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How important is the name of the school for postgrad?

  1. Jun 24, 2015 #1
    I've been looking over some past threads on PF with regards to graduate school and funding and it's made me reconsider applying internationally. To give some background: I'm a Canadian entering third year (of a 4-year BSc program) this fall and am studying Physics. I plan on pursuing grad school (MSc and hopefully a PhD) at a Canadian university since it seems like the most financially sound decision and I kinda like Canada. Travelling would be very exciting as well, but attending conferences or going for short durations for research seems more cost efficient at this time in my life. With regards to future work, I am still fairly open to any opportunities that come up, but staying in academia would be really cool.

    I'm really looking into Astrophysics (and/or possibly high-energy Physics--experimental and theoretical), and a few schools I've been looking at are: UofT, McGill, and UBC. I certainly need to look into research groups more closely, but with regards to pursuing work later in my career either in academia or industry, would going to a "higher ranked" institution in the States or Europe be more helpful for any reason? I'd certainly be applying for large scholarships in those cases, but very few actually cover full expenses and even less provide a stipend (they are also highly competitive and there's a chance I may not receive one)--all of which are guaranteed at the aforementioned schools for Canadian grad students. I'd certainly consider a post-doc or work internationally after grad school, but (as a hypothetical) is there really any general reason a student would benefit from going to a school like Cambridge or MIT as opposed to UofT or McGill?

    Just a few additional questions (not too important if unanswered):

    How important is volume of publication during grad school versus quality? Do positions tend to discriminate if one doesn't have a lot of papers published when seeking further opportunities in academia (i.e. postdoc, professorship) after grad school?

    This would likely be heavily dependent on my particular skills, but is aerospace engineering and/or astronautics easy to transition to from a traditional Physics background? Are these Canadian schools well known and good for these areas of study?

    How feasible is it to find part-time work doing research/teaching in academia or industry? Are such positions hard to find?
    Last edited: Jun 24, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2015 #2
    I think you are misinformed. In the US, you can apply straight to PhD programs and will receive a stipend anywhere you go. Most US universities won't even give an offer without a stipend... and if they do, then that's essentially a rejection.
  4. Jun 25, 2015 #3


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    What jbrussell said about scholarships is certainly true. No-one should be paying for a STEM PhD. That's not to say there aren't options to do a PhD if you don't get funding, but if they don't offer you funding, they don't really want you.

    As for "name of the school". As a PhD student, it's much more about the performance and profile of the research group/department than the school as a whole. A less generally well known school can have world-leading groups in particular research areas.

    Numbers of papers during a PhD do matter, but it's also about quality. If you're into HEP, you will likely be in large collaborations - in that case, the number of papers is pretty much meaningless. The number of first-author papers is much more important. In physics, having a first author PRL in a PhD is considered very good, for instance.

    If you want to do aerospace engineering, you're much better off doing a Masters/PhD in that, not a HEP/astro PhD then trying to transfer. A PhD makes you so specialized in one area that it becomes hard to move. You can (and should) develop other skills, but do a PhD in what you think you actually want to spend your life doing.

    It is becoming slightly more common to see part-time positions offered in research, due to work in improving gender equity, but they're still pretty rare. There are things like adjunct positions in teaching, but that's not exactly something you'd want to aim to do.
  5. Jun 25, 2015 #4
    Thank you for clearing that up! Just to reiterate: these stipends cover tuition fees, provide some basic living funds, and are generally provided through TA and RA positions, right? You're saying these positions are then essentially guaranteed for all accepted grad students?

    Do schools in the states typically look at all sections of the general GRE + the physics sections, or only the physics section when they review applicants (or does it highly vary by school)?

    How does one go about having "backup plans" in case their top choices don't work out? For example, at my current institution, there are a few professors that I really like and would be interested in working with. Their field of study is fairly broad and if my top choices don't work out, I'd love to work with them. I feel a little selfish doing this, though, since it is a pretty selfish thing to say you're only going to stay if you don't get in elsewhere. In such a case, is there a good approach to ask them for a graduate position in their group?

    Also, with regards to graduate admissions, is it worthwhile to contact a research group I'm highly interested in working with before I even get accepted or rejected? Can the research group accept your directly or must they abide by the department's process at all times? Would this route be favourable for applicants, or should one just have a few groups of interest in mind at the school and contact them once an initial offer of admission has been made?

    Finally (sorry for all the questions), I am sure professors, supervisors, and other referees would understand, but do most people essentially apply with the same 3 references to all the grad schools they apply to? Isn't this still a lot to ask for if one possibly applies to ~10 schools? Is there any way to make the process easier on them (i.e. ask for a general LoR and have it kept in an online database for each school you apply to to check)?
  6. Jun 25, 2015 #5
    Thank you for the response!

    I guess my uncertainty in a particular field stems from my interests in so many different topics (namely space exploration and cosmology) and I'm also very interested in pursuing veterinary school afterwards, too, so graduate school may not be a means to any specific ends for me. A research/teaching position in academia or industry would be very cool, but I guess I still have to personally figure out what exactly I want to do after school and what the best balance is. If only there was a way to combine veterinary work with astrophysics (and related fields)...
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2015
  7. Jun 25, 2015 #6


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    You always use the same references for your schools since they should be the best you have. After writing the letter, submitting it to a lot of schools isn't that much more work.

    A stipend covers tuition and gives a certain income. My offers ranged from $22,000 to $44,000 (I was offered a special fellowship but otherwise the highest offer was $37,000). It depends on the cost to live and how wealthy the school is. Since you live in Canada there is fellowship called NSERC or something which would provide funding so your school wouldn't have to. It can allow you to teach much less.

    You absolutely need safety schools. One or two is good. You should also consult your recommenders when deciding where to apply. The more enthusiastic they are the more certain they will write a great letter.

    Contacting research groups might be good for learning more about their field or group but I don't think it makes you more likely to get in. If they see an applicant who has contacted them versus a more qualified student who has written a great statement mentioning the group I would think they would accept the second student. I barely contacted anyone, I got my information second hand from my recommenders since together they knew everyone on my list. I then used this to write really strong statements.

    The General GRE holds very little weight unless you are not a native English speaker. Unless you don't do well on math (which you should do very well on since the material covered is trivial) or having writing and reading scores which suggest a lack of critical thinking and writing skills, you will be fine. I went to an REU at a top fifteen school where they basically said they don't care about the GRE and showed us data to prove it.

    The PGRE is fairly important, but it is most definitely not the be all end all. Most schools realize that past an okay score doing well on it speaks more about ability to take tests than how much physics you know. The schools who care the most are the ones with harsh quals (MIT and Princeton are notorious). However, MIT cut out a large part of their written qual this year so they may not care as much about the PGRE as in the past. I can tell you for a fact that UChicago doesn't care much. I was told this by the department head after I was admitted. The plotted PGRE scores and the ratings professors gave applicants and barely saw any correlation.

    The name of the department is more important than the name of the school. Higher ranked schools have more resources and stronger students on average. They also have more well known professors, who contrary to a lot of hearsay are often very nice people who are great advisors and care a lot about their students.
  8. Jun 25, 2015 #7
    I disagree. I contacted someone at each of the places I applied and even met face-to-face with most of them at conferences before applying and believe this played a huge role in my acceptances. I came from a large state school with a lesser-known physics program and got into all of the top 10 schools I applied to. It can't hurt...
  9. Jun 25, 2015 #8
    Thank you for all the advice! Yes, NSERC does have a few grants I would certainly be applying to if I stay in Canada.

    Maybe the process is different since I've been looking at mainly professional schools in the past, but with regards to LoRs, don't the referees typically send it themselves? An applicant shouldn't have direct access to them to be able to send themselves, right? I guess it's not a terrible amount of work, but keeping referees happy is important, too, haha.

    Also, with regards to safety programs, how would you recommend approaching this? At my current school it's a simple application and it isn't too competitive. I would certainly speak with a particular professor beforehand to see if I could join their group, but would being completely honest and saying that I plan on staying in case I don't get in anywhere else be looked down upon? I'm sure they would understand me looking for the best opportunity I can (especially if I've already done work with them), but I certainly don't want to start things off on the wrong foot.
    Last edited: Jun 25, 2015
  10. Jun 25, 2015 #9


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    Recommenders expect to send your letters to all the schools you apply to, that's just standard protocol.

    You can apply to NSERC even if your school is not in Canada, I know people in my program who have won it.

    You could try emailing people at other schools but only if you can express you are genuinely interested in their work. Otherwise it may come off that you are just trying to get their favor for admissions purposes. One professor said this exactly and many won't even reply to these emails. However, I'm in theory so it could definitely be different for experiment.
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