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Ohio State vs. WUSTL vs. Notre Dame for particle cosmology theory?

  1. Oct 8, 2014 #1
    First off, my supervisor has connections at both, albeit under different forms: my supervisor postdocked at Ohio State, while he personally knows a professor at WUSTL and another research collaborator I worked with and that writes me a LOR knows another professor at WUSTL (connections at WUSTL: Alford and Bender respectively). As for Notre Dame, Mathews seemed to be enthusiastic about me and my interest in very early universe (inflation more precisely).

    An article is under preparation (I spent ~1 year on that theoretical particle cosmology project), although probably not submitted on time for applications. For now, though, here is my file, as an international student (not attending a school in China or India) 3.67 cumulative undergraduate GPA (physics GPA: 3.84), 3.80 graduate GPA, V162, Q167, AW4.0, 910 on the physics GRE.

    So here's my question: would you recommend Ohio State (astro dept because it's the better particle cosmology fit) Notre Dame or WUSTL (although Alford claims to do lattice QCD, he really does quite a bit of things in HEP-TH, including particle cosmology problems) because my budget is stretched to the limit and I think I cannot afford to apply to more than 11.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 9, 2014 #2
    OSU is a great school and astro particle stuff is done in both the astronomy and physics departments, and they recently added some faculty that do astro/physics stuff. There is also a cross-departmental astro supergroup or center. I'd say research both departments: astronomy and physics.
  4. Oct 9, 2014 #3
    Notre Dame seems to be more enthusiastic about me than Ohio State astro, yet, for some reason, I was advised to apply to WUSTL by one of my research-based recommenders.

    Because I am the first from my undergrad to apply to either WUSTL or Notre Dame (if Ohio State is axed), my recommenders are seemingly using me to get my undergrad's name out there, especially since my current application contains some schools no one applied to before from my physics dept; I know for sure no one applied at CMU, UPenn, Tufts, Vanderbilt, Dartmouth (not sure about Columbia, Minnesota) and, if applying to either, WUSTL or Notre Dame (not sure about Ohio State).

    Notre Dame: Grant Mathews, Adam Martin
    WUSTL: Mark Alford, Francesc Ferrer

    Which combo of POIs would be the more adviseable one (as far as particle cosmology is concerned; here, think of all the particle physics problems that arise in cosmology)
  5. Oct 15, 2014 #4
    But is WUSTL or Notre Dame even realistic for particle theory?

    Undergraduate GPA: 3.67 (in undergrad), 3.75 (physics coursework), 3.57 (math coursework and major), 3.84 (physics major)
    Graduate GPA: 3.80
    PGRE: 910 (86%ile)
    Research experience: 1 year in a theoretical particle cosmology project, no publications

    My professors told me that, since I'm an international applicant, I'd be better off considering private schools before resorting to public schools, hence why I axed Ohio State (and Vanderbilt, much to my chagrin) so I can have WUSTL and Notre Dame.
  6. Oct 15, 2014 #5
    You have a pretty strong application, I wouldn't sell myself short if I were you.
  7. Oct 15, 2014 #6
    My research-based recommenders (2) told me that the most critical schools to have on a list were the non-reaches, because the grad school admissions process becomes unpredictable for international applicants when one isn't a top applicant (e.g. 3.8+, 900+ PGRE, publications and/or years of research experience) and, given the expense, a shutout would be painful to bear.

    I'm set on the reach side: Princeton, UChicago, Columbia, UPenn, Michigan.

    And, to top that off on the non-reach side: Carnegie Mellon, Minnesota, Tufts, Dartmouth.
  8. Nov 29, 2014 #7
    But is this list realistic? For the credentials, look at the top of the page...

    Keep in mind that I am an international student and, for WUSTL, any effect that might arise from the Ferguson riots...

    Carnegie Mellon
    Notre Dame
  9. Nov 29, 2014 #8
    I think you have a good list! Good luck with applications
  10. Dec 1, 2014 #9
    Looks like a good mix of schools, you will probably get into more than one of them. Do you know for sure that there are ~3 advisers you'd like to work with at each institution? The rule of them is that, given three advisers, one will have no funding, you won't like the other, and you'll want to work with the remaining one :)
  11. Mar 1, 2015 #10
    On one hand I got into Minnesota and Notre Dame, while being waitlisted at WUSTL and Carnegie Mellon. Rejections from Princeton, UChicago, Michigan (didn't expect much from these three) and Dartmouth (the small department size didn't help at all)

    On the other hand I would perhaps consider this cycle an horrendous failure if I don't get into UPenn or Columbia because some jobs (research and non-research, although I'd suspect they'd most likely be non-research jobs) will be forever out of reach if I do not transfer to Ivies from there, and that I've kept an open mind about working non-research jobs after graduation.

    But I wish to know if there are more non-research jobs that would be obtainable with a physics PhD and would favor an Ivy League PhD over a non-Ivy PhD (even Notre Dame), other than business consulting, some quant jobs and investment/international banking (even in tech roles).

    Maybe right or wrong, but I predict that, in 5-7 years' time the job market will become more elitist than it currently is and hence the premium of attending elite schools will increase.
  12. Mar 1, 2015 #11
    There are plenty of jobs for people with PhD's outside the ivy leagues, and to see this, all you need to to is ask about the alumni of professors at non-ivy schools. I know a very large network of alumni who have high paying, sometimes even prestigious jobs with their non-elite physics PhD's, and this is driven by the fact that there is screaming demand for people with technical PhD's, where the absolute opposite of what you predict at the bottom of this post is what the future holds.

    Heck I found a physics professor at Harvard with a PhD from Notre Dame not long ago! The root problem is really how hard you work. I visited OSU last week and talked to a chemistry faculty member there since I was interested in working with him. I asked about his alumni. Half of them are professors! Describing these individuals personally, it turned out that one of them was able to churn out 8 first author publications and 4 other publications during his PhD. So if you work hard at I've Never Heard of It State University, you'll be fine. The typical OSU student probably doesn't even touch 12 publications in their PhD which is why fewer of them are to be found in fancy posts as professors.
  13. Mar 1, 2015 #12
    The main, or perhaps only, reason why I would even think about the job market becoming more elitist is because I would predict additional outsourcing of jobs that require or prefer a PhD in a technical field.

    Another question: is there any correlation between happiness of students in a PhD program and its prestige?
  14. Mar 1, 2015 #13
    Well if degree inflation gets that severe in the next 5-7 years we might just have more to worry about than PhD programs getting outsourced.

    Hm, I don't know. I'll just guess that it doesn't, or it only slightly does. There are probably more hardcore, aggressive PI's at a prestigious program then a non-prestigious one, but at the end of the day if you are a physics professor you're probably pretty hardcore and aggressive even if you're not working at MIT, so the end result is that your professor will still try to work you to the bone even if you're at OSU. It really would depend more on "who" than "where".
  15. Mar 1, 2015 #14
    I am faced with this choice now that realize that transferring is perhaps a foolhardy move at best. Here are the alternatives:

    Should I just forgo attending a PhD program if I don't get into UPenn or Columbia this year (knowing that I didn't get into UChicago or Princeton), and then work to the bone for a paper, and apply again next year to top-10/20 schools if that paper materializes?

    Or I should just attend Minnesota (or Carnegie Mellon if I make it off the waitlist) and be unhappy for years, or perhaps even my whole life (that is, if my then-workplace doesn't somehow give an opportunity to make up for this failure to attend an Ivy League school at the PhD level, most likely under the guise of a MBA)?
  16. Mar 3, 2015 #15


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    The benefits of attending an elite program are mainly having more connections, more resources and funding, and being surrounded by many of the top physics students in the world (there is a difference in accomplishments and motivation that I saw even going from top twenty to top ten). Physics is a very incestuous field, in my subfield I keep hearing the same names over and over again. If you are in an elite program, you probably have access to all of them through your advisor and other connections. Additionally, this is very beneficial for recommendation letters. You are more likely to get a letter from a famous professor at a top school, and these letters are taken more seriously.

    Of course you can be successful not having attended one of these schools, but doing so will give you a significant advantage. Take a look at the professors at top 10 or even top 20-30 programs. The significant majority went to top 10 schools.

    I don't know why you keep mentioning Ivy League schools. Many of the top programs are not at Ivy League universities. You are completely forgetting about the UCs, Illinois, MIT, Caltech, Stanford and Chicago. In fact, Ivies only make up 6 of the top 20 programs and 3 of the top ten programs.

    Regarding happiness at top programs, I feel that many have a very unfair reputation which is about 15 years out of date. Take for example, MIT, Harvard, and Chicago. The departments have changed quite a bit in how they handle grad students and have developed support systems to promote their personal wellbeing. They realize that for students to be the most successful, it's important that students take care of themselves and are able to relax and recharge when overwhelmed. I know a lot of students at these three schools in particular (one of them is my program and I have at least ten friends at the others).

    I also feel that the professors are viewed unfairly. Most of them care a lot about their students. Even though many tend to be a bit hands off, this is actually a good thing as it allows you to develop independence and gives you more freedom. Most professots are absolutely willing to help you if you are assertive and reach out to them.
  17. Mar 3, 2015 #16
    Because I feel a degree from an Ivy League school (or MIT, Caltech, Stanford, UChicago, Berkeley or Duke, maybe Vanderbilt but I am not sure about Vanderbilt; together, with the Ivies, they form my List of Happiness), would help me transition out of research more easily or otherwise ensure a smoother transition should I feel the need to get out of research after graduation, than I would with a degree from, say, Minnesota, because I feel that, not only I feel that these 14 (or 15; maybe 16 if Vanderbilt is on that list, and I then know for sure I want to work an IT/CS job, in which case I may as well add Carnegie Mellon) schools would make it easier to gain the skillsets required to transition out of research (albeit as a by-product), but, of course, other top-10/20 or perhaps even top-30 programs can supply them; on the 14 schools I listed as part of the List of Happiness (that is, Ivies+ in the strictest definition I gave), only 1 lie outside the top-30, Dartmouth, while the next two lowest-ranked on that list, Brown and Duke, lie just shy of #30 (the two "maybe" schools on my List of Happiness lie between Brown/Duke and Dartmouth except that, in particle cosmology, Carnegie Mellon is a decent department), their overall name brands are associated with alumni networks that will help quite a bit in a non-research job search.

    Oh, of course, the skillset actually gained from a PhD is very project-dependent.

    My professors warned me time and time again that, for even the best graduate students there are, being capable to continue in research after graduation is not guaranteed to anyone. IMO I do well to consider such a warning when considering why I want a PhD and what I want to get out of it.

    UChicago phased out quals due to health concerns, effective 2014; they claimed that quals gave stress to students to the point they became sick. In the words of a student in the first qual-free class at UChicago, "I can safely say that not having the menace of these exams in the future is a heavy load off my chest" Removing quals may have made students happier for the first year but whether it will actually make UChicago a happier place later in the program remains to be seen.

    I knew that graduate school was stressful in its own right, even with a caring professor for an advisor (regardless of how hands-on/off that prof might be towards a student). To my eyes, the uncaring professors were a minority.
  18. Mar 3, 2015 #17


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    I know UChicago phased out quals, one of my closest friends goes there. They still have a course placement exam but from what I've heard it doesn't seem like it was that bad. However, even when I visited Chicago last year the grad students seemed pretty happy. MIT still has brutal quals (they got rid of the first one but that just makes the second more stressful) students seem to be happy for the most part.

    I don't see why having a PhD in physics from say Illinois, Michigan or UCSB (both top ten programs) would not be just as impressive as having a PhD from say Cornell and definitely more so than Brown. Even though they are state schools, it is quite well known that they have top notch programs in the physical sciences and are among the top research universities in the world. Illinois' engineering school is on par with places like Caltech, MIT, Stanford, and Berkeley.
  19. Mar 3, 2015 #18
    Given a few good papers (~4-6), a talk or two at international conferences or workshops, I'd gladly do a postdoc at any one of UIUC, UCSB or Michigan.

    For, as impressive a physics PhD from UIUC, UCSB or Michigan might be, I feel like the transition out of research might be a little rough if it proved to be necessary, and I tried to do so at home, where a PhD from Duke, Brown or Dartmouth will very likely get a non-research job over a PhD from UIUC, UCSB or Michigan, given the same skillset (even though from a purely physical standpoint, Duke, Brown or Dartmouth are just not on the same level).

    A PhD from UIUC, UCSB or Michigan would be just fine if I stayed in research though.

    Maybe I could aim for any of the 14 schools I listed for a postdoc instead...
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2015
  20. Mar 4, 2015 #19


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    I highly doubt a PhD in the sciences from Brown or Dartmouth would be preferred on any level over these universities. Michigan is one of the best universities in the world. It is consistently ranked in the top 20 if not higher. The last nobel prize winner is from UCSB. Everyone knows these universities, especially Michigan. Dartmouth and Brown are primarily known for their undergrad programs, especially Dartmouth. Brown is known for humanities disciplines, not science.

    In fact, I doubt Brown or Dartmouth have nearly as strong of an international reputation as you assume. When people think of the Ivy League, they think of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton and then Columbia, Penn, and Cornell. As someone who has attended (currently enrolled in one) two Ivy League universities, I think I have a pretty well informed opinion. I also have many close friends who or currently at or have graduated from institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Duke, Caltech, Cornell. In fact, except for Notre Dame and Tufts, I have either a good friend, friend/acquaintance (with whom I have spent a considerable amount of time), or family member who have graduated from or are currently enrolled at each of the universities on your list.
  21. Mar 4, 2015 #20
    I'm talking about my home country specifically when it comes to who has the better reputation (and it has no bearing on how reputed these schools are anywhere else in the world, really) because I'd best consider returning home after my PhD since I will be doing it under a F-1 visa. Out of the 14 schools I listed, the least reputed at home is clearly UPenn (unless one works in international commerce, in which case UPenn Wharton will be a household name); even Brown and Dartmouth enjoy better all-around reputations at home than UPenn, UIUC, UCLA/SD/SB or Michigan.

    But UIUC, UCLA/SD/SB and Michigan are just a little below UPenn in the pecking order at home, and treated the same as WUSTL, Notre Dame, CMU, Vanderbilt and Tufts (i.e. just a little better than my undergrad, and where the advantage of attending one of these, as far as getting a job at home is concerned, is dependent on whether international mobility is an asset for the job or not)

    And Notre Dame is best known at home for football or as a place to go to if you want to become a Catholic pastor, Tufts as a place to go to for dentistry. As for WUSTL, it will primarily, if not solely, be known in biomedical circles, and likewise for CMU in IT/CS.

    So how does Minnesota (my current decision unless Carnegie Mellon, UPenn or Columbia admits me) stack up, physics-wise?
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