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Grad school chances: Advice needed

  1. Feb 21, 2015 #1
    I'm planning to apply to grad schools in December 2015 and I thought I'd start thinking about it now. I'm quite unsure of my chances so I'd like your opinion.

    Undergrad institution: Top university in SE Asia, probably not too well known in the US
    Undergrad GPA: 3.75/4.00 (was Valedictorian of my class though!)
    Graduated in August 2013

    Undergrad research: Two semesters of undergrad research in junior year with different groups, honors year project in my senior year (Quantum optics).

    Misc Stuff: TAed a couple of physics courses, Dean's List, etc. etc.

    After my undergrad, I got a job in a condensed matter group within my university because I couldn't start my PhD right away due to a complicated situation (not in my control). On the bright side, I published two PRLs (third author and first author) and I hope to get one more first author publication out by December. My honors year project is also going to be published after I put some more work into it (first author). That gives me three publications for sure and probably a fourth by the end of the year. I also expect to pick up a Masters degree (Masters by research) for my work so far.

    LORs: Should be strong, especially those from my condensed matter and quantum optics research supervisors.

    GRE: Not taken them yet, but I think I have enough time to prepare and do well.

    I'm interested in Condensed Matter Theory schools in the US. With a profile like this, it's a little unusual so any idea on where I'd fit? Do I have a shot at a top 5 or top 10 program or should I set my sights a little lower? Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 21, 2015 #2


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    Most admission committee put a stress on applicants letter of motivation, then comes GRE. Having some publications will indeed make you more eye-catching. I would say as long as you can impress them with your motivation letter and do really well in the GRE (close to perfect score), aiming for top 3 physics departments should be reachable.
  4. Feb 21, 2015 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    Blue_Leaf's advice is terrible.

    I would not advise anyone, no matter what their grades, scores and letters to apply to only the Top 3 schools. Their admit rates are low, and they are highly correlated. Furthermore, the Top 3 vary by subfield. Statements of purpose (what he calls "letters of motivation") are in a completely different category than data determined by people other than the applicant: grades, GREs and letters.

    You need to take the Physics GRE as soon as you can. If you are in fact graduating from an unknown school, the GRE will be critical for the committee to evaluate what the 3.75 GPA means. Without that, nobody can say where you fall on the spectrum of candidates.
  5. Feb 21, 2015 #4


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    Sorry if my statement was misleading. Of course applying to only the top 3 is no advisable, and I didn't intend to answer his question about whether to lower his goal yet. Besides I don't think I said anything about applying to only top 3 universities. When one has a really strong aspect in one or some of his application requirements, why not try applying good departments? The chance is there, but of course having "safety insurance" is also highly advised.

    Just one more advice, in case for some reason you won't obtain master degree from your current institution as you planned, then it's better that you explain why there was about two years gap between you graduation from undergrad and the application time.
    Last edited: Feb 21, 2015
  6. Feb 21, 2015 #5
    Thanks blue_leaf and Vanadium.

    A little clarification, I understand that in general, the very top schools are a crapshoot and that's okay. Assuming I do well on the GRE (say 90th percentile for example), I merely wanted to know if it's realistically worth trying for the very top programs with my stats. I was also wondering if the publications are "no big deal" since I did have more time to work on them than someone who went straight to a PhD after their undergrad.

    The point is that I'd like to apply for around ten schools in total and it's important to not waste time on unrealistic targets. I'm an eternal optimist so I'd prefer to get realistic unbiased advice on what my target schools should roughly be like. Thanks!
  7. Feb 21, 2015 #6


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    Publications are a "big deal" in terms of graduate admissions because they are tangible evidence of success doing research. Admissions committees aren't going to knock down their value because you didn't just finish undergrad. Lots of students have a gap between undergrad and graduate school for all sorts of reasons - time off to earn money, finding oneself, travel, illness, etc. That only becomes a penalty when the gap gets to a few years where there is no evidence of doing anything in the field to keep your skills up.

    I usually recommend coming up with your own list of top schools depending on your interests. When other people make the list for you, inevitably criteria are used that have no relevance to you and you can easily end up competing for something you don't really want.
  8. Feb 22, 2015 #7
    Thanks Choppy. I do have a list (probably a list that's too big) but I'd like to consider UIUC, Penn, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Berkeley among others because each of these places has one or more profs that I can see myself fitting in with.

    However, these are the very best schools in the country and it's good to know that I would be applying with at least some reasonable chances (as opposed to silly levels of optimism). More opinions on my chances are welcome!
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2015
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