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5 Years To Get Into A Top Graduate School For Physics

  1. Dec 4, 2007 #1
    The contents of this forum has, for me, made the prospect of becoming a theoretical physicist very intimidating. I now find myself wishing that I had become interested in the field at the beginning of high school, instead of at the end. But instead of dwelling on what I cannot change I have decided to spend the rest of my academic life ensuring that I do not look back at the end of it all with regret again.

    So without further ado here's the current plan and my question:

    I'm living in Canada so for undergraduate I want to attend Waterloo (because it is said to be best for math) for the [co-op] mathematical physics program (because it is said to be made for students intending to pursue a career in theoretical physics).

    Based on what I have read on these forums, my only chance to get an ideal job of doing research in physics is to get into one of the prestigious schools in the US for my graduate.

    How do I guarantee (or rather come as close as possible to doing so) my getting into a school like Harvard for graduate?

    Note that at the moment I do not have any spectacular extracurriculars, but am easily getting good grades; and am very capable of spending every waking moment doing whatever is necessary (laziness is not an issue). In short, all I want to know is what is my best course of action? - My current plan is to buy the textbooks I will be using in my first year as an undergrad and learn as much as I can over the summer (and before that as well) so that I can then achieve perfect grades without much difficulty. But what should I do about extracurriculars and whatever else is important outside of grades? ANY advice would be GREATLY appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 4, 2007 #2
    I've never actually gotten into graduate school, but basically common sense and answers to questions similar to yours that I've asked before have revealed that it's basically a mixture of good grades, research experience, and recommendations.
  4. Dec 5, 2007 #3
    ha, one step at a time
  5. Dec 5, 2007 #4
    aXiom_dt, I assume you found this very helpful.

    Anyway, I would recommend, if you have not already, looking at the "Sticky thread" at the top of this forum entiled " Zapper Z's: So you want to be a Physicist?"

    It has tons of information, links and questions very similar to yours.

    Good luck,
  6. Dec 5, 2007 #5


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    Remember that this is a internet forum, and while it contains a lot of discussion on graduate school, it only encompasses a very small proportion of those who want to follow this route.

    I'm not so familiar with the US admissions, I studied in the UK, but I doubt that colleagues that I know who work in US institutions would only look to GRE, GPA scores, or whatever they're called...

    I could be wrong, but I'm sure my friends would place a lot of their emphasis on recruiting students on the enthusiasm of the students (as long as they have good grades).

    Surely, no-one would employ a grad student just based on grades, right?

    If the latter is the case, that would be pretty depressing, I hope it's not the case -- I should ask round.

    Of course, my first statement holds, and I'm only a small voice in a small percentage of people in academia, posting on here. However, I still think that a lot of posts here put too much emphasis on grades w.r.t. admission.
  7. Dec 5, 2007 #6
    I've read ZapperZ's walk through for being a physicist, and I know that I need more than just grades. I am asking about how I should spend the free time I have now. Should I try and find impressive extracurriculars now or is there no point until university where there will be a lot more opportunities?
  8. Dec 5, 2007 #7
    Hey there,

    Believe me, if you've 'decided' on physics by the end of your high school career, you're already ahead of the game. You've gotten yourself into college, right? I wouldn't regret your high school career-- college is chock full of opportunities. I would say you are, right now, just at the beginning of your academic journey.

    I would caution you against "spending every waking moment doing whatever is necessary". Life is about balance, and college is one of the few opportunities in your life to explore a lot of different things. I would recommend doing this.

    As for advice as to what to do now, I would take a look at the program you're looking at going into, seeing what some of the requirements are, and taking a look at your own background. Spend this time shoring up any holes you may see in your own understanding, and you'll be ready to go next fall.

    Good luck!
  9. Dec 5, 2007 #8
    I can't say that it there would be no point in finding extracurriculars now; I also agree with dotman, though, that you probably shouldn't spend every waking moment on this. Maybe try to get in somewhere on the long breaks during school. Find someone doing some research and see if there are some small tasks that you can help with, you know, the little things.

    That way you don't overload yourself, but you also get some experience.

    Good luck,
  10. Dec 5, 2007 #9


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    I'd say that you're way ahead of most other students already, in that you "know" you want to go to grad school and study theoretical physics. Thus, you can tailor your studies towards this. However, remember that you don't know any theoretical physics yet, and so you don't really know that you'll even be good at it, let alone find it interesting enough to pursue. Here's what I suggest:

    1.This goes without saying really, but when you get to university, start to work from the beginning.
    2. Try and get involved with as many things as you can: or at least as many things that you enjoy as you can.
    3. Be the guy that stands for student rep, or whatever you call it over there. In my third year at university I volunteered to be on the student staff liason council; and got the place by default, since noone else volunteered! I ended up being chair, again since noone else wanted to, but these things look good on applications, even though they are little to no work!
    4. Try and get some research experience. Since you know now that you want to go further, then you can start early. I don't know the procedure, since I never did anything like this, but if you can get a few undergrad research stints under your belt, in different specific areas, then you'll be doing well.
    5. Try to get to know some of your professors. So many students don't do this, and so only get general letters of recommendation. If you get to know your tutor, but going and talking to him, you're more likely to get a personal reference. This shouldn't just be done with a view to getting a good reference, though: it will help you along your studies if you have people who know you that you can go and chat to if having any problems.

    Well, that's my advice: also read Zz's thread, and mathwonk's too (since you're in between physics and maths).
  11. Dec 5, 2007 #10
    I agree with quite a bit of what cristo is saying, but there's a few points worth mentioning. High school and the start of University, for me, were very far removed from what I would call the best and most productive years that I almost think of them as being separate periods. Whilst i agree that it's worthwhile taking things up (joining clubs, getting involved!) when you get to University, I feel in the first one/two year(s) your thoughts should be on doing this to have life experience, not so you have X skills that you can boast about on a CV in 5 years time.

    Putting too much pressure on yourself can be worse than detrimental, you shouldn't feel as alot of people now seem to, that you have to be publishing papers in year two to have any hope in the professonal field. With my 5 year undergraduate, I found that the best course for me has been to pick up things in courses and explore them as they are introduced to me. Sure I've done summer placements, and if you're truly interested in your subject area (or it might be that you aren't sure which type of physics you would like to study) then these things should come naturally. Planning on where you'd like to apply to do things in 4 years time is meaningless, in my opinion, solely because so many things change over the course of a degree.

    I would say for everything but your final two years (where your career choice becomes important), that taking a steady approach and focussing on each year as it comes is the way to go. By all means, get involved and explore and develop your interests - you'll also be developing alot as a person during this time so it can be complicated but just don't charge in with a goal of getting the telephone number of the course heads in month two or anything. Personally, I found that my contact and relationship with some doctors grew as I found myself interested in their lecture courses or research material, asking questions is the perfect way to expand your knowledge base and get yourself noticed.

    Pretty sure that post is quite disjointed, I haven't slept in a long time so I apologize if so!
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2007
  12. Dec 5, 2007 #11


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    I agree. That's why I said try and do as many things as you enjoy. There are many benefits of doing this early on in your degree. Firstly, you have more "free" time, so can explore things that perhaps you've never thought of doing before. Secondly, participating in clubs or whatever else is a perfect way to make friends, and meet other people with similar interests to you. (And here I don't mean physics/maths clubs, since you'll see those people all the time anyway, whether you like it or not!). Indeed, these things should not be a chore, but should be enjoyable. If you enjoy them, then you'll stick at them as much as possible and, when asked about them, will be able to convey genuine interest rather than "I did this to look good on my application."

    This is very wise. It's natural for one's interests to slightly change, or even drastically change! One normally applies to grad schools since they have research groups in their specific area of interest, so thinking of which to go to now, when you don't have a specific area of interest, is pointless.
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