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Undergrad physics program suggestions

  1. Nov 21, 2013 #1
    I am helping my son (who is a junior) begin researching colleges. He has always planned to go into engineering, but is now leaning toward majoring in physics. He knows he will need to get a masters degree, and probably a Phd at some point if he stays in physics.

    When he was looking at engineering programs, he looked primarily at Liberal Arts Colleges with an engineering program (Bucknell, Lehigh, Swarthmore, Dartmouth) or smaller Research Universities (Carnegie Mellon) because he wanted to be at a college that was 7,000 or less. He has a 33 ACT overall score with a 36 ACT science score, so I think he's in pretty good shape in terms of admission.

    So.... our question is..... since most colleges have a Physics department (undergrad) what should he look for to determine if it's a strong department? Again, he doesn't want to be at a huge research university. He'd prefer a private college or small research u where he will have easy access to professors and be part of a smaller community. Are there colleges with a reputation as having a strong physics department? Do we read through the curriculums and compare? Look for research opportunities?

    Thanks for your suggestions and advice!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 21, 2013 #2
    Why does he want it to be small?

    Anyway, I suggest a department that offers upper-level undergraduate classes in classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, and statistical mechanics. It should also have a mathematical methods class (sometimes this is incorporated into classical mechanics). One semester of each is minimum, two or more semesters of any one of them is better.

    Ideally it would have sufficient undergraduate research opportunities. Next best would be if they assisted you in securing REUs. Doing research as an undergrad is a must for getting into a good grad school, and he can start as a freshman. Best case scenario is that he does undergraduate research for four years at his home college in an area he likes and wants to do graduate study in, this is the most likely scenario to lead to publication probably. Next best is at least one or two Summer research stints.
  4. Nov 21, 2013 #3
    I can tell you that Swarthmore is a very good choice. You'll get an education there that is extremely good. You'll also probably pay quite a bit for it :) The department is good and for the most part, active in research. It might lack some research opportunities on site, but most students there do research 2 or 3 summers and often do it off campus the last year or two. Many students get to participate on published articles (sometimes even as the lead author). Also, most of the graduating class in physics each year goes onto very good Ph.D. programs. I'd say it's about 90% of each class.

    The year I graduated, three students went to Princeton, one to MIT, one to Univ. of Chicago, one to Univ of Michigan. Of the remaining three or four students in the class, one eventually entered a Ph.D. program at Univ of Wisconsin and one did a law degree at U Chicago. Later classes that I've interacted with seem to continue the tradition of a most of the students going to good programs either immediately or after a year or two break.

    I know there are other small schools that offer a similar environment. Williams, Amherst, Reed, Oberlin, Haverford, etc. I also know that Dartmouth has a lot to offer, but note that it does have a graduate program so it's going to offer a different experience. More research on site, classes taught by teaching assistants, and professors who are much more devoted to research than they are teaching. If you are looking at Dartmouth, Princeton is very similar in terms of undergraduate and graduate student body size. Having done that route for graduate school, I'd say the combination of a small liberal arts college for undergrad and a big research university for grad is a great combo, as long as you can ensure the small liberal arts college offers the right kind of opportunities for you. And you can afford it.

    So I'd look at the typical things: student-faculty ratio, how active profs are in research, percentage of students who go on to graduate school, research opportunities, etc. Looking at curriculum is also good, but it can be difficult to decipher. At a school like Swarthmore, some of the upper level classes are as in depth as '500' level graduate courses at other schools.

    Like TomServo suggests, upper level classical mechanics, E&M, quantum, and statistical mechanics is pretty standard. These are usually taken during junior and senior years. This is in addition to any versions of those courses you might have in the first two years, like intro mechanics or intro E&M. A math methods course, a modern physics course, and an advanced lab course usually show up too. Depending on the school, you might get a second semester of quantum; this can be a good thing or a bad thing depending the level it is taught at.
  5. Nov 21, 2013 #4
    TomServo - Both my husband and I went to small private colleges (he's a math professor and I'm a college counselor) for undergrad and then went to large universities for grad school. I guess we just both have a preference for small classes (versus large lecture halls taught by grad students) where your profs get to know you. He has taught at a university and a small private college so comes from the prospective of teaching both small classes and large lecture classes.

    The courses you suggest are a big help! I'm guessing we would get the most information about research opportunities when he visits the campuses. I see some information on the college's websites, but it's hard to tell what the reality is in terms of opportunities. Everyone likes to say they offer research opportunities, but I guess we'll need to press them on details.

    Kinkmode - thanks for all the information about Swarthmore and the encouragement that there are some great opportunities at smaller colleges. Dartmouth claims they do not have any TAs teaching their undergrad classes, but we'll check that out more closely. May I ask what you ended up doing? : )
  6. Nov 21, 2013 #5
    TAs might teach the lab portions. Also, some of my best teachers have been grad students.

    Better an impassioned grad student than a burned-out, bitter, research-focused professor who hates teaching. :)
  7. Nov 21, 2013 #6
    Absolutely. I was more making comments about the profs at those schools than the grad students teaching :)

    Just something to be aware about.
  8. Nov 21, 2013 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    Let's be clear - are you looking for a small college, or are you looking for small class size? The two are not the same: The other day I was just having lunch with some colleagues, and was surprised to hear a prof at a small university express envy at the smaller class sizes at the bigger university. The reason it works out that way is that Big U has multiple flavors of freshman physics: physics for physics majors, physics for pre-meds, physics for scientists and engineers who aren't looking to be physicists, algebra-based physics, and so on.

    Also, I know of no university that has large lecture courses taught by graduate students. There are classes with large lectures given by professors and smaller recitations that may be given by graduate students, but I know of no department that has large lectures taught by students.
  9. Nov 21, 2013 #8
    Good point. Some small schools offer the same thing. Multiple flavors of intro physics courses. I don't think I ever had a class over 15 people in physics, and that was only for the very intro course. Most of my classes had 6-9 people in them.
  10. Nov 21, 2013 #9
    Vanadium, I had a large lecture hall econ class taught by a grad student. I had a cs class with forty people taught by a grad student. I had an English class of forty people taught by a grad student.
  11. Nov 21, 2013 #10
    My spouse used to be that grad student (although he was VERY enthusiastic!) who taught math classes at a university in a lecture hall of 200 students. He doesn't want our kids to be those kids..... : )

    But in response to the question about small college or small class size ... I probably have to answer the question as "both". I appreciate hearing that there are large universities who have small intro classes, but that does not seem to be the norm in our experiences. I truly believe there are pros and cons of each. We have visited several colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes because our oldest son just went through this and is now a freshman at Wake Forest in their Mathematical Economics program. Our younger son (the junior) liked the feel of the campuses that were under 7,000 students (small to medium campuses). I think he values that smaller community feel where he can make connections easily with students and profs. Either way, it's helpful to hear from you folks about how we should evaluate a good physics program or if there are particular schools that have a good reputation in this area.
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