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UW or UCSB undergrad?
Posted: Sun Apr 07, 2019 1:59 pm
Hello all, I am a WA state running start senior who will be graduating with her high school diploma and associates in physics this spring. I’m planning on studying physics for three years before grad school and have gotten into UW Seattle, UCSB (College of Letters & Science NOT CCS), UCSD, and UH Manoa. I’ve narrowed down my options to UW and UCSB but am not sure which would be the best fit for me. I like UW but I love UCSB... the main thing holding me back is that the price is doubled if I go out of state. My family could work something out financially but it would be tight for a few years and we would just be finishing paying everything off when I finish grad school. I know I would enjoy either school and that both have great departments but I’m struggling finding specific information. The past two years at my community college I’ve been surrounded by an overwhelming majority of engineering students and am worried I’d find the same thing at UW as most of their physics research seems to be offshoots of material science or engineering. I’m very interested in math, theory and astrophysics and hope to be researching somewhere in one of those fields post grad school (not for money or fame... I know theory is a mess right now but I’m legitamately interested in how difficult and foreign it is). My primary concerns with going to UW is that it wouldn’t provide the background in theory that UCSB’s physics department is infamous for. It seems as though grad schools wouldn’t differentiate between the two schools as far as admissions go but is this a correct assumption? I’d love some more insight into either program so I have more to go on than courses and research groups listed on each department’s website. As although I’d love to have a change of scenery from the months of perpetual gloom in Washington, I don’t think that alone is worth a few years of financial hardship on my family no matter how much I love the beach. Thank you!
Re: UW or UCSB undergrad?
Posted: Tue Apr 09, 2019 9:47 pm
I can't directly answer your question, but I was in a somewhat similar situation myself, so I'll share my experience.
For undergrad, I was choosing between UMass Amherst (which is ~25 minutes from my hometown) and the University of Michigan. My heart was deadset on Michigan throughout the admissions process, but unfortunately my acceptance came with no financial aid; going there would have put me in crippling debt (over $200,000!). Like you, my family told me that if I really wanted to go to Michigan, they could make it work. Ultimately, I didn't want to put them through that financial strain, so I decided to attend UMass. I was pretty disappointed at the time.
Fast forward 4 1/2 years, and I've graduated with a degree in Physics, over three years of research experience on multiple projects (including an REU), and I'm going to be attending Caltech in the Fall for theoretical physics.
From my experience, I would have to say that your undergraduate degree is what you make of it. The undergraduate curriculum at UMass is admittedly not the best in terms of rigor (and definitely biased towards experiment), but by studying hard, getting involved in research, taking honors courses, and taking some graduate courses, I feel plenty prepared for my graduate studies. In your case, U Washington is a very good school for physics (better than mine!); even if it is slanted towards engineering/mat sci, there are going to be plenty of resources for a fellow budding theorist to succeed and prepare. You just need to know where to look (and, perhaps more importantly, who to ask).
As for grad admissions - getting into a great program is going to require good-to-great grades, meaningful research experience, good-to-great GRE scores, and strong LORs, regardless of what undergrad school you come from. Attending UW will not hold you back, as long you're still doing these things. Great grades from UCSB may be looked on slightly more favorably by a committee, and you may be able to work with/get LORs from more famous people at UCSB, but that's about it (the latter of these two can potentially be a big advantage, but plenty of people get into elite schools every year without famous recommenders. You'd be surprised how well people in academia know each other.)
I guess the punchline for what I'm saying is that, from my experience, you can attend your "local" state school out of financial consideration and still set yourself up for a successful career in theory. I hope that helps you in your decision.