PhD in theoretical physics at “prestigious” university

In summary: Yes, you don't need a masters degree in physics to be a good candidate for a PhD in theoretical physics. However, the research experience you have (e.g., research experience in a laboratory, working on a project with a professor) will be very helpful.
  • #1
Hypercube
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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!
 
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  • #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.
 
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  • #3
Dishsoap said:
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.

Thank you for your answer. Wow, I didn't realize 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?
 
  • #4
Hypercube said:
Thank you for your answer. Wow, I didn't realize 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?

Maybe you should start by reading this:

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

Zz.
 
  • #5
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.
 
  • #6
ZapperZ said:
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?

radium said:
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.
I suspected that would be the case. Thank you.
 
  • #7
Hypercube said:
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?

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.
 
  • #8
ZapperZ said:
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.
Got it. Thanks.
 
  • #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.
 
  • #10
Asteropaeus said:
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.

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

Say hello to repeated bankruptcy and crushing debt.
 
  • #13
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).
 
  • #14
Asteropaeus said:
Is it really worth it to spend that much money and time, just to have Oxford or Stanford next to your name?
@ZapperZ and his reply was spot-on:

ZapperZ said:
I can easily go off on a tangent and talk about the "employability" of theoreticians
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.

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

Asteropaeus said:
Is theoretical physics really that extreme?
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 realize two hours have past without me even noticing! :)

Asteropaeus said:
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.
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.

Asteropaeus said:
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.
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.
 
  • #15
radium said:
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).
I see your point. Thank you for the reply.
 
  • #16
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.
 
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  • #17
Hypercube said:
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?
Yes.
Then why are students applying for fellowships?
Prestige, mostly. It also looks good to potential future employers if you can secure funding for yourself.
 
  • #18
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.
 
  • #19
radium said:
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.

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.
 
  • #20
ZapperZ said:
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.

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.
 
  • #21
Dr. Courtney said:
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.

That's because Harvard and MIT have way too much money than they know what to do! :)

Zz.
 
  • #22
ZapperZ said:
That's because Harvard and MIT have way too much money than they know what to do! :)

Zz.

Could be. We viewed it more as the laws of supply and demand. TAs were always in demand, so they were willing to pay.
 
  • #23
Dr. Courtney said:
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.

I'm curious if an officer in the Air Force will receive an elevated rank upon completion of the PhD that it has funded. For example, will, say, an Officer Trainee be promoted to Second Lieutenant simply upon completion of the PhD?
 
  • #24
StatGuy2000 said:
I'm curious if an officer in the Air Force will receive an elevated rank upon completion of the PhD that it has funded. For example, will, say, an Airman First Class be promoted to Senior Airman simply upon completion of the PhD?

Not in my experience or knowledge. Promotions are earned and there is a range of criteria that gets evaluated. Automatic promotions based on a single criterion are rare. I can't think of any examples. But if the Air Force pays for you to complete a PhD, odds are they plan to keep you around 5-6 more years, and odds for a promotion are very good in that time span. PhDs in STEM fields are highly favored, get lots of great opportunities in the Air Force, and are rarely put out to pasture involuntarily.

Be aware, the ranks you mentioned are for enlisted Airmen (not officers), E-1 to E-9 pay grades. My experience with the Air Force paying for advanced degrees is with commissioned officers, (2nd Lt, 1st Lt, Capt, Maj, etc.), O-1 to O-5 pay grades.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Air_Force_officer_rank_insignia
 
  • #25
Dr. Courtney said:
Not in my experience or knowledge. Promotions are earned and there is a range of criteria that gets evaluated. Automatic promotions based on a single criterion are rare. I can't think of any examples. But if the Air Force pays for you to complete a PhD, odds are they plan to keep you around 5-6 more years, and odds for a promotion are very good in that time span. PhDs in STEM fields are highly favored, get lots of great opportunities in the Air Force, and are rarely put out to pasture involuntarily.

Be aware, the ranks you mentioned are for enlisted Airmen (not officers), E-1 to E-9 pay grades. My experience with the Air Force paying for advanced degrees is with commissioned officers, (2nd Lt, 1st Lt, Capt, Maj, etc.), O-1 to O-5 pay grades.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Air_Force_officer_rank_insignia

Thanks for the information! BTW, I have also updated my original post to fix my example to officer ranks.
 
  • #26
StatGuy2000 said:
I'm curious if an officer in the Air Force will receive an elevated rank upon completion of the PhD that it has funded. For example, will, say, an Officer Trainee be promoted to Second Lieutenant simply upon completion of the PhD?

If someone with a PhD in a STEM field meets all the physical and background requirements and can get through officer training school (OTS), the Air Force will most likely be very happy to commission them as a 2nd Lt.

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_Force_Officer_Training_School
 
  • #27
Dr. Courtney said:
If someone with a PhD in a STEM field meets all the physical and background requirements and can get through officer training school (OTS), the Air Force will most likely be very happy to commission them as a 2nd Lt.

That is true. It is also true if someone only has a bachelor's in a non-STEM field.
 
  • #28
Vanadium 50 said:
That is true. It is also true if someone only has a bachelor's in a non-STEM field.

Not so much. The non-STEM fields in greatest demand are certain foreign languages: Russian, Chinese, Arabic. English Lit and Art History are not in big demand by the USAF. They use OTS to balance the supply of officers with certain backgrounds compared to what USAFA and ROTC streams are producing. The majors in constant demand are STEM, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic.
 
  • #29
But wouldn't you consider the Air Force paying someone's tuition and stipend to be about the same thing as an external fellowship from the prospective of the department/professors?
 
  • #30
radium said:
But wouldn't you consider the Air Force paying someone's tuition and stipend to be about the same thing as an external fellowship from the prospective of the department/professors?

Usually, the Air Force rules prevent officers from double dipping (RAs or TAs), at least without a LOT of paperwork.

But I suppose it is debatable whether an employer-funded degree appears more like self-funding or an external fellowship to the degree institution. I tend to regard it in a class of its own (employer funded).
 
  • #31
Dr. Courtney said:
Not so much.

Sorry, but that is simply untrue. If someone without a PhD in a STEM field meets all the physical and background requirements and can get through officer training school (OTS), the Air Force will still commission them a 2LT. They don't send people through OTS and then if they finish start looking at their degrees and decide whether to give them a commission. They just don't. Everyone who successfully completes OTS is commissioned.

If you want to argue that a STEM degree gives you a higher probability of being offered an OTS slot, I won't argue that.
 
  • #32
Vanadium 50 said:
If you want to argue that a STEM degree gives you a higher probability of being offered an OTS slot, I won't argue that.

That was the point I was trying to make. Sorry I missed your distinction earlier.
 
  • #33
So when a graduate school decides who gets accepted, am I right to assume that:

1) Domestic student with fellowship;
2) Domestic student without fellowship;
3) International student with external fellowship; and
4) International student without external fellowship

are all assessed equally on their achievements and merits?
 
  • #34
The way it works (which applies to the places you are thinking of) is they admit students (domestic and international) and provide some sort of internal funding such as a TA or an RA. Some schools put all first years on a fellowship so they don't have to teach or commit to a research group the first year. Places you mentioned like Harvard or MIT always do this (admit students with funding) and do not have terminal master's programs.You can apply for external fellowships during the application process, but you won't know if you were successful until after you have gone through the grad school application process. You may also apply for external fellowships during grad school.

Note that there are very few external fellowships for international students if you are at a US institution. There is NSERC in Canada though which you can bring to the US.
 
  • #35
What is the point of joining an air force if you want to become a scientist, and a very specific one.
 

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