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Programs Advice on getting a PhD place

  1. Oct 27, 2007 #1
    I'm currently a 2nd year undergrad in the UK studying maths and physics, and I'd really like to do a PhD in theoretical (/mathematical) physics. My problem is that more specifically I'd (currently) like to work in a field related to quantum gravitation; which as far as I can tell 1) tends to attract a number of absurdly bright people 2) seems to be predominantly confined to a small number of centres of excellence: Oxbridge, Imperial, the CPT at Durham, plus possibly a couple of the other London colleges.
    I'm resigned to needing a 1st class honours in order to even apply to most of these places. But my question is, what can I do now to give myself an avantage over other people with firsts?

    Also, I'm currently enrolled on a 4 year course. Would a normal postgraduate MSc (or similar like the Cambridge Part III) put me in a better position than my MSci? And how disadvantaged would I be were I to apply for doctoral places upon completion of my BSc instead (as only Cambridge seems to insist upon 4 yrs preparatory study)? (The reason for my haste is that I'm fairly eager to stop accruing debt and start earning- if covering the Master's material in the first year of a doctorate saves me a year's fees and doesn't have a drawback, then that would help!)

    Many thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 27, 2007 #2


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    Well, the first thing to note is that, like you say, quantum gravity is hugely popular, and there are more applicants than places! I guess it depends on what specifically you want to do. I.e. do you want to do stringy stuff (which is what's done in most places) or loop quantum gravity stuff (which, as far as i know, only nottingham and portsmouth are researching).

    I would say that having a "real" masters degree probably will help you in this field, because it's so popular. (I know from experience that if you want to apply to DAMTP at Cambridge, then you have to do part III). If I had to give any advice, then I'd say graduate with a BSc then go to Cambridge and do part III. I know it'll be another year of money to pay out, but I reckon it'll be worth it, and definitely more worth it than your MSci year.

    And finally, I think you will be disadvantaged applying with only a BSc. Not only will you be up against candidates with masters degrees, but if you get accepted, you will basically have to take courses that make up an MSc anyway. Now, think of a year of that whilst trying to start on your research-- it sounds pretty difficult to me. Plus, you then run the risk of overshooting, and not finishing your degree within 4 (or even 5) years.

    Anyway, that's just my thoughts. Good luck!

    [And, if it helps, I'm studying cosmology, and have a MMath degree (pretty much the same as an MSci, but only in maths). But then, cosmology isn't as popular as quantum gravity (although some people in my office are working on stringy things)]
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2007
  4. Oct 27, 2007 #3


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    Ok, so I've had a look at your profile, and seen you're at Durham. There could be another option; what about trying to take as many modules from the MSc course as possible. Then you could graduate with an MSci, whilst getting funding off the government, but could put in your applications that you've basically done all the masters courses, and your referees could write this too. Just a thought!
  5. Oct 28, 2007 #4
    Thanks cristo. As far as I can tell the MSc is run quite differently to the undergrad course; so I'm not sure how much of an option that is. Another interesting quirk is that because the MSc at Durham is geared towards particle theory, I'd learn a great deal more general relativity if I took the 38 lecture undergrad module in it than I would in the 16 lecture course in the MSc!
    I didn't know that nottingham or portsmouth were researching QLG- I'll look into that! Based on what I've read so far I probably prefer QLG as an idea... but if I want to get a job afterwards I suspect it would be deeply unwise to go against the grain of 90% of the departments in the world in my thesis!
    So I guess my question becomes: how do I get on the 4th year course that will prove most advantageous? Looking around suggests they aren't generally easy to get accepted onto either. So what kind of thing would I get asked at interviews? And what do I need by way of a "CV" apart from good grades and good references?
  6. Oct 28, 2007 #5

    Chris Hillman

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    1. I can think of some good mathematicians who have come out of Durham, so you might want to look around for undergraduate research opportunities in physics or math.

    2. I suggest you consider other areas of concentration in physics which are just as challenging interesting as quantum gravity but perhaps less infeasible.
  7. Oct 30, 2007 #6
    Thanks Chris. What kind of research in that general theoretical area is less competitive? I'd imagine that particle theory is, purely because so many more places are actively researching it. Especically with the LHC switching on next year...

    Can anyone give me any info as to what kind of thing you get asked at a PhD interview?
  8. Dec 5, 2007 #7
    Sorry to drag this up... but can anyone tell me anything about what you get asked at a PhD interview? I've not been able to find info about it anywhere :confused:
  9. Dec 5, 2007 #8


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    I can tell you what I got asked in my PhD interviews, if it helps. I only had two interviews, since I got offered a place in the department I really wanted go to the day after my first interview, so my statistical sample isn't that great. Also, both of my interviews were pretty informal. I don't know whether that's because I was expecting a really bad experience, or whether I just got on well enough with the people I was talking to.

    I'll talk about the first one: I was firstly asked "so why a phd?" and then "why a phd in cosmology, here?" I didn't really do much preparation, apart from obviously knowing who specialised in what, and so just honestly answered the questions. I also hadn't formally studied cosmology, but had covered some in that last 1/4 of a GR course, so told them that, and that I'd found it interesting and wanted to pursue it. Then they went through my recommendation letters, read some parts to me, asked a few questions about specific things.

    Then they went on to ask about my transcript; what I'd done in certain modules, how I'd found them..etc. We then spoke for a while about my dissertation, which I was part way through, what I had done in it, and what I intended to do in the next few months. Then they told me about the department, what everyone specialises in, and all three of them briefly spoke about their research, and what interests them.

    And that was about it. I think the interview lasted about 40 mins or so. My second interview was pretty much the same; although they went into more depth in what they do, and started drawing diagrams on the board and explaining possible projects.

    Anyway, from my experience interviews were pretty pleasant. I have been told of people who've been elsewhere and given a pen and a board and told "derive the friedmann equation," or "describe to me what inflation is." So, I may have just been lucky!

    Hope that helps. How have things changed in the last month or so? Still thinking of the same places, or have others been added to the list now?
  10. Dec 7, 2007 #9
    Huh, it seems my reply last night didn't register somehow... :confused:
    Well the Nottingham research looks great (Quantum black holes :biggrin:), although Portsmouth really don't seem to shout about working on QLG as best I've been able to tell from their website! But thanks for putting me on to that. Unfortunately digging around my 'local' universities (Liverpool, Manchester) hasn't proved quite so fruitful.
    The bad news is that what looks by far and away the best 4th year course is the part III :cry: so to my reckoning the regime of undergraduate research, 28 hours work and 12 hours sleep a day, "brain-boosting" omega-three -rich foods, and paying a medium £20 quid an hour to receive private tuition from Feynman should... have started when I was approximately 8 years old in order for me to stand a cat in hell's chance :tongue:
  11. Dec 7, 2007 #10


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    I just remember some LQG research coming out of Portsmouth, but from the look of their website, they seem to be focusing on brane-world and strings and their relationship with cosmology.

    If you can afford it; do part III. If you do well in that, then you'll have your pick of institutions to do a phd at, and you would even have the change of staying at Cambridge.

    I can't think of places with qunatum gravity research off the top of my head. Most of the london colleges do, I think. Well, I imagine imperial and kings will, and I know that queen mary does also.

    You should probably think of some other applications in fields other than QG, as Chris advises, since QG is incredibly popular!
  12. Dec 7, 2007 #11
    It's not so much the cost of the part III- it's the fact that I can't see it being anything less than extremely competitive for places! I definitely plan to apply, I'm just not optimistic about my chances of getting in!
    Imperial, Kings, Mary and I think University all do some QG, so in that sense the field has widened. As regards other fields, is general cosmology as competitive?
  13. Dec 7, 2007 #12


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    I'm sure you'll get in. It's a masters course afterall, so there's always some leeway with the upper limit as to how many people can be taken on. Besides, you're only in your second year aren't you? Try and do some sort of summer research thing at durham. I'm not sure how common these are, but you could always do one in a field not that related to the one you intend to apply to.
    I'm not sure to be honest with you. I've been told unofficially that I was picked out of about 10 applicants; but you have to realise that people apply to a lot more than one institution, and so factor that in.
  14. Dec 9, 2007 #13
    Thanks for the encouragement! I'm currently in the process of applying for a Nuffield bursary, which will hopefully help my CV a little :smile: The field would be about as relevant as I could possibly hope for too- examining redshift data to see on what kind of scales the universe can be considered homogenous.
    If it's anything like Oxbridge undergrad applications though, the interview will probably carry more weight than anything else? I'm thinking that a copy of some Cambridge 2nd year exams (and maybe depending on how early in the year the interview is, some 3rd year exams) would be a good starting point for problem solving practice in the run up.
    1 in 10 doesn't sound fantastic odds... so I think the field may have to be broadened again!
  15. Dec 9, 2007 #14


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    That sounds like an interesting topic. Is that like a summer project at Durham, then? Good luck with your application.
    Sure.. it's always good to look up the syllabus of what undergrads have studied at a place you're applying for grad studies to. I don't know what oxbridge applications are like, so can't really help you there. If you prepare well, and be honest, I can't see you having a problem. Especially if (I presume) you're on track for a first class, and if you have research experience under your belt at that time.

    The interview for part III will not be as thorough as PhD interviews, since it's only applications for a taught course, as opposed to one or two research places.

    Don't worry about that, yet. Anyway, my experience is just one case, so the odds are probably a lot less than that; in fact they will be, as people apply to way more than one institution. Besides, if you cope with part III and get through that, I'd say that would guarantee a research place somewhere doing something related to theoretical physics!
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