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Admissions PhD in theoretical physics at “prestigious” university

  1. Jan 12, 2017 #1
    Hi! I want to (eventually) do PhD in theoretical physics, and although universities like MIT, Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, etc. are incredibly competitive, I was wondering if being self-funded student makes things any easier?

    My current situation is following:

    I am nearly 29 years-old student in final year of a degree similar to physics. I am considered “high-achiever” by my university, I have won a number of awards, industry internships, I have teaching experience (tutoring physics at high-school level) and nearly everyone in the department knows my name. Once I graduate, there is a strong chance that I will score a high-paying job in industry. After I have slaved away worked several years, paid off student debt and ensured my family is financially well, I plan to do a PhD in theoretical physics. Now, my question is, if I don’t have a scholarship but, say, happen to have $200 000 in my pocket, what are the odds of getting accepted into those top schools?

    Couple of things I should also mention:

    1. While I’m working full-time, I plan to slowly (one course per semester) cover certain subjects I am missing that are expected of physics graduates, through accredited postgraduate qualification at local university. That should take 2-3 years, and will help “bridging” into physics graduate school I end up applying for.

    2. I don’t live in US.

    3. I don’t know much about how PhD funding works, so please excuse my ignorance. Also, I apologise if I appear to be bragging, that was not my intention.

    Thanks in advance!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 12, 2017 #2
    The thing about grad school is that time is just as valuable as money. So while you may be self-funded, professors will still need to take time out of their day to train you, help you, work with you to get a PhD (a highly non-negligible amount of time). For this reason, you will still need to stand out from other applicants to get in. You may have good grades and and teaching/industry experience, but what sort of research experience do you have? It will be difficult to get into a top school (especially as an international student) for theoretical physics without having theoretical research experience.

    In addition, I think you're underestimating the cost of a PhD. At the university where I currently attend grad school, tuition is about $35,000, and you must pay tuition even if you are not taking courses while you complete your PhD. I'm not sure about Oxford or Cambridge, but it is not unreasonable to say that you will need around $30,000 to live comfortably in Boston. Say your PhD takes about six years (which is average, I believe) - the cost of a PhD (just for tuition and stipend alone) is around $390,000. And that is not including the cost of doing research, which is lower for theoretical physics than experimental, but you will likely still need computational resources which may not be cheap.

    TLDR - Even if self-funded, you still have to meet the standards for admission to get in.
     
  4. Jan 12, 2017 #3
    Thank you for your answer. Wow, I didn't realise the cost was that high. I think I may have miscalculated because US system has masters and PhD merged together into one program, right?

    Regarding research experience, I read that you don't need masters degree (=research experience) in order to get into a PhD program at US universities? Would having MS degree make PhD program shorter?
     
  5. Jan 12, 2017 #4

    ZapperZ

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    Maybe you should start by reading this:

    https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/so-you-want-to-be-a-physicist.240792/

    Zz.
     
  6. Jan 12, 2017 #5

    radium

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    I have never heard of any instances of Harvard or MIT taking self-funded students. Professors have more than enough students to choose from who were admitted through the standard process.
     
  7. Jan 12, 2017 #6
    First of all – you, sir, are a legend! I read the whole thing couple of weeks ago, it is in the hyperlink I posted above. Thank you for taking time to write all those articles, I found them very helpful! I now know more about physics education, the “pillars of physics”, and textbooks that cover these well. I currently spend most of my free time self-studying by covering the required maths first before getting into physics (as you recommended somewhere), using Boa and Hassani textbooks.

    Anyway, on-topic; in article regarding US graduate school system I read that you do not need MSc in order to do PhD. However, do you know if international students that do have MSc have the duration of their PhD reduced? Or do they also take 6 years as those with only BSc?

    I suspected that would be the case. Thank you.
     
  8. Jan 12, 2017 #7

    ZapperZ

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    It depends on the school you are applying to, and it also depends on the school that granted your M.Sc. There are schools that will accept courses you had taken at the M.Sc. level for transfer credit, i.e. they will give you credit towards your PhD, but others won't. So there is no way to determine this without knowing the specifics.

    Zz.
     
  9. Jan 12, 2017 #8
    Got it. Thanks.
     
  10. Jan 12, 2017 #9
    Is it really worth it to spend that much money and time, just to have Oxford or Stanford next to your name?

    Would be easier to pay off your student debt with the money you earn from your PhD job.

    This is how funding works. Primary investigators write research proposals. When they get awarded funding, they have money to pay for a PhD position. They hire an MSc graduate that meets their requirements.

    Is theoretical physics really that extreme?

    And being in industry for years, doesn't that disqualify you from any PhD position with a lot of competition? Especially in the case where in theoretical physics there isn't really any overlap.
     
  11. Jan 12, 2017 #10

    ZapperZ

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    I suggest that you stick to the topic of the thread. I can easily go off on a tangent and talk about the "employability" of theoreticians, but that isn't what the OP is asking for. Being given an unsolicited advice on something that one didn't ask for is often unwelcomed.

    Zz.
     
  12. Jan 12, 2017 #11
    Are you giving me advice I didn't ask for?
     
  13. Jan 12, 2017 #12
    Self funding a phd in theoretical physics at an ivy university?

    Say hello to repeated bankruptcy and crushing debt.
     
  14. Jan 12, 2017 #13

    radium

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    If you get a PhD in physics at a top ten university, you will not go bankrupt if you are referring to employment options. Even if you are a theorist. I'm not referring to someone who is self funded because I have never heard of that happening and almost certain it's impossible based on what I know about theorists taking students

    For example, I know condensed matter theorists who are now quants, software engineers, in more applied research positions in industry, etc. working at places look google, various start ups, fancy hedge funds, consulting etc. They were easily able to use their skills from the PhD to become successful in doing more applied research. I think a lot of them are interested in developing algorithms.

    Going back to the original question in regards to doing a PhD in theory. Taking on students is in a sense more difficult for a theorist because there is usually a pretty steep learning curve. Most students will take some time to become useful, so even if a student does not cost the advisor anything (they may have an external fellowship), they are still a significant time investment for the advisor (or the post docs as many start by working with then).
     
  15. Jan 13, 2017 #14
    @ZapperZ and his reply was spot-on:

    It is precisely that. I don't really care about prestige. In other words, it’s nothing to do with prestige itself, it is to do with graduating and finding the job in theoretical physics afterwards. I have spent a lot of time on this forum reading the materials people posted, and I’ve learned how hard it is for theoreticians to get a job. And if you have a wife and family who supported you throughout the years, there is too much at stake for you to screw up and be in debt, as you say.

    As much as I would love to just “drop everything” and “chase my dreams”, that would be selfish of me given my personal circumstances. But let’s not go into that. It is basically:

    Step 1: Work in the industry and self-study physics for several years.
    Step 2: Use money to “buy” yourself freedom, get back to University to do MSc and PhD in theoretical physics.

    Only one way to find out! The best thing about it is I can learn a lot by myself, and occasional use of this forum. And oh boy! Words cannot describe the kind of happiness it brings me! Once I have finally proven a theorem, I look around myself and I realise two hours have past without me even noticing! :)

    At the very least, I am confident I can get into MSc at local university. Once I manage to stand out and prove myself there, I will find a way. When there’s a will there’s a way.

    Thank you! I thought it worked like that somehow.

    =====================

    I do have a few further questions regarding funding, if anyone knows:

    If professors already have funds allocated to cover PhD students, that means PhD is effectively a full-time job that you get paid for, correct? Then why are students applying for fellowships? I read that on MIT funding webpage. Are fellowships additional funds meant for covering living expenses?

    Again, sorry if the questions seem dumb, I am still trying to get my head around US education system.
     
  16. Jan 13, 2017 #15
    I see your point. Thank you for the reply.
     
  17. Jan 13, 2017 #16

    Dr Transport

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    if you are working a job where you can pay off your student debt and after say 5 years or so have $200K in your pocket to spend on something else, I'd stay doing that and be an amateur scientist, you'll be way better off. you'll most likely never make that kind of cash working as a theoretical physicist anywhere.
     
  18. Jan 13, 2017 #17

    TeethWhitener

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    Yes.
    Prestige, mostly. It also looks good to potential future employers if you can secure funding for yourself.
     
  19. Jan 13, 2017 #18

    ZapperZ

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    But be aware that if you get an external fellowship, then you usually will not keep any RAship, since your supervisor would rather give this to someone who does not have any support. So you do not get to double-dip.

    Zz.
     
  20. Jan 13, 2017 #19
    The Air Force sends a number of officers to prestigious grad schools on their own dime. More or less, if an officer can get into a prestigious school and agrees to the Air Force requirements, the Air Force will pay both the tuition and the officer's salary while they earn a PhD. The main Air Force requirement is continued service in the Air Force for a number of years after the PhD is completed.
     
  21. Jan 13, 2017 #20
    This has been my experience. But when my wife and I were at Harvard and MIT, double dipping was allowed with teaching assistantships. You could have both an RA and a TA or an external fellowship and a TA and cash all the checks.
     
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