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  • xraymancsxraymancs Forum Champion Graduate School Posts: 4,572 Forum Champion
    @rhg3rd you are entitled to your opinion but this is a matter of fact not opinion. There are plenty of solid physicists who do their undergraduate work at what you call a "no name" institution. A graduate program looks for a good students with high GPA, good GRE scores and research experience. You do not have to be at a so-callled "top" school to get that in physics. What you have to do is to take the most demanding curriculum possible and really learn physics. End of story.

    As for bias @Intparent, I hope that mentioning my university is not misconstrued. I am merely stating my experience and qualifications and the fact that I am certainly not ashamed of my university. It is always best to disclose fully, after all. When I do mention my university, it is to provide information to those who are interested in it. Anything more is done by PM. In the case of the comment in this thread I thought my remarks were completely general.

    If you look at my comments over the years, i am pretty consistent. i believe that students should go to the most affordable college possible because they can get a quality education at just about any accredited 4-year university and it is never worth going into debt for a Bachelor's degree. This is the advice that i have followed with my own children and the first two who have already completed college are totally debt free without any sacrifices from us parents.
  • PoemePoeme Registered User Posts: 1,329 Senior Member
    It is true that students can potentially get into a top program coming from any reputable school. However, I do think that coming from a well known school (either a very highly ranked undergrad program or a top 10-20 physics department like UIUC or UCSB) does come with a lot of advantages. You will often have more/better on campus research opportunities and can get letters from very well known professors who know the professors at the top grad schools. For research you can always do REUs outside of your school, but those are only for the summer and it is hard to really get a lot done if you don't continue research doing the year.

    Additionally, while I agree the physics curriculum is standard everywhere, that does not mean that there are not large variations in the difficulty of the coursework and level of competition among the students at different institutions. The reason it may be easier for students from top programs to get into top grad schools is that it is easier for them to show that they are prepared. My professor (at a top 20 program) was the first who told me this. It is harder to gauge an applicant's preparation and qualifications when they come from a lesser known/ranked school since you don't know how they will end up when they are no longer the big fish in the small pound. Some people will thrive in the new environment, but you are taking a chance. I have heard from some students that grad school coursework can be a really tough transition if you don't come from a more rigorous school.

    If I were the OP I would strongly consider the college of creative studies at UCSB. UCSB has an absolutely phenomenal physics department, students love it there and go on to the top grad programs. The three that I met that I remember off the top of my head are going to Princeton, Berkeley, and Harvard respectively.
  • xraymancsxraymancs Forum Champion Graduate School Posts: 4,572 Forum Champion
    It is true that there are different research opportunities at Ph.D. granting universities than at LACs but there are many LACs which send a lot of their students to good graduate programs even thought the faculty are not known for their research programs. These days, there are many research opportunities available for students outside of the home institution in REU programs at the like (for U.S. Citizens and permanent residents, of course). Furthermore, it is not exactly true that well-known researchers only exist in the "top" Ph.D. programs. There are very good researchers in even lesser known schools and the community knows this and pays attention.
  • tk21769tk21769 Registered User Posts: 10,480 Senior Member
    The OP is interested in engineering ... parents cannot afford more than about $20K/y (without loans) ... he doesn't think he'll qualify for need-based aid from expensive private schools ... he's a CA resident.

    The obvious choices, for this scenario, are in the University of California system. Most LACs are out (too expensive w/o aid, no engineering). Selective private universities are out (too expensive w/o aid). Most OOS publics are out (too expensive) unless they offer big merit scholarships.
  • PoemePoeme Registered User Posts: 1,329 Senior Member
    I think the OP is actually interested in Physics. That's why I suggested UCSB. Berkeley would be great too but I know admissions is more of a crapshoot. I have hear CCS at UCSB is a great program and gives you a lot of opportunities to take smaller classes and more advanced classes with a lot of flexibility in your curriculum. The quality of a science education at these schools (especially in physics) is on par with that at the elite undergrad institutions.

    @xraymancs, it is hard to be really productive during the summer unless you have previous research experience. Most students in REUs and other summer programs do not really get much done because it is simply not enough time. I have also found that working on a project long term was really beneficial to my development as a researcher (it also got a first author PRL) and helped me do great work at my REU before senior year.

    Also, while some LACs seem to have great research opportunities and send a lot of students to top grad programs, this does not seem to be the case with most LACs. I met a student from Harvey Mudd at an REU and even he said that Harvey Mudd does not have that many research opportunities. While this is okay for people not planning to go the Phd route, gaining research experience does appear very crucial for admission to grad school.
  • tk21769tk21769 Registered User Posts: 10,480 Senior Member
    Also, while some LACs seem to have great research opportunities and send a lot of students to top grad programs, this does not seem to be the case with most LACs.

    LACs in general tend to have relatively high PhD production rates. This is true even of some LACs that are not especially selective (such as Earlham, Lawrence, Wabash, and Hendrix). Among the top ~50 schools for PhD production rates, there are many more LACs than public research universities, and slightly more LACs than private research universities. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf08311/ (see table 2)
    I have never found a comprehensive comparison of which schools send the most students (by percentage) to "top" PhD programs. According to a Wall Street Journal "feeder school" survey of schools sending the most graduates (by percentage) to top professional schools (medical, business, law), almost half of the top 50 "feeders" were LACs.

    However, the OP did indicate interests in both mechanical and aerospace engineering (as well as in Physics). Very few LACs cover these areas. Furthermore, given his family's apparent financial situation (cannot afford more than ~$20K/y, but does not qualify for n-b aid) very few LACs are likely to be affordable unless he gets a very large merit scholarship. Lawrence University is a LAC that seems to have a pretty strong physics department; it does award merit scholarships. But I'm not sure it would be a better fit for the OP than some of the UCs, given his interests.

  • PoemePoeme Registered User Posts: 1,329 Senior Member
    To get into a top ten science program these days you need significant research experiences. People here keep saying that LACs send just as many kids to grad school as research universities but I did not see that when I went on grad school visits. I did not see many LAC students at all. The ones I saw were from Reed, Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore (I think), Smith, Carlton, and Oberlin (I think) all very prestigious and well known LACs. While there were probably others that I didn't notice, even accounting for the size of LACs, (I'm guessing around 10 majors a year) I don't think the number was that high (most universities have probably 20-40 physics majors). So while it seems the top LACs do produce a lot of students going to the best grad school, the others do not do nearly as well as many state universities like UCSB, which many people view as a party school.

    The UCSB physics department is also nice I've heard since it's very close knit. Students have said the professors are great and the physics majors seem to be close.
  • Mom2aphysicsgeekMom2aphysicsgeek Registered User Posts: 4,311 Senior Member
    (most universities have probably 20-40 physics majors).

    If anyone would like to see a breakdown of the # of actual jr/sr/total/bachelor degrees awarded/grad student data for physics depts around the country, 2012's data is right here:

  • Erin's DadErin's Dad Super Moderator Posts: 35,915 Super Moderator
    @Poeme, universities will, almost always, have more representatives due to the size of their student population. There are a couple of LACs that stand out in the data @Mom2aphysicsgeek‌ posted. From a quick perusal Reed and Oberlin put out more Physics degrees than Oregon U. Looking at PhD students and their undergrad universities, once size is taken into account many LACs are right up there. http://www.thecollegesolution.com/the-colleges-where-phds-get-their-start/
  • PoemePoeme Registered User Posts: 1,329 Senior Member
    @Erin's Dad‌, even taking into account the size, I did not see many students. I went to four open houses and socialized with a lot of the other students. I didn't see many LAC students at all and the ones I saw were from places like Reed and Amherst (I also met a girl from Oberlin last summer). So while it seems that the top LACs (especially Reed, Swarthmore and a few others) do very well with PhD production, it seems like the others do not fare nearly as well.

    Also the schools I visited were one's that come up very frequently on this list of top applicants so you would think that the top students from places like Lawrence University and the other schools (besides schools like the ones I mentioned) would have applied there.

    Anyway, this is just based on my observations visiting schools, and also participating in two REUs during the summer. The one I did last summer had mostly students from less well known LACs. While there are great students from these schools, they definitely do not have as many research opportunities or the opportunity to get published. While publishing is not necessary, it certainly helps when applying to places like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. Research experience is probably the thing in your application that makes the biggest difference.
  • Mom2aphysicsgeekMom2aphysicsgeek Registered User Posts: 4,311 Senior Member
    Based on everything ds has been told, I agree with your last statement. I know ds was also told by deans at various depts that getting actively involved in undergrad research beyond bottle washer can be very difficult in large depts and programs with large grad student populations. A handful of undergrads will be successful at this, but many in large depts are just not going to get the opportunity. (those are deans' words, not mine.)

    Ds had one dean flat out tell him that the research opportunity he was being offered by our local university could not be matched by their institution b/c grad students were filling those roles. Ds opted not to go to the local school, but he did choose a school where he had guaranteed research opportunities. I also know that what ds has been told repeatedly does not conform to a simple answer of attending schools x,y, or z will mean likely grad school acceptance. It has been far more inline with what the IL physics professor wrote--undergrad research, GPA, GRE, LOR.

  • Mom2aphysicsgeekMom2aphysicsgeek Registered User Posts: 4,311 Senior Member
    Oh, I should add that the one physics dept that ds eliminated during our visit (it was a truly horrid experience. Shocking attitude by the undergrad advisor. He had complete disdain for his classes full of NMS and AP students that didn't know how to think. He ranted and raved. Unbelievably unprofessional. ). His response to the question about undergrad research was to seek it out via REU opportunities. He also didn't know anything about where his students went to grad school. Obviously undergrads were at a serious disadvantage in that dept.

    The point is......meet with the dept. Talk frankly about what you seeking. You might be surprised by the responses. Ds certainly was. Every dept had a different feel, different attitude. You want a school that is going to help you succeed in your goals.
  • PoemePoeme Registered User Posts: 1,329 Senior Member
    Yes, I do think it would be very helpful to speak with the department about grad school opportunities if you are thinking about going to grad school. If the school sends a significant number of top grad schools then the grad schools know the school which makes it easier for them to gauge a student's preparation. Many of these schools are universities and some are LACs. If a student comes from a school that is unknown to these grad programs, it's much harder for them to gauge the applicant. High PGRE scores can help remedy this, but many students at less well known institutions are disadvantaged taking the PGRE if they lack a solid preparation. While @xraymancs says that the undergrad physics curriculum is standard, that in no way means there aren't huge variations in difficulty/grading as well as the level of the average physics student at each school.

    Another thing is that while grad students may be an obstacle at some universities, at many schools they are an asset. This also varies heavily by PI. Many of the grad students I met as an undergrad became great friends and mentors. I learned a lot from them.
  • EpistemeEpisteme Registered User Posts: 298 Junior Member
    edited June 2014
    As @MYOS1634‌ suggested, I had a more extensive conversation with my parents about the financial aspects of the situation. It turns out that my previous comments were completely off the mark since I did not have knowledge of all the details and was trying to be as conservative as possible. My parents can afford to pay around $40,000 per year for college without sacrificing their retirement savings and without loans. Combined with the advice given by @ucbalumnus‌ in his first post in this thread, that seems to total out to around $50,000 per year (excluding any merit scholarships or other financial aid). For anything higher, they still wouldn't mind taking out loans (a large portion of which I of course would take responsibility for paying off).

    At the moment, I am having trouble deciding whether I would be better off at a research university or a LAC. I've read what @Poeme‌ posted above regarding most LAC's and, while I don't have the knowledge to determine if his views are correct or not, he seems to make a very logical point. It sounds completely plausible that the physics departments of most LAC's won't offer the recognition and research opportunities that most research universities would. On the other hand, I am also concerened about attending research universities where undergraduates are completely neglected and where it would be a significant burden to access the necessary oportunities. How would I discern if either of these is the case? By talking to current physics majors? Or are there other methods?

    Ultimately, I want easy access to meaningful research opportunities not only during the summer but also the school year (a.k.a. research universities) as well as an environment that significantly focuses on undergraduate teaching and development (a.k.a. LAC's). Are these two qualities mutually exclusive? Medium-sized schools (i.e., Case Western, University of Rochester, etc.) seem to fit the bill but I'm not completely sure if they do or do not.

    Based on all the comments on this thread so far, I have an itch to focus only on research universities and the top physics LAC's (Amherst, Swarthmore, Williams, Carleton, Bowdoin, Lawrence, Harvey Mudd, Grinnell, New Mexico Tech, etc.) and narrow further out of this pool. This would be even more ideal considering that only top LAC's seem to offer engineering programs (which I could take advantage of if I decide not to do physics). Is there any downside to this strategy? Would I potentially miss out on schools that would otherwise be good fits?


    I first heard about the CCS at UCSB a few months ago and will almost certainly apply there. However, due to a lack of information, I have no idea if I should consider that particular program a safety, macth, or reach. It personally sounds like a reach to me.


    Can you tell me more about the physics department and its research opportunities, both inside and outside of CBHP? It sounds like a great program, and one that I will definitely apply to if I apply to UA, but one that I may not get into. For that reason, I'm wondering if I'd still have the same opportunities at UA without CBHP.
  • PoemePoeme Registered User Posts: 1,329 Senior Member
    @Episteme the two criteria you mention are not mutually exclusive by any means which is something a lot of people don't realize. At my university, I received a wonderful education and many of my professors became great mentors. They were always willing to speak with students to provide help or even just general career advice. You just have to approach them and go to office hours and they will be very happy to get to know you. At some universities this might be harder to do, but you have to remember that professors have a lot of passion for what they do and in most of my observations they love to share their enthuasiasm with students, even undergrads.
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