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Help me pick a grad school.

  1. Nov 7, 2008 #1
    Help me pick a grad school. :)

    So it's time to start applying. My professor/mentor suggested I go through the Big Book of Grad Schools and pick out all the schools I like, then go on US News and World Report to see their rankings, and weed out the bad ones.

    That's super. But I'm still not 100%. I have a list, but I'm not sure if there's anything I missed or if there are any schools I should avoid.

    My interest is in experimentalism, hopefully something applied, and the only fields I want to avoid are astrophysics and particle physics. Everything else is pretty interesting. So that's why I was told to pick large departments. Here's my list, with their rankings to the left:

    1 - Stanford
    3 - Berkeley
    7 - Cornell
    11 - Yale
    11 - Columbia University, the applied physics department
    13 - University of Maryland, College Park
    29 - Duke University
    36 - Purdue
    45 - Texas A&M
    48 - Arizona State, Tempe
    48 - Iowa State, Ames
    48 - U. of Massachusetts, Amherst
    48 - U. of Pitsburgh, Pennsylvania
    76 - Louisiana Statae, Baton Rouge
    88 - U of Buffalo, SUNY

    So okay, some schools are top tier, some are 3rd tier, and a few are 2nd tier apparently. My "qualifications" are a 2.98 physics GPA which will be bumped to a 3.0 after this quarter (out of 4.0), 1 really good letter of recommendation, and I'm in the process of deciding who writes my other two, which will be "ok" to "good", but not "great". My general GRE was good, I'm not worried about it, and I'll take my physics GRE tomorrow morning. From practice I expect at least a 70th percentile score. I've been practicing all summer and fall for that.

    Any suggestions? :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 7, 2008 #2
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    A question... what is your research experience?
    That's critical for getting into top schools.
  4. Nov 7, 2008 #3
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    I did two quarters of work on with one professor trying to build his muon detector, but it amounted to checking leaks for several months straight... plus some minor work replacing O-rings and such.

    Then I worked for over a year for another professor on two projects of his, and he even sent me away for the summer to work on-site. :D That involved some electronics work, mostly soldering, using some of the lab equipment like the o-scope and testing whether or not stuff works, and then later mostly programming.

    Now I'm working for a 3rd professor, this time a theorist, and this is pretty much just programming to find numerical solutions to problems.
  5. Nov 7, 2008 #4
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Certainly don't describe your research experience like that when you apply!

    You make it sound about as interesting as working as a janitor. I'm sure what you did was a heck of a lot more interesting to you than you make it sounds (otherwise why would you be applying to grad school?). You have to be excited about your research! Tell them what the point of your work was, and why it was the coolest thing ever. Or why you think it sucked and you can do better. Just make it sound like you were engaged and enjoyed it. Since you're signing up for a research degree, the most important indicator of your future success in that program will be how much you've enjoyed (and been successful in) your previous research.
  6. Nov 7, 2008 #5


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    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Does your interest in LSU have anything to do with the synchrotron or their med phys program? The med phys program is really good, and the synchrotron seems really interesting. I was going to be one of the "math guys" for one of the Professors in the chem. department who was working on imaging with it, but that kind of fizzled. Note that even lowly ranked LSU won't admit you with less than a 3.0

  7. Nov 7, 2008 #6
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Ohio State is my personal favorite; after all, they let me in.

    I think that GPA might be trouble for you - how much time do you have to bring it up?
  8. Nov 7, 2008 #7
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Thanks for the pointer. I'll make sure to write a better personal statement. :)

    Uhhh... this quarter...
  9. Nov 8, 2008 #8
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    So right now we're looking at a not-so-good GPA in your field (and only one quarter to pull it up any small amount), and a fair amount of research experience that you COULD perhaps spin positively, but that didn't apparently result in any form of co-authorship on publications.

    I was an admission committee member while in graduate school (very high in a few research fields, so we often had ~700+ applications that came in complete). We were a large program, so we accepted about 40-50). Here's my experience: Top grad schools admissions committees look for high GPA's (in- and out- of field), often looking for those to come from other "top schools," as in our case, GPA was rated with a our internal-department-produced rank scale), top GRE scores (US students often get a bit of slack here, but not too much), strong research experience (noted in the personal statement and evidenced by publications and notes in ALL your recommendations), possibly second majors or strong minors or evidence of taking lower-level graduate coursework, etc. Above non-numerical factors were included in a committee-produced number, with three members of the committee reading the application, looking for anomalies, strengths, etc.) Then we cranked these numbers through a mathematical formula and got a ranking of all our applicants. We looked over the rankings, starting from the top, and made our offers one by one until the slots were full. The committees members who read an application could provide some input at that point if the application didn't seem ranked properly.

    Right now, I'll be honest and say that your application doesn't look good. While you COULD still be optimistic and apply to a top school or schools, I'd say your chances of getting in are VERY slim, especially in hard economic times when applicants increase AND universities cut budgets (esp. when they have to match NSF funds). In addition, as some others here note, even some lower ranked schools have cutoff's... sometimes those are even known (3.0 and 3.5 are common "cutoffs"). Top schools tend not to publish their cutoff's... but then their ranking process almost always insures that only those with high GPA's get in (we stopped publishing any GPA/GRE cutoffs the year I arrived).

    Applying to graduate school is an expensive process, moving to graduate school is expensive, and often it takes a while for your fellowship to come through... so you do want to be realistic:

    Generally I recommend that students should apply to 1-2 "stretch" schools, 3-5 schools that seems like very good matches, and 1-2 "back-up" schools. I'll be honest in that it's rare that someone gets into a "stretch school" (and even rarer that that school makes it economically feasible via guaranteed fellowships / tuition payment)... and often students don't make it into a number of schools they think will be good matches. Sometimes they only get into their "backup schools"... but often once there, they find graduate school productive, it's just unlikely that they will be faculty at any of the "top schools" (generally one seems to become faculty at a school a tier down from where they start; only the top ones at their institution end up staying at similar institutions).
  10. Nov 8, 2008 #9


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    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    By the way, what do you want to do research on IN grad school? Choosing schools by ranking (especially when your academic background really doesn't sound like it warrants admission to a top tier school) is a pretty lousy way of finding a grad school. Look specifically for schools with people actively doing research in the area you're interested in. "Experimentalism" doesn't mean anything...what do you want to "experiment" about?

    The rest of this I'm going to say for everyone's benefit, not just directed at the OP. I see a LOT of students nowadays applying to Ph.D. programs with no focus at all on what they want to do with a Ph.D. This makes no sense. If you have so little focus of what you want to do, go do something else until you're sure you really want a Ph.D. and know why you want it.

    As you look through the literature, who are the top three people you'd LOVE to work with that would be your DREAM placement in a lab? You know, the ones whose papers you read and just think it is the most amazing work you've ever read and wish you could do that too. Now, recognize that those labs may be very competitive to get a position in, so use that as your starting point. Do other faculty at the same university work on similar areas of research? If so, give that program a try. Who else does similar work? Maybe there are collaborators at other lower-tiered institutions who do just as good of work, but whose overall program isn't ranked as high? Apply there. Whose references are those groups' articles citing? Look into them and see if they have openings for students...apply there.

    Look for the right research fit, not university ranking. If you're in a lower-tier program for grad school because your academic background won't get you an admission to the higher-tier ones, work your butt off once you get in and aim to get as many publications as possible as soon as possible, then impress the heck out of those people who are your top choices to work with and get a post-doc with them.
  11. Nov 8, 2008 #10


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    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Good post physics girl PhD. I did that when I applied to grad school. I applied to 3 top schools (accepted 1/3, no funding), 3 very good schools (accepted 3/3, 2/3 with funding), and 2 back up schools (accepted 2/2, with funding from both). I recommend the same. Apply to at least 8 schools.

    Good luck!
  12. Nov 8, 2008 #11
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Thanks for replying.

    Look specifically for schools with people actively doing research in the area you're interested in. "Experimentalism" doesn't mean anything...what do you want to "experiment" about? [/quote]

    Don't know. I don't know anything about any of the fields I'm seeing. They don't do a good job of teaching that here and I have no idea where I can get some sort of overview of "condensed matter" or "quantum optics" or whatever. What I care about most is that it's an applied field where I can do a lot of hands on work.

    So from what I've been able to discern, pretty much all fields have that to some degree and it varies widely from project to project. And I'm really not worried about being stuck in something I don't like, because I really do like almost everything in physics.

    So any advice? When looking for schools I made sure to check what areas they had research in. The ones I looked for the most was "Applied physics", "nano scale physics/technology", anything with quantum computing or really anything having to do with quantum effects, such as low temperature stuff, quantum optics, etc.

    I'm even interested in biophysics and medical physics.

    Right, so if I don't know what kind of physics I want to specialize in, it's best not to just go and try it for a while? If I get accepted into a grad school with a large physics program, I can find a group that I like easier than looking through "literature" and reading about their projects. I might as well roll some dice at that point.

    I've read all of 3 papers. I wouldn't even know where to start if I wanted to "find people" to work with.

    I want to go into industry instead of academia. Does that change anything?
  13. Nov 8, 2008 #12
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Reading papers to pick a graduate program isn't the best advice. Mostly for the reason that the average physics paper is completely opaque to most undergraduates, and the non-specialist articles are usually written by superstars whom the competition to work under is ridiculous.

    I think the best way to start finding potential future Ph.D. advisors is to discuss with faculty at your present school. Find out who they know, personally and professionally, at schools where you would be a reasonably competitive candidate. Do this now! Look at the faculty at your school whose research you find interesting and ask them about their collaborators.

    I don't think it's necessary to take time away and "find yourself" to discover what you're passionate enough about to get a Ph.D. in. What better experience could there be than to attend a large program with a diversity of research to find out what you're passionate about! If it turns out you aren't really passionate about it, get a masters degree and leave, no real harm done.

    Finally, if you'd rather go into industry, then where you get your Ph.D. from is still important - your Ph.D. advisor will be very instrumental in your job search, so it's important to pick someone who has industry ties and sends a lot of their students into industry jobs. Ultimately, though, the industry affiliations part will be more important than whether your degree says "Harvard," which isn't always the case in faculty job hunting.

    Just one more thing, then - about applying to at least 8 schools... This might be a matter of necessity for some people, but I don't like it. I applied only to places where I had a reasonable shot at getting in, and I applied to absolutely no safety schools. If there is any school on your list whose offer you wouldn't seriously consider were you to get any other offers, well, it doesn't belong there in the first place, I think. I've talked to a lot of people who spent months on waiting lists not knowing where they were going to go until the deadline just because people who were, of course, highly qualified, but were never even really going to go to those schools were accepted ahead of them, and I find it disgusting.
  14. Nov 8, 2008 #13


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    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    I concur with this point: great advice!
  15. Nov 8, 2008 #14


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    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Except for taking away a slot and funding for someone who DOES know what they want to do and would have completed the program. My experience is that those who come in aimless stay aimless. How do you even know you want a Ph.D. if you don't know what field you even want to specialize in?

    If you aren't sure, start with applying to a master's program and see how it feels while learning more about your options...don't apply to a Ph.D. program and settle for a master's degree as a consolation prize instead.

    But the advice to talk to the professors is also excellent.
  16. Nov 8, 2008 #15
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    I don't know, I never though of a Ph.D. as "Specialist in X". I always thought of it more in terms of "Yeah, he can do his research on his own with very little hand-holding."

    I mean, a few days ago one of my professors told me he's changed his research topics I think 4 times throughout his life. It was still similar things, but he changed it nonetheless. The most drastic of which being going from condensed matter to biophysics (I think he said it was from solids -> soft matter).

    But you're right that I should figure out what I would like to do. I'll have to think about this some more and ask my professors for advice. Thanks.
  17. Oct 16, 2010 #16
    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    I also thought this was good advice. However, at my school, there isn't much research in theoretical condensed matter, which is my main area of interest. However, I did sorta similar research with one prof at another school as part of an REU. Should I ask him about his collaborators as I don't really have an advisor at my school?
  18. Oct 16, 2010 #17

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    Re: Help me pick a grad school. :)

    Holy necropost, Batman!
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