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Physics programs in top colleges compared to other colleges

  1. Aug 31, 2011 #1
    Hi. I am a junior in high school and have been looking into colleges.

    I want to pursue a career in physics (thinking about the fields of: elementary particles/field/string theory or cosmology/relativity/gravity), but I'm not sure I'll have the credentials to get accepted to one of the top colleges, such as Princeton, Harvard, Caltech, etc.

    I was just wondering whether there's a difference between the rigor and information you learn at the top schools (Princeton, Harvard, Caltech, etc.) and other schools that are still good, but not the best (University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, University of Texas--Austin, etc.)?

    Thanks for your help.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 31, 2011 #2
    Every college is different so you really need to talk to the physics upperclassmen to see what the environment is.

    I have personal experience with MIT and UT Austin. My impression was that UT Austin actually had the "tougher" physics program which tended to weed out people in lower division, whereas MIT didn't have "weed out" classes. Also, MIT has extremely good teachers in the lower division classes, but at least when I was there some of the upper division profs were simply incompetent at lecturing. Great researchers, so the core of the MIT experience is outside of classroom.

    Also, I wouldn't think in terms of best and worst. MIT is very good for someone that is self-motivated, but if you aren't extremely self-motivated, it can be a total nightmare. Also, you are sunk at MIT if you figure out that you really don't like science and engineering, and you want to do something like education or history, or just get a random bachelors.
  4. Sep 1, 2011 #3

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    I think that there are more differences between Harvard and MIT than Harvard and Columbia. So I don't think the assumption underlying your question is correct.
  5. Sep 1, 2011 #4
    Thank you. I'll make sure to do this when choosing a college.
  6. Sep 1, 2011 #5
    I apologize. I'm sure my assumption is faulty. But I believe I conveyed my question adequately.
  7. Sep 1, 2011 #6

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    The point is, there is no dividing line between the way the top schools do things and the way everyone else does things. So asking about where the line is really makes no sense. It would be liking asking "I was just wondering whether there's a difference between the rigor and information you learn at the schools whose name begins with A-L and the schools whose name begins with M-Z."
  8. Sep 1, 2011 #7
    I don't think you should worry so much about getting to a top school. I go to a very crappy school overall, and our physics dept. doesn't even have a graduate program. That said, there are people who leave here with 1, 2, and sometimes 3 papers published, and some pretty prestigious internships (and make no mistake, the students will do the bulk of the work, it's not as if professors are just being nice here). I won't lie to you, I can count the total number of people who have done this sort of thing on one hand, but these people work phenomenally hard to learn physics (talking about doing maybe 6 or 7 hours some days). There is one class here for each discipline of physics, and one class only (that is, no Quantum II, no electrodynamics or separate electrostatics, just E&M, etc.), so those of us who really want to learn physics will do so by other means. What stops people from learning quantum mechanics? Oh well there's this and that prerequisite. And? You can order a book on quantum field theory and perhaps take it to a professor, and if you're convincing enough they'll go through it with you (all you need to show is that you're willing to work hard). Or, if you're sufficiently resourceful and prepared, just do it yourself. This is a *huge* part of graduate school, so the more experience you have with grinding through things on your own the better I think.

    Point is, if you're looking at getting into Caltech, you won't be going to a school like mine, but if we can do what we do here by working our asses off, you'll be perfectly fine going to a school that's near the top. Also, you can go to Caltech or MIT and not work hard enough.... see the pattern here? Hard work is what you need, and yes brand names help but it's not the end of the world if you can't get to one. Stop worrying!
  9. Sep 1, 2011 #8
    People should worry about getting into a school in which you will learn physics. An undergraduate physics degree from North Podunk is better than burning out at Caltech/MIT.

    That's not true.

    Take a physics department like William and Mary. It's small and cozy and very good at what it is good at. You can fit all of the graduate students, undergraduates, and professors in one room, and there isn't much social distance between them. By contrast, MIT is "big science" incarnate. It can be a very cold and lonely place if you don't find a niche in which you can fit in. So someone that thrives in "small and cozy" could find themselves in a lot of trouble in "big and lonely."

    Also one of the things that the MIT administration really tries to do is to get students from studying too hard. People that get into MIT are extremely driven, obsessive people, which is a good thing, but it can be a bad thing if taken too far.

    If you don't work hard enough, you won't get in.

    The people that I know that ended up in trouble at MIT weren't people that didn't work hard enough. The admission department gets rid of those. The people that I know that ended up in trouble are people that worked *too hard* and burned out.

    One difference between "prestige schools" and others is that if you are a physics geek, it's not terribly hard to be one of the smartest people at your school.

    At MIT you are likely to be average or below average, and that takes some getting used to.

    It's possible to work too hard. One good thing about MIT is that you are giving the chance to work at your physical and mental limit. However one consequence is that you learn what you do when you hit your limits. One thing that I hate about a lot of places and I like about MIT is that at MIT you have tremendous freedom, but you can (and probably will) get yourself in some trouble if you have given freedom.

    Also, I think it's important to worry, but you need to worry about the right things.
  10. Sep 1, 2011 #9
    Yup. MIT is like Canada. A large part of the Canadian identity is "we are not the United States" and a large part of the MIT identity is "we are not Harvard." If Harvard people, start winking with their left eye, the MIT will wink with their right eye just to be different.

    I think the biggest difference between MIT and Harvard is that Harvard tries to inflate their student's egos whereas MIT tries to deflate their students egos. Harvard tries to maintain the status quo whereas MIT tries to subvert it.

    I took courses at Harvard, and while I respect the Harvard way of doing things, I would have hated going there as an undergraduate.
  11. Sep 1, 2011 #10


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    Really, why? You'd think when applying to MIT the person would be aware of what he/she is getting into right? For me, personally, it would be impossible beyond impossible to get into MIT but in the incredible off chance that I did get in I think I would know that the other people going to MIT are geniuses.
  12. Sep 1, 2011 #11
    Not necessarily, I have a friend who was accepted into MIT, top of his class in high school with perfect grades. He got into MIT and was so depressed he was suicidal at the end of his first semester precisely ; hurt that he never reaches out to anyone except his adviser and he decided to purchase a single person dorm as a freshman.
  13. Sep 2, 2011 #12
    Most people don't, which is why I talk a lot about this subject.

    There is a fair degree of randomness in admissions, and one thing that the MIT admission department is trying to get rid of is the "well I'd *never* get into MIT" attitude. If you have a 500 on the math SAT, then you aren't going in, but if you do reasonably well in the standard high school track and if you have decent SAT math score (650+), then you aren't excluded.

    But you might think that you would fit in because you are also a genius (after all you got into MIT). The problem is that 50% of the people are going to be below-median, so you have to get used to being below average.
  14. Sep 2, 2011 #13
    It's pretty common. One good thing about MIT is that people will tend to leave you alone and no one will tell you what you need to do, but sometimes you don't want to be alone and you need someone to tell you what to do.

    I think that people who go to Harvard or Princeton are less prone to this because Harvard and Princeton tend to mold their undergraduates, and there are a lot of hidden messages to remind you how smart you are because you got into Harvard or Princeton. At MIT, the message is that you are an idiot which can hurt until you realize that everyone there is an idiot too.
  15. Sep 2, 2011 #14
    I get that everybody will probably experience something slightly different but what is the big deal about MIT (or any other "top college") anyway?

    I know you've talked about "replicating the MIT experience" elsewhere but why do you think it's such a big deal? I can understand how everybody on the outside can think it is, even I thought it is. The more I read about "top colleges", the more I see them as "just any other university" with, perhaps, a few extra perks. Perks that aren't necessarily exclusive to just that place, from what I gather.

    One of the perks that I think is really great is the industry links. I hadn't heard of any Physics graduate who's working for McKinsey. And getting that kind of gig, without help, is hard, considering one will be competing with people who have that edge. Is it impossible though? Maybe for McKinsey but what about XYZ business consultancy firm in X developing country, that will get you more or less, the same salary and job environment of McKinsey? Maybe I'm just naive...
  16. Sep 2, 2011 #15
    A lot of articles that I read say that it helps to get into one of the best schools. I was just wondering whether there's much of a difference between the best school and the schools that are good, but not the best. I figured that some people on this forum would have experience and be able to help me out.

    I was not necessarily asking where there is a dividing line, I was just wondering whether there's a significant difference. I may not have been clear in asking this.

    But, I do not want to argue about anything. I apologize if I seemed to be asking a question that has no validity. Thank you for your help.
  17. Sep 2, 2011 #16
    I like how you said that there's nothing stopping me from learning what I want to learn. I guess what I was/am worried about is whether I'll be able to get the same education and the same recognition. But I suppose if I work hard, learn what I want to learn, and prove that I am as bright as I like to think I am, I'll be able to realize my goal of becoming a physicist.
  18. Sep 2, 2011 #17
    Yeah, there was some other stuff I forgot to mention. My previous post mainly dealt purely with a generalized view of what you can do based on where you go to school, ignoring mentality and other similar factors. I'd like to say something about that too.

    Going to school here has lifted a lot of pressure that I feel like people who go to bigger schools with more renowned physics departments might feel. It's a scary feeling to walk into a department, meet a bunch of extremely smart people, and then wonder if you're just damn silly to think you could ever get to be where they are.

    This will always be a feeling that you'll have going in, but how does it feel when you're coming out, or in it? That depends on the department. Mine, like I said, has no graduate program, and the professors who do research here try to make it accessible enough to undergraduates. Most undergraduates will never be useful in research, mostly because students don't learn the proper material until their 3rd and 4th years. Still, professors here try to help everyone they can because really good/motivated/smart students are somewhat rare here.

    I know some people in some bigger departments though, and I've visited plenty (even worked at one for a while at a collaborator's institution). It's scary having all of these big-shot scientists, some of which may have ego problems, others who may be the nicest people in the world but are so much smarter than you that it's visibly painful for them to try and not be insulting to you when you ask them a question (infact the latter is from my own experience when talking to a string theorist last year when I was a freshman). Talking to postdocs and graduate students can be disheartening sometimes, because it may seem that they too know so much more than you could.

    Beware, I'm not saying that studying at a department with these characteristics (postdocs, grad students, and overall huge departments) is a bad thing, certainly they're very humbling experiences but you can learn tremendous amounts from just hanging around postdocs and grad students and listen to them talk about what may sound like gibberish to you [at first]. However, realize that this does happen (you feeling like everyone's talking gibberish), and recognize that your abilities as an up-and-coming physicist do not rely on your [in]ability to Feynman your way through and impress everyone at every moment. Speaking of, even Feynman would work weeks on a problem that, when he'd consult his adviser (Wheeler), would tell him right off the bat why his assumptions were wrong, or the much simpler approach, or something like that.

    So yeah, two fish says it's important to worry about the right things. I think that worrying about what school you go to isn't worth stressing too much about, but if you try and gain some perspective when you get to wherever you're going, you might be able to avoid disaster.
  19. Sep 2, 2011 #18
    Good to hear this. (Also good that the subject of the discussion is back on course.) I hope that this is true, that "top colleges" are the same as any other college, but with a few perks that are not even exclusive. Does anyone else have a take on this?
  20. Sep 2, 2011 #19
    OK. I suppose it is not worth stressing about the school. Now that you pointed it out, it would be good to have a professor that is able to be attentive to his student.

    Referring back to my original question, I've taken from the discussion that there's not much of a difference (in terms of the learning portion) between the big name schools and other schools that teach physics. It seems that the difference is in the atmosphere of the college and the way things are presented. Is anyone in agreement with this? Does anyone have anything to add to this?
  21. Sep 2, 2011 #20
    There are a lot of details to consider. I wouldn't say that, based on my experiences, you should be looking to go to a crappy department. At the same time, maybe going to Harvard might give you a false and inflated sense of self worth and ability. It all depends on how your mind works in terms of learning, emotions, etc. For example, another perk about being in a crappy department is that I learn better by not going to classes and just reading a book, then asking people and talking to them about it. In a more rigorous class at a tougher school, this would never work, and for some good reasons. I learned zero differential equations when I took the class on it. I finally started to learn it when it was required in the context of physics. You can see that certain ways of learning don't work for me (I can't sit in a math class and learn as well as I can in physics, I hate being lectured for too long when I'd rather read, I'd rather not have the pressure of grades motivating me (I think that gives the wrong kind of motivation), etc.).

    The easiest thing to do is just to try and get to somewhere that's decent at physics, and then assess your situation and adapt appropriately (instead of the more common way of trying to find 'fit', which is a good thing to try and do but there is never enough information available about the intangibles so the process is never accurate enough unfortunately). Also remember to keep your sanity the whole time, and don't get too bogged down with worrying about how smart you are or aren't.

    EDIT: One little thing that I would try to do is at least go somewhere that has ample research positions available for undergraduates. That will be fairly important in your physics education. You can email/call/visit professors in the dept. and talk to them about it beforehand if you wish (which is what I did the summer before I got here).
  22. Sep 3, 2011 #21
    OK. Thank you.
  23. Sep 4, 2011 #22
    Because for the right student, MIT is a really, really great place to learn science and engineering, and it's a shame that the admission rate is only <10% and not everyone that could benefit from the place can get in.

    If you don't have the social networks, you'll have to work twice as hard to get half as much. I'm not sure I see the point here.
  24. Sep 4, 2011 #23
    In fact, there is. You can learn a lot by going to the library, but it's not trivial to put together a good research library.

    This is one of the things that you shouldn't worry too much about. Let's suppose you find out that you'll get a lot better education and recognition of you go to Harvard, but you didn't get in. Now what? Are you just going to give up?

    In fact, you should go into the game knowing that it is unlikely that you are going to be a research professor no matter where you go.
  25. Sep 5, 2011 #24
    Most MIT undergraduates start undergraduate research either freshman or sophomore year. Part of the good thing about MIT being so very heavily research oriented, is that the professors do a pretty good job of finding something that you can be useful for. This is one part of the MIT educational philosophy, rather than worry about whether you are good enough to do something, they just dunk you in the water.

    When I was at MIT, it was just at the start of the internet revolution, so you had a lot of tenured faculty that knew physics back and forth, but had never used a Macintosh and really had no idea how, and putting some bright freshmen that had grown up on microcomputers and could do things like run simple regressions on excel spreadsheets could really help things a lot.

    But it's part of your education. You quickly figure out what professors and grad students are jerks and which one's aren't, and you don't bother asking them questions. Also it works they other way, a string theorist might know more about string theory than you do or ever will, but it doesn't take that much effort to find something that you know more about than they do.

    One of the more interesting experiences that I had at UT Austin was when I as at a lunch, and you had this Nobel prize winner ask me about my research. It was pretty obvious after a few minutes that he knew nothing about my dissertation topic, but why should he? He didn't get his Nobel prize in my area, and he was asking me questions, because he was interested in learning about what I'd spent the last few years studying.
  26. Sep 5, 2011 #25
    And that helps sometimes.

    One thing that I've noticed about Harvard people is that because they are supremely confident and arrogant in themselves, they tend to give up less. Someone that didn't go to Harvard might be always questioning whether they are good enough, but people that go to Harvard tend to think "I went to Harvard dammit, and if I didn't get that job, then the interviewer was an idiot, and I'll get the next job."

    You have a bad day, things are going badly, you talk to your Harvard friends, and they pump up your ego so that you go back and fight some more.

    That happened a few times with me at MIT. MIT has world class research abilities. It's not a teaching university, and some of the professors are (or at least when I was there) were dreadful.

    One other thing that I thought was cool about MIT is that most of the professors I knew had some side-project or side-business brewing in their garage. There was one that was working on a business to sell home radium detection kits. Another was working on software to help fishermen catch fish, so you not only got a education in physics, but one on how to start your own company.
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