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Programs Advice for pursuing PhD in the US

  1. Aug 5, 2012 #1
    I'm starting the last year of my undergrad physics degree in September, so I'm weighing in my options for my graduate studies. I'd like to pursue a physics PhD in the States, but since I come from a different background I need some help and advice on what to do.

    I'm from Spain, and college is quite different here. First, you decide what you're studying before going to college. In my case, I chose physics, which is a 5 year degree where all you take are physics and math courses, which you don't get to pick except for a few different options in your last year. The whole degree amounts to about 3100 hours of lectures. Most people can't keep up with the courseload, so, on average, the degree actually takes 8 – 9 years instead of 5 (most people don't pass courses on their first try). There is one final exam for each course, which makes up 100% of your grade (except for a few kind proffessors that might give up to 10% extra credit for turning in some assignments, but that's unusual), and grades are also considerably lower than those in the States; in most courses nobody gets an A, and if somebody does, it's usually only 1 or 2 people. There isn't a person in my whole university that has the equivalent of a 4.0 GPA.

    The concept of applications is nonexistent, the vast majority of universities are public and don't have an admissions committee that you need to impress, so grades aren't usually such a big deal. Also most undergrad students don't get any kind of research experience. Some get a little during their last academic year, but it's mostly just helping out in a lab rather than doing something on their own. It is my understanding that, in the US everyone's very aware of the application process since a very young age and therefore their decissions are oriented towards that goal, but that's absolutely not the case in Spain, and I don't have an impressive résumé at all.

    Another difference is that once you finish your undergrad degree, if you want to continue studying, you first take a Masters degree (1-2 years), where you take courses in a more specific field of your interest, and then after that you start your PhD, instead of starting your PhD directly like in the US.

    Now, because of all of the above, I think it may be hard for me to get into a US Phd program given that:
    I'll end up with a “GPA” of around 7 out of 10, which is not bad at all by Spanish standards but probably crappy if compared to most students profiles.

    During this coming year I'll probably be able to get a little research experience, but I don't think it will be too noteworthy (and I don't have any other research experience yet).

    Getting letters of recommendation will be hard, since most of my proffessors only know me from lectures and taking my finals so they won't be able to say much about me. I guess if I join a research group I will get one from the proffessor in charge, but I don't know about the rest.

    I'd also like to note that I don't have “high ambitions” about wanting to get into one of the top programs at the best colleges or anything of the kind, I just want a nice place where I'll get a good learning experience, regardless of name and popularity. I'd also be open to going to Canada instead of the US, although I don't know if the admission process is similar there (I wouldn't have a problem with studying in French either).

    I'm not completely set about what field I want to go into, but, at this point my main interests would be either quantum information or condensed matter (and I wouldn't mind going the experimental route). As I said these aren't set in stone and I may end up doing something different.

    Anyway, the way I see it I have several options:

    1. Sending my applications this fall/winter to try to get into a PhD in the US to start in the fall of 2013. This would be my ideal option but I think it would hurt my chances for several reasons: my schedule this year will be the lightest and easiest of my whole degree, so I'm expecting to get good grades which will help my average (and these wouldn't show in my application). Also I'd have less time to prepare for the GRE, which I've read is quite important, and finally I wouldn't be able to have much research time before sending applications (applying is quite expensive and I wouldn't want to spend that much money and get rejected everywhere).

    2. Waiting another year or two before trying to apply. This would give me time to finish my degree, take the GRE, and in the meantime I could either try to continue doing research at my university (which would probably be hard, since the crisis in Spain is pretty devastating and funding at this point is virtually non-existent) or getting a Masters degree (I don't know if having a Masters is seen as desirable by admission committees).

    3. Just forget about it and pursue my Masters/PhD in Spain or somewhere else in Europe where it might be easier for me to get into a program (although I hope I don't have to take this option).

    If you've read this far, thanks a lot for your time and interest (I know it was long), and please comment with your thoughts because any input or advice will be truly appreciated. If you think I've left out some relevant information, please let me know.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 5, 2012 #2
    Hi zoemoe. I am actually in the exact same boat as you are (with the slight advantage that I am a US greencard holder, however I need to take the TOEFL despite being bilingual just for bureaucratic purposes). I'm also starting my last year of undergrad in Spain in September, same exact grades, no research experience, and feel just as clueless about my admission chances in US schools.

    I am starting my GRE and pGRE prep pretty much today (taking them in October and November respectively) and I think it should be plenty of time, there are a ton of resources over at physicsgreforums, and any of the GRE prep guides in the last year will be enough for the general test. Do not take too long to register for the physics GRE as there is only one exam center in the country (Barcelona). I'm taking it in the UK as I'm going on an Erasmus exchange this year and all the October seats were filled up in less than 2 weeks! There's always Lisbon if worse comes to worse though, probably cheaper than staying the night in Barcelona(assuming you don't go to uni there).

    I can tell you what I've been doing with my girlfriend (also applying to the same programs, with about an 8.3 average): combing through university webpages, AIP's grad program roster archive and gradschool shopper for statistics for all phd granting universities, (things like number of applicants/admitted students, requirements, etc). I've also been looking at the results sections on physicsgreforums and thegradcafe to get an idea of the grades and GRE scores of admitted and rejected applicants.

    With this info I've more or less cut down a list of about 25 grad programs down to 9 or 10 which I think I have a remote shot at. I would advise to ask your faculty secretary if any students in the past have gotten into US schools. Mine told me they had a few that went to Oregon State, Caltech, U of Florida (there was a joint("phd exchange") program with the Instituto Astrofísica de Canarias up until 2 years ago), and Boston U, but he wasn't able to tell me what their grades were or if they had Msc. degrees before applying.

    I think Msc. degrees are seen as favorable for European applicants, but personally I'm trying to avoid that seeing how funding for Msc. is little/nonexistent in Spain.

    A 7 average according to World Education Services translates to somewhere around a 3.1-3.2 GPA, which is just above the admission requirements for most schools(depends really, as its calculated by first converting each course grade to GPA (Sobresaliente = 4, Notable=3.3 or B+, Aprobado = 2.7 or B-, etc) then averaging it up instead of converting the average grade on a scale of 10.

    I hope this is all of some use to you, we should keep in touch. PM me for my email address and good luck!
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2012
  4. Aug 5, 2012 #3
    Thanks a lot for your answer! I'll keep everything in mind.
    I've sent you a PM
  5. Aug 9, 2012 #4
    I'm not sure if you have considered this option: wait for 1 or 2 years while you can prepare the Ph.d. application (e.g. application, GRE test, etc.). In the mean time, you still can find a work, save some money for the application fee. Probably, you can check to find some Ph.D. grants or funding for your pursue. Don't give up & good luck !!!
  6. Aug 9, 2012 #5
    If your university has some partnership with american or canadian universities, consider going on a few months exchange. If you get good grades there, they might propose you a PhD thesis. That's what of my friend did.
  7. Aug 10, 2012 #6
    Thanks for your replies.
    @hglov: The unemployment rate in Spain right now is around 25%, and the unemployment rate for people under 25 is 52%. So getting a job is pretty tough. If I decide to wait 1 or 2 years before applying I'd use that time to get a Masters degree, because I feel it'd give me a good headstart towards the PhD, and also I would work hard to get a good GPA which might help my applycation. Those are the reasons why I haven't really considered getting a job.
    @ezintegral: I only have a few credits left to finish my degree, so that's not really an option now since you have to apply to such exchange programs the year before they take place. I did study in Paris for a year with an Erasmus grant and, at that time, there weren't any exchange programs with North American universities.
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