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Preparing myself for Grad School Applications

  1. Aug 25, 2010 #1

    king vitamin

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    To introduce, I'm a third-year physics student at the University of Texas (Austin). As with most undergraduate physics students I've started to stress about applying to graduate school as I see friends of mine start to prepare for it. I'm actually not applying this year, but next year - I could potentially graduate this spring since I am further ahead than I expected, but I've decided to graduate later so I could do some resume boosting before I begin applications.

    So to the meat of my question - what are the best ways to prepare myself for applying to grad schools? I read ZapperZ's excellent post of the track of becoming a physicist, and it contained a lot of interesting information, although one thing it mentioned seemed to conflict with what I've heard my peers saying; he seemed to indicate that you don't choose your research interests and topics until after graduate exams at the end of your second year. From what I've observed, most of my friends seem to be actively attempting to research in the field they wish to someday work in, and they plan to apply to graduate school with such interests in mind, and find specific groups they would like to work with.

    I personally was a little late in getting into doing research, just starting February this year, and I've started frantically putting together a resume, which I would like to use to apply to a research internship next summer asap. I was talking to a friend of mine today who just returned from a summer at Los Alamos and he seemed surprised that I was so worried because he knows that I would eventually like to do theory. He told me I should just get an awesome grade on the GRE and keep up my 4.0 and I shouldn't be worried. This seemed to conflict with all the talk I've heard about research being everything in graduate admissions. He also added that a good way is to contact somebody working in a subject I liked at my top choice and trying to get to know them, which seems risky.

    I've been doing research with the plasma physics group here, but so far it's been rather unrewarding - mostly grunt work with a little bit of spectroscopy. I got the job because a professor recommended me, but I'm pretty sure experimental plasma physics is not what I would want to do in grad school. A few of my academic honors: I have a 4.0 GPA and I've completed 95 hours (I need 126 to graduate), I'm an "LA" for an intro physics class for engineers (like a junior TA), and I also received a very prestigious scholarship from UT this year which was only offered to two physics students.

    My top choice school is Columbia University, but knowing that banking on one school is a folly, I really just want to be able to get into one of the top-tier schools in the country (though i'll have backups obviously). I've attached a bit of my resume I'm writing (it's tentative because I don't know what my research will be this semester). What is my best path? Should I attempt to work with someone closer to where my interests lie? Should I stick with plasma physics and try to get my name on a paper, even if it's not a field I would be interested in pursuing after I'm done?

    Thanks in advance for the advice!

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