Okay, so back in my country, the difference between private and public colleges is pretty visible. I have worked in biotech labs of both kinds and know that there's a lot of restrictions on using costly instruments in private colleges whereas we get a lot of liberty to get hands-on lab experience in public ones and sometimes they even encourage the person to conduct independent research without any external interference and to let the person fall and learn. In an internship at a private research lab, I had to ask them multiple times (more than 10 times) to let me use a PCR just once (as I needed it in my project thesis) during my stay there for a good two months. They were doubtful about "someone new" manhandling the instrument despite me having been rigorously trained to set-up that machine in the past (You'll be able to comprehend the annoyance if you have a biology background.) This was one incident and I certainly do not wish to rant about the other ones here. This year, I would be applying to US universities for doctoral studies. I have never been to the US, but I have applied to both category. Should I be concerned about such incidents occurring there in private institutions? Also, here the government institutions are highly reputed and have a very stimulating environment much better than any private institutions.

I have found a similar question before here, but I feel that people mainly talk about funding issues here.

  • "there's a lot of restrictions on using costly instruments in private colleges whereas we get a lot of liberty to get hands-on lab experience in public ones": I'm not sure this is an inherent difference between private and public institutions. Couldn't it be that the institutions in your experience simply had different policies or cultures, that just happened to coincide with their public/private status? – Nate Eldredge Dec 7 '15 at 19:18
  • @NateEldredge While you may find it difficult to gulp it down, this is the the general case in my country and I think it's mostly because of the funding issue and lack of proper maintenance that has been and still is prevalent in most private institutions here. I do not have any official evidence though as such, just that 99 % of people have told me such instances which has further reinforced my belief in it, combined with my own experience. – Jony Agarwal Dec 8 '15 at 10:28

For graduate school, there are generally few differences. A couple potential factors:

  1. Funding and other resources may be easier to obtain at private schools. On the other hand, there are rich public schools and less well-off private schools. The other factor is that public schools are often larger, so they sometimes have better shared resources (e.g. computing clusters).
  2. Probably the biggest difference is the undergraduate make-up, which only affects you indirectly. At larger public schools you are more likely to TA as a graduate student, which is both good (easy to get TA funding) and bad (may be harder to avoid TAing).
  3. Some public schools have unionized graduate students/teaching assistants. Almost no private schools have these unions. Whether this is good or bad is an open question.
  4. In very rare circumstances, public school funding can be affected by political winds. There was one recent high-profile case where a large public university's budget was severely cut over a couple of years, but I can't think of any other recent cases. This is extremely unlikely, but possibly a factor if future cuts are being discussed.

The type (public/private) of the graduate program you go to is unlikely to make a major difference in your experience. What matters much more is the quality and characteristics of the program, which is largely independent of public vs. private. Each department is unique, and it's worth closely researching both the research being done and the culture that exists there when choosing where to apply to and where to go.

In addition to the excellent points that Roger Fan makes, there are huge differences between American schools that are often bigger than the difference between public and private institutions. For example:

  • There are wide differences in the quality of the undergraduate students that institutions attract. Quality includes: intelligence, prior preparation, and motivation to succeed academically. At some top-notch graduate schools, the average undergraduate is smarter than the average graduate student, and knows more math. At the other extreme, some schools deliberately recruit students who could not get admitted anywhere else. This will affect your experience as a Teaching Assistant. (Many public schools are known for high drop-out rates, compared to similarly prestigious private schools. This suggests that either these public schools are not vetting their admissions as thoroughly, or that their support for marginal students is worse, or both. I have seen examples of both.)

  • Some schools rely on "weeder classes" to identify which undergraduates are best suited to particular majors. I have heard that being a T.A. in a "weeder class" -- which sets up under-prepared students to fail -- is a particularly unpleasant experience. (The worst T.A. experience I have heard about was in a private school, but public schools are more likely to rely on "weeder classes".)

  • Some schools have great funding, from research grants, tuition, endowments, and/or government subsidies. At the other extreme, some schools are "operating on a shoe-string budget". (I have heard about both public and private schools with shoe-string budgets.)

  • At some schools, you can take the courses you need to take, in the quarter or semester you want to take them. In smaller schools, courses might not be available every term. In overcrowded schools, you might be forced to postpone classes due to overenrollment -- or never allowed to take a course that is offered by a particular department. (Even within a single school, some departments can be "small", and others "large". The overcrowded schools I have heard about were public, not private.)

  • Some schools make a point of encouraging students to live on campus, or nearby. These schools tend to keep their dormitories open year-round, including over holidays. Other schools have dormitories with beds so narrow that it is impossible to roll over without waking up, and force students to find other housing three weeks per year. (The schools I have heard about with great dormitory systems were private, not public. The schools I have heard about with poor dormitory systems were public, not private.)

  • Some schools make a point of having strong programs (outside of their majors) to develop students' skills in math, technical writing, speaking English, giving presentations, drawing, organizing business plans, et cetera. Other schools have mandatory "writing" classes that encourage students to emulate badly translated writing, and prohibit using real-world examples in essays. (The school I have seen with the terrible writing program was public, not private. In general, private schools have better reputations for encouraging networking and entrepeneurialism than public schools.)

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