1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Graduate admission advice needed

  1. Jul 24, 2009 #1
    I will be applying to grad school (physics -- particle theory) for next fall and have in my estimation an unusual background , I was hoping some people here might give their opinion about my chances of getting in to a top tier physics school like MIT or Princeton. Here's my (condensed version) background:

    1--Spent 7 years off and on as an undergrad getting a degree in math , I went to UT austin , Texas A&M , University of Houston- Victoria (I got my degree at this last one , its not a very good school). I do have some good grades: an A in a real analysis class at UT (in the section for math majors) , A's in prob and stat , linear algebra , and number theory , and of course A's in calculus. Overall however my undergraduate record is very spotty , twice I just quit school for a while and came back later. My gpa is probably like a 3.2.

    2--Have studied intensively (and fell completely in love with) physics for the last year and a half on my own. I have gone through (in painful detail) the first 2 of Landau's course of theoretical physics books and am currently going through undergrad texts on quantum and statistical mechanics very rapidly (I study dawn till dusk literally) in hopes of getting a 950 or better on the subject gre november 7.

    Now , Lets assume for the sake of argument , I get a score > 950 on the subject gre , and my regular gre score is at least 600 verbal 750 analytical , 3 analytic writing. Do I stand a realistic chance of getting in to the top schools?

    --Thanks for any advice!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 24, 2009 #2
    I doubt it, actually.

    While it's great that you *did* stick with it and graduate, no one is going to be impressed that it took you 7 years. 3.2 is also sort of a marginal GPA for any grad school.

    Your general GRE is also nothing special. You haven't mentioned if you have any research experience or not... if you don't, you'll have a real problem with top schools.

    A high subject GRE would help, of course, and I'm not on any admission committees so my opinion can be easily dismissed... but I have to say I think I would lower my aim from the top schools if I were you. I'm sure you could be admitted *somewhere*, but unless you've done some fabulous work that you haven't mentioned, MIT or Princeton are probably out of the picture.
  4. Jul 24, 2009 #3
    Top school? If you can create a Theory of Everything involving Hell freezing over, perhaps.

    A school? Yeah, I think so.
  5. Jul 24, 2009 #4
    I guess my point was that I got myself through the first 2 books in landau's course of theoretical physics and am almost ready for the general doctoral level qual. exams. I guess what Im saying is that my independant study greatly exceeds any college work ive ever done, my problem would be convincing an admissions comitee of that. I guess I could go informally audit a quantum field theory course next fall and try to solve the 'bonus problem' , but living up north without a job would deplete my modest bank account rather quickly. You guys think an admissions comittee would essentially just overlook my independant study?
  6. Jul 24, 2009 #5
    I hesitate to dismiss the value of self-study... but it won't help you get in at all. You have no real proof of what you know... anyone can claim to have read any number of books. No admission committee is going to bother giving you a quiz to check up on you. Auditing a class won't help either... taking a few classes might, but even then, top schools are probably still out of reach.

    I expect your studying would be a great deal of help once you are admitted somewhere though.

    What is really missing is research experience. *That* would make a difference.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2009
  7. Jul 24, 2009 #6


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I guarantee they will if you spell it like that.

    In all seriousness though, as pointed out above, the issue with independent study is that it can't be objectively verified. When a committee is faced with the task of rating students on a priority scale for admission they need a common denominator. The work you've done is great for your own benefit, but unless it comes with a transcript from a recognized institution, there is no way to compare that with work that other students have done.

    You might also want to consider what it is you really want. While going to a big name school may present you with a few minor advantages (and I've never been convinced that it does), you don't need to get into a "top tier" school to do top tier work. In fact there may actually be more opportunities at lower ranked schools, depending of course on what it is you want to do.
  8. Jul 25, 2009 #7
    Ok, so what about schools in the top 20? Im thinking of the following 5 schools in particular:

    1) University of chicago (ranked around #5 or 6)
    2) cornell (also ranked around #5 or 6)
    3) University of Illinois at urbana-champaign (ranked around # 10)
    4) University of michigan - ann arbor (ranked around # 19)
    5) University of maryland - college park (also ranked around # 19)

    and by the way, I do not have any research experience.
  9. Jul 25, 2009 #8
    These schools are hardly a big step down from the "elite" ones.
    I don't think you're understanding how important research experience is and how little graduate admissions value self-study.
    I know this is not what you want to hear, but time to set your sights lower.
  10. Jul 25, 2009 #9
    Hmm...ok so anyone have any suggestions as to what might be an appropriate physics program for me to apply to? (remember this is assuming i get >950 on the physics gre).
  11. Jul 25, 2009 #10

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    What is a 950 in percentiles?
  12. Jul 25, 2009 #11
    well...it varies a bit , but lets assume 95th percentile.
  13. Jul 25, 2009 #12


    User Avatar

    OK, so I had the following stats as an international student:

    - 3.95 GPA
    - 800Q, 560V 5AW on the GRE
    - 97% in GRE math subject test
    - research experience, though no peer reviewed publication

    I got into none of the top 5 schools and one top 10. I also got into 2 top 20 schools. This was from 10 total applications and I only applied to top 20 programs. I also did a lot of self-study and mentioned it in my personal statement. Unless you have something substantial to show, I can almost guarantee you that will not get into any top 20 program. I would apply to programs ranked maybe 30-50.
  14. Jul 25, 2009 #13

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Excuse me, but how could you possibly know that? You haven't taken any yet - and I can tell you that they vary a great deal across universities.

    We had a guy in my class who could work any problem in Landau. He was amazing. He also flunked the qualifying exam. He could work any problem on ferromagnetism, but he couldn't tell you iron was a ferromagnet.

    Most people here seem to end up scoring worse on the GRE than they think they will. Most of them have had the benefit of an undergraduate curriculum where at least they will learn what they don't know. That will make it harder to plug the gaps.

    You might have been kidding, but that's actually an excellent point.

    I'm afraid TMFKAN64 and Choppy are right. What your application will have is someone who took 7 years and 3 colleges to squeak through a 3.2, without a physics degree and with no research experience. Having read some books is not the same as a degree.

    I think the first thing you need to do is to realistically assess where you are. Let's start with mechanics. Can you work every problem in Halliday and Resnick? If so, what about Symon? Marion?
  15. Jul 25, 2009 #14
    Wow man, you're really showing a lack of understanding regarding the American university system.

    The first three schools you mentioned are INCREDIBLY ELITE. THEY ARE VERY VERY VERY GOOD. As in, they are schools most students dream of getting into. And they are incredibly, insanely difficult to get into!! Schools in the top ten are all about as ridiculously hard to get into. The schools in the top 20 are still really hard to get into and I guarantee you have absolutely no chance getting into any of them. I'm sorry, but none of them are even going to take a look at your application. You can't seriously expect to just walk in when people with 3.9's are regularly rejected from these schools.
  16. Jul 25, 2009 #15
    Ok well thank you all for your thoughts ; skeptical and negative they may be , but I appreciate an honest opinion. Im just going to keep my nose in my books and soldier on , If I can only get into a rank 30 - 50 school so be it. Hopefully doing good post doc research will still lead me to interesting places.
  17. Jul 25, 2009 #16

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    You seem to think that a school ranked 30th is substantially less competitive than one ranked 20th. This is not true.

    Getting in anywhere is competitive. Half of the people who want to go to physics grad school (judged by the fact they took the GRE) don't get in anywhere at all. And half of physics majors don't even take it. So you need to be better than about 75% of physics majors to get in anywhere at all.

    You didn't major in physics. Your previous academic record is not strong. Strong and relevant letters of recommendation will be hard to come by. You have an uphill battle, and the first thing you need to do is figure out where you really are (hence my last message). If you don't want to do that, I think you have to fess up to not being serious.
  18. Jul 25, 2009 #17
    Yeah man, I've got to agree with Vanadium here. You're not getting into a department in the top 100. You'd be pretty lucky to get in anywhere, as in, the very bottom. Sorry mate.
  19. Jul 25, 2009 #18


    User Avatar

    I think the only realistic option is doing a masters first and then applying for a Ph.D. Of course this might push the Ph.D. further into the future, but it's really the only way to get into a Ph.D. program. I just quickly glanced at the first post and figured he had graduated in 7 years with a mediocre GPA in PHYSICS. If the field wasn't physics, then the only way to get some objective credentials is really going for a masters. The problem is, of course, that this will also cost money. However, without this getting letters of recommendation will be close to impossible and they are, together with research experience, the most important part of the application.

    Work on getting a masters and score in the 90%+ on the subject test. You really should also get a quant score of at least 780 on the GRE. Even this is on the lower end of the spectrum for physics students as I would assume most Ph.D. applicants get an 800.
  20. Jul 25, 2009 #19
    If someone has bothered to write it down , and It is theory pertaining to math or physics , I can learn it , and master its applications with nothing but a good library(and spare time). Im sure saying that makes me instantly look like a total crackpot , and for a very long time I refused to believe it myself; but thats where I am at realistically. If teaching myself quantum field theory and putting off grad school an extra couple of years would somehow help my chances , that is an option for me. My biggest problem is that I do not know how to get my foot in the door at the "elite" schools.
  21. Jul 25, 2009 #20


    User Avatar

    Studying for yourself won't do any good unless you publish something and publishing without the backing of a school isn't easy as most journals just assume that you're a crackpot. The only option to get your foot in the door anywhere is really going for a masters and working your *** off.
  22. Jul 25, 2009 #21
    definately going to take a look at some masters programs tonight , that just might work.
  23. Jul 25, 2009 #22


    User Avatar

    I just want to mention what should be obvious.

    Studying for Doctoral Exams is almost completely orthogonal to studying for the PGRE.
    A high score in the PGRE doesnt mean a high score in Doctoral Exams nor the other way around since they test completely different things. PGRE test how quickly and accurately you could do simple physics problems which means shortcuts and tricks help alot. Doctoral Exams things closer to your real physics knowledge by analyzing your solutions to a small set of physics problems to see well your physics thinking is and strong your background (Do you remember the techniques for standard problems).

    That being said youve pretty much devoted all your time on doctoral exams which doesnt mean anything since the PGRE doesnt test advanced QM or lagrangian/hamiltonian in detail.
  24. Jul 25, 2009 #23
    did you miss the part where he worked through landau 1 and 2? books 2 orders of magnitude more difficult than halliday and 1 order more so than symon and marion?
    i usually don't get involved but...

    you constantly cite this. i don't know where you went to school and who your peers were but in my class the dumbest of the dumb got into decent schools. it's not a sisyphian challenge to get into grad school. you can't extrapolate between the number of new grads being 50% of gre takers and that 50% of gre takers don't get in. the reasons for which one takes the pgre and doesn't end up going to grad school are plentiful.
  25. Jul 26, 2009 #24
    I dunno, I think he was trying to say that a top 30 school isn't where everyone who didn't get into a top 20 school is automatically enrolled.

    And to the OP, if you really value your self study so much why do you keep insisting you must get into an "elite" program, without a physics major and a 3.2 and a 7 year bachelors degree and no research experience? Its not going to happen man.
  26. Jul 26, 2009 #25


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I certainly know of many very intelligent people who didn't make it into graduate school (who tried). It's not a case of "you'll get in somewhere" because most graduate schools, even admission committees for those ranked at the "bottom of the barrel" will understand that if a student doesn't have a reasonable chance of finishing, the whole process is a waste of time and money.

    I believe Vanadium's point is that there are far more applicants than positions every year for graduate school, so there is no way everyone can get in.

    Is it possible you've underestimated the "dumbness" of your colleagues?
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook