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Schools Physics at a liberal arts college(among many other concerns)

  1. Jul 26, 2017 #1
    So I'm a recent high school graduate about to go into my freshman year of college. Although I'm having serious internal conflicts about what I'm doing. I've always wanted to study physics since I was eleven years old, and taking math and physics courses in high school have done nothing but fortify that yearning to learn more about the natural world. I'm just worried I don't know what I'm getting myself into. I was never a particularly gifted student; I got a 30 on my ACT and barely made it through my advanced placement calculus course this year (I didn't even take the exam knowing I likely wouldn't score well). Despite this I managed to test into my school's calculus II course. I wanted to start in calculus I out of fear I would struggle too much in calc II, but the math department head insists I begin in calc II. Now I'm extremely nervous that I'm going to flounder my first semester in college. Should I be worried? On top of that I'm concerned I made the wrong choice in what school I chose to attend. When I began my college search, I asked my physics teacher for advice (he taught both of my advanced placement physics courses) and he told me I ought to opt for a smaller four year institution if I'm going to study physics and/or the sciences in general, as he attended University of Michigan for his undergraduate schooling and recalls how the professors often saw teaching undergrads as an unnecessary burden and seemed to really only care about their research and grad students. So I applied to many schools, both large public and small private, and the school I chose to attend offered me a generous scholarship and was also quite prestigious based on the college boards average ACT scores and high school GPAs it had on file for their incoming students. It's a small liberal arts college, and I'm starting to have doubts partially just because of the bad rap liberal arts colleges usually receive (not a day goes by I don't see a "you know you went to a liberal arts college when the greatest use of your degree is a paperweight/door stopper" joke on Facebook) and because many other fellow high school graduates I know that are going to school to study the sciences are opting for technical schools or large public universities, and it seems to me those schools have a lot more resources at their disposal for their science students. I mean, do my fears have merit? Are there some employers and/or grad schools that would look down on me if I had a physics degree from a liberal arts college rather than a university? My school does provide ample research opportunities and internships for its science students. It also has a chapter of the Society of Physics Students. I'm sorry to just vent my apprehensions on this forum and for this ridiculous wall of text, but I simply am lost as to what to think.
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  3. Jul 26, 2017 #2
    The first thing I want to say is it's going to be alright. I was in a very similar situation about 4 years ago. After graduating high school, I was accepted into the NC State Physics dept. as well as the university honors program. It was a prestigious school: it had reputation, research equipment, and staff... and it almost had me. Except, I didn't go to NC State. I went to UNC Asheville, a small liberal arts college in western North Carolina. Whereas State advertised to me incessantly and effectively (dinners with Physics professors, a night in the honors dorms, and more), Asheville did just the opposite. It REALLY played up the liberal arts and humanities angles, and not once did it mention the Physics program, or any other STEM discipline for that matter. I felt wholly underrepresented. I felt like I would never belong in this place, never be able to do anything worthwhile... I thought this place would be a waste of my time.

    But there is one advantage to this small liberal arts university that I encourage you to make full use of. When I was finally as resigned as I could be that this university could not possibly be for me, my dad recognized my dissatisfaction, and recommended we go visit the Physics department on our own. So we did, and we asked if anyone could give us a tour. The man who walked with me through the building that day, showed me the classrooms, the labs, and the electron microscope they keep in the basement is now my mentor and adviser. He offered me my first research job and enabled me to get my second, he read over my grant proposals, he recommended me for countless scholarships, he supported me when I presented at research symposia, and he taught my favorite class to date. But it was our first meeting that day that really persuaded me, despite everything, to go to this university. And I'm not going to pretend that that was the end. I was definitely unsure of my choice at the time... nervous that I has done something terrible. But never once since then have I doubted my place, and my professors are a tremendous reason for it.

    Make use of your professors: go to office hours, talk with them after class, walk with them if they have a class across campus, participate in class always, see if they have any active research (even if it is your freshman year, ASK)... show them that you care more than anyone else. Show them that you care about your education and about what they have to say. Develop a relationship because it is the one advantage you have at this kind of university over any other kind. When it's time to send grad school applications, get hired, or anything else, it will be your interactions with your professors that will guarantee outstanding and nuanced letters of recommendation. Not to mention, most of the jobs you hold or societies you join or events you go to will be at the recommendation of your professors. At a larger university, you have to rely on the prestige of the university's name to float you past undergrad, but in a smaller university, you make your name. So get busy.

    As for jumping into Calc II... do it. You can do it. This is precisely what I did. If you have taken any level of calculus in high school, you will gain very little from taking Calc I. You will learn everything you need to know about Calc I simply through its integration into your physics courses. That said, Calc II will be difficult. Make use of the faculty and any tutoring services offered by your university if you feel you are struggling. Do not struggle alone. Talk to your peers, and to sophomores, and juniors, and seniors: they were where you are, and they will have answers. And for god's sake, read your textbook. Freshmen and sophomores just don't do this because they've never really, really had to before. Know better than them. Read your book.

    Lastly, you are where you are. And where you are, you can do something great. And if you're still worried about the school reputation or whatever, don't be. It's standard practice for grad schools to use the PGRE to gauge your grades against other schools if they've never heard of your school before. The liberal arts university has a bad rap, and it deserves some of that rap, but the STEM is as good as anywhere else. But you can make it better than anywhere else.
  4. Jul 27, 2017 #3


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    Daniel Gallimore gave a great discussion about choosing a school. The one disagreement I have is in the choice between Calculus 1 and Calculus 2. Study the course 1 first will ensure you gain better understanding BEFORE heading into the course 2.
  5. Jul 27, 2017 #4
    No need to sweat about a degree from a small liberal arts college per se. It depends on the particular one. I've known students who got their bachelor's in physics from Wellesley and Carleton who have gone on to top grad schools.
  6. Jul 27, 2017 #5


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    I did my undergraduate at a small, solid but not prestigious liberal-arts college with about a thousand students and three physics professors. There were five physics majors in my graduating class, one of whom was a double major in math who was really a math person. All of us went on to grad school, four in physics or engineering: Michigan (me), Ohio State, Illinois and Tufts, and one in math: Washington U (St. Louis). Two of us ended up with PhDs and got academic positions: one (me) at another small liberal-arts college, the other doing robotics at a research university. Another stopped at a masters in engineering, and worked for a large company for many years. Another one went into technical writing. I don't know what happened to the math person.

    This was in the 1970s, before undergraduate research became a Really Big Thing, but a couple of the profs did have small research projects, and we all did various projects outside of class. Most of my "outside projects" involved computer programming, in the days before personal computers. One summer, several physics and chemistry majors did a research project analyzing water pollution in the area using X-ray flourescence spectroscopy, funded by a grant. I was one of the computer programmers for that group.

    (Nowadays, small colleges are more likely to have ongoing research programs, and there are lots of formal summer research programs (REUs) at larger universities.)

    In general, the physics majors were a tight-knit bunch, hanging out and studying together in the "library" in the department. We pretty much had the run of the department, with keys that got us into the building and most of the classrooms and labs at night. If we wanted to do an impromptu demonstration or experiment, we could go down the hall and pull out the equipment. The profs knew all of us well, and were very approachable.

    I also started out in Calculus II after a placement interview with the math department chair. I had taken calculus in my senior year of high school. Not AP; I'm not sure AP courses even existed back then, at any rate my high school didn't have them. I did well enough in it that he figured I didn't need to repeat the material. I did fine in Calc II and even ended up double-majoring in physics and math.
  7. Jul 27, 2017 #6


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    Definite counter-example to what I said, from jtbell:
    The choice to make between the two, Calc 1 or Calc 2, depends on what you know about YOUR high school Calculus course, what really is the content of the college's courses (Calc 1 and Calc 2) , and how reliable the testing for placement is and the faith you have in the college's advisors. I gave my advice about this accounting for the possibility that, upon finishing highschool having had one year of "Calculus", student may grow weak in his skills and knowledge and will need at least several weeks of review in Calc 1 before trying Calc 2, in order to be ready.
  8. Jul 27, 2017 #7
    I mentor a number of high school students who go on to major in physics, chemistry, or engineering in college. When they ask my advice for picking a college, I advise that they concern themselves with a few things:

    1. Academic rigor in their discipline and in the essential prerequisites for their discipline.

    The required math courses are an essential prerequisite for physics, and the required physics courses are the essential prerequisites for engineering. Academic rigor can be challenging for a high school senior or early undergraduate to assess, so I often volunteer to step in and help them with that. One thing I look at is the courses required to complete a given major. A rigorous physics major should include 1. Three semesters of Calculus 2. Two semesters of introductory physics (freshman physics) 3. One semester each of modern physics and mathematical physics 4. One semester of classical mechanics beyond freshman physics 5. Two semesters of E&M beyond freshman physics. 6. Two semesters of quantum mechanics beyond modern physics 7. One semester each of stat mech and an advanced lab course 8. One semester each of differential equations and linear algebra 9. One semester each of programming and numerical analysis 10. A semester or two of advanced physics electives. While not a strict requirement to check all of these boxes, the more of these requirements that are unmet, the more concerned I become about the rigor of the program.

    Another thing I look for is the percentage of graduating seniors who take the Physics GRE and what their average scores are over the course of several years. This information can be a bit tricky to get, so it takes some digging, and some intentional requests. A related question is how many program graduates are going to graduate school, and where are they going. If there are not many (or any) students going to the same tier of graduate school to which a student is likely to aspire, the program likely lacks the required level of academic rigor. Another related question is how many prestigious graduate fellowships their graduates have won over the years. A good program should have a few NSF fellows, Rhodes Scholars, Fulbright fellows, Hertz fellows, Marshall scholars, or NASA fellows over the years. A school that is batting 0.000 in all these over the past decade is likely lacking in academic rigor.

    I also look at the schools national ranking from various sources (US News, etc.) Rankings are imperfect metrics, but together with other considerations, they can be useful. A school ranked below 100 or so in physics is not a good choice if one aspires to a top 10 graduate school. Rankings do tend to be a better indicator of reputation than actual educational quality, but it's that reputation a graduate will need when applying for employment or graduate schools.

    I'll also talk to a few likely employers of graduates in the area where the school is located. What are their experiences in hiring students from a given school, and what is their opinion of the academic rigor at the school?

    Finally, I'll have a look at the student feedback about a given school, either directly or through online commentary. But I'm not looking for comments that the teaching was great, but rather that the required courses were hard. Undergrads often confuse easy courses with good teaching, so if students don't seem to be facing some significant academic challenges, I begin to seriously doubt the academic rigor of a school.

    2. Research opportunities for undergraduates

    Research opportunities are not a substitute for academic rigor in the classroom. One can get an official version of a program's opportunities by visiting their web site and emailing the undergraduate coordinator. But the availability of these opportunities often gets exaggerated to attract undergraduates. I like to drill a little deeper by visiting the faculty pages of all the faculty and looking at the list of authors from their recent publications. A bit of sleuthing can determine which co-authors on their papers were undergraduates when the research was performed, and a bunch of undergraduate co-authors (relative to the number of undergrads in the major) is the most compelling evidence of undergraduate research opportunities.

    3. Enough faculty in enough disciplines

    If most of the faculty are astronomers and astrophysicists, a student is likely to be underserved if their interests lie elsewhere. Likewise, if most of the faculty are string theorists. I like to see a good mix of disciplines, and also a good mix of theorists and experimentalists. Now, there is nothing wrong with a small department (5-10 faculty members), but they had better be spread out in their areas of specialty. Since undergraduate research opportunities are more common with experimentalists than theorists, if a department is small, I prefer at least half be experimentalists with active research programs. Funding is less important than an active track record of recent publications.

    4. The quality of the faculty

    It's easy to visit the web pages and assess the quality of the PhD programs their faculty graduated from. Schools where most faculty graduated from top 50 programs are more promising than schools where very few faculty come from the better schools. I also drill down into the research records (publications) of the faculty. Google scholar makes it quick work to track most scientist's publications, as well as how many citations their work has. A school with quality research faculty should probably have a range of research records represented. But most of the Associate and Full Professors should probably have a publication and citation record at least comparable (if not exceeding) mine:

    Last edited: Jul 27, 2017
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