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Physics -- Best Undergraduate Physics Programs

milesdavis2milesdavis2 Posts: 16Registered User New Member
edited August 2013 in Other College Majors
Is there a reputable ranking of the top undergraduate physics programs? What do you consider to be the top physics programs? This can be in overall terms, or in specific areas, such as most professor-student interaction (i.e., less TA's), research opportunities, admission rates into top graduate physics programs, etc... thanks
Post edited by milesdavis2 on
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Replies to: Physics -- Best Undergraduate Physics Programs

  • phurikuphuriku Posts: 2,750Registered User Senior Member
    Caltech, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Chicago, Stanford, Harvey Mudd

    For PhD Production: http://web.reed.edu/ir/phd.html
  • milesdavis2milesdavis2 Posts: 16Registered User New Member
    Wow, thanks! What about Yale?
  • vonlostvonlost Posts: 13,725Super Moderator Senior Member
    Yale is just a tiny bit further down the list. While 10% of CalTech undergrads later get a PhD in physics/astronomy, and only 0.6% of Yale undergrads do, the data may be a bit misleading if a higher proportion of CalTech undergrads study physics than do Yale undergrads (I suspect it's true, but have no numbers).

    First posted by interesteddad:

    Here is the PhD production list over the most recent 10 year period for Physics/Astronomy. This data is particularly meaningful in a field like Physics where most serious career paths include doctoral study:

    PhDs and Doctoral Degrees: ten years (1994 to 2003) from NSF database
    Number of Undergraduates: ten years (1989 to 1998) from IPEDS database
    Formula: Total PhDs divided by Total Grads, multiplied by 1000

    Note: Does not include colleges with less than 1000 graduates over the ten year period

    1 California Institute of Technology 96
    2 Harvey Mudd College 64
    3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 29
    4 New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology 20
    5 Reed College 13
    6 Carleton College 13
    7 Princeton University 13
    8 University of Chicago 13
    9 Rice University 13
    10 Case Western Reserve University 9
    11 Harvard University 9
    12 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 9
    13 Swarthmore College 9
    14 Haverford College 8
    15 Stevens Institute of Technology 8
    16 Whitman College 8
    17 Grinnell College 7
    18 Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology 7
    19 Colorado School of Mines 7
    20 Yale University 6
  • milesdavis2milesdavis2 Posts: 16Registered User New Member
    Thanks! I had no idea such data existed.

    How does yale do in terms of getting its physics majors into the top graduate programs, like Stanford, Princeton, etc...?
  • vonlostvonlost Posts: 13,725Super Moderator Senior Member
    Sorry, I know of no data covering this. Someone might respond anecdotally...
  • kyledavid80kyledavid80 Posts: 8,093Registered User Senior Member
    The above data is a bit biased toward small schools. For undergrad physics, here's the Gourman report (I think this is a credible ranking, though I wouldn't put Cornell ahead of MIT, or Princeton ahead of Berkeley):

    Caltech
    Harvard
    Cornell
    Princeton
    MIT
    UC Berkeley
    Stanford
    U Chicago
    U Illinois Urbana Champaign
    Columbia
    Yale
    Georgia Tech
    UC San Diego
    UCLA
    U Penn
    U Wisconsin Madison
    U Washington
    U Michigan Ann Arbor
    U Maryland College Park
    UC Santa Barbara
    U Texas Austin
    Carnegie Mellon
    U Minnesota
    RPI
    Brown
    Johns Hopkins
    Michigan State
    Notre Dame
    SUNY Stony Brook
    Case Western
    Northwestern
    U Rochester
    U Pittsburgh
    Penn State University Park

    And from the NRC ranking:

    1 Harvard 4.91
    2 Princeton 4.89
    3 MIT 4.87
    4 Cal Berkeley 4.87
    5 Cal Tech 4.81
    6 Cornell 4.75
    7 Chicago 4.69
    8 Illinois 4.66
    9 Stanford 4.53
    10 Cal Santa Barbara 4.43
    11 Texas 4.33
    12 Columbia 4.25
    13 Yale 4.21
    14 Washington 4.20
    15 UCLA 4.18
    16 Cal San Diego 4.10
    17 Penn 4.09
    18 Maryland 4.02
    19 Michigan 3.96
    20 Rutgers 3.82

    http://www.stat.tamu.edu/~jnewton/nrc_rankings/nrc41.html#area33

    See this for breakdowns in the different areas of physics:

    http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/usnews/edu/grad/rankings/phdsci/phdsciindex_brief.php
  • vonlostvonlost Posts: 13,725Super Moderator Senior Member
    The above data is a bit biased toward small schools.
    Just curious: In what way is it biased toward small schools? As I said, it is biased toward schools with a higher percentage of physics majors. Why is that also a large/small school issue?

    What makes the Gourman report credible? No basis is given; it's not transparent.

    Your links are for graduate schools; the OP asked for undergraduate programs.

    The beauty of the NSF/IPEDS numbers, subject to its limitations, is that is just gives results; it's nobody's opinion of anything.
  • GrumpsterGrumpster Posts: 498Registered User Member
    This is for the original poster. If I were you, I would go to the top physics graduate programs' websites, and look at the grad students one by one. See where they went to undergrad. This will give you some idea of where you want to be.
  • kyledavid80kyledavid80 Posts: 8,093Registered User Senior Member
    In what way is it biased toward small schools? As I said, it is biased toward schools with a higher percentage of physics majors. Why is that also a large/small school issue?

    Not to be rude, but just search the forums -- this topic has been discussed to death, and the general consensus is that it's biased toward small schools. (And it makes sense -- the small schools top the list.)
    What makes the Gourman report credible? No basis is given; it's not transparent.

    Yes, there is. Again, search the forums -- Gourman gives the full methodology.
    Your links are for graduate schools; the OP asked for undergraduate programs.

    Do tell me how the grad and undergrad programs are so divorced. Are there different faculty? Different courses? Different facilities? Different library collections? No. It's mostly the same. And the rankings are largely based on peer review (NRC, US News, etc.); they review the programs, often irrespective of grad/undergrad.
    The beauty of the NSF/IPEDS numbers, subject to its limitations, is that is just gives results; it's nobody's opinion of anything.

    Funnily enough, the perceptions of others are strangely related to what we would call "quality." For example, the schools at the top of the physics lists are those that have top faculty with tons of awards in physics and tons of publications (usually the leaders in their field, presenting at conventions and conferences), that have top facilities (particle accelerators, labs with cutting-edge equipment), that do some of the best research (which impacts the world), that have amazing library collections with breadth and depth, that attract top students, etc. There's a reason they're top-rated.

    In addition, what is it that this PhD productivity list tells us? Reed College is higher than Harvard; what does that mean? Does that mean that Reed is better than Harvard for physics? Does that mean it would be more sensible to go to Reed than Harvard if you're planning on majoring in physics?
  • vonlostvonlost Posts: 13,725Super Moderator Senior Member
    the general consensus is that it's biased toward small schools. (And it makes sense -- the small schools top the list.)
    Again, the data are clearly biased toward schools with a higher percentage of physics graduates. What does consensus have to do with it? These are raw statistics. Where is the opportunity for the small-school bias to enter? Don't say it's obvious and generally available; please be specific. There is still the remote possibility that the small class size and individual attention from professors (no TAs at the small schools) is the reason for the higher percentage of future PhDs coming from the small schools.
    Do tell me how the grad and undergrad programs are so divorced. Are there different faculty? Different courses? Different facilities? Different library collections? No. It's mostly the same. And the rankings are largely based on peer review (NRC, US News, etc.); they review the programs, often irrespective of grad/undergrad.
    Look at it the other way: If all these things are true, how are the lower future PhD numbers of the larger schools explained?
    Funnily enough, the perceptions of others are strangely related to what we would call "quality." For example, the schools at the top of the physics lists are those that have top faculty with tons of awards in physics and tons of publications (usually the leaders in their field, presenting at conventions and conferences), that have top facilities (particle accelerators, labs with cutting-edge equipment), that do some of the best research (which impacts the world), that have amazing library collections with breadth and depth, that attract top students, etc. There's a reason they're top-rated.
    For those who care about perceived prestige, this is fine. Those who want the best statistical chance of earning that future PhD might best consult the statistical record. These large schools, with all their facilities for grad students, are indeed the preferred ultimate destinations for doing PhD work.
    In addition, what is it that this PhD productivity list tells us? Reed College is higher than Harvard; what does that mean? Does that mean that Reed is better than Harvard for physics? Does that mean it would be more sensible to go to Reed than Harvard if you're planning on majoring in physics?
    Only if your goal is that future PhD; these statistics say nothing more, and nothing about the general concept of "better."
  • vonlostvonlost Posts: 13,725Super Moderator Senior Member
    Not to be rude, but just search the forums -- this topic has been discussed to death, and the general consensus is that it's biased toward small schools. (And it makes sense -- the small schools top the list.)
    As a follow-up, I searched all of CC and found not a single posting anywhere containing the word bias or biased in connection with IPEDS/NSF data. I found one posting on the bias of this data toward schools with a high percentage of subject majors.
  • milesdavis2milesdavis2 Posts: 16Registered User New Member
    Thanks for the insight -- keep it coming! I think I will go to the grad schools' websites and check out the undergraduate institutions of the students -- good idea.

    What are your reasons for the best undergrad physics programs, beyond ranking?

    I have read on CC that some financial firms (e.g. goldman sachs) recruit hard science majors at some universities -- which colleges do they recruit most at for physics majors? I am just curious, in case I end up going on that path, which is unlikely but a possibility.
  • GrumpsterGrumpster Posts: 498Registered User Member
    For physics, you want to check the course offerings for the school, to make sure they offer the courses at the depth you will want. Not just the course catalog, but the class schedule, to see if they are actually offering those courses. You also want to make sure they have an "honors" sequence in physics; future physics majors shouldn't be taking classes with mechanical engineering students, there should be a more advanced option for those interested in a more theoretical understanding. You want a place with enough of those "honors" types of students where you can have a little community. This may also offer you more interaction with professors and not just TAs.

    I think with physics, you're oftentimes better off at a big state school with a big physics department, with lots of grad students and ongoing research, than a smaller school even if it is better ranked overall.
  • kyledavid80kyledavid80 Posts: 8,093Registered User Senior Member
    Where is the opportunity for the small-school bias to enter?

    Er, because it's small, so the denominator is smaller? This does not mean that the numerator will be smaller, as normalizing for such size differences is not so easy (in a perfect world, the ratio would be).
    how are the lower future PhD numbers of the larger schools explained?

    Hmm, perhaps that there are more students who don't want to get a PhD in physics?
    Those who want the best statistical chance of earning that future PhD might best consult the statistical record.

    "Best statistical chance"? What? That makes no sense. In order for there to be a statistical chance, the event in question must be random (basic statistics). This is not random. Thus, if you want to get a PhD in physics, you can go to a school that sends 90% of its students on to get physics PhDs, or you could go to school that sends 50% of its students on to get physics PhDs. Either way, you are going to get a PhD in physics; going to the former will not help that any more than going to the latter. Notice that the list is not based on how many students the school gets into grad school. In other words, it's not a reflection of the school's job.
    As a follow-up, I searched all of CC and found not a single posting anywhere containing the word bias or biased in connection with IPEDS/NSF data. I found one posting on the bias of this data toward schools with a high percentage of subject majors.

    Believe me, there are plenty of times where people have discussed why smaller schools are near the top. (They may or may not have used the word "bias" specifically, probably more roundabout.) I've seen discussion on PhD production so much that I usually ignore the threads to do with it.
  • vonlostvonlost Posts: 13,725Super Moderator Senior Member
    Er, because it's small, so the denominator is smaller? This does not mean that the numerator will be smaller, as normalizing for such size differences is not so easy (in a perfect world, the ratio would be).
    No, that's why the minimum of 1,000 graduates is applied.
    Hmm, perhaps that there are more students who don't want to get a PhD in physics?
    Yes, that's it for sure, those sour grapes. :)
    What? That makes no sense. In order for there to be a statistical chance, the event in question must be random (basic statistics). This is not random.
    Correct, this is correlation, not randomness.
    Thus, if you want to get a PhD in physics, you can go to a school that sends 90% of its students on to get physics PhDs, or you could go to school that sends 50% of its students on to get physics PhDs. Either way, you are going to get a PhD in physics;
    Just because you want to doesn't mean you will.
    going to the former will not help that any more than going to the latter.
    Hmmm. You assume either that all undergrad schools provide the same kind of preparation, or that the preparation they provide is immaterial. In this case we just disagree, no problem.
    In other words, it's not a reflection of the school's job.
    Yes, we disagree.
    Believe me, there are plenty of times where people have discussed why smaller schools are near the top.
    That is true, but it's not because of bias in the data.
    I've seen discussion on PhD production so much that I usually ignore the threads to do with it.
    You should have ignored this one!
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