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Caltech vs MIT for engineering

ColoradoKidColoradoKid Posts: 126Registered User Junior Member
Could a discussion be started on a comparison of the two as it regards to engineering? In general terms, I've heard that if you want to be a scientist, go to Caltech. If you want to be an engineer, it's MIT.

Thanks
Post edited by ColoradoKid on
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Replies to: Caltech vs MIT for engineering

  • h88h88 Posts: 540Registered User Member
    The diversity of courses at MIT is incredible, in contrary to that of Caltech. Check out the following link:

    http://pr.caltech.edu/catalog/courses/listing/ee.html

    and compare it to

    http://student.mit.edu/@0135803.10854/catalog/m6a.html

    So yeah, MIT is a large school and offers a number of opportunities due to its size. Caltech is also a great school and with great research opportunities due to the closeness you can have with professors.

    But when you consider Caltech, you must place emphasis not only on the diverse course offering, but on other aspects as well.

    Research is a keyfactor. Why would I say that? The faculty members accessibility is something notable in Caltech. My point is, when your mentor is a faculty member, who's readily accessible, and thus help you through you research, your reserach would definitely yield better results.

    Another point worth mentioning is the fact that Caltech's curriculum tends to follow a theoretical approach.

    So you see, it all depends on your expectaion and objectives (yes you have to know what you're targetting in the end).

    My main focus was on the research opportunities. Thus, Caltech is the school that appealed to me.

    Remember, this is just my opinion. I would love to see a debate of this topic, namely from Engineering students of both schools, who could give us firsthand experience of their majors.
  • tech_fantech_fan Posts: 2,822Registered User Senior Member
    I'm a mathematician, not an engineer. But the stereotype is pretty much right.

    For pure, hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, tack on math and theoretical microeconomics), Caltech's undergraduate education is far and away the best anywhere. It has the highest available level of rigor, thoroughness, and opportunties for work that most people don't do until a Ph.D. program. There is no comparably ranked school that respects or challenges its undergraduates more. Period. That's why, in these fields, the Caltech name means as much as it does.

    In engineering, Caltech (as one would expect) has some of the top names in the world in particular areas. The consensus is that MIT has broader, more industry-oriented courses. Caltech's EE is highly theoretical, like everything else. If I were an undergraduate EE major with a pretty practical bent, these would certainly be factors favoring MIT.

    That said, Caltech certainly has a good number of things going for it. Undergraduates tend to get more (and more serious) research opportunities here (which also happen to be better paid), as h88 points out. Having JPL down the street doesn't hurt either, since undergraduates often participate in engineering projects that are implemented in actual space missions. So that's a plus if you're into that sort of thing. The founder of Intel went here, so it can't be too bad. And as far as jobs go, mean salary offers for EEs (with just a bachelor's degree) in 2002 were well over 60K, with half of graduates in EE offered more than 70K; even higher salaries for the top few kids are not unheard of. The figures are close to MIT's, and the averages in almost all engineering disciplines were slightly higher for Caltech. (See http://www.career.caltech.edu/general/annual/2002/BS_annual_2002.htm and http://web.mit.edu/career/www/salary/02bycourse.html for the sources of these numbers.)

    So that's the story -- most of it depends on your interests and what sort of environment you like.
  • tech_fantech_fan Posts: 2,822Registered User Senior Member
    This is a separate post because it speaks to a broader topic than my previous one.

    Between Caltech and MIT, it seems that there's some difference of spirit. I've had a lot of time to think and talk about this question since my girlfriend attends MIT, and we compare the academic and social environments here and there. To a first-order approximation, MIT is dominated by engineering students whose hero is (approximately) Bill Gates. That is, engineering and making money are the defining interests/aspirations of a large portion of the student body.

    While most people would consider that as intellectual (nerdy, what have you) as it gets, there's actually a downside. In particular, the general MIT ethos seems less contemplative and less focused on deep theoretical questions. That's great if all you care about is engineering, but a lot of people I know agree that those who enjoy thinking about and discussing more abstract (less immediately applicable) questions can feel a little marginalized there. At least, that's what I hear.

    Here, most people -- even if, like a large proportion, they want to do something "practical" with their lives -- view the first four years of higher education as a chance to exolore, learn, and think. So weird discussions about abstract things are more common here, and the general spirit of the place is more open to that sort of thing. Lots of grass, good weather, big comfortable lounges are conducive to this. Maybe also the legacy of Feynman. I don't know.

    The other bit of experience I have that allows me to compare across universities is that I took most of my courses at Princeton when I was a senior in high school. That school was sort of the opposite of my picture of MIT, in that deep thought and a more holistic mental constitution were emphasized, but at the expense of rigor in some courses and analytic strength in the student body.

    So my view of Caltech is that it's like a really smart version of a school like Princeton (minus a lot of nonsense). Deep thinking is emphasized, and most people aren't in a rush to learn to build things and stuff their wallets. On the other hand, this doesn't come at the cost of losing strength in math and science, or with the presence of a lot of art majors ;-).

    So that's my take on all this. Feel free to kick me if you disagree.
  • Samp0320Samp0320 Posts: 211Registered User Junior Member
    Theoretical microeconomics? I didn't even know Caltech had a single undergraduate class offering in that field. I'll have to look it up, since that field is my general interest.
  • h88h88 Posts: 540Registered User Member
    While most people would consider that as intellectual (nerdy, what have you) as it gets, there's actually a downside. In particular, the general MIT ethos seems less contemplative and less focused on deep theoretical questions. That's great if all you care about is engineering, but a lot of people I know agree that those who enjoy thinking about and discussing more abstract (less immediately applicable) questions can feel a little marginalized there. At least, that's what I hear.

    There you go. :) From this perspective, I would say the scorer is Caltech. I would never want to limit myself to what's going on now, but work on these "less immediately applicable" proposals.

    As such, although Engineering is very practical, you'd definitely feel outdated if you only apply what's applicable at the time you're studying (I would guess that was your point Ben?) after some time.

    More power to theories! :P
  • angrodangrod Posts: 119Registered User Junior Member
    I'm a freshman here at MIT, and I haven't taken any engineering classes yet, just core classes. Therefore, I'm probably not knowledgeable enough to really say that much about engineering at MIT vs. Caltech.

    The one thing I wanted to address was the research opportunities. While Caltech might by default have more readily accessible professors due to its small size, I think MIT's professors are as readily accessible even though they are so busy. This week I am meeting with six professors, even as a freshman, to discuss research opportunities this coming spring. All I did was send them e-mails last week and they responded promptly to set up appointments with me. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) here at MIT is top notch, and makes research opportunities available to all undergrads.

    h88, I don't think that was quite Ben's point. (Correct me if I'm wrong Ben :)). Engineers always have to keep up with current trends, and MIT is always on the cutting edge of these trends. You'll never feel outdated. It might be true that MIT students aren't concerned about some of the deepest theoretical issues (but, cough cough, in the long run, if they aren't applicable, do they matter that much anyway? lol :))

    Oh, little side point. Ben, you said that the pure sciences at Caltech were "far and away" the best anywhere. Well, I honestly can't say that I know that much about Caltech's program, and it might be better than MIT's. However, I find it hard to believe that it is that much better. Also, the rigour of the courses here is legendary (not just in engineering), and I would be surprised if Caltech was any harder. Just my two cents on all of this!
  • tech_fantech_fan Posts: 2,822Registered User Senior Member
    >> MIT students aren't concerned about some of the deepest theoretical issues (but, cough cough, in the long run, if they aren't applicable, do they matter that much anyway?)

    Well, I dunno angrod. You tell me. Does quantum mechanics matter that much? Does number theory, which, as you know, underlies essentially all modern cryptography? How about abstract algebra, which enables essentially all advanced physics nowadays?

    It's hard to find more powerful and relevant fields, but those fields weren't discovered or developed by engineers, or even by practically minded physicists. They were discovered by those concerned with highly abstruse and philosophical questions. So the answer is, yes, those issues probably do matter; and no, engineering-minded folks typically won't find or resolve them (or, at least, certainly haven't in the past).



    >> Also, the rigour of the courses here is legendary (not just in engineering), and I would be surprised if Caltech was any harder.

    Well, then I guess you should color yourself surprised :-). In one sense, to be fair to MIT, it's somewhat moot to compare courses (since material can be moved among different courses but still taught at both places). But if you want to play that game, many of MIT and Caltech's undergraduate math classes use the same books, and it's virtually always the case (as a fellow math student at MIT agrees) that the Caltech classes cover more of the material more thoroughly. That's just the field I know. If you want another example, graduate students in phyiscs who were undergrads at MIT often take the 106-125 sequence their first year. The rest of the students are typical Caltech junior physics majors (with a few sophomores).

    But, as I said, maybe that's unfair to MIT because of the differences between the trimester and semester system. Comparing the curriculum as a whole doesn't help MIT much though because there's no question at all that Caltech's is harder. Every single frosh takes a rigorous proof-based analysis course out of Apostol, which is used in MIT's high-level theoretical math track only (but is totally standard here). That is, while an MIT student can graduate without ever having proved a single theorem, every Caltech student's first experience here is a course that the vast majority of universities (all but the ten best or so) only give to senior math majors. You might say, "Who needs proofs," and I won't argue, but they're certainly *harder and more rigorous* than the standard two-course calculus sequence that comprises MIT's entire math requirement. [For the curious, the rest of the core math curriculum required of everyone includes linear algebra with proofs, multivariable calculus, diffeq, and probability with statistics: five trimesters all told. Only the calc and multivar are taken by everybody at MIT, and the "standard" levels of these courses there are uncontroversially easier and less theoretical.]

    In physics (perhaps the most impressive field), everybody at Caltech takes a hard classical mechanics course, followed by special relativity, E&M, wave mechanics with optics, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics. This is at least five trimesters of physics, but many students take six. There's no other school anywhere in the world where even the biologists and political scientists graduate knowing fairly sophisticated quantum mechanics. (MIT, by contrast, minimially requires a fairly light 8.01+8.02 sequence, whose exams are trivial to pass having taken a good AP Phys C course.)

    In short, every Caltech student, by the end of sophomore year, could graduate with a math-physics double major from almost anywhere (some very good places included). The same is not true (or even approximately true) of MIT.

    There is more to say, but this is enough to illustrate my point. I'm not necessarily arguing the wisdom of the core curriculum system, since that's a deep issue. But purely on the question of rigor of the curriculum both in individual fields and for the average student, it's pretty clear that there's no contest going on here.

    Incidentally, I like and respect MIT, and some of my best friends go there. I have no bone to pick with the school or its choices. In many respects, I think its general tendency away from the Caltech model and toward the Harvard model is the right thing for MIT given what seem to be MIT's long-term goals. Rigor, difficulty, and depth are not the primary metrics of quality (although they come close to being my primary metrics and I'm guessing the same is true for many others reading this). But this discussion just hinges on a matter of fact about difficulty, which is not difficult to resolve.
  • theleettheleet Posts: 228Registered User Junior Member
    wow, Ben just owned MIT. XD
  • angrodangrod Posts: 119Registered User Junior Member
    Well, Ben, you just proved my lack of knowledge about MIT vs. Caltech. :) After reading your post I must agree with you that the Caltech science and math classes are much harder than anything required here. I spoke much too soon in my earlier post and apoligize for my hastiness.


    >>>>Well, I dunno angrod. You tell me. Does quantum mechanics matter that much? Does number theory, which, as you know, underlies essentially all modern cryptography? How about abstract algebra, which enables essentially all advanced physics nowadays?

    It's hard to find more powerful and relevant fields, but those fields weren't discovered or developed by engineers, or even by practically minded physicists. They were discovered by those concerned with highly abstruse and philosophical questions. So the answer is, yes, those issues probably do matter; and no, engineering-minded folks typically won't find or resolve them (or, at least, certainly haven't in the past).


    Sorry, I was way to vague. I recognize the great importance of everything you talked about above. I guess I was talking about more philosophical issues unrelated to science, which I guess wasn't what we were talking about originally. :) OK guys, sorry for making such a fool of myself. I'm going to bow out and close my trap now.
  • tech_fantech_fan Posts: 2,822Registered User Senior Member
    Haha, angrod, why so apologetic. I agree with you that nobody cares about the philosophy of science except maybe me. And it won't build any bridges. So you win there :)

    I was a bit unclear myself. What I meant was much of what precipitated quantum mechanics was not exactly what we now would call science. The meaning of uncertainty, measurement, etc. were purely philosophical issues at one point. So I guess the point is it's good to think about those things sometimes because you never know what useful stuff you might stumble upon.
  • Samp0320Samp0320 Posts: 211Registered User Junior Member
    My impression just from being an observer is that Ben is absolutely right. The only problem is, for me at least, I'm not so sure that it is a good thing.
  • webhappywebhappy Posts: 278Registered User Junior Member
    IMO, the rigor is a good thing if you're sure you want to attend grad school but it's a bad thing if you're sure that you want to work straight after graduation.
  • sleepybunnysleepybunny Posts: 142Registered User Junior Member
    what if you want to get a masters in engineering and then go striaght to working?
  • omgninjaomgninja Posts: 240Registered User Junior Member
    Then you should pick a good grad school.
  • alleyaalleya Posts: 381Registered User Member
    For engineering, you really need a masters if you're planning to work in industry (according to my engineer parents who have seen many many resumes). So, sleepybunny, it still depends on where you want to work. If you want to work in industry, Caltech may not be the place for you. Caltech is better suited for you if you want to work in more theoretical and experimental areas.
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