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Selecting a College (Physics undergrad)

  1. Jul 27, 2014 #1
    I am in the process of selecting colleges to apply to this fall. I plan on majoring in Physics or another STEM related career. I am interested in receiving the best undergraduate education in Physics possible (tuition is not a consideration). For me, quality of instruction and professors' attention to undergrads is of the utmost importance. Also, undergrad research opportunity is a must, but I am not so concerned with super advanced labs and such as an undergrad. I initially assumed that criteria such as PHD production or return on investment (http://web.reed.edu/ir/phd.html , http://www.bestvalueschools.com/physics-degrees-best-roi/ ) made sense as search criteria, however I am now worried that this may not be true for me. I have been informed that many top rated physics universities such as Harvard, MIT, etc are of course great for Grad School, but not very focused on the undergrad experience... While schools like Harvey Mudd, Swarthmore, Rice, and Case Western will offer a better undergrad learning experience. I have found zero rankings that take into account my priorities as listed above ( which is understandable as I guess it is hard to quantify "professor interest in teaching") 1. Can any current students, faculty, or other advisers comment on the Physics undergrad experience at big name schools (Ivys, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, big state schools etc)? 2. Does the small size of the physics major (at most unis anyway) sort of guarantee that classes will be small from the start, and undergrads can access profs for help and research opportunities? Finally, if a knowledgeable person would like to create a list of schools that do/do not focus on undergraduate learning in physics (assuming undergrad learning=small classes even as freshmen, proff attention to undergrads), it would be much appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 28, 2014 #2
    If quality of instruction and attention to undergrads are what you are looking for (and if tuition is not a consideration), then you should look into small liberal arts colleges and engineering schools that focus undergraduate education. The two I can think of are Harvey Mudd and Rose-Hulman, both very well known for their emphasis on science/engineering and undergraduate education.

    But that doesn't mean you shouldn't look into big universities as well. I believe Berkeley's got a really good undergraduate physics program. They have a Compass program which is where new students get to meet and interact with faculty, upper division physics majors, and get mentorship, a look into various projects and researches and such.

    The general consensus is that undergraduate education is more competent in liberal arts colleges because the professors get paid for how good they teach, than state universities where professors get paid for research. But this doesn't mean professors at large state schools don't care about teaching; the two most passionate teachers I've had were from the two classes I've taken at my university so far (I attend a large state university).
  4. Jul 28, 2014 #3
    Maybe I can add $0.02 because I went to one of the really good state schools (in my opinion) the OP didn't list. I completed my undergrad at UC Berkeley recently, so I will speak to my experience there.

    1. It was the best 4 years of my life. The perk to going to a large school like Cal in my opinion as opposed to a small liberal arts school is the vast swath of friends I made. I made friends in tons of majors from all over. Greek life was an added perk for me. Student life and happiness was big for me - and the weather on Berkeley is great. No winter.

    Ok now to education.

    2. I believe it was a great education. The lower division physics courses were huge (300-400 students), that is because physics majors aren't the only people that take them. Engineers and chemists and all sorts of people take them. That will be true at all the large schools. That being said, I was still able to go to office hours and talk with the professors. They were approachable. After lower division mechanics and e and m, the upper div classes are all under 100 students. Some only had 15 or 25 like second semester upper div e and m. I feel I got a top notch education.

    Research is the 3rd important thing.

    3. Some schools have large labs associated with them. Those schools have countless research opportunities. You just have to be proactive and show interest. That's the most important thing. Berkeley has LBNL. Stanford has SLAC. MIT, princeton both also have great facilities. Even the schools that don't have large labs have ample research. The point is to get you interested, faculty will want to research with you.

    I hope this helps. Especially my Berkeley experience. It was the best 4 years of my life. My resume I built at Berkeley got me into a great phd program (in my opinion). So it's definitely possible from a school like Cal. I have friends that went to Stanford, Harvard, and MIT for different grad programs also.

    In the end, it all really depends on you. What you are looking for in a program. Your life for the 4 years of studying will be drastically different depending on where you go. Each school has it's own pluses and minuses. If you have any questions about UC Berkeley, feel free to ask me :). I'd be more than happy to answer them.

    For physics there are many great schools this list is by no means complete. MIT, caltech, Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, Michigan, ut Austin, cu boulder, UC Berkeley (biased here - so get another opinion hahahaha ;)) ), Yale, UCLA, UCSD, Ucsb. There are many others.

    Last edit: if it wasn't 11:30pm and I wasn't on my iPhone, I would have given you a better post. My apologies.
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2014
  5. Jul 28, 2014 #4
    This is the way I see the liberal arts school vs. big research university debate (and it applies for any science major):

    It is true that liberal arts schools will focus more on undergraduate education and teaching. The downside is that research opportunities might be limited, poor, or non-existent. The direct upside to that though is that summer research programs prefer to give opportunities to students who don't have similar opportunities at their home institution. So it won't be that difficult to make up for a research deficiency at your school.

    Big research schools will always have ample research happening, whether it is easy and beneficial for you to get involved will depend on the school. Another plus is that big schools will offer a larger variety of electives, since there are enough students to take them, and more professors will provide a larger variety of specialties at your disposal. Class size can definitely be problematic though. Having 100 students in an upper division class seems ridiculous to me, even more than 30 or 40 seems like too much.

    I went to a medium sized state school with no PhD program. It was great for research, since there were some very active professors without many graduate students (we had a small masters program), and it was easy to get involved. The downside was that there wasn't much variety in the research opportunities, since only a couple professors had decently sized groups. There were also hardly any electives offered, because there weren't enough students willing to sign up, or enough professors with the knowledge to teach such a class.

    I also did two summer research programs at bigger schools with PhD programs. Both of them seemed extremely undergrad friendly, in terms of how much the professors cared about undergrads getting involved in research. I am not sure what the class sizes were like though. So it just depends. I felt like I got the best of both worlds at the school I went to.

    My advice: learn about programs at both types of schools and you could find one at either type that suits your needs. Don't think that only one type of school could work for you. Colleges and universities vary too much to for you to assume that, even within different programs at the same school.
  6. Jul 28, 2014 #5


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    I go to an Ivy that is pretty well known for physics. What I can say in my 2 years so far is that teaching quality tends to vary anywhere from negligibly to dramatically depending on the department. My physics professors have been amazing teachers for the most part but one or two have been quite bad as lecturers. My math professors have been bad lecturers
    across the board. The only benefits I can think of, with regards to going to school like this with the intention of physics, is ample research opportunities and constant interaction with very smart, highly motivated kids who want to live and breathe physics as much as
    you do.

    The physics classes tend to be quite small, especially if you take the honors track from the start, so you do have the ability to get to know your professor really well which is important because you need more professor recommendations than the amount of research projects you can realistically handle simultaneously with different professors. To sum up: great research opportunities that is very easy to access-I quite literally just email a professor asking to do research with him on frustrated magnetism, or particle phenomenology, or general relativity, and then I'm in; interaction with talented peers; potentially dramatic variance in teaching quality from excellent to terrible.
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