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Is this an appropriate list of Grad schools for me?

  1. Nov 6, 2014 #1
    So I'm looking for opinions on the list of grad schools I'm looking to apply for. I am not sure if I am applying to too many "reach" schools or not.
    I am interested in doing plasma physics, most likely experiment and computation, but theory isn't completely out of the question either.

    First, some stats about my application:
    (I am a Canadian non-minority male)

    Physics GRE: 830 (76th percentile)
    GRE Quant: 165 (90th percentile)
    GRE Verbal: 157 (78th percentile)
    GRE Writing: 3.5 (38th percentile) :s

    GPA 3.65 (If you don't look at my 1st year grades, I have a 3.98)
    Physics GPA 3.83 (again, only because of first year physics)

    Research experience in condensed matter experiment (I got a 2nd author publication out of this, I did all of the experimental work) and high energy experiment. I have two great references from these.

    I am doing a 4th year supervised study in plasma/space physics right now. I will ask for my 3rd letter from my supervisor soon.

    This is my list of schools:
    -Princeton (Plasma Department - separate from Physics) = "reach"
    -Berkeley = "reach"
    -UCLA = "reach"
    -UC San Diego = "good fit"?
    -Cornell Applied Physics = "good fit"?
    -UC Irvine = "good fit"?
    -U.Colorado Boulder = "good fit"?
    -Maryland College Park = "safety"?
    -Dartmouth = "safety"?

    So what do you think, PF?
    Are these schools really "good fits" and "safeties" ? Should I switch some out for more safeties? (please recommend some if you have ideas:) ) Take note that I am an international applicant, which would likely make it harder for me to get in.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 7, 2014 #2
  4. Nov 11, 2014 #3
    What do you dislike about Wisconsin or Florida?
  5. Nov 12, 2014 #4
    I was considering Wisconsin for awhile, but I can't see myself living there for 6 years. One thing all of the schools I listed have in common is that I like their location as well as the potential research projects. Wisconsin is a decent school and indeed has good plasma research, but I couldn't justify replacing one of my listed 9 schools for it. I can't really afford to apply to an additional school either, unless you think I should add more safeties?

    I remember checking out Florida's department near the beginning of my school hunt, but wasn't impressed too much. It seems like it would be a safety school for me, and I wouldn't apply unless I had low confidence in my other applications. If you think otherwise please let me know.
  6. Nov 13, 2014 #5


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    You can't really call an Ivy a safety...
  7. Nov 13, 2014 #6
    It is true that Dartmouth is the easiest of the Ivies to get into for a physics PhD, even for plasma. It's definitely not a reach either. But, as much as you would like to call it a safety, there is no such thing as a safety (in the undergraduate or legal sense) as far as PhD apps are concerned.

    Of course some schools can tuft students (i.e. reject them because they're overqualified) but one has to dip really low in the rankings for that.
  8. Nov 13, 2014 #7
    Why are there no schools which would rank in the 50's, 40's, 30's, or 20's on this list (at least I don't think there are). Liking your adviser and finding an adviser who does exactly what you want, not to mention finding a program where the adviser has funding, vastly overrides the name of the school. In fact, it makes the name of the school completely irrelevant.

    For instance, I am applying to the University of Chicago, which is I think #1 in my field of interest, but my top choice is the University of Pittsburgh because the work I want to do is happening with several faculty there, whereas there are fewer faculty doing what I want or who I'd want to work with at Chicago (the guys who do exactly what I want at Chicago are not good people to work with personality wise from everything I've heard about them).

    EDIT: To make this a bit clearer, look at the CV's of faculty at say, Princeton. You'll find that many of them were associate professors at less prestigious institutions during their career. Princeton's faculty of tomorrow are currently assistant professors at a less well known institution today. What's the difference between working with a great professor at Less Known University who has the skill to be faculty at Well Known University later and getting local fellowships because you're a great student (and from your stats you seem to be)? Indeed, filling the list with mostly obtainable institutions with good faculty would give you a significantly larger pool of advisers to choose from than if you just target top schools, since it is very unlikely that you will get into all of the top schools.

    Even more importantly, since your odds of becoming a professor are next to nil, and since there appears to be no evidence that your career opportunities outside academia significantly change depending upon graduate institution, wouldn't it be better to work on exactly what you want?
  9. Nov 14, 2014 #8
    I agree completely! I didn't just choose the top 9 schools in my program, I have done extensive research on the faculty at most schools with plasma groups and I have already contacted the groups that I am interested in. You are correct that all of these schools are "name brand" in a way. I actually count this as a hindrance. I wish that the groups I was really interested in belonged to less popular schools as to make acceptance easier. Wisconsin is an example of a school that I would probably say is my 10th option, and it's a "coincidence" that it's easier to get into than my listed 9 before it.

    One of my measures for choosing which schools to apply to of course includes my chances of acceptance, so if it is of opinion that these 9 schools will all be fairly hard to get into, I will swap some out for a "lesser" school.
  10. Nov 14, 2014 #9


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    Don't apply to Dartmouth. It's just not a renowned program. No one mentioned it to me or any of my friends when we applied to grad school. I would add MIT and UT Austin. It looks like you have quite good research experience. If you also have very good letters, that will make you very competitive for the top schools.

    I do think there are such things as safeties in grad school admissions for strong applicants. As a theorist, I had two, both panned out and offered me extra money for being an outstanding applicant (which is basically proof they were safeties). I know many other students who had schools they classified as backups. You should talk to your professors about safeties since they know a lot about the intricacies of the application process. They may also be able to recommend a school where they know people since it is very helpful when professors know your recommenders.

    I disagree that prestige does not matter for several reasons:
    1. Name recognition is important to some extent in academia and especially if you leave physics
    2. Prestigious places are likely to have more funding
    3. There is a huge array of research in all subfields being done at the top schools and it's hard to imagine except in very specific cases, that you won't have someone you want to work for.
    4. If you change interests, which happens a fair amount, it's safer to be at a place that has a strong program overall.
    5. In grad school, you learn a tremendous amount from your peers. The quality of grad students is definitely higher at top schools. I would say there is even a pronounced difference going from top 20 to top 10.
  11. Nov 14, 2014 #10
    Dartmouth may have the prestige of an Ivy but is otherwise a program overlooked by many.

    However, if you're dead-set on plasma, that's the one that should be replaced by Wisconsin. Dartmouth's plasma offerings are more space-focused...
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