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Am I good enough for MIT (graduate school)?

  1. Nov 28, 2014 #1
    Hello, Physics Forums. I am currently working through my graduate school applications and am now finishing up my statements of purpose for MIT, Caltech, and Michigan. While working on the MIT application, I came upon a thought that I'm sure most people have- am I even good enough to succeed at MIT? If I could guarantee my admission, would it even be wise to attend? Anyway, my main question: Is there a decent way to litmus test yourself on whether or not a top 5 school would be a good fit for you?

    I'd prefer to not give all my stats for analysis for the sake of anyone else that might find answers to this question useful. I will say, though, that my intended field of study is in quantum computing. Perhaps I should just apply and see what happens, but I can't help but wonder.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 28, 2014 #2


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    There's no litmus test, I'm afraid.

    You have to make this assessment yourself. Gather as much information as you can. Take a hard, serious look at yourself. Define your goals. And make a decision. This is part of maturing academically.

    And know that even the best people get it wrong from time to time.
  4. Nov 28, 2014 #3


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    What type of quantum computing (ions, optical, superconducting...)? I know that MIT has a very good reputation for undergraduate studies almost irrespective of field. However, the situation is very different at the graduate level. MIT has some excellent research groups, but they are not necessarily among the best in ALL areas (no university is). Hence, the answer to your question will depend on which area you are interested in.
    In the the areas I am familiar with they have a couple of very good groups (I know some people who work there), but they are certainly not necessarily the "best" (whatever that means) in the US (but in the top 10) and certainly not in the world.

    The idea of "super universities" is simply not true. The vast majority of people who work at these famous placer are normal -but hard working- people, not super geniuses.
  5. Nov 28, 2014 #4
    djh101, I wonder that too.
    I can tell you why I am not applying to MIT ( despite it being top for my field of choice)*.

    I know I am very smart and very capable of being a physicist, but I still need to work on my confidence. It's good that I am not over confident, but I am almost leaning towards an unhealthy lack of confidence. A school like MIT would not at all be a good fit for me even if I had the credentials to get accepted.

    On the other hand, I only hear from word of mouth how "stressful" MIT is for grad physics, so I don't really know...

    Research is very important, and you should definitely apply to schools that are strong in your area of interest, but also try to figure out if you will be happy there overall. That is so important! A good personal life can lead to a very good productive research/professional life. I personally know (few) people who over think this, and burn out easily and are on the verge of quitting.

    If you get accepted to MIT, you are good and do not doubt this! Think about the big picture before you decide to attend.

    *There are other schools, including top schools, that are strong in my field of interest, and I know I will be happy (overall) to attend.
  6. Nov 28, 2014 #5
    Thank you all for the replies. I suppose, then, I shall just finish up my applications, wait, and see what happens.

    My interest is still pretty broad at the moment (I'm applying to Boulder for ions, USC for error correction and decoherence and whatnot, etc.). MIT seems to fit my interests, I'm certainly not applying just because it's MIT (well, I'm not going to lie, I'm sure that's at least a small part of the reason). However, I mainly mentioned MIT as a sort of archetype of difficult, prestigious schools- somewhere that seems to fit perfectly but that you otherwise feel concerned that you'll sink amongst more qualified professors and graduate students. I suppose, given the competition (and as bluechic92 said), getting into MIT probably means you are capable (although it won't be for some months before decisions are given- maybe I'm suffering from Christmas season impatience). Still, I can't help but think about undergraduate where quite a few transfer students, despite being accepted, weren't quite up-to-par for UCLA and barely survived the competitive quarter system school.
  7. Nov 28, 2014 #6
    Undergraduate admissions is very different than graduate. Since a graduate school, for PhD studies, investing in your future, getting in means that you are qualified (for the standards they are looking for). As long as you remain honest with yourself and with your applications, an acceptance means that the program thinks you would make a good fit.* Once you are accepted, it's up to you to decide which schools are a good fit for you etc.

    *A rejection does not mean you won't make a good fit, sometimes it just means that the dice did not roll in your favor.

    Good luck!
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2014
  8. Nov 28, 2014 #7
    Indeed. I guess I'm just being impatient. And thank you. I'll try to get all these applications done by today.
  9. Nov 29, 2014 #8
    Don't worry about not getting into the number 1 school. They might be number one because of outstanding work in a particular field of your department, but you might not even be interested in that subfield? People at these universities aren't superhumans. They're just usually hard working.
  10. Dec 5, 2014 #9

    rude man

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    If you're planning to go into esoteric fields like quantum computing you had better have a very high gpa and lots of confidence and drive. Getting admitted to even the "top" graduate programs is actually easier than getting admitted there as an undergraduate. I would investigate various depts. to see which have strong programs in your field. They're not necessarily the boutiqueoschools.
  11. Dec 5, 2014 #10
    It's true for domestic students but does that hold true for international students?
  12. Dec 5, 2014 #11

    rude man

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    I don't know but I don't see why it shouldn't. I understand that in a typical U.S. natural sciences grad program, half the students are foreign.
    A Caltech PhD physicist I worked with (and who abandoned us for Wall Street!) told me it's no problem getting into even Caltech's graduate schools if you have the money. Of course, if you can't handle the work you will flunk out.
  13. Dec 5, 2014 #12
    Doesn't this mainly have to do with your adviser? An awesome adviser at Mickey Mouse State university >>> a lousy one at MIT, and being lousy may not necessarily mean being bad at research; it could mean having a nasty personality.

    An adviser at a top ten school I wanted to work with is according to numerous people a very prickly character. So I didn't even bother applying there since there was no one else I wanted to work with. Base your decision on advisers.

    EDIT: Another important consideration regarding qualifying exams and course difficulty is that Mickey Mouse State might be harder than MIT in this regard, especially if it's a "public ivy." They have lower admissions standards for their undergraduate program for political reasons, and need more TA's; hence, they are easier to get into, but some institutions have brutal qualification sequences to weed out people.
  14. Dec 5, 2014 #13
    What did you dislike about USC? Or you already submitted an app at USC?
  15. Dec 5, 2014 #14
    The advisor thing is important! I read a lot of blog posting about what makes good/bad advisor. Google and ask/email around to find out.

    BTW MIT's quantum computing group (theoretical) is not very big. Three in physics and one is emeritus. One of them was my undergraduate advisor's undergradute advisor =) haha (just random fun fact).

    Also MIT has difficult quals. I heard (from a profs and grad students) that it is important to be on top of your game here. Though I don't think they try to weed people out.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2014
  16. Dec 5, 2014 #15


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    MIT has two five hour written quals (one in the fall one in the spring) and an oral qual. You don't get any breaks for the written ones. Around half of the students pass the written ones on their first try. I heard a lot about the one this fall since I am friends with some of the MIT first years. The individual questions they described on the first one are very standard things (as in important problems you probably did in your quantum homework) I remembered from undergrad. However, this is a free response exam and there are TWENTY of these questions. Honestly it sounded like it would have made me lose my mind.

    I do not agree that it's better to choose to attend a less well regarded school just because of one person. You might change your mind about who you want to work with and the best programs will give you more options, and probably more funding. You will also benefit tremendously from finding the most inspiring peer group possible. In just this first semester I've learned a tremendous amount from my peers about all areas of physics.

    Getting back to the original post, it can very intimidating to think about being a student at a place like MIT, and also being around so many brilliant students. But that's something you have to get over. I love the saying "if you're the smartest person in the room, then you're in the wrong room." I really think intelligence is not a fully fixed thing once you are over a basic threshold. In the long run it's about retaining information and using it to learn and understand new things. In that way research is much different from coursework. If you do well in courses but forget everything afterwards that's useless, but if you take a bit longer to fully understand things and retain your knowledge, that's what will make you a great researcher.
  17. Dec 6, 2014 #16
    It's OK to aim for MIT but you shouldn't pin all your hopes on top-10 schools. I myself crossed MIT off my list because, in part, of the quals (and Guth being the only one I am interested in working with didn't help)

    UChicago has eliminated quals altogether (the GDE now in place is optional but satisfactory performance allows you to skip some courses) because it made some students suffer from stress-induced conditions; some schools will likely either remove quals or switch to another format.
  18. Dec 6, 2014 #17


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    A lot of schools have replaced written quals with oral quals which I feel is much less stressful and is actually related to your research. Stanford actually did this year as they advertised in their acceptance letter. However many schools without quals have much more stringent course requirements. At Harvard they have always had an oral qual but you are required to take eight courses (which you can petition out of, but only if you have a course that they deem rigorous enough, so probably from at least a top 30-50 grad program) which are very homework intensive. I personally don't mind taking a reasonable course load since I'm a theorist so I think this is a good system since you actually learn the material rather than cram and forget it immediately afterwards. Experimentalists do not really like it though.

    One of my closest friends is at MIT and he was incredibly stressed taking the quals, especially waiting for the results (he passed on the first try which I expected). So if you are generally a very nervous person (he is) it can be a very emotionally taxing experience.
  19. Dec 8, 2014 #18
    But of course. I'm riding on my GRE score and letters of recommendation more than my GPA which was good but not superb. Drive I have, but my confidence takes a little bit of a hit whenever I try to read through research papers (this can be a fairly frustrating task sometimes). Anyway, the investigating has been done, the applications have been submitted. I'm happy with my choices and now am simply waiting on the admissions committees.

    USC is one of my top choices. Their theoretical quantum computing faculty seem excellent. One downside- LA is the last place I would want to live. On the bright side, I'll still be near all my family and friends (not that I have that many friends) and I won't have to sell my TV or get rid of any of my books before moving since I live less than an hour away at the moment.

    MIT certainly isn't my dream school. In fact, it's not even my top choice (that would have to be Caltech, although all the schools that I applied to are pretty close on my preference scale and I'm not setting my heart on any of them just yet). To be honest, despite being the lowest US News ranked school on my list, New Mexico actually seems to be one of the most appealing schools on my list. It has its own quantum information department (the adviser of the guy who wrote the book on quantum computing, Nielsen, works there), the research seems interesting, and apartments are about $.75 per square foot in Albuquerque (for comparison, MIT housing is around $4). Does anyone know why New Mexico is all the way down in the 80s?

    Only MIT and Caltech are in the top 10. I completed all my applications last week and the rest of them are to: Michigan, Boulder, Washington, U. Oregon, USC, Colorado State, New Mexico.
  20. Dec 8, 2014 #19
    So Caltech is your dream school but LA is the last place you want to live? I'm sure you know this, but Caltech is literally very close to downtown LA.
  21. Dec 8, 2014 #20
    The last place amongst the schools I've applied to would be a more accurate way to put it; I suppose I would rather live in LA than Phoenix, New York, or a handful of other places. Pasadena is nice enough (although still pretty hot, one of the main things I dislike about LA), I was referring more to the USC area and the surrounding areas. Regardless, I'm willing to sacrifice on location if the school is worth it. I also wouldn't say that Caltech is my dream school, just at the top of my list at the moment. Although it's at the top, USC, Oregon, and New Mexico aren't too far behind.
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