Undergrad school

  • This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

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Undergrad school

Postby sherwood » Tue Jul 24, 2007 11:01 am

I have a son who has a very good chance to study theoretical Astro at Princeton and other top physics schools. We are in Virginia and UVA or William and Mary look pretty good for undergrad. Does he need to pick a school based on a professor or research area for later undergraduate years? He likes UVA because he will probably be able to take more Astro classes and fewer humanities. He likes Princeton because the professors he met seem a little more charged and its Princeton. Does Princeton vs. UVA make a difference looking for a top grad schools? Princeton, Rice, JHU, UVA are on his list. Other schools were eliminated because of his astro interest or financial limitations. Thoughts?

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Postby schmit.paul » Thu Jul 26, 2007 12:57 am

Please see my response under this topic for my opinion on some of your questions:


I went to an in-state university as an undergrad and I'm currently within the Astrophysical Sciences department at Princeton for grad school (though it is for theoretical plasma physics rather than straight astrophysics). I have to say I'm a little surprised that you are passing up some unnamed schools due to the inherent financial burden for undergrad, and yet Princeton still remains on your list (I believe undergraduate tuition here is on the order of 30,000 or more per year). To be honest, the fact that you're even thinking to ask these questions so early in the game says something (hopefully) about how much thought your son has put into his academic/career decisions. Most people don't think to ask about picking an *undergraduate* school for the particular researchers they may deal with. It's a good question for sure, a little preemptive, but good nonetheless. As an undergrad I'd have to say that physics is going to be difficult no matter where you go, so if you can afford to go to a more prestigious institution, why not? But don't think that just because you didn't get your bachelor's at some premier Ivy League or Tech school that you won't be able to get into a good research institution when it *really* counts--grad school. As I said in my other post, what is more important is that your son picks a school with a healthy research program in areas he *might* be interested in (I say "might" because academic tastes and preferences will likely change as you progress through undergrad....mine changed about 3 times before I nailed it down), and upon starting the program he should take every step to take advantage of the research and mentoring opportunities the school has to afford. An undergrad student from UVA with a few solid research projects under his/her belt, good GRE scores, a solid GPA with plenty of advanced coursework, and great rapport with his/her professors will likely beat out a middle-rung physics student from Princeton when it comes to applying to grad school...at least for physics (law, on the other hand, may be a completely different story...know any senators??).

So moral of the story- pick a place that fits the best into EVERY aspect of his life, not just the academic part. Princeton is beautiful, but my impression is that the grad students are much more laid back than the undergrads and there's not as much of a system of cliques, since us Ph.D. students are getting paid to be here whereas the typical Princeton undergrad is likely an upper-crust, well-to-do kid whose family can *afford* to put him into such an elite school. State schools are great places to obtain proper interpersonal social skills (which has benefited me immensely since I got to Princeton), and the larger state schools with large physics programs should have plenty of resources available as far as research is concerned.

If that didn't answer your questions, feel free to ask some more. However, perhaps your son should be the one asking some questions?

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Postby jwc914 » Thu Jul 26, 2007 5:28 pm

I agree with schmit.paul.

My opinion is that it's upto the student how much physics s/he will learn during undergraduate....not the school. (it will definitely matter for grad school though because that would dictate the student's research)
I guess it would be better to go to a big research university so that the student might get broad research experience options....but even if he decides to go to a small liberal arts school, he can always get into good REU programs and do decent research. (i'm assuming he is a domestic student)

I think those physics specific questions can be considered later when he decides to apply to grad school but more important question for him now would be 'where would i enjoy the most so that I can happily study physics as much as i want? do i want to go far away? stay near home? do i want to study in big cities? or country side?'

Good luck!
Last edited by jwc914 on Sat Nov 10, 2007 1:20 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby quizivex » Thu Jul 26, 2007 9:30 pm

Note that while it is (usually) true that a student can get practically the same overall physics education at any school... it is NOT true that you get the same EXPERIENCE. The types of peers you spend your college years with, both inside and outside of the physics department, will have a huge effect on not only your social life but your academic performance as well. I won't say anymore than that....

Top schools have their advantages, full scholarship deals at average schools have their advantages too, but wherever you consider going for undergrad, be sure to look a little beyond the educational and financial pros and cons. The overall environment is important too...

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Postby sherwood » Fri Jul 27, 2007 12:49 pm

Excellent reply. I wanted to be comfortable telling him that the financial package from a given school was not in my budget without feeling like I was creating a big hurdle in his future. I am a lot more comfortable telling him how much he will have to kick in. He can chew on the other comments to figure out what he wants to do.

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Postby schmit.paul » Fri Jul 27, 2007 1:52 pm

Yeah, from personal experience it is very easy to become distracted at a big state school and get caught up in swell of academic mediocrity in favor of your typical licentious college activities, which permeate every private and public university in the country, but tend to be the most pronounced in a large public university setting. Self-motivation becomes extremely important at a bigger school, because it is very easy to simply meander through your four years relatively under the radar and come out the other end with a degree and not much else. However, if your son is the kind of guy who can keep focused when it matters and engage with both his peers AND his professors, the amount of social resources available at a larger school are beyond comparison, and he will (hopefully) come out the other end a more balanced, amiable, and sociable person.

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