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Seriously, what is grad school like?

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  • Thread starter JasonJo
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  • #26
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I'm still working on my BS Physics. So, it might be better for me to shoot directly for the Ph.D after my BS? Here are the requirements for Ph.D at the university I plan on attending:

http://www.phys.uh.edu/phdreq.htm [Broken]
There are a lot of great physics school in Texas. UT, UTD, A&M, and rice are at very high standard. UTD's physics department is undergoing an expansion for its nano-tech research. You shouldn't stay at the same school as your undergraduate degree. One of the reason is that you should go to other school which is best fit your interest. The other reason is that by the time you finish your undergrad, you should have learnt what your undergrad school can offer, then it would be better go go somewhere else and get what other school can offer.

fyi, i graduated from some school in texas. I might be able to give you some opinion around texas.

And yes, you should just go straight to PhD if you can. However you have to be very good at undergrad level.
 
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  • #27
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There are a lot of great physics school in Texas. UT, UTD, A&M, and rice are at very high standard. UTD's physics department is undergoing an expansion for its nano-tech research. You shouldn't stay at the same school as your undergraduate degree. One of the reason is that you should go to other school which is best fit your interest. The other reason is that by the time you finish your undergrad, you should have learnt what your undergrad school can offer, then it would be better go go somewhere else and get what other school can offer.

fyi, i graduated from some school in texas. I might be able to give you some opinion around texas.

And yes, you should just go straight to PhD if you can. However you have to be very good at undergrad level.
Thanks for the advice. I think I'll do that. It'd be great to go UT Austin. I live near Houston, though. I'm going to try to do my best while in undergrad. I'll gladly accept any advice on doing the best I can, preparing for courses, etc.
 
  • #28
To the OP: I wouldn't underestimate your own talent and interest in mathematics if I were you. As you say you take around 5 math courses a semester that probably is, at the least, as hard as your experience will be the first years of graduate school (depending on the graduate school). At MIT, you probably won't get very much sleep (as I believe you only have 4 years). I also wouldn't overestimate the quals. I have looked at quals for some universities (and I am undergrad) and after taking 27 hours of graduate credit, I can do many of the problems very easily without studying or even when the exam tests material I took a year and a half ago. Of course, it depends on the university. As long as you find a good fit for a graduate school the quals will not be all that terrible. Besides what the quals do is give the opportunity to learn three areas of mathematics really well. It gives you a strong working knowledge of math and this is essential because it demonstrates that you can learn more advanced topics in these areas but also shows that you can learn a theory in detail (and so can learn others in detail). Of course, some schools have quals that are not so concerned with explicit modes of knowledge but with a wide breath of knowledge (Harvard is an example, U of Ill is another). These approaches are not bad either as satisfying the requirement is usually somewhat more flexible (i.e. at Harvard you can take the qual as often as you like until you pass and they see this as an essential feature to their program). So, in part, I think the qual is not the hardest part of the Ph.D. It is only the most boring because their is form and structure--its a test. And for this test you have to take these courses and learn this material and work these problems and be able to perform at least at so and so a level within the material. So, I would say it is kind of the thing you have to do to get to the real purpose of doing the ph.d.

The next step is specializing. So, now you have to go to the "forefront" of knowledge in a particular field. I guess yours would be a certain area of mathematical physics. The test for when this is finished is the oral examination which is where you usually present a currently published paper(s) and maybe some other material to a few mathematicians. To do this you have to read a lot. I mean after the quals you may say you are at somewhere around a 1950s mathematician (or something). You have to now pick an advisor and start reading books and papers on you own to get to the present time. If you pick something like graph theory you may get their very quickly, but if instead you pick algebraic k-theory (and you don't understand some more fundamental topics) then it may take a very long time. I guess this was the point someone was making earlier about stochastic analysis. The truth is, at a young age, you have the ability to learn things very quickly when your concentration is fixed, and this time is when you really get to learn the subject you are most interested in (and presumably is why you are in graduate school). The oral presentation I am sure is intimidating and is especially for me because I often stick my foot in my mouth and overlook the obvious. But, its ok not to know something or to do something incorrectly. The main objective is to see that you know your subject.

Finally, the research aspect. To me, this is the hardest part and is probably the most difficult. I haven't any real idea what it is like. But, I do know things can go horribly wrong (e.g., someone solves your thesis problem before you do or you realize that your problem is way too hard to work on in the time that you have). Really, this should be the most exciting time though and is when you get to develop your own, original ideas.

I think the trademark for grad school as opposed to undergrad is that sometimes in grad school you are thinking about mathematics so much that it spills over into your dream time. Anyway, I would stay positive about this though.
 
  • #29
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Actually I think this might not be the first idea. I'm a first year PhD student, and like most of my fellow first years, I do not have an MS. There are a few people in my class who are only here for their Master's degree, and they're planning to get a PhD elsewhere. From where I sit, these guys are at a few disadvantages.

1. The qualifier. I have until the end of my first two years to pass this beast of an exam. Master's students will need to transfer elsewhere, and then pass it relatively easy. If my worst nightmare comes true and I don't pass, I'll at least get a Master's degree as a consolation prize. But when the current Master's students transfer to a new university, they'll need to pass their qual right away. If they don't, then they need to drop out or transfer again. Not a good position to be in.
Can you give an example of a program that says if you already have an MS and you start their PhD program then you have to pass the qual right away?


3. Transfering credits. They keep telling me that the MS credits you take will transfer to the school where you do your PhD. But I'm not so sure about that. I have one PhD student friend who has his MS, and yet he's in all the same first year classes as me. I'm told this is true of all the MS students in the previous year's class. I'm guessing that transfer of credit isn't as smooth a process as they say it is.
Have you asked any of the students with an MS why they are in first year classes?

I will have taken about 20 graduate classes before I graduate with my bachelor's and master's in math. [11 of those classes are for my master's] However, if I go to any school other than the one I am at right now I will probably take all the first year classes. So I would be a first year PhD student with a master's but taking first year classes. If I can pass the quals before starting my first year then I will not take those classes, but if I don't I should probably focus on that material for a while pass the quals and then move on.

Also many of my credits for grad classes will not transfer because I would have obtained them before getting my BS. If I stay at my current school, I think they will count most of them but if I go somewhere else it will be harder.


Now, there are a couple reasons you might apply to MS programs. Maybe you just want to get your MS and get a job (which from your post seems to not be the case). Or maybe you don't have the best grades, and you know that MS programs are easier to get into. If this is so, then an MS might be a great way to boost your GPA and have a better shot at PhD programs. But if you're going this route, try applying to MS programs at schools that also have PhD programs. Once you get in and demonstrate that you can do well, it's relatively easy to apply to the same school's PhD program and get in. This will at least resolve problems 2 and 3.
What I have heard is that it can be really hard to get into MS programs because of funding issues (But this was for math). However, there is probably more funding to go around in physics programs so that may not be an issue. For math, basically, its harder for student who apply to MS programs to get funding.
 
  • #30
206
3
Can you give an example of a program that says if you already have an MS and you start their PhD program then you have to pass the qual right away?
My university, where the qualifying exam is called the comprehensive exam (the written exam on a number of physics topics), and the qualifying exam is a different exam (presenting preliminary research to one's doctoral committee):

"Students entering UAH with an M.S. degree or previous graduate training in physics must take the UAH Comprehensive Examination at their earliest opportunity." - Graduate Catalog, Physics section.

My program seems to be a little unusual within the United States, in that an M.S. degree is not skipped over, but is nearly automatically awarded in pursuit of a Ph.D. What I mean is, even though I had always been pursuing my doctorate, I was considered a master's student until I passed the comprehensive exam.


Have you asked any of the students with an MS why they are in first year classes?
My roommate, who already had an M.S. from another university, re-took first-year grad classes to both fulfill requirements and refresh her memory. (She was also an exception to the "earliest opportunity" rule I quoted above, as she has just move to the U.S. from Turkey and was trying to adjust to a new language and culture.)
 
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  • #31
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Can you give an example of a program that says if you already have an MS and you start their PhD program then you have to pass the qual right away?
Well, actually my school, Iowa State, is one such program. Over here M.S. students are given fifteen months to pass the qual after entering the department. Problem is, the qual is only given once a year in the summer. So effectively the M.S. students only have one chance to pass; two if they take the free shot in the summer before their first year.


Have you asked any of the students with an M.S. why they are in first year classes?
A few are taking classes just to keep material fresh in their minds that'll be on the qual. But also, the department doesn't always accept transfer credit. Plus, until you pass your qual you can't really get started on PhD research, so I suppose there's not much else to do.

I will have taken about 20 graduate classes before I graduate with my bachelor's and master's in math. [11 of those classes are for my master's] However, if I go to any school other than the one I am at right now I will probably take all the first year classes. So I would be a first year PhD student with a master's but taking first year classes. If I can pass the quals before starting my first year then I will not take those classes, but if I don't I should probably focus on that material for a while pass the quals and then move on.
That' excellent! I highly recommend trying to pass the quals during the free shot they give you before your first year. It'll basically remove the largest obstacle on your path to a PhD. I myself managed to pass half the qualifier before my first year (they split it up into classical and modern sections, which can be passed independently).

Also many of my credits for grad classes will not transfer because I would have obtained them before getting my BS. If I stay at my current school, I think they will count most of them but if I go somewhere else it will be harder.


What I have heard is that it can be really hard to get into MS programs because of funding issues (But this was for math). However, there is probably more funding to go around in physics programs so that may not be an issue. For math, basically, its harder for student who apply to MS programs to get funding.
Well, I can't speak competently about that. In physics (at least over here) professors don't mind having competent grad students to help with their research, so they typically don't mind having Master's students. But I've heard that in biology they also don't tend to give M.S. candidates much funding.
 
  • #32
429
2
To the OP: I wouldn't underestimate your own talent and interest in mathematics if I were you. As you say you take around 5 math courses a semester that probably is, at the least, as hard as your experience will be the first years of graduate school (depending on the graduate school). At MIT, you probably won't get very much sleep (as I believe you only have 4 years). I also wouldn't overestimate the quals. I have looked at quals for some universities (and I am undergrad) and after taking 27 hours of graduate credit, I can do many of the problems very easily without studying or even when the exam tests material I took a year and a half ago. Of course, it depends on the university. As long as you find a good fit for a graduate school the quals will not be all that terrible. Besides what the quals do is give the opportunity to learn three areas of mathematics really well. It gives you a strong working knowledge of math and this is essential because it demonstrates that you can learn more advanced topics in these areas but also shows that you can learn a theory in detail (and so can learn others in detail). Of course, some schools have quals that are not so concerned with explicit modes of knowledge but with a wide breath of knowledge (Harvard is an example, U of Ill is another). These approaches are not bad either as satisfying the requirement is usually somewhat more flexible (i.e. at Harvard you can take the qual as often as you like until you pass and they see this as an essential feature to their program). So, in part, I think the qual is not the hardest part of the Ph.D. It is only the most boring because their is form and structure--its a test. And for this test you have to take these courses and learn this material and work these problems and be able to perform at least at so and so a level within the material. So, I would say it is kind of the thing you have to do to get to the real purpose of doing the ph.d.

The next step is specializing. So, now you have to go to the "forefront" of knowledge in a particular field. I guess yours would be a certain area of mathematical physics. The test for when this is finished is the oral examination which is where you usually present a currently published paper(s) and maybe some other material to a few mathematicians. To do this you have to read a lot. I mean after the quals you may say you are at somewhere around a 1950s mathematician (or something). You have to now pick an advisor and start reading books and papers on you own to get to the present time. If you pick something like graph theory you may get their very quickly, but if instead you pick algebraic k-theory (and you don't understand some more fundamental topics) then it may take a very long time. I guess this was the point someone was making earlier about stochastic analysis. The truth is, at a young age, you have the ability to learn things very quickly when your concentration is fixed, and this time is when you really get to learn the subject you are most interested in (and presumably is why you are in graduate school). The oral presentation I am sure is intimidating and is especially for me because I often stick my foot in my mouth and overlook the obvious. But, its ok not to know something or to do something incorrectly. The main objective is to see that you know your subject.

Finally, the research aspect. To me, this is the hardest part and is probably the most difficult. I haven't any real idea what it is like. But, I do know things can go horribly wrong (e.g., someone solves your thesis problem before you do or you realize that your problem is way too hard to work on in the time that you have). Really, this should be the most exciting time though and is when you get to develop your own, original ideas.

I think the trademark for grad school as opposed to undergrad is that sometimes in grad school you are thinking about mathematics so much that it spills over into your dream time. Anyway, I would stay positive about this though.
I would just like to thank you for an excellent, insightful post. This is really going to factor into my decision making.
 
  • #33
400
1
My main concern is that I'm going to be studying and doing homework ALL DAY, for at least the first two years when I'm taking basic grad courses, prelim exams and the quals.

I am not willing to let math completely become my life for even 2 years.
Then don't go to graduate school. :smile: That's basically the concept for the first year (or two, depending on the school) in most grad schools - you devote your entire life to coursework, and if you don't want to then there are plenty of other folks in your classes who are happy to get the good grades and watch you flunk out. It's not as bad as you might think, it's temporary and there's life after grad school, but while you're in the meat grinder you need to be motivated to push on regardless of how much it affects the rest of your life.
 
  • #34
429
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Quick update:

I am back at school and I'm in my last semester. I am taking a bunch of general ed courses that I need to graduate and I really learned one thing: how much I miss taking math courses. I am taking 2 math courses, 1 is working on my dynamics problem and the other is a geometry of physics seminar. I really do miss taking 4-5 math courses every semester, even with all the stress of studying. I think once I get out of an undergrad environment (i.e. the dorming and not being able to control my schedule and sleeping, even though I do enjoy the more lax atmosphere at times) I'll really do that much better.

Thanks for all your responses guys, Peace!
 

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