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Prestige of Undergraduate College and Grad School Admission

  1. Dec 15, 2012 #1
    I am a rising senior in a well regarded Pittsburgh area public school. When I enter college next year I will be majoring in Physics with a minor

    (possible double major) in Computer Science. I would like to eventually be involved in research at a major institution and plan to get my PhD in

    Physics. Though I am applying to big-time schools such as Chicago, Cornell, etc. and think that I have a fairly good chance of getting in, the

    funds to send me to such places are in doubt. I have been accepted to the University of Pittsburgh (honors college) and Case Western, both

    with sizable merit scholarships, these are what I consider to be my backups. I am aware that both of these school's physics departments are

    good, but not phenomenal. My question is, if my top tier schools don't work out for me, would high-level grad schools look down on an

    applicant from one of these schools or someplace similar? Would being affiliated with a 2nd or 3rd tier undergraduate program hold me back

    moving froward in my physics career?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 15, 2012 #2


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    No, going to a school like Pitt or Case Western should close no doors to you later down the line.

    There are no set tiers in graduate school. Some programs excel in areas where others do not. Some programs, like MIT or Princeton (etc), excel in many areas. Some smaller programs excel in a more narrow subset of areas. There are people doing excellent research at essentially ALL R1 universities. There are always gems in the rough.
  4. Dec 15, 2012 #3


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    When I was a grad student at U of Michigan, my apartment-mate for most of that time was another physics grad student, who did his undergrad at Pitt. After a postdoc or two he ended up with a research position at the Livermore national laboratory, and was doing well the last time I heard from him which was admittedly several years ago.

    I myself went to a small liberal-arts college in Ohio, with not nearly the same reputation as Pitt or CWRU, and I got into Michigan, which was the most "prestigious" school that I applied to for grad school.

    I'll leave it to you to decide whether Michigan is "high-level" enough for your taste. I once had a T-shirt with a knock-off of the Harvard seal and the slogan "Harvard: The Michigan of the East". :biggrin:
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2012
  5. Dec 15, 2012 #4
    Thank you, tremendously reassuring and appreciated advice.
  6. Dec 16, 2012 #5


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    I think you're asking the wrong question. The question isn't whether you'll be excluded from grad school because you went to a public school. The question is whether the quality of the education you get at Pitt would be the same as the quality of what you got at Chicago. The answer is ... maybe, maybe not. It depends on a lot of factors. People sometimes go to fancy schools and get a terrible education, or the other way around. But at a lower-tier school there may also be a sort of glass ceiling limiting how good your education can be. I went to Berkeley undergrad, and expect my kids to go to a UC, so I'm not biased against state schools. But you should consider whether it's worthwhile to go to Chicago or Cornell if you get in there, and finance it with subsidized or unsubsidized Stafford loans. At this stage, you shouldn't be making firm decisions, since you don't yet know what kind of deal Chicago or Cornell would offer you if you got in. Have you used the calculators on their web sites to figure out your expected family contribution? (Even that is just an estimate.)
  7. Dec 16, 2012 #6
    Thank you for your response.

    I certainly have made no firm decisions yet. When I looked at my expected family contributions the results were maybe/maybe not.

    Also, under what circumstances would you consider it to be not worth it to go to Chicago or Cornell besides the financial aspect?
  8. Dec 16, 2012 #7


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    If I'm understanding you correctly, that means that your family might or might not be able to give you this education without your having to take out loans. I'm not saying you should take out loans, but it's an option you should consider carefully.

    For many students, the limiting factor in the quality of their education is the student, not the school. In that situation, a more expensive school is a waste of money.
  9. Dec 16, 2012 #8
    Thanks for the advice bcrowell, much appreciated.
  10. Dec 16, 2012 #9
    Don't take those rankings seriously. If you want to go to grad school look at a professors specific research projects. If you find one that you like try to establish a relationship with the professor and visit his/her lab. When you visit take time to observe the environment, atmosphere. I made the mistake of appling to schools without visiting them - don't do it.
  11. Jun 10, 2013 #10
    Just a shout out: I don't think the school you go to has any impact on how well an education you get; only you can guarantee that. Ultimately it appears that the quality of your research work matters, not your college grade from some well-reputed college. However, there comes tremendous respect with a name. But that doesn't mean it's necessary, just preferable. Highly preferable. Think about it this way: would you buy a HP laptop or a UncleTom's laptop? But then what if one laptop belonging to UncleTom's company happened to work twice as efficiently as the best HP laptop? Wouldn't you buy that particular laptop instead of the HP one?
  12. Jun 10, 2013 #11
    More or less this is crock; most important learning happens outside of the class room and is individually motivated. As long as there is a diverse range of researchers of reasonable quality in the department, you're in good shape, since the most valuable knowledge you'll gain by far happens (in my opinion, I must qualify) in a lab, not in a lecture. It has far more to do with how hard you push yourself than it does with how the curriculum is composed.

    I go to a top 40 school which admittedly means that the research output is probably hefty, but it's important to recognize that the hardest working students I know obtained competitive REU's at places like Princeton and NIST, while the top 10% here usually gets admitted into a top 10 grad school.

    Basically, ignore bcrowell. For the first two years, go to a community college; just go where the money is. I know many individuals who went this route, some of whom are at top grad schools now, and even a professor. Don't get into debt at this stage of your life. If you get a hefty scholarship to a state school, so be it, but the first two years of education needn't be done at Harvard, given their relative insignificance.
  13. Jun 10, 2013 #12

    Vanadium 50

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    I disagree with A&L - I think you can't compare a Top 40 school with some of the truly awful departments out there. In my youth, I knew of one place that had four professors in the department, three of whom had retired in place, and one who really a CS guy. Nobody did any research. Only one guy even had a lab, and it was a museum. Their upper division texts were Purcell (E&M), Eisberg and Resnick (QM) and Kleppner (Mechanics).

    After 2 years of MIT, I was farther along than their graduates. Maybe even after 1-1/2.

    There are 900 schools that offer a BA or BS in physics. There are 160 that offer the PhD. There is a big difference from #160 to #900 and an even bigger difference from #40 to #900.
  14. Jun 10, 2013 #13
    Alright I concede, I suppose I jumped the gun; you can find lousy physics departments in which even the most talented of us would probably languish. However, I think that for the majority of reasonably sized large state schools and community colleges, you're in good shape, which is what I had in mind.
  15. Jun 10, 2013 #14
    One should also take into consideration that students getting into MIT are not, in the slightest, comparable to students getting into whatever college you described, where introductory textbooks are used as higher level textbooks.
  16. Jun 10, 2013 #15
    That's actually an extremely good point Antifreeze. There's enormous selection bias at MIT. A solid percentage of serious (and completely unserious) physics students think they would love to go there and apply; the ones who get in are typically top of their class (from my understanding). One need only watch MIT lectures or read lecture notes to realize that the education there is completely lousy. Most professors I've seen lecturing are no less lousy than the ones at my institution (with the occasional gem). The exams seem slightly more rigorous... but only slightly, and a cursory comparison would seem to reveal that this washes out third or fourth year.

    And it's irrelevant anyways. MIT students can fritter away their spare time in more challenging courses to their hearts content; again, the meat of the matter happens in undergraduate research (in my humble opinion), and that depends vastly more on the individual student/faculty relationship. There are extremely intense professors where I go, and some very laid back ones.
  17. Jun 10, 2013 #16
    I went to a place like this. Well, maybe not so bad; we at least used Griffiths for E&M, although we used no textbook for QM and I did not have an upper level mechanics or stat. mech. class, due to timing and a lack of available students. I was the only one to graduate with a B.S. in Physics my year, so that should give you an indication of the size of the department (I'm surprised they managed to maintain accreditation.)

    Nevertheless, I largely agree with A&L. Despite my lack of preparation, I still made it into grad. school and finished my PhD. I'll admit that the first year grad. school courses were difficult; mechanics and stat. mech. in particular (I had never had formal coursework using the Lagrangian formulation, nor had I ever seen a Maxwell relation, prior to those classes). Nonetheless, I passed.

    There is no glass ceiling; talent and motivation can overcome a lack of quality coursework. Does that mean I recommend going to a school with a department like that? Of course not. But I also don't recommend mortgaging your soul to attend a named school just so that you can have that distinction on your diploma. Where you go and who you work for as a grad. student is ultimately far, far more important than where you go as an undergrad.
  18. Jun 11, 2013 #17


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    It looks to me like you are just putting down top universities because of your own personal issues. I think it is quite hilarious that you have a need to even put down MIT of all places. What's next? Are you going to say CalTech and UChicago have only a slightly better education than your university? Give me a break.

    The only way to further Ben's points is to have someone who actually went to schools like UChicago, Cornell, MIT, Princeton, Stanford etc. comment here and elaborate on how rigorous / non-rigorous and how good/bad an education they had. Vanadium already commented with regards to MIT.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2013
  19. Jun 11, 2013 #18
    Wow. I had a year's worth of Goldstein and Landau Mechanics, and an upper level thermodynamics course (based on Callen) in my sophomore, plus a full semester course on SM(Kubo, Dalvit) in junior year, so I covered all the things you mention. My department graduates about 4-5 undergrads a year and is known in some circles, but I didn't make it to grad school. What else did you do to convince grad departments you were grad student material?

    CWRU and Pittsburgh both have excellent physics departments and you will not be lacking in research opportunities during your undergrad(lack of this can kill your chances for grad school as I am finding out). I don't think the OP has any reason for concern, take whichever option is most financially reasonable for you.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2013
  20. Jun 11, 2013 #19
    I wasn't actually meaning for it to be taken that far, I just wanted to point out that the schools couldn't be held entirely accountable for how far a student progresses. However, what school you go to definitely makes a huge difference.


    But that's enough Academic Guidance from someone who has never been to college.
  21. Jun 11, 2013 #20

    One can view lecture notes and exams for these schools (most of them) with a Google search. Compare them with other lesser known schools. From doing this myself, I can tell that higher ranked schools have a more difficult curriculum.

    I go to a top 40 school, and my 2nd year physics courses were more difficult/advanced than other small colleges' 3rd year courses in my area. Also, as mentioned already, bigger schools/departments have much more resources available as well as more opportunities for undergrad research and networking.

    My advice is not worry about top10 schools versus say top40, as the pay-off probably isn't worth the debt, but there is a huge difference between top40 and unknown small colleges.
  22. Jun 11, 2013 #21
    3.97 GPA; strong test scores; and (probably most importantly) very strong recommendation letters.
  23. Jun 11, 2013 #22


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    For what it's worth, here are some data points:

    I go to a strong graduate program, it's "ranked" in the top 20 (not that I put much faith in those rankings overall).

    We have students who did their undergrad at Cornell, MIT, and Berkley. We have students who did their undergrad at tiny liberal arts colleges with no PhD programs and only a handful of professors (less than 4 in one case). We have all ranges in between (for what it's worth, I'm one of them. I went to a decent state school).

    While we had to take classes, it seemed that the students who went to stronger undergraduate programs did better on the exams. This certainly wasn't universal, but there seemed to be a trend.

    Once classes were over after the first couple of years and everyone moved on to research, it seemed like this trend was obliterated. Some of the best and most productive researchers were from the smaller schools. One guy had a paper published in nuclear theory within his first year (was the undergrad institution with 3 professors). Not to say that some of the guys and gals from the Big Brand Name Schools didn't also flourish; many did. It's just that there seemed to be little advantage or disadvantage to where they went to undergrad.

    Your milage may vary.

    One may consider that there is some sample bias here as these were people who already were accepted into such a school. Still, I think this anecdote is a nice story to tell.

    As an addendum, I think it's a common trait among many people to want to justify that their Major Life Choices have been the Right Ones. Folks from big name schools will want to feel that their (parents?) money was well spent. Those that didn't (couldn't?) go to better schools for undergrad will want to feel like this didn't hold them back.
  24. Jun 11, 2013 #23


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    This is a brilliant point. Finally someone mentions it! It really says it all and makes light of the biases in threads such as this one.
  25. Jun 12, 2013 #24
    Some more data points:

    I have a friend who went to Case for undergrad physics, and he's doing quite well at UC Boulder. It might not be Caltech or MIT, but it's pretty good.

    As to undergrad rankings, I do think going to a top tier undergrad institution helps. Not necessarily required, but it certainly helps. When I was an undergrad, I went to the top liberal arts college in the country at the time. Even though I only had a 3.3 undergrad GPA, I got into most of the grad schools I applied to, including the one I went to and subsequently graduated from (Princeton). So did most of my fellow classmates. Our upper level coursework used Sakurai for quantum, Reif for stat mech, and Griffiths for E&M. It was good preparation for grad school, and I think that (most) grad schools recognized that students coming from my undergrad institution were well prepared.

    You can certainly get into a good school from a less respected undergrad institution, but you might not have the exposure to some of the coursework that will make grad school a bit less of a shock, you might not have all the research opportunities as an undergrad, and you might have to make your sure GPA is something like a 3.97 :)

    Also, what ZombieFeynman said: once you make it through your classes and exams and move onto research, that stuff matters much less. Most people end up picking a project that suits their strengths and style, and the playing field is leveled a good deal.
  26. Jun 12, 2013 #25
    I concede that I took things too far and apologize if I ruffled any feathers. The intensity of my prior posts was mainly due to my discomfort at the idea of this person taking on debt to attend a top university if a reasonable state university is more financially suitable, which is a routine suggestion; I find this to be an utterly awful idea. Now if there is very little financial burden to attending such a school, I would wholeheartedly recommend it, as there are doubtlessly benefits to doing so.

    For the record, statistically I was in the middle tier of applicants who get admitted to top 10-20 schools, which I think should put to rest the notion that my distaste is due to an inferiority complex.

    However, I think there is a question to address: What is the cost of attending a more prestigious school relative to the benefits? To rephrase my argument, I believe that the additional benefits both do not justify the cost, and can be easily offset. I cannot emphasize enough how much learning I personally believe (admittedly from limited experience) occurs outside of the curriculum. I have discussed this with a few of the more respected and capable researchers at my department; they have never advised me to take a course to learn something when I could learn it on my own. This has lead me to the (perhaps spurious?) conclusion that the strongest graduate students/researchers are capable of teaching themselves what they need. Indeed, I have heard that many universities will reduce their expectations of course grades (within reason) relative to standard exams and research experience when considering graduate applicants. All of this has lead me to conclude that the value of a "stronger" undergraduate education is overvalued... and if this is what you're paying for at Cornell or Harvard or MIT, how much it is worth is a very important question to answer.

    Now, I made the outrageous claim that the education at MIT was "completely lousy." This is true, but only once you've accepted that the education everywhere is completely lousy. The system has not improved in what, decades? Centuries? The social psychologists have figured out vastly superior ways of assisting people to learn, and I don't know of an institution which has done a great job of implementing them; this makes sense, given that teaching is a distant second relative to research. Which is fine in my opinion!

    Some have argued that the superior education is due to the greater challenge students are subjected to. What of it? The best students will present themselves with great challenges anyway, and the more assistance you need to challenge yourself, the less able-minded a physicist you'll be. Self motivation is what really lies at the heart of success in this business, at least as far as I can tell.

    More importantly than any of this, undergraduate education is as far as I can tell mostly a gateway into graduate education. If you want to be strongly prepared, you'll have to prepare yourself; there is a reason that Harvard undergraduates in physics spread themselves out into class rankings, and some of them don't get into top ten schools for graduate school, and the reason is that much of what you do depends on, well, what you do, how hard you work, and the hand of genes you've wound up with.
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