficult decision, but ultimately came here because of the resources for research and other programs.

    I'm not saying that you should choose a liberal arts college over one of HYP. But definitely give HYP some more thought - these institutions have a *lot* in common with liberal arts colleges, have phenomenal resources, and are filled with fascinating people who aren't as competitive/pretentious/preprofessional as you may think. I'd be happy to answer questions about this offline if you have any.
  13. Apr 7, 2013 #12


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    So, I am not sure why a physics degree from a Liberal Arts college would be an issue here. I don't have a good set of knowledge about Liberal Arts school. However, one of my first undergraduate Summer Intern came from Williams College. He was a physics major, and one of the smartest and brightest student I've had.

    He spent a summer studying accelerator physics, and under my guidance, learned about the physics of Faraday Cup, and then designed one! I assisted him in his interaction with a machinist so that he could come up with a technical drawing to give to the machinist to build this device. We then tested it, and it became one of the fastest time-response Faraday Cup that we have.

    He went on to Oxford to pursue his PhD in experimental high energy physics (damn!!).


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