Should I apply to Physics PhD programs?

  • #36
decisivedove
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Well, it's difficult to really assess this before you actually apply and spend some time in the program. Many schools don't require you to make a final decision on a supervisor until the end of your first term. This gives you time to get to know the faculty a little. But again, the more you learn, the better.

It's important to look beyond just the subject matter that they study.

Consider how you learn. What type of professors do you learn the most from? Which ones do you struggle to understand? What type of hours do you like to keep? Do you respond well in a regimented atmosphere (i.e. 9 - 5 days, regular weekly meetings, a clearly defined outline of expectations, etc.) or do you prefer more independence (i.e. the freedom to come and go from the lab/office as you please, sometimes working late into the night, the ability to walk into your supervisor's office unannounced, etc.). Are you okay with online meetings or do you respond better face-to-face?

How much freedom do you want in defining the direction of your project? Some supervisors very much fall into the "do what I tell you and don't waste your time on anything else" class, while others lean more toward the "so what have you been up to over the last month?" Some students are flexible to this kind freedom/regimented spectrum, but others really struggle if the supervisor doesn't jive with them.

Look at a supervisor's other commitments too. How many other students do they supervise? If a supervisor has a dozen students, how much one-on-one time are they going to be able to commit to you? Are they planning a sabbatical in the next few years? Retirement? What committees do they serve on? What's their teaching load?

You can also look at current and past graduate students of theirs, if that information is available. (Often this is the kind of thing you find out on a campus tour.) Where are they ending up? Are they going into work areas you see yourself doing?
That is some great advice. I was looking at the PhD program of my current school and they have a Student-Advisor expectation worksheet with stuff like a lot of the things you mentioned like freedom and meetings. In some schools, you do a trial project with your advisor too so that is probably very helpful in choosing an advisor.

Considering the amount of other students the advisor has and stuff is also something important that I will keep in mind. I can never benefit much from group meetings but I do find a lot of value in one on one meetings based on my experience so far, so I will make sure to have plenty of one-on-one time.

Looking up their past students also seems smart. Would it be advisable to contact their past students?

Very good advice. Thank you so much.
 
  • #37
decisivedove
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You need a balance between short-term and long-term plans, with the realization that there is greater uncertainty in the outcomes of long-term plans. That's why a broad-based education, along with resilience, flexibility, and ability to pivot with the job market are critical to your future happiness.

E.g., if your long-term plan is to become a tenured university professor specializing in high-energy theory, I'm certainly not going to discourage you. But you need to plan for the contingency that after you complete your PhD (and one or more postdocs), you might not get a faculty position. Then what? You don't want to say to yourself that you've just wasted X years of your life, and be filled with bitterness, regret, and self-recrimination. Your PhD (and one or more postdocs) need to have value as a shorter-term end goal, even if it doesn't lead to the long-term career that you had initially envisioned.
That is a very valid point. I am was recently getting very stressed on what my undergrad physics degree even means if I do not end up getting into a PhD program and doing something else for a while. In this process of chasing these "long-term" goals, I am basically ruining the value my BSc in physics will have and not celebrating it enough. A PhD seems very similar too with the only exception being that you put in a lot more work into it. My current situation is a very good learning opportunity for me to try and change my mindset in a way that I won't be be broken if I end up doing something completely different after my PhD. I will not give up trying to achieve my long term goals but if it does not seem like a well-paved path (like it seems now to a lesser extent), I need to learn to appreciate the value of the experiences I had in themselves.

I absolutely agree with your point that I need to find a balance between short-term and long-term goals, and account for the uncertainty with longer-term plans. (There is an uncertainty principle for short term and long term goals. :-) ) I need be more flexible for sure.
 
  • #38
gwnorth
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(A) If your intent here is to graduate from UC Davis with a bachelor's and apply to a different school for a master's in physics, the answer is no:

(1) Many physics departments (particularly the better ones) don't even allow you to apply for a terminal master's program. The only way to get a master's in those schools is to (a) apply for and be admitted to a PhD program, (b) complete the requirements (typically coursework) for a master's degree, and (c) pickup a master's degree on route to completing the PhD program, or pickup a master's degree as a consolation prize on route to exiting the PhD program before completion.

(2) Even for schools that do offer a terminal master's program, you typically will need to pay your own way. If you are admitted to a PhD program by a school that really wants you, however, you typically will get full tuition waiver and financial aid (typically via a teaching assistantship in most instances, but via a fellowship or research assistantship in some instances).

(3) If you complete graduate courses for a master's program at one school, you still might need to repeat them should you later apply for a PhD program at a different school (highly dependent on the particular schools).
Re #1 & 2 unless the OP chooses to pursue a master's degree outside of the US where standalone master's programs are common. Also in some countries, like Canada for example, it is common for the master's to be funded similarly to a PhD such that there are no (or limited) out of pocket expenses.

That does however lead to the issue of #3 should the OP then wish to pursue PhD studies in the US after the completion of the master's. The chances that they might not receive any credit for the previously completed master's studies is a consideration, but given the OPs age and lack of direction, taking a few additional years to get their a PhD may not be a big issue. Certainly it would be no different than taking a gap year or two and would allow for the acquisition of additional research experience and for the OP to make connections to potential letter writers.
 
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  • #39
decisivedove
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I just talked to a faculty advisor who has experience working with graduate admissions. The advice I got was that I still have a shot if I apply but high energy theory is highly competitive so there is a chance I do not get in. If every other part of my application is strong besides undergraduate research, it will not matter that much especially with an explanation. Taking another year of undergrad might also be beneficial.

I also just completed my GRE General yesterday (which was only required for 1 school) but I did not do that well on it. I did not study for it because I had scheduled only a week ago which was midterms week, and I was sleep-deprived when I took it. I also ended up getting burnt out after just 2 hours of the test writing essays, reading random passages, and doing a few quantitative questions.

On the very first quantitative section, I think I got every problem right except maybe 1 or 2 because of algebra mistakes and stuff. Then the second and third quantitative section of the test only got harder with most of the problems being hard. There were a bunch of trick questions that I noticed and did not fall for it but I have no clue how many trick questions I fell for.

They were by no means hard for me but I ended up taking a lot of time trying to solve the hardest problems on there and I did solve it, but I ran out of time for the other problems. If I just did the easy problems first (I did not know that each question is weighted equally. I thought a hard problem is worth more than an easy) and tried to use test taking strategies like eliminating answers, I am confident that I could have gotten a near perfect score on the quantitative section. I ended up getting a 160 on the quantitative unofficial but there is a good chance that it will be curved up a little because a lot of the problems were stuff that I would not expect someone without a background in mathematics, physics, engineering, etc to be able to solve.

I am not allowed to disclose the questions but the problems were way harder than the sample quantitative questions on their website with basic number theory and stuff. I had found some of the tricks I learned in real analysis helpful on the comparison questions.

In the second and third sections, the geometry was crazy, one of which I remember had 3 triangles inscribed on a circle. Something else that slowed my down were the numbers. The calculator on the GRE is very bad so when very complicated numbers were involved, I did one operator at a time noting them down on my scratch paper because if I even press a single wrong button, I would have gotten a wrong answer and not even know about it because it does not show you the input so you can figure out whether something is wrong with it.

My unofficial score for the verbal was a 149. I think I did comparatively better on the essay section. I never want to take the GRE General ever again, because it is 5 hours long. I might give GRE Physics a chance after studying for it next year.
 
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  • #40
gwnorth
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From the research I've done for Physics the 70% & 90% on the GRE are: V - 160 & 166, Q - 163 & 170 respectively with a total score of 323 & 336, so yes your scores are a little low even if your Quant score is the one that they will mainly focus on. A 149 V + 160 Q doesn't even get you to the 50th percentile for typical Physics applicants. For the different program "tiers" a competitive applicant would score in the range of:

T-10 = 164-68 V + 168-70 Q
T-11-50 =161-65 V + 164-68 Q
T-51-100 =158-162 V + 161-65 Q

As HEP-Theory is one of the most competitive fields for admissions, for schools requiring that you submit GRE scores, you would most likely need a substantially higher score. Fortunately many programs still aren't requiring it, or the PGRE, at present.

You could go ahead and apply for PhD programs and see what results you get, but have a back up plan in case it doesn't work out. The downside to this is that the application fees can be quite substantial. My best advice though would be to take 1-2 years to strengthen your profile before applying. Whether that means finding an RA position while potentially taking some grad courses or attending a master's programs would be up to you.
 
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  • #41
Vanadium 50
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Well, there's good news and bad news from those numbers.

The good news is the general GRE is pretty much irrelevant when it comes to admissions. The university might require it, but I am aware of no cases where it made any difference - neither "look at those General scores! We have to admit him!" nor "we dodged that bullet - we almost accepted this guy, but look at the General GRE!"

The bad news is the reason that it's irrelevant is that all the information contained there is contained elsewhere. We don't have that information, but we can infer from the General GRE score that this will not be great. As you showed, the scores are below the median, and we know that many more people take the GRE than are accepted to grad school.

I also think the worse problem is that yet again there was an important step to grad school, and again the OP didn't prepare adequately, and unsurprisingly the OP performed below where he needed to. This is not a recipe for success in grad school.
 
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  • #42
decisivedove
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You could go ahead and apply for PhD programs and see what results you get, but have a back up plan in case it doesn't work out. The downside to this is that the application fees can be quite substantial. My best advice though would be to take 1-2 years to strengthen your profile before applying. Whether that means finding an RA position while potentially taking some grad courses or attending a master's programs would be up to you.
Yeah. I have finally decided on taking a gap year. While I want to do a physics PhD, I feel like I need to learn and grow outside of academia for at least a year. Initially my plan was to take a gap year too but I would think of me not getting into a PhD program as defining my self-esteem. But lately I am starting to realize, I enjoy doing physics, and school is just kills a lot of the fun I have by doing problems, going slow through the material and making sure I understand it the best I can.

At school, I have a deadline every day of the week except Monday and Sunday, so I never get to enjoy learning or doing physics. There is just so much pressure to perform by doing well in exams and rushing through material instead of appreciating the material and solving problems for the sake of it. I am sure that I can learn any subject way faster and deeper on my own without these external pressures if I can take control of my learning. I would like to take a break from taking classes full-time for at least a year. This is why a PhD seems appealing to me - there is so much time to focus on one problem and take my own learning in my own hands (after finishing the classes).

I am thinking that I can do an internship at a national lab during the Summer and then work on a RA position while taking the quantum field theory and quantum mechanics sequence as a non-matriculated student. And then I can try my luck with a PhD program next year or the year after. What matters is that I continue to learn and grow instead of having expectations on myself to get into a top PhD program, and getting good grades, etc, and that requires a change in my mindset.
 
  • #43
decisivedove
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I also think the worse problem is that yet again there was an important step to grad school, and again the OP didn't prepare adequately, and unsurprisingly the OP performed below where he needed to. This is not a recipe for success in grad school.
I do agree. I was self-conflicted for a long time on whether or not I should apply this year. Signing up for the GRE was an impulsive last-minute decision to try my luck for one school. I will not be applying for a PhD program this year. Next year, I will plan in advanced on how I will structure my time to prioritize research experience and the GRE.
 
  • #44
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At school, I have a deadline every day of the week except Monday and Sunday, so I never get to enjoy learning or doing physics. There is just so much pressure to perform by doing well in exams and rushing through material instead of appreciating the material and solving problems for the sake of it.
And you think this will get better in graduate school? It will not. It will likely get worse.

I can learn any subject way faster and deeper on my own without these external pressures if I can take control of my learning.
Um...

This opens up all sorts of cans of worms you don't want opened. Reasonable questions are: "If you are so good at learning on your own, why are your grades and test scores average or slightly below?" (And you will need a score on the Physics GRE in the high 900's to make this argument credibly) "If learning under the guidance of others is such a detriment, why are you applying here to do just that?" "If this is true at Davis - the only place you really have xperience = why the heck didn't you transfer?"

This position will not help you, will likely hurt you, and if nothing else is hard to swallow.
 
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  • #45
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gap yea
Do not call it a gap year.

A gap year is something done by flaky students who either can't make up their minds or are incapable of meeting deadlines.

A year outside of school in support of specific goals X, Y and Z is much better.

FWIW, I had what is now called a gap year and got into my first choice for graduate school. But I had specific goals in mind and could speak to them when asked (and I was),

This is general advice. Specifically, I think it is more important for you. One might look aty your application and conclude "This person considers graduate school the default option - he's not applying because he wants to do something specific, but he couldn't think of any other options". True or not, it doesn't matter - that's what it looks like. Stirring a "gap year" into the mix only reinforces this.
 
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  • #46
decisivedove
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This opens up all sorts of cans of worms you don't want opened. Reasonable questions are: "If you are so good at learning on your own, why are your grades and test scores average or slightly below?" (And you will need a score on the Physics GRE in the high 900's to make this argument credibly)
My exam scores in my physics classes are not below average. Here is my last undergrad E&M class for example (well above upper quartile):
1668374780327.png

1668374808670.png


I do not consider exam scores a true reflection of understanding. Exam problems (at least in my school) tend to be way easier than homework problems but the only catch is that it is a challenge to finish on time. Many of my classes have elements that are not geared in learning - for example I lost a bunch of points for not plugging in the numbers for statistical mechanics problem (I only plugged in numbers for the last part of the problem where it was required to calculate something but not in the other parts).

As for GRE General scores, I did not prepare at all and my attention span << 6 hours which was reflected in my scores. I got a higher percentile for analytical writing than the quantitative section eventough I am clearly better at doing math than writing, just because it was in the beginning. My official diagnosis of ADHD only reflects this. I do not consider myself a good test taker.

"If learning under the guidance of others is such a detriment, why are you applying here to do just that?"
I should have elaborated more. Learning under the guidance of others is not an issue for me. In fact, I appreciate having a good teacher who answers my questions. The "detriment" is the pace at which the material is taught. At most other schools E&M is a 3 quarter series, but at my school it got condensed to 2 quarters while still covering all of Griffiths. Quantum Mechanics is also similarly only 2 quarters. I can keep up with the pace but the issue is that whenever I have a conceptual gap or a weakness, instead of being able to spend more time on it, we just move on and I feel like I am left with gaps in my understanding. The faster pace also means we are assigned easier problems which in my opinion is not the best for learning.

And you think this will get better in graduate school? It will not. It will likely get worse.
My sample size for graduate school classes is very small (1 class - graduate classical mechanics) but so far I find that it helps me learn a lot more per week compared to any undergraduate class. This is mainly because of 3 reasons:
  • The professor is more involved with our learning and lets us ask tangential questions that can benefit our understanding. Students ask more questions too. The professor also hosts 2 homework workshops each week and I attend both of them and get conceptual gaps clarified (like recently I was not too comfortable with linear algebra in index notation, but my professor helped me a whole lot with it).
  • The homework problems are more abstract and help me understand the material way better. I turned in my homework a little late once and I still did not lose any points for it. This encourages to turn in a perfect homework each time and take my time to make sure I understand all the material. In undergrad, most my homework are rushed.
  • The material is very interesting. I really enjoy the abstract discussions of canonical transformations and classical field theory, as opposed to undergraduate "compute this".
This is by no means solid evidence. There were undergraduate classes I attended that I found really helpful, and my sample size for graduate classes is a lot smaller. But I think it is safe to assume that homework assignments of graduate classes are more geared towards helping me get the material. Even if I hate classes in graduate school, it will be mainly over in like 2 years.


"If this is true at Davis - the only place you really have xperience = why the heck didn't you transfer?"
Davis is the only place I have experience. I had no reason to believe that this highly specific stuff would change at another school on the quarter system. (Berkeley was the only semester school I got into) Maybe I would have been better off if I went to UC Berkeley instead, but at that time I had my reasons. Also, at this point I do not consider transferring smart because at Davis I am allowed to just enroll in more advanced graduate physics classes. I have a friend at another schools who say that it requires prior approval to take graduate physics classes, and he did not get approved despite being recommended by the professor.
 
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  • #47
decisivedove
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A year outside of school in support of specific goals X, Y and Z is much better.
Sure. That is some good advice. I will frame it that way while applying for graduate school.
 
  • #48
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You have lots of excuses. Excuses are fine, but getting into grad school is competitive. The schools are going to take accomplishments over excuses every single time. Unfair? Maybe. But that's how it is.
 
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  • #49
Office_Shredder
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Sure. That is some good advice. I will frame it that way while applying for graduate school.

Don't frame it that way. Make it that way. What are you going to do during your gap year to improve yourself, either as a physicist or as a general human being?
 
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  • #50
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Make it that way.
This.

What are you going to do during your gap year to improve yourself, either as a physicist or as a general human being?
And it will go a lot smoother if you decide this now, before you start, rather than trying to piece the story together after the fact.
 
  • #51
gwnorth
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I do not consider exam scores a true reflection of understanding.
Unfortunately academic institutions do and those are the hoops you have to jump through if you want to participate.
 
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