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Schools Elite School vs. Perfect Overseas Undergrad Research Opportunity

  1. Sep 14, 2016 #1
    Hi, thank you for taking the time to read my thread.

    Since the historic discovery by LIGO earlier this year and NASA's apparent intention to rejoin the LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) project being spearheaded by the ESA, I am considering studying and eventually researching gravitational wave astronomy.

    I am torn between two very distinct academic paths. The first path would be to try and transfer to UC Berkeley (I am a CA resident) and take advantage of an elite university education there. The drawback to this would be the fact that there seems to be no gravitational wave astronomy research activity at Berkeley whatsoever, so I would not be able to engage in any undergraduate research on Berkeley's campus related to my interests during my two years there, with my only option being a summer research session at LIGO at Caltech if I could even get in. Since I would be transferring into Berkeley as a junior, this would mean only one summer of research related to my interest, pending acceptance to the LIGO summer research program.

    This got me interested in the idea of after graduating from Berkeley, heading overseas to pursue a masters degree at the Max Planck Institute of Gravitational Physics, which is closely associated with the University of Hannover in Germany and is actually spearheading the LISA project. This would allow me to get a solid two years of research working on LISA under my belt during my Masters studies and then possibly continuing into a PhD program at the Max Planck Institute or *big maybe* (if I really hit it out the park so to speak) pursue a PhD at Caltech, since by that time Caltech will be in collaboration with the MPI for the LISA project and I would have already built up experience working on that very project and would have made contacts within the project.


    I was also reading that undergraduate students at the University of Hannover can start doing research as undergraduates at the Max Planck Institute starting their second undergraduate year since they share the same campus, and undergrads there can even do a "bachelors thesis" at the MPI working on LISA. I realize this would involve learning German and moving overseas, but this would provide the opportunity to do research at MPI for two years as an undergrad at the University of Hannover (their bachelors programs are one year shorter than US programs I believe), then an additional two years of research during the Masters, so by the time I would apply for a PhD program at either MPI or Caltech I would have signifigantly more undergraduate research in gravitational physics on my CV than I ever possibly could have done at Berkeley. Coincidentally, my uncle is German and lives in Berlin so I would have the opportunity to get "set up" there and learn the language and everything, which I think would also be a great cultural experience for a young person who has never lived outside of Southern California.

    This is a bit of an editorial, but I feel like Berkeley overstates the research opportunities available to undergrads for physics there. There is the summer research program, but those exist at virtually every school almost, and then they have the URAP undergraduate research program but that is project specific with a limited number of projects, so there's no guarantee there will be a project opening related to your interest, and in my case zero chance since there is no gravitational physics activity at Berkeley


    So in summary I am torn between having **Berkeley** on my CV + two years of Masters research at MPI versus pursuing my entire undergraduate education at Hannover/MPI + Masters Research at MPI and then in either case, shooting for PhD at Hannover/MPI or Caltech.

    One one hand, Berkeley is a Top 5 physics school and I could still get two years of research done completing a Master's degree at MPI, whereas Hannover has no meaningful international ranking/"prestige" (Hannover's world university ranking is #366), but on the other hand Hannover presents literally the perfect undergraduate opportunity to get a head start at research at MPI/transition into a Masters/PhD there.

    So with grad school on my mind, and I'm wondering which would "look better" to the PhD admissions committee at Caltech/MPI, to have a Berkeley education but only one non-guaranteed summer session at LIGO for undergrad research + two years of research during the Masters at MPI, or heading overseas for my entire education to secure two years of undergraduate research at Hannover/MPI + summer research + two years of masters research at MPI, so if I attempt to continue onto a PhD at MPI they are already familiar with me, or if I apply to Caltech I will have more undergraduate research done vs. the limited opportunities at Berkeley.

    Would the undergraduate research opportunities at Hannover be worth heading over there in your opinion? Would they be more valuable than Berkeley's "Top 5 ranking"? Is undergraduate research the most important thing for PhD admission decisions? Enough to cancel out Hannover's #366 ranking?

    I can't really overstate how involved MPI/Hannover is with LISA, they are literally building LISA's detectors on campus.

    Sorry this is so long, and I realize I'm assuming a lot of things about my future/things will come up and change, but I guess I just want to have a laser focused plan vs. milling around as a transfer at Berkeley not really sure what to do.

    Thank you again for reading!

    Best Regards,
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2016
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 14, 2016 #2


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    You might want to do this on your own, no one stealing your thunder? Plus, doesn't hurt to look things over one last time before "marrying" g-waves.
    "Marry in haste --- repent at leisure."
  4. Sep 14, 2016 #3
    Forgive my ignorance, but do you know how a junior transfer at Berkeley would go about doing this? Can a student do "independent research" that isn't connected to a pre-existing lab on campus? What would that entail? How would I get access to resources for the research?

    Where would I start? :P
  5. Sep 14, 2016 #4


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    Been a few years ... really no longer qualified to counsel mechanics of a transfer.
  6. Sep 21, 2016 #5
    If I were you I would go for the best, i.e. Berkeley.
    After Berkeley the doors in Europe are open, easily!
    Last edited: Sep 21, 2016
  7. Sep 22, 2016 #6


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    I think you are way underestimating how much work it would take to reach a level of German sufficient for university studies.
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