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

For general perspective, the American Physical Society sketched biographies of Apker winners. The article describes some of the recipients’ research at their undergraduate colleges, through their advanced degrees and into their professional careers. Those who have read How Things Work may be interested in seeing that the author, an Amherst graduate, received the second Apker awarded:

Wikipedia provides an article on the award itself: LeRoy Apker Award - Wikipedia.

For a current research tool, you can view IPEDS, which shows the number of graduating physics “first majors” in a recent year (e.g., College Navigator - Williams College).

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A lot of the "Ivy"s are not powerhouses in Physics, so I wouldn’t see the absence of Ivy PhDs as faculty as a de facto ding (nb, 2 of the 8 were on our Physics Collegekids’ ‘safety’ list for PhD programs).

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Here is a quora comment I came across:

"I think one-half of the initial class of 27 made it through. Those that had attended undergraduate schools that did not have graduate programs in physics were at a distinct disadvantage, as the rest of us had typically taken many graduate courses before attending Princeton, usually starting in our junior year.

By the way, unless a student is going into experimental physics, the math requirements for going into Theoretical Physics are very high, and you need to make sure that the college you pick also offers the appropriate math curriculum.


For this category, also consider the University of Rochester.


Here is a more user friendly format of the NCES/NSF data. You can sort undergrad PhD origin by subject, but also range of years, and undergrad school Carnegie classification (if you just want to grab the LACs for example). All 61 years of data are here, but you can just look at the last couple of decades if you like:


Super useful. Thanks!

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A couple things about this thread might deserve some attention:

(1) It would be good if the son posted directly. If nothing else, it shows gumption which is an extremely important quality for success as a scientist.

(2) About a half-dozen people have opined that undergraduate institution is not a very important consideration, to little avail: we’re off to the races. Any place that has a solid program in physics is above threshold: beyond that it’s what the student does with his opportunities that matters. To get into a graduate program, pick an undergraduate institution where your son will do well.

(3) You need to think about how competitive that this field is. A professor graduates maybe ten students in his lifetime, only one of whom is needed to replace him. Maybe another one gets a job at a national lab, federally-funded R&D center or a slot in the industrial research world (which continues to shrink). Perhaps another gets a teaching job at a non-research institution. The remainder go on to some fascinating careers (a former student designs antennas for cell phones; another does sports-related data science; a third roots out fraud in insurance; a fourth deals with airplane electrical safety) but not necessarily the jobs they were anticipating.

Furthermore, about 3x as many people (and growing) take the GRE than ultimately enroll in grad school.

Grad school is harder than undergrad. Half of all physics PhDs are awarded by about a dozen universities - Princeton, MIT, etc. You’d recognize the names. I would never say that one’s die is cast based on high school, but if MIT is too much of a stretch now, it’s not going to get any easier with time. His competition will be people who didn’t find MIT to be too much of a stretch.

There’s a lot of competition down this path, and you should have a plan on how your son will become competitive (and ideally, this should be his plan, not yours) and a Plan B in case Plan A doesn’t work out.


:100: what @MITPhysicsAlum …and one more piece: a PhD is a research degree. Many students who think that they will love research discover that they don’t. Or they discover they do, but that the prefer (say) CS or engineering research or materials science research or…

To be structuring a college choice around getting into a physics PhD for a student who is still in HS is putting a lot of weight on a very slim reed- not least b/c the student doesn’t even know half the possible pathways out there.

one more time: help him find an uni that suits him- that will challenge him, where he feels he fits in and can shine- let him find his path.


@MITPhysicsAlum and @collegemom3717 know what they’re talking about. Listen to them. Spouse and I are both science profs and can vouch for all of that. Name of undergrad institution doesn’t matter much. Maybe in the elite theoretical fields, but that doesn’t sound like your child’s goal.

I would put some weight on doing undergrad at a school with a physics PhD program if, and only if, it’s a good fit for your child. That would give them some useful exposure to the research world and may help them figure out if grad school is right for them. Certainly doing an REU would be invaluable, and I would HIGHLY recommend that, as suggested upthread. Research is not for everyone, a PhD is DEFINITELY not for everyone. You can have a good career with a just bachelors degree in a heavily quantitative major. That would be an excellent plan B.


Thank you.

I’m curious why you feel that input was “to little avail”? My original post raised the question whether undergrad institution mattered versus other criteria. I haven’t seen any resistance to that idea here.

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I agree to some extent, but undergrad (at least in the US) is much more holistic than grad school. There are plenty of ORMs with moderate ECs who have no chance of getting admitted to HYPSM for undergrad, but are capable of performing well enough at other US colleges to get admitted for an MIT PhD.


On a cheerful note, a physics undergrad degree is highly regarded in the finance/consulting/tech worlds and can lead to many wonderful opportunities if a student concludes that perhaps a doctorate is not in their plans.


A Physics undergrad degree often from a “good” school. When my older kid was advising the younger one, he was saying that if you want to do Math instead of CS and also want to get the benefit of some “street cred” from an employer, you better be at a T5 private. Otherwise an employer would think that you are doing Math because you couldn’t get into CS at a closed major. An example is UCB Math vs UCB CS. This applies to cases where you are looking at a Physics degree to get into a non-Physics job such as finance/consulting/tech and you are using Physics partly to just send a signal that you are very “numerate” and very smart.

Physics and math are totally different. A minimal BS in physics adequately prepares you for physics graduate school. A minimal BS in math does not adequately prepares you for math graduate school.

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To get into

you can genuinely apply with almost any major from

No need to signal that you are

I see your older one’s point, but it is too sharply drawn.


I am sure you are correct about this. But I was just responding to the idea that Physics can get you jobs in consulting/finance/tech. I wasn’t sure if the average Physics major from a T50 can manage to place well into the consulting/finance market as they are a bit prestige conscious.

This is false. I’ve hired math majors for various corporate roles for over 30 years. Employers believe that kids major in math because they love math, period full stop. The notion of “impacted majors” is a phenomenon in a couple of states, at a couple of universities and by no means represents the universe.

No employer looks at a math major from Harvey Mudd or Georgia Tech or Rice or Rutgers and thinks “Gee, why didn’t she major in CS if she was smart?”

Your son’s advice is not reality.


Back to the original topic, the point is that OP’s kid likely will have some good options majoring in physics even if he forgoes the phd. Physics majors seem to have the quantitative and computer skills often highly regarded by employers


You can’t really know this. You should look at comp differences between Math and CS majors at a T5 and the same at a T50 school. I suspect they won’t be the same.

Math at T5 schools is a highly abstract and difficult subject. T50 schools include public universities where there often are several tracks for math majors ranging from the most theoretical to the most basic, math for future math teachers in middle school, type tracks.

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