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Graduate/Professional Help for a BS in physics

  1. Mar 26, 2006 #1
    Hello all,

    This is my first post, but I figured I could get the best/non BS answers here since no one has anything to be politically correct for. If this is not the right topic, please excuse my ignorance.

    My Stats
    Major: B.S. Engineering Physics
    Minor: Mathematics
    Classes: all offered undergraduate + 3 graduate coures
    Physics & Math GPA: 3.4
    Overall GPA: 3.0
    Physics GRE: 650; 50%
    General GRE: 800 math, 490 Verbal
    Research: 6 months (3 at the time of applications) with Condensed Matter Group

    My Situation
    I applied and got rejected from the following schools PhD physics programs:

    My Questions
    I know my physics GRE score is quite poor, I dont quite have the research experience, and my grades could be better, but I had the following questions if anyone can give some insight:

    1. What part of my stats caused all the rejections?
    2. What part of my stats could I improve on to get accepted to these types of universities?
    3. What universities would accept someone with these stats?
    4. Is it worth it to look overseas for graduate school for me?
    5. Is a research position the best way to increase my value?
    6. Would the research position have to be in the same field I plan to study in graduate school?

    Again, if this is off topic, or if I just shouldnt be asking these questions in here or on this site, please excuse my ignorance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 26, 2006 #2
    Well, if I were you I would:

    a) retake the GRE Subject (physics) and try to score above 700, or above 750
    b) get some more research experience, if you can
    c) do not apply only to these big name schools; find some smaller (as if no-big-name) schools, or backup schools to apply to. it's not the end of the world if you dont get accepted to MIT.
    d) DEFINITELY read https://www.physicsforums.com/journal.php?do=showjournal&j=2&page=4" [Broken]. If you don't have the time to read it all, scroll down in the link a gave you and read entry "Part 5". I know I could just quote the text, but you may want to read more, so that's why I didn't.

    The thing is, the people who do get in to the schools you applied to _almost_ always have very good GPA (by that I mean something like >3.5/4), great GRE subject (something like >900), great research (something like >1 research work that has been published in a journal) and great letters of recommendations. I'm saying _almost_, because it is possible to get away with ~750 GRE physics and get in to Princeton (I know of a person who did :). So most of it has to be pretty good.

    I am not sure about question 6). I think it doesn't necessarily have to be, but if it's in some way related to what you want to do in grad school, it would be a plus.

    I hope this helps a little.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  4. Mar 26, 2006 #3
    Thanks a lot for these ques and answ
  5. Mar 26, 2006 #4


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    Is there a reason why you only applied to THE most difficult and competitive schools without applying to other "backup" schools? I mean, talk about schools with some of the most unbelievably popular physics programs not just in the US, but in the world!

  6. Mar 26, 2006 #5

    Dr Transport

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    I agree, these schools usually will not accept a student without perfect GRE's and perfect 4.0's in physics. Even then they are extremely competative.

    As for the second tier of schools, what do you want to do for research? Look at going to a school where there is a faculty member you really want to work with and learn from, then go there. As an example, Haverford College in Philadephia has a guy named Jerry Gollub who is one of the more respected Chaos/Dynamical system experimentalists out there. Small school without a big name but a major player in the area and if he is your advisor, you'll be well trained and get a job when you are done.
  7. Mar 26, 2006 #6
    First off, thank you for all your suggestions and help.

    I am unsure as to what I really want to study. The school I am at now is all about condensed matter, so everything Ive done has been taught by and related to that, and my small research experience is also in condensed matter.

    The reason I applied to those schools is because I have lots of physics friends who have been accepted to those schools, and I know how my own skills relate to theirs. Obviously that is a bad way to judge my own academic value, but had I been more academically mature my first 3 semesters here, I would have all the qualifications I need. I feel as though those 3 semesters shouldnt limit where I can go for graduate school. I knew I needed to score very well on the GRE, but as it turns out, the two classes I saved for last semester probably would have been the most helpful on that particular GRE.

    I did do a heavy amount of research on all the schools I applied to, and at least in relation to the acceptance stats listed by the AIP for Fall 2005, I felt my stats gave me a very very good chance at UMD, Texas, and Columbia at the very least. Perhaps the other schools were a waste of time, but I did not expect to get denied from all 11.

    One question I still have is it worth looking overseas for my graduate aspirations? I would love to go overseas, but seeing as how I got denied from these 11 schools, would it be futile to try overseas?

    Thank you again for all your advice and suggestions.
  8. Mar 26, 2006 #7


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    I'm sorry, but UMD, Texas, and Columbia are your "fall back" institutions? For many people, these ARE their first choices. I mean, it's COLUMBIA, for heaven's sake! And Texas? Just Steven Weinberg alone made Texas more than enough to pick and choose their graduate candidates from hundreds of applicants.

    I don't want to sound to be overly critical, but you did not have a back up institution. I know of many applicants who have a lot higher GPA than you did, and even they made contigency plans in case their first and second tier choices didn't pan out. And settling for such schools does not automatically mean a lesser education. Smaller schools, as DrTransport has mentioned, tend to focus more on a few things they do well. You may have a smaller area of study to choose from, but in areas where they do have, they try to be as good as they can be.

    So I do not understand this "brand name school or bust" mentality. You can't get into these top schools and therefore the ONLY other alternative is to go overseas? Where do you think you want to go? Other top tier institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, U of Toronto, UBC, U. of Tokyo, etc? We already know you are not looking for a "lesser" institution, so aren't you setting yourself up for another round of rejection?

  9. Mar 26, 2006 #8
    well you cant be too critical of me because as much as I think I know, it pales in comparison to the experiences of other people which is why Ive tried to ask you guys these questions.

    I only asked further about going overseas because it was the one question no one had answered yet. And getting another round of rejections was the exact reason I was curious about even looking into it, because obviously that is not something I am interested in.

    This is actually the first time someone has pointed that out to me. When I talked to professors and graduate students here they gave me a lot of politically correct answers about how different universities are always looking for different things so its hard to tell. The only reason I claimed that Texas UMD and Columbia were my back ups was because of the admission statistics posted on the AIP website.

    I hope I didnt offend you with my queries ZapperZ, but the reason I came here to ask these questions was because I was hoping to get some straight up answers that I clearly didnt have before.

    The advice you've given me is definetly great advice, but I dont think I have a 'brand name or bust mentality' In reality, I just want to study physics, and so I started at the top and worked my way down until I found a few places that I felt I had a very good chance at getting into based on the information I had.

    I can certainly understand how shocked you are at my queries considering your experience, but please try to bare in mind that the reason I ask these questions is because I just dont know. If this isnt the right place to ask, just let me know.
  10. Mar 26, 2006 #9
    First of all, I don't think this is the wrong place to ask, in fact, considering who much some people here have experience, I think it's very good place to ask.

    Ralliart, I do not mean to insult you or anything but the thing is as you stand now, you have relativiley bad GPA and GRE scores. That does not mean you don't understand physics or anything, but when you apply to "big-name" schools, you should know what you are competing against. And these are the students with almost always perfect records. That's why I suggested retaking GRE, so if you can improve it, you would have only "bad" GPA. I don't think anyone will make a difference from two people if 1 has 3.8 GPA and the other 3.9 or 950 vs 970 GRE or something like that... but it will make a difference 3.8 vs 3.0.

    Also, I knew someone who has been in a very similiar situation like you. I think he was accepted to Connecticut, but got rejects from most others.
  11. Mar 27, 2006 #10
    As far as i look at your information. You need to improve your GRE score since you cant improve your GPA anymore. I know too many people in my school who sit around all day and slack around have 3.5 GPA. your GPA is definitely not the thing that makes you stand out.
  12. Mar 27, 2006 #11


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    You didn't offend me. My biggest criticism of what you did was your approach to getting into a graduate school. By the response that I have and the one that DrTransport has given, it should be obvious what you CAN do right now, which is apply to lesser-known schools that may not have the high-powered recognition of the brand-name schools that you have been after.

    This is what I've been criticising that you did not do. And from your post, it appears that something you are reluctant to do because you are dismissing the existence of these universities and immediatelly jumped ahead to considering overseas institutions.

    To prove to you that I'm not just making things up, I will give you two specific examples on smaller, less well-known schools in which your choices of areas of physics may be limited, but where you STILL could get a solid physics education AND may even be in areas where these schools are quite good at (and even made world-class contributions). Since I'm in the Chicago area, I'll pick schools from there:

    1. University of Illinois at Chicago. This is the little brother of the Big Boy in Urbana. Still, it is a smaller school with a decent physics dept. They are very well-connected in particle physics, being only a few miles from Fermilab. But they are also THE major player in the midwest (other than Iowa State) in photoemision spectroscopy. Juan Carlos Campuzano has produced a series of graduate students starting from Hong Ding to Kaminski, etc. who have produced a series of outstanding research work in this field of study. Why? They have access to both Argonne National Lab, and the Synchrotron Research Center in Stoughton, Wis.

    2. Illinois Institute of Technology. While this school is more well-known for its aerospace engineering and architectural school, it's physics dept. has 3 major areas of study in which it plays a major role: neutrino physics, synchrotron research, and superconducitivity. Again, the proximity to all those US National labs gives them plenty of access to various research facility. If you look up tunneling spectroscopy in high-Tc superconductor, chances are you'll find several important papers that either originate or are cited out of this institution.

    These are just two examples from just around the Chicago area. I have no doubt there are many such examples in other parts of the country. DrTransport has brought up one. There are enormous opportunity for someone who can't get into these brand name schools for whatever reason (even financial) but can still get a more than decent graduate education.

    So go do your homework. Look past those brand name schools and open your eyes to these other schools.

  13. Mar 27, 2006 #12

    Dr Transport

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    First of all, you have to decide what you want your degree in, theoretical or experimental physics and what sub-discipline....There are essentially 1000's of choices. I would first suggest that you talk to someone in your current department who you trust. Get their advice and see who they suggest is a leader in the field that you want to pursue. Another way to find a graduate program is to go to Phys Rev (A-F) or any one of the other journals and find some papers that interest you, who wrote them and their affiliation. If you have worked for a research group, talk to the other institutions that your group has worked with in the past.

    Chances are you will change your mind before you finish your first thesis topic, most people do. My intention was to get a PhD in experimental optics, I ended up working in solid state physics theory. On the way I learned enough to be able to work in both areas somewhat comfortably although I'd rather work on purely theoretical problems and modelling, the design, setup and measurement of materials is paying the bills right now.
  14. Mar 27, 2006 #13
    What is your eventual career goal? A PhD is not an end in and of itself.

    While the big-name schools are always going to carry prestige, your research record is your most important asset. If you do great research and publish, where you went won't matter nearly as much. Find a place that has the resources to allow you to do that.

    Your other option might be to apply to programs other than physics. There are plenty of engineering departments where you can do rewarding physics research and even collaborate with physicists. Many of them only look at your GRE general scores, sometimes just the math, so that solves half of your problems.

    Lastly, network. The fact that your current boss used to have drinks with some prof can be the deciding factor more often than we'd like to think.
    Last edited: Mar 27, 2006
  15. Mar 27, 2006 #14
    Thank you all for your suggestions, and I hope they keep coming. I feel kind of stupid that I didnt come here before I went thru the application process. After reading your suggestions and looking back on my actual applications, they were pretty ****ty compared to what they could have been, so theres only really myself to blame for that. I just wish I could have learned all this cheaper than I did.
  16. Mar 28, 2006 #15


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  17. Mar 28, 2006 #16


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    as an example in math not physics, there have been 3 math faculty members from the university of georgia invited to speak at the International Congress of Mathematicians, over the past decade or so.

    UGA is one of a relative handful of schools in the US holding a multimillion dollar NSF VIGRE grant for distinguished work integrating research and teaching.

    but many people still think georgia is just a football and party school and the school has trouble attracting graduate applicants. some northern students are even reluctant to travel at all into the south.

    I imagine similar facts are true for physics departments at many state schools which you have not even considered.

    one way i have used to get some data on graduate departments instead of reading popularity surveys like the US news and world report, is to scan NSF grant reports, to see who has an NSF grant and where they are.

    These grants are highly competitive and are received by the top people and departments

    I leave it to experts like Zapper however to say how accurate such a measure might be for physics students seeking a good department.
  18. Mar 28, 2006 #17


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    It is as good of a measure as any. For example, several years ago while I was attending a conference at UC Berkeley, I specifically heard that UC-Davis has the second largest research grant money of any university in Calfornia, secondly only to Stanford. That, couple with their proximity to Silicon Valley AND LBNL, put them among one of the most dynamic universities anywhere. Yet, how many people would put UC-Davis on their list of places to go for graduate education? The locals know, but how many students pass them by without realizing they're missing out on such a tremendous opportunity?

  19. Mar 28, 2006 #18
    For job opportunities, is where you went to graduate school an instant cut-off point like your GPA can be for applying to a university? I would think it would be your advisor and research record that would really matter, no?
  20. Apr 1, 2006 #19
    I don't know what the average physicist's verbal GRE scores might be, but one thing that stood out to me right away was your lowish verbal score. I can't say this for certain, but I imagine that the most competitive graduate schools (who are presented with more qualified canidates than they are able to accept) will want to make sure that you can not only do the physics, but also that you can write well and clearly communicate your thoughts and ideas to your peers and mentors.
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