How do I Choose the Best Physics Program?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 18 March 2018
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There are a number of considerations to take into account when choosing a physics program, whether on the undergraduate or graduate level. Students thinking about physics degrees may want to consider ranking things to look for in order of importance before they start evaluating available physics programs, as this may help them decide where to apply, and to decide where to go once accepted.

Many of the considerations which apply to all college programs also apply to choosing a physics program. For example, most students care about class size, preferring smaller classes, and faculty availability, seeking out institutions with faculty members who like interacting with students, support undergraduate research, and make themselves available to students who want support, assistance, or intellectual challenge. Rankings can be important, with students evaluating both overall schools, and rankings for specific physics programs.

Another concern in the case of undergraduate programs is whether or not the student is interested in pursuing a graduate degree. Some physics programs have large numbers of graduates who go on to grad school, while others do not, and students interested in graduate work may want to seek out programs which tend to generate students who go to graduate school. These programs prepare students for graduate-level work more effectively, and degrees from these programs may be viewed more favorably on a graduate school application.


The type of physics a student wants to study is important. If someone is interested in particle physics, for example, obviously he or she needs to pick a physics program which offers particle physics. Hand in hand with the type of physics comes the facilities available at the school. Students who want to practice advanced physics should choose a school with a good physics lab, or with access to physics facilities. For example, the University of California, Berkeley, does not have a linear accelerator, but students in its physics program have access to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC).

Faculty may also be a matter of interest to students looking for a physics program. Being able to work with pioneers in specific fields of physics is often important, especially if a student wants to be at the cutting edge of physics. Famous faculty members tend to have light course loads, but there may be opportunities to work with them for dedicated students, and attending a school with well known faculty members can also be a bonus on graduate applications or in the search for employment.

The overall success of graduates of a particular physics program is something else to evaluate. Many colleges and universities keep statistics on the success of their graduates, following the careers of graduates and noting when they receive commendations or awards. Students may also want to consider the reputation of a program and school, beyond the rankings prepared by organizations which try to objectively rate colleges.

When students narrow down a list of physics programs they are interested in, they should take the time to visit them. While visiting, students can check out the facilities, and they can also talk to people who are already in the program and find out about issues which may be of interest, such as the availability of office space for graduate students, the amount of time undergraduates can spend in the lab, the program's attitude towards research, and matters of social concern such as the nightlife in the area the program is located in.



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