• #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!
 

Answers and Replies

  • #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.
 
  • #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.
 
  • #4
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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.
 
  • #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.
 
  • #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.
 
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  • #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.
 
  • #8
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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.
 
  • #9
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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.
 
  • #10
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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.
 
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  • #11
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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.
 
  • #12
EJC
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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.

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.
 
  • #13
EJC
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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.

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.
 
  • #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.
 
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  • #15
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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.
 
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  • #16
EJC
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Awesome, thanks!

Any other first hand experience would be greatly appreciated too.
 
  • #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).
 
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  • #18
EJC
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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).

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.
 
  • #19
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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.
 
  • #20
EJC
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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.

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.
 
  • #21
jtbell
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If 4.00 is max, and A+ is also max, shouldn't A be like 3.75?
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.

That's right. The college where I work doesn't give out A+ grades, either. I've corrected my list of letter grades further back in this thread.

I might as well add that the final GPA is calculated by converting those letter grades back to numbers on a 0-4 scale, and averaging them, weighting them according to the number of credits for each course. Here, A = 4.0, A- = 3.7, B+ = 3.3, B = 3.0, etc.
 
  • #22
radium
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The PGRE overall is not as important as grades, letters, and research. I would argue that letters and research are by far the most important. It is actually a pretty stupid test which relies more on knowing how to take a standardized test that your actual knowledge at some level. The reason schools use it is because grading is not uniform at different institutions. For example, if you go to a school that is not well known, a good PGRE suggests to the committee that the coursework has prepared you for grad school. So it could be very relevant for your situation. However if you get great research and maybe one course letter that can overcome a bad score. I didn't do as well as I should have as a theorist (which surprised the professor who ran the review course since I was an active participant in it and knew my stuff) and still got into 5 top ten schools since I apparently had really strong letters and I also had very strong research experience.

What I would suggest for the PGRE is you do all of the old practice tests several times, save the most recent one or two to be timed, and most importantly be well rested and fed on test day. My downfall came because I didn't eat enough on the day. About half way through the test I could feel my mind slowing down from hunger. I remember one question where I clearly knew how to do but was having trouble doing the algebra because I was so hungry. This is really important!

The PGRE has become less important in recent years for a variety of reasons. First, schools realize it is not a good indication of your potential as a researcher (the reason you go to grad school). At UChicago for example, they told us that they plotted the PGRE scores versus the rankings professors gave applicants and saw no correlation. I would assume this happens above 700, because if you know the stuff you can usually get above a certain minimum score just based on knowledge. Second, one of the most important reasons for having the PGREs is to predict how you will study and perform on quals. This is now irrelevant at many schools because quals are being phased out. Stanford mentioned this in their 2014 acceptance letter and even UChicago, which had one of the hardest quals, has phased it out in favor of a placement test. Even MIT, which had the most rigorous of all (they had three parts, two written one oral and 50% pass rate for the written parts) only has one required section as of this year! They got rid of part one and you can replaced quantum and stat mech with courses (unfortunately for one of my close friends, he passed part one in the fall, which is no longer relevant). In my program, we never had a written qual, instead we have 4 required courses and 4 electives which you can place out of if you prove you had a rigorous grad course previously.

The definition of an A at different schools varies. At my school there usually was no fixed cutoff, the professor would look at test scores and decide how to assign grades based on that. For example, one my professors said if you got at least 2/3s of the points on each exam you would get at least a B+ in the course but the rest of the scale was unfixed so you could be in the low to mid 80s and get an A. The exams were not designed so an A was above 93% because more difficult exams make it easier to separate students by their abilities.
 
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  • #23
EJC
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Thanks for the advice radium! I believe my letters of recommendation will be strong, and hopefully even if I do poorly on the PGRE (although many of you have convinced me to put quite a bit of effort into studying for it), the other aspects of my application will be enough to carry me through.

I recently talked with someone working as a researcher at my internship about this, and mentioned to them that I will possibly be able to get a publication through my research, but it wouldn't be until next spring, which is after the application process. He strongly recommended that I note that I have a "publication in progress" or "expected publication" on both my CV and anywhere else in the application process that seems relevant. Thoughts on this? I honestly assumed that unless I had finished the publication process that it would relevant, but he definitely said that it was.
 
  • #24
jtbell
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Second, one of the most important reasons for having the PGREs is to predict how you will study and perform on quals. This is now irrelevant at many schools because quals are being phased out.

That's interesting! When I started grad school at Michigan 40 years ago this fall, they didn't have a written qualifying exam. A year or two later they instituted one. I was in the last or next-to-last cohort of grad students that did not undergo a qualifying exam.

In order to gain Ph.D. candidacy status, I had to complete a certain amount of coursework, get a research advisor, and then round up six faculty members for an unofficial dissertation committee. They gave me an oral exam, and when I passed it, I became a Ph.D. candidate and they became my official dissertation committee. Some years later I defended my dissertation in front of them.

I heard through the grapevine that the failure rate on the first written qualifying exam was very high, so I was glad that I had gotten in under the wire. Fortunately one could re-take it later (once or twice, I don't remember).
 
  • #25
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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.

You only find them doubtful because you don't understand how grading works in the US. The graduate admissions committees do understand, thankfully. I could see how other countries might be confused, but everything being claimed here in the thread is normal and accurate for the US.
 
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