How to Choose a School

(Updated on 04-03-2012.)

Prospective graduate students came to visit our physics department last weekend. For many of them, this visit marked the beginning of Decision Season. It’s a magical time of year: stressed-out prospectives are trying to figure out where they want to spend the next 5-7 years — older graduate students are trying to give them as much alcohol as possible — and everyone is trying to eat free food.

Since I recently went through this process myself about a year ago, I thought I would throw in my two cents about how to choose a school. (I think this whole post applies to college as well as grad school… so I’m just calling it “school.”) It’s a pretty daunting task to make such a big decision based on so little information, so I think most people love to hear advice about it.

The decision-making process can be broken into two steps: one in which you weed out schools that are bad, and another in which you select the best choice out of the ones that remain. There’s tons of advice about how to do the first step, and I’ve given links to some of my favorite advice sites at the end of this post. However, this part can hardly be called a decision; it’s more like a mechanical filtering process. The most frustrating part of choosing a school (to me) is picking between several good schools whose relative pros and cons seem to essentially balance out. Given the relative lack of advice pertaining to this step, I’d like to offer my own. So here’s the main idea:

Don’t Think Too Much

I’d like to now expound upon what I mean. First, here are three things that I believe to be true:

  1. You’re ignorant. There are simply too many things that you cannot/don’t understand/know. The future and your own personality are too unpredictable. Can you really know what is best for you, or that a particular school will provide it? I don’t think so.
  2. You’re making a bet on yourself. Individual people have individual reasons for going to school, but I think I can confidently assume that you are at least after knowledge, experience, and a good time. These things are highly personal endeavors. A teacher can present information to you, but you have to choose to learn. Professors can offer you research opportunities, but you have to take them. You can have fun, but not if you sit around doing nothing all day. In the end, it’s you that determines your success, not your school. Have some faith in yourself.
  3. There’s no bad choice. Many people approach the decision-making process with the assumption that the school they choose will make a major impact on the rest of their lives. This is completely true. Unfortunately, most people also believe a corollary to this assumption — one which makes them think that if they choose the wrong school, it will have a major negative effect. While this can happen in some extreme situations, it’s pretty unlikely. For one piece of evidence, see the previous bullet point. For another, watch this awesome TED talk. I don’t want to profane it with an attempt to sum it up in one sentence. It’s pretty short, and you’ll be glad you watched it. Do it!

With the wrong attitude, the school search can turn into a hellish and stressful situation. While I think it’s totally reasonable to try to pick the school that seems to offer you the best experience, it’s also extremely important to realize that there’s almost no way you can make a mistake. So keep your favorite criteria in mind — reputation, location, aesthetics, stipend, atmosphere, faculty, etc — but don’t fret too much if you’re having a tough time picking a single school.

If you can narrow down your search to just two top schools, then it’s time to really “go with your gut.” If you’re choosing between two, they’re probably both pretty awesome. Your conscious mind is never going to be able to satisfactorily differentiate between the two. But you can turn to your subconscious mind instead. It’s been with you through the whole process, absorbing information and coming to its own conclusions. Here’s a trick to let it share its opinion: flip a coin. Heads is school X, tails is school Y. If you’re fine with the coin’s outcome, just stick with it. If you get a sinking feeling accompanied by a wish that it had landed the other way, then this is your subconscious talking to you. It’s that simple.

So, to repeat: don’t think too much! Think a little, but realize that thinking has limitations. Put your trust in yourself rather than your school. You’ll be fine no matter where you go.

Current grads: How did you pick your schools? Do you agree with my advice?

Further Reading

Of Temples and Table Salt

Have you ever seen a diagram of a substance’s atomic structure (like the one below, for table salt) and wondered where it came from? If you haven’t, I’ll try to quickly explain why the existence of such a picture might be a mystery:

  • Typical atomic sizes are between 30 and 300 picometers. A picometer is one thousandth of a nanometer, which is one millionth of a millimeter. Atoms are really small!
  • Typical interatomic spacings in solids are bigger, but not by much; they are usually between 0.1 and 1 nanometers. So at the very least, we need to be able to detect things that are about 1 nanometer in size to determine the atomic structure of a molecule or material.
  • The physical size of the average pupil prevents human eyes from seeing anything much smaller than a hair, which is about 0.1 millimeters wide– far larger than a nanometer! (Go here for an explanation.)
  • In fact, the large wavelength of visible light prevents any┬ástandard optical device (including eyes and microscopes) from seeing anything smaller than a few hundred nanometers.
  • X-rays have wavelengths comparable to interatomic spacings, but it is nearly impossible to build lenses for x-rays. Thus, x-ray microscopes don’t really exist.

So how do we know what anything looks like on such a small scale? Well, people have actually invented a whole bunch of clever methods for seeing very tiny things. I would love to talk about all of them, but for now I am just going to focus on one of the oldest and most widely-used techniques: x-ray diffraction. X-ray diffraction is a tool for determining the structure of a crystal, which is a solid material that has a repeating atomic structure. It’s true that not every material has a repeating structure, but many do. What’s even better is that many molecules can be tricked into growing in a crystalline form; for example, proteins can be stacked into periodic arrays. This allows x-ray diffraction to determine their molecular structures. This information is invaluable to physicists, chemists, biologists, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies. (Here is a big ol’ pile of protein structures.)

Continue reading to learn how x-ray diffraction works!