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Undergrad Research - Small vs Big universities

  1. Apr 4, 2012 #1
    What are people's thoughts of undergrad research (in science and/or engineering) in small versus big research universities? It seems to be me that, in big, top 10 research universities (with a few exceptions), because of the huge number of grad students, professors extremely busy and well-known in their fields, very high-level research and very competitive classes, undergraduates actually have less time to dedicate for research and will receive much less attention/opportunities for research during their undergrad years (especially for "average" students -- very intelligent students who, however, are 'average' in their Ivy league/Caltech/Stanford colleges).
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 4, 2012 #2


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    In general, there are simply more opportunities at bigger schools. Often times, as an undergraduate researcher, you'll actually work primarily with postdocs, faculty researchers, or graduate students rather than the actual professor. There's many more of these people at a large university! Furthermore, a large university will have much more breadth in their research, allowing you to choose a little what you want to do. If you're stuck in a physics department where the only research is in nuclear physics, well I guess you're doing nuclear physics. This is part of the reason for the REU program -- to get students from small universities out to experience research they otherwise couldn't.
  4. Apr 5, 2012 #3
    I'm not sure that small versus big is a useful distinction here. Both Caltech and MIT are big names in physics but they are both tiny universities. Caltech has 1200 students, and MIT has 4000.

    MIT has a huge physics department comparatively speaking, but there are also big universities with tiny physics departments.

    I think that there are too many variables to really use small/big as a distinction.

    That *wasn't* the case at MIT. First of all, there was substantially less grade pressure at MIT than at other schools that I knew. For the most part the students were people that would work hard regardless of the grade, and so the message of the professors was *don't work too hard* and *don't care too much about grades*.

    One thing that I liked about MIT was that, yes professors were very busy, but teaching undergraduates was still a high priority, so the professors put that at a high priority on getting that right. One way of thinking about this is what is more impressive, to win the Nobel Prize in physics or to be the mentor of someone that wins the Nobel Prize? The other thing is that if you are in an environment in which people believe that you can do great things, that really messes with your mind.

    The other great thing about MIT was that there was an organized system for undergraduate research. Yes, the professor doesn't have time to do all of the paperwork, which is why there is a system of staff people and administrative assistants that do that sort of thing. If you wanted to do undergraduate research, you went to the UROP office where they'd give you this nice handbook about which professors were looking for students, and then they'd explain which forms you had to fill out and what you had to do. The other thing that MIT has is that they have a budget specifically for undergraduate research.

    Also, you absorb the culture. Watching a professor trying to balance fifty different projects without going nuts, is part of the educational experience so that you can figure out how to do it yourself.

    Finally, one thing that you find with big name professors is that sometimes you don't need to see them very much in order to have them change your life. One of the professors that I worked with at MIT was the person that *invented* undergraduate education. I probably talked with her face to face for no more than a total of ten hours, but she managed to say some things that changed my life.

    It doesn't take very long to plant a seed in someone's brain.
  5. Apr 5, 2012 #4
    And sometimes that turns out to be more useful. Who would you rather know? Someone that won the Nobel Prize ten years ago, or someone that will win the Nobel Prize twenty years from now.

    The other important thing is to create networks with other undergraduates. One of the people I knew as an undergraduate is now dean of a major university, and setting up networks in which you can watch other people's lifes across several decades is something that some universities are better than others at.
  6. Apr 5, 2012 #5
    I can offer the perspective of being at a large state school with a very, very small physics department (no graduate program, around 60 undergrad majors).

    I started doing research when I was in my first semester of college. This is really mind blowing to everyone else at different schools, and even now I feel incredibly lucky. There are genius professors in every physics department, no matter where you go. The competition is high enough to allow no less. I got a pretty good deal because I got insanely smart professors who actually really cared about my future and well being, and know how to help students to reach their potential. I started in one group, then joined another, so I had two awesome recommendation letters dealing with research (this detail is very important I think), so I got my choice of internships at the top government research labs.

    So a few facts. A while ago, my current research advisor had a student. She published one paper, published a paper, and went to Vanderbilt. She's now on the research staff at Oak Ridge. One of my friends who started his work with this guy three or so years ago got into Cornell just a few weeks ago, after publishing two papers. I'm working on a publication with these guys right now, and I'm at the end of my sophomore year (and hopefully my future is as bright as these other guys). We all got to present research at the big meetings (talks, not posters) as well. Also, just to make it clear, we all work very hard and learn a lot, they're not freebies. If you're really talented and you put in the effort, you'll be first author on your paper. It's very good for us if you can handle it. No one is fired really... but a lot of people do quit (for a lot of different reasons, not always because it's too hard).

    Some downsides though. I'm not terribly interested in quantum gases or astrophysics, in fact my interests lie in computational physics so the particular physics isn't important to me so long as I'm working with numerical code (which I do). Still, as an undergraduate you can't really afford to be picky. Professors are hired here to do research that is accessible to undergraduates, so you can't expect to be helping with twistor theory or modifying GR, or other crazy things like that. It may well be possible to do those things at bigger universities, but the difference here is major: if you were to do anything here, it is you who will be working on the meat of the work, not just fitting some unknown curves to some random thing that you're given. You intimately understand the work you're doing because there's no one else but you and the professor.

    There are a lot of departments and professors who won't take students that aren't at least 3rd year, or something. I feel that the attitude is more typical at the big research state school because of the fact that professors have easy access to graduate students and postdocs who are far more capable than most undergrads. This is not true at all places, and it's not true of all departments either. It's probably more true in engineering than in science also.

    One other thing too. If you're in some big state school in south Georgia like me, there's a pretty good chance that everyone around you is pretty stupid. If you're not a fan of classes and you find it easier to learn independently, this is a really really good thing. If you're not dead set on doing everything you need to in order to do well in graduate school, you're gonna be totally screwed. It'll be worse than not getting into any school, because you're going to get there, be decimated because you're not prepared, and it could really screw with you in a lot of ways. Also, doing extremely poorly on the PGRE is something that happens here often, because of this. Still, if you're not lazy, you shouldn't worry about this at all. The downside to going to a school with a better physics department is that you have less time to focus on bigger research efforts because you'll be too busy taking harder classes. This isn't a bad thing, because when you get a 4.0 GPA at my school it doesn't mean squat, but it might mean more if you went to a better school.

    If I had to give some advice, really make sure to go visit a school's department before you commit. Even make sure to visit a few departments you MIGHT be interested in the future (if you're physics, then definitely check out engineering, computer science, mathematics, and chemistry (maybe biology too)). This would be especially important if you're planning on going to a small school. Also check out their CVs; there are a few professors in my department from big name labs and schools. Going to a larger school, it still might be a good idea to talk to some professors to see how much undergrad research goes on there. If you can help it, talk to them in person. If that fails, call on the phone. Talking to people and hearing their voices tells you a surprising amount about their real attitudes towards these things.
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2012
  7. Apr 5, 2012 #6
    What constitutes a small or large physics department? I'm going to Rutgers, after a quick estimation--they have roughly around 168 physics undergrads, give or take 5 students.

    Is that a good, bad, or moderate amount?
  8. Apr 5, 2012 #7
    That would be large. MIT has about 200. UT Austin has 80. I've worked at places where there were about 10 undergraduates.

    One other thing that happened with MIT was that the physics department was the major hiring was in the 1960's, when the number of undergraduate physics majors was much larger that it is today. Then the computer revolution hit, lots of people that would have become physics majors became EE's, but that was good for people in the 1980's because you got a lot of personal attention (i.e tenured faculty teaching recitation sections).
  9. Apr 5, 2012 #8
    Conversely if you go to MIT, no one around you is stupid. In fact there is a good chance that *you* will be the stupid one. So you get used to being stupid.

    The other thing is that I've noticed that it also influences the way that professors and students interact. For example, if you have a group of random state school students and they say that thing think the professor is incompetent and the class is badly taught, then I wouldn't immediately conclude that the professor is incompetent at teaching. However, if you have a group of MIT freshmen complain about a professor, then it's likely that there really *is* something wrong with the professor.

    One of the major experiences when I was there was when one professor was teaching a class and it was obvious to everyone that he was just incompetent at teaching. So the students and the other professors figured out a way of making sure that the course was taught anyway.

    It's often not uncommon to have a student that just has more raw mathematical or physics talent than their teachers. So the teachers will think of themselves as "coaches for Olympic level athletes."

    Looking over the course evaluations at most universities, the common complaints is that the course is too hard and the professor assigns too much homework. When I did student course evaluations at MIT, you'd often find that the complaints were that the course was *too easy* and the professor *didn't assign enough homework*.

    I don't think it does. The grading at MIT and Harvard isn't particularly harsh. Also, MIT strongly de-emphasizes grades (i.e. if you fail a class freshman year, it won't show up on your transscript, and the policies regarding dropping classes are rather liberal). One reason for this is that you have students that are already hyper-motivated, and so a lot of the effort of the teachers is to get students to *relax and not worry too much about grades*.

    One thing that I liked about MIT was that I was able to find out what my limits really were. What's the minimum amount of sleep that I could get without something bad happening? I figured out that I could get two to fours hours of sleep on the weekdays, and then crash on the weekends. How much math and physics could I stuff into my brain before it didn't work.

  10. Apr 5, 2012 #9
    I've been trying to figure that out and it's a little hard to be able to do it with your mother around but it's getting there. I figured that if I can stay up thinking about stuff or reading stuff on the internet till quite late, I should be able to get some math/physics done in that time.

    How did that work out? Was two hours enough to not get you really sleep through the next day?
  11. Apr 6, 2012 #10
    I go to UT and it was my impression that we were a body of at least 200 physics majors. This claims that Fall 2010 enrollment for undergrads was 299. I'm not sure of the size of the graduating class.

    I've had a good experience so far. I work with a professor on theory related research, but it's very easy to get involved in experimental stuff as well. Not sure how many of the experimental guys get a paper out.

  12. Apr 6, 2012 #11
    My numbers are several years old and I may have misremembered them. Thanks for the correction. One other thing is that UT Austin has a separate astronomy department.
  13. Apr 6, 2012 #12
    Is UT good for theory? They are a good research school but they don't mention theory too much.

    One other thing I noticed is that UT gives an effort to attract students to physics, which might explain why they have a large physics department.
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