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Need advice on where my priorities should be to best ensure graduate admission.

  1. Jan 27, 2012 #1
    I am currently a freshman at the University of Houston as a Physics and Mathematics double major. From what I understand, UH isn't the most reputable university; however, I am dead set on doing whatever it takes to get into a top graduate school for anything Math or Physics related.

    My academic progress in college, so far, has gone as such:

    Prior to Fall 2011: Did relatively poorly in high school, But I got 5's on BC Calculus, both Physics C exams, Chemistry, and most of my core courses.

    Fall 2011: I got A's in Calc 3, University Physics Labs 1&2, Intro to Linear Algebra, and a B- in political science (ick!). I also was a private tutor for University Physics and Calculus 1-2.

    Spring 2012: I'm taking Differential Equations, Advanced Linear Algebra 1, Intermediate Analysis, and Modern Physics 1. I am also currently an Assistant Facilitator for a University Physics 1 Workshop. I am looking at a few research opportunities right now, but have yet to start.

    My current GPA is a 3.7, and my math-science GPA is a 4.0.

    Now, my inquiry is this: What exactly are good graduate schools expecting of their applicants, especially coming from a school like UH? Am I on the right track or are my priorities inconsistent with what is generally desirable?

    Any advice or validation I can get would be greatly appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 28, 2012 #2
    First of all, don't sell your school short. The undergraduate physics curriculum is pretty standard, and so it's likely that you'll learn at UH is more or less what you'll learn everywhere else.

    The main missing thing is undergraduate research. This is useful:

    a) because you may discover that you hate physics research in which case you have time to do something else
    b) so that you have something to talk about on your statement of purpose
    c) so that you have people to write good recommendation letters for you

    The other thing is to find some field of physics that you like doing. Also, don't obsess too much about getting into a "top school" you'll be doing well if you get in anywhere.

    Also, I'd recommend taking lots of courses in the humanities. It won't help you get into graduate school, but it's useful for life after graduate school. A few courses in things other than physics won't hurt so that you see some of the alternatives.

    One question. What's your plans after graduate school? One thing that you have to realize is that it's almost certain that you won't get a research professorship, and the more quickly you realize that, the better off you will be.
  4. Jan 28, 2012 #3
    I haven't even begun thinking about what I want to do after graduate school. I just know that I greatly enjoy learning about the universe; physics and math are just what seem to be the best medium for accomplishing that. But as you intimated, I might have the idealized notion of eventually getting a professorship. So maybe I should start looking further in the long term. Thank you.
  5. Jan 28, 2012 #4


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    test scores do not give a complete picture of a person's ability. It helps if some professor can say confidently that you have research capability. This will be based usually on your class responses or office visits or research experience under their supervision. I.e. get to know someone and let them get to know your ability.
  6. Jan 29, 2012 #5

    king vitamin

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    I actually have a friend who went to UH and currently is a grad student at Cornell, so it's certainly achievable to get into a top school. I know UH has some really strong faculty.

    I would say you should continue stressing making high grades (especially in physics/math). Since you've gotten so far ahead from AP tests, I would guess that you should be able to have time in your later years to spend a lot of time on research and maybe take/audit graduate courses. Also, study hard for the GRE, maybe try taking it earlier than senior year. I'm not sure how important it is for math programs, but in physics they really take it into consideration.

    To second what people have been saying about recommendations/research, I'm a senior currently waiting to hear back from grad schools, and I don't have any publications yet (my first will be ready in a month or so). However, I've already received strong offers from some good universities, and I was told that the letter from my advisor was very strong. I get the sense that my application was tipped into a higher pool by his letter.

    If you want even more quantitative answers, take a look at this webpage: http://www.physicsgre.com/viewforum.php?f=3 where they have application results for students for the past several years.
  7. Jan 29, 2012 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    UH has some very good people. Rene Beleweid just moved there - if you asked people to write down the names of the ten best people in relativistic heavy ion physics, his name would be on every list.
  8. Jan 30, 2012 #7
    I didn't mean to completely shoot down UH. It's been growing rapidly in the past few years and all of that, and the opportunity for undergraduate research is abundant. It just seemed like next to my high school classmates going to Caltech, MIT, Rice, etc. I felt like I was a little worse off. But I am glad that it isn't the largest criterion in acceptance to graduate school- If I can work hard and have a shot at getting in somewhere great, I'm satisfied.

    Thank you all for your tips and advice. I will start doing research as soon as possible.
  9. Jan 30, 2012 #8
    Zjgarvey1, I don't think you need to worry at all about a 3.7/4.0 GPA- it is still exceptional. The average GPAs of students admitted to grad schools are listed at college websites usually under 'Common Data' or 'Facts'.

    I believe the average GPA of admitted students for PhDs at Stanford last year was 3.7. Among my friends and I who are seniors waiting to hear from grad school admissions, we have so far seen acceptances come from MIT, UCSB, Yale, U Washington, U Penn,Michigan and Cornell. Cal Tech does not admit directly but invites their top applicants to their Visitor's Day, and Princeton did interviews and we are seeing invitatons for these coming too. (Harvards' Physics decisions don't appear to have gone out yet.)

    In general acceptances from top tier schools are coming to the students with
    -GPAs that are 3.60-4.0.
    -Profs that know them (and generously write our letters of reference)
    -Near perfect standardized test scores. (800 in Math is easy, Physics 760 seems do-able, too, but 800 seems near-impossible)
    -Extensive research usually in the specific area we have applied to do research in
    -A clean and well thought out Personal Statement (Use friends, an advisor or college career centre to proof read for you- everyone needs a second set of eyes). Some admissions offices say that this is the first thing they read in an application packet because they know every applicant has strong marks, test scores and so forth. Start it early and revise, revise. (This is a book-length topic.)
    -Maturity- this comes across in many ways such as having a clear understanding of the field you are applying to, study or work abroad, internships, a sense of what you want to do in your life
    -We have all TAed a lot; your work as an assistant facilitator is fantastic
    -We have all taken graduate level courses, often more than half a dozen- we think these probably show that we can pass comprehensive exams, push ourselves, enjoy academic rigour and really learn about the area we are focussed on
    -Assume leadership roles in groups- perhaps this shows maturity, too. Schools say co-currics don't matter on grad applications, but perhaps because there are so many top-notch applications, this tips the scale. They demonstratre many things about an individual. The profs at our school put many, many hours into review of grad school applications. Students who sit on these committes maintian confidentiaality about the process but say that the profs look and think about everything on them.
    -particpation in conferences and presentations. These are great because you meet interesting people and learn what areas of research excite you. Students from different schools seem to be diffent too, so you may find your personality matches some schools better than others.
    -Publications- very hard to get as an undergrad but it's a unique process because you are publishing in journals as a group and this takes meeting and discussions.

    Rice is an excellent, top-tier program, I don't think you will find it disadvangtages you at all in grad applications- studnets at Rice enjoy the same advantages as the top 3 schools in terms of undergrad research opportunites, strong profs, extensive curriculumn, support by mentors... In later years you will get to know more senior students and you'll see they are going to top tier grad schools. (The top 10% of the grad class like for other shcools.)

    Everyone who has been accepted to the top tier schools is truely passionate about what they do just like you sound to be. In school, just take each year as it comes, all the things just naturally fall into place when you love what you are doing. I wasn't thinking about grad school until my senior year but I loved being a TA, taking more advanced and specialized courses, getting involved in labs and conferences and so forth- when you find your niche, it all seems to sort of happen.

    For way in the future, perhaps get standardized tests done early (reduces stress in the final run up to applications) then try to apply to grad school early in your senior year. Avery few applicangts are accepted to PhD programs in November even if the schools' deadline for applications isn't until Dec or Jan. (Then prepare to be mega-stressed for admission decision time because sometimes decisions seem very random- my friend got into MIT but not UCSD.)
    You sound dedicated, focussed and brilliant which is what grad schools appear to want. Perhaps think about the things listed above as you make some choices over the next few years. Enjoy the time in your program, too. There is so much fascinating research being done; you'll love it when you get involved with it.
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2012
  10. Jan 30, 2012 #9
    That was a very helpful breakdown; thank you, snowstorm. I think I now have a solid idea of what is expected of me and where I should set my goals. It is an appreciably long list of criterion, but I suppose that it can be a good thing if I aim to be more prepared than the average applicant. Thank you all for your feedback- it is definitely a huge mess trying to figure everything out right away. The more information I get, the more I feel prepared for the future.
  11. Jan 31, 2012 #10
    One piece of early advice.

    The fact that everyone that gets admitted is "passionate" is precisely why you should never, never, never use the word "passion" in a personal statement. Also never talk about your childhood in a personal statement. Yes I know you have been fascinated about the stars since an early age, but so is everyone else applying. Avoid talking about your emotional characteristics since you aren't going to win on that front. Yes I know you are a hard worker, but that comes out in the rest of the application.

    Some things that helps you with being stressed

    1) don't count on going to a particular school

    2) it's a stochastic process for a particular school. The good news is that you will be applying to six to eight, and if you don't make it into *any* school, then graduate school wasn't for you anyway.

    3) it's not as if you are guaranteed a job after getting your Ph.D.

    One reason for thinking about life after graduate school is that things that help you in graduate school (like extreme focus) can hurt you later in life. It's not something to dwell on, but you need to keep it in the back of your mind.
  12. Jan 31, 2012 #11
    I know this feeling far too well, I'm the only one of my friends who isn't going to a "top 10 school" (Okay, a few go to "top 25 schools," whatever)

    I've taken advantage of where I am though, hopefully you can make yourself standout where you are. I got really interesting research for this semester, so as others have suggested, try and find interesting research within your department!
  13. Jan 31, 2012 #12
    I'm definitely bookmarking this thread for that comment. There are so many dumb things I could waste space on in an application, this is a great reminder not to.
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