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Grad student in physics, want to transfer, want to know my chances

  1. May 28, 2014 #1
    I'm at a "top 50" school. I've developed a strong interest in geometrical physics. But my school doesn't have anybody working on geometrical physics. So I want to transfer. However, I'm lacking confidence due to my label as a "transfer student."

    Here's my background. Sorry if it's long winded. I also apologize if it sounds a bit egotistical; I guess I'm trying to fluff myself up; if it doesn't impress the reader than I guess it serves to boost my own confidence during this whole ordeal.

    I started physics at the beginning of 2011 when I realized my four years in college studying finance wasn't my passion. In fall of 2012 I was already taking my first graduate class. My GPA through my finance career was a paltry 2.8 or so. My physics GPA was about a 3.8. All lecture courses I received As; 4.0. Some labs I scored Bs. I ended up as a cumulative 3.2.

    My PGRE was a 900. I was quite foolish and over-confident and only studied for about five days. I feel as if I could get a 990 if I put a couple weeks or so into it. But I'm not sure if a 990 as a second year grad student is as impressive as a 900 as a second year undergraduate. I think I might take it again anyways.

    I did no research as an undergraduate. Something I regret, but my goal at the time was to finish my degree instead of dragging it out and doing research instead of classes. I taught myself calculus one and two in Nov/Dec 2010 and graduated in July 2013. So research would have just held me back another year before graduate school.

    Also of note was that I won a few scholarships and awards as the programs top undergraduate.

    Because of the four years wasted with a 2.8 and my lack of research, I shied away from applying to more prestigious programs. (A lack of confidence in my credentials is a trend of mine.) I got into my top school and I accepted it.

    This past year, I did very well academically. I managed straight As with one A-. (And that A- was a fluke. We had two exams of three problems each. Both exams I misread a problem and answered the wrong assumptions. On the final I got 0 points on the problem and on the midterm I got about half credit. Dropped me from an A to a high A-. At any rate...) I managed the highest grade on about 14/16 exams during my first year.

    Come time to find an advisor, I realized that the reason I came to this school (phenomenological particle physics) is no longer an interest of mine. I've become deeply interested in geometry and topology in physics. And nobody here works on those topics. So I've decided to transfer.

    I feel as if I'm intelligent enough to go anywhere. I'm quite confident that I've been the top student in every course I've taken. And my grades support that claim. However, I have no research and my recommendation letters probably say nothing more than "he does extremely well on tests."

    My pipedream is getting into a top school such as MIT/Caltech and doing work on something geometrical such as Calibi-Yau manifolds. I'm pretty confident that those caliber of schools will have enough applications with less risky applications than my own, however.

    I guess I would like some opinions about these few topics:

    1. Should I retake the PGRE? Would a 970/980/990 as a second year grad student be a worthy improvement over a 900 as a second year physics student? Also of note, I'm currently only 3.5 years through my physics career. Not sure how that fact would play in. So my time as a physics student is still comparable to a normal undergrad.
    2. How do you feel my transfer student label effects my application? I'm terrified of it.
    3. Should I bother applying to top 5/10/20/30 schools or just try to bounce to another 45th ranked or so program? (Sorry for the overuse of rankings. I just would like a job in academia and I'm just playing off the trend that I've noticed where 99% of professors all went to top ten or so programs.)
    4. Any other advice to improve my application? My lack of research history also terrifies me. At this point I could take some summer research position of "clean up my code" with no chance at publishing. I've chosen not to, however, in favor of self administering my own courses on differential geometry and general relativity from internet found syllabi.
    5. Of course, any other advice/opinion is welcome.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 29, 2014 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Well, a couple of things.

    First is that a "transfer student" isn't really a concept in graduate school, except for when a professor moves institutions and brings his students with him. There's almost never a clean match between the 1st year at the old university and the 1st year at the new university, so the easiest solution is to start all the new students together.

    Next, I hope your statement of purpose looks nothing like what you wrote. That's full of red flags.

    1. It's "Calabi", not "Calibi". Some people will conclude you're uninformed, others that you're careless. Neither will help.

    2. Neither MIT nor Caltech is particularly strong in this area. Some people will conclude you didn't do your homework, others that you are thinking mostly about prestige among people who don't know any better. Neither will help. It's likely the people on the admissions committee will at least wonder if you'll be heading off to Santa Barbara or Princeton once you realize this.

    3. Your academic record shows that when you feel like doing well, you do, and when you don't, you don't. Such people have a very hard time making it through grad school. The few who make it through have even more trouble afterwards.

    4. It's simply untrue that "99% of professors all went to top ten or so programs". Furthermore, half of the physics PhD grads came from just 12 schools. Highly ranked schools are big schools. This whole line of reasoning is going to cause people on the committee to be thinking "what kind of a scientist is he, if he draws these conclusions from the data?"

    5. You had an opportunity for research as an undergrad. You didn't take it. You had an opportunity or research as an grad. You didn't take it. Now you're asking for an opportunity for research a third time.

    6. With all the resources of a university available to you, you decided that the best way forward was to ignore them and study on your own. This is going to rub pretty much everybody the wrong way.

    You do realize, I hope, that the number of faculty positions in this subfield in 5-10 years will be approximately zero.
  4. May 31, 2014 #3


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    I just don't think schools like MIT and Caltech are in the cards by any stretch if you have no research experience. Your most important letters are supposed to be from research advisors. Being a good theorist is not about doing well in courses, it's about having a deep understanding of what you have learned. this will allow you to to approach new problems using the intuition and creativity you have developed in your studies. You need letters and experience (not necessarily in theory) to support your potential.

    Several of my friends and I are headed to top five or top ten physics schools this fall. We all had extensive research experience, as in several summers and in many cases school years. Everyone else I met at the open houses did as well.
  5. Jun 4, 2014 #4
    I don't understand why people are so particular about what topic they want to study. Of course you need to find something that you like, but the goal is to learn something interesting about how the world works by doing something you enjoy, such as calculations, theory, or experiment. It baffles me that some individuals are so much more excited by particular problems they have never worked on than others.

    You come across as quite arrogant as well. Perhaps you are justified in being arrogant, but when deciding if they want to work with you, people are going to consider this an enormous strike against you. At least make an effort to conceal it.

    Vanadium is also correct about the dangers of an attitude where you do well when you like something and poorly when you don't. I generally enjoy the current work I am doing, but there are aspects which I loathe (making figures, for instance). I had a similar attitude to you and, trust me, the sooner you learn how do things you dislike as well as possible, the better.

    The following is where I put on my opinion hat, so I should qualify that I'm not an expert in this stuff:
    The interface between topology, geometry, and physics appears to be largely driven by the modern cultural mindset in physics where many theorists are behaving an awful lot like mathematicians. Much modern theoretical work seems to be motivated by elegant mathematics and aesthetic principles but is struggling horrifically to succeed as science, and seems physically unmotivated. There is actually a profusion of mathematical models which unify gauge theories or reproduce certain field equations, but no compelling physical reason to choose one over another. In my first paragraph I stated that only point is to find out more about how the world works and have a good time doing it. The first component of that statement requires extraordinary skepticism from a would-be researcher, and rest assured, just because many scientists have vested their careers in a particular track does not mean that track will bear fruit.

    I am personally extremely skeptical of this culture, for what it is worth.
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2014
  6. Jun 4, 2014 #5


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    Of course there is no compelling physical reason to choose one over another. That is why experiment is needed. You seem to be the one who seems to want theory to be able to produce a unique physical theory without experimental input, which is the very culture you criticize.
  7. Jun 5, 2014 #6
    That's not really my point. The point I would raise is that there appears to be little motivation among any of these theories, and therefore, little reason to have much faith in the correctness of one over another.

    Physical motivation can be a theoretical concept, not merely a notion of interface between theory and experiment.
  8. Jun 5, 2014 #7


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    For supersymmetry in quantum field theory, the main motivation is to avoid fine tuning. This is based on the idea is that our all theories are effective theories, which came about from the success of the renormalization group in condensed matter.

    For string theory, the motivation is similar to that of Maxwell's displacement current and Einstein's GR. In both cases, the theories were proposed to fix inconsistencies in the existing theories.

    So the motivations are the same as in condensed matter, Maxwell's equations and Einstein's GR. You must criticize those as being not physically motivated, if you criticize the problems that supersymmetry and string theory are trying to solve as "unphysical".
  9. Jun 5, 2014 #8
    Moderators: I think this is not off topic. I am certainly enjoying my conversation with atyy and I think the OP may find it to be helpful. But if it is off topic, my apologies.

    When I am referring to physical motivation, I am referring to reasons other than simply solving the problem which seem physically compelling. I would claim that general relativity and string theory are deeply opposed, philosophically speaking, in this sense. The equivalence principle is appealing on physical grounds apart from the fact that it produces a correct theory. An even more excellent example is the principle of relativity/universality of physical law which lead to special relativity. It is physically reasonable to expect that the laws of physics are indifferent to frame of reference. Einstein's success lay in extraordinary physical insight.

    The displacement field is more debateable, but I would argue that the conserved current, as a motivational factor, provides a firm underpinning for Maxwell's modification to Ampere's original law.

    Of course, when dealing with effective rather than fundamental theory I suppose that purely mathematical or statistical reasoning has historical success. Planck had no physical reason to employ his interpolation scheme other than that it worked.

    Supersymmetry, from my limited understanding, postulates a new theory of physics by toying with the symmetry group in which the Standard Model is contained. There is no motivation for an additional symmetry, other than one can find various extended symmetries which, with sufficient fiddling with parameters, create nice models. Likewise, in string theory, it is unclear to me (myself being an undergrad, I should stress to point out) whether there is any reason to think that they have done anything other than invent a conveniently flexible mathematical structure whose parameters can be adjusted to describe a broad swath of physical theory. Unless one incorporates supersymmetry, which is already is aesthetically unappealing from a physical standpoint, it does not achieve the spectacular results normally associated with it.

    Indeed, every time a result in string theory has contradicted experiment or produced some other anomalous feature, the theory is resurrected with some unmotivated alteration to stitch it back together. This continually repeated process has resulted in an unwieldy rorschach test of a theory so riddled with free parameters it seems dubious to suppose that it is a theory at all.
  10. Jun 5, 2014 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    I'm afraid that it is drifting off-topic, and it's not going to be of any help to the OP unless he comes back and reads the replies: the last time he was here was 9 minutes after he posted that message.
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