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Best grad school for String Theory, M-Theory and LQG?

  1. Oct 18, 2009 #1
    Hi, What is the absolute best grad schools in the US or Europe for
    String Theory, M-Theory and LQG? I tend to learn better in a classroom
    environment, so I'm sort of looking for a grad school which actually
    has relevant courses, and not just a European-style research
    university where I get to apprentice, do research, and read some books
    on my own. I'm also looking to go to a place where I'm not one of the
    few grad students working in this area, but there are other grad
    students I get to work and share with. I haven't decided between
    String Theory and LQG so it would be wonderful if I could find a
    school that does both.

    In school so far, I've studied, and am very strong in, both algebra
    and analysis, and I've studied as well some theoretical physics - I'll
    graduate summer of 2010 with a BS and double major math and physics,
    and 3.94 GPA (4.0 in both my majors) and 800 quant GRE, so I figure
    I'll have a shot to go pretty much anywhere - but where is the
    question? What should I try for? For example, I've read that Harvard
    doesn't do a lot of work in String Theory, so that would be the wrong
    place for me. I know I'm probably late to apply to the best programs
    in the world right now for Fall 2010, but actually that's ok because I
    want to do a gap year after I graduate to backpack around the world
    since I've been in school 5 yrs already, so I think I'm looking for
    admission to grad school in 2011.

    Looking forward to some pointers and ideas and where I should apply!

  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 18, 2009 #2


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    Something you could do besides ask our advice is get direct experience of different lecturers at this one-week intensive Quantum Gravity School, June 2010, at the University of Mexico Morelia campus. It starts June 23, 2010:

    http://grg.maths.qmul.ac.uk/hyperspace/conference/09Sep.5.html [Broken]

    "Lectures at theschool will describe current research in several approaches to quantum gravity, including string theory, loop gravity, causal sets, and causal dynamical triangulations. Lectures will be appropriate for advanced Ph.D students and beginning postdocs. The goal of the school is to bringtogether researchers from these different approaches from throughout theamericas. A website has just been set up at http://www.physics.ucsb.edu/~pasi/ and will be updated..."

    It's not at the right level for you. It is for advanced PhD students.

    If you want an USA-ish university that does both string and nonstring (like Loop, or Triangulations) then the only two places I know of in the USA are Penn State and UC-Davis.
    And then there's Canada: the University of Waterloo, where Perimeter Institute is located, would be a place you could enter research in either string or nonstring QG.

    I think in your shoes I would actually visit Penn State in person, very soon. Latest by Spring Break 2010.
    And talk directly to Abhay Ashtekar, who is a major Loop guru with a special interest in Loop cosmology. Get his advice. Write email to him ahead of time making sure he will be there when you plan to visit.

    Also see if you can talk directly with Martin Bojowald and/or Alex Corichi---both are at Penn State in Ashtekar's group.

    Explain that you want a USA-style institution where they actually have relevant courses, preparing you for research, and tell them that you want exposure to both string and nonstring QG approaches.
    They may advise going somewhere else! Like UC Berkeley (Per Horava has a new nonstring approach, but the department is strong in conventional string) or like Princeton, or UC Santa Barbara. Listen to what they say. Those places don't have Loop. But at least they are USA-type and strong in string. You may have to settle for that kind of partial solution to your problem.

    It is a really difficult thing you are asking about. If you could work in a European style PhD program it would be different---lots of choices Utrecht, Nottingham, Marseille.... But if you are sticking to the USA, then you might not be able to get everything in one package. You might have to choose between doing String or doing Loop, or advancing in stages, first one and then the other. US departments became more narrowly exclusive, in the string glory years, than some of their european counterparts---so actually more breadth of choice in Europe.

    Another thing is if you are backpacking in Summer 2010, and if you are interested in nonstring QG, and if you are going to be in Europe, then check out the European QG scene. Europe is way better for nonstring QG, more places, more people, more options. In the spring thru fall they also have been having various QG workshops, sometimes on the Medi coast or in the mountains, or on an island. I would definitely visit Utrecht and have coffee with some of the people in Renate Loll's group
    and go to Marseille and rub shoulders with Carlo Rovelli's group. Get a sense of the atmosphere.
    The scenery is magnificent at the Calanques coast where Rovelli's group is located.
    You aren't applying there. But still visiting and getting an impression makes a lot of sense. If you actually do a QG degree then you might be going to these places for postdoc, or to co-author, as a visitor.

    John Baez has some photos of the Calanques and the Mediterranean from when the QG people were having a conference that Rovelli organized. Here's a Baez link, it starts with scenery pictures, but then has shots of the main researchers in Loop-and-related QG and the grad students who attended the conference, taken during breaks when they were having lunch or just hanging out.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. Oct 19, 2009 #3


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    Very few schools actually have classes for advanced research areas. Most won't even teach supersymmetry, much less string theory and then if they do it will be a sort of experimental once every other year type thing (and that can be frustrating b/c the lecturer doesn't have his material ironed out).

    It doesn't really make sense too either, the material is far too broad and challenging for a semester or two program and probably follows a book verbatim anyway. Homework and test questions are limited as well so grading becomes an issue.

    If you're an active researcher in that area, chances are you are already expected to know the material after the first year of grad school (and if you don't, you have to learn it on your own in a hurry). Frankly, you probably want to be good enough after the first year or two to actually be able to *teach* the class yourself.

    Like most things in physics, there is very little hand holding involved, and you are expected to be able to handle learning a lot of different material on your own, b/c thats more or less a major indicator of how your entire career is going to turn out like (eg assimilating new information and becoming familiar with new concepts/experiments and mathematics faster and more proficiently than your competitors).
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2009
  5. Oct 19, 2009 #4
    I'm taking a lecture on string theory in Heidelberg, Germany right now. We have it every year, I think, or at least every second year. The lecturer, Timo Weigand, seems very competent, although it is probably his first string theory class. I don't have the feeling he is being too close to any text book, because that would be very unusual in germany. Homework is voluntarily and it won't be graded, just discussed in the tutorial. People who need a certificate for their transcript at the end of the semester (like master students, unlike me, a diploma student) are probably going to be examined orally. M-Theory will be a topic. The lecture is being held in english, like most graduate classes.
    Heidelberg is huge, so there is research going on in most major parts of physics (we have like 6 or 7 physics departments, and all of them are quite big), and there are always numerous lectures on special topics, so you might even find a lecture on LQG or supergravity or whatever if you are lucky. But those won't be offered on a regular basis like String Theory.

    So yeah, Heidelberg is awesome (tuition is only 1200€ per year). And the city is beautiful. Check it out and let me know if you have more questions.
    Also, you might still get in for the winter term 2010, but I don't know how the whole process goes for international students. Just read it up online.
  6. Oct 19, 2009 #5


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    Doesn't what Amanheis said make you want to check out Heidelberg?

    Your initial question suggested you were considering Europe. Maybe we should try to actually answer your question and list the best places for combined string and nonstring QG.

    Other people may mention other places. I would definitely consider Utrecht and the IMPRS program at Potsdam
    (Utrecht is in Holland, Potsdam is on the outskirts of Berlin.)
    The IMPRS program may be inaccessible. Here are links
    http://www.aei.mpg.de/english/imprs/index.html [Broken]
    http://www.aei.mpg.de/english/imprs/imprsI1/index.html [Broken]

    You kind of confused me when you first asked what the best place to go is, and then you immediately broached the "learn better in a classroom environment" topic.

    I think you can find a sort of classroom environment in Europe. For example at Utrecht there has long been a string theory course, sometimes taught by Nobel laureate Gerard 't Hooft. The course in Gen Rel is often taught by Renate Loll, who leads the nonstring QG program and has 4 or 5 grad students as well.
    The difference is in Germany (maybe also Holland) you might have to test and grade yourself, give yourself virtual mid-term exams, measure your own progress. Rather than expecting the lecturer or the discussion section leader to do it. Going over homework problem sets in the discussion section helps get the adrenalin flowing, but you might not see a letter grade. If you are used to the regular pressure of grades and midterms and finals, then you might have to adapt. Invent some self-pressure methods like get together with two or three other students in an empty classroom with a blackboard and take turns firing questions at each other. Questions that might be on the eventual oral exam. It is painless and can even be fun.

    My point is that you can find the classroom environment in a European university, in the sense of having an instructor and lectures and discussion and homework problem sets. But the classroom environment might be different in how the motivations (like grades) work.
    If you are used to working under grade-pressure, then you just need to invent some substitute type of self-motivation that works for you, and add it to the situation.

    When I look at the IMPRS page
    http://www.aei.mpg.de/english/imprs/imprsI1/index.html [Broken]
    I see
    The IMPRS for Geometric Analysis, Gravitation and String Theory is a joint project of the
    Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute)
    Division of Quantum Gravity and Unified Theories
    (H. Nicolai, M. Staudacher, S. Theisen, T. Thiemann)

    This is a research institute which only started taking PhD students in 2004. I don't know how you get in. They say at the website that they are taking applications. They do both string and loop there.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  7. Oct 19, 2009 #6


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    Utrecht is an obvious pick.
    Check out 't Hooft's website and see if it strikes you, the same as it does me, that he's serious about preparing students for real research in fundamental physics. And he doesn't care what line it is (it can be string, or any kind of nonstring) as long as it makes progress. There is a kind of un-ideological pragmatism guided by deep-seated physics intuition.
    And he cares enough to write stuff to put on his website for non-Utrecht young people to learn from. He gives something to people who aren't at his University.

    So that's good.

    But otherwise your question has no good answer, unless you separate it out. It sounds like you want a place that is good in BOTH string and nonstring. Both at the same time. That's a hard proposition.

    If you could choose now, and say "I want to do a PhD in Loop, or in any case nonstring QG," then it would be easy.

    Marseille (Rovelli)
    Penn State (Ashtekar)
    Nottingham (Barrett, Krasnov)
    Utrecht (Loll)
    Waterloo (Freidel)

    To name a few places and advisors, in no special order of preference. For example Rovelli has an outstanding track record for getting Masters and PhD students into interesting research and having his PhD students go on to land good academic positions. But his university is not especially strong in string theory, as far as I know. You almost can't have both. His university is Uni Marseille, Luminy campus. You could LEARN some string theory there, but probably wouldn't find a prominent string theorist to work with. Rovelli actually has someone in his group at Marseille that does research in the gap or no-man land in between, involving some string and some loop. You never know which his next paper is going to be, more stringy or more loopy. That is Alex Perez. Marseille is a top place for non-string, but it has no string big Name.

    That's why it seems like it would help if, in the next 6-10 months you could make up your mind. Then you could pick your target and take the best shot. Maybe getting around and visiting some of these places, as part of a backpack Youth Hostel, Europass railroad ticket kind of trip, would help you decide.

    Keep us posted, I'm curious to know what you find out. If I personally don't respond it's because I didn't see your post, so feel free to write me a PM.
  8. Oct 28, 2009 #7
    Do you want to do all of that because you are actually interested in the interface between the two approaches or this is a delusion of grandeur thing? You could be working on the most gloriously famous research problems the world has known but it will still boil down to a grind once you get past the glamour.

    If it's about proving something, it's a poor choice due to the difficulty of establishing a career in either string theory or loop quantum gravity. If you are genuinely interested in the subject then you should study enough of both to form a definitive opinion of what field you want to go into. I don't mean that you have to be biased or dismissive of the other research area, but you should have formed an opinion by now.

    I don't think that there are many universities with amazing course work in advanced subjects. You will be disappointed. But that's not the same as working alone. You can find places with fellow grad students to talk to. The best way to figure out which has the right environment for you is to email grad students at the places you're considering and get a feel for the environment and then visit a few of them to see what it's really like.

    That's not necessarily enough to get in the good schools. It's not just test scores and grades, it's also about attitude and initiative. What have you done in undergrad besides course work? Can you prove that you're passionate about the subject? Have you already been studying it?
  9. Oct 28, 2009 #8
    University of Amsterdam has a superb String Theory Group. No LQG though. There are no real classes given, but there are quite some "summer" schools which you will have to attend.
  10. Oct 28, 2009 #9
    Just wondering here... but did you take the Physics GRE also? I would assume several people have 800s on the quant. section of the general GRE at those high-end institutions.
  11. Oct 29, 2009 #10
    No, in Europe people do not take the physics GRE to get into a PhD programme. You don't even have 5-6 year graduate programs.
  12. Dec 1, 2009 #11
    What I fail to understand is, why the draconian terms of admission? I might be willing to pay the fee and interested to sit in at the lectures ... but why do they need not one, but TWO letters of recommendation, including one from my thesis advisor (which I don't have)?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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