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Programs Chances of Theoretical Physics PhD?

  1. Aug 21, 2010 #1


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    I am going into the 4th year of Physics at Oxford this October and have been looking into PhDs etc. I'm quite keen on going into theoretical physics (Particle or condensed) and from reading various university websites it seems that places for this are relatively scarce. At Oxford for example, they admit six students a year, three of whom generally come from overseas : /

    Basically I am looking for an idea of how difficult it might be to get a place at all.
    My grades are pretty decent (87% so far, 4th in year) but my current image is that hundreds of similar students will be trying for the same places.

    I've already had a chat with my tutors but none of them are based in the theory department so it was all a bit vague.

    On a similar note some universities seem to want extra courses before even being considered for the PhD (Thinking of Cambridge and Imperial here), is this an unwritten rule for the rest? The content covered by an undergrad degree doesn't seem to come close to the standard needed to begin research (e.g. 4th year theory option where I am http://www-thphys.physics.ox.ac.uk/people/JohnChalker/theory-new.html). Funding a separate masters course isn't really an option so I am a bit put off by these places...

    Thanks very much for the help,
    Worried undergrad.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2010 #2
    Funding a separate masters course isn't an option? Why not? If you can't get a student loan, get a job and do one part time, or do a full time job and work part time. If your tutors are vague then keep on pressing them! The vagueness is probably a way to get the less keen students to give up.

    You also sound a bit vague - 'particle or condensed'. Time to decide. "Screw your courage to the sticking-place, and you shall not fail" (Shakespeare - Macbeth)
  4. Aug 23, 2010 #3


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    I hadn't really thought about doing a masters part time. I've looked into it and the Durham and Imperial courses seem to allow this so that is definitely an option. Thanks : )

    How common is it to be asked to take the masters first? A bit of google'ing has suggested that a few of the phd places cover the msc material in the first year anyway.

    I'm pretty set on doing particle theory, I mentioned condensed in so far as field theories applied to critical phenomena. I guess that would be classed as more of an interest than actually specialising completely in it.

    On another note, does anyone have any opinions of the theory courses / PhDs in the UK? I've been looking at Imperial, Oxford, Cam and Durham. I'm sure there are plenty more great departments with a particle theory group, can anyone suggest a few?

    Thanks again.
  5. Aug 23, 2010 #4
    at most UK unis outside of Oxbridge and Imperial you won't need the MSc to get a PhD place, although it really helps. Cambridge DAMTP will require part III for all intents and purposes as will Math Institute at Oxford (although the Physics dept at oxford probably won't it will still be very competitve without it, and the Physics dept at oxford is not were the hardcore theoretical stuff takes place to my knowledge, e.g. Prof Candelas is in the Maths Inst at that certainly will req part III).

    For mathematical aspects of theory wether it be string theory, LQG, general relativity etc I would recommended doing Imperial Msc or Cambridge part III, just for the learning aspect more than anything. Then in order I would be looking to head to 1) Cambridge DAMTP (don't confuse this will the Cavendish lab at Cambridge which is more particle phenomenology, i.e. writing Monte Carlo simulations/event generators, simulating particle collissions etc rather than theory theory), but also it will be very difficult to get in here, only the top few from the part III will be skimmed off and accepted for PhD 2) Oxford Maths Inst (again part III neccessary) 3) Imperial (their MSc or part III as a bonus, will be almost certainly needed, perhaps Durham MSc would do just fine though?) 4) Durham (maybe even your Oxford 4th year will suffice, but their masters in particle/ Imperials would be a bonus) 5) Nottingham Math Physics group (in Math Dept): If interested in loop quantum gravity instead of the usual approaches this place is quite unique in the UK, your 4 year Oxford course should suffice if you have a 1st class 6)Edinburgh Maths Dept has a lot of interesting black hole research going on.

    If you don't want to deal with the really heavy theory stuff, but still want particle physics Oxford has a good list: http://www.physics.ox.ac.uk/pp/grad/uk-places.htm

    You haven't really stated what you want to do, but it's just important to realise that the Mathematical Physics groups generally found in Math depts (but not always), like DAMTP at cambridge etc, will be very different from their Theoretical Particle Physics counterparts, and it will generally be the Math Physics depts that are very very competive and where the experts that helped build these theories can be found. Whereas in the theoretical physics depts, sometimes the research is a little bit further removed from pure theory and more like particle phenomenology (like I said think Monte Carlo simulations and dealing more directly will simulations decay channels of the ATLAS detector or some such, rather than looking at the technical aspects involved in some nook and cranny of general rel say)
  6. Sep 1, 2010 #5


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    Thanks very much for the reply. This place really is a great source of information that is kind of hard to find elsewhere : )

    After having a think it seems the most likely course of action will be:

    • Apply to theory groups in physics departments for PhD places, if I manage to get a place I will probably go with this.
    • Try applying to the Perimeter Institute's masters course - http://www.perimeterscholars.org/ . This also has the advantage of being fully funded.
    • Apply to Cam, Durham and Imperial for the masters course in the hope that this will help with the next round of applications and might allow applications to more mathematical departments. (Though I'm a little bit wary of Cam, something about exams being at the end of the year so they have nothing to base letters of recommendation on?)
    • Maybe put one or two US universities down as well for PhDs (Though this is currently bottom of my list)

    On a related note, I know the GRE will be required for both the PSI masters and the US universities; does the GRE play a major role in selection or is it more a filter at an early stage of application? I ask as I tried the practice physics test and managed an 870 without any preparation / forgetting much of my 1st year material. Would it be worth my time to bump this up significantly or would I be better off focusing on reading around possible research areas?

    Thanks again.
  7. Sep 1, 2010 #6
    If you are willing to go to a US school, I don't think you will have much difficulty getting in somewhere.

    In the US, there are enough places so that getting in some where is not going to be too much of a problem. Applications are quite crowded in the big name schools, but there are enough lesser known schools that are looking for people, that it's not particularly hard to get in somewhere.

    No idea for UK, but this is not usually necessary for US.
  8. Sep 1, 2010 #7
    This is aimed at the US. I have no idea what UK is like.

    Because US physics Ph.D. programs are invariably joint Ph.D.-Masters programs. The system isn't set up to handle people with funded masters. If you try this, you'll have to explain why you did things differently.

    I don't think it's really necessary to pick a specialty until you've been admitted to a school, and you've had a chance to meet your possible advisers. A lot is going to depend on how you are compatible with.

    In any case, there is a huge amount of overlap between particle and condensed matter theory so you'll likely be working in a research group with legs in both areas.
  9. Sep 1, 2010 #8
    I'd recommend for the US university that you put in a safety school that you are sure you can get into.

    It's looked at pretty intently, but 870 is decent. It won't hurt much to try to bump it up a bit, and you can think of it as a review of your undergraduate learning.
  10. Sep 1, 2010 #9

    George Jones

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    Are you sure? The Master's would actually be from the University of Waterloo. When I was a student, I didn't hear of any Canadian universities who required that prospective physics grad students write the GRE. Maybe things have changed since I was a student, or maybe different requirements are placed on international students.
  11. Sep 1, 2010 #10


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    Cambridge and Imperial are pretty much on their own for requiring that you complete their Masters before you are accepted onto a PhD course. At almost all other universities, a 4 year degree (presumably an MSci or something similar) from Oxford will suffice.
  12. Sep 2, 2010 #11
    In the UK, the Bsc is enough to meet the minimum requirement for *all* PhD programmes. There will be competition at something like Oxbridge, but doesn't mean it would be impossible to get in - this is the only case where I would say doing a masters would actually be of benefit. Little to no people go for a masters before PhD in the UK - it's an extra year (or more, part time) and is very expensive - why bother when you can get entry into a top-level programme without it?

    There is no need for 'extra courses'. If you've studied well from your undergraduate and have a good knowledge base so far - then email those you are interested in working with (or their departments) and try to set up a meeting. Obtaining a PhD position isn't really like a job interview - if you email someone and they like you, then, if they have the funding, it's yours.

    You will want to start deciding seriously where you want to apply in the coming months. November/December time is appropriate to email those departments (or if you have someone specific in mind to work with, then it'd be great to email them as well). Also, don't limit yourself to things like Oxbridge and Imperial. You might think that these universities are a step-above in terms of class - but it isn't nearly as important at PhD level. If you can get a good supervisor (meet them! see what they are like. Are they passionate about the project? Ask them what kind of supervisor they are, and see how it fits with how you like to be supervised) then that's half the battle with a PhD. Because of this, it's also worth looking at universities for other reasons. Is there anywhere you would just love to live, for instance? Make sure you're comfortable and happy in the city that you move to your your PhD.

    Anyway, finally: personally I wouldn't bother with an Msc. I really don't think it would pay off at all in terms of what it would cost you to complete- and if you're taking it part time, even more so. It would just be 2 years that you could otherwise spend completing your thesis. Widen your horizons a bit with the universities you are considering. Go and visit them. If the department seems good, and has good facilities - and the supervisor is nice/committed to the work, then that's a substantial part of the check list to find somewhere to apply to. One good thing about the PhD is that you get as involved in the field as you want. If you want to make yourself well known, and integrate, then go to plenty of conferences - be social, try to find relevant meetings for your fiend in your part of the country. These things are what is important - and don't come from having the name of Cambridge etc. The only time I would consider the Msc would be if you make a list of universities for the subject you want to study and find there's only one university on it. But then, to me that would signal a problem that your interests are too specific. There are lots of universities with particle theory groups. Find them.
    Last edited: Sep 2, 2010
  13. Sep 2, 2010 #12


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    That's not true. In order to do a PhD at DAMTP, for example, you will need a masters degree (either a four year undergrad, or a single year MSc) and, for the most part, will have to have done part iii.

  14. Sep 21, 2010 #13
    I have done the QFFF course at Imperial. The course is very specific, its made so that you can do the algebra of quantum field theory and standard model, purposely made to suit the interest of the department : String theory. I went in and I found very little overlap between the stuffs they do and my own interests, so it was not good for me.
    Why not try United States ? Any decent top 10-20 program there will be a very rewarding experience, plus they don't have requirement for these advanced masters level course, as the Phd will let you take it along the way. Plus, current funding situation does not put UK in very good light by the time you graduate.

  15. Sep 21, 2010 #14
    Hmm so if I understand you correctly, you can't apply to these universities for a PhD without doing a Masters there? Even if you've already done an MSci at a different university? 0.o
  16. Sep 21, 2010 #15
    Not strictly, but all intents and purposes it can be said that DAMTP at Cambridge recruit solely from their own part III program. Officially they will tell you otherwise, and if they don't accept you to PhD they auto apply you for part III as I understand it. It is my belief however that getting in without part III is a pretty rare occurance, and the candidate would have had to have done something fairly special to avoid it (were fairly special is not 'just' a first class masters from another UK institute).

    As for the Imperial something similar can be said, but probably to a lesser extent.
  17. Sep 21, 2010 #16


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    I'm pretty sure it's an official line that they only admit people from part III. I remember that I emailed the admissions secretary asking whether I could apply with a four year masters from elsewhere, and was told that I would not be considered and should apply for part III (can't remember the exact words, and the email account it was sent to is long dead).
  18. Sep 21, 2010 #17
    Strange, I did exactly the same, and although they stressed that it's unlikely they still encouraged me to apply and told me my app would be auto put fwd to part III if the PhD comittee rejected me (I didn't apply in the end as I definitely got the impression that realistically it wasn't going to happen without having part III already).
    Either way I think the message should prob be, don't bother without part III unless circumstances are exceptional.
  19. Sep 21, 2010 #18


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    Maybe they've changed their policy in the last few years.
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