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A few questions about entering grad school

  1. Jul 5, 2015 #1
    Greetings PFers,

    I didn't see a need to spam the forum with three topics, but I have three questions about graduate school.

    First question:

    Do most graduate schools (physics) have a summer "bridging" program? Maybe to prepare for the prelims, or to take some supplementary classes or something? I know some universities do (UN-Lincoln) but wasn't sure how common it was. I am wondering if it would be a better use of my time (and more lucrative) to find an internship somewhere over the summer or if I should count on spending the summer at school.

    Second question:

    Letters of recommendation. I know that it is generally better to have research-oriented letters of recommendation as opposed to "she was in my class and got an A" LORs, which I understand. However, I have had three research experiences (at my university, a DOE internship and an REU). I will definitely ask the professors I do research with at my university for one, since I've published several papers with them and their letters make it sound like I poop rainbows. For the DOE one, my supervisor wasn't prepared for me as an intern and just had me monitoring things overnight with no independent project or anything, plus he is now at a different lab, so I'm not sure that I should ask him for a letter. For my REU (which is currently ongoing), I am pretty independent so I'm not sure what my letter would say other than "she does, in fact, exist".

    Normally I would ask these three people since it can't hurt, however I wonder if it's useful to put my TA experience on there. As of the time of applications, I will have TA'd 15 different sections of physics I, II, and III and got an "outstanding TA" award. If this might be relevant, I could easily ask my department chair or a professor I TA for to write me a letter.

    Third question:

    Some of the grad students I am working with here at my REU suggested that I apply for the NSF graduate research fellowship. Seeing as it is through the NSF, I'm sure it is just as competitive as other fellowships/grants, which require months and months of preparation for the application. My professors at my university have helped me with numerous applications for awards/scholarships (no grad students there, so more time for undergrads), but have never mentioned the NSFGRFP. If I applied for it, they would have to help me a lot with the application. Is it fair to ask them if it's worth applying for, or just drop it?

    Thank you very much in advance :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 5, 2015 #2
    Most grad schools do not have bridge programs. Talk to your REU supervisor to see what they might say in a letter of recommendation. I've written good letters for students based on the quality of their work or reports from people they work with more directly even though I have not had a lot of direct interaction with them. I would not recommend more than 1 letter of recommendation from the TA side of things.

    Talk to someone familiar with your GPA, publication record, and GRE scores about the NSF fellowship. Someone needs to know a lot more about your record to assess whether you will be competitive.
  4. Jul 6, 2015 #3
    I highly recommend applying for the NSF GRFP. It was also strongly suggested to me by a grad student during an REU, but I was hesitant. You should just go for it because you never know what could happen.

    Also, if you think it might be time wasted (ie. if you don't get the fellowship) then you are wrong. It's beneficial for several reasons:
    - You get experience writing a project proposal
    - You'll already have all of your letters of recommendation for grad school
    - you'll have your personal statement mostly finished for grad school applications (seriously, 80% of mine was almost word for word)
    - I think grad schools are impressed when undergrads take the initiative to apply for at least 1 fellowship.

    I don't think you'll be using your professor as much as you think, besides for their letters. You should use your professors to come up with a good project idea, but after that it's all you. After you've written it, then ask for feedback. Remember, you aren't locked into the project you propose, so choose something you're very familiar with. I would suggest choosing a project building off your REU, proposing to go there for grad school to work on it.
  5. Jul 6, 2015 #4
    Thank you very much for this feedback. My REU is in biophysics which is not something I plan to pursue, however the work I do at my undergrad institution is in AMO which is what I plan on pursuing. I think maybe I am not understanding the purpose of the proposal. So if I go to graduate school with the fellowship, I am encouraged (though, according to what you said, not necessarily required) to do research my first year? Ideally related to the project? What if there is no one at the graduate school I attend working on that particular project? Does it assume I am independent enough to do research on my own (not the case)?
  6. Jul 6, 2015 #5
    The purpose of the proposal is to see how well you can formulate a research plan...you in no way have to do anything related to it in grad school. Plus you'll have to help write proposals in grad school anyway, good to pick up the experience now.

    I plan on writing my proposal based on my current research (computer vision with fpga) so I'll have the best shot of writing something that has intellectual merit. I would just write something related to what you're doing now so you can emphasize prior experience and the resources available in your school's lab.
  7. Jul 6, 2015 #6
    Yes, you are required to do research in your first year. Well technically, you could defer the NSFGRFP for a year, in which case you wouldn't have to do research but I don't know why you would want to do that. Besides, I'm not sure the graduate program would like that option.

    They do not care if you actually do the project that you propose. They are not funding your project. They are funding YOU as an up-and-coming scientist. As long as you pursue a field that's somewhat adjacent to your proposed project (you have to specify a 'field' on the application and a school that you plan to attend), i.e. physics, then you will be just fine.

    Like I said, you don't have to do the project you propose. I ended up choosing a different school and project all together and it was totally fine.

    Completely independent? Of course not. Though, with your project proposal you are showing that you know the field enough to propose an interesting idea. That means you're more independent than most other incoming grad students. It's more like they are saying 'Wow this student really knows their stuff and will definitely be successful in grad school. Here is a gold star for you. Oh, and now you can basically walk into any research group you'd like.'
  8. Jul 6, 2015 #7


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    You should write the proposal about something you know well and then use your knowledge about the topic to write about future directions. I wrote mine based around my undergrad research (I got the fellowship). My current project is still within my subfield but quite different than what I proposed. The good thing about applying this year is that regardless of the decision, you will get feedback from the judges which will be beneficial for you, especially if you decide to reapply.
  9. Jul 6, 2015 #8
    I'm not entirely sure that I am even independent enough to propose an interesting idea. If it were related to my REU sure, as I understand my project very well, but I don't plan to go into the same field as my REU is in. If I were to propose a project, it would be related to the research I do at my university, but there I do computational work in QFT where, of course, my advisors are the ones performing the heavy theoretical work. I am not familiar enough with the theory to be able to propose an interesting project idea, and I am not familiar enough with the field of computational physics to know what is or is not interesting or novel.

    The very fact that I would need to ask my professors for an idea of a project proposal, in my mind, suggests that I am not qualified for the fellowship. Would I be correct?
  10. Jul 6, 2015 #9
    Perhaps, Dishsoap, you'd be correct. You don't want to ask others for the idea of your proposal. However, the idea of requiring a project proposal seems like it indeed wants you to have an idea of unsolved problems in the field you're interested in, and have a basic knowledge of what to pursue in your field. This requires reading papers, and some you may not understand, may need to sit down with your professors or others in the department to ask questions about, but even without being able to understand the "methods" part, the "results" section is interesting, and often states the future directions of a work. And the Introduction, many times, addresses unsolved problems. I personally have some of an idea of what field I want to go into, but I don't nearly know all of it. However, if I needed to come up with a project proposal for a fellowship, I could. I may not know how to actually do the project at that moment (I'd need to read papers on techniques, softwares, etc), but I have enough background in some things that I could do that.
    It sounds like that's what they are looking for. Definitely apply! Even if you don't get the fellowship, preparing to apply and getting to know what you want to do in grad school more will help in grad school a lot, or so I hope.
  11. Jul 7, 2015 #10


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    Asking for professors to help come up with an idea is fine, most professors will provide you with a general project when you begin grad school. It is then up to you to learn the specifics by reading and working things out. Remember, you can apply for the NSF up to three times so even if you don't get it the first time, the feedback you will receive will still be useful. You can also apply to NDSEG and the Hertz (which would make sense if you are in a more applied field, theorists in exotics fields rarely get it).
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