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Choosing Physics Grad Schools - Looking For Advice

  1. Nov 30, 2005 #1
    Hi,

    I'm a non-traditional student in the process of applying to physics PhD programs and would like any advice about what schools to add to my list. I've been given the advice to apply to 2 or 3 "top" schools, 4 or 5 "next level" and 2 - 3 "safety" schools - schools that I can feel very confident of being accepted to (no perjoritive intended). I'm mainly looking at larger schools, since I don't know what I want to specialize in. I'd prefer to be in the midwest, in a less-expensive city. The schools on my list right now are:

    MIT
    Berkely
    Illinois (*)
    Maryland
    University of Washington
    Washington University of St Louis (*)
    Colorado (Boulder) (*)
    Penn State (*)
    Purdue
    University Of Florida

    Those with (*) I will *definitely* be applying to. Others are still undecided. I'm mainly worried that I'm setting my sights too high - that I need to add more "pedestrian" schools, but ones that will still give me a good education!

    A little background on myself - I am one of those going back to physics after working for 11 years in the software industry. My undergrad degree was Civil Engineering, not physics. But I took two years of physics courses in school, and had a 3.8 GPA overall (Rice University). I took a quantum course at at my local state university last spring, got an A, and am currently taking computational physics - an A so far. No other physics coursework beyond sophomore year. I've taught myself analytical mechanics, basic quantum (the course last spring was QM II, I had to place into it), some general relativity, but not sure how to demonstrate this for the applications. General GRE 800/800/5.0, physics GRE unknown, but probably around 800 based on practice tests. No research experience. I will only have two reference letters from professors.

    Clearly I've got some good highlights, but am missing some points too.

    Any insight is appreciated. Thanks in advance!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 5, 2005 #2
    Hi, I am undergraduate at UIUC. If you are looking at a place in midwest, UIUC is a very good choice. If you can get in, then its easy to catch up on the coursework, since there are many grad students here who take undergraduate classes to prepare for the QUAL exam. UIUC is a huge dept, with lots of research in Condensed matter physics (experimental and theory), and high energy physics. Its a great dept, and all the grad students that I have talked to really enjoy being here. Hope that helps

    - harsh
     
  4. Dec 5, 2005 #3
    I think that you have a lot of great schools you are thinking about applying to. The main disadvantage I see you having is that you don't have very many physics classes. This really isn't all that big of a deal if you are good at teaching yourself material, but it doesn't always look all that great on your application. There are a lot of people with bachelors degrees in physics that go to graduate school and still have problems getting through it, or fail out. CU is a great school (I'm from Colorado) and so is Illinois, but they tend to be on the more difficult side and tend to be pickier with their applications. The advantage to this is that it usually pays off more in the long run. I am in a research group with someone who graduated from Maryland, and from what I've heard, you don't have to take the classes there, but you have to pass a qualifying test that covers the material you would have learned the first year, so you are basically held responsible for that material. I am currently a grad student at the University of Florida and I know that if you are having problems with the grad level material, they will help you out, and you can take undergrad classes to help catch you up. I think that you have a huge advantage being a Civil Engineer already, and this should help on your applications. I know that I wish I had taken more engineering classes than I did. I think that as long as you have good letters of reccomendation, you should be fine. Pretty much all of those school on the list have a wide variety of areas of research you can choose from, so you don't have to worry about what you want to do right off the bat.
     
  5. Dec 5, 2005 #4
    I would recommend you decide what you want to do with regards to physics research. If you want to do condensed matter physics, I wouldn't bother applying to Colorado, simply because they're an AMO school. That could help narrow your search a bit.
     
  6. Dec 7, 2005 #5
    I wouldn't say that, CU has a decent condensed matter program. They focus mainly on Liquid Crystals, though. It's a large enough program that you can find nearly anything there.
     
  7. Dec 7, 2005 #6

    ZapperZ

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    I also disagree that CU does not have a strong condensed matter program. I know Dan Dessau is there, and he has instituted a very strong photoemission program on strongly correlated electron system, resulting in several PRLs and even a Science paper during the past 5 or 6 years. He has beam time at Berkeley Lab's synchrotron center and had grad. students full time there.

    So condensed matter at CU is alive and well and healthy.

    Zz.
     
  8. Dec 7, 2005 #7
    My point was that if you're looking for the very tip top of condensed matter programs, Illinois and MIT would come long before CU. I'm aware CU has a great program, and I didn't mean to disparage them.
     
  9. Dec 7, 2005 #8

    ZapperZ

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    Actually, Illinois and Stanford would come ahead of even MIT in condensed matter.

    Still, this doesn't really mean those are all the choices one has. One could easily go to Iowa State, for example, and get a highly respectable education in condensed matter physics (Iowa State runs the Ames Laboratory for the DOE and have direct access to the facility). Or what about SUNY Stony Brook's condensed matter program with its direct access to the resources available at Brookhaven?

    There are a lot of excellent schools in condensed matter beyond these "brand name" schools. Most of these schools found a niche within this field to be VERY good at, and in some instances, surpass the very top schools in this particular niche.

    Zz.
     
  10. Dec 8, 2005 #9
    Some of my compatriots at MIT beg to differ regarding Stanford having a better condensed matter program than MIT. Stanford has a lot of people on condensed matter, and they are certainly good, but the impression I have of their program is they're much more focused on biophysics and high-energy stuff.

    If you aren't 100% sure of what you want to do, it would be better to go for a higher ranking and a larger program than hitting up the more focused schools, since you're more likely to find something you like there. Illinois has a huge condensed matter faculty, as does Maryland (Maryland has a large faculty in general). What I would recommend is that the original poster look for something he finds interesting, then find the school where that is going on. The best way to start that search would be by looking at the research interests of the professors at the larger programs, since you'll get a good cross-section of what is going on in physics.
     
  11. Dec 8, 2005 #10

    ZapperZ

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    Er... explain why Bob Laughlin is there. And have you seen the body of work coming out of Z.X. Shen's group JUST on photoemission alone? What about Kathy Moeller's group?

    The Chronicles of Higher Education has always rated Illinois and Stanford as the top 2 schools in condensed matter. MIT is nothing to sniff at. Patrick Lee has produced a series of major theorists to come out of his program such as Andy Millis. But Princeton could also claim the same, with Phil Anderson producing CM theorists like nobody's business. Having been in this field for this long, I would tend to agree with the ratings of Illinois and Stanford, BUT at the same time, always caution people that such a thing could be relevant only skin deep! I have already stated that you could get as well, if not even better, training in a particular niche in condensed matter not from any of these brand-name schools. For example, look at the center of the universe for the Dynamical Mean Field theory development. It is in neither Illinois, nor Stanford, nor MIT, nor Caltech, nor Princeton. In this case, such ratings are meaningless.

    Zz.
     
  12. Dec 8, 2005 #11
    It's difficult for someone who doesn't even know what DMFT is, to find out these kind of stuff, but I saw some people at Rutgers doing this kind of stuff and Rutgers seems to be a decent university.
     
  13. Dec 8, 2005 #12

    ZapperZ

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    And that is my point. Rutgers IS the "center of the universe" as far as DMFT is concerned. It isn't one of the "brand name" schools. I can cite many more examples similar to this.

    My point isn't that people should know the particular area they want to go into and use that to seek out where to go. My point is that in many instances, one CAN get an equal, or even BETTER graduate physics education at a lesser-known school. I have tried to consistently inform people of this, especially when I keep seeing students clamoring to get into Harvard, MIT, etc.

    Zz.
     
  14. Dec 8, 2005 #13

    Physics Monkey

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    ZapperZ,

    As a member of the MIT community, I must now defend the honor of my school! Nobody is saying that Stanford isn't good, but isn't it a bit silly to say that Stanford is "better" in some objective sense. You've pulled out some of Stanford's big names, and then mention Patrick Lee like that's all we've got. Joannopoulos practically owns the whole field of photonic band gap crystals. Xiao-gang Wen coined the term quantum order. Kardar has an equation named after him. And have you seen the volume of work coming out of the Oudenarden lab? (Excessively serious readers please note: this is joking exaggeration.)

    Seriously though, does anyone actually think that somehow you're guaranteed a better condensed matter physics education just because the school is ranked higher in some opinion poll. I am one better of a condensed matter theorist than you because my school had one extra Nobel Prize winner. Is that it? Come on! You can go to Stanford, or MIT, or Princeton, or a lot of other non "brand name" schools and get a great condensed matter eduction. Can't we all just be friends here, must we really insist on ranking ourselves all the time?

    The relevant issue here is rather there is any advantage to going to an MIT or a Stanford. I think clearly there can be, after all, these schools aren't big names for no reason. Now, if you know exactly what you want to do, then you should go to a great place that does that and do it. However, if you don't know what you want to do, and you go to a smaller program, then what do you do if you don't like photoemission experiments (yes, it does happen) or whatever couple of things that school does? Part of the point of a place like MIT or Stanford is that you typically have a wider variety of options and everyone is good. You can't beat that combination for all the undecideds out there. For MIT in particular, the fact that you can work with someone at Harvard makes the richness of offerings here almost unparalleled.

    There is nothing wrong with aiming high for an MIT or a Stanford or whatever. There is nothing wrong with going to one of the many great non "brand name" schools. In conclusion, can't we stop bickering and just try to help out the prospectives?
     
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2005
  15. Dec 8, 2005 #14

    ZapperZ

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    In my defense, I never argued for the fact that these are objective rankings. I did use Chronicles of Higher Education as one source, so it isn't simply just my opinion. But I never stressed that these are objective opinions at all. Having come out of "brand name" school and "non-brand name schools", I am fully aware of the advantage of both types of schools and what they have to offer. And I find it ironic to have to defend these "rankings" when I've consistently argued that such a thing shouldn't play a major role in school selection. And oh, you'd be surprised how many people have not even heard of UIUC even when it has one of the most respected condensed matter program anywhere. So for many people, this is not a "brand name" school.

    However, my statement in the last part of my previous post was more in reference to all the old threads on here where students simply do not look beyond such schools and only think that those are the only places where they can get a decent education, even at the undergraduate level! So it may be a bit unfair for me to make this thread to bear the cross of those previous threads, but I hate to perpetuate such false ideas to a new set of people. You get people on here who were DEPRESSED because they think they can't get into MIT or Princeton, as if it's those two or nothing at all!

    And oh, BTW, I do know quite a bit about the photonic band gap program at MIT even if I omitted citing it in my examples, especially in its application as an accelerating structure. I've chatted with Evgenya Smirnova a few times at a couple of PAC conferences. I should have remembered to cite this.

    Zz.
     
  16. Dec 8, 2005 #15

    robphy

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  17. Dec 8, 2005 #16

    ZapperZ

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    True, but U. of Chicago is. I should know. :)

    But then again, almost everyone entering the physics graduate program there receives some form of assistantship. And as a plug for the school, note that U of C runs Argonne for the DOE, and it is also in close proximity to Fermilab.

    Zz.
     
  18. Dec 9, 2005 #17
    I want to thank everyone for their replies!

    There are many areas of physics that sound interesting to me, and I feel that I don't yet know enough to choose an area to specialize in.

    So my main criteria for schools have been reputation and size. At a large school, there will surely be several research programs that that I can get excited about! Once I'm at a school I will be in a much better position to learn more and make an informed choice.

    It's true that MIT (and Berkeley!) are not located in "inexpensive midwestern cities", but I have family near Boston, and several friends in the bay area. The schools are large and good, so I included them in my list. I think they are long-shots, but I want to try anyway.

    I'm actually not too worried about the "brand-name" reputation of the school that I end up going to. I have no doubt that my own abilities will be the primary determinant of my level of success. But even if the benefit of going to (e.g.) MIT is not that large compared with going to (e.g.) Iowa State, any benefit you can gain helps.
     
  19. Oct 23, 2006 #18
    Similar query

    Hi everyone,

    Thought I'd just use this thread of starting a new one since I've got a similar question.

    I'm also looking into studying of starting a PhD in the US next year. At the moment I'm finishing off my undergrad in Cape Town. I've done my research project this year on the pion form factor, and I *think* I'd like to work in field theory/theoretical particle physics, but that might change. I'm definately of a theoretical persuasion though.

    I was hoping some of you might be able to help me with the names of some of the good, non-brandname universities in the US in this field? I'm certainly going to be applying to the Berkeley's and Caltech's, but I'm all too aware that the competition for these schools is extremely tough.

    For that matter, does anyone know what the good physics universities in France are?

    Thanks
     
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