One of the most well-known benefits of being a Caltech student is the infamous 3:1 student to faculty ratio, which implies a personalized, interactive undergraduate experience with world-class research scientists. It was a primary reason why I chose Caltech above other schools as a high school senior. Now as my time at Caltech comes to a close, I can reflect back on my interactions with different professors and consider if this 3:1 ratio really “lives up to the hype.” I believe the answer is yes.
Having many friends in other, larger schools, I know that it’s often difficult to connect with your professor in a class of 100+ students. At Caltech, many of my courses dwindled exponentially in size once I started specializing in my field. Even as a Computer Science major, the largest major group at Caltech, many of my classes had less than fifty students. Due to this, I was able to reach out to professors either during their office hours, or stop them after lecture for a few questions on the slides. I would say that the majority of my classes here had less than twenty people enrolled at any given time. In these classes, the professors often knew me by name, which makes skipping class a lot harder but the learning experience richer as well.
In general, it’s common to have interactions with your professor outside the classroom. I do see my professors after the class has ended just having a coffee at Red Door or strolling along the Olive Walk; I always say hi and they wave back. One of the most widely shared professorial interactions is having lunch at the Athenaeum with Professor Nate Lewis, who teaches Ch1a (the freshman general chemistry core requirement course). Every week or so, he asks for four students in his class to have lunch with him at the “Ath”, which is a country club-esque building on campus. Only members are allowed to dine, so it’s a treat for an undergraduate to go and have lunch or dinner with a faculty member there. More commonly, I interact with professors 1:1 to discuss papers I’m writing for their class or upcoming presentations I’m organizing. Their willingness to make time and provide helpful feedback on my works has helped me tremendously in developing my logical thinking skills and improving my scientific communication. Finally, many undergraduates are part of a research lab during their time on campus. Depending on the size of the lab and the involvement of the lab head, you may have meetings with the professor managing the lab. In my lab, I would have weekly chats with my professor at Broad Cafe, which was not just useful for my research but also an enjoyable conversation where we could discuss life and other things outside of academics.
If you’re interested in getting to know your professors better, Caltech is definitely the place for you. The intimately small class sizes and the various opportunities to get to know your professors are unique to this campus. These sorts of relationships can benefit you professionally, especially if you’re thinking about applying for graduate or medical school and require letters of recommendation. In addition to this, however, you can receive amazing mentorship from your professors that will help you grow as a scientist and a person.