Page 1 of 1

Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Sun Feb 24, 2013 3:26 am
by therocketscientess
Hi everyone,

I've done my searching through past threads but haven't found my answers so here goes.

It's getting to the point where I think many of us have most of our final decisions, and by some miraculous turn of events it looks like my debate is going to be between Berkeley and CalTech. After receiving an abysmal PGRE score I didn't expect to get in anywhere let alone my two top choices, so until now I really haven't thought about how I would choose between the options. I am turning to the rest of you for advice.

My interest is Computational Astrophysics, but the catch is I was admitted to Physics (rather than Astro) departments in both schools (which is peculiar because I'm not convinced thats where I applied as far as CalTech is concerned). I want a more physics based background than Astronomy, so this works for me as far as coursework is concerned, but I'm worried about research, both places have great people in my field of interest in the Physics Dept, but also in Astronomy. Does anyone know how often schools allow you to cross departments for research? (my undergrad institution had a shared department so I'm not familiar with how this works).

How does one choose? I have this nagging fear that choosing one of these schools over the other could cripple my career by closing too many doors... Also does anyone have insight on the rumor that the UC schools accept significantly more students than they plan to keep? If that's true, is there a hostile/overly competitive environment among 1st and 2nd years?

Thanks guys.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Sun Feb 24, 2013 10:17 am
by Tom Joad
therocketscientess wrote:Hi everyone,

I've done my searching through past threads but haven't found my answers so here goes.

It's getting to the point where I think many of us have most of our final decisions, and by some miraculous turn of events it looks like my debate is going to be between Berkeley and CalTech. After receiving an abysmal PGRE score I didn't expect to get in anywhere let alone my two top choices, so until now I really haven't thought about how I would choose between the options. I am turning to the rest of you for advice.

My interest is Computational Astrophysics, but the catch is I was admitted to Physics (rather than Astro) departments in both schools (which is peculiar because I'm not convinced thats where I applied as far as CalTech is concerned). I want a more physics based background than Astronomy, so this works for me as far as coursework is concerned, but I'm worried about research, both places have great people in my field of interest in the Physics Dept, but also in Astronomy. Does anyone know how often schools allow you to cross departments for research? (my undergrad institution had a shared department so I'm not familiar with how this works).

How does one choose? I have this nagging fear that choosing one of these schools over the other could cripple my career by closing too many doors... Also does anyone have insight on the rumor that the UC schools accept significantly more students than they plan to keep? If that's true, is there a hostile/overly competitive environment among 1st and 2nd years?

Thanks guys.


I'm in a very similar situation: deciding between Berkeley, Caltech, and other schools for high energy astrophysics. I applied to the physics department as well, and I can assure you that you will have no problem working with astronomy professors at either institution. I met several Caltech graduate students at the latest American Astronomical society meeting, in both astronomy and physics, along with Dr. Christian Ott who said that being a physics graduate student very typical for his students. For Berkeley, I was assured by both my advisor, the website, and the sole graduate student at the AAS meeting (a physics grad student working for Dr. Daniel Kasen) that there were no barriers between the departments.

Because of the limited sample size, I wasn't able to really get a feel for Berkeley at the meeting, but I was assured by the fact that the one person I did meet was doing some really cool research and on good terms with her advisor. Everyone from Caltech seemed to be really friendly and like the school a lot, though they said it was "intense."

I can't really help you make a decision, as I haven't even come close to making a decision myself. Though, I don't think you should worry about making a "wrong" choice when choosing between Caltech and Berkeley: both are leaders in the field and well respected. Caltech is significantly smaller, so depending on how specific your interests are you may only have one prospective advisor. I think that attending the open house will be essential in getting a feel for the departments and my potential advisors, so I wouldn't decide before then. Of course, because of Berkeley's late open house, that means we will be in a very stressful position just days before April 15, but so it goes.

From what I've come to understand, that stigma about UC Berkeley is outdated.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Sun Feb 24, 2013 11:09 am
by ol
Tom Joad wrote:Caltech is significantly smaller, so depending on how specific your interests are you may only have one prospective advisor.


This is completely untrue, having visited Caltech and seen for myself. You will have no trouble finding someone to work with, and you can work with people at JPL, IPAC, etc.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Sun Feb 24, 2013 11:29 am
by Tom Joad
ol wrote:
Tom Joad wrote:Caltech is significantly smaller, so depending on how specific your interests are you may only have one prospective advisor.


This is completely untrue, having visited Caltech and seen for myself. You will have no trouble finding someone to work with, and you can work with people at JPL, IPAC, etc.


You may be right, but aren't those institutes mainly observational in nature? I was referring specifically to theory/computation. If you look at TAPIR, their are only 5 non-emeritus professors (one of which is just arriving), all of which are doing related, but fairly different things.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Sun Feb 24, 2013 3:27 pm
by bfollinprm
Tom Joad wrote:
ol wrote:
Tom Joad wrote:Caltech is significantly smaller, so depending on how specific your interests are you may only have one prospective advisor.


This is completely untrue, having visited Caltech and seen for myself. You will have no trouble finding someone to work with, and you can work with people at JPL, IPAC, etc.


You may be right, but aren't those institutes mainly observational in nature? I was referring specifically to theory/computation. If you look at TAPIR, their are only 5 non-emeritus professors (one of which is just arriving), all of which are doing related, but fairly different things.



There's as much going on in both departments.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Sun Feb 24, 2013 3:56 pm
by Skullgrid
ol wrote:
Tom Joad wrote:Caltech is significantly smaller, so depending on how specific your interests are you may only have one prospective advisor.


This is completely untrue, having visited Caltech and seen for myself. You will have no trouble finding someone to work with, and you can work with people at JPL, IPAC, etc.


In terms of computational astro, it's pretty true. There's basically Christian Ott + his group and that's it.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Tue Feb 26, 2013 10:43 pm
by therocketscientess
Thanks for all the input everyone. I'm still not sure which to choose, but I'm trying not to stress to hard until after the visits (even though Berkeleys pretty much gives us one day until the choice must be made).

Anyone else going to be visiting these schools?

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Wed Feb 27, 2013 9:42 am
by Tom Joad
bfollinprm wrote:
There's as much going on in both departments.


Are you saying that in a good way? (i.e. that both departments are strong?)

therocketscientess wrote:Thanks for all the input everyone. I'm still not sure which to choose, but I'm trying not to stress to hard until after the visits (even though Berkeleys pretty much gives us one day until the choice must be made).

Anyone else going to be visiting these schools?


I'm definitely visiting. There's no way I'd be able to make a good decision if not, though I'm going to miss a lot of class! I also hope that by an April 15 deadline they mean that can wait to inform them until exactly the 15th.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Wed Feb 27, 2013 12:38 pm
by bfollinprm
Tom Joad wrote:
bfollinprm wrote:
There's as much going on in both departments.


Are you saying that in a good way? (i.e. that both departments are strong?)

therocketscientess wrote:Thanks for all the input everyone. I'm still not sure which to choose, but I'm trying not to stress to hard until after the visits (even though Berkeleys pretty much gives us one day until the choice must be made).

Anyone else going to be visiting these schools?


I'm definitely visiting. There's no way I'd be able to make a good decision if not, though I'm going to miss a lot of class! I also hope that by an April 15 deadline they mean that can wait to inform them until exactly the 15th.


Sure, they're both strong. Not sure either is the strongewt, even on the west coast, when it comes to computational astronomy (maybe Santa Barbara/Irvine are better). All it takes is one good group to make a school a good fit though.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Wed Feb 27, 2013 6:51 pm
by therocketscientess
bfollinprm wrote:
Tom Joad wrote:
bfollinprm wrote:
There's as much going on in both departments.


Are you saying that in a good way? (i.e. that both departments are strong?)

therocketscientess wrote:Thanks for all the input everyone. I'm still not sure which to choose, but I'm trying not to stress to hard until after the visits (even though Berkeleys pretty much gives us one day until the choice must be made).

Anyone else going to be visiting these schools?


I'm definitely visiting. There's no way I'd be able to make a good decision if not, though I'm going to miss a lot of class! I also hope that by an April 15 deadline they mean that can wait to inform them until exactly the 15th.


Sure, they're both strong. Not sure either is the strongewt, even on the west coast, when it comes to computational astronomy (maybe Santa Barbara/Irvine are better). All it takes is one good group to make a school a good fit though.


@tom
Oh god I can't imagine having to miss class for all these visits! Especially since March is midterms season. hope your professors are understanding though, I mean they should want you to make the best decision possible. My boss has been incredibly understanding, although I am missing my astronomy students midterm, which is unfortunate.

@bfollinprm
I actually think Santa Cruz may be the strongest for Computational Astro, and UCSC is definitely still in the running for me, the only problem is that if I go there I don't really have the option to change my mind topic wise, they have a lot less going on overall. Also their financial offer was impressively small considering the cost of living in Santa Cruz, and while money is not the most important factor it indicates to me that their department may not be well funded.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Thu Feb 28, 2013 5:01 pm
by bfollinprm

@tom
Oh god I can't imagine having to miss class for all these visits! Especially since March is midterms season. hope your professors are understanding though, I mean they should want you to make the best decision possible. My boss has been incredibly understanding, although I am missing my astronomy students midterm, which is unfortunate.

@bfollinprm
I actually think Santa Cruz may be the strongest for Computational Astro, and UCSC is definitely still in the running for me, the only problem is that if I go there I don't really have the option to change my mind topic wise, they have a lot less going on overall. Also their financial offer was impressively small considering the cost of living in Santa Cruz, and while money is not the most important factor it indicates to me that their department may not be well funded.


Good point about Santa Cruz, with lick nearby their astro is very strong for its size/reputation. All physics departments in the UC system have the same TA/RA funding levels set by a union contract, so the "lowness" of the funding offer just reflects the lack of a top-up fellowship at ucsc. In general, just Berkeley and ucla give those, since the cities are expensive. Note that at UC systems not named Berkeley, the offer is for 9 months, and you should add ~6k to the offer assuming summer support.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Thu Feb 28, 2013 11:58 pm
by therocketscientess
bfollinprm wrote:

Good point about Santa Cruz, with lick nearby their astro is very strong for its size/reputation. All physics departments in the UC system have the same TA/RA funding levels set by a union contract, so the "lowness" of the funding offer just reflects the lack of a top-up fellowship at ucsc. In general, just Berkeley and ucla give those, since the cities are expensive. Note that at UC systems not named Berkeley, the offer is for 9 months, and you should add ~6k to the offer assuming summer support.


Interesting, so I guess I should be looking at it as I got a good deal from Berkeley then, because even with the added 6k over the summer there is a VERY substantial difference. But I think you are wrong about cost of living. Santa Cruz. SC is comprable if not more expensive than some options in the bay area. I'm assuming none of the UC schools offer any sort of subsidized housing for grad students do you know?

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:10 am
by Skullgrid
therocketscientess wrote: But I think you are wrong about cost of living. Santa Cruz. SC is comprable if not more expensive than some options in the bay area. I'm assuming none of the UC schools offer any sort of subsidized housing for grad students do you know?


I go to UCSC. People usually pay around $7k-$10k/yr for rent, so yeah, it's pretty expensive. There is no subsidized housing for grad students that I know of.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:40 pm
by TakeruK
therocketscientess wrote:Also their financial offer was impressively small considering the cost of living in Santa Cruz, and while money is not the most important factor it indicates to me that their department may not be well funded.


I think bfollinprm is right and I think the cost of living in Santa Cruz is still smaller than LA/Pasadena (i.e. UCLA and Caltech). Skullgrid said that rent in SC is about $7k to $10k a year -- that is actually pretty cheap! In Pasadena, if you share a 2 bedroom place, it's about $10k a year, and a 1-bedroom place will cost at least $14k a year for the crappiest apartments. Caltech does have subsidized grad housing at about the same cost as sharing a 2bedroom apartment with someone else but living off campus is way better.

Re: Berkeley vs CalTech?

Posted: Wed Mar 27, 2013 11:26 pm
by AcedOut
I'm a current Physics grad student at Berkeley, so I can't comment on what program is better because I have a clear bias. However, one thing I know that might help is that Berkeley Physics is incredibly flexible with what you want to do research-wise. You can easily work in the Astro department (I have many friends who have done this), and moreover, you can pretty much work in any department you want if you are interested in the PI's research and it's somewhat related to Physics. I know of one Physics grad student who works in a mechanical engineering professor's lab and another one who worked in an electrical engineering professor's lab. Not to mention you can always do a PhD with someone at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab if you find their research interesting (I guess this last aspect is similar to CalTech with JPL). It's the type of intellectual freedom in Physics that's hard to find elsewhere because many departments have an extremely orthodox opinion of what is Physics research.

It's important to address the rumor about intense competition at Berkeley. I remember hearing about this when I got in. It's completely false. I think it used to be true in the 70's, but has long since stopped. Berkeley's graduate students are extremely supportive of each other, which is one of the reasons I came here. If you come to the open house, you'll see for yourself.

Berkeley is a great place to do research, but a lot picking between such great programs is seeing how each department's culture sits with you. I'm pretty sure this will sort itself out after you go to the Open Houses.

Congrats and best of luck with your decision.