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Programs Need Advice for Pursuing a Physics PhD Unusual Circumstances

  1. Jul 15, 2011 #1
    Hello, I am an undergraduate going into my third year working on a double major with honors in Chemical Engineering and Physics and am trying to get a feel for my prospects regarding graduate school and beyond. I only declared my physics major this last semester so all I have taken are the introductory courses in mechanics and E&M, but I will be able to finish both degrees in the next two years

    My current GPA is less than stellar at around a 3.67 or so, but I am confident that I will be able to bring it up considerably over the next two years. Additionally, due to my GPA, I have been unable to join any honor societies though I am a member of AIChE and SPS.

    I have also been doing research in the chemical engineering department since freshman year in an area that basically falls between the realms of materials, chemical engineering, and physics. This research has been done during the school year and summer between my freshman and sophomore years. I have received a SURF grant for my personal project, but have not been able to produce any publications yet. Currently, I am doing a REU at a top 20 university in condensed matter physics, but once again I am not sure a publication will result from my work. I plan to continue in the fall in my research group and may try move into some more theoretical physics based work to get a feel for what it's like. I have not decided whether to try for another REU next summer or to continue a project at my home institution.

    It also may be relevant that I am attending a large state university ranked somewhere around 100 in physics and engineering, but they do seem to have good success with students receiving graduate fellowships and getting into top tier institutions. I expect to receive an outstanding letter of recommendation from my research mentor at home, but I am not sure about my REU. The professor I was supposed to be working with has been gone the entire program, so I have been working under a postdoc. Would a letter from a postdoc have any less impact than one from a professor?

    I believe that is it for my credentials thus far, so on to the questions...
    On my current track, how do my odds look for admission to a top tier university? Currently condensed matter physics is my primary interest, but that may change as I learn more.

    At what skill level should I be able to program? I know the basic stuff like for and while loops and if statements and whatnot, but I have not taken a college level course. This will probably be something I do on my own, so I am looking for a sort of benchmark to be considered proficient for necessary scientific applications.

    Assuming I get into a good program and get a PhD, would my chemical engineering background help me in getting a job in industry? I have read on here that a lot of jobs look for engineers and that its more difficult for physicists to land these jobs despite being more than capable. Would this close the gap at all?

    Also, I have a very full schedule for the next two years and will not be able to take a class in optics, and I am relying on a modern physics course to cover particle physics, special relativity, and the "specialized topics" for the physics GRE. The course description is: Introduction to special relativity, statistical physics, quantum physics, and a survey of nuclear and particle physics. Review of thermal radiation, photon, and wave mechanics. It uses Taylor's book. Does this seem sufficient or should I pick up some books to study the additional topics? I plan to self study optics from Hecht's book. Also my thermo will be coming from chemical engineering, so I may need extra study there as well.

    Another consideration I have to take into account is that I will be married or at least engaged to someone one year behind me when graduation comes around. She knows and fully supports me going to graduate school, but this has led me to consider an extra year of undergrad which would eliminate some of my concerns by affording time for more classes and also more research. Does this seem like a good or bad idea? Just looking for opinions on admissions chances. I understand the other complications regarding her goals and ability to find work somewhere I may already be attending school.

    I think these are my only questions for now, but I am also looking for any other advice any of you might have.

    Thanks to any of you who take the time to read all of this and help me out. I greatly appreciate it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 15, 2011 #2
    A letter from a post-doc that exists is better than a letter from a hypothetical professor that doesn't.

    One thing that I find interesting is that people ask questions for things that they have no control over. One of questions you need to ask is what are your alternatives.

    1) Physics graduate schools don't work with the tier system.

    2) You've got an "average" application, which means that if you apply to a range of schools, you are likely to get in somewhere.

    Programming skill is not that useful for getting into graduate school, but it's going to be really, really, really useful for life after graduate school, but you have a few years to learn. Also programming is something that you learn by doing, and even though courses are useful, they aren't essential.

    It will help you get jobs in chemical engineering type roles, so yes.

    This is field dependent. For example, someone is hiring a hotel chef, they won't look much for Ph.D.'s as their first choice.

    It's also very economy dependent. Right now the economy is bad, but not horrific so people tend to look closely at credentials for a match. If the economy is booming (i.e. 2000), then there aren't enough people with the right credentials, and so it doesn't matter. If the economy is dead (i.e. 2008), no one is getting jobs, and people are being laid off.

    Right now it's impossible to figure out what the economy is going to be like in 2015. Heck, right now, I have no clue what the economy is going to be like on August 10.

    It seems a bit light. One thing is that it's better to go deep and do a course with lots of math on one topic, then to go shallow and do a survey course without much math.

    The important question is whether the course gives you decent exposure to linear algebra and partial differential equations.

    Extra year sounds good. It's better to do things well then fast.

    The marriage itself isn't going to be a factor in admissions (in fact I think it's illegal for it to be a factor). It will impact in obvious ways finances and career goals, but those impacts are obvious and you and she can figure them out.
  4. Jul 15, 2011 #3
    Thank you, your responses are quite helpful. In fact I have also ready your posts in other threads on this forum, and they have all been helpful.

    Is this a view that employers would take as well? When I say top tier, I mean the top universities for whatever area of research I decide that I want to pursue.

    What am I missing that might set me apart as above average? Just publications and GPA?

    That was sort of how I felt, but sadly it is a mandatory course. I probably should have mentioned that I have taken linear algebra and "Advanced Applied Math" which was basically solving PDEs by Laplace and Fourier with a little bit of Sturm-Liouville stuff thrown in. My primary concern currently is what I need to know to get a sufficient GRE score. Optics is my first priority due to the distribution and then I guess I will just grab some books from the library as I progress for the other topics.

    I agree. I was just wondering if admissions would have any view on this or if it would be irrelevant. I also have to consider that an extra year would mean loans. I will be able to finish my four years with a full scholarship but after that the funds dry up. I don't know how they would consider me for financial aid if at all assuming I had completed the chemical engineering degree.
  5. Jul 17, 2011 #4
    Provided you do raise your GPA, and you get another REU next summer, I would say your application would be above average. The physics GRE might just make or break you though. Also, if you want to do physics for a phd, why double major in chemical engineering in the first place? I think it would be better to focus on physics, if you want a physics phd. The chemical engineering may be a bonus for career options, but you will be out of practice with it for at least 5 years while you get your phd, so employers might not like that either.

    Since you are double majoring I don't think an extra year would be relevant to admissions.

    As for optics, I just took a class that was about 1/2 optics and there is another physics class for senior year that is all optics. I'm not sure if they covered all that will be on the GRE, but I think it might be hard to learn optics from a book. There are a ton of experiments that require lasers and thin films and such that are essential to learning the topic, so classroom learning can really help, just for the demonstrations. Our book wasn't too helpful because the pictures weren't that good, but it isn't the same book you have so you might be okay. I would just recommend talking to the professor who teaches optics at your school and get their opinion on self teaching it. My opinion is that optics is an awesome subject in physics, by far my favorite.

    Also for your letters of recommendation, they don't HAVE to be from your research mentors. If you get to know your professors, getting letters from them can be good too. You should find out where your professors got their phds, and consider those schools. A letter of recommendation from someone who actually went through the same program can be a nice advantage.
  6. Jul 17, 2011 #5
    My reason for the double major is that I originally wanted to go into biomedical engineering, and chemical engineering provided the best pathway to that goal at my university. After my first year however, I began to drift away from biology and started being interested in materials science. This stemmed from the fact that I have always loved physics but at the time, was ignorant of the potential for physics graduates to work outside of academia, and materials science seems like a good blend of physics and engineering. In fact, I am still considering materials for graduate school, but while I enjoy engineering, I am far more passionate about physics which has led me to reconsider.

    I had not considered the benefits of the demonstrations. I will be sure to get into contact with the professor who teaches it and get their opinion.

    This is something else that I will look into.
  7. Jul 17, 2011 #6
    Generally yes, although a lot depends on the specific employer (i.e. DE Shaw and McKinsey will care a lot about what schools you went to).

    There are two groups people you have to impress. People in HR and people with Ph.D.'s. From the point of view of HR, if you have a Ph.D., then you are Stephen Hawking to them. People with Ph.D.'s know which are the good schools, and you have enough people with Ph.D.'s from North Podunk that it won't hurt you.

    Also, the standard answer to "do employers like?" is "it depends on the employer."

    Most people are average. You can try to be above average, but statistically if you try your hardest, changes are that you'll end up average.

    Find old tests, and then practice, practice, practice.

    If they even consider it in admissions, they would be in violation of Title IX rules on educational programs receiving federal assistance.
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