How difficult is it to get into a top PhD program?

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I realize that there are many more than adequate schools where I can go to obtain a PhD, but my current goal is to get into one of the top 30. I truly have no idea of the competition, hence the question. I am going to the university of connecticut and came in with 38 AP credits and will graduate in three years instead of four. I got a 4.0 first semester but obviously I was not taking upper level physics courses. I should be doing an independent study in nuclear and particle physics next semester and will hopefully get research for over the summers and during the semesters in form of credit or money for the following two years. Also, I will graduate from the honors college and write a senior physics thesis before graduate application deadline. I will also take about 4 upper level physics courses not needed for my major so I should be very qualified. Lastly, I hope to be a University scholar which they only award to 30 students a year and is considered the highest possible honor. With all that info (and assumptions), would it be reasonable to get into a top school? Such as Yale or Brown (my top two at this premature stage). Thanks for any input, even if its telling me I havent got a shot or that it is pure speculation, which I understand.
 

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  • #2
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Chill, man. You are fine. 38 AP credits??? Outrageous.
 
  • #3
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Yeah I worked hard to get out of weedout/boring intro classes while I was in highschool haha, I was very thankful to be able to do so.
 
  • #4
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That's definitely a great start, you just have to keep it up. If you want to have your pick, you should try to take 1-2 years of graduate-level courses before you are done with your degree. Also, start studying for the subject GRE early and make sure you can ace it. Most important thing, though, is to try very hard to impress 3 profs in upper division courses because they can be your recommendation-letter-writers. The biggest thing will be what they have to say about you.
 
  • #5
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I feel like my schedule works perfectly for the pgre. Next year I am taking quantum mech1 and 2, em1 and2, statsitical and thermal, lab in mechanics, and mech1 and 2. So I should be at least in a position to do well. Also, say im interest in particle physics. Would it be better to take only that as a senior level course and then do some grad courses. Or should I do say cosmology for a senior course. Thanks!
 
  • #6
ZombieFeynman
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I would suggest taking four years to graduate. Use this extra year to do research and take more courses. Find out what interests you. Take additional math courses. If you lean more towards theory, take computer science courses. If you lean more towards experimental, take instrumentation and electronics. If you are interested in material science, perhaps you could minor in engineering or chemistry. I just dont see how getting to grad school a year early would be as advantageous as taking the additional year to gain some breadth.

You say you want to do particle physics. Why?

You say you want to go to Yale or Brown. Why?

You are only in your second semester of college. Odds are that you dont have the experience to know what specific field or schools would be best for you. I didnt.

As far as getting into a top 30 school, I dont think its very difficult for a dedicated and diligent student
 
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  • #7
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Thank you for the advice. I am definitely keeping an open mind as to what field interests me most; particle is one but I was really just using it as an example for the question.
 
  • #8
ZombieFeynman
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I have to stress, unless finances are the issue, by taking only three years to graduate you are eliminating much of the advantage of taking all of those AP credits. You will compete against people that have done more reesearch and have taken more math and science courses.
 
  • #9
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Hm would it be possible/a good idea to apply after 3 years and see where I get in? If my grades are good and I get rejected then staying on for a fourth year and if I get accepted than just as well? Just an early idea
 
  • #10
ZombieFeynman
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Im not saying you wont get in after three years. Its very possible you could get into the school of your choice after 3 years.

What Im sayin is that its not a race. Getting into the graduate school of your choice earlier does you little good, in my opinion.

Extra math, chemistry, computer science, and research can be beyond value once you are in grad school. Grad school is going to give you depth in a narrow area. Undergraduate is the time to get breadth.
 
  • #11
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Interesting opinion. Im somewhat torn between the matter. Yes, I would certainly gain breadth of knowledge with another year, but at the expense of a full year salary if I had gone straight to graduate school. Thats a fair amount of money to weigh
 
  • #12
ZombieFeynman
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If money is the issue, do not go to a PhD program for physics. Go into engineering and get a masters. Getting a PhD in physics is not the financially optimal choice.
 
  • #13
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Money is not the issue! Thankfully. But I hope you can understand why a year head start could be beneficial monetarily and I dont feel like id be sacrificing a whole lot of physics education. Luckily I have plenty of time to figure it out!
 
  • #14
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Thank you for the advice. I am definitely keeping an open mind as to what field interests me most; particle is one but I was really just using it as an example for the question.

Try to get into research doing particle and see if you actually like particle physics vs the romanticized pictures you see in pop sci books and documentaries. Alot of people enter physics wanting to be the next einstein or hawking and they end up doing condensed matter, plasma, biophysics, etc when they finally learn what the reality of the field is.
 
  • #15
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If money is the issue, do not go to a PhD program for physics. Go into engineering and get a masters. Getting a PhD in physics is not the financially optimal choice.

Depends on what physics you do.
 
  • #16
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Out of curiosity, which fields in physics pay well outside of medical. Im pretty sure my interests are not in the areas that make good money >_<
 
  • #17
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Out of curiosity, which fields in physics pay well outside of medical. Im pretty sure my interests are not in the areas that make good money >_<

Condensed matter/material science/electronics fabrication <- biggest and most practical research area
 
  • #18
Vanadium 50
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I dont feel like id be sacrificing a whole lot of physics education.

How can you possibly know that before you have gone through this physics education?
 
  • #19
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Im unsure of what exactly your accusation is. I can have a fairly good idea that I wont be sacrificing my undergradaute physics education by graduating in three years because I will have taken more upper level courses than required, leaving very few courses available. So I can have a good idea. However I certainly would be missing out on a year of education in other subjects if I didnt stay on.
 
  • #20
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I'm not accusing you of anything. I am saying that before you have your degree, you don't know what you'll be missing or how important it is.
 
  • #21
ZombieFeynman
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Depends on what physics you do.

When one writes in generalities as I did, one is bound to seem foolish, as I did.

While I still think the physics PhD is not the financially optimal choice, I agree that it can be quite competitive.
 
  • #22
Choppy
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I'll just toss this out there that the whole idea of finishing a year early in undergrad has the potential to rub people the wrong way - perhaps not so much people on admission committees, but certainly other people who've had to spend four years in undergrad.

One of the gut reactions I feel when I read a question like this is that I don't trust the whole idea of "advanced placement" courses. While I'm sure that in many cases there are great teachers out there who do a better job then some professors at teaching to a first-year physics level, there are also teachers who get stuck with teaching those courses because they have to, and as per my experience with the education system - are sometimes not even qualified. As a result you get students who jump straight into higher level courses during their first year and experience the academic steam roller. I'm not saying this with be the case with Mc0210, but this is a general concern.

And then there's the "I had to do four years, you should too" voice. I try to surpress that. There was still some pretty severe hazing that happened (under school sanction) when I went through undergrad and I experienced the more nasty side of it and it's not something that I would will on anyone. But on the academic side of things that voice is still there. And it's not completely without its important points.

First, are you in a position where you're completing the bare minimum of course requirements for a physics degree? If you are, this is something that admission committees look at. Also, it limits your exposure, meaning that you may not make the best choice of graduate program, and it limits your academic base.

Second, you're missing out on a year of maturity. For some people this doesn't matter at all. For others it's a night and day thing. And I don't mean just knowing when to party and when not to. When you're at a stage in your life when all of your friends are also graduating and many of them as searching for jobs, and the realities of paying back student debt come crashing through their doors you might make different decisions compared to a point where you're still insultated from the real world and working on less practical but impressive sounding projects drives your thought process.
 
  • #23
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Thank you for your reply Choppy.
I agree with the "rubbing people the wrong way". So far at UConn most people just say, damn hes smart and think ive earned it through hard work in high school. However at a more prestigious school, I can see how students equally as talented (or more talented) who went to a prestigious undergrad school and graduated in four years would think it is very unfair, and I am unsure of what is exactly fair. Moving on, I will address your doubts of AP placement. UConn requires a 4/5 to receive credit, which I think is fair. I got a 5 on Calc I and took calc II last semester, getting an A and feel calc I would have been beyond painfully boring. With chemistry, I see my friends in it now and constantly say, Oh i remember that, and similar comments, and I feel like I learned almost the same exact material. With computer science, I placed out but still had to take an intro matlab course. Suffice it to say I was helping everyone in the honors dorm due to my background and feel very confident in future programming courses. Government was far more intensive in high school than a similar course I took in college. Cant really say for biology, though I definitely learned a lot. English, once again, I feel my writing skills are very solid and a semester of college writing would have done very little, but I can not confirm this as I have with others. Lastly physics. Mechanics I can say without a doubt would be extreme overkill for me to retake. EM i got a 4 on because i self studied the M portion. I am still very confident in my abilities and learning capabilities, but I will be able to confirm this after quantum next semester (though I looked at the textbook and knew many concepts from my background). In the end, it depends on the school. I was extremely fortunate that I went to one of the better public schools in the country with particularly strong AP teachers and support. Thus, I feel confident using the credit.
Next, I am not doing the bare minimum by any means. I will take either senior level or graduate level courses (about 5) that are not required. Id say that is very fortunate. And on the maturity, i can say confidently it is not an issue whatsoever. I dont party (or understand why anyone wants to), and have three older sisters which i think made me grow up quickly. Its not simple to define what makes someone mature, but its really just my personality to not act as young as i am.
Lastly (long post i know), money is not an issue thankfully. My parents do very well and are paying for my college as well as my living expenses through my PhD (allowing me to bank the stipend). To be fair, with scholarship and my dads work (Rhode Island school of design, pays $14,400 a year!!!) i am essentially paying for the meal plan :D so student debt is not a problem. I am practically free to pursue my studies!
 

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