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Programs Rejected by Best Fit School - Reapply, Transfer? Seeking Advice

  1. Mar 19, 2015 #1
    Hello PhysForums!
    New poster here. I hope some of you will have experiences, or advice for my situation. I've searched a lot of threads here and on physicsgre or gradcafe, and haven't gotten quite the information I'd like.

    Here's the facts:
    - Senior at elite LAC in USA, Physics and Math double major, top grades and good research in string theory
    - Applied to PhD physics programs, mostly top but some backups as well
    - Accepted to Caltech, UChicago but rejected everywhere else

    Both these schools are amazing for strings, but I am also thinking about switching to condensed matter theory, which these schools are not very good at, for my particular interests. I would really love to go to a school like UC Berkeley, UCSB, Stanford or Harvard, where condensed matter is being worked on more, in the case that I don't like strings...

    While I know HEP-theory is really competitive, I don't frankly know why I was rejected so much. I'll contact admissions people to ask for suggestions, but I would like your opinion on the following two options:

    Option 1:
    - Take a year off and re-apply to PhD programs, as well as terminal masters, just in case

    Option 2:
    - Go to Chicago (perhaps with a year off, to prepare and do more research), and if i don't like strings, transfer to a school like UCB after 2 years.

    What are the typical issues with these options? I do think my application next year will be a bit stronger (didn't contact any professors at schools of interest before submitting admissions - maybe this is the issue? also, i'll have a paper or two), but I'm not sure how much stigma there is against re-applicants. Will I have a higher chance (at UCB for example) if I reapply, or transfer generally?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 19, 2015 #2

    Quantum Defect

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    I had similar background. I think that your approach is a bit off for graduate school applications. What matters most in graduate school is not so much which school you went to but who you worked for and what you did for your thesis research. You should be thinking more along these lines, I think.

    Before writing off UC and CalTech look carefully at the people there, and see if there is someone there doing what you might be interested in. Look also at people in allied field departments--things like people wit dual appointments in Chemistry. There are some extraordinary people in Chemistry at U Chicago (e.g. Andre Tokmakoff). Also recall that Chicagoland and Los Angeles are major cities with several major universities. People at U Chicago or at CalTech might have collaborations with folks at places like Argonne National Lab or UCLA.

    Think also about where you would like to be after the degree. With string theory, your options are likely more limited than with something more "real" like materials research. Do you want a job in academe? Who at these schools places their students at the kind of school you want to be at? If you want to work in industry, which lab or group places it's students there? If you want to form your own start-up, which groups produce the entrepreneurs?

    Looking at the reputation of a school or department makes more sense in the first stage, less so where you are now. Who knows, the person you choose to work for might not even stay at the school you started in. This happens with much greater frequency these days.
  4. Mar 19, 2015 #3
    I really agree with Quantum Defect! I would also like to add that transferring is not the norm and it's very different than transferring as an undergrad. You have to a legitimately good reason to transfer out of programs ( i.e lack of funding, advisor left, etc.) Do not go to a school with the intention of transferring...
  5. Mar 19, 2015 #4
    Thanks for the feedback so far!

    I have been doing this, and I talked to quite a few people at the open houses. UC is great in soft matter, and CalTech has some great chemistry and quantum info stuff, but I'm mostly interested in non-equilibrium physics, strong correlations and topological condensed matter (i.e. stuff that can benefit from my math skills). It doesn't seem that there's much going on in these areas at UC or CalTech, or the few people who do it (Kadanoff, Weigmann, Cross) aren't too active anymore. Thanks for the tip about Chemistry though, I definitely overlooked that a bit.

    I'm pretty set on academia, as I like theory/computational work much more than experiment. I'm not a mathematician anymore, but the things I have brought to the table in research in the past, were largely of a mathematical/formal nature. I'd like to work on the theoretical side of materials, and at UCB or MIT or UIUC, there's some big groups with people working on the things I like. The placements of CMT guys from CalTech or UC are so-so, which is why I was considering re-applying or transfering.

    I'm not too interested with reputation, but I have my heart set on being a professor or researcher in theoretical physics, and would like to maximize the chance of that.

    But shouldn't I have a plan B if string theory doesn't work out?

    Do you know how transfers work? I have no idea. Would it be easier to get into UCB now for example? Or through transferring? A legitimate reason is that my research interests don't match up well with my current school...
  6. Mar 20, 2015 #5

    Quantum Defect

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    As bluechic notes, transferring out of one Grad School and into another in the US is fairly unusual. In the single case that I remember in my time in graduate school was when someone did not pass the important qualifying exam, and they transferred to another school. In my later academic travels I knew of three other students who did this. All of these were non-US students. They were able to get into the country (obtain a student visa) through admission to a less well-known university, and once in the US, they finagled a move up to a more prestigious institution.

    This kind of motion is generally something that does not endear you to the institution that you are leaving: they essentially "wasted" one of their slots on someone who was not serious about staying. Karma has a way of coming back to bite you in the behind, so I would not think about doing this. I think that it is better to decline the offer than to take it, knowing that you will leave.

    You are looking at specific people, and that is the smart thing to do. I encourage you to go on the campus visits to the schools. When you are there, talk to people about your scientific interests. There may be a new hire in the physics department who has not yet shown up on campus, or there might be someone in an allied department who sometimes takes physics students. It is not considered rude to do the campus visit and not enroll, and really that is the best way to judge whether a university would be a good match for you. Different universities have very different cultures.

    As far as a plan B for string theory, I would worry more about the plan B for finding a job in academia in some of the fields that you are interested in. If you want a hard dose of reality, read some of the articles (and comments) in the Chronicle of Higher Education, etc. on failed job searches. Granted, most of the horror stories come from people in the humanities, but the thing that is driving all of their sorrow is the same dream that you would be chasing -- finding a tenure-track position at Wonderful U. These positions are increasingly difficult to find.

    Good luck.
  7. Mar 20, 2015 #6


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    It would be absolutely ridiculous for you not to consider attending one of these schools. The statement about them not being good in CMT is incorrect. Both Chicago and Caltech just hired two of the most sought after junior faculty members. The woman hired at Caltech was also given an offer at another elite school and was interviewing at a few very elite places. The one at Chicago . Chicago may even hire another person in CMT, preferably a senior faculty member. They also have someone now who does both HET and CMT. He was one of the first people to apply the AdS-CFT correspondence to strongly correlated systems.
    I'm in CMT at one of the places you listed but also considered Chicago very strongly.
  8. Mar 20, 2015 #7


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    I must say, this must be the first time I hear someone being disappointed at being accepted to CalTech and Chicago. I mean, when was the last time you heard something as ridiculous as that??!!!

    CalTech and Chicago not good in condensed matter theory??!!! Since when? At Chicago, I can rattle off a number of outstanding CM theorists, with Kathy Levin being off the top of my head without even thinking about it.

    Wow, this is truly dumbfounding.

  9. Mar 20, 2015 #8
    You should really take the advice that Quantum Defect and Radium gave... visiting the schools is very important. Talk to both string theorists and condensed matter theorists there, so you will have a better idea of the program. Also be open minded. I speak from experience from a recent visit, but no one expects you to work in the subfield you indicated interest in the SOP. Visiting is your chance to ask around and find out who is taking students versus who is not.

    I don't have experience transferring, but I know someone who has transferred. He was at an institution to do hep-th, but the prof left the institution and no one else was around or taking new students . So he transferred to another University. I didn't know him well, so I don't know much about the process he went through. However, I do know that you should not expect courses to transfer easily or at all, you would have to re take quals or pre-lims if the new school has them, and you also do not want to piss the people off at your original institution. Transferring is not easy as a grad student, so do not go to a school with that intention. When you pick a school you want to think about being there for 5-6 years.
  10. Mar 20, 2015 #9

    Quantum Defect

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    I realize that the commentary above is not about Graduate School, but Frank Bruni's points might be something for you to think about. You seem to be upset that you were not accepted to the "perfect" graduate school for you, based upon the size or "strength" of various departments.

    Professors who are at Caltech and U. Chicago are very hot stuff. They would not be there if they were not. Yes, the departments are smaller than the larger departments, but you only work for one doctoral advisor, and that is all that you need to find. The assorted muckety-mucks in the rest of the department (especially a very large department) will not have many memories of you.

    Another thing to think about: you actually spend more time talking, struggling with things, etc. with your peers in graduate school. In some respects what you learn depends upon your relationships with these people... and yet they don't get their pictures on the Departmental website...

    Something else to think about... both CalTech and U Chicago are private, which means that you are insulated from political fiddling from the state government. Most of your "dream" schools are state schools in states that are dealing with financial troubles and have been whacking back on what they provide to higher ed. Most graduate students probably don't worry too much about this, but this will definitely affect your life. Senator Pennywise: "Why does the library need so many physics journals; why won't one subscription do? What about the seminar program? Why are we inviting all of these foreigners to come and talk at the flagship campus? How does the taxpayer benefit from paid holidays for academic eggheads?" The happiness of your advisor (with their pay, benefits, etc.) is something that has a major bearing on your own happiness. I know one professor in an allied field who left one of your "dream" schools for much, much greener pastures overseas. It sounds like bluechic knew someone else who was left by a prof. who jumped ship at her school.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2015
  11. Mar 20, 2015 #10


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    All of the professors I met in CMT at Chicago were great. I was considering the offer along with two of the schools you mentioned and it was very hard to turn it down (as well as the other one).

    One of the newest faculty members, Michael Levin is a rising star in the field. He does very interesting work that uses a lot of interesting math but is also very physical. This might appeal to someone who is also interested in strings. Literally every faculty member I have spoken with in CMT thinks he is absolutely brilliant, including some of the top people in the field. He is also an incredibly down to earth and modest person so I imagine he would be a great advisor.

    Xie Chen at Caltech does very interesting work that overlaps with quantum information. I didn't apply to Caltech but I would have if she had been hired a year earlier.

    Of course the schools you mentioned are also great but I know for a fact for at least two of them the situation in condensed matter is not ideal right now since there are a lot of students so the groups are getting rather large (this should improve shortly because they are planning to hire a senior faculty member who will of course be great since they are very picky).

    So in summary, I think you are being very stubborn if you aren't willing to seriously consider Chicago. I am happy at my current school, but I also am sure I would have had a great time there as well.
  12. Mar 20, 2015 #11
    Thanks for the advice, guys. Sorry if I came off like I don't appreciate my choices, I actually like Chicago a lot, after visiting it.

    Yeah, I get that impression. I definitely won't 'know' that i'm transferring, but I'm just concerned that it might be an issue.

    Which is why i'm worried! It seems that all the professorships at top 25 or 30 universities are majority from top 10 programs in their field. Chicago and Caltech are barely top 10 in CM. I know rankings don't mean much, but isn't there a reason for them not being ranked ~10 rather than ~5? So i'm worried that if I do CM at UC for example, that my chances of success in academia are diminished, as opposed to if I was at say, UCB. Correct me if this analysis is wrong...

    Yeah I have talked personally with the guy doing AdS/CFT - CMT (Dam Son) and with Levin, during my visit. But those two are basically the only two doing anything 'hard' in CMT.

    I'm far from disappointed, I'm just expressing my concern over their program's quality in a field that I didn't apply for, but that I'm considering switching to. Kathy Levin is probably not taking any students any time soon.

    Yeah i've visited both actually. I'm leaning towards UC after that.

    Interesting to note.

    Generally, it is more advisable to have an advisor like that, versus a well-established researcher (such as his advisor, Wen, at MIT)? I guess i'm probably being too critical of the programs i've been accepted to, but I still feel that i'm 'shooting myself in the foot' if I go to a program that is comparatively weak in CMT, in the long run.
  13. Mar 20, 2015 #12


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    That's two people you just mentioned. I don't know what part of CMT you are interested, but if you are interested in analytical work in solid state (strongly correlated systems like high Tc or non-Fermi liquids, topological states, entanglement, AdS/CFT, etc.), there are usually about 2-3 professors who work in that area for each school (maybe 4). The new hires at Chicago will make a huge impact on the quality of the program. Chicago was never bad at CMT, I mean Leo Kadanoff is emeritus there and he was the one who propozed the block spin perspective in RG. Their faculty just got older, which is why they are making new hires. In fact, UChicago has made a lot of amazing new hires recently as their current provost is a condensed matter physicist. The actually stole two CME professors from UCSB. This is not just in CMT though, this is in the whole department. The funding situation is looking much better than the UCs right now. Of course it's great to have a very well known advisor, but one professor (who is one of the top in his subfield) said that although it's risky, if you work with a rising star you may very well rise with them and the new professors at Chicago seem like very good bets as of now. So if you like their research and are interested about the same things, I would think they would be great to work with.

    I don't know why you didn't put Illinois on your list. Illinois is currently ranked number one in condensed matter. I really liked the professors there too. I know of at least three people in recent years who have gotten professorships at top places in CMT.

    You have no guarantee of getting into any of the places you mentioned next year. Why risk that over going to UChicago or Caltech?
  14. Mar 20, 2015 #13
    Hmm, I guess that's true. Maybe they will hire one or two new guys soon. Its reasonable to worry about small numbers of CMT guys, and them being young.

    I'm interested in exactly the stuff you mention, as well as non-equilibrium/open systems (since i've done research on that). Most places do have ~4 in the area, but I guess in Chicago they are all oldish, and at Caltech they are mostly doing quantum info stuff (which I'm not interested in), which makes sense given the IQI.

    Well I think I know some mistakes I made on my application, so I think I'd be stronger, plus I'll probably have a second (string theory) paper and an internship at a lab. AFAIK schools don't discriminate against reapplicants (do they?!) I guess you're right though - its quite risky to reapply, plus stressful and not productive towards being a physicist. I think you've convinced me to probably not consider transferring, so I guess the choice is either go with Chicago, or reapply/all that messy business.

    I did, I just called it 'UIUC'. I made the mistake of not applying to them this year (I only applied to string programs).
  15. Mar 21, 2015 #14


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    If you applied just a year ago then they will definitely have your old application. I don't know if there is any stigma against it, but you never know. Also you mentioned before that you think contacting professors would have given you better results. I'm not convinced. I only contacted two people in admissions and only did so because they gave talks at my undergrad institution (although I did meet some department representatives for a few of these schools at a conference for undergrads I attended). However, I was admitted to Stanford and (possibly another one or two schools who did this) even though they specifically asked for the names of faculty I contacted (I had not contacted any). It was not necessary since even though I had not contacted them per se, I had looked into them very carefully and indicated that in my statement. A lot of faculty don't even reply to these types of emails because they think they should just see if the person gets through admissions.
    So if you could improve in this area, it would be in your statement, not in making contacts.

    Also, have you spoken to your recommenders about this decision? Because if they disapprove, they may not give you as strong of references and that is perhaps the most important part of the application other than research.
  16. Mar 21, 2015 #15
    Hmm, true. I guess it might not be worth taking the chance.

    I didn't do this. I just named a few people, without too much research. Its good to know that its not making contacts that matters, I guess I'll comb through my application more carefully to deduce what the possible issue could have been.

    True enough. Thanks for the advice, man.
  17. Mar 21, 2015 #16

    Vanadium 50

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    I don't think "stigma" is the right word, exactly, but I think you need to think about how the application looks one year later. If you didn't get in last year, all things being equal, you probably won't get in this year. What's changed? On the plus side, you'll have one semester of grad school under your belt. While a plus, it's only one semester, and it's the first semester at that. So it's not an earth-shattering benefit. On the minus side, you will have demonstrated your willingness to depart the university that accepted you, so the university is taking on a much bigger risk. That probably more than overcomes this benefit.
  18. Mar 22, 2015 #17
    I'd have 1 more publication from my undergrad time, a physics (computational) internship, and if I wait 1 year before transferring (i.e. after I get the MS), probably some research and decent recs from grad school (given that I don't piss people off) as well.

    I do agree that its likely to fail if I don't have a good reason to transfer. So I think at least for now its safer to stay at Chicago and do string theory, right?
  19. Mar 23, 2015 #18
    Wait, there are circumstances under which it is safe to do string theory?
  20. Mar 23, 2015 #19


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    What I would recommend is to talk with Professor Son and also ask if you can contact some of his grad students. It sounds like he is an ideal fit for you research wise and he is also a real star. The whole faculty at Chicago is incredibly enthusiastic about him and he has won some very prestigious awards (Simons Investigator I think, huge honor in math and theoretical physics which comes with $500,000).

    If it seems like his students are happy with his advising and they are very successful, getting awards, good postdocs, etc. (which speaks to his ability to be a good and supportive advisor) I think that is a great bet.
  21. Mar 24, 2015 #20
    Hahaha, you have a point. Ironically, its probably safer than some other options I have at the moment.

    True. I think I've decided to go with Chicago over CalTech, and give it a chance. In the worst case I can try to transfer, and even this worst case is probably still better than trying to re-apply.
    Son's students seem happy (I happened to talk with 2 of them during my visit, by chance), but he's a new hire so its tough to judge how successful his students are. But his work seems well-received and on top of that is really interesting to me.

    Thanks so much for the advice, by the way, to everyone!
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2015
  22. Mar 24, 2015 #21


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    So you are doing AdS/CMT, which is string theory, isn't it?
  23. Mar 24, 2015 #22
    Well, I'm interested in doing it at Chicago (there is 1 guy doing it). I have currently only worked on black holes.
    AdS/CFT comes from string theory, but in this context is being used as a trick to calculate things in condensed matter, nuclear physics, etc; the guys doing AdS/(CMT+QCD) are mostly not string theorists in the strict sense.
  24. Mar 24, 2015 #23


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    I think Son has some students who are graduating/have graduated recently/are close to graduating. You should try to get in contact with one of them and try to figure out what kind of postdocs they have received. Because if they are going to KITP, Princeton becoming Harvard junior fellows or Pappalardo fellows at MIT then he would be a great choice, especially since he does work in both string theory and condensed matter. This may even give you the opportunity to learn about both.
  25. Mar 24, 2015 #24
    Isn't Kitaev at Caltech, and isn't he big on topological order stuff? So if you prefer CMT that might be a good choice, although he does say flabbergastingly dubious things in his papers like "Modern day technology is extremely far away from verifying this theory" (paraphrase from some 2005 review paper I vaguely remember munging through). I have a friend who got into Caltech and really wants to work for him.
  26. Mar 24, 2015 #25
    I'll try to figure out who they are then. Is it acceptable to ask a professor for the contacts of his students?

    Yeah he's very good. But he, and almost everyone else at CalTech does more quantum information than traditional CMT, which I'm not interested in to be honest. I'm definitely considering him or Professor Cross there, though.
    Last edited by a moderator: Mar 25, 2015
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