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Programs PhD at MIT, Caltech - how does that work?

  1. Jun 22, 2011 #1

    I'm interested in what a couple of researchers do at MIT and Caltech and I would love the idea of doing a PhD there (theoretical physics). But I don't really know anything about the application process for a US PhD program, so here's a list of questions:

    • How long would a PhD take (typically)? Would it be research + teaching assistant?
    • Would I typically begin by contacting the professors I am interested in? And afterwards (if they like me) go through an application process involving IELTS/TOEFL and GRE? Would I have to hand in a kind of exposé of my planned PhD project (exposé on the basis of which my application will be partly judged)?
    • How selective are PhD programs at MIT or Caltech? Can you give a comparison with e.g. Oxbridge?
    • What about finance? Suppose I get a PhD position: Could I, then, automatically afford actually doing that PhD? Or could I possibly get the position but then have to go home because I can't afford it (I don't have much money saved)?
    • When are deadlines for the PhD programs? Are application processes somewhat transparent/straightforward (again, compared, say, with Oxbridge)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 22, 2011 #2
    Answering what I can, in order

    1. A phd takes 5-7 years in the US system. If you are looking at theory work, you will almost certainly have to teach most semesters. If you are working in a more lucrative area (condensed matter studying silicon, for instance), and your advisor has enough grant money, you might be able to avoid teaching.

    2. Contacting the professors is a start, but graduate admissions is made by a committee. You will have to submit letters of recommendation (very important), a physics and general GRE, TOEFL, etc, along with a personal statement. The applications are generally due in the late fall, and decisions made in the spring.

    3. I don't know anything about the British phd systems. MIT and caltech are very competitive.

    4. If you get accepted, there will be funding that covers tuition and a small living stipend.
  4. Jun 22, 2011 #3
    But I intend to go there with a Master's degree in my possession (from Cambridge). I assume 5-7 years is a program you would start right after finishing your Bachelor's. But that's not what I am aiming at: By the time I intend to go there, I will already have a 3 years Bachelor + 1 year Master's. I would have expected doing like 3-4 years of pure research (including teaching assistance) rather than participating in compulsory lectures...

    Or do I get this wrong?
  5. Jun 22, 2011 #4
    You got it wrong. A prerequisite for almost all phd programs is a masters degree in a technical field. Then 3-5 years in engineering and probably 4-6 years in physics after that.
  6. Jun 22, 2011 #5
    How come? I know at least three European countries where PhDs in Physics take 3 years (as a standard length), sometimes extending to 4. Why "4-6" in the US?
  7. Jun 22, 2011 #6
    From what I gather it's because you usually apply straight from bachelor's, so you also cover and do stuff you would if were doing a Master's degree. This is very different from almost all other systems across the world, where the usual requirement for a PhD program is a Master's degree.
  8. Jun 23, 2011 #7
    Hmmm... Two contrary statements:

    Which one is it?
  9. Jun 23, 2011 #8


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    In the US, you can take classes for 2 years and get a Masters degree at a Masters degree granting institute. For a PhD, you still take 2 years of classes, but you just continue and do research as well after that. While you're doing your PhD, you can ask for the MS if you finish the courses; although if you're going for your PhD, it's a moot point.
  10. Jun 23, 2011 #9
    Keep in mind that a US bachelors is 4 years, so you may be coming in with similar experience to other graduate students at MIT/Cal. For what its worth, people who started my program with a masters (generally 4 year bachelor+1 or 2 year masters) spent about 5 years in the phd program, which was shorter than the 6 to 7 the rest of us took. People who were able to avoid teaching generally moved through faster.

    I took 6.5 years in total and I had started the research that lead to my thesis project as an undergrad in an REU program. Without that extra time, I probably would have taken 7. Also, at least in my program, it was very difficult to get out of compulsory classes, regardless of former experience.
  11. Jul 2, 2011 #10


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    I'm curious as to whether the 5-7 years time duration is unique to physics PhD programs in the US. The reason I ask is that I have known a number of people who completed their PhDs in math, computer science, or statistics in 4 years (in many cases after completing a Masters degree in Canada -- I am Canadian).
  12. Jul 2, 2011 #11
    Yes, but AFAIK European schools don't have general education requirements that tend to take up the first year of American bachelors degrees.
  13. Jul 2, 2011 #12
    Yeah, they don't, and prior to the Bologna reform bachelors degrees across Europe also used to take four years (some still do, and of course in countries not affected by the said reform, they're also still sticking to the systems they themselves designed).
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