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Studying in Top-Uni in the World?

  1. Oct 3, 2013 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I am currently an undergrad studying Physics in one of the top uni in Hong Kong,
    and I have a question for a long time:
    if I want to be a professor/successful scientist, is it important that I should get a post-grad degree from the top universities in the world? (ie: MIT, Harvard, Oxford blah blah...)

    I ask this question because nearly all my professors in the Physics department got their PhD in universities with pretty good reputation, like UC Berkley, CIT, Caltech...etc; I have yet to see one of them got their PhD even in Hong Kong! or some unknown uni overseas.
    And needless to say, many of the best scientists out there and in history graduated from those top-universities as well...

    So, I was wondering, if i want to get a professorship, or at least get a good start in research, should I work really, really hard to get myself into one of those top uni after i graduate(in 3 years)?? (Now, I am kind of being lazy on my homework because I hang on to my intelligence -_-...)
    If yes, can you tell me why? What are they so good at?? I always think no matter where you study, as long as you absorb the materials, it wont matter who is teaching etc.

    Thanks everyone.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 3, 2013 #2


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    The brand name of the school isn't nearly as important as what you've done.

    It's most important to go to a program that's the best fit (or at least one of the best fits) for you, where you will learn the most and be the most productive.

    Even then, you have to remember that the chances of getting a professorship are on the order of 1 in 10, assuming you complete a PhD.

    I'm not sure what you mean that you "hang on to your intelligence" but being lazy certainly isn't the way to go if you want to progess through academia.
  4. Oct 3, 2013 #3


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    Would you not agree that there is a correlation between high impact work output (in a particular subfield) and the reputation of the school (within that subfield)?

    Pulling an example out of thin air, surely it's easier to produce high impact AMO research at Boulder than at Small Grad Program, Middle of Nowhere State University.

    A number that is frequently tossed around is that 1 in 10 graduates of PhD programs go on to become professors of physics. However, I have observed a number of students who drop out of academia voluntarily after receiving a PhD.

    What are the chances of one becoming a professor should they seek a postdoc with the intention of staying in academia?

    What are the chances of one becoming a professor should they obtain a postdoc and intend on staying in academia?

    Would you argue that these chances are independent of the quality of program one attends?
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2013
  5. Oct 3, 2013 #4


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    I would imagine there is. Bigger schools have larger budgets, have PIs who bring in more grant money, tend to attract more productive students, etc.

    But there are a lot of smaller schools that don't reach that high in the international rankings that do top notch research in particular sub-fields. If you happen to be interested in a particular sub-field you should be investigating the schools that are good in that - which may or may not happen to have a high ranking on a scale that accounts for many factors that are likely irrelevant for the student.

    Further, if the school is not a good fit for the student (eg. happens to have too high of a cost of living, too far away from family or significant other, has no one who studies anything the student is interested in, doesn't offer the extra-curriculars the student needs to relax, etc.) and the student can't perform then a big name won't mean squat - particularly if the student fails out.

    The 1 in 10 is an order of magnitude estimate derived roughly from the ratio of PhD graduates to the number of full time positions in universities. Considering "graduates who continue as post-docs" instead of graduates may change the number to 1 in 5. I highly doubt it would increase the changes to something greater than 1 in 2.

    The quality of the program may have an effect on these chances, but I strongly suspect it's a higher order effect.
  6. Oct 4, 2013 #5


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    While I do agree with the above sentiments that what you do during the PhD counts for more than where you do it with, there are some aspects that this discussion is missing.

    Number one: culture. Now, having lived in Asia for some years, I have observed that it is certainly the case that the name of the university matters more here than it does "back in the West". If you have aspirations to become an academic in your home country, I would strongly advice you to do your PhD in a well known US university. Typically UK universities are not held in such high regard, even if they might top the US ones in some international rankings or if they have the more famed professors of your subfield. As I am no expert of Hong Kong, I'd recommend you to ask your professors or tenured staff as to how much weight they think the name of the university has.

    Myself working at the more theoretical end of the science spectrum, I can say that budget is of little consequence. You should also keep in mind the networking and collaborative aspects. The best equipped labs for this, I'd argue, are the ones with the more famed scientists (of the particular subfield), not necessarily the ones in the most recognized universities. I'm not going to even go into tge politics of publishing your research and getting other scientists to read it. Suffice to say if you are from a random university from the middle of nowhere, the odds are stacked against you.

    I'd say that there is an enormous amount of politics in any human activity, science included, and to best position yourself for the future, you should recognize this and select the lab for your PhD accordingly.
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2013
  7. Oct 4, 2013 #6


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    Quick googling shows that - even if doesn't have to be the top university in the world - Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz is a strong contender.
  8. Oct 4, 2013 #7
    Basically I understand what you guys mean,
    and my biggest concern are still:
    - is PhD a smart investment? or am I just wasting hundreds of thousands?
    - getting into something I want

    Yes, in Asia, fame of your university may mean more than what you are capable of....
    I do agree that what I do is more important than where I study (ie: Einstein); but before I really get to have done something, I need to make sure I am not in a large amount of debt and still starving to death.

    I am very interested in getting a professorship, as well as staying the field (at least for now),
    and I just want someone who has experience to clear the way for me: In case I will be getting a post-grad degree NOT in the top/widely recognized university, would it be better I just forget about getting it?
    after getting a PhD, getting a professorship is one thing (i can still go for other jobs right after under-grad), but I really want to do something in science; if i can't, why bother?
  9. Oct 4, 2013 #8


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    You might want to read the "So you want to be a physicist", especially part 10 on choosing an advisor: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=240792.

    To my understanding most PhD programmes (outside Asia) provide ample funding opportunities for the students: The PhD itself might be a paid position and you will have to sign a separate working contract (separate as in you get accepted by the university to study for a PhD, that's one thing which guarantees that upon completion of your coursework and thesis you'll get your degree, but that the lab will pay you money is in some sense "separate", and you sign a contract to work 40 hours a week or whatever, like a regular job). Or the PhD might be funded by some assistantship, wherein you help teaching some classes (grading papers and tutoring the students and so on) for which you get paid. Or you might get a personal grant/scholarship either from your country of origin or at the accepting university's end. Or a combination of the above.

    Now, I'm guessing that if you play your cards right, you won't be ending up with a mountain of debt. How you would go about setting everything up depends on your personal academic record, your country of origin and on the country where you'd like to go to. I can't really be of more assistance as for the details; you should ask local staff or senior students.

    Having discussed funding, which seems to me is your primary concern, there is of course still the matter of getting accepted and whether you should try to get in in the first place. If you have some experience in doing research, you'll have no problem checking which labs are generally of high quality. A rudimentary way would be to check the lab's website, look at which journals they published some of their recent research in and to see what the impact factor of these journals are. More "advanced techniques" would involve you actually reading the papers and understanding the field to judge the papers by their merits, but this is of course difficult. Impact factors (and h index of the professor) are a decent starting point, certainly better than nothing.

    If it turns out that one of the leading professors of the field you are interested in happens to reside in your current university, then by all means try to go for that lab. Even if the professor might not be at the very top of the ladder, you might find out from his recent publications that he collaborates a lot with the US professor that is the leading figure of the field. Maybe the professor in HK was a student of his/hers. Having connections through your professor to the top universities in the US might pave way for a post-doc there once you graduate, if you feel that it is important to go there at some point.

    What I am getting at is that if you eventually want to work in Hong Kong, you need to discuss with a person who understands the system by which staff positions there are filled (for example, a science scandal pertaining to just this was recently uncovered in China: http://www.economist.com/news/china...earch-leading-academic-fraud-looks-good-paper). If they say that going to the US is imperative, then try to figure out if it is important to get the PhD in the States, or if a post-doc there is viewed with similar reverence.

    Anyway, I think, or at least want to believe, that if your PhD thesis (and work after the PhD) is good, which kind of does require you to work at a good research group (thus my focus on selecting one earlier in this post), you will have a chance at an academic career, no matter where you are or where you did your PhD.
  10. Oct 7, 2013 #9
    Ok thanks for the detailed reply, I am checking out the link "becoming a physicist" in the forum, I hope I will see the way soon.
  11. Oct 7, 2013 #10
    I doubt it matters much if you've gotten somewhere in the top 20-40 at the very least, and seems to matter more as you fall further outside that range. Strictly speaking, the higher the better but with diminishing returns and relative advantages which a linear ranking system cannot elucidate (i.e. U of Maryland is not #1, but it's biophysics program is superior to multiple top 10 schools).

    So the ranking seems to make a difference, but you do not need #1-5 to make it; that said, even if you go to #1 that's no guarantee of a research professorship, as multiple commentators have pointed out that such careers are difficult to come by.
  12. Oct 19, 2013 #11
    I will go wherever there is any opportunity...
    btw, what do you guys know about Germany? I heard that they have a shortage of workers and techs?
  13. Oct 19, 2013 #12


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    Germany is fine if your primary goal is learning. However, the PhD programs work very differently than in the US. There are some more-US-style graduate schools coming up; but until recently you were expected to already have finished with your graduate level course work when you apply, and you were expected to have some independent research experience (both done via a Diploma or Masters degree). On the other hand, you normally are employed as regular scientific staff at the university, so you do not only have to pay no tuition, but actually get paid a good salary and get the full German social benefits.
    Note, however, that the PhD programs themselves are rarely well formalized; they could consist of anything from 100% research (and no teaching) with the best researchers in the field, to large percentages of teaching and not-exactly ground breaking research. Basically, you need to look up the professors you'll apply to, and see if they are a good fit for you. Even better if you can meet them at scientific conferences beforehand. Traditionally, you work with a professor, not with a school.

    For all these reasons the German PhD can be the best possible choice for one person and a disastrous choice for the next. However, at least US schools generally know that, and getting a postdoc position with German PhD is normally not much of a problem, even at first tier US universities (provided that the work you did in the PhD was good).

    But one also cannot completely disregard the ``name of the school'' issue. It is deeply ingrained in many people's socialization, even in researchers who should know better. I was actually quite surprised how large of a difference it made whether my name tag at conferences showed a top-tier US university or a German one (which I considered especially strange because in my sub-field this particular German university is well known to house some of the best and most influential groups world wide---my boss alone had more citations than entire chemistry departments elsewhere). Well, toss a coin :).
  14. Oct 24, 2013 #13
    Like you, I am studying at one of the two good universities in physics in Hong Kong.

    Which field are you interested in?

    From my observation, there are 2 or 3 professors in my university (guess which) got their PhDs in HK on material science/ solid state physics... then got postdoc positions in top universities in Europe and became professors.
    So I think it is not impossible to get a professorship getting a PhD in Hong Kong.

    I had discussions with a few professors, specialised in higher energy physics, on pursuing a graduate study overseas. Their general advice is: Get a PhD overseas when possible if you wanna do high energy physics. You know very well that the graduate training for high energy theorists is far from mature in HK, despite the fact that there are a few world class professors in HK.

    As I heard from my professors, getting a professorship is already very hard graduating from top universities in the US. So you can imagine it is even more challenging to do so getting a PhD in HK.

    The advice I got is that: apply to overseas grad schools in the final year of your Bachelor degree. If in case you don't get an offer, do an MPhil in HK, during which keep applying.
    They said US universities generally prefer to admit Bachelor graduates over MPhil graduates.

    Also, research experience is also vital to the application in addition to the GPA (which is assumed to have to be high)

    Good luck to all of us =]
  15. Oct 25, 2013 #14
    I am not sure which field I am interested in the most yet.

    But given that the number of professorships is so few, I can imagine what it is like out there.
    I am currently taking German courses in my uni, should consider Germany as a destination as well, I hope there are more members on this forum who can provide me with more info.

    Anyway, my GPA is not so high (very screwed up in Year 1), I probably need research experience, internship, attend some post-grad courses...than everyone else to show my ability.

    Good luck to y'all.
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