A Physicists Perspective: School Rankings

There are just a dizzying collective of listings ranking colleges and universities nationwide: the U.S. News and World Reports, the Princeton Review, and the Huffington Post just to name a few. And when confronted as a prospective graduate student preparing to apply to these colleges and universities, which one of these, sometimes wildly varying, catalogs of rankings should be deemed valid in determining the course of one’s future. Now I cannot speak with any authority on how these ranking systems affect the determination of prospective graduate programs in other fields, especially in the social sciences and humanities, but I can only give you an honest critique from the point-of-view of an aspiring physicist.

Yay, college! Photo by U.S. News and World Reports.

I would like to just get this immediately out on the table and out of my system. It is in my most honest and humble opinion that every one these ranking systems harbor, to varying degrees, a sense of elitism and educational exclusivity that hardly congruent with the goals of promoting the betterment of society through the education of its citizens. Year after year only the most exclusive private institutions, whose population and alumnus comprise of a very narrow segment of our country’s socioeconomic makeup, are allowed to grace the top ten positions on their list. Aside from that one year where they ranked U. C. Berkeley 2nd after Harvard. That sure pissed off a lot of people. Opps, never again. Perhaps they are on to something though, maybe only selected few of the wealthiest and politically elite are bestowed from on high the ability to contribute to the vast pond that is human knowledge. Or perhaps hot smoke is being directed to orifices unknown, but I digress.

As a young scientist in the final year of my graduate studies looking back, I see the ranking systems as a humorous and utter waste of time for someone who is looking to pursue an advance degree in physics. Each ranking system impose their own arbitrary metrics to formulate a sequence of school they deem worthy of holding a position on their prestigious list. Some even include scientific funding information and academic productivity measured by scholarly articles published into their metric. Interesting as they are, they still fall short of a reliable source of academic guidance for the future. Here are a few points and recommendation I would like to share from my experiences as a researcher in the physical sciences:

– In the current stages of your graduate school application process you should have at least three individuals who are familiar with your intended field of study. Be it a mentor, a laboratory principle investigator, or the people who are writing your letter of recommendations. Take them out for coffee and tap into their pool of knowledge. They know A LOT!

– Whether one is a theorist or experimentalist, physics is still a research focused discipline and should be what you look for in a graduate institution. A simple internet search will enlighten you on the current research happening at the institution and whether or not it interest you. Unsure of your interest? Talk to the professors and researchers at your undergraduate institution. You’ll be surprised by how willing they are to share their experiences with you.

– The number of facility in the department exploring similar questions gives you a sense of the institution’s specialty. Make sure this is congruent with your own goals as these will be the people you’ll work with in the future. The larger the group, the more selective you can be on who you work with.

– Some schools have dedicated research facilities. For example, Indiana University has the Center for Exploration of Energy and Matter (formerly the IUCF) which is home to scientists working in the fields of nuclear physics, material sciences, physical chemistry, accelerator physics, and neutrino physics. These facility provide a vast amount of resources and support for young researchers. It is one of the key reasons why I came to Indiana University.

An aerial photo, circa 1980s, of the Indiana University Center for Exploration of Energy and Matter (IU CEEM) and formerly known as the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility (IUCF). Photo by IUCF Staff.

The front desk upon entering ISAT Hall. Photo by Maggie Ochoada.

– Lastly, look for big projects that are going on at the institution as well funded project are the best place for a graduate student to get hands-on experience working in the field. For example, Indiana University has a joint project with the Crane Navel Surface Warfare Center called ALPHA which is a low energy electron storage ring used in radiation effects testing. I came to Indiana knowing that this specific project will offer me great opportunities to learn and grow.

The ALPHA 50 MeV Electron Storage Ring at IU CEEM. Image by Jak Doskow.

Before I depart, I would like to share with you an inscription that is on the main auditorium walls of my alma mater, “Education is learning to use the tools which the human race has found indispensable.” May we go forth to learn and grow so that one day we may humbly contribute to the betterment of our communities, societies, and beyond.