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Chances of Getting Into Graduate School Ph.D Programs

  1. Jul 8, 2015 #1

    EJC

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    I am a rising senior at a small liberal arts college, with an incredibly small (and therefore unrecognized) physics program. I am seeking advice regarding which Ph.D programs are within my reach. I plan on applying to AMO (Atomic, Molecular, and Optics) Ph.D programs with the intention of focusing on quantum information, quantum computing, and/or quantum optics for the Fall 2016 semester. I am not sure what to expect in terms of where I would be accepted/rejected. My application has some good points, but definitely will be lacking in other areas, and I am well aware of this.

    The Good:
    -BS Physics
    -Minors: Mathematics, Philosophy
    -Overall GPA 3.90
    -Physics GPA 3.99
    -Physics Tutor 2+ years
    -Physics Laboratory Tech 2+ years
    -Physics Club President 1 year
    -Internship at government research lab, but pertaining to radio frequency experiments, nothing to do with quantum information or AMO at all for that matter
    -I will be starting a year long research project regarding the Uncertainty Principle and Decoherence which is directly tied to my prospective field. Advisor believes I can get a publication out of it.
    -A few various awards, scholarships, and honor societies throughout undergrad experience

    The Bad:
    -Undergrad is at a small liberal arts school with no substantial physics reputation. With that being said, I believe the education I've received there has been comparable to respected universities.
    -No substantial university research. Yes I will be conducting research this coming year, but I will be applying to grad schools only ~3 months after beginning, so will not be very much to go on.
    -Only one summer internship (government research lab).
    -Haven't yet taken the GRE/PGRE. I am registered to take both before October so I will meet deadlines with them, but I have little time to study for them. I am expecting to land somewhere around above average on GRE and slightly below average on PGRE, but I cannot count on that.

    Target Schools:
    I have mostly restricted my search to the Northeastern US, but that is not necessarily a requirement. I have looked at various universities with AMO programs, and the ones that seemed to fit my career/research goals the best are:
    -University of Rochester
    -Cornell University
    -University of Maryland, College Park
    -University of Wisconsin, Madison
    -Stony Brook University
    -Dartmouth College
    I am definitely open to any other suggestions to various AMO programs, or other programs where I could work in the aforementioned physics realms.

    My main questions and concerns for the physics community are:
    1. Assuming average GRE and PGRE scores, what chance do I have of getting into the schools that I listed? I understand that I should apply either way because "you never know," but I'd like to have realistic expectations. Note that I've already written off most of the extremely elite schools such as MIT and Harvard because I don't think my application will be robust enough. Basically, I am trying to figure out where I stand. Are these schools out of my range, or should I hope/expect to get accepted to at least a few.

    2. When you are looking for graduate programs, it is hard to find lower ranked ones. Obviously the best of the best pop up first. I am primarily interested in quantum computation, quantum optics, atom trapping and cooling, and quantum information processing. If anyone has any insight to any programs pertaining to these it would be much appreciated, especially ones I may not have come across in your regular web searches.

    3. I know it's rather late, but is there anything I could do at this point to boost my application up a bit? I have considered taking a year off after undergrad to try to get some more experience on my resume, and perhaps have that publication under my belt by then, but I would like to apply to schools first and only do that should I not get accepted.

    As always, any advice, guidance, tips, and knowledge is welcome and appreciated. Thanks!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 8, 2015 #2

    EJC

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    I am a rising senior. I have a 3.90 GPA and a 3.99 Physics GPA. I'll have my BS in Physics and minors in math and philosophy. I have had one internship where I worked at a research lab. By the time I apply to grad schools I will also be halfway through a year long research project where I may get a publication, but that won't be until after I apply. I also tutored physics and worked as a physics lab tech for 2+ years. Dean's list every semester.

    I'll be applying for Ph.D programs looking to specialize in AMO (Atomic, Molecular, Optics) at the end of this coming semester, and would like to get an idea of what schools I should consider.

    I doubt I should be looking at top schools like MIT, but should I even be looking at mid range schools?
    Any tips for the application process?


    *Note: I haven't taken the GRE or PGRE yet but assume middle of the pack scores (50th percentile) just to be safe.
     
  4. Jul 9, 2015 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    Roughly twice as many people take the GRE as enroll in graduate school, so you really want to be above the 50th percentile.
     
  5. Jul 9, 2015 #4
    How can you have a 3.99 GPA? You scored perfect on each test, except for one where you made a tiny mistake? Pretty hard to be in the 99.9th percentile for every test.
     
  6. Jul 9, 2015 #5

    EJC

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    I have a 3.99 Major GPA. I have gotten an A in every physics class throughout my undergrad except I got an A- in one lab course that was only worth 1 credit, so it brought my Physics GPA down to a 3.99. That doesn't mean I got perfect scores on every test. GPA is reflective of your overall course grades, not individual test grades.
     
  7. Jul 9, 2015 #6

    jtbell

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    I think at most US colleges and universities (certainly at the one where I work), professors officially report only a letter grade for the entire course (A, A-, B+, etc.). They usually base this grade on a numerical average of scores on the final exam, midterm tests, homework assignments, etc., e.g. 93-100 on a scale of 100 might correspond to an A. They are usually free to use whatever numerical scheme they want, for performing this calculation, provided that they announce it in the course syllabus. They do not normally report the actual numerical average, nor the individual grades that make it up, although students can ask their professors for the details for their own grades.
     
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2015
  8. Jul 9, 2015 #7

    EJC

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    Right, so what is the general opinion on the strength of my application? Does it look strong enough to get into mediocre, good, or great schools? I obviously know that there's no way to tell for sure, but it's tough to gauge what range I am in.
     
  9. Jul 9, 2015 #8
    I'm only an undergrad (same position as you, applying for grad school this fall) so I don't know much about admissions chances, but seriously study for the pGRE. It's not for another 3 months, but you may want to take it twice. Study that material until your eyeballs burn.
     
  10. Jul 9, 2015 #9
    The GRE and pGRE are factors that are too big to "just assume middle of the pack". Try taking a practice exam, and then we'll maybe be able to help you a little bit more.
     
  11. Jul 9, 2015 #10
    With a GPA that high you should be shooting for better than 50th percentile on the GRE, probably at least 75th. I had a similar GPA as you, but I went to a no-name state school where it wasn't that difficult to get A's in physics classes. I scored somewhere in the 60's on the PGRE, and I think that raised some flags because a near perfect GPA is not consistent with 60th percentile. The most useful resource for gauging your chances are the profiles posted on the physicsgre forums. People post their GPAs, test scores, and research experience and then report where they got in. There are still other important factors though, like connections your letter writers may have and things like that which don't really get reported, so the information there is not totally reliable, but it's a good place to start. You should also talk to your letter writers about where you should be aiming for, they're probably aware of what they might say about you in a letter and how far it might get you.

    If you scored in the 50th percentile, you would probably be looking mostly at schools outside the top ~25. You really need above 80th and most likely better than that to be considering top 10 schools, and even then it will still be difficult. These are just rough estimates though, I have seen some pretty surprising results in the past.

    Remember, it's important to apply to a range of schools. Pick one or two long shots, several reasonable choices, and a couple safeties.
     
  12. Jul 9, 2015 #11
    If a student with a 3.9 GPA can't get into MIT, then who can?

    It seems like you either have a confidence problem or a false modesty problem. Or is it that your school has a poor reputation?

    You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.
     
  13. Jul 9, 2015 #12

    EJC

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    Thanks, that is all very helpful information. I will definitely check out the physicsgre forums.

    As far as "long shots, reasonable, and safeties," what sort of ranking ranges would you consider? Long shots being anything in the top 25?

    Also, I am planning on applying to University of Rochester. I believe they're ranked 44 or somewhere around there, but they are ranked 6 in AMO. Since I apply to the graduate program in physics and not specifically in AMO, does anyone have any insight whether they would be as hard to get into as a 6th ranked school, or a 44th ranked school. This type of scenario applies to more than just U of R, but it makes a good example.
     
  14. Jul 9, 2015 #13

    EJC

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    From my understanding, the top school's like MIT are very interested in research experience. They like to see a lot of it, and it is beneficial to have it be in your area of study. I know my application is weak in this area as I have little research/internship experience.

    My school does not have a poor reputation by any means. The problem lies specifically in that the physics program is rather new (15+ years perhaps), incredibly small, and therefore unknown. Most students graduating from here in physics tend to go to a neighboring university to study engineering as there is a program set up to do that. Because of that, many physics graduate schools don't see or hear from us.
     
  15. Jul 9, 2015 #14

    radium

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    If you can get a good PGRE you will at least be competitive for top schools. I'm sure your letters will be good, but the lack of research experience may hurt you. The people I know in my class and in my friends classes all had a very significant amount of research experience, some even having first author publications.

    The three best schools for AMO are MIT, Harvard, and Boulder. Going to Harvard or MIT however will give you an incredible advantage in MIT since there is a ton of collaboration between the two schools. Additionally, Harvard and MIT students can work with professors at the other school (I have one friend who is a Harvard student working at MIT and another who is an MIT student working at Harvard. I think Michigan would also be a good school to consider. Other than that I am not really sure about AMO.
     
  16. Jul 9, 2015 #15
    I went from LSU undergrad with numbers like those to MIT grad school. I got into Stanford and Princeton also. My GRE Physics score was 80th percentile. But I did have research with an AMO professor and good letters of recommendation.

    The MIT AMO profs always have a look at strong applications from smaller schools and invite students out for a visit. They like to have a mix of talent and backgrounds in their grad students. If you score above the 75th percentile on the Physics GRE, I would shoot for the stars.

    There are plenty of places like NC State, GA Tech, and schools ranked in the top 30 that are fine backup plans.
     
  17. Jul 9, 2015 #16

    EJC

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    Awesome, thanks!

    Any other first hand experience would be greatly appreciated too.
     
  18. Jul 9, 2015 #17

    radium

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    So what I would do is just study for the PGRE a lot this summer, take the first one in the fall (maybe sign up twice since you won't know your score before you can sign up for the next) and put a lot of time into research. As for schools to apply to, I would definitely do Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Michigan, Maryland (they have the joint quantum institute), Berkeley, Cornell and Chicago. Chicago will be an up and coming AMO school in the next few years since they are putting a ton of money into the program (and the physics department in general).
     
  19. Jul 10, 2015 #18

    EJC

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    Thanks for the advice! I'm gathering on here that the PGRE is quite a bit more important than I had expected/hoped. It is what it is I guess. To be honest I'm not keen on the idea of standardized testing in general because it doesn't show long term performance, but I guess it is one more thing to be able to create some separation in the thousands of applications these schools see.

    For now, it looks like I'll be studying as much as possible for the PGRE. So now I have more questions regarding the exam. Anyone have advice from first hand experience with it? Would about an hour of studying a day over the next couple months, and obviously more at crunch time, be enough to expect reasonable scores? I have a very good review book for it, and a set of flash cards. My plan is to get through as much material in the review book by the end of the summer and take a practice test to see where I'm at and where I need to study more, then keep studying and take another practice exam relatively close to the test date.
     
  20. Jul 10, 2015 #19
    If 4.00 is max, and A+ is also max, shouldn't A be like 3.75?

    Pretty hard though to turn in the theoretically perfect lab report. Or do they just give an A+ to the best lab report turned in?


    Considering I find all these grades so doubtful, it just goes to show how important a standardized test like GRE is.
     
  21. Jul 10, 2015 #20

    EJC

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    A is as high as most colleges give out. There is generally no such thing as an A+, at least at any college I've ever seen.

    And that doesn't mean you got 100% on every assignment. Usually an A is above a 94 average for the class, or something similar.
     
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