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How many grad schools should I apply to?

  1. Nov 29, 2007 #1

    Ben Niehoff

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    Assuming that I have enough money for all the application fees (I do), how many grad schools should I choose to apply to? I am looking to do high energy theory (with an aim toward GUT). After some research into good programs in places I would actually like to live (after moving to California two years ago, I'm pretty addicted to the West Coast), I've narrowed my list down to (not in any particular order):

    UC Santa Barbara
    UC Berkeley
    UC Davis
    Stanford
    U of Chicago
    UT Austin
    UW Seattle

    I had originally intended to come up with a list of 5, but I am having difficulty reducing this list any further. UC Davis is on the list because I'm currently taking a grad-level physics class there (as a means to get my foot in the door after being out of school and working for three years); as such, Davis is a "safety" school. I've already filled out most of the applications for Stanford and Austin as well, so it is mostly the others I am trying to decide between.

    My dilemma is that I'm unsure of my qualifications (long story involving some things that happened in my last two semesters of undergrad, plus the fact that my undergrad is in Computer Engineering rather that Physics), but I want to get into high-level theory, which is highly competitive, so I want to maximize my chances of getting in somewhere nice. The Stanford application specifically asks you to list all the other places you're applying to, so my new concern is: are there any consequences for having too long of a list? Would I be seen as indecisive or uncommitted?

    What, in your opinion, is a reasonable number of programs to apply for? And do you have any other advice for me?

    Edited to add:

    A quick summary of my situation, in case people don't see the post I made slightly below:

    Undergrad: BS Comp E, Purdue
    GPA: 3.50
    Physics GRE: Practice tests were at 850-ish, felt very good about Nov 3 test (no scores yet)
    GRE: Taking it on Dec 6 (not worried about it, usually test well on such things)

    Undergrad Research: None. Most people in Computer Engineering didn't do such things.

    Recommendations: Two former professors (one is Assoc. Dean of EE), plus current professor.

    Extras: Took several upper-division Physics courses (intended to minor in Physics). Did OK. Currently taking grad-level classical mechanics at Davis; getting an A and often helping other students. Current professor recommends highly.
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2007
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 29, 2007 #2
    What was your undergrad class standing? Do you have good recommendation letters and research experience? What are your GRE scores?

    All of the schools you picked are very competitive programs (except maybe UC Davis if you already have California residency). You may only have a small chance of getting into them if you aren't one of the top 10% of your class. Although I know that UT Austin doesn't have very high admissions standards for American applicants but somehow their program is highly ranked.
     
  4. Nov 29, 2007 #3
    Every one of the universities you are applying to are highly respected. It is difficult for us to say what a safety school is for you without any background info.

    I was also wondering about the point of the schools asking about what other schools you are applying to. How is this information relevant to an admission commitee?

    I am applying to eight schools, BTW.
     
  5. Nov 29, 2007 #4
    Well, when you have who many people consider to be the most eminent living physicist, Steven Weinberg, that tends to push you up in the rankings no matter what your standards are for admissions for American students.

    To the OP: I think 5 is too short of a list, especially since you said fees are not an issue. I myself am applying to 9 programs, and I think my list is too short.
     
  6. Nov 29, 2007 #5

    Ben Niehoff

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    I know they are competitive schools, so maybe I could use a reality check, too.

    My GPA is 3.50. I think my recommendation letters are good, I dunno. Scores are not available yet for the November Physics GRE, but on the practice exams I was getting 840-880. I'm taking the General GRE on the 6th (I know, major crunch), but I'm not too concerned about it, as I tend to do well on such things.

    I don't have any research experience...we didn't really do such things in Computer Engineering undergrad. I do have plenty of outside learning...I've taught myself a lot of physics and math in my free time, including a bit of general relativity. I took a lot of upper-division physics courses, as I intended to get a minor in physics. I'm taking a grad-level mechanics class at UC Davis right now (we're working out of Goldstein's), and acing it.

    Austin is in the list for precisely that reason. And also because I've lived in Austin before and I like the city. I know I'm not in the absolute top, but I think I'm "pretty good-ish". Do you think I have a snowball's chance in hell of getting into some of the other programs on my list? And if not, do you have any other ideas?
     
  7. Nov 29, 2007 #6

    robphy

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    Can you clarify?
     
  8. Nov 29, 2007 #7

    Ben Niehoff

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    Robphy:

    I think that's about as clear as I can be...I know everyone is chasing after that problem, but it's what I want to do.
     
  9. Nov 29, 2007 #8

    robphy

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    Whoops missed that in your second line. Sorry.
     
  10. Nov 29, 2007 #9
    When you say your GPA is 3.5, how is that compared to other students in your program? If your school's like mine and the average is 2.5, then 3.5 is pretty good. But if the average grade is 3.0 and more than 10% of people get 4.0's,, then 3.5 isn't gonna looks so impressive to the schools you applied to.

    The caliber of schools you picked would definitely expect to see research experience if you are applying to physics. You are also applying to a very competitive field.

    I would recommend that you pick some safeties and/or take out a few of the really high-ranked ones.
     
  11. Nov 29, 2007 #10

    robphy

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    Can you name the texts of your highest-level Electromagnetism and Quantum Mechanics courses?
     
  12. Nov 29, 2007 #11

    Ben Niehoff

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    I was never told of an exact ranking, but I did engineering at Purdue, so I think the 3.5 is at least meaningful. I'm fairly sure I was in the top quartile, at least.

    I'll look at some more options. I understand the field I've chosen is very competitive...I also understand that one's opportunities to compete are in some ways constrained by what school one gets a PhD from. So it's a bit of a balancing act, as I want to get into the best school I can get into, so that it doesn't end up holding me back in the future.

    I'm pretty sure I can accomplish something meaningful if given the chance. The catch is getting a chance. If I don't get into a top school, then what are my prospects for getting to do the research I want to do?
     
  13. Nov 29, 2007 #12

    Ben Niehoff

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    For E&M we used Griffiths. I didn't take a separate QM course, although I did take a "Modern Physics" course using Tipler & Llewellyn, where we solved the hydrogen atom, plus some other things. I understand Hilbert spaces, their relation to functional analysis, why one would want to represent states as vectors in units of the square root of probability, how operators play into this, and how operators can be represented as infinite-dimensional matrices.

    Outside of classes, I've spent a lot of time studying Gravitation (MTW) on my own, plus some external sources on differential geometry. This semester I also picked up Peskin & Schroeder's QFT book, of which I can understand some of the motivations, but don't have the background to carry out calculations. I've read a bit about Dirac's equation, trying to teach myself about spinors and Lie groups, but so far I haven't had much time to focus on it.
     
  14. Nov 30, 2007 #13

    robphy

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    It might be worth mentioning your experience with Physics (since your transcript probably doesn't tell the whole story on it) in your personal statement.

    (When I applied to grad schools, I applied to 12 or so.
    Certainly take them up on offers to visit them.... Often, they'll pay for your trip.)

    You might find this (and some of its links) interesting:
    "Upcoming NRC report and other university rankings"
    incoherently-scattered.blogspot.com/2007/11/upcoming-nrc-report-and-other.html
     
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2007
  15. Nov 30, 2007 #14
    i had about the same qualification and i applied 13. I got accepted by one school. My fd had 3.9 gpa applied 21 and he got into like 2-3.
     
  16. Nov 30, 2007 #15
    Wow Ben, you and I are very similar people, you even like to use your name as a username. So similar in fact, that we are in direct competition. I don't know about a reality check, but I will describe myself since we seem quite alike.

    Everything about it, liking the West Coast, your top choices for schools, your specific field of interest high energy theory, your penchant for self-study, the cross-enjoyment of computer science, and like you I await the Nov 3rd results (phone in after December 5th) so we are at similar moments in our academic lives (I'm 21 years old).

    There are some big differences, you went to a respected tier 1 school and I went to a ho hum tier 4 school. But I did major in physics, and mathematics and philosophy as well, and my GPA is near 4.0. I have done research in quantum theory and in nonlinear time series analysis, I have strong letters of recommendation describing this with (nothing published as of yet) and other strange accomplishments like teaching courses and distributing manuscripts. I'm sure your computer skills are beyond mine, but I am proficient at using Mathematica and LaTeX in a UNIX environment.

    I envy you taking a Goldstein course, and that is the price I pay for being in the middle of nowhere, but I have read that book, along with MTW and various texts on advanced quantum mechanics. Honestly though, I am not going to make a big deal out of self-study because when you are applying to schools at this level hasn't everyone else done the same? I guess in your case some explanation is necessary to explain the change in subjects, I just don't feel comfortable rambling on about working through "Differential Manifolds and Lie Groups" without any proof.

    The reason I obsess with going to a good school is primarily because I have been isolated through this point and would like to enter a place where I feel some competition. I am not so much concerned with the name on the degree affecting my future success, and neither should you be since as you say you will do something good if given the chance, and of course you will be given the chance to work on theoretical physics where ever you go, and you have already demonstrated to yourself that it's between you and the books.

    An adviser of mine once said that "getting a degree at Harvard will help you get a position at other places like that" (my adviser got his PhD ata different ivy).

    Another difference is that I can only afford to apply to about four of the lesser expensive schools on that list. I will call for my subject GRE score on Dec 5th and if don't do well then I will apply to only one or none of the schools on that list (my quantitative general GRE was perfect, it's easy). I wish you good luck, and maybe we will end up at the same place :)

    P.S. This might be crazy but tomorrow December 1st is the Putnam Exam which is guaranteed to gain admission the school of your choice if you are among the top scores (wild shot, since it is a pure math exam). Feynman was a Putnam fellow! See if you can do a walk-in at your local university!
     
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2007
  17. Nov 30, 2007 #16

    robphy

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    What do you mean by "lesser expensive schools"?
    Low application fee? Or Low tuition?

    If you are applying to a PhD physics program, you generally won't have to worry about tuition... assuming that you are willing to work under an assistantship if you don't get a fellowship.
     
  18. Nov 30, 2007 #17
    I'm talking about application fees, and thanks for the information but I am aware that the TA/RA/F comes with a 95% tuition waiver and a decent monthly stipend --- after all we are talking about submitting applications (starting) next week. Although without much savings, money will be tight if I choose a location with a high cost of living. I will probably take out a loan, and with all the costs for tests and application fees I should have taken out a loan already, oh well.
     
  19. Dec 4, 2007 #18

    Ben Niehoff

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    OK, so here's my revised list:

    UC Berkeley
    Stanford
    UW Seattle
    UT Austin
    UCLA
    U of Chicago
    UC San Diego
    UC Santa Cruz
    U of Southern California
    UC Davis

    That makes for 10 choices. I've eliminated a few other nice places because they are in areas I don't want to live (you know, like New Jersey...). I think I've got a decent mix...I should surely get into UC Davis, and I think my chances at USC, UCLA, Santa Cruz, and Austin are decent. On the others, I'm crossing my fingers, and hoping I get into one of them, maybe.

    Does this list sound any more reasonable than the first one?

    I realize lack of undergrad research is a major negative, but I think I can write a strong statement of purpose, and my letters should be good.
     
  20. Dec 4, 2007 #19

    cristo

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    I don't think that the lack of research will be a problem, but the fact that you don't have a physics (or even a maths) degree does. You statement of purpose is going to have to be pretty damn good! I would also advise asking some physics professors to write letters of recommendation as opposed to computer engineering professors, if you haven't already thought of that. Also, as robphy says, you should write on your statement of purpose the experience with physics that you have had.

    If Stanford ask for you to give names of other institutions you have applied to, and you think you've applied to too many, then just don't tell them about some!

    Good luck!
     
  21. Dec 4, 2007 #20
    What is wrong with New Jersey? I just moved there for grad school and I like it here! It is not a crowded place as you might think. Area near Princeton and Rutgers is very green and clean.
     
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