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Programs Shortest Path to a PhD in Math or Theoretical Physics?

  1. Aug 13, 2011 #1
    As of right now I'm a rising sophomore, math and physics double major. It's hard to say whether I'm gonna be pursuing a PhD in one of these disciplines or whether I'll be switching to something more employable later, as I haven't had many upper division classes. I do, however, strongly suspect that I'll certainly enjoy and feel challenged by them. Secondly, the prospect of researching in Theoretical or Mathematical Physics, especially for a TOE seems highly attractive to me. So chances are I will be pursuing a PhD in one of these fields.

    However, the prospect of being in school for 5+ years AFTER undergraduate studies seems undesirable to me, and highly undesirable to my family who have certain expectations from me (which I want to meet). So I'm looking for certain routes, if any, which will allow me to remove a year or two from that 5-6 year number. I've heard that at certain places in Europe or the UK a PhD is doable in 3 years. Can someone expand upon the accuracy of that? Going to the UK is something I'll consider if that happens to be the case. Also what are the differences between someone who does his PhD in 4 versus someone who does it in 5? Is it a matter of preparation and talent? Does it have to do with the research project? Will taking graduate classes as an undergrad help me shorten the amount of time? What other possibilities are there? Any insights to these questions, I'll certainly appreciate. I'm not looking for shortcuts and easy way outs and I certainly understand that getting a PhD is tough and requires extreme dedication. I'm just trying to explore my options.

    Note that the number of years I'm talking about are the years after getting a bachelors, not a masters. I don't necessarily want a masters.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 13, 2011 #2
    If you want a PhD in Europe, then you must have a masters degree, and this will take up 2 years. So all in all, a PhD in Europe will also take up 5+ years, as it should.
  4. Aug 13, 2011 #3
    Yeah, except for the UK perhaps, where you might get into a PhD program with only a bachelor's.
  5. Aug 13, 2011 #4
    That might be. But I'll be surprised if your PhD only lasts 3 years then...
  6. Aug 13, 2011 #5

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    It's 5+ years of work. There's no magic bullet, I'm afraid.
  7. Aug 13, 2011 #6
    Yeah, I don't know about that, and would be interested in hearing if any of the UK people can provide more info, as well. I assume a regular B.Sc. in Physics from the US wouldn't cut it for direct PhD entry, though, anyway.
  8. Aug 13, 2011 #7
    Yes, I'd be very interested in hearing about how PhD programs in Math or Theo. Physics work in the UK.

    I realize that, and I'm not looking for one either. What I am looking for are options which would allow me to reduce that time. Certain institutes, things I can do, which will help me reduce the time.

    Something I may do is finish my bachelors in 3 years. I somewhat have it worked out in my head but it is possible for me to finish with a double major in 3 years (by 2013), although I won't be able to add a significant amount of graduate courses. How advisable is that with respect to graduate school admissions?
  9. Aug 14, 2011 #8
    A phd in the UK only takes 3 years after an undergraduate, and I know several people who got out that quickly. However- for that very reason, UK graduates are often seen as less competitive for international positions after their phd (I've heard several professors express that a UK phd is equivalent to an older US grad student, which makes sense, they have the same experience).
  10. Aug 14, 2011 #9
    Where did they do their undergrad?
  11. Aug 14, 2011 #10

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    Usually, it was 3 years after an MS. This is now getting bumped to 4 in many cases.
  12. Aug 14, 2011 #11
    In France and England, secondary school education consists of a year more than in the USA. Generally, this is how it works:

    3+2+3 (BS-->MS-->PhD)

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Enseignement_sup%C3%A9rieur_fran%C3%A7ais.png" [Broken] image explains it pretty well.

    Baccalaureat, L, M and D stand for the equivalent of a high school diploma, bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees respectively.

    Recently, English universities have started to include an additional year of undergraduate study in many of their programs and the students are awarded an additional MS degree at the end of the fourth year. From what I gather, during the fourth year (MPhys, MMath, etc), upper level courses are taken. At Cambridge, for instance, the MMath year of their course is Part III of the Mathematics course. That fourth year is generally the prerequisite for entry into PhD programs.

    Therefore, I do not think that "an older grad student" (how many years into their PhD?!) will have the same "experience" to somebody with an education from a European country...who actually has the PhD degree.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
  13. Aug 15, 2011 #12
    Not advisable at all to be honest.

    Grad schools don't care about your age or how long it takes you to graduate. What's important is the actual depth of your application (research, courses, relationships with professors, etc.). It doesn't matter if it takes you 4 years or 3 years to do this so long as you have a substantial application.

    Obviously, the longer you stay in college, the better your application will be so if you're sure you will have a solid application in 3 years, then by all means graduate. But many find that to not be the case for them. Also, if you plan to graduate in 3 years, note that grad schools will only see 2 years of complete work and .5 years of in-progress work (since you're applying around the Fall of your graduating year). This limits your application a LOT since the most depth of a typical undergrad's application comes from their Junior and Senior years.
  14. Aug 16, 2011 #13
    Well if this is the case I'm definitely looking more into the UK. What are some good graduate programs for Math or Theoretical Physics over there and usually is it easy for a US undergrad to get admitted into them? I'll really appreciate it if someone has some more information about this.

    Yes those are valid concerns. If I do end up taking this route I'll make sure I have the appropriate coursework but I imagine the research and recommendations part will be difficult to do.
  15. Aug 16, 2011 #14


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    In Germany, Austria and Switzerland there are no fixed lengths set for a PhD. If you can finish your project in two years and it has the demanded scientific value, you can graduate after that time. That's entirely up to your productivity and your advisor and thesis committee. Even one year graduations are not unheard of (although for most people it takes three to five years after the masters, that's the regular time).
    Also, PhD student's usually don't take courses unless they want to, and they are not actually considered to be students, but rather employees at the university or research institute (like Max-Planck institutes, Leibnitz institutes, Fraunhofer institutes etc). If you are employed to do your PhD research (instead of employed for TAing or similar) this can save you *a lot of time*, because then your main job is getting your project done, and nothing else. On the other hand, you will likely not be able to enter a program without a MSc/Dipl-Phys/Dipl-Math degree (depends on the university and the advisor. Some make exceptions) or you might be required to take additional courses. Note that these degrees typically include one year of independent research for the final thesis in physics and math in these countries. So even if you would enter a German two-year masters program based on your BSc, you could still likely use your skills and one year of research progress obtained in this context for your PhD, to speed it up.

    In Germany, being fast in the undergraduate degree is seen as something very positive. If you can finish a double-major (with good grades) in three years this would be seen as a sign of your speed and efficiency and open some doors which otherwise might be closed to an american BSc.
  16. Aug 18, 2011 #15
    I know that the conversation is really geared towards European PhDs at this point, but it is possible to cut off a single year at North American universities.

    Universities that require a masters degree often allow entrance to PhD program from a Bachelors provided that the student demonstrates exemplary research potential, in which case a 2 yr master + 3 yr PhD becomes a 4 yr PhD. However, in this case you would want to do a 4 year bachelors degree to get the time as an undergraduate research assistant.

    Even those programs that advise the 2+3 year PhD program will often allow you to finish so long as you have satisfied all your requirements. In Canada at least, there is almost always a course requirement, your comprehensive exams, and then your thesis and associated defence. If you can complete all that quickly, then you might be able to cut a year or two off.

    The reason why that's not done often, is that your PhD thesis (in Canada) must "make an original and significant contribution to your field." I'm not sure about the standards in other countries, but it's definitely not sufficient to just learn about a subject: you need to be publishing. Most of the PhD students I know have several papers before graduating, so really that thesis requirement is what is keeping most people around for the full tenure.
  17. Aug 18, 2011 #16


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    One thing that takes many candidates a long time in their phd program is passing the PhD qualifying exams in several related fields. E.g. a pure math PhD candidate might take these exams in algebra, analysis, and topology.

    If you can come in ready to pass those exams in your first semester, or even in advance of the semester, that significantly shortens the time needed for completion. That gives you the whole three years to find and work on your thesis project.

    Of course you still may need to spend a year or more studying specialized subjects like algebraic geometry or number theory before being able to begin research.

    You could go on line at the universities you are considering and see what their old quals look like. if you are not able to pass those in advance, that also tells you something about the feasibility of your plan.
  18. Aug 18, 2011 #17
    On that note also, if you're really planning on doing research in math or theoretical physics, you probably don't want to rush through your PhD. You should take your time, work hard, and do it correctly. I could be wrong, but from the political side of things I feel like your PhD and Post-Doc experiences will greatly affect your ability to find tenure-track positions. As post-docs are EXTREMELY competitive, you need to have a fantastic PhD track record to secure a good post-doc position. And without a good post-doc, kiss tenure-track or even pure research positions goodbye.
  19. Aug 18, 2011 #18
    Yeah, quals are time vacuums (doing them myself). Get those out of the way and you'll have a lot more time!
  20. Aug 18, 2011 #19
    Just a thought. Look into seeing if your school offers a BS/MS type of program. That is what I did. My degree program as an undergrad required me to take 6 elective classes. Instead of taking easy classes and/or useless ones, I took all graduate level classes
    (and yes, it was VERY painful). Over the summers and in any free time I could muster up, I worked on my research. Ideally, I would have had the research completed by the time I got the undergrad degree. It was a little too much, so I have added a 2 month extension and will have my graduate work done shortly.

    Point being, I have my bachelors and masters in approximately the same amount of time it takes to do a bachelors degree alone. Now I am in a good position to do a Phd in ~3 years if I choose. Especially is I stay on with the same school/advisor.

    You are already doing the double major though, so I do not know how viable this is.
  21. Aug 18, 2011 #20


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    Of course it is like that in Europe (and probably most other places all over the world) too. It's not the research you can cut in some countries, it's the taking classes, writing reports, TAing, etc. Basically, you are expected to be beyond that once you start on your PhD degree. That being said, if you have some prior experience in a field from your masters degree and you work hard, effectively and efficiently, it is perfectly possible to produce a few good papers in two or three years after starting on your PhD. Especially if you don't have any other significant obligations than doing exactly that.

    It's the working effectively that turns out to be hard for most people.
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