Where to undergrad in physics if grad school (PhD) is the goal?

If the goal is to advance to a top-tier PhD program in physics after undergraduate, what would be great undergraduate programs known for matriculating to top graduate programs for physics? How much do those PhD programs select based on undergrad school vs test scores vs GPA vs undergraduate research vs other?

Thanks.

It is the least important of the factors you mentioned.

Where to go is too broad a question. Maybe MIT. May\be Harvey Mudd. Maybe Bryn Mawr. Maybe…

You want an environment conducive to scholarship and research.
It can be your state flagship’s honors college, it can be a LAC known for its physics dept or its STEM program in general (from Williams to women’s colleges to Lawrence WI), it can be a STEM university like MIT, Harvey Mudd, VaTech or GaTech…
What’s your budget?
What’s your current GPA?
MAth&Physics courses currently being taken and planned for next year?
Have you talked “budget” with your parents?

Agreeing with @MITPhysicsAlum: where you go is the least important. And: sometimes something that seems obvious, isn’t: as an example, being a standout at a school like MIT or H-M is hard. Test scores have been of variable importance (depending on the school) for years, and are getting more so. Research- including the experience, specific expertise that you acquire and the LoRs- ime is make-or-break.

Of course, the other tricky part is learning what is “top-tier”- it’s not necessarily the famous name you might have in your head. Depending on the kind of physics you are interested in, many of the best places are best b/c of specific researchers (whose work you may or may not be interested in) and/or equipment (cf, state schools).

Physics as a major is pretty standardized across colleges: any physics major at a reputable college will give you all the coursework required for getting into a PhD program. If you are an advanced student, bigger colleges/universities will often have more room for you to take more electives and even grad level classes, but I am here to tell you first hand: you can go to an LAC not known for science or physics and end up in a top-10 program.

Look for colleges where 1) you are likely to shine (academically & personally) and 2) where the physics department has research for students to participate in right from the get-go.

As soon as you get to college & find your feet- before the winter holiday!- start working on lining up research for the coming summer. For most students, their best bet is something on campus: many schools have funded summer internships that you can apply for (a good thing to ask about when you are visiting / talking to departments). You can apply for placements such as REUs, but 2nd & 3rd years tend to get preference.

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The main caution is that physics is not a very popular major at some colleges, and the physics department itself may be small and busy with service courses for other majors, so some of the expected-for-pre-PhD-students upper level physics courses may only be offered rarely. So you may want to investigate the upper level physics offerings and see if the following upper level courses are offered on a regular enough basis:

  • Quantum mechanics (usually 2 semesters)
  • Electromagnetism and optics (usually 2 semesters)
  • Intermediate / advanced mechanics
  • Statistical and thermal physics
  • Intermediate / advanced lab
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I agree with other answers that there are likely to be many different universities where you can do well as an undergraduate student and then go on to a highly ranked graduate program in physics. Which university you get your bachelor’s from is likely to be less important than how well you do, what sort of research you get involved in, and the references you get from your professors and from the people that you do research with.

Also, look at the physics program at universities that you are considering rather than the overall ranking of the university.

Of course top schools such as Stanford, Caltech, MIT, and Harvard are very good for physics. However, so are many public universities such as UCB, UIUC, UC Boulder (perhaps the “other UCB”), UMD, Stony Brook, at least two different UW’s, and many others. Your in-state public universities are probably a good place to look. Quite a few LACs would also be very good.

Top graduate programs will have students from a very wide range of undergraduate programs.

To be more useful, we would need to know more about you, such as which state you are from, what your budget is, and what your high school stats look like.

Another important thing to consider is where you would be comfortable. Fit is much more difficult to determine that “US News ranking of the physics program”, but fit is more important.

I would also not count on continuing with physics until at least after you complete special relativity and quantum physics. People who are good at physics are usually also good at math and computer science and probably several other things. Fortunately universities that are good at physics are usually also good at math and computer science and quite a few other things. This is likely to allow you to switch if you want to when you are in university.

I also agree with the comment above that MIT is hard (as would be Caltech, Harvey Mudd, …). You have to be sure that you want to work very hard for four years without a break if you are hoping to attend MIT or Caltech or a similar school.

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I agree that hundreds of different colleges can get you where you want to go. What you accomplish at the college you attend will be the most important factor.

The people I saw who got directly into PhD programs had excellent GPAs and standardized test scores, had done research as an undergrad, had outstanding references etc. You will need the complete package to be competitive for a top PhD program.

I am the parent. Cost is not a factor. Though he’ll probably be a MNSF (225) so going somewhere with a large merit scholarship would be nice but won’t be the deciding factor.

MIT and Harvey Mudd are great, but are super reaches for anyone.

High (but not perfect) unweighted GPA. Rigorous classes: 9 AP’s by end of junior year (APUSH, World, Lang/Com, Comp Sci A, Chemistry, Physics C (mechanics and electrical), Calc BC, Music Theory). Taking Multivariable Calc/Linear Algebra, Organic Chemistry and AP Bio next year (there is no higher physics course available) along with AP Lit, AP Gov, Adv Comp Algorithms & Data Structures and competitive band.

Currently wants to do physics and pursue PhD and research. Has a slight bias toward a Northeast or Mid-Atlantic based school.

If he gets into one of his super reaches, he’d probably do that. But would be curious to understand short of that which programs matriculate well into the competitive PhD programs. Is he better off at a state flagship honors program (unrelated to cost), a non-T15 university known for STEM (Case Western, Northeastern, RPI, Georgia Tech, etc.) or a small LAC with undergrad research opportunities? And if so, which ones in particular for physics? He tends to prefer a high bar in terms of rigor and peers. Or how much does it not really matter, like with med school and law school where it’s all about GPA and test scores?

Basically, he needs to flesh out matches and safeties but trying to provide targeted guidance.

Here is a personal experience based recommendation for you - based on two physics kids - don’t focus on the traditional powerhouses. I had a physics kid in a top Ivy and one in Georgetown. The one in the Ivy was faced with insane competition from brilliant kids who also worked 24/7 and with profs more focused on going for their Nobels to focus on any but the (at best) superstars. Opportunities were certainly there but had to be hustled for. My GT kid had an amazing experience with a small cohort of close physics friends in an extremely well funded department with profs who couldn’t do enough for the physics kids, endless research opportunities handed to her without “hustling” for them, endless nominations for various prizes. She got an amazing job in tech (may go on for an employer paid PhD) but those of her friends who went to grad school while few were extremely supported and landed very well. And they had time to enjoy themselves!

And this isn’t just anecdote - there is data supporting that students are more likely to stick to their science research profession goals in less competitive schools - particularly true for women or anyone not white heterosexual cis male.

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Probably your best bet is your in-state flagship U, if they do Physics research there.

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For hot schools for physics, look into Hamilton and Pomona, which have graduated multiple students who have received recognition by the American Physical Society (APS) as Apker recipients/finalists (the highest award in the nation for undergraduate research in physics) in recent years. Additionally, a Hamilton professor was recognized recently by the APS for his contributions to the field of physics (in fundamental neutron physics) and his mentoring of students. Williams, whose graduates have received more Apker Awards than those from any other school of its type, should be considered as well. Haverford, Bowdoin, Wesleyan and Reed, which maintains a nuclear reactor on campus for research, also may be of interest. Tech-oriented Harvey Mudd will appeal strongly to some students. For merit scholarship recognition, consider Grinnell and Lawrence.

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That’s really not as big a thing in Physics as it is in some fields (say, Philosophy). When you say “competitive PhD program”, do you have something in particular in mind? Does he?

His specific research interests, his experience & LoRs will be a much, much bigger part of his selection for PhD programs than his UG program.

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@merc81 listed some good options among liberal arts colleges. To add to this, I’ve sorted the top 60ish LACs by PhD production, courtesy of the NCES.

PhDs in Physics & Astronomy (2011-2020)

86 Harvey Mudd

57 Reed
56 Swarthmore
51 Carleton

40 Haverford / Williams
35 Wesleyan
34 Grinnell

28 Colgate / Oberlin
24 Kenyon
23 Pomona
22 St. Olaf / Wellesley
21 Lawrence U

20 Franklin & Marshall / Middlebury
19 Bucknell / Whitman
18 Bowdoin / Macalester
17 Colby / Vassar
15 Denison
14 Bryn Mawr
13 Barnard / Gettysburg / Lafayette
12 Hamilton
11 Occidental

10 Dickinson / Smith
9 DePauw / Mount Holyoke
8 Furman / Rhodes
7 Bard / Colorado College / Holy Cross / Richmond
6 Davidson / Sewanee / Wabash
5 St. Lawrence U / Union
4 Bates
3 Claremont McKenna / Skidmore / Washington & Lee
2 Connecticut College
1 Pitzer / Scripps / Spelman / Trinity (CT)

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Thanks. What makes a large state flagship better than a small LAC like those listed above, with cost not a factor?

State flagship in this case would be Rutgers. Getting in would likely be a safe. Getting honors college would be very competitive, though honors program somewhat less so (and they are effectively the same after Freshman year but for a merit scholarship).

Thanks. Could you post a link to the source?

You can compile the data here:

https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/builder/sed

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A kid who is certain of this could consider applying to Oxford if those 9 APs are 5s in all the important subjects. Importantly the nearly 200 students per year are taught with a presumption that the destination for the best students (particularly those opting for the four year MPhys) will be a PhD.

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Not necessarily better, but potentially better in at least 2 dimensions: 1) for an advanced student, more options on courses beyond the required core; and 2) if the area of interest uses big / expensive equipment, a state uni is much more likely to have good toys. For example, if optics/physics are your thing, it’s hard to beat UAz.

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I thought why not check faculty in physics and see. I chose 3 NE state flagships to see where their profs were from. I saw Ivy undergrad but not a single Ivy or MIT PHD. I saw Colorado, Arizona (several), Virginia.

I tried to find grad student resumes at top thought of colleges to see where they went but couldn’t find. I did run a LinkedIn search. Found a Harvard at MIT, an RIT at Maryland, a Columbia at Brown, a Harvard at UCB, an Illinois inst of Tech st Penn State, and a Brown at NYU.

Not scientific but that’s some info.

flagship state U with a PhD program over a small LAC because of the toys and the ongoing research environment. BTW, many colleges will allow a high school student to take one class a semester for free. He could do the next two courses in Physics that way next year in 12th grade.

He sounds as if he would be a reach but possible candidate for top private and public research institutions. A letter from the prof with whom he takes Physics at a nearby college, maybe even gets involved in research there, could push him over the top to get in.

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