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University selection

  1. May 20, 2004 #1
    I am a high school student who is interested in physics. I live in the US, I was wondering what is a good college to go to for a future in math and physics, maybe a little engineering? I know MIT is a candidate, and I really like Cal Tech, but does anybody have any experience, or extra knowledge they'd like to share?

    Paden Roder
  2. jcsd
  3. May 25, 2004 #2


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    I know certain schools are better for certain things and what not, but as far as I am concerned, you will learn basicly the same thing in every school for undergraduate studies.

    You must apply yourself, learn it, and absorb it. Just because they aren't teaching you chapter 9, that doesn't mean you shouldn't read it. If you love it, read it and learn it yourself. Some schools might do chapter 9, but they might not do another chapter. Going to Caltech will not make you a smarter student, or anything for that matter. The difference between most schools is usually based on how they test you; harder or easier. What difference does it make if they test you harder at Caltech than another school? If you simply get real with yourself, and know you understand, it won't make a difference which school you go to. Just because you got 90% on a test, it doesn't mean you understand it. You probably just focused on the steps, and material that was going to be tested instead of being smart and understanding where the steps the come from.

    Physics is all about understanding, and not memorizing. If you find yourself memorizing, you have a problem. Once you understand why F = ma, you will never forget it for as long as you live. If you are memorizing, stop and take the time to understand why things are the way they are. Have a sense of the physical world, and understand what may happen if you take this or that out of the physical world.

    Another difference between the schools is maybe the textbooks. If you think a different textbook will teach you more(it might depending on material), just look it up, and find out for yourself. Again, if there is a difference, simply buy it.

    The best thing to do is decide, if you can, which area of physics you want to focus on. Whether it be Optics, Cosmology, Quantum Theory, etc..., and find out which school offers the most classes for that area. That is your best bet. If you don't know, the best thing to do is spend some time at a local university, for a year, because most schools have similiar if not the same classes for the 1st year, and after having a feel for several branches of physics, you eventually find out which area you like best. No sense spending lots of money going to one school, and then you decide you like "this" best, but another school is better, than switch again.

    In the end, every school is the best, depending on what you make of it.

    Note: It's undergrad, so I wouldn't be too worried.
  4. May 25, 2004 #3


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    Just to warn you, that I'm also going to university for the first time. This is not the first time I researched universities though.

    What I learned, was to look at what you want to learn, and look at what schools offer. Look at what electives/classes you can pick. If you want options pick a school that allows plenty of electives. If you want a school that also has a strong Math Department, look at that too, but make sure it's not only Number Theory. Once you decided which school to pick, it is best to go through all the classes, and pick the ones you are interested in. Check all the classes, not only 1st year, even if you don't know that some of the 4th year classes are. Read the description and it will give you ideas on what they are all about, and then plan your 4 years of school. That way you won't get stuck with no pre-requisites for a certain course. You can't run around and pick any classes, they must prepare you for future classes(well they don't have to, but it is recommended).

    I'm staying at a local university for atleast a year, and I'll see what I need. I spend lots of time researching schools, and finding what I like best. If you would like a little bit of engineering too, don't go to a school with no engineering department simply because it has the BEST physics program.

    All I have to say is that reputation, or other personal experiences should not be taken into account until you have satisfied your own needs. If you are stuck between two schools or more, now take it into account.

    Well, enough of the smack talk. Enjoy.
  5. May 25, 2004 #4
    I completely agree with this, this is the downfall of so many students, they sit there, and memorize, math was not meant to be memorized!!! And grades prove this!

    Anyway, for Canada, Waterloo is the best university for engineering, and probably physics too. Its also near my city, so I'll probably go there....

    For the states,

    MIT is # 1 also applying there, (about 16% of people that apply get in :()
    I think Stanford, Princeton, and Cornell are probably next, but this is just my opinion, does anyone actually go to these schools...?

    someone else post please...
  6. May 25, 2004 #5
    Hey, I just finished my first year at UW as a Physics Major. I think the others were all correct in saying that your undergrad doesn't really matter, they all teach the same material more or less. In fact first year was mostly a review and relearning of highschool. I still think UW is one of the best though ;)
  7. May 25, 2004 #6


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    In my experience, I'm glad that I finished my undergraduate work at a school with a graduate program in physics and math. Such schools often have more resources.

    1. There are generally more courses available to you. I was able to take some graduate courses as an undergraduate.
    2. There was a variety of regular colloquia and seminars that I attended.
    3. The university had a great library.

    Arguably, it could be said that you get more attention at a purely undergraduate institution. That may be. You'll have to weigh the issues yourself.

    Select a school which can challenge you without overwhelming you.

    Word of warning: Don't rely solely on the courses listed in a catalog. Consult recent time schedules to see that they are offered regularly. When I started college, I was disappointed to learn that some advanced courses listed in the catalog were not offered in over a decade.

    My $0.02.
  8. May 25, 2004 #7


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    Most undergrad schools teach the same material except for Caltech (and maybe MIT also). It is a very unique place in many ways. I haven't had direct experience with MIT, but I have with other "top" schools, and they don't compare to Caltech for undergrad. I should actually qualify that somewhat, but it would take a lot of writing.

    Despite the material covered, ease of doing interesting research, and great weather, I do not recommend Caltech to everyone. There are negatives that affect some people very strongly. If you're seriously considering it, feel free to PM me, and I can give you the details.

    JasonRox, I agree with you. A university is what you make of it, but different ones will lead you differently. It is possible to learn everything you need in your parents' basement. You technically don't need university at all until you do research, and you don't ever need it if you're in mathematical physics. The problem is that hardly anyone has the self-discipline to do that. They also generally don't know what they should be studying. Part of the point of undergrad is to expose you to different ideas. You should be challenged, taught to work hard, learn to collaborate with and respect your peers, and so on. You also have that pesky problem of proving to your eventual employer/grad school that you know something ;).

    Some things that were important to me that couldn't be found in books, and differ dramatically from school to school:
    *It is nice to be surrounded by intelligent people. Besides the obvious reasons, this helps you to realize early on if you're really cut out for your intended field (a rigorous curriculum helps a lot too). It is also important to be humbled by others sometimes.
    *It was nice having brilliant professors who were approachable, but who were also unconstrained by any politics requiring them to be nice to you.
    *Lack of bureaucracy. Electives should be easy to take. Overloads or reasonable substitutions on graduation requiments or course pre-requisites shouldn't be difficult.
    *Lab courses. Despite all the complaining you hear about them, good lab courses are extremely important -- even for theorists.
    *Research opportunities.
    *Social life. This can mean very different things to different people, but it is important to most.

    Maybe this post wasn't so useful because I mainly stated some conclusions rather than how I came to them. There's obviously a lot more that can be said.
  9. May 26, 2004 #8


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    It was useful of course.

    The entire concept of communicating with other students with similiar interests is really what University is all about.

    Einstein should be the first to come to your mind as a Physics student: it is for me anyways. Einstein himself would agree that communication with other colleagues is very important, and most of his work wouldn't be possible without them. He frequently visited University cafe's. Andrew Miles, who is famous for proving Fermat's Last Theorem, started doing the proof in solitude, but later on realized that it just isn't possible alone.

    Above, is pure proof of why you need people with similiar interests, and goals. It's no theory.

    That is one of the reasons you'll never hear about some guy discovering something amazing in his basement, without going university to learn all of this stuff. It's not merely self-discpline; it is the lack of COMPLETE understanding, and you can't accomplish this without discussion groups or debates.

    I had to take a Business Law course in College, and that was my biggest draw back(no people interested). I did well on the first test, but not good enough to fully understand even though that wasn't my focus anyways. To me, it is a waste not to understand what is going on, and I had to do something. In the end, I signed up as a tutor(brainer I am :)), and now I was getting paid to jitter about a subject I barely knew, and with a student who needed help.

    The bottom line is... we all want to be that group of guys yelling in the library, cafe, restaurant, etc... about why xxxxxx is so messed up. :biggrin:
    Last edited: May 26, 2004
  10. May 26, 2004 #9
    Stingray, what is your relationship to Caltech? I'll be an undergrad there come September, so you've done a good job sparking my interest.

  11. May 27, 2004 #10


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    I was an undergrad there.
  12. May 27, 2004 #11
    JasonROx: great advice! I wish I was as motivated a few years back! (as I am now actually)
  13. May 28, 2004 #12
    Well, thanks to all. Although, I agree, and disagree with some suggestions you all had.
    1)I love physics, and I'm all about understanding the concepts. Although, there ARE benefits of going to such colleges. Such as, your friends are probably, not only smarter, but have better problem solving skills. They probably also have the same work ethic, because I know I don't want to be slowed down by any laggers.

    2)I am one to ask questions. Lots of questions. I like to be taught. If you have a better staff of professors, that are more capable, I could learn more.

    3)Connotation. What do you think of when you hear somebody say "MIT" of "CalTech"? Maybe jobs might look at this?

    Although, I do thank you for your information. I was wondering if at some colleges, they just leave you in the dust? I heard something like that about MIT.

    Paden Roder
  14. May 28, 2004 #13
    There are very important differences between schools. For example:

    (1) Where I did my undergraduate work, all of my grades went into my grade point average. At MIT only the last three years of work go into their grade point average. Companies can be very big on GPAs. It can make or break you and the first year can be hard for people and its possible to do your worst in that year. That won't matter at MIT.

    (2) There are companies who will only hire people from certain big name schools so if you don't have that "MIT" or "CalTech" etc on your resume then you can rule yourself out of some jobs automatically

    (3) At a place like MIT some classes can have over 700 people in it. You'd be hard pressed to get one on one help with the prof who is teaching that class.

    (4) At a place like MIT the students are extremely competitive. If you try to get help from a fellow classmate then good luck. You'll probably need it.

    (5) Some schools have radiacally different teaching styles. For example: MIT is undergoing a change in format of their first year physics classes. Before you could get away with not sitting in on the classes. Now class participation counts for a large part of the grade. The new format forces students to work together.

    (6) At places like MIT the text you use may just be taught by the author of your text.

    (7) Also regarding teacher's help - very hard to do at places like MIT. The profs are usually working very hard on their research and have little office time.

  15. May 30, 2004 #14
    I have experience!

    I just went through the same thing you did. I would say the best UNDERGRADUATE ( this is an important distinction) for physics are Caltech, Cornell, MIT; in that order. I got waitlisted at Caltech, in MIT, and am going to Cornell next year. Here are my thoughts. For undergraduate physics you are learning what everyone else will learn - the basics. You want good teachers and a focus on analytical and pure physics. When I visited MIT, a faculty member said they focus their physics around engineering because that's what the majority of students to do there. I hear the intro Caltech courses have bad teachers but they get better later on. Cornell has the opportunity to do undergrad research with a particle accelerator which I have seen first hand.

    For graduate school I would go Caltech/MIT, Princeton, Cornell in that order. Caltech again has the very best teachers, MIT has the resources, Princeton has a little of both (and Edward Witten), and Cornell has a little of both too. Graduate school is all about doing something new and being on the forefront of your field. You should also weigh in whether your expertise is going to be in experimental or theoretical physics. If theoretical, you want teachers. If experimental, you want labs.

    Another school I got into but am not going to is Harvey-Mudd College. Look at the stats. They send the largest percentage of their graduating class onto the best grad schools in the country. A MIT admission officer told me that they compete with HMC for undergrads and Caltech said they accept a lot of their students. HMC is also only for undergrads and is small so you will get a personalized education.

    I guess it all depends on what you are looking for. A lot people here are spitting out the common stereotypes about colleges. My suggestion is you go out and visit all of this places, talk to the professors, and talk to the students. Hell, when I got waitlisted at Caltech I emailed 5 of their professors asking for advice on where to enroll.

    Having done exactly what you are about to do, I can only offer you the best of advice and luck because colleges are crazy. If you have any questions feel free to PM me.
    Last edited: May 30, 2004
  16. May 30, 2004 #15
    I forgot to add that generally undergrad is not as important for physics as grad. It is important for getting into a grad school but so is your GED.

    I just realized we have some Caltech people here. I'm jealous of you cookiemonster!
    Last edited: May 30, 2004
  17. May 30, 2004 #16


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    it's andrew wiles not miles (you must mixed miles davis with andrew wiles and you got andrew miles :biggrin: :surprise: ).
  18. May 31, 2004 #17
    Thanks The Brain. That was helpful.

    Paden Roder
  19. May 31, 2004 #18


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    Oops... typo. :)

    I got a question for some of you guys.

    How easy is it to get like, full financial aid?

    I work full time almost all year round, and it's not fun or easy. I do this during full time (college) schooling too. Some schools say they make sure their students finish without any debts from education. I'm an honour student regardless of how much time I put at work, and I would love to just work 20 or less hours a week.

    I've done some undergrad, so how would a University from the US help me. In Canada, they don't do ****, and the government won't help me either because I make too much. This ridiculous because I work a lot to make that income, and all the money is used to keep student loans down, and pay for car bills. I wouldn't mind paying 10k a year, but that's all I can afford.

    Any advice?

    Note: I make 12k a year in Canadian Dollars. After some taxes and stuff, I get 11k. I pay 3k for insurance, 1.2k for gas, .5k for car maintenance/repairs, 2.4k for car payments, 1k for leisure(~83 a month, which is not a lot), 3.5k for tuition (cheap college), 2k for books/parking misc. school stuff.

    That's 13.6k, and I don't break even. Remember I haven't bought gifts or anything like that. 83$ a month is nothing! I usually spend like 30 a week so that puts me down even more. I'm lucky enough to say that I'm almost done paying off my car. That would be 6.7k in 2 years, and it's usually for 3 or more. Again, I didn't cut my hair according to this budget.

    I need the car to get to school, which is pretty far from home. Also, on this rough budget and Grade A credit, the government won't help or hand me a loan. I get money from the bank, which I pay ok interest on it. I'm sick and tired of the bs that happens over here.

    All I have in my portfolio, is my terrible high school grades, independent study calculus and physics, which you take an exam to pass (this shows that I am capable of figuring it out myself), my amazing college grades that I obtained while working nearly 40 hours a week. I am going to University this September, but in Canada, so this increases my debt/payments. I hope having some undergrad increases my changes. Also, I don't mind starting from year one for a third time either.

    Anyways, enough about my problems.
    Last edited: May 31, 2004
  20. Jun 2, 2004 #19
    I was told by my counsiler that it is better to go to a school with a smaller physcis department. He said that big schools arnt good for physics majors. Can anyone comment on this plz?
  21. Jun 3, 2004 #20
    Logical explanation is that if the school isn't well known for physics there, not a lot of physics students will go there. Thus, giving you more 1-to-1 with the professor.

    Personally, however, I'm not a big fan of that idea. I'm more interested in the atmosphere, and your fellow students.

    Paden Roder
  22. Jun 3, 2004 #21


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    Theres been a lot of buzz around UC Santa Barbara for physics lately, I was wondering if anyone knew anything about the program over there. I know the institute for theoretical physics is based there, but how is the undergrad education? Berkeley kind of lost favor with me after reading a few different articles about the declining physics program over there due to the loss of professors to other schools, as well as loss of research funds. MIT and Caltech have never really had any favor with me since I need some semblance of a social life to stay sane! Much respect to those brave individuals who survived it.
  23. Jun 4, 2004 #22
    The decision should depend somewhat on how far you intend to go, the most imporant school is the last one you attend. You don't want to go to an undergraduate school that will mess up your desire or aptitude for graduate school. MIT has a reputation as a good undergraduate program, I haven't met a happy graduate student from there yet (but still asking). Caltech is a great graduate school, but I would argue that it is not a great undergraduate school (basically because professors don't go there to teach).

    I have been impressed with the undergraduates that I know from Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Cornell, and Berkeley. But, many of these students peak in their undergraduate and end up going downhill from there. An aquaintance of mine went to undergrad at Berkeley and was only accepted into one of the graduate programs he applied to (he wouldn't have gotten back into Berkeley had he applied there). I went to a small, no-name state school and was accepted to several top tier graduate programs (including MIT, Cornell, and Chicago).

    Consequently, I would keep an open mind about schools like Reed College (where Griffith's teaches) and Colorado College where undergraduate education is a larger priority. Or, call the physics department at a good graduate school (e.g. CalTech) and ask where their graduate students went to school for undergrad.
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