Should I study abroad? Where?!
November 3, 2006 2:08 PM   Subscribe

Study-aboard, is it worth doing a year aboard as part of my physics degree, if so, where?

I'm currently in my 2nd of a 3 year Physics degree at the University of Hertfordshire, England. I've got the option to spend the next year at a University abroad. It seems like it will be a great experience, as well as looking great on the CV/Resume.

The list of partner unis are:

Central Connecticut State University
Kansas State University
University of North Carolina Wilmington
University of Oklahoma
Oklahoma State University
University of Toledo
University of West Virginia
University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire
University of Wisconsin - Whitewater

Bishops University
Concordia University
McGill University
Malaspina University-College
Okanagan College

There are also European Partners, but the idea of Quantum Physics in a foreign language hurts my head!

I'm particularly drawn to McGill/Concordia, as they're the only universities on the list that are in a city (Montreal). I've never lived in a city, but have always enjoyed being in cities, and I feel it'll be easy to do things while I'm there.

Does anyone have any thoughts on studying-abroad in general, and more specifically, any inputs on any of the Universities/their locations.
posted by chrispy108 to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total)
Are you studying straight-up physics, or a specialization?
posted by ewagoner at 2:15 PM on November 3, 2006

Response by poster: So far I've done straight Physics, I've done modules in Classical mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Optics, Electromagnetics, Introduction Computing (Matlab/Latex/Office/HTML). I've also done several modules of Maths and Lab skills.

But I would like to mix it a bit during this year (which I'm told I have the option to do).

I'm interested in doing some programming and electronics, and possibly some music (I play bass guitar to a fairly high standard, although have no qualifications).

Physics-wise my interestes lie more to Quantum and Optics, I'm not big on Astronomy at all, although I did a bit in the first year.
posted by chrispy108 at 2:28 PM on November 3, 2006

In my opinion? McGill or Concordia in a heartbeat. Montreal is an excellent place to live, provided you don't mind the cold and are willing to practice some French between then and now so that the habitants don't give you too much of a cold shoulder. (It's possible to get by knowing only English in Montreal, but I wouldn't recommend it.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 2:29 PM on November 3, 2006

I can't comment on where you should go, but definitely study abroad. I didn't, and I regret it.
posted by vytae at 2:38 PM on November 3, 2006

Of the Canadian schools, McGill and Concordia are the only 'major' schools - the other's I've never heard of. McGill in particular is one of three or four Canadian schools with large research programs and international reputations and is most likely to have a decent physics program, though I would look into this first. If you're thinking about grad school it makes sense to target an institution that maybe has a professor you're interested in working with who you could get to know while you're there.

Interational study is a great idea as it will give you invaluable perspective and let you see the world and experience another culture. You can spend lots of time travelling during and in between semesters and see a whole corner of the world during your studies. Montreal is a great choice for this reason - it is a lovely city with a unique bilingual culture, there is lots to do, and it's a major regional hub which makes travel to other parts of Canada and the US easy.

You could have a great experience in a small town though - in particular any of the schools in BC (Malaspina, Okanagan) will give you amazing opportunities to explore the mountains and ocean. Your experience in the US could be wildly different, depending on the individual schools, and I'll let someone else speak to those as I have no direct experience with them.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:38 PM on November 3, 2006


I graduated from there in 2003 with a degree in physics and math. The faculty is top notch especially in atomic physics!!


What are you looking for experience wise?
posted by ozomatli at 2:43 PM on November 3, 2006

I'd second Johnny Assay's recommendations of McGill or Concordia. Montreal would be a brilliant place to spend a year abroad: McGill is a very well-respected school where you'd be studying in English, the city of Montreal is vibrant, and you'll be exposed to a non-anglo culture and get to learn some French. If you're concerned about international reputation/ranking (and it can't hurt to be aware of this), McGill is probably the strongest university on your list.

Seriously, though, there are few cities nicer than Montreal in the whole world. The food, the culture, the music, the festivals: there's just so much to do and see. You're also reasonably close to other major North American centres as well as skiing and the great outdoors. Go to Montreal!
posted by lumiere at 2:45 PM on November 3, 2006

If you have questions about K-State or the city of Manhattan, I will be more than happy to answer them for you.
posted by ozomatli at 2:45 PM on November 3, 2006

I second the Kansas State option.
posted by catseatcheese at 2:52 PM on November 3, 2006

KSU has an excellent and well-regarded physics program. If you are looking for an option that will advance you as a physicist, I think that's the best option on your list.
posted by limicoline at 2:54 PM on November 3, 2006

As a physics grad whose PhD pursuit was abandoned in favor of playing the bass professionally, I second McGill.

I chose my grad school (UT Austin) partly based on the music/cultural opportunities in the city and didn't regret it.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 2:54 PM on November 3, 2006

McGill/Concordia. I can't speak to the relative academic merits of the physics programs at the places you list, but the other ones are all in places that I would describe as "podunk" -- smallish towns not close to major cities. And they are not universities with great academic reputations. Whereas Montreal is one of the great cities of the world, and McGill/Concordia are the schools on your list with the best academic reputations generally. Montreal is seriously cold in the winter, but so are most of your other choices. I think it's an easy call, unless you have some specific academic goal that you know can be satisfied by one of the other schools.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:02 PM on November 3, 2006

Definitely grab this opportunity! Studying abroad brings many benefits. Broader experience pays off in lots of ways.

I am a bit confused by the "city" comment. Most universities are in cities and for instance Whitewater, Wisconsin appears to be a city with a population of 13,500 (OK, smaller than many towns in Hertfordshire). Certainly Montreal is much larger. Big cities offer a wider variety of experiences and better travel opportunities, but student social life may suffer if you are all living in widely scattered areas.

Clearly it would help to talk to someone who has done this before in your sort of area -- maths or engineering experience might be more relevant than say history. You could also ask the Institute of Physics.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:14 PM on November 3, 2006

You might consider Tsinghua University in Beijing. It's a world-class university with a noted emphasis on science and engineering (it's probably the best university in all of Asia for science work). I don't know how English proficient the faculty and students are, but you might look into it. As a benefit, you'll meet some wicked-smart and unbelievably hard-working people who are likely to become future world leaders, as well (about than two-thirds of China's Politburo hails from Tsinghua, IIRC).
posted by gd779 at 3:34 PM on November 3, 2006

Response by poster: This post have confirmed what I was thinking, that I should definately do something!

Experience wise, I definately want to travel and see things of interest. I enjoy making new friends, but I don't intend to spend the entire year drunk/partying by any means. I'd like to do "non-studenty" things.

Does anyone know what the music scene in Montreal is like? I intend to buy a new bass over there anyway (as its alot cheaper than buying one there), and obviously being in bands is a great way to meat people.

I also intend to broaden my knowledge academically, by studying modules I wouldn't get the option to here.

As for my cities comment, Montreal and Toledo are the only Universities on my list I consider really cities. Hatfield is a town of 30,000 + 15,000 or so students, and I find it fairly small with not much to do. Also I won't have a car while I'm abroad, so obviously somewhere with transport links will help with travelling.
posted by chrispy108 at 3:45 PM on November 3, 2006

The music scene in Montreal is awesome, IMO. Depends what you like.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:47 PM on November 3, 2006

I'm sure that LobsterMitten has gone to all of the schools on the list and knows all about the "podunk" towns.

Kansas State is not near any very large cities (except that it is an hour and a half drive from Kansas City, maybe 8 hours from Denver, six hours from St. Louis, 10 hours from Chicago, nine hours from Indianapolis, and three hours from Omaha) but I know many students who studied abroad there. They have a good international student center that can hook you up with other foreign students. The exchange students that I knew were always going on trips to the big cities around the U.S. The town has a very low crime rate and any shopping you could want. The physics department is great there. I was not a physics student but had to take a few classes in the department to graduate. I took many music classes at K-State. If you like to go out and have a good time then there are plenty of bars and restaurants in Aggieville. If you want to know more, like ozomatli said, just ask.
posted by catseatcheese at 3:56 PM on November 3, 2006

Response by poster: If anyone with personal experience of the Uni's/Location's has MSN its in my profile. Would be really helpful!
posted by chrispy108 at 4:08 PM on November 3, 2006

Don't go to eau claire or whitewater. It is very boring in both those towns, and it is not particularly easy to get to places of more interest.

I say follow your intuition and go to McGill.
posted by milarepa at 4:25 PM on November 3, 2006

I definitely recommend studying abroad (and yes, I am probably saying this because I am a study abroad advisor). Studying the same subject in another environment can give you new ways of looking at things and approaching problems. Living in another country helps you recognize all the little cultural things you take for granted back home and will be a great opportunity to see the UK from the outside.

I have nothing to add in terms of choosing between schools, but I live in Ohio so I'll put in a vote for Toledo. I think they've had a big curriculum shift lately and are really focusing heavily on the sciences, though I don't know anything about their Physics department.
posted by srah at 5:00 PM on November 3, 2006

Is there any reason why your options are all from North America? You could also look into studying in Australia. I don't know what 'partner' universities your university has, but IMO, Sydney is a great place to live and study.
posted by cholly at 5:15 PM on November 3, 2006

Study abroad is definitely worth it, period. The difference it can make to your worldview is invaluable.

Montreal is incredible.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:54 PM on November 3, 2006

Response by poster: There are partner universities in Australia, but the cost of air travel puts it out of reach really.

That and I really don't like being hot!
posted by chrispy108 at 6:36 PM on November 3, 2006

Well Wilmington is a beautiful city, the school is famous throughout the UNC system for being laid back and full of very pretty girls, plus you get to live in a medium sized city that is on an amazing harbor with fantastic beaches minutes away. WVU is also in a beautiful area of the county, but that is in more of a stereotypical college town. Canada is alright if you dont mind 6 months of ridiculous winter....
posted by BobbyDigital at 7:14 PM on November 3, 2006

I'm sure that LobsterMitten has gone to all of the schools on the list and knows all about the "podunk" towns.

catseatcheese, I have lived in and enjoyed a number of smallish university towns in my day. I like smallish university towns. But I am not a 20 year old looking for a once-in-a-lifetime international adventure. Montreal is the one city here that I know reasonably well, and I'm speaking in praise of it because it sounds like it meets the needs of the original poster very well.

The o.p. has said s/he likes cities, would be interested to live in a biggish city, and in a place different from the smallish university town where s/he currently lives. Living an hour and a half from Omaha and Kansas City, and 6+ hours from a bunch of other cities does not compare to living in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.

Everything I have heard about KS from other people I know has been very complimentary, and it sounds like a nice place to live. But if I could recommend one city off this list for someone who's only going to get to live in one city in North America, it would be Montreal in a heartbeat. Add to this the fact that McGill has an international academic reputation well beyond any of the other schools listed; again it seems an easy choice. (Unless the person hated cold -- in which case North Carolina would be the best bet -- or unless one of the other schools had an extraordinary physics program, which I'm not qualified to comment on.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:51 PM on November 3, 2006

I feel the same way as LobsterMitten. I was reluctant to comment because I have not personally experienced any of the American schools. But I will say that my brother currently goes to U of Indiana in Bloomington, a college town of 70,000, more than half of which are students. He did his undergrad in Toronto, a very big city, and he found the culture at Indiana... bizarre.

It's very much "college town USA", as he describes it. Lots of fraternities and soroities. Lots of keg parties. Everyone wears campus-branded clothing all the time. Football and basketball games are huge social highlights. And the town is nice but it is dominated by the University, and the nearest larger city is several hours drive away. He is there for the music program so all the other stuff is just a somewhat amusing distraction - but he misses the big city where there just a lot more going on. Again I can't comment on any of the other schools - but most of them are in small 'college towns 'and the impression I have is that the cultural experience would be very similar. If you want to experience the American college experience - and it would be quite an experience - you will get it in a college town. But the big cities have so much more to offer.

(And it's a safe bet that Toledo won't compare to Montreal.)

(And many of Australia's cities are on the coast where it's not so hot. For example, Melbourne is temperate.)
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:22 PM on November 3, 2006

Bishops is a school in a small town that's known for being friendly. The university is not known for being very difficult to get into. It's in an English-speaking part of Quebec, so you'll get to experience that province without necessarily having to know French. From what my friends who go there say, everyone knows everyone and the class sizes are small -- you'll get to know your profs. But as with any small town, non uni-related partying might be difficult, and fleeing the city without your own car virtually impossible.
posted by graytona at 8:22 PM on November 3, 2006

Okanagan and Malaspina are located in beautiful places, but places that aren't known for their sophisticated nightlife or array of cultural activities, if that's important to you. Also anything with the word "college" in its title is, rightly or wrongly, assumed to be a lesser institution in Canada.
posted by graytona at 8:24 PM on November 3, 2006

McGill! Montreal is a lovely city, and I've only heard great things about McGill's academics. (also, if you go there, pick up one of their "Harvard: The McGill of the US" sweatshirts.)
posted by piratebowling at 8:25 PM on November 3, 2006

As a physics grad student who wishes he had studied abroad, I would definitely choose McGill of those options. Montreal seems like a very nice city, McGill is one of the biggest name schools in Canada, and you're very close to both the Perimeter Institute and the Institute for Quantum Computing. You won't get anything close to the same amount of culture at any of the other places you mention and the department is at least as good as KSU's. I would also say that, for undergraduate work, you don't need to worry too much about making sure that the school is good in the specialty you want, but it's certainly nice to have connections.
posted by Schismatic at 9:26 PM on November 3, 2006

I'm sure that LobsterMitten has gone to all of the schools on the list and knows all about the "podunk" towns.

Yes, but american podunk towns are much different than european ones. In a eurpoean podunk down, one can usually hop on a train, and, presto, find yourself 6 hours later in a different country. In US and A, it is much much different: once in Kansas, it's like an 8 hour drive to anywhere else.
posted by milarepa at 9:56 PM on November 3, 2006

Well, you're not really "very close" to either of those institutions; both are in Waterloo, which is two hours west of Toronto, which itself is five hours west of Montreal.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:40 PM on November 3, 2006

Two points worth mentioning about Montreal:
- It will be more expensive than the other cities. If you would be on a very tight budget, your money will go farther elsewhere. If McGill will give you free housing, you'd be in good shape.
- If you're very shy, it might be easier to make friends in a smaller town. The group of international students is likely to become very tight-knit in one of the more isolated and smaller towns mentioned. In Montreal, I'm guessing the visiting students will be a bit more independent of each other in finding their own social scene in the city. (Could be wrong about this)
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:56 PM on November 3, 2006

Another data point saying YES! I wish I had done this. I'm now supervising final year students for their project work, and have been for a few years, and those who have done a year out (either abroad or in industry) are typically better motivated, better organised and get about a grade higher than their 2nd year average. I'm not sure if it's the extra maturity that comes from being, like, a year older, or the extra maturity that comes from spending the time outside of their comfort zone. But the results are unarguable. Do it, and you'll almost certainly end up with a better degree result in the end.
posted by handee at 3:28 AM on November 4, 2006

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