I'm currently a sophomore at a small liberal arts college. I want to get into one of physics PhD programs with faculties renowned for quantum gravity. I'm majoring in math and physics, and since both departments in my college are small, I will have taken all the upper-level courses in math and physics until the next semester. My major GPA in physics is 4.0, and my GRE physics score is 990, but I will have no math or physics course to take after the next semester. There aren't much research opportunities here. The only research opportunity is available during summer (which is experimental physics, but I'm mainly interested in hep-th). All REUs are not available for international students. (However, there are a few programs available for int'l students, such as Caltech SURF.)

Which of the following choices would be the best?

  • Graduating early (3 yrs), going to physics PhD program, and saving $>60k. If I don't get into programs of my choice, I will either stay in the college, in the program until the end, or (hopefully) transferring to them after getting non-terminal Master's degree if I will have a compelling reason.
  • Transferring to a high ranked research university for advanced/grad-level physics courses and for more research opportunities
  • Staying for 4 yrs in the current institution
  • 1
    If you've got the credits to graduate, I can't think of any reason not to try and go straight for the PhD program. I'm a grad student myself though - I'll defer to whatever the real PhDs have to say. – tonysdg Sep 25 '15 at 5:24
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    Why do you have to decide now? Apply to strong PhD programs and apply to transfer to strong research universities, and then see what opportunities are actually available. – JeffE Sep 25 '15 at 10:43
  • OK. I will try that to see what will be available! – Math.StackExchange Sep 25 '15 at 17:28
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    @CameronWilliams false. Some universities will require repeat coursework, others will not. Get it in writing before you transfer. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 26 '15 at 0:57
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: I don't think a university could maintain accreditation if it didn't require its students to take their version of the core courses, reviewed during the accreditation process. That's not to say that repeat coursework would be required, one could certainly take advanced courses from a more well-known school and graduate based on the requirements fulfilled earlier, but the degree would come from the first university, where the required classes were taken, and it would be the advanced course credits that would be transferred. – Ben Voigt Sep 26 '15 at 1:13
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Only in exceptional situations should an undergraduate consider "getting out early" from their undergraduate education to pursue graduate study. Your situation is rather exceptional and is one of the better cases for doing this that I have seen.

My honest assessment is that you sound like an outstanding student who didn't make the best choice of undergraduate institution. Liberal arts colleges can be great for a wide range of clientele, but someone who maxed out the subject exam in their intended field of graduate study in their freshman year is probably not in that range. If you know you want to go to graduate school in physics, you want to be taking physics courses over the next three years: independent study is okay, but it is probably not good enough.

I recommend that you apply both to PhD programs in physics and to undergraduate programs at top tier research universities. For the latter, you are looking for more than just being able to transfer in: you want substantial scholarship opportunities (I would aim for a "full ride") and specific access to faculty and their research.

It is of course likely that you will get admitted to better undergraduate programs than PhD programs. In my opinion if you get into an absolutely top undergraduate program with a substantial scholarship, then that's the way to go. Most of the students who are at the very top PhD programs started out their undergraduate career with a roughly similar trajectory to yours and then built on that substantially through four years of a superb undergraduate program. I would be a bit surprised if you got admitted to one of the top ten programs without an undergraduate degree.

If I may throw out one specific option: the college at the University of Chicago is a lovely opportunity to get a liberal arts education in the midst of an absolutely world class research university. You can read Plato and Kant and Dostoevsky while taking graduate courses to your heart's content. Moreover they have full ride scholarships available for exceptional students. (I went to the University of Chicago on a full ride scholarship, read all of the above authors, took many graduate courses in my subject of interest -- mathematics -- and then got into all the graduate programs to which I applied, including the top three. I am more satisfied with my education at the UofC and my decision to go there than almost anything else in my life. Seriously.)

  • If I understand your comment correctly, applying to physics PhD without bachelor's degree is still possible now for some cases. I'm quite surprised to know that. I hope I will get some scholarship, and the amount of scholarship I will get will affect my decision greatly. Thanks for your recommendation, by the way. – Math.StackExchange Sep 25 '15 at 23:10
  • @Aran: Yes, it's possible. I won't make a stronger claim than that... – Pete L. Clark Sep 25 '15 at 23:57
  • Disagree. Completing your education early is fine as long as you do a good job of it. Possibly superior since you can achieve more with the time gained. Also, UChicago has excellent research but often poor teaching - including the mathematics department. They are fairly transfer-friendly, though. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 26 '15 at 1:01
  • @Anonymous: I'm not sure I understand what you're disagreeing with. I advised the OP to apply for PhD programs now. About UofC: that's a personal recommendation, not an objective claim. For me personally, the education I received there was just shy of optimal, and I had many wonderful teachers. If you want to share your own personal experience, please feel free. I think though that it is more objective to say that UofC does better at placing students in quality graduate programs than almost any other undergraduate institution. – Pete L. Clark Sep 26 '15 at 1:12
  • @PeteL.Clark True. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 26 '15 at 3:34

Another option, which may not apply in this case, is that SLACs that are in major metro areas may have agreements with nearby universities which will allow their undergraduates to take graduate classes there. For example, Swarthmore and Penn have such an agreement.

  • Unfortunately, it doesn't apply to my situation, since my school is located in middle of nowhere. The school doesn't have such agreement with the nearest university, and it takes one hour to get to the university by car, which I don't own. Thanks for your suggestion. – Math.StackExchange Sep 26 '15 at 6:44

Transferring right after your sophomore year would be just fine. People who start out in a community college do it all the time. Large four-year institutions have the transfer process figured out.

I agree with others that if you transfer, you should try to get as much financial support as possible from the new institution (but without sacrificing quality).

One other factor that hasn't been mentioned is your general maturity level. Just because you feel frustrated with the skimpy offerings at your school, doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to jump into a swimming pool full of people 2+ years older than you. (I'm not saying you're not ready -- I don't know you; I'm only saying, please consider this aspect as well.)

I hope the above considerations help you with what is ultimately a very personal decision.

  • Yes. I will try my best to reduce the total cost of attendance to $30k, so that if I will transfer and stay at a new school for two years, it will not cost more than $60k. Regarding my maturity level, my adviser can decide whether I will be ready or not, so my decision is going to rely on his opinion. I appreciate your help. – Math.StackExchange Sep 26 '15 at 5:32
  • With the academic successes you have achieved, you are in a good position to apply for merit scholarships. – aparente001 Sep 27 '15 at 1:27

In support of your third option, staying at your LAC for four years:

There are plenty of interesting things to study at a liberal arts college that you might not have the time or opportunity to study once you’re in graduate school. Some of them might enrich your life and career as a physicist, like philosophy or computer science or chemistry or writing, and some of them might be fascinating and fulfilling on their own, like art history or a new foreign language.

You should also be able to study more mathematics and physics without transferring or graduating early. I’m sure your LAC offers independent study or special project courses for students who’ve exhausted the catalog curriculum. Ask your academic advisor or one of your favorite professors about that possibility.

  • 4
    While I am strongly in favor of a liberal arts education (in particular, I treasure mine), I am not in favor of it to the extent of spending an extra $60K for it. As the parable goes, being a big fish in a small pond confers certain advantages, but I don't recall anything about the small pond being very, very expensive. Sounds less fun. – Pete L. Clark Sep 25 '15 at 21:12
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    Major universities have these opportunities in spades. Your advisor might not be a fan of spending time on them, but if one is going to spend the equivalent of a couple years on breadth, much better to do it at the better school, and spread out over the entire graduate experience than making zero progress on the major subject in between meeting BS requirements and beginning graduate school. – Ben Voigt Sep 26 '15 at 5:13
  • Pete: Good point. At the best LACs, all financial aid may be need-based, but it might be worth asking about merit aid for an advanced student who would otherwise graduate early. Ben: R1 universities have many offerings, but IMHO, they can’t compete in many ways with LACs at the introductory level. (Large classes, TAs, nonmajors not able to get into classes...) This might vary widely, but when I was a grad student at an R1, had I wanted to study a new subject, for example, it would have likely been in a large class taught by a TA or instructor not committed to undergraduate education. – Steve Kass Sep 26 '15 at 17:20

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