CUPC conundrum

The CUPC (Canadian Undergraduate Physics Conference), as any other undergraduate conference, would be a prime target to recruit high-achieving students from a graduate program’s standpoint. Because the undergraduate delegates are primarily well-motivated, high-achieving students, they tend to be graduate school-bound. There will inevitably be a few adventurous (or activist, but activists seem to be less numerous in physics than adventurers) delegates who would use graduate study as a medium for travel. This year, CUPC is held at Trent University.

University of Montreal has no use for a booth at CUPC; the only topic for which UdeM could recruit with any measure of success in English Canada would be white dwarves. (Then again, UdeM is world-leading as far as white dwarves are concerned) Hence it never forked the money for a booth. But I have the feeling some non-Canadian universities would have more success advertising at CUPC than the French-language Canadian ones would. Yet CUPC never had a single booth purchased by a non-Canadian university.

To be fair, non-Canadian universities are at a marketing disadvantage for the Canadian applicant pool, despite the fact that the organizers try to schedule the graduate fair in such a fashion that most delegates will attend it on the last day, even those who wake up a little late. But what exactly these disadvantages are depend on where the university is. A short summary of the disadvantages faced by non-Canadian universities by location is provided below. This is primarily framed in terms of US vs. UK; some adventurers say that a lack of cultural appeal of both countries could be a problem and that these two countries are lower on their lists.

US universities:

  • Testing concerns (GRE, both general and physics)
  • Students enter PhD programs directly (and many Canadian students would rather earn a masters first)
  • Perception of higher tuition (PhD is actually the only level where it is not true, although a few universities, Georgia State being the most extreme, charges higher ancillary fees to PhD students than to undergraduates)

UK universities:

  • Logistics (Canadian students actually need a visa to enter the UK for study, unlike the US, plus inter-continental moving is more troublesome than same-continent moving)
  • UK universities tend to charge exorbitant tuition for masters
  • British masters funding is next to nonexistent

As much as the University of Minnesota acknowledges that I made an effort to understand who I would be advertising to, and that they understand that many CUPC delegates are at the level the department wants, the physics department raises one major concern. They feel that their position on the physical prestige ladder, and their location to a lesser extent, makes it a hard sell. Minnesota’s position on the physical prestige ladder is such that it is on the same level as the best Canadian physics departments. They know they are a backup plan for high-achieving Canadian students to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, Berkeley, et al, and they are afraid such students will apply to Canadian schools (UBC, McGill, Toronto, Waterloo being popular among CUPC delegates) rather than Minnesota as back-up plans. But how do I go about addressing that concern?

The fair will likely be held on October 25. On a sidenote: UVA and UC Riverside each managed to get one Canadian student to attend at some point after 2012 and they are lower still on the physical prestige ladder; they probably had to eye one specific research project to go there [over a Canadian university] or otherwise were adventurers and/or activists, but they had geographical advantages over Minnesota. Then again, Minnesota is pressured in both directions.

On the one hand, their physical expansion (and not just in terms of campus space) requires a steady flow of graduate students, and the competition is fierce between universities at that level of talent. Sure, the local pie has gotten bigger but local student bodies can only provide so many high-achieving students. On the other hand, with 43% international students, they can’t expand the PhD student body too much without incurring penalties. That percentage will surely decrease in about 3-5 years but for the next 1-2 years, they will have to look abroad to recruit all the students they need without sacrificing quality, given that I do not expect the yield to change too much, up or down, from the ~30% that is typical of departments at that level.

Also, Minnesota has scrapped the only known physics PhD jointly offered by a Canadian university in partnership with an American university last year. Actually, the University of Manitoba scrapped it first and Minnesota followed shortly thereafter; that joint degree drew Canadian applications (single-digit) without actually drawing students. The students that were accepted ended up elsewhere (maybe one or two went to one of Manitoba or Minnesota anyway without the joint degree)… Here are a few Minnesota-specific selling points (not exhaustive, I know; the research projects offered are a different story):

  • Location is more suitable for graduate study
  • Faculty actually care about students’ well-being
  • Adjustment time is shorter (culture and weather-wise)
  • Course waivers for A- and better in sufficiently advanced coursework (cross-listed as undergraduate and graduate at a minimum)

Why is location a selling point? Consider housing: if my lease in Prospect Park, southeast of campus, for a 1-bedroom apartment runs for $725/month ($775-800 if you include Internet, laundry and electricity), the same apartment would cost ~$2,000/month in the Upper West Side or Lower Manhattan (near Columbia and NYU respectively; same would also hold near UCLA). Don’t be fooled by the higher salaries of NYC or other popular locations; the cost of living is higher than in the Twin Cities. Plus the Twin Cities do not have nearly as many distractions (unless one is a camping, fishing or canoeing fan) as other major cities, but more than Cornell or Penn State. Hence students will be more focused but distractions are still there if they need to use them.

In short, is it worthwhile for Minnesota to reserve a booth at CUPC?

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