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Admissions Oxford DPhil interview in Physics when your background is ridiculous

  1. Feb 16, 2017 #1
    Dear all,

    I don't know how or why but I've managed to get shortlisted for two DPhil interviews in Oxford, both of which are related to two separate projects I wish to do (one is in Quantum Electronics, the other in Computational Quantum Mechanics).

    I am to firstly talk for 10 minutes about my Master's project and then it'll be questions & answers time. The only problem is though, that while my degree is in Engineering Physics, my master work is in Systems Neuroscience (15ECTS) and Econophysics (30ECTS) and my internship experience is in biomedical optics, all which are at best tangentially related to the projects I'm interested in doing at Oxford.

    So my question is, should I try to spin my presentation so that it's more relevant for the projects I'm interested in doing, or should I just relax and focus on making a good and clear presentation?

    Thanks allot for anyone with advice!

    PS: I forgot to mention that I've 2 full years worth of coursework in Quantum Mechanics & Optics, Programming & Computational Physics and electrical engineering, so one could say I have the theoretical background for the projects, but not any related practical experience.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 16, 2017 #2


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    I think you should focus on doing a clear presentation. Later on as interest heats up then talk about your desire to focus on your areas of interest.

    The best analogy I can think of is a sports one. If you're a striker in soccer who's really good at making goals but is getting tired of all the running who would now like to be a goalie and you get an interview for a team looking for a goalie.

    What should you do?

    I'd present my strength showing how I'd fake out goalies with various tricks to score and then say what the goalie could've done to thwart your winning tactics.

    The interviewers would see that you are adept in your field and that you might have something to offer in the position you are being interviewed for.

    However wait for others to comment on this as they may have more insight or have gone through this same scenario?
  4. Feb 16, 2017 #3
    Hey Jedishfru, this is the 2nd time you tip me, thanks man!

    I get your analogy, and yeah I'll try and think about how to present myself as interested in the projects as possible.

    PS: I forgot to mention that I've over 2 full years worth of coursework in Quantum Mechanics & Optics, Programming & Computational Physics and electrical engineering, so one could say I have the theoretical background, but not so much the practical one.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2017
  5. Feb 16, 2017 #4

    jim mcnamara

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    Edward Whitten majored in History as an undergraduate - then went on into Mathematical Physics in graduate school. So it is not out of question to shift focus in Physics or any science for that matter.

    Answer: focus on what you know and what you able to do.

  6. Feb 16, 2017 #5


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    Still, we are talking about Edward Witten here, not your typical mere mortal. It is rather difficult to model one's life to such an exception.

  7. Feb 16, 2017 #6
    OK guys I decided to just present my work as clearly as I can without worrying about it being relevant or not to the DPhil projects. I figure if they invited me to an interview, they must've read my CV, understood that I don't have any practical experience in quantum mechanics research and not thought too much of it.

    Thanks for your thoughts!
  8. Feb 16, 2017 #7
    Congratulations on the interviews. I definitely agree that you should concentrate on presenting your work clearly. The most important skill for a physicist is to understand and apply the principles of the topic. If you can do that, transferring to a different field is unlikely to be an issue.

    Of course you should expect some questions in the latter part of the interview on the field you are applying for but they will probably just be probing to find out how much you know.

    I suggest coming up with a good and consistent answer to 'why are you interested in this field?' and think of any obvious questions that could arise from that reason. E.g. 'I'm interested in the novel problems quantum computing can solve.' 'OK. What problems are those and how does a quantum approach solve them?'
  9. Feb 16, 2017 #8


    Staff: Mentor

    Excellent advice. Also review your resume and be prepared for questions on projects, gaps, and knowledge.

    Have short concise answers at the ready to limit discussion.
  10. Feb 17, 2017 #9


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    Make sure YOU ask questions. They will want to make sure you are really interested in the position and the research you would potentially be doing.
    Do a bit of research, look at the webpages of the groups and have a look at some recent publications; no one will be expecting you to understand everything but you will make a much better impression if come across as genuinely interested.

    Just do double-check; the interviews are for straightforward DPhils in groups at Oxford, right? Not one of the DTCs (I don't think there is a quantum DTC in Oxford)?
    Also, are these experimental or theoretical groups (I assume the latter is theory)?
  11. Feb 17, 2017 #10
    I'll do that for sure, thanks! Would you say I only need to understand what they're doing and why I'm interested, and not necessarily any of the technicalities?

    Yes, for normal groups. The Comp QM project is in a theory/computational group, the Quantum Electronics project is in a more experimental group.
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2017
  12. Feb 19, 2017 #11
    Guys, when they ask me " Why Oxford, why here", how would it sound if I answered something like

    "Oxford is well known for its entrepreneurial climate and for having a quantum tech community that's not only among the best in the world, but also has strong ties with industry. I hope that a PhD/DPhil from here would allow me to get my foot into do the door of a very exciting community and hence open opportunities in a field I find exciting, as well as teach me skills that will be in high demand in industry. Further, I find the project both personally interesting and good career-wise, because of XYZ"


    Even though I've always enjoyed quantum physics, I'm not really keen on staying in academia, I'd much rather get into the quantum tech industry while it's still in its infancy + get a safe brandname on my CV (it's shallow, but that's how the world works). Do career-academics typically view this kind of mentality as a red flag, or they don't care as long as the work gets done on time? Neither of the professors in the committee appear to concern themselves on whether their research has commercial potential or not, from what I've read.
  13. Feb 19, 2017 #12
    I'm not sure but this doesn't seem like a great approach. First, I'm not even sure Oxford is 'well known for it's entrepreneurial climate' or if many academics there are highly aware of it. Second, talking about leaving before joining could come across as a bit presumptuous.

    I suggest just focusing on motifs like 'world class research', 'high calibre researchers' and 'exciting projects'. If you can give an example of an important publication as an example that will give you more authenticity e.g. 'I found the work x highly inspiring and I want to contribute to more of the same' . Often the primary interest of academics is 'are you going to create publishable output' because that's how they are assessed and that affects funding.
  14. Feb 19, 2017 #13
    Indeed, I'm afraid you might be right. Thanks again for your comments.

    But wouldn't you say Oxford is at least prominent in the UK in its connections with industry..?
    Oxford university start-up fund boosted by £230m ... - Financial Times
    I also heard about a soon-to-be PhD in a Physics theory group who's trying to turn the software he developed into a business.

    Hmm hopefully I'm not underestimating how easy it'd be to transfer from academia to industry..
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2017
  15. Feb 19, 2017 #14
    Yes, all the top unis have good connections with industry and the management of the Uni's love to go on about it. However it isn't always that relevant to the academics themselves, so it's risky to use that for your motivation. However everyone loves to hear how they are so intelligent and world leading!
  16. Feb 20, 2017 #15


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    Also, you wouldn't be be doing you DPhil in Oxford a such; you would be doing it in a research group and a supervisor that happens to be based in Oxford. Remember that the system in the UK is VERY different from that in the US in that you won't be going to a "school" at all (especially if you are not going the DTC route) You will be spending your whole time working in a research group and will -generally speaking- not interact much with other people at the university (professionally that is).
    Hence, what happens at the rest of the university will largely be irrelevant to your experience. Which group you are working in and who is your supervisor is much more important than the university. Hence, I would suggest focusing on why you think the GROUP (and their research) would be a good fit, rather than blanket statements about the university as a whole. It could very well be that your potential supervisor has not connections whatsoever to industry (which is VERY likely to be the case here since you are looking at the "quantum" area),
  17. Mar 6, 2017 #16
    Dear all,

    Here's the after action report, in case somebody on this forum will end up in my shoes in the future:

    1st interview on Computational Physics project in theory group based in Atomic & Laser Physics department: After the presentation, 50% of the questions were based on my presentation (which I answered well) and the other 50% were totally unrelated to both the presentation and the research project I wanted to do; they were on atomic physics & laser physics (duh). So they drilled me on Atomic Physics because I took a course 1 year ago in Quantum Optics + because the theory group I wanted to join is nominally based in the atomic & laser physics department.

    The questions I got was stuff like "What are the physical realisations of the "3" possible "spin" levels of a photon?" (trick question) and "what can you tell me about electron transition rules"? I was completely unprepared for this and couldn't remember the Quantum Optics material I learnt a year ago on the fly, since I prepared myself beforehand for questions relevant to the project (ie many-body physics, theory behind quantum mechanics, tensors), and so it went pretty badly.

    Result: The supervisor informally told me I'm likely to get only an unfunded DPhil offer, but as a consolation price he offered me a paid (research assistant salary level 6) 1-year research internship in his group (which was quite generous of him, considering my performance).

    2nd interview on Quantum Electronics/Computing Projects in a experimental group based in Materials department: After the previous nightmare-interview, I essentially spent every free evening I had reading up on the details of solid state physics, quantum information, physical working principles on quantum computers etc. When the panel interview came, I was well prepared and answered everything. The questions were stuff like "pretend I'm a 2nd year undergrad. Explain the density matrix to me" and "What is a quantum computer and how does it work?" and "Why this group, why these project" and "I see you did a research placement at X. Tell me about it". After the interview, they emailed me an electrostatics problem that "should take at most half a day to solve" along with a few scanned pages from Jackson's electrodynamics book.

    Result: Strong indicators of interests from one of the supervisors, and interest from a couple of others. Basically I'm very confident that I'll get an offer from at least one of them, but the funding situation is uncertain because I'm from the EEA => in the gray-area between "overseas" status and "home/EU" status as far as tuition is concerned. Keeping fingers crossed.
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2017
  18. Mar 25, 2017 #17
    Alright guys, so I've located funding (mix of scholarship & zero-interest loan) and am in the position to accept the DPhil offer in department of Materials, where I'll do research in Quantum Computing.

    However, as I mentioned above, I've also been accepted to a 1-year research internship. I'm thinking I should try to get the DPhil offer deferred 1 year and do the internship, as it'd be nice to earn some serious money for once and take it easy a bit before the Doctorate. Is it polite to ask for a deferral, or do you guys think the professors in charge of the DPhil are liable to get pissed if I ask for it? IMO, doing the internship would be good for both me and them, as I'd get professional training in research & software engineering and hence be better prepared for the DPhil.
  19. Mar 27, 2017 #18


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    You could always ask, but I would be surprised if he agrees.
    It is important to remember that whereas your primary goal is to get a PhD, his primary goal is to hire someone who can work in one of his projects and help him deliver projects. The mindset is important here: whereas you will technically be a student, doing a PhD is essentially a job; having a PhD student costs both a lot of time and money (even if you are self funded; there are still overheads and other costs associated with the project itself) and the only reason anyone would have a student is therefore because they need someone to work on a specific project.
    Hence, there is a pretty good chance that he needs a student NOW and not next year. Next year there might not even be a suitable project for you to work on.
  20. Mar 28, 2017 #19
    Yes, but I'm not sure if there's such a rush to do the projects. I'll get in touch once the funding situation is more clear (the scholarships are handed out in April), and then we'll see.
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