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Got rejected from all of my PhD programs now what?

  1. May 8, 2015 #1
    I'm a graduating a senior at a major American university.I applied to five PhD programs in physics and got rejected from all five of them. I had a 710 on my physics GRE and a 159 on the math section for my regular GRE. I did not study for both of those exams. My GPA was 3.63. I had a REU and got five strong letters of recommendations. I got a A in advanced classical mechanics a B+ in Statistical Physics, A- and B+ in E&M 1 and 2. However I'm taking quantum mechanics now and my grade for quantum mechanics did not appear on the transcripts I sent to the PhD programs. I would like to reapply again for next year. My current plan of action is to graduate with a B.S in physics this semester and still continue to do research at my undergraduate university. I'm very close to having a paper published with me as first author and my advisor as second author. I also plan to retake both the physics and general GREs. Can anyone offer any advice in what I should do from now till the end of this year so I maximize my chance of getting into a PhD program in physics for spring or fall of 2016?

    I made a thread before where I uploaded an actual copy of my transcript and asked if it would be considered competitive for admission into a PhD program in physics. However it was taken down because it probably violated some policy. So instead of posting my transcript I'll just type out the grades.

    Fall 2011
    College Writing Workshop EN 1013W-H 3.0 B+
    Multivariable Calculus A MA 2112-D 2.0 A
    Multivariable Calculus B MA 2122-D 2.0 A
    Physics: The Genesis of Technology PH 1002-A 2.0 A
    MECHANICS PH 1013-B3LC 3.0 A

    Spring 2012

    OF LINEAR ALGEBRA I MA 2012-K2 2.0 A
    Ordinary Differential Equations MA 2132-G2 2.0 A
    Complex Variables I MA 3112-K 2.0 B

    Fall 2012

    Data Analysis I MA 2212-DOFF 2.0 A
    Analytical Mechanics PH 2104-A 4.0 A

    Spring 2013




    HBRJD-UA 107-CAS 4.0 A



    PH 2344-A 4.0 A



    Fall 2013

    Independent Study HBRJD-UA 998-CAS 4.0 A
    Special Topics in Physics PH 4603-A 3.0 AINTRO
    QUANTUM MECHANICS I PH 6673-A 3.0 AEthics
    and Technology PL 2143-C 3.0 A

    Spring 2014

    Physical Chemistry I CM 2614-A 4.0 B+
    Data Analysis II MA 2222-E3 2.0 W
    DISCRETE MATH 1 MA 2312-LEC 2.0 C+
    Thermodynamics and Statistical Physics PH 4124-A 4.0 B+

    Fall 2014

    Introduction to Senior Project in Physics PH-UY 4902-BKLN 2.0 S
    Senior Seminar in Physics PH-UY 4912-BKLN 2.0 B+
    Dynamics PHYS-GA 2001-001 4.0 B
    Communism POL-GA 2140-001 4.0 A

    Spring 2015

    Physics Laboratory II PH-UY 2131-D 1.0 B
    Fundamentals of Applied Nuclear Physics PH-UY 3103-A 3.0 A
    Electricity and Magnetism PH-UY 3234-A 4.0 A
    Guided Studies in Physics PH-UY 3803-BKLN 3.0 B+
    Senior Project in Physics PH-UY 4904-BKLN 4.0 A

    My overall GPA is 3.659. I know there's a lot more to a graduate school application then a GPA and a transcript but I'm specifically want to know if I have a competitive transcript. I want to go into either QFT, General Relativity or Nonlinear dynamics. Hope this this thread does not go against any guidelines. Thanks.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 30, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. May 8, 2015 #2
    A no-brainer, but were all 5 programs really reputable? Typically, you should have a good mix of very reputable programs, realistic programs and safeties.
    Also, were the programs strong in a field you're considering. For example, if you want to do string theory, and none of the programs has much research on it, then they won't accept you.
  4. May 8, 2015 #3
    My impression was that all PhD programs are reputable and extremely competitive to get into. So I didn't divide schools into safety or reach schools. It's true though that the programs I did apply for did not have much research in my intended field. I told them I wanted to do research in non-linear dynamics and most of the schools had only 1 professor who specialized in that.
  5. May 8, 2015 #4
    Sure, but some programs are more competitive than other programs.
  6. May 8, 2015 #5
    As of now my interest though is not in non-linear dynamics. Because I'm close to publishing a paper I'll continue doing work in non-linear dynamics till my paper is published. But after my paper is published I want to start self studying more advanced quantum mechanics so I begin to learn QFT. All of the schools I applied to had lots of research in QFT. I should note that my plan is to reapply to the same schools. Do you think because they all rejected me once that they would be very reluctant to accept me even if I up my GRE scores and tell them I want to do research in a field that there departments specializes in?
    Last edited: May 8, 2015
  7. May 8, 2015 #6
    I don't think your previous rejection matters much. Try to find a professor in the prospective school that you would like to work with and contact him. That might improve your chances.
  8. May 8, 2015 #7
    Alright I'll contact professors at those respective schools immediately after I graduate this May. Thanks a lot micromass.
    Last edited: May 8, 2015
  9. May 8, 2015 #8


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    So you hadn't contacted any of the professors before you applied?

    That could be part of the problem.
  10. May 8, 2015 #9


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    Isn't 159 a horrible score? 40 yrs ago, anyway, it was below failing.
  11. May 8, 2015 #10
    Now it's graded out of 180 for the general GRE.
  12. May 8, 2015 #11


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    Oh, thanks. Things change...
  13. May 8, 2015 #12


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    Five is a small number to apply for.
    I think I applied to 13... some dream schools, some realistic ones, and some safeties.

    Do some homework at
  14. May 11, 2015 #13
    I applied to 7 schools, which ran the spectrum from "unheard of" to "highly prestigious" and managed to get into an unheard of, a middle tier, and a top tier school. I was rejected from most top tier and some middle tier schools. You should have applied to more than 5.

    Also you should really ask yourself why you'd rather work in a field with less exciting data, less promising theoretical activity, and a higher degree of popularity (QFT), than a theory with a limitless supply of data, a huge amount of promising theoretical activity, and a lower degree of popularity (non-linear dynamics).
    Last edited by a moderator: May 12, 2015
  15. May 12, 2015 #14
    That sucks, I'm so sorry! How disheartening. Glad you're not giving up.

    Giving a different perspective than some others, more is not always better. For my master's degree, I applied to one university. For my PhD, I applied to one university. I was fully confident that I would be accepted into both those universities because grad school isn't much different than any other job: networking matters. Networking often gets you in. In both those cases, I had been in contact with professors who wanted me well before I officially applied.

    Spend this time contacting professors at universities to see who has openings, new grants coming in, students graduating who need to be replaced, etc. If you can find a professor who matches your research interest, who needs you, and who is interested in you, you're in. Incoming grad students need champions in the application committee. Best of luck to you!
  16. May 12, 2015 #15


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    Five is way too few. Most people I know including myself applied to around 12, although I probably should have only applied to 10 since I was unofficially accepted to my undergrad school and was given very strong indications that I would be accepted to a place where I had done research in the summer.
  17. Jun 4, 2015 #16
    Thanks for all advice so far. I have now edited my opening post to include my transcript with final grades. Could you please take a look and let me know whether my final grades would be considered competitive for a PhD program in physics? Also my GPA is now 3.659

    [ mentor note: edited for clarity ]
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 4, 2015
  18. Jun 5, 2015 #17
    I think your stats look good enough to get into a PhD program. I would have to agree with Laura Forczyk that quality is often better than quantity when it comes to applying to graduate schools (and by quality I mean quality of your application, not quality of the program). I applied to only 6 schools, but I made sure to contact a professor at each school and met with 5/6 of these professors at a national conference and skyped with the other.

    I think you should DEFINITELY contact a professor who's doing interesting research at each of the universities you're applying to if for nothing else to see whether they are even looking for a student. I had several professors tell me straight up that they were not looking for students and that saved me a lot of wasted time and money by not applying. For all you know, none of those 5 professors you were looking at were even accepting students... so you're immediately out of the race. Other professors might be interested in your resume and want to set up a phone conversation to discuss possible research projects. These types of communications are what get you into that dream grad school.
  19. Jun 5, 2015 #18


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    One thing that stands out to me in your post is your PGRE and GRE scores. If you want to do HET or any sort of theory, you most definitely need a high GRE math score. At least in the upper 160s. The level of that test is very low, you should know how to do all of the questions and only miss points because of careless errors and not need to do more than a few hours of studying.

    A low PGRE can be compensated with great letters and recommendations which was my case (high 700s could have done much better). However that doesn't mean you don't want to aim very high, it just means it may not be the end of the world if you do poorly.

    If you are aiming for top twenty schools, you need to apply to a lot more than five schools and have safeties that you are almost positive you will be admitted to. You should base your decision on what caliber of schools to apply to based on your recommender's opinions. If they encourage you to aim very high, that means they will write a great recommendation to help you succeed.

    To be quite frank, I don't really think talking to professors is as helpful as people think for being admitted. Sure it's good to know if they are taking students, but honestly even if they say they are not actively looking for students, you might be able to convince them at the open house. A lot of professors don't even respond to those types of emails, especially in theory. Some even might think contacting them means you are insecure about your chances for acceptances and are trying to get in through the back door. I contacted a total of two professors (both gave colloquium at my undergrad) and worked with one during an REU. I still got into several schools whose applications specifically asked if I had contacted anyone.

    What you should do instead is become informed about their research and include that in your statement in a paragraph or two customized for each school. You can do this by reading papers and asking professors at your undergrad about them. I brought my professors a list of people I was interested in working with and they told me about the ones they knew (two professors basically knew everyone personally), which they would highly recommend and which ones to avoid. This was incredibly helpful in making my list of schools.
  20. Jun 5, 2015 #19
    I'm also going to post a copy of one of my statement of purposes. Any feed back in which illustrates it's strength (if any) and flaws will be greatly appreciated.

    If I was in a scenario where I could ask a physics related question and I would be given the correct answer I would ask, “why does sensitivity to initial conditions exist in some mechanical systems?” I can understand that superposition does not hold for nonlinear equations and that is why it is difficult to solve them. I also know what separates nonlinear differential equations like the one for the simple pendulum from those of the double pendulum. It amazes me though, that some of these nonlinear equations have solutions which exhibit properties so exotic that we cannot represent them even in terms of “special” functions. That is just one of many questions I would like to get a more satisfactory answer for in graduate school through extensive research.

    I received a chance to do research in chaos theory with Professor (Insert name) of the (insert university)and it increased my scientific maturity. I did work in the lab building a physical double pendulum. I then simulated the double pendulum using Mathematica and used tracking software to monitor the motion of the double pendulum. Our goal was to see if initial conditions that give rise to quasiperiodic motion in our Mathematica simulation also gave rise to quasiperiodic motion in the lab. Because I was trying to compare experimental results with theoretical results I had to take into account how the motion of a real physical pendulum differs from the solution of the system of nonlinear differential equations that govern my idealized pendulum. I also constructed Bifurcation diagrams and Poincare sections and independently learned some shocking things about chaos in a double pendulum. For starters, you can have two different initial conditions with the same energy but one initial condition will lead to chaos while the other won't. By studying the motion of the double pendulum I learned just how subtle problems can be in physics. I also understood why people who study something in physics are usually left with more questions than answers despite seemingly being able to explain the system inside and out.

    Doing research also got me into the habit of constantly reading journals on nonlinear dynamics. One of my favorite papers, Double pendulum and θ-divisor by V. Z. Enolskii from the Journal of Nonlinear Science inspired me to use the integrable solution of the double pendulum when g=0 and then use perturbation theory treating g as a small parameter to get an analytical rather than numerical understanding of the motion of a double pendulum. After working out the hypereliptic function which governs the solution of the double pendulum when g=0, I found another set of parameters in which the double pendulum is integrable. By fixing the bottom pendulum through its center of mass, the top pendulum acts as a uncoupled pendulum and the bottom as a free rotor. The solution to this is an elliptic function, and its separatrix solution is a elementary function which heavily simplifies my calculations. One of my goals is to at least approximate when a double pendulum which has the energy to go into a separatrix orbit will start to asymptotically approach its unstable equilibrium point.

    While in graduate school I would like to continue doing research in chaos theory and make my research even more mathematically and experimentally rigorous then it is now. I want to study chaos theory and nonlinear dynamics because it's such a exotic phenomenon yet can be explained by the beautiful and orderly formalism of classical mechanics. In my undergraduate career, I have worked for a total three semesters on this research. Because my research has experimental, theoretical and computational elements this means that when I enter graduate school I'll know the methodology of how to do physics research even if I have to do research in a completely different field than nonlinear mechanics. However I'm also interested in continuing from where my undergraduate research left off. On the first day of graduate school I’ll be prepared to get an adviser and continue on my research in chaos theory. Because I took and passed a graduate dynamics at New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science I have the physics and mathematical tools needed to do research in chaos theory with faculty on day one. I would eventually like to earn a PhD in physics and spend my life doing physics research in academia.

    I would be excited to do research with any professor; however, if I had to choose which professor, I would want to work with now I would choose Janna Levin. I’ve read her paper A Test of a Test for Chaos and used Mathematica to apply the test to the double pendulum. Because the double pendulum is a non-dissipative Hamiltonian system like the Henon Heiles model that the test was applied to in the paper the test gave correct results. For initial conditions which give rise to chaos in the double pendulum, the test gave me a number approaching 1 as time approached infinity and for initial conditions, which give rise to quasiperiodic motion 0. One of the failings of this test I find is when it is applied to systems with lyapunov exponent of zero. Systems with lyapunov exponent of zero are pseudochaotic systems, and an example of a pseudochaotic system is a harmonic oscillator that is given a kick every period. Because the test as it stands is binary it can only generate a 1 for chaotic motion or a 0 for non-chaotic motion. None of those results give a fair qualitative description of a pseudochaotic system. Pseudochaotic systems exhibit complex phase space structures such as stochastic maps by iterating its map near points of unstable equilibrium. However, because the lyapunov exponent is zero true sensitivity to initial conditions are not present thus the system is not chaotic either. I also read her paper Chaos may make black holes bright. In the future I would like use my knowledge of chaos theory to understand areas of physics besides rigid mechanics such as astrophysics and general relativity.
  21. Jun 5, 2015 #20
    Radium I know that my GRE scores are quite low. For the PGRE I didn't anticipate I was going to be so hungry during the exam. Midway I starving so badly that I just couldn't concentrate. For the GRE I didn't study at all and by the time I was at the last section I was really tired. The first two math sections I remember thinking I got everything right on but then the last section was math and I was so tired and dead I bombed it. One of the earlier two math sections were experimental sections. Because I didn't' study at all for the GRE I had no idea there were experimental sections.
  22. Jun 5, 2015 #21

    Vanadium 50

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    Suggestion 1 - the first sentence takes the subjunctive. It's a bad idea to open with an error.
    Suggestion 2 - this letter is only good for Columbia.
  23. Jun 5, 2015 #22
    My SOP were written all in the same way except I tailored the last paragraph though to be university specific. Are you saying the concept of what I was trying to go for in the SOP was good but it had a couple of grammar errors or are you trying to say that it's a mediocre SOP?
  24. Jun 5, 2015 #23


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    This is what jumps out at me:

    "I had a 710 on my physics GRE and a 159 on the math section for my regular GRE. I did not study for both of those exams."

    wht don't you prepare for a program you want to be admitted to?
  25. Jun 5, 2015 #24
    I took them during one of my hardest semesters where both my mom and dad fell critically ill and I had to take care of them. Also the course load I was taking was so time demanding that I didn't have time to study for them.
  26. Jun 6, 2015 #25


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    hoprfully things will be better next time around. good luck to you.
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