Tom Joad wrote:What was your impression of Berkeley in terms of the student-professor interactions, student happiness, competitiveness, etc.?
In general, Berkeley felt... weird. Kinda like I was in a Twilight Zone episode. Compared to MIT, everyone is waaaaay chill. Everyone [coordinating the visit] was also super-nice, this was probably to convince us Berkeley is the best (and oh did they try to persuade us: amazing hotel, steak dinners, boat cruise...the works.)
All the professors I met had their own custom managerial style. They all seem to synergize well with the students in their groups, and all the groups had a different "feel" to them. Kinda like they were in their own world. They don't stay that way all the time though... there's weekly beer hour in the department. There were a lot of "characters" there, personalities were all over the place (both in physics and in general). Some of them were pretty awkward, but what to do expect from physicists anyway?
You'll never, ever find a student that says they are not happy at Berkeley, even the ones that aren't being paid to convince you. I think they handle pressure by just being more chill. It's like they all know that Berkeley is the greatest place to do research on the planet and the super passionate ones will probably scoff if you bring up a Stanford or Harvard. They all told me how great it is to be at Berkeley, even the ones who not obligated to. Make sure you don't buy into the hype though make sure you feel like you'd fit in there. Personally I felt a little uncomfortable, I can't put my finger on what it was, Berkeley is just strange: the architecture, the people, the city, the weather... you'll see what I mean.
Overall, the work they do there seems to be top notch just by observing the way the students work. Don't think you can easily say Berkeley is in a tier below those other schools that get all the press, but do consider what their strongest research areas are. For example, I think Berkeley's AMO is strong, but I think MIT/Harvard, and CU Boulder groups may be a little better. I hope I don't regret typing that...
You probably already know this, but for other who are reading, think more about the GROUP you'd be in than the school itself.
I did meet a couple people I think are jerks... but I'd never work with them so it really wouldn't be too much of an issue. Another note is if you don't like liberalism, you won't make it out alive. Also, the bums are pretty interesting... I saw one reading Tolstoy.
Some people say Berkeley is "cut-throat," but I didn't see any evidence for that among them during my visit. The only throats they want to cut is Stanford.
I hope my post doesn't sound biased, but I guess you want my bias.