College Choice

Sean Carroll is offering more unsolicted advice (though it is in response to a comment, which makes it borderline solicited...), this time about choosing an undergraduate school. He breaks the options down into four categories, with two small errors that I'll correct in copying the list over here:

  1. Liberal-Arts College (LAC), such as Williams or Union.
  2. Specialized Technical School (STS), such as MIT or Caltech.
  3. Elite Private University (EPU), such as Harvard or Stanford.
  4. Large State School (LSS), such as UCLA or Michigan.

There. That's much better.

I should note two things up front: the first is that Sean's advice is specific to the sciences, as is my response; the second, and more important of the two, is that in personal-fulfillment terms, it really doesn't matter. As a society, we place far too much emphasis on the choice of college as a defining moment, leading to far too many sleepless nights for high-school students and their parents. Given a choice among comparable institutions, it is possible for any given student to be happy and successful at either of them.

As noted earlier, I feel very strongly about my time at Williams, and the school played a big part in getting me where I am, and making me who I am. But had I gone to a different college-- Swarthmore, say, which was the other school on my final list-- I would be a different person today, but I don't think I would be any less happy with my college experience, or with the course of whatever career I ended up in.

With the disclaimers out of the way, I'll talk up the advantages of one of these four categories below the fold, and you can almost certainly guess which one...

Sean writes of liberal arts colleges:

At an LAC or STS, you will be forced to learn a lot, like it or not. I'm a big fan of LAC's; the professors are typically talented and dedicated to teaching, and students get invaluable up-close-and-personal time with the faculty. But for people who want to go to grad school, they face something of a disadvantage because the these schools typically won't have graduate programs. That means (1) you can't take any grad classes, and (2) you can't buttonhole grad students about advice for the next step. I went to one, and received a great education, but keenly felt those disadvantages.

Those are true statements-- small colleges by definition do not have graduate programs. I don't really see those disadvantages as being all that significant compared to the advantages, though. You can't ask grad students for their advice, true, but a good college will keep tabs on its alumni, and you can always ask recent graduates for their advice. And the closer interaction with faculty means that you can talk to them about what you should do, and expect them to know you well enough to give useful advice.

As for the lack of graduate classes, that's really only a factor for those students who manage to burn through the regular curriculum quickly enough to be able to take graduate classes. I'm not sure those students are numerous enough to be the basis for a general rule.

I would say, though, that there are a couple of curricular disadvantages to small liberal arts colleges, chief among them being that they simply can't offer the same breadth of advanced courses that a larger institution will. We require students to take one upper-level elective (such as the quantum optics class I taught last spring), and we try to offer two such classes a year. That means that a very good student has the chance to take at most four upper-level classes beyond the core curriculum, and an exceptional student might get a shot at six. We have to rotate through topics, though, and some years we only offer one, which means that students can graduate without ever taking an advanced course in statistical mechanics, or condensed matter physics, or nuclear physics. That does put liberal arts college students at something of a disadvantage when it comes to graduate school.

The weakness in class work is more than compensated for (in my opinion) by the advantages offered by small schools when it comes to research experience. Sean notes later in his article that research experience is a big help, and I would add that the sort of research experience you get at a small school is better in many ways that what you can get at a bigger university.

Somewhat ironically, the key difference is the lack of graduate students. At big schools, most of the work is done by graduate students and post-docs, which means that an undergraduate is coming into a situation where somebody else owns the project, and has responsibility for its day-to-day operation and direction. Undergraduates in these labs often get shuffled off onto side projects, or stuck with the drudge work that even the junior graduate students don't want to do. I once asked a summer undergraduate student at NIST to make some BNC cables for me, and his response was "Awww... That's what they made me do at MIT!"

As an undergraduate researcher at a small school, you're it. There are no grad students, just you and a faculty member, and during the academic year, the faculty are mostly too busy to be in the lab. The person responsible for the day-to-day operation of the project is you. You get to make all the decisions that are made by grad students and post-docs at the larger schools, and you get to be involved in every phase of the project. It's a lot of responsibility, but there's no better way to learn what research is really like, and whether you really want to be doing this.

(I should note that I write this as an experimentalist, and my focus is always on experimental research. These issues may be less prominent in theory-- I don't know what the theory equivalent of making cables is.)

You won't be working with the same resources at a small college as you would at a bigger school, and progress will be much slower (as a rule of thumb, a bright undergraduate counts for half a grad student-- not because they're any less talented, but because they have other classes and activities taking up their time), but you end up with a more in-depth research experience at a small school, and that can stand you in good stead down the road.

I'm a big fan of liberal arts colleges in general-- obviously, or I wouldn't be working at one-- and I think they're an excellent path to a career in science. They're not just for "liberal arts twinks" (hey to Mike Kozlowski)-- some of the very best scientists I know are liberal-arts college graduates, including at least one Nobel laureate in Physics. Sean's other categories offer their own advantages, but if you're interested in science, and like the other advantages that small schools offer, there's no reason to go anywhere else.


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"...if you're interested in science, and like the other advantages that small schools offer, there's no reason to go anywhere else."

Umm, other than the fact that almost all liberal arts schools cost 2-5 times what a state school does? That's why I went to CU rather than Swarthmore; I didn't want to graduate with >$50k in student loans to pay off.

There are a lot of advantages to going to a liberal arts college. There are also a lot of advantages of coming out of school without a mountain of debt hanging over your head.

By Nicholas Condon (not verified) on 17 Oct 2006 #permalink

He's also missing the regional comprehensive state universities, which serve large numbers of people, and try to provide solid educations to their students.

For many students, these schools are more affordable than the options he cites (in part because they're often more local and public). They also tend to be smaller than the huge public universities he cites, and so have few if any grad students teaching classes, more contact with faculty (though not necessarily on a par with the best LACs).

As with all decisions, students need to think about what they want from a college, and what they're going to benefit from most.

I would say, though, that there are a couple of curricular disadvantages to small liberal arts colleges, chief among them being that they simply can't offer the same breadth of advanced courses that a larger institution will.

Not all research-oriented universities will have a large number of advanced electives either. Depending on the LAC, this might not be all that big a disadvantage.

We do reasonably well at Vanderbilt, but not great. The reason is that, even though we have 29 members of the faculty, each faculty member teaches one class a term. Additionally, we have something like six or seven sections of introductory physics -- one for non majors, one for majors, and then four or five for pre-meds and engineers. The service requirements take up a fair amount of our time. Then, we also have graduate classes (core and, increasingly, advanced electives) to teach. When all is said and done, the number of advanced undergraduate electives we teach is down to one or two per semester, and something like a total of 6-8 different ones taught on a two-year cycle. That may not be a whole lot more than you'll see at some of the better-physics-departmented LACs.

Of course, I think our core is rock-solid; we've got two semesters of advanced mechanics, E&M, and quantum each, and that's beyond the freshman year mechanics/E&M and the sophomore year modern physics. (There's also a thermo/stat mech class that everybody takes.)


I get the impression in many physics departments (big and small), the number of advanced undergrad physics courses seem to be along the lines of 2 or 3 a year. (The usual suspects are ones like solid-state/condensed matter, nuclear, particle, etc ...). In some semesters there may even be zero advanced courses offered.

The number one complaint I've heard from many professors teaching advanced undergraduate physics courses, is that their courses frequently turned out to be a "mess" in the end. This was especially true when the course was scheduled in the final semester/quarter of the school year, with mostly senior year undergrad students enrolling. With students working hard on their senior year theses/projects, some of their classes ended up falling by the wayside (sometimes to the point of neglect). In the end, some advanced courses may very well be a washout for the students.

My #1 favorite courses that I've taught at Vanderbilt have been the advanced undergrad courses. I've only done two so far-- a Galactic Astrophysics course, and a General Relativity course. I've tended to have good, interested students -- these are electives, after all -- and people kept paying attention to the end. I've enjoyed teaching these far more than the graduate classes I've taught. And, I like them better than the big non-majors undergrad astronomy course I've taught. (The latter can be fun, but the administration, coupled with the typically-third of the students who really don't want to be there, are a bit of a downer. I did it over the summer with 15 students, and it was a lot more fun then.)


It seems like many of the more popular advanced undergraduate physics courses require some knowledge of quantum mechanics, and maybe electromagnetism and/or stat-mech. Perhaps undergrads can be introduced to these advanced physics courses sooner, if they had a course on basic quantum mechanics earlier.

When I was an undergrad, we didn't have quantum mechanics until the end of our junior year. It was basically solving simple 1-dimensional cases of the Schrodinger equation, tacked on to the end of a modern physics course. Our first "real" course on quantum mechanics was in senior year. Because of this, all the advanced undergrad physics courses were only offered in the very last semester/quarter of our senior year. (I remember my friends who majored in chemistry, were already doing quantum mechanics in their sophomore year in physical chemistry).

I don't think this will happen anytime soon, but it may be worthwhile to change the undergrad physics curriculum where a course covering modern physics and basic quantum mechanics is done in freshman year. This could be a course covering things like Boltzmann's distribution, Planck's Law, de Broglie waves, Bohr model, Compton scattering, etc ... leading to basic 1-dim Schrodinger equation problems and a basic outline of Heisenberg's uncertainty inequality. In principle a course of this type can be taken by physics majors in their second semester/quarter of freshman year, with only a knowledge of freshman mechanics and calculus courses from their first freshman semester.

(I should note that I write this as an experimentalist, and my focus is always on experimental research. These issues may be less prominent in theory-- I don't know what the theory equivalent of making cables is.)

Desperately trying to second-guess what kinds of papers the conference board will be likely to accept this year.

I choose RPI over MIT because it seemed to nicely combine STS and LAC. It was clearly a strong technical institute with some top notch research opportunities and a solid reputation, but it's a pretty small school (6k). Most importantly it had as 4:1 Undergrad/Grad ratio, so the faculty really needs undergraduates to be working on research projects. My senior year my advisor and I did a poster for APS (we were the only authors) based on work I'd done over the summer in a lab I'd worked in since being a soph. I got to work with grad students a lot, but I was rarely working for them. It was a great choice for a school...well, except for the 6:1 male/female ratio, which is why I went to the Big 10 for grad school.

Nicholas said: Umm, other than the fact that almost all liberal arts schools cost 2-5 times what a state school does?

There are state liberal arts schools that are quite affordable. I attended Truman State University in Missouri, and felt like I got a great education with a state school price. It was a good deal all around.

I guess I got lucky, because I'm an undergrad at an EPU and I found an advisor who not only did not assign me drudge work; he had a policy that any undergrad who wanted to work under him should do something that has some possibility of being published before they graduate. His view is that grad students have many years to learn all the intricacies of the experiment, but undergrads come and go quickly and shouldn't faff about making cables. Instead they should learn just enough about the details from the grad students to get on with their own projects.

By Wowbagger (not verified) on 17 Oct 2006 #permalink

I don't think this will happen anytime soon, but it may be worthwhile to change the undergrad physics curriculum where a course covering modern physics and basic quantum mechanics is done in freshman year.

My observation at most places is that your college was atypical.

The typical college curriculum in Physics at most places looks something like:

FRESHMAN YEAR : Newtonian Mechanics, E&M (H&R level)

SOPHOMORE YEAR : Modern physics, including 1-dimensional Schroedinger equation solutions.

JUNIOR-SENIOR YEARS : Classical Mechanics (Lagrange, rotating ref. frames, mmt. of Inertial, central force motion), E&M (Griffiths level), Quantum Mechanics (Griffiths level)

Sometimes there's some Modern in Frosh year, but I think that's less common.


Doing undergraduate research at a grad student-heavy STS or EPU doesn't automatically mean that undergraduates get stuck doing endless glassware-washing, gel-pouring, and other assorted drudgery. Some of those universities place a pretty strong emphasis on making real undergraduate research accessible. Specifically, the anecdote about the kid who got stuck making cables at MIT doesn't sound very typical - everyone I knew in my major [and a large majority of everyone else I knew] did undergraduate research. In most cases that I knew of, undergraduates started out working more closely with grad students or postdocs, in order to get started and acquire the necessary skills, but worked more independently later on their own projects. Certainly in my case, no one ever dictated my day-to-day benchwork plans. In one lab, where I worked for several years, I ended up being the only one working in a certain research area at all.

All of this is to say that

[All of that is to say that I pressed "Post" too soon. I was going to finish up by postulating the undergraduate research experience depends as much or more on what resources the university and its science departments put towards encouraging undergraduate research than it does on the presence of graduate students. If undergraduate research is widespread, funding is fairly easy to come by, and many departments expect undergrads to do some real research for their final thesis, PIs will have more respect for undergrad capabilities and will be more likely to let undergrads work on their own projects. The lack of grad students at LACs may guarantee that undergrads do a fairly significant amount of research, but STSes and EPUs can provide similar opportunities.]


I think you may be right that my undergrad university had an atypical curriculum.

From what I recall, the basic curriculum I went through was something like:

- Mechanics + E&M (H & R level). Basically a "weedout" course for eliminating engineering + science majors, and premeds. (They did NOT have a seperate series of courses for premeds).

- Classical Mechanics (rotating reference frames, moment of inertia, central force motion, and Lagrange without constraints towards the end)
- Wave Motion + Optics (mostly Fourier analysis, solving Maxwell's equations PDE's in physical optics scenarios like diffraction, interference, refraction, polarization, etc ...)
- Transistor Electronics

- Classical Mechanics (more Lagrange with constraints, small oscillations, basic fluid dynamics, continuous field systems)
- E&M (mostly solving PDE's like Laplace's equation and radiation)
- Classical Thermodynamics (without much stat mech)
- Mathematical Physics (mostly complex analysis stuff like Cauchy's theorem, Laplace + Fourier transforms, Green's Function, etc ...)
- Modern Physics (with basic 1-dim Schrodinger equation solutions tacked on at the end)

- Quantum Mechanics (mostly Merzbacher)
- Stat Mech
- E&M (mostly waveguides + more radiation & antennas)

In the courses covering solving Maxwell's equations, I didn't realize at the time the professors were taking problems straight out of Jackson's E&M book, and giving them to us on assignments.

Go someplace with a lot to do and interesting core courses. That probably means a big university. I started at a big university (50k students) and transferred to a smaller university (10k students). The difference was intense. The larger university had tons of clubs and resources and the core humanities curricula were really fascinating. The smaller university had virtually nothing in terms of extra curricular activities, and the core classes were dull, dull, dull. You need a critical mass of both students and professors to get anything interesting started.

By Frumious B (not verified) on 18 Oct 2006 #permalink


Now that I think about it, years later I asked some of my old undergrad professors about why the curriculum was "atypical" compared to other universities. None of them knew why, other than just saying that it was like that when they were first hired.

In the university library, I came across some old copies of the university's course schedules dating back to the 1950's. From reading these old 1950's and 1960's course selections, I understood why. Basically the curriculum I went through was almost identical to the 1950's curriculum, except for senior year. In the 1950's, they didn't offer undergrad courses like modern physics or quantum mechanics. In place of quantum mechanics, the physics majors had to take courses like elasticity theory, hydrodynamics, Fourier optics, etc ... The 1950's stat-mech course looked like it mainly covered classical stat-mech without any mention of quantum stat-mech. It seems like the 1950's physics curriculum was largely classical physics only.

Essentially they dumped stuff like elasticity theory, hydrodynamics, etc ... in favor of undergrad quantum mechanics courses sometime in the late 1960's or 1970's. The rest of the curriculum was kept more or less the same as it was in the 1950's and earlier.

I remember some older professors mentioning they never took any quantum mechanics courses until they were grad school in the 1960's. They mentioned the first time they taught undergraduate courses in quantum mechanics in the late 1960's, they used some textbook by David Saxon.

I don't think it is fair to say that at large school undergrads only get junk jobs. I am at Cornell and last summer I worked on a project where I was responcible for the detector software and all the timing hardware (this was for high speed time resolved x-ray tomography). Over this summer and this school year I'm working on finishing the adaptation of another detector for use in an electron microscope.

To join the crowd of courses of study, this is the honor track at cornell (as i took it, some stuff can float around)
freshmen year: mechanics from klepner and klinko, e&m from purcell
sophmore year: waves/optics/thermo from randdom books, introductory QM from taylor and french
junior year: modern physics II (introdction to advanced topics, but not at a high level), QM from Griffiths but taught slightly above, e&m from marion and heald, mechanics from goldstien, optics or electronics lab
senior year: stat mech from rief, advanced lab

I'm doing a senior thesis this year so classes are light. If I were not I would most likly be taking QFT, GR, and soild state (like a bunch of my friends are)

By a cornellian (not verified) on 18 Oct 2006 #permalink

Besides freshman physics courses at the H & R level being used as a "weedout" course at many places, I wonder what other courses were very popular for "weedout" purposes.

When I was an undergrad, the other big weedout course which was used to "weed out" engineering and science majors was a sophomore math course which covered stuff like:

- vector spaces
- multivariable calculus
- ordinary differential equations
- infinite series
- vector calculus
- eigenvector/eigenfunction problems
- Fourier analysis

all crammed into a year long course. I recall the attitude was that if an engineering and/or science major could not hack it through this course, then they would be better off majoring in something else. The #1 rule in the engineering and science faculties in those days, was that if a student flunked this particular math course more than once, they were automatically kicked out of the major. I had many engineering friends who flunked out of university because of this course.

What made this particular "weedout" math course really nasty was that the professors would have an exam every two weeks, and surprise quizzes almost every week. In those days, the engineering undergrad students had a reputation for just copying assignments from one another instead of doing their own homework. Because of this, the engineering and math departments didn't think that giving out weekly assignments was effective for a course of this type. With so many engineering majors, they wanted to kill off as many of them as they could.

I remember the "smarter" engineering and science majors I knew in those days, decided to take this "weedout" math course during the summer semester between their freshman and sophomore years. If they passed this weedout math course with a half decent grade, everything went a lot smoother and less stressful during their sophomore year.