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Schools Admittance into MIT Physics Grad School with an Undergraduate Engineering Degree

  1. Feb 25, 2017 #1
    Hello all,

    This is my first post here. I will be transferring to University of North Carolina Charlotte (UNCC) in the fall with two associates degrees in Art and Science. I was accepted into the School of Mechanical Engineering. My original plan was to finish my undergrad, then go to grad school for Aerospace Engineering. I have recently been thinking about the potential to go to grad school to earn a PhD in physics. I am aware that this is VERY far down the road. However, I believe it is best to prepare as early as possible. I plan on being very active in research throughout my undergrad. My goal is to get into an Ivy League grad school, hopefully MIT. UNCC offers a dual degree (degree, not major) program in Mechanical Engineering and Physics. My question for you would be:
    Does a dual degree in Mechanical Engineering and Physics make a big difference with admission into an Ivy League Physics grad school (specifically MIT), versus only majoring in Physics?

    I should note that part of the reason I am considering the dual degree program is that if I end up not wanting to go to grad school for physics, I will still have the potential to pursue engineering. I decided that if I do the Dual Program that I will use my experience with physics courses and research to determine my future path. So, in summary, to get into an Ivy League grad school should I do the dual degree or go strictly Physics?

    Any advice is greatly appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 25, 2017 #2


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    Why are you focused on Ivy's? They are sometimes not the best school in whatever specific area of interest you might develop as you pursue your undergraduate education.

    You should definitely double major if graduate school in physics is possibly something you want to pursue, or pursue a bachelors in physics. Trying to get into a physics graduate program as a mechanical engineer degree holder would be an uphill climb.
  4. Feb 25, 2017 #3


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    I think the OP is asking whether a double major conveys any particular advantage in admission to graduate school - as opposed to a single major.

    In short - not really.

    There may be some situations in which it would help. For example, if you were trying to get involved with a physics project that required mechanical engineering skills, then absolutely it's going to be an advantage. It would also be an advantage in that you would be qualified to apply to either the physics and the mechanical engineering graduate programs. But in general, a double major doesn't make you look any more impressive than someone who took a single major and used his or her electives to grain a more diverse education.
  5. Feb 25, 2017 #4

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  6. Feb 26, 2017 #5
    I have heard great things about Ivy League grad schools. I guess it's somewhat of a goal of mine. Keep in mind these are my top goals and my bare minimum goal is to get into a decent grad school. Thank you for your feedback. I think I will do a dual degree
  7. Feb 26, 2017 #6
    My main concern isn't so much that I am looking for an upper hand by doing a dual degree, rather would it hurt my competitiveness for grad school compared to someone that majored solely in physics. Sorry if there was any confusion in my wording. I just don't want to be too far behind when I apply to graduate school
  8. Feb 26, 2017 #7


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    It's not going to "hurt" you, but there might be an opportunity cost.

    Someone majoring exclusively in physics is going to have more freedom to take senior introductory courses to the various sub-fields, which in principle will help him or here to make a more informed decision on what to study in graduate school. Those courses will also likely reinforce the student's foundation in physics. With a double major, there is less opportunity for this. But of course, in your case the double major does come with the advantage of being more directly qualified for entry-level engineering positions.
  9. Feb 26, 2017 #8


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    As already pointed out, it probably will not help with this.
    Have you actually looked at undergraduate courses in Engineering versus Physics? If you try to do a quality double-major in those subjects, it will take you close to 6 years IMO. The first 2 years of the classes are similar enough that you can overlap them, but the upper-division Engineering classes do not come close to the upper division Physics classes in preparing you for Physics grad school, IMO.
    That is different. But a better approach would be to go to a universisy where you don't have to declare your major until you enter your junior year. That gives you time to figure out whether you enjoy Physics or Engineering more.
    Do you really understand how hard it is to get into MIT? What is your current GPA, what are your practice test scores, and what instructor recommendations do you have locked up?
  10. Feb 26, 2017 #9

    I understand that MIT is insanely difficult to get into! I like to think that I am not naive...I hope I'm right. When I transfer to the University in the fall I will likely transfer into the sophomore level. I will still have another three years of undergrad. I just want to start planning early and dream big. I could insert some cliche motivational quote about aiming high, but I'm just trying to say that I want to aim big. The worst that happens is I am very well prepared for any graduate program I get into.

    My GPA is a little bit strange. I have attended three separate colleges, two community and one online university. I attended an online university while in the military and nearly earned an Associates of Arts. I unfortunately had a few C's. This was 5 years ago. I went back to school after being discharged in the fall of 2015. I took 3 semesters at a community college to earn my Associates of Arts with a GPA of 3.8. I am currently working on my second semester at a community college to earn my Associates of Science, last semester I had a 4.0 and this semester I am, of course, shooting for a 4.0. Yeah, it looks pretty grim for me to get into a really good grad school. As for any instructor recommendations, I have 2 but they are from my community college. So I will see what I can do at the University. I just want to aim high so that I can do the best I can. Sure there's a good chance I can't get into an Ivy League school or even a great grad school, but at least if I am high these next three years I can say I gave it my best.Plus I absolutely LOVE learning. I just want to figure out what decision I should make right NOW with my major declaration.

    I was just looking over the dual degree versus B.S. in physics and I did notice that there is much more opportunity to take upper level physics classes. I know, that should seem obvious to me. The more I think about it the more I realize that it would benefit me more to do a B.S. in physics. I was, and am somewhat still, nervous about getting a sole degree in physics in case something stopped me from continuing onto graduate school. I hear that a B.S. in physics does not offer much unless you continue your education. I will soon be sitting down with my uncle, who has a PhD, as well as my Physics instructor, PhD, to discuss these exact topics.

    Thank you very much for your reply and insight. It was very helpful and made me think about a few things.
  11. Feb 26, 2017 #10


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    That's important, and a good sign for your future. :smile:

    I still remember buying my new textbooks each semester. I would get outside the bookstore with my shopping bag full of new textbooks and start flipping through what I would be learning the next semester. I would literally get goosebumps and be smiling like a an idiot as I looked through the later chapters that we would be covering soon.

    Never lose that passion and love for learning. It will serve you well. :smile:
  12. Feb 26, 2017 #11


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    MIT is not in the Ivy League. It is actually much different than the Ivy League schools in that it is really a technical institute. I think you just mean you want to go to a top ranked physics program. The physics programs at Ivy League institutions are not of the same quality. The three strongest are Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. Dartmouth and Brown are significantly weaker than the rest.

    MIT is not only difficult to get into, it also has a reputation of being one of the most intense schools in the world. You should consider if that is what you really want, since it is not the right place for most people.
  13. Feb 27, 2017 #12


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    When you state that MIT is one of the most intense schools in the world, are you referring to their undergraduate program, or their graduate programs? Because my thinking is that any highly ranked graduate programs in physics (or cognate programs, like math or the various fields of engineering) would be similarly intense.
  14. Feb 27, 2017 #13
    I've actually heard that MIT works its graduate students particularly brutally, although if your goal is to do something like theoretical physics the intensity of your work ethic, whether you're at Blah State University or MIT is going to have to be 11 out of 10 balls to the wall insane.
  15. Feb 27, 2017 #14
    Thank you for pointing out my mistake about MIT! You're right, I do mean that I want to get into a very good graduate school with a great physics program. Thank you for your response! I still have years before I apply to any graduate program but I will keep the top 3 Ivy's in mind as well.
  16. Feb 28, 2017 #15
    I went from an undergrad in Physics at LSU to a PhD in Physics from MIT. My wife went from Michigan State Engineering Mechanics to the Harvard PhD program in Medical Engineering/Medical Physics.

    In most cases I would recommend a straight undergrad Physics major for admissions into the top physics programs, including MIT. You'll need a great GPA, great letters of recommendation from esteemed physicists, impressive research experiences, and a good score on the Physics GRE. Having taught in the UNC system, I doubt that UNCC is likely to adequately prepare you for either admission to MIT Physics or for success once you are there. NC State and UNC Chapel Hill would be much better choices (and long shots, even then).

    But if you land at UNCC, ask your academic adviser how many graduates UNCC sends to top 10 physics programs each year, and what the accomplishments and qualifications of those students look like. I bet on average, it is 5-10 years between occasions where UNCC puts a graduate into a top 10 physics PhD program. Maybe much longer. But you need to know how often it happens and and how UNCC graduates have managed to do it.

    But if you do make it to MIT, take heart. Undergrad physics at MIT is a pressure cooker. Grad physics is survivable. You will work very hard. But MIT knows that when it takes graduates from places like LSU and UNCC, those students will have weaknesses. They gave me plenty of time to come up the learning curve and I spent my whole first year retaking undergraduate courses (the MIT version) to come up to speed. There was a cohort of us (grad students from lower tier undergrad schools) doing the same thing. There was no shame in it or pressure to produce.
  17. Feb 28, 2017 #16
    ThanK you for the reply. I think asking my advisor about the history of admittance of graduates to top grad schools is an incredible idea. I will definitely keep that in mind!
  18. Feb 28, 2017 #17


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    This is based on interactions I've had and things I have heard from other people, so you should probably take it with a grain of salt. Different students are suited to different environments.

    Even at the level of the most competitive schools, the department vibe can vary a lot. For example, several of the schools on the east coast have a reputation of being more intense (in that students may feel very stressed and often unhappy) than schools on the west coast (it could also be the general culture on the west coast is more relaxed). Each department has a reputation, which of course can also change over time. But you can generally get a feeling for it by talking with students.

    I would say the department culture is mainly impacted by three things: the people directly in charge of the graduate program (for example, the department and grad chairs can be very influential), the faculty, and the types of students the department attracts (which is closely tied to the other two). It's kind of interesting, but I get the impression that there can be a general vibe given by the professors at different schools, especially by subfield. For example, the AMO professors at one school may all tend to be very intense (or maybe more hands off etc.) compared to other places. It's probably because people who are similar attract each other and that influences hiring decisions.

    This is just something to think about if you plan to go to grad school.
  19. Feb 28, 2017 #18
    Speaking of program culture, what do you want to do? The rankings are honestly pretty meaningless until you get outside of the top 50. A Stony Brook or MSU nuclear physics student is much closer to a job in nuclear physics than an MIT nuclear physics student. A U Maryland student at JQI is clearly competitive with an MIT quantum information student.

    Generally, the old, well known schools have a lock on the fundamental stuff, but if you want to do industrially relevant physics it matters very little aside from niches like quantum information or high energy.
  20. Feb 28, 2017 #19
    I am still unsure of what field I want to study. I was thinking I could just figure it out over the next 2 years. I'll be applying to grad schools in about 2.5 years
  21. Feb 28, 2017 #20
    It's hard to gauge, but frankly, it's more important to do research in a field where new experiments are being done at a university that is good in that field than it is to go to a particular university. Try to see where the funding is. It's overwhelmingly biology oriented for now, with sprinkles in other areas of science, so keep that in mind. Plenty of fancy school graduates don't get jobs doing what they trained for because they trained for something which is either not growing or contracting.

    It doesn't matter where you go, it matters if where you go is the right place at the right time. One recommendation is to pursue something that is industrially relevant so you can get a job in industry doing something similar to your research. It doesn't matter at all where you go then unless its absolutely at the bottom of the barrel.
  22. Mar 1, 2017 #21
    I think this is only true if one remains in the field of one's specialty in grad school.

    This can be true at times, but there are many other reasons. After my PhD in AMO Physics, I went into other fields for several reasons 1) Geographical constraints. My wife and I agreed early on that we would do as necessary to always live in together. For me, that meant finding a job in a different field when remaining in her field took us to Cleveland right out of grad school. 2) Wanting off the funding treadmill. I worked for two great AMO physicists with traditional experimental programs: Lou DiMauro (OSU now) and Dan Kleppner (MIT). Loved being a student in their groups, did not aspire to do the post-doc -> tenure track faculty thing with the funding treadmill. I wanted to do science, not constantly write grant proposals and manage grad students who got to do science. 3) The funding in AMO physics kept moving to problems I had little interest in (like BEC) and away from problems that really excited me (like quantum chaos).

    There is no way a PhD from Stony Brook or Ohio State would have opened the same doors in other fields as the PhDs my wife and I have from MIT and Harvard. MIT and Harvard have universal marketing appeal. I've worked in RF engineering, ballistics, blast physics, injury biomechanics, physics education, forensic science, and fisheries science. When I testify in court (ballistics usually), the opposing attorney has never even dared a Daubert challenge to my qualifications as an expert in ballistics. When I speak to the Louisiana Wildlife Commission on a fisheries issue, folks with varying views do not dare to point out that my degree is not in fisheries science. When I was hired as a math professor at the Air Force Academy, no one argued against it based on a physics degree. My wife has had the same experience with her Harvard PhD. Our applications tend to go to the top of the pile. Other than jobs at R1 universities, the school name on the degree means a lot based on the school's common reputation, not based on the reputation of the school in the specialty. Consultants are eager to hire us, because they trust our analysis will be right, and they know our qualifications will hold sway with juries.

    There was an occasion where a reviewer wrote of a paper (on magnetoreception in fish), "I could not find that you ever contributed to this sort of research." To me that demonstrated a bias, because rather than point out any logical or scientific flaws in the paper, the reviewer could only resort to the accusation that we were not established scientists in the field. Everyone should recognize the fallacy here. (In fact, it was not even true, in the next sentence, the reviewer cited an earlier paper we published in magnetoreception.) However, in that case, I doubt the reviewer even knew where my PhD was from, just that I was not a long-established scientist in magnetoreception.
  23. Mar 1, 2017 #22
    I agree that going to a fancy school makes a difference. I disagree that it makes much of a difference, and in some cases it can make a negative difference.

    For instance, count up the number of fancy school graduates working at MSU's newly revamped nuclear physics group:

    If you wanted to do nuclear physics, you clearly should have been in the right place at the right time before this center got going, which was Stony Brook, not a famous school.

    Now, as for myself, I started a PhD at the world's #1 computer science school, Carnegie Mellon, and then dropped out and ultimately decided for practical reasons that I should do a PhD in EE at Arizona State University, which in EE is probably 20-30 in the rankings. I agree that there is clearly a difference between fancy schools and not fancy schools having been to both. However, the difference is basically negligible to your quality of life.

    At ASU, 10 of my advisor's students have become EE professors, 3 at top ten EE universities. One of his students became the head of development for manufacturing at a massive semiconductor company. Many of those who didn't do as well work for Silicon valley simulation firms. Many of the people I've met at ASU get jobs upon graduation at places like Raytheon, Intel, General Dynamics etc. A good friend of mine in physics, a discipline ASU is even less renowned in, has been recruited by Google and D.E. Shaw.

    So if going to a school at the bottom of the top 50 gives you those opportunities and you're sad about them, I'd say you've got first world problems.
  24. Mar 1, 2017 #23
    Emphasis added. I agree completely. But there is no reason not to aim for the top. If you aim for the top and just miss, you are still in pretty good company. Aiming for lower tier schools (25-50ish) and missing WILL likely have a bigger impact on career potential.
  25. Mar 1, 2017 #24
    I plan to aim high. That will mean bettering myself and that's a win win situation
  26. Mar 1, 2017 #25
    I think aiming for excellence no matter where you go is important, but one thing that is missing from this discussion is that it's not really about aiming high, it's about where you aim. For physics, there are only 15 real players, so you aim somewhere in there. If you were doing applied science, the gulf between the schools is much flatter.

    As an example, if you wanted to do X-Ray crystallography of biomolecules, and you got into Harvard and Arizona State, based on what I am suggesting, you would go to Arizona State, since it has a giant new X-Ray crystallography research center. Indeed, I know of a professor who got his B.S. at Berkeley and then went to ASU for his physics PhD for this very reason.

    The issue is that for most specialities of physics people are interested in, only the big, old schools like Caltech have something good going on (fancy stuff like black holes, quantum computing, nuclear physics etc). So while you need to focus on being excellent, the next thing you need to sort out is what the hell you want to do, which just takes time.
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