Department Size

calphys
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Department Size

Postby calphys » Sun Mar 02, 2008 2:23 am

Out of curiosity, how do y'all feel about department size? All else being held equal, would you opt for a larger department with more diverse research opportunities, or a smaller one with (possibly) more individual attention?

schmit.paul
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Re: Department Size

Postby schmit.paul » Sun Mar 02, 2008 4:10 am

Since this is grad school and not undergrad, you should be able to find an adequate amount of individual attention from your adviser no matter where you go...it's part of their job. You will likely find many instances of exceptionally attentive advisers at large schools, partly because despite the size of a department, they will still only be working with a few students (there's just more prof's to go around). Now there's a flip side too, you can find irresponsible and impersonal advisers at any size school. So, if all things are truly equal (which entails a lot in those few words), I'd err on the side of the larger program. Now, if the smaller program is much more reputable in a field to which you are truly committed, then by all means give the smaller program serious consideration. But not having options is a serious problem for a grad student, and I've come to know at least two first year grad students who have switched their focuses from their original plans just this semester.

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grae313
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Re: Department Size

Postby grae313 » Sun Mar 02, 2008 4:15 pm

I just want to second what schmidt.paul is saying. I was telling my adviser that I knew that I wanted to do condensed matter and small school x was excellent in that area, and he said, "but what happens a year from now when you suddenly decide, 'I HATE condensed matter!'?" I've done two years of research in this area and I am pretty sure, but unless you are doing the *exact* same research and are sure you won't mind working 'till 10pm in the lab doing that sort of thing all the time, I think it is a good thing to have options open. And yes, if you find a good adviser, you will get the attention you need no matter how large the department is.

calphys
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Re: Department Size

Postby calphys » Sun Mar 02, 2008 4:18 pm

I was thinking more about difficulty finding an advisor in the first place rather than getting him to advise you once you do.

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grae313
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Re: Department Size

Postby grae313 » Sun Mar 02, 2008 4:21 pm

calphys wrote:I was thinking more about difficulty finding an advisor in the first place rather than getting him to advise you once you do.


Well I can only guess that it would be harder to find an adviser at the smaller schools, just because there are less people to choose from. I guess you can always look at faculty/student ratios, but if you have only five people doing research in your area, your options are just limited no matter how good that ratio is.

schmit.paul
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Re: Department Size

Postby schmit.paul » Sun Mar 02, 2008 5:07 pm

Smaller schools have fewer students spread amongst fewer advisers. So the difficulty in finding an adviser based on the size of the school is probably a difficult generalization to make, and it will vary from program to program. Since it sounds like you don't have a particular adviser in mind, you should probably make your choice based on the research going on at the school and the academic quality of the program, and just try to avoid advisers who grad students at the school warn about. But certain schools have different policies with regards to your options once your in the program, how often you can switch advisers, how many different fields you can try out before you must choose, whether or not funding is going to be the make-or-break issue for doing the research you want. These are issues somewhat independent from the size of the school and more dependent on each department's particular policies. Do your research, and ask grad students at each program what they think of the situation at their school.

excel
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Re: Department Size

Postby excel » Sun Mar 02, 2008 7:40 pm

I think it would be good to select a department where there would be scope for some lateral movement along a couple of dimensions...1) more than 1 prof in one's intended area of research in case this one prof has no more space in his group + 2) several profs in other areas to which one can apply one's academic preparation and which may be of possible interest in case one grows disillusioned with one's intended research area (as grae mentioned).

Without knowing anything else, a larger department clearly has a better chance to satisfy this scope of lateral movement criterion. However, now that most of us are choosing between a few specific departments, i think we can bypass department size as a factor and directly compare the fundamental factors, such as the scope of lateral movement between these departments. It may also be possible to ask individual profs at admitted programs whether they will be able to advise you next year in case you want to join his/ her group (i have been regularly posing this question to specific profs during my weekend visits--all profs i asked were very happy to hear this question :lol: )

VT
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Re: Department Size

Postby VT » Sun Mar 02, 2008 11:40 pm

What are we supposed to do if a dept has profs whose research I like are either 70 yrs old or are asst profs? I am sick of these uncertainities :(

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Helio
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Re: Department Size

Postby Helio » Mon Mar 03, 2008 1:14 am

VT wrote:What are we supposed to do if a dept has profs whose research I like are either 70 yrs old or are asst profs? I am sick of these uncertainities :(


You can always have the defib ready for when your prof collapses or you just take the hit when your asst. doesn't get tenure

rooibos
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Re: Department Size

Postby rooibos » Mon Mar 03, 2008 2:32 am

OK guys, all things equal: do I take the prof who likes to hang glide or the one who rock climbs? What if my guy gets hit by a rogue boulder on his way up a cliff? :lol:

forecast8
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Re: Department Size

Postby forecast8 » Mon Mar 03, 2008 4:37 pm

On the advice of my advisor I took department size into account when choosing schools to apply to, but for a very different reason. Yes, the PI / graduate student ratio will be about the same anywhere, but the absolute number of graduate students might be something to consider.

My advisor didn't get his doctorate from MIT but he spent about a year on the campus during his grad school years as his PI collaborated with MIT professors and they went there to run experiments. His observation was that the physics MIT graduate students were in deep competition with each other, even within research groups. Students had a hard time getting assistance from their peers because their peers did not want to see them succed. In his opinion the nature of a large program full of intense egos was that few of them were really very happy.

In his opinon, getting into a big school (as difficult as that may be) may actually be one of the easier parts of getting a PhD from the school.

excel
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Re: Department Size

Postby excel » Mon Mar 03, 2008 5:14 pm

OK guys, all things equal: do I take the prof who likes to hang glide or the one who rock climbs? What if my guy gets hit by a rogue boulder on his way up a cliff? :lol:


When you join his group, you should make it clear to him that he must now drop all his risky activies till you have got your Ph.D. :lol: Tell him: he has no other choice if he has to have the honor of having you in his group.

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zxcv
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Re: Department Size

Postby zxcv » Mon Mar 03, 2008 5:28 pm

I'm still not at all certain what I want to research in grad school. All my research has been in theory and I'm leaning toward condensed matter, complex systems or quantum info, but I could easily be swayed those.

Thus, baring any sudden revelations by April 15 on exactly what I want to do, I will be choosing a large physics department, as broadly strong as possible.

At least that's the theory.

By default I choose by location and where I think I will have the most fun :mrgreen:.

excel
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Re: Department Size

Postby excel » Mon Mar 03, 2008 5:34 pm

His observation was that the physics MIT graduate students were in deep competition with each other, even within research groups.


There is nothing wrong with being competitive whatsoever. Able students with strong characters fluorish in a competitive environment by striving to improve their quality of work & productivity to the max.

Students had a hard time getting assistance from their peers


This may (or may not) be a fact, but...

because their peers did not want to see them succed


What is the basis for this claim?? The students may simply have been too busy to go out of their way to help their peers.

...few of them were really very happy.


Really? How did he know this? Was he carrying a happy-o-meter? Sometimes my party-goer friends tell me that I am not happy because I am not attending their numerous parties and instead wasting away in my lab or in the library. I wonder if this is a similar kind of statement...maybe, the speaker believes anyone not doing what he likes to do is unhappy.

In his opinion the nature of a large program full of intense egos ...


This statement seems to imply to me that the speaker believes the number of egos may be of more relevance than the concentration of egos :lol: Is that so?

In his opinon, getting into a big school (as difficult as that may be)...


Are you sure you were talking about bigger departments and not about more competitive programs this whole time?

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dlenmn
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Re: Department Size

Postby dlenmn » Mon Mar 03, 2008 7:56 pm

(In reply to the original question)

As others have pointed out, it's not clear that a small department => more individual attention. However, the department I'm at (which is small) does have a very nice vibe -- you know a good proportion of the people so it's a friendly place. Perhaps this isn't true on average for other small departments. Perhaps it can be true for large ones as well. However, I'd bet that it's more likely to be true at small places than at large places (e.g. is it possible to know a large fraction of the people at UIUC, which has ~300 grad students?)

Much as I do like this vibe, I'm going for large places because I don't know what I really want to research, so I need options.




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