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Relocating to the U.S. for grad school? Does this make sense for me?

  1. Jul 8, 2012 #1
    I've been procrastinating heavily today and realizing that maybe I should consider applying to grad schools in the US indeed. (Currently, I'm a Masters student at ETH Zurich in Switzerland.)
    Although I've probably been watching too many skateboard and surfing videos during the last few weeks, I think I'm truly interested in spending at least a few years abroad, while maintaining the standard of education I've been lucky enough to experience until now (my plan or dream is to become a researcher/professor).

    So the first question would be: Would I learn something?
    Of course there are always new things to learn, but the courses should match my level of knowledge, skills and my interests.
    I've taken a look at an actual GRE test (this stuff seems to be a standard requirement?)... and now I have some concerns that I might be a bit overqualified at this stage, since I've already taken some courses that were quite advanced. For example: Quantum Optics, Quantum Field Theory (and also used this for a research project), Open Quantum Systems, Solid State Theory, Quantum Information etc. (the courses were based on lecture notes, papers and/or well-known books).
    For my PhD, I'd like to continue doing research in condensed matter physics.

    The next thing would be: What are my chances of getting in? (I guess I would apply to 4 or 5 unis in California and to MIT, Harvard, Princeton.)
    By the end of my masters, I will have done 3 research projects (3 months during my bachelors, 2 months and 4 months during my masters) and I will have published at least one paper, probably two.
    I suppose I could get 3 to 5 very good recommendations.
    My grades are not perfect, but still very good. And I suppose I could pull a nearly perfect score on this GRE.
    I didn't win any prizes (which I think is also not common at all for students in Switzerland, Germany,...)

    One other thing is the funding... would this be a problem? I don't want to become 'rich' or anything, but I'd really like to cover all my costs. Especially since I can get paid something like 60k a year if I stay here in Switzerland.

    What do you think?
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 8, 2012 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    you could also consider UT at Austin. Also check out the faculty at the schools to see if there are any swiss profs whom you can contact. they might be able to steer you in the right direction or vouch for you if you apply. Remember in grad school profs get the final say in choosing and they choose based on how well a given students skills and interests match up to their projects.
  4. Jul 8, 2012 #3
    I just remembered that the prof with whom I'm doing my next project was a PostDoc at MIT a while ago which might be helpful. Apart from that I'd have to find out more/ask. (The others who could recommend me are not that well connected to the US I'm afraid.)
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2012
  5. Jul 8, 2012 #4


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    You are unlikely to get into a top school. Most people applying to those programs are starting with a bachelors. You've got a masters, but they'll make you redo some or all of the masters courses and take their qualifying exams. Most people applying to the top programs with only a bachelors have publications already, so one or two during the masters won't impress them, and neither will high GRE scores (that's expected of anyone doing masters work). Apply to top schools if you want, but since your chances are pretty bad (as are the chances of pretty much everyone else applying to those schools) don't limit yourself. And make sure you know where the top schools in condensed matter really are.
  6. Jul 9, 2012 #5
    Don't most schools let you test out? I think UCLA and many other schools lets you take the qualifier exams before school starts and if you pass, you pass the quals, skip the core courses, and start with electives and research.
  7. Jul 9, 2012 #6
    Thanks for the new replies.
    I thought they'd probably not consider my degrees as being equivalent to US degrees, since the bachelor is a 3 year program, and the masters is 1.5 years.
    Good to hear. (But I'm not really getting the reason they ask for this)
    Well I'd sort of need a good reason to go through the trouble (i.e. a school that can offer things mine can't. I'm very happy here already.). I wouldn't force it now if it were just for the sake of living overseas because I could just as well go as a PostDoc in a couple of years.

    I know that the schools I mentioned have groups working on things that I find interesting.
    I'd value schools which offer more than just being highly rated in theoretical solid state physics since my interests are rather broad and I'd also like to have prospects of doing work at the borders between related fields (e.g. Quantum information ... but of course I'd check into details with each school I'd apply to).

    But of course the list is kind of random at this point. E.g. for all I know Urbana-Champaign would be a good choice (but personally I couldn't imagine living there).
    My plan would be to come up with a list of maybe ~10 carefully selected schools and replace some of the big names in the course of that. On the other hand, if you're saying that my chances of getting into any of them are really low then I'd just spend my time and money on something useful.
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2012
  8. Jul 9, 2012 #7


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    The US system really works very differently than German-style systems, which I assume the ETHZ also subscribes to. I've spent some time at highly-ranked US institutions, and I have to say, I was nothing short of shocked of the level the entry-level PhD students I've seen there had. US students apply to graduate school directly after the bachelor's degree[1]. I think it is fair to say that most of them have no clue about what they intent to actually study/research at this point, and that is not very surprising, because they also have no idea about the current state of reseach in any discipline of study. (when deciding for a place, they normally just go by the name of the school--strictly sorted by ranking--and don't actually apply to a research group directly). They call it graduate /school/ for a reason, and unless you feel like going back to school, you would probably not appreciate the atmosphere in this kind of setting if coming from a masters or diploma degree. Also, in the US it is fairly common for a PhD to take five to seven years.

    In short: In your situation going for a PhD there makes little sense. Get a PhD in Europe and go for postdoc there later. Since your field is theoretical solid state physics and many of the strongest groups in this area are in Europe (at least on the ab initio side of things), this will probably turn out better in most ways. Also you can still cooperate or go on an exchange program with an US institution while getting a PhD in Europe.

    [1] (which, btw. also includes at least one year of study more on the level of Abitur/Matura...)
  9. Jul 9, 2012 #8
    Thanks a lot, I had really hoped to get a reply from someone who knows both sides.

    Yes, the system at ETH is exactly like the German one (and many of the professors are German as well.)

    Well, this seems to confirm my original doubts. And a system that is similar to school wouldn't suit me at all...
    A research stay during the PhD should be possible and maybe also come naturally at some point. (Otherwise there's also a programme with UCSB who offer 2-3 spots/year)
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2012
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