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Schools MIT or University of Rochester for physics/math undergrad?

  1. Apr 7, 2010 #1
    I am a high school senior, and I have been accepted into MIT and the University of Rochester for undergrad. I plan to double major in physics and math, and go on to graduate school in one of these fields.

    I have 2 questions that I would like to ask here:

    1) If I go to the University of Rochester, will I be less competitive when I apply for graduate school? I suspect that I will graduate with a higher GPA there, but will that be enough to compensate for the prestige of MIT?

    2) Is the quality of physics and math courses at these two universities significantly different?

    I would really appreciate any response to one or both questions. Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 8, 2010 #2
    If you do the same things at the two colleges, then graduate schools probably won't care. Your undergraduate institution to a large extent only shows the graduate school a bit about what you were like in high school, and they don't really care. What they care about is what you're like when coming to study for them and that is reflected in what you did as an undergrad, not where you did it.


    However the standard undergraduate curriculum at MIT and Rochester are probably a little different, so while at MIT you will probably be pressured to take hard classes, but at Rochester you will probably have to push yourself a bit to get the equivalent of what you would have gotten at MIT.
  4. Apr 8, 2010 #3
    Unless there is something specific about Rochester that attracts you to it, it's very hard to recommend it over MIT for physics and mathematics.
  5. Apr 8, 2010 #4
    1) If I go to the University of Rochester, will I be less competitive when I apply for graduate school? I suspect that I will graduate with a higher GPA there, but will that be enough to compensate for the prestige of MIT?

    The school matters less than what you do at the school. If you slack off at MIT, you'll be a lot worse than if you take advantage of all that University of Rochester has to offer. One other thing is that MIT physics graduate school has a general policy of not accepting MIT undergraduates.

    One weird thing about MIT is that you'll probably learn to hate prestige.

    2) Is the quality of physics and math courses at these two universities significantly different?

    Probably not, but you shouldn't go to MIT for the quality of the physics and math courses. There are professors at MIT that are absolutely amazing teachers, and those that couldn't teach a mouse to eat cheese. Professors get tenure at MIT because they are first rate researchers, and a first rate researcher could be a first/second/third/fourth rate teacher.

    The reason for going to MIT is because of what it has to offer outside of class. There are all sorts of interesting research projects, student activities, interesting people to meet, etc. etc. Also, the intellectual environment is just absolutely wonderful if you happen to be an intellectual masochist. MIT will work you harder and push you harder than you thought possible. I think of MIT as something of an "academic marine corps."

    Just to give you an idea of why I am glad I went to MIT. Every student got an e-mail account and access to the internet, and the campus network had things computers with X11 windows.

    Now that might sound like a totally stupid reason to go to a school since everyone today gets an e-mail account and access to the internet. Except that the year is now 2010, and I went to MIT in 1987. Tim Berner-Lee released the World Wide Web on August 6, 1991, and I was probably one of the first people in the world to build a web site. So the big reason to go to MIT is that you get to play with world-changing toys a few years before anyone else has heard of them.
  6. Apr 10, 2010 #5
    Thanks you for your responses. Twofish-quant, that was very informative!

    Here are a few of the major reasons why I'm considering going to each college.

    1) There are less non-major course requirements at Rochester - it would easier to double major in physics and math, and I would have more time for research during the academic year. Also, I don't like MIT's HASS-D requirement - I know that it is a relatively small part of the education, but taking compulsory humanities and social science classes was the reason that I didn't enjoy high school. I'm afraid I'm narrow-minded like that...
    2) Rochester is offering a full-tuition merit scholarship. While my parents are willing to pay for MIT, I don't want to use too much of their money if it's not necessary.

    1) It's MIT!...
    2) As twofish-quant said, MIT is at the forefront of technology.
    3) Being around the some of the nerdiest and smartest college students.

    I would be happy to hear any criticisms or comments.
  7. Apr 10, 2010 #6
    Curiously MIT humanities courses are *great*. It's paradoxical, but because MIT isn't known for being a major humanities school, all of the humanities teachers that I had at MIT where wonderful, because they got hired for their teaching skills rather than their research skills.

    The other thing is that having a very strong humanities and social science background is really, really, really important if you want to do something with your physics degree. You get very strong exposure to "practical humanities" at MIT. Just by watching how people behave, you get to learn skills that will help you become an effective employee or to help you start your own company.

    One thing that you really need to understand about MIT is that it part of the military-industrial power elite complex, and one thing that the military-industrial complex wants are people that with both strong technical skills *and* strong social science/humanities/management skills so that you can someday help run the world. (I get a lot of my ideas from Noam Chomsky.)

    Also the writer of the X-Files has a brother that works as an MIT professor, and that is why a lot of times I was at MIT and I felt like I was in the X-Files. You really do get to meet the people that run the government, major corporations, and the world, and they aren't a bad bunch of people.

    MIT does not have merit scholarships and all financial aid is based on need. Fill out the financial aid forms and take a look at the package before you make the decision since MIT really does want this not to be a factor.

    MIT sucks, which is why it's a great place. One part of the MIT education is to learn to hate MIT. The reason you need to learn to hate MIT while at MIT is that if you get too absorbed by the MIT brand, you stop thinking of ways of improving the Institute, and the world. The nice thing about going to MIT is that it teaches you never, ever, ever to be satisfied with the way things are or the way you are.

    One good thing about MIT is that there isn't an effort to mold personality. You'll find people that are smart but very anti-nerd. Also, one thing that will happen quite often at MIT is that you may find yourself in situation in which you are below average and struggling academically, and that's a good experience to have. It teaches humility.
  8. Apr 10, 2010 #7
    The other thing that's good about MIT is that the teachers really view the students as "junior colleagues" so students are more involved in the decision making in the university than in most other places I've seen.

    I was part of the effort in the late-1980's to strengthen HASS-D at MIT which got me looking at academic politics from the inside, which turned out to be really useful experience latter.
  9. Apr 10, 2010 #8
    I wouldn't have guessed about the teaching vs research skills. I do know MIT has one of the best philosophy departments in the country, beating Yale and Stanford. The econ and business programs are at the top too. I'm sure there are also other highly ranked departments outside of the tech stuff, but those are what I know.
  10. Apr 10, 2010 #9
    MIT is weird because it has a "humanities" department, and so in MIT thinking, language/philosophy (course 24), management (course 15), and economics (course 14) aren't considered humanities (course 21). Most courses in 14 and 15 aren't allowable under HASS-D. This impacts one's world view because I've always thought of lingusitics, management, and economics more as engineering than as humanities. In course 21, there are people in the department that are totally dynamite researchers (Peter Perdue, Joe Halderman, and Rosalind Williams to name three professors that have *greatly* influenced me), but the weird thing is that MIT just will not tenure a humanities professor that can't teach, but it will give tenure to a professor in physics, math, or EE that can't.

    One great thing about MIT is that unlike other schools it doesn't try to pigeon hole you so that you know everything about physics and nothing about anything else. This is why MIT people tend to start companies, because if you want to start a company, you have to know or be prepared to learn about lots of different things. It's also cool because you are studying one thing, and the suddenly you find yourself at the border of another field. For example, you'd think that EE and linguistics have nothing in common until you realize that a "computer language" is a "language" with a "grammar".

    The other thing is that if you go to MIT, it's very unlikely that you will be able to double major in about 8/18 (physics/math). The physics program is tough. The math program is tough. If you are an "ordinary genius" then you'll be able to finish either one and nothing keeps you from taking classes in the other (physics has a math requirement and math has a physics requirement). I've only known one person that was able to double major 8/18 and he was at the "super-genius geek" level (i.e. I wouldn't be surprised if he won a Fields medal.)
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2010
  11. Apr 10, 2010 #10
    Other useful things that I learned at MIT....

    1) I learned that I didn't want a Nobel prize. They that is likely to happen at MIT is that you get to come face to face with a few really, really famous physicists. I've found that some of them happen to be first class jerks (most of them aren't). So after I left MIT, I figured that if it meant turning to so-and-so, then getting a big prize wasn't worth it.

    2) I learned how *hard* and *painful* it is to start a company. There are lots of books about people that have started big successful companies and they talk about how smart and brilliant they are. One thing about MIT is that almost everyone there is trying to start their own company, and by listening to people talk about their experiences, you learn things that you wouldn't learn elsewhere. You have smart, successful entrepreneur talk about the huge mistake they made early on and how things almost blew up and how they ended up surviving by just pure luck. You also meet people whose companies didn't end up being big names, and you learn how that happened.
  12. Apr 10, 2010 #11


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    Wat do you mean by 8/18? The amount of courses in physics/math?
  13. Apr 10, 2010 #12


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    No, those are course numbers. Physics courses are numbered 8.xx, and math courses are numbered 18.xx.

  14. Apr 10, 2010 #13
    why is it that every thread about mit has 16 million twofish-quant posts? we get it - you went to mit... and it scarred you for life.

    don't you think you shouldn't monopolize the discussion?
  15. Apr 11, 2010 #14
    Ummmm.... Someone asked what MIT is like, I start talking about what MIT is like. If someone else has information about what MIT or U Rochester is like, I'm not stopping them from posting.

    The weird thing about it is that going to MIT was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me, so if you think I'm saying "you went to mit... and it scarred you for life" I think you are missing my point.
  16. Apr 11, 2010 #15


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    How long ago was that? How many physics-maths double majors are there annually, and has that changed over the years?
  17. Apr 11, 2010 #16
    something i remember heard about the humanities requirement at MIT and why focusing on technical classes etc was a bad thing:

    or something along those lines. and this wasn't (if i remember) some random person. this was someone actually involved in the curriculum change process.
  18. Apr 11, 2010 #17
    Graduated in 1991.


    2009-2010 you had 56 senior physics majors of which 13 where double majoring in any field, which is roughly the the way I remember it. There weren't that many people that were double majoring in both math and physics, but there were quite a few people that were doing physics and EECS.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  19. Apr 11, 2010 #18


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    Last edited: Apr 11, 2010
  20. Apr 11, 2010 #19
    Yup. However this argument has been going on forever. I was very, very heavily involved in curriculum reform efforts in the late-1980's, and one thing that is funny is when I started reading about the history of MIT I found out that people have been making the same complaint about MIT being too technical all the way back to 1850 before MIT was even founded.

    What a technical undergraduate education should look like is something people have been arguing ever since the start of the industrial revolution.

    It might have been me that was complaining. One of the basic tensions which I found out was that taking humanities seriously made it harder for me to get into the physics grad schools that I wanted to get into. On the other hand, from the point of view of "what has been useful to me in life" it turned out that a background in humanities was a seriously good thing.

    Also one very good thing about MIT is that if you have some ideas about what the curriculum should look like, it's not that hard to get yourself into the committees that decide these sorts of things, and have faculty take your ideas seriously. I don't know of too many schools in which faculty will take undergraduate opinion on some basic curriculum issues quite as seriously as the MIT faculty does.
  21. Apr 11, 2010 #20
    MIT no longer allows triple majoring.

    One weird thing about MIT is that in a lot of schools, the challenge of faculty is to get students to do the coursework. The big thing that faculty tend to be worried about at MIT is that students will work themselves *too* hard, and a lot of the requirements are there to keep people from overloading themselves.

    I remember when I was visiting the campus a few years ago, there was a huge sign above the physics homework turn-in boxes saying "GET SOME SLEEP!!!!" It's odd because MIT is an extremely stressful and high-pressure place, but the pressure really doesn't come from the faculty who for the most part are doing everything they can to reduce stress and pressure.
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