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Risk of applying to more competitive grad programs?

  1. May 11, 2015 #1
    Hello fellow PFers!

    I will begin applying to physics graduate school in the fall. As it stands now, I go to a little podunk state school with an itty bitty physics department. I believe that I've done the most that I can do with this opportunity. I have done research with the same group since freshman year (3 papers, 2 in phys rev), had two internships (Fermilab, and an REU at UC-Boulder) and gotten a smattering of scholarships along the way (including the Goldwater). My pGRE score will likely be my downfall, since some upper-level courses (whose material is covered on the GRE) are not offered until after I take it. I've been studying for months, but... that's that.

    Anyway, I really believe that my interests lie in HEP theory. I did some work in HEP at Fermilab and honestly fell in love. Particle physics (which I suppose is also tied to HEP) is also something which I love learning more about. These are really competitive grad programs to get into, I know. My alternative would be AMO theory, since that's what I do research in presently. I also had some experience with the experimental side of things, and it's not my cup of tea. I realize, though, that as an undergrad I have very limited experience.

    Is it worth the risk to apply for HEP theory for different grad programs? Do I apply for something else and then depending on how I feel in grad school maybe switch? What is the general consensus on this?

    Thanks :)
     
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  3. May 12, 2015 #2

    radium

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    Just apply to a lot of top programs and you should get into at least one of not more since you sound like you have a very competitive application. PGRE does seem to be important for HET, however it is worth noting that I got into several top ten programs for CMT (listing my interests as strongly correlated systems, AdS/CFT) with a pretty low PGRE. However, the difference in my situation is that I came from an Ivy League school, so my performance in the classroom, letters, and research offset that since my department is well known. Coming from a less known department, the PGRE could potentially be used to determine your preparation.

    I would start studying early and look at all of the practice tests and problems very carefully several times. Similar questions will appear on the test. You should save the most recent to take under time pressure.

    People were surprised by more score because at the review sessions I really knew what was going on. My downfall was not eating enough (incredibly important, you need to have a sufficient breakfast) and not reading carefully (exacerbated by the hunger, by the end there was this question I knew exactly how to but had a hard time because my thinking was slowed down). The not reading questions carefully was apparent from the practice test a week before. I had gotten the same score but saw that I misread a lot of the questions and would have score significantly higher (a pretty decent score) if I had read carefully. You need to time yourself very carefully. Even though you want to finish early, avoid rushing. It is better to have done things carefully and have less time to check that to have a lot of time without realizing you misread a lot of questions.
     
  4. May 12, 2015 #3
    I dunno if moderators consider this off topic, but whenever I see people who claim to be really interested in HEP I always get suspicious. There are far more active and equally cool fields in and out of physics. Why make your life unnecessarily difficult by pursuing something which is pretty sluggish and poorly funded compared to robotics, genomics, materials, artificial intelligence, neuroscience, algorithms, applied math and other things I didn't list? Usually the reasoning people have is based upon the fact that HEP is massively over-hyped (it's more fundamental (a meaningless statement), the math is more exotic (you can find exotic math in all of the fields I listed above if you look for the right group), it's more prestigious (I don't need to explain why this one is stupid), it's a direct continuation of traditional physics (I think computational physics is, from bio to astro to materials and beyond, is a perfectly logical continuation of traditional physics) etc).

    I think really critical self reflection on why you insist on this route is absolutely crucial at this point. Perhaps you'll decide that HEP is what you really want to study after all, but giving it more thought is probably a good idea.
     
  5. May 12, 2015 #4
    I absolutely value your opinion. You're completely right, HEP may not be for me. I have certainly found it to be the most interesting topic I've had so far (since I did some at Fermilab) but maybe I have not had enough exposure to other fields.
     
  6. May 12, 2015 #5

    radium

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    It sounds like you have had significant research experience to justify your interest in HEP. While it may not be as experimentally oriented in some respects, I actually think black hole thermodynamics and geometrical aspects of gravity are fascinating, especially since they may be related to strongly correlated systems, hydrodynamics, and entanglement. Part of the beauty of physics is that things that don't originally seem to have an application can actually help develop tools that can be used in other subfields. Yes, fields like HET are very competitive, but I know of at least two string theorists who have switched to biophysics and neuroscience and are now very well renowned in their subfield. A lot of physicists are becoming interested in theoretical neuroscience. The reason I mention this is that if you are willing to be flexible as a theoretical physicist, it is not too difficult to switch fields if you decide you want to do something more applied. I met two of the most famous neuroscientists in the world who talked about how they want more physicists to go into neuroscience and how physicists from a variety of backgrounds can learn quite easily.

    My subfield is actually CMT and what I really love about it is that we use a lot of the same tools used in HET (QFT, CFT, geometry, topology, group theory, etc.) but in contexts which can relate to current experiments. Honestly, if you want to be a theorist I would just take courses and do a reading project for the first year (or just the first semester if you have a lot of grad courses coming in) to help clarify your interests. A really great thing about physics departments at places like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, etc. is that there are tons of advanced seminars specializing in topics that help prepare you to do research taught by the leading experts in the world. There are classes offered in fields like string theory, black holes, AMO, quantum information, strongly correlated systems, and occasionally things like CFT, and even more specialized topics in fields like topological phases of matter, entanglement, etc.
     
    Last edited: May 12, 2015
  7. May 13, 2015 #6

    Choppy

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    I'm not sure I really understand the "risk" here. There is a cost in terms of effort, time and applicaiton fees, but beyond that, if you're qualified I don't see why you wouldn't apply to the program that you really want to get into. Take the time to investigate the program that you're interested in. See if you can contact professors and current graduate students at the school and try to get an idea of what your graduate experience will look like.

    As to the second question, it's generally possible to swtich fields once you're admitted to a graduate school, but it doesn't happen all that often. Often students are accepted with a group or concentration and even sometimes a supervisor already in mind. Moving to another group requires that the other group has room for you and someone willing to take you on. It can also burn some bridges too if you're research assistanceship was to come out of someone's grant and now they are left with a vacant space in the lab for the next year.
     
  8. May 13, 2015 #7
    Who are the string theorists turned biophysicists/neuroscientists who you're referring to, Radium?
     
  9. May 13, 2015 #8
    I know way too many people who have applied for 12-13 graduate schools and only got into one (or worse, zero). I just want to get in somewhere that isn't the University of Nowheresville. I have no doubt that I'm qualified, but I don't stand a chance against graduates from Princeton with 4.0's, 10 published papers, scholarships out the wazoo, etc. etc. etc.

    I've spent lots of time scoping out graduate admission profiles on physicsgre.com, and I don't stand a chance against the people who apply for HEP, from what I can tell.
     
  10. May 13, 2015 #9

    radium

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    Well one of them was actually a student of Sidney Coleman and has now wrote a great textbook on biophysics. I forgot the other one is actually in particle physics (I don't think he fully made the switch). I also just remembered I know of another string theorist who now even does experimental research. Oddly enough, these people are all from the same institution.
     
  11. May 13, 2015 #10

    Choppy

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    So what you're really asking is whether you should bother applying to a particular program when you believe that you won't be competative for the position. Fair enough. I would apply anyway if that's really what you want to do and you have the time and financial ability to do so. Sometimes candidates who look good on paper (or on a website) may not be the ideal candidate for a position.

    But there is a law of diminishing returns. Where is the threshold? If you talk to some people within the program and they suggest you're not likely to be competative, that's a good sign.

    For the record I've never been a fan of the shotgun approach to gaining graduate admission. If you pick a top three and make a real solid effort to visit the campus, speak with professors, etc. and then apply to a handful of others, that's one thing.

    If you're just filling in application forms that's a different ball of wax. For one, you could be applying for positions that don't even really exist. Though the department may be accepting students, and they have strong HEP group (or whatever you're interested in) sometimes that group may just not be accepting students that year (proffs going on sabaticals, grants running out, professors taking on admin positions etc.). I think this kind of thing can lead to a lot of unecessary heartache. Similarly there could already be a candidate lined up for the existing position. Professors' carry a lot of weight in admissions decisions as a general rule. If the professor wants to take on a student and is happy with an undergrad who's been working in his or her lab for the past two years there's a good chance that student will be chosen over an applicant with a higher GPA or other paper stats - because the unknown applicant comes with a risk and will take time to get up to speed that the other student has already put in. In another case a professor may only take applicants who apply for an external scholarship. These are the kinds of things that you find out by doing your homework rather than shot-gunning..
     
  12. May 13, 2015 #11

    radium

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    I go to a grad school which is consistently ranked top 3 for HET and while the HET students are absolutely brilliant, I am 100% you are exaggerating their accomplishments in to your head. Your research experience is definitely very competitive among HET applicants especially since you are currently doing theoretical research. A lot of people who apply as theorists have really only done experimental work in undergrad or haven't published anything from their theoretical work. What author are you on your papers? If you are first or second that is considered very impressive. Publications actually help a lot in grad school admissions. They are not required, but if you are one of the leading authors it really helps. The reason I know this is from both professors I have spoken with and from the feedback I got on my NSF application. It mentioned my publication at least three times. Additionally it sounds like you will have very strong letters/

    What may give you some trouble however is that usually students who plan to do HET enter with a lot of advanced coursework. For example, I think we have around 6-7 HET students our year and out of all of them there is only one I know of who didn't take a QFT course in undergrad, and even so, they had enough quantum background to be able to do QFT I their first semester (which is a class a lot of HET people will retake anyway). Most of them have also had GR as well as many other graduate level courses. For this reason, most of them come from pretty reputable institutions (a lot of them are actually internationals) but there are definitely people coming from state schools (although there are also different levels of state schools and most seem to be from places with very strong physics grad programs).

    What I think you should do is ask your recommenders their opinion. Not only will it help you decide where to apply, it also helps you gauge how good of a recommendation they will right for you. If they tell you to apply to a lot of top schools, that means they are going to write great letters to help you get in.

    Actually from what I've seen people usually are not encouraged to stay at their undergrad for grad school. On the subject of emailing professors, it could have been different for me since the people I did research knew everyone I wanted to work with, but I don't think it's really necessary, especially for a theory applicant, to email professors before they are accepted. Just learn about their research and show that you know what you are talking about in your statement. I only emailed two professors after they gave talks at my undergrad. This was not a problem for me, even for the schools who asked if I had spoken to someone.
    A lot of professors won't reply to emails from people before they apply because they will wait to see if the person gets admitted. They may even see it as an insecurity your your part and see it as trying to get in through the back door. I didn't make this up, a professor actually told me this once.
     
  13. May 13, 2015 #12
    I am not at all informed as to their accomplishments; all I know is what I find by scouring the admissions profiles on physicsgre.com. And there I see that the people who are applying for HET are very, very accomplished. As far as my papers go, I have one first-author (in an unheard-of journal, Computer Physics Communications), one second-author and one third-author (both in Phys Rev). I am currently on course also to have another second-author which will be at least submitted by the application time in December.

    Unfortunately, I may fall short in advanced coursework since my university does not have a PhD (or MS) program, so taking graduate courses isn't an option. Will the admissions people take that into consideration?

    I have also of course spoken to my recommenders about the subject. They (along with another professor whose opinion I value highly) feel that I would be well-suited for HET.

    You mentioned that you e-mailed professors who gave talks at your school. I feel like a complete doofus, I never even considered doing that! All the professors who come to present at our weekly colloquia and I never once seriously spoke to them about going to their school for grad school (I've gotten a few "If you want to consider a good [something I'm not interested in] program, hit me up"s though).
     
  14. May 14, 2015 #13

    radium

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    So it looks like the only real weakness in your application will be course rigor which could definitely be overlooked if you have shown in your others classes that you have the potential to do great work in graduate courses. Getting a good PGRE would also help.

    The only issue you could have when you get to grad school is that in order to start HET research, especially at places like Harvard or Princeton, it will be expected after the first year that you will have taken QFT I and II, GR, and possibly even a string theory course (I know a professor who requires strings 1). So I would try to do if you end up in this situation is to read/study over the summer, possibly try to get out of courses like E&M (which honestly at the grad level is not too helpful. If you know Griffiths very well you will do fine). Probably not grad quantum or stay mech because those are those are very important.

    I definitely think your publication record will help you stand out. Some people may disagree, but I literally have it in writing that mine helped me get the NSF.

    Last thing, absolutely try to get letters from Fermilab and Boulder. Again, some people will disagree with me, but I think it's incredibly helpful to have well known recommenders. They have a lot of connections who think highly of them and that will make people really trust their letter.
     
  15. May 15, 2015 #14
    You seem to be thinking about HET in terms of whether or not you're "good enough"; I'd argue this is unimportant, in the sense that if you were probably only good enough to get into top 20-30 schools, if you had legitimate reasons you should probably still pursue it.

    The real question is why this field is more important to you than the alternatives, since I'd argue there are very few justifiable reasons to pursue HET over just about any other theoretical/computational field of science.

    EDIT: As a disclaimer, I was in your shoes not long ago. I was very interested in HET but unsure of whether or not I would be competitive. This caused me to reflect on my motivations for pursuing the subject, and in doing so, catalyzed the realization that my motivations made very little justifiable sense.
     
  16. May 15, 2015 #15

    Intrastellar

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    What are these few justifiable reasons for you ?
     
  17. May 15, 2015 #16

    radium

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    You seem to be awfully sure of yourself for someone who says they haven't started grad school yet. I really don't think you have the authority to make such blanket statements about a field. I have been in grad school for almost a year now and I don't pretend to know anything significant about HET. I would say that I love CMT because you use a lot of the same field theoretic methods/ideas as in high energy (spontaneous symmetry breaking, confinement, gauge theories, CFTs, lots of interesting math etc.) while receiving input from experiments. However, I would not say CMT is better than HET, it's just what happens to interest and excite me.
     
  18. May 15, 2015 #17
    I'm talking about the general features of the field, not the specific features. For instance, there really is very little good data to play with by comparison with... just about everything else. The funding situation is awful. The career prospects are awful. Why people continue to remain intent on pursuing it in light of these facts tends to boil down to the hype surrounding the field.

    So why study physics beyond the standard model instead of say, fluid mechanics of biomolecules in nano-arrays? Well, HET deals with "big questions!", and "It's more fundamental!" and "The math is cooler!" and "It's more prestigious!" and "It's philosophically deeper" and... well just terrible reasons usually, since the above reasons are all deeply flawed. Other reasons are more justifiable, I think it's perfectly reasonable to want to know what happens inside a black hole, but this is undermined by the complete lack of data which pretty much completely incapacitates any attempt at answering this kind of question short of producing tedious pointless papers detailing convoluted theories reminiscent of Ptolemy's epicycles on epicycles.

    If you accept that what you do is either probably pointless or not as special as the media thinks it is (i.e., as "mundane" as biomolecules traveling through nano arrays, climate physics, turbulence, computational genomics etc), and are genuinely unconcerned about actually becoming a physicist (which the OP apparently is not, given his/her concern about what grad school s/he needs to go to), then you're doing it for the right reasons.
     
    Last edited: May 15, 2015
  19. May 16, 2015 #18
    Like I said, I'm not sure about myself at all. I don't have enough experience, unfortunately, to be able to say what I am interested in, only in what I'm not interested in. I considered biophysics, but was quickly turned off when I learned that a typical biophysics grad student doesn't take E&M (which is the main class which had me wanting to pursue physics at a higher level). Sadly, graduate schools are not interested in what I don't want to do, but in how I can contribute and what I do want to do, which is why I need to pick one.

    I do really appreciate the comments you guys are giving me. It is good that I examine my ambitions so that I don't decide to go into HET just because it's "cool". I am also curious about AMO theory, since that is what my current research is in (pair creation, more or less). Is this also a critically under-funded field?
     
  20. May 18, 2015 #19
    Biophysics is just one of many alternatives to HEP; I picked it because I thought it was neat and because I had wound up in a biophysics lab for undergrad research, but there are plenty of other things to consider. If you are interested in non-equilibrium statistical physics, which is actually a fairly active field of research, biophysics is one of the primary applications. Note that biophysics students often take specific E&M courses related to their particular line of work, since the E&M in biophysics tends to strongly emphasize the combination of statistical physics and EM, which is not covered as well in a typical Jackson EM course from what I understand. At any rate I'd say just look at all of the theorists in the programs you're considering and perhaps even programs you're not considering, whether they do HEP, biophysics, or something completely different. Browse the applied math, engineering, and chemistry departments too, because some excellent physics is often done in these departments.
     
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