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Hello! I got some questions

  1. Aug 8, 2006 #1
    Hi everybody, I'm new to this. I'm about to start my sophomore year at Harvey Mudd. I have a lot of questions about what courses to take, what research to try out for, etc... Perhaps I could get some input?

    First, research. For someone who wants to go to a top graduate program (like top 10), when should one ideally start doing research? I'm thinking summer after sophomore year is when I'd start.

    Also, how important is it to be published in journals and have presented at major conferences? Should you have been doing research for about at least two years in order to be adequately prepped?

    Also, I'm still undecided on what kind of research I want to do. A part of me wants to do more theoretical stuff, but I know that that requires a lot of math, and I probably won't have enough to do meaningful stuff with the string theorist on campus until second semester junior year. So I'm thinking I'd also like to do some research in experimental stuff, like quantum optics or astrophysics, maybe as early as second semester sophomore year.

    Is it okay to work on an experimental topic of research for a year or so and then switch to more theoretical stuff for your senior thesis and what not? Or does that look like your indecisive and not committed?

    Also, I'm worried that I won't know what kind of research I want to do in graduate school. I'm worried I'll be very confused between experimental and theoretical. Is that a major problem? Do a lot of grad students go in not knowing what type of research they want or what topics they want to specialize in?

    And, would it be okay for me to go to Cambridge (assuming I can get in of course) for a year and get a Certificate of Advanced Study (equivalent to a Master's here) in Applied Math/Theo Physics, even if I'm indecisive about what I want to research? Would taking a ton of courses that are all mathematical and what not make it harder to explore other options?

    For the record, after my first semester at Mudd, I have a 3.7 GPA. The general trend here is that GPA's go up significantly after the first two semesters, once people start getting out of core requirements. I am thinking with what I am at right now, if I work hard at it I might be able to pull it up to a 3.8.

    Any comments, suggestions, answers - I greatly appreciate it!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 9, 2006 #2
    BUMP I'm really sorry, but I would really really like some input.
  4. Aug 10, 2006 #3
    Hi Tiyusufaly. I'm a beginning grad student in theoretical physics (particle phenomenology).

    As soon as possible. :smile: (Grad programs love students who have proven themselves doing research.)

    Being published and presenting sure helps, but (at least in my case) aren't necessarily prerequisite. You want to be taking an active part in good research. Being able to show that you can write and present ideas at a peer-reviewed level is valuable, but these things are results of doing good research rather than the goal of doing research.

    You should spend this year thinking actively about what you want to do. One of the major things that you can get out of undergraduate research is a feel for how "research" works in different subfields in physics--so on some level you can treat your undergrad research as a test-drive of a particular discipline in physics.

    So in that respect, you shouldn't be afraid to be somewhat cavalier about what kind of research you do. It's definitely easier to get involved in experimental work at an earlier stage.

    I spent my sophomore year working on a project in condensed matter experiment even though I knew I wanted to be a particle theorist, and the experience was valuable as an appilcation of my coursework, a new perspective on physics, and building relationships with mentors (faculty and grad students).

    A word about research in theoretical physics: In my graduating class, five of us ended up doing a senior thesis in theoretical physics, to varying degrees of completion. Quantum Field Theory is a pretty solid prerequisite to do meaningful theoretical work, otherwise one might not really have a good grasp of the big picture of the project. (For string theory you should have even more background depending on the project.) If you're interested in pursuing theoretical physics in graduate school, you should start organizing your coursework accordingly (but research experience in experimental fields is still very valuable!).

    This is absolutely fine. Nobody expects sophomores to be doing real theoretical work. I think having a diverse background of research experience helped me in my grad applications because I really knew what I was saying when I said that my calling is particle theory.

    Most of the "top graduate programs" (loosely defined) ask you to list your research interests on your application. They then split the applications up by research interest and have subcommittees of faculty within that field review each student. The extreme case is MIT, which practically accepts students into specific research groups. The notable counterexample is UC Berkeley, which has a large department so accepts students independent of their research interests.

    Anyway, what this means for you is:
    1) You don't *need* to have a clear idea of what you want to do but...
    2) ... if you don't have a clear idea, this may end up penalizing you.

    You have to understand that many students will have a clear idea of what kind of research "turns them on" and even which professors they'd like to work with (how do they know? by consulting with their faculty mentors on research projects). It's a little more acceptable, for example, if you know you want to do particle physics, but you're not sure if you want to do phenomenology or experimental work. But it does not make sense if you say you're interested in string theory *and* material science, for example.

    But don't worry, you still have lots of time to focus. The goal should be getting a taste of these different fields. Try them out. Talk to professors and grad students in these fields. Read papers (this is hard to do when you're starting out, but it gives you something to ask questions about), or at least magazines like Physics Today or Physics World.

    Yes! I'll be starting "Part III of the Maths Tripos" at DAMTP this October. However, Part III is pretty much a theorist's course that compromises the first year or two of graduate coursework. I have mixed feelings about using a course like that to "buy time" to figure out what you want to do, because it's such a specialized course. (Though I do know some condensed matter experimentalists who took Part III and enjoyed it to varying degrees.)

    At any rate, I applied to PhD programs in theoretical physics and *then* asked if they would allow me to defer my admission on account of Part III. This is a win-win situation from their point of view since they don't have to support you while you're taking your graduate coursework, and you should be all ready to do research once you come back to the US.

    One more bit of wisdom that was passed down by my undergraduate advisor: "Rule number one: Read as little as possible and try to figure things out for yourself." Now, the context of this is how to approach graduate education, but to adapt it a little for your situation: it's a lot easier to figure out what kind of physics you like by actually doing small projects in different fields instead of taking courses about different fields.

    Doing physics is very different from learning about physics.

    GPAs seem to play a relatively minor role in determining graduate admissions (and are probably not very well correlated with graduate school success). As long as you maintain a good GPA in the same ball park that you're talking about, you should be fine. It's better to have a good GPA and great references and research experience rather than having a great GPA and only good references.

    Best of luck with everything.
  5. Aug 11, 2006 #4
    Thank you so much! You have been a great, great help, and I really appreciate it.

    Btw, it is really cool that you are doing the exact program that I want to do at Cambridge. If you don't mind my asking, how hard is it to get into Part III, compared to PhD programs here?
  6. Aug 11, 2006 #5
    I can't answer that. I'm the only person I know who applied to Part III, so I really only have on data point. :smile:

    Be advised that applying to Part III is a two part process: one has to be accepted by the Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics and then you must be accepted by a college to which you will be associated. I suggest applying for an overseas fellowship such as the Marshall/Churchill/Gates/Fulbright (Rhodes is only for Oxford).

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