1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

The theoretical physics saga continues

  1. Jul 31, 2009 #1
    Hi all, my situation is as follows:
    I'd like to pursue a career in research in the absurdly competitive field of theoretical physics. I'm 3/4 of the way through an MSci in Physics and Maths from Durham in the UK and at present, I'm *JUST* on course for a 1st class degree (Not sure what that is in GPA terms- Wiki suggests a first is >3.6- I think it's supposed to nominally designate the top ~10% of graduates nationally). However, my transcript doesn't look particularly convincing:

    1st year (Didn't do very much work)
    Average 60%

    2nd year (Didn't mess around, but didn't kill myself)
    Avg 80%

    3rd year (Worked incredibly hard)
    Avg 65%

    I think there's a few reasons why I didn't do as well in 3rd year despite having worked much harder, but the bottom line is that there's not much relation between how well I think I've understood various topics and the actual marks I've managed to get in exams. I'm saved by the structure of the degree. The 1st year doesn't count towards my final classification whilst the remaining years are weighted 2:3:4, so at present my weighted average is 71% (70 being the cut-off for a 1st). However, someone looking at my grades as they presently stand isn't going to be blown away, and as most of the places I was thinking about applying to ask for a 1st as a basic prerequisite I don't think my application is in fantastic shape. If anyone feels like trying to persuade me otherwise, that'd be wonderful, but at present I'm feeling fairly pessimistic.
    Like many other wanabe theorists, I originally wanted to study quantum gravity, possibly the most over-subscribed research interest in existence. I'm prepared to be broad-minded, however. My course in nuclear physics this year caught my interest, and I've always been interested in foundational questions in QM. I guess my main concern is that I spend time thinking; I've never been especially strong at labwork, or enjoyed it, and regard computer programming as a potentially necessary evil.

    I guess my questions are as follows:
    1)What areas of theoretical physics are less competitive than others? For example, is canonical QG work like that at Nottingham (which is what I'm most interested in) any more or less competitive than the prevailing stringy approach? How about the other interests I mentioned above?
    2)Is there a more expedient way of finding out where does research on a particular topic than Google? Nuclear theory seems to be almost the exclusive preserve of Surrey, with a couple of interesting topics at Birmingham. I've seen really interesting foundational work at Bristol and Imperial, and think I can safely discount the opportunity of an offer from the latter...
    3)Should I even apply for a PhD this year? I think I can just about afford to do a postgraduate MSc next year, although I had hoped not to have to wipe out my savings. I could either apply for a well respected course in directly relevant areas to try and improve my position, or try for an MA in the philosophy of physics- an interest I've always had- and hope that actually attaining decent final year marks in what will ultimately be the most relevant courses for what I want to do (quantum field theory, GR, particle theory, a project/dissertation in string theory, plus a pure maths course in Riemannian geometry) will make my transcipt more commensurate with my ambition.

    Thanks in advance guys.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 1, 2009 #2
    With regards to who's doing what in physics (for the UK at least) the IOP publishes a big booklet listing the departments and their research interests. Probably worth checking out. -> http://www.iop.org/activity/policy/Research Fields in Physics/news_27844.html

    I can't really comment on your first question and your third point is something I'm considering doing myself. Only problem is that to spend another year doing and Msc on top of the MPhys is that it would most likely be far too expensive. Then again I do sort of feel that an extra year of some of the more advanced and theoretical modules could be pretty beneficial over the next few years.

    I'm not sure how much could be picked up throughout the course of the PhD, it is after all ~ 3yrs...
  4. Aug 1, 2009 #3
    Don't put your grade percentage on your CV, just put 1st or "predicted 1st". Now all you need are a couple of good references. Who are the nice guys on the lecturing staff? If you can, ask former successful undergraduates who gave them references. Get to know your favoured referees. Try and do especially well in their classes, or get them to supervise your projects, and work your ***s off on those projects. If at all possible try and socialise with them. Find a common ground of interest (reading Dickens? Swop books. Squash? Challenge him, and lose:-) Next year is election year, if your referees are seriously political then try and bring your own politics to the for (if it is the same as theirs!) Rememeber: "It's not what you know, it's who you know".

    Why do another MSc? Just get moving and apply for that PhD! And don't dismiss Imperial, try 'em all *especially* the best. And why not Durham? "The devil you know..."
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2009
  5. Aug 4, 2009 #4
    Thanks for the responses guys.
    LithiumHelios- A lot of places put on graduate lecture courses- e.g. I seem to remember reading that the most of the Imperial PhD students sit through the MSc lecture courses unless they've been through it or the Cambridge part III.
    Mal4Mac- I doubt I'd have to try and lose at squash, my hand-eye co-ordination is substantially worse than my physics :tongue: I was under the impression though that everywhere would ask for an actual transcript?
  6. Aug 5, 2009 #5
    In twenty five years of applying for UK academic/academic-related jobs, and even sitting on a few interview panels, I've never heard of anyone asking for, and certainly never been asked for, percentages. I've only ever stuck 2(i) on my CV and if pressed explained why it should really be have been a 1 :-) (Starting with - only 1% of people actually got a first in my day, on my course...)

    So I would just stick "1" on your CV, if they want the percentages they can get them from Durham, or during your interview.

    As you are flexible about what you want to do, check out jobs.ac.uk:


    for PhD posts, many only requiring a 2(i)...
  7. Aug 5, 2009 #6


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Of course a transcript is required: it means nothing to say you have a "predicted first class degree". Applicants will need to show what courses they took, what grades they got in specific courses, what grade they have overall, etc..

    Transcripts are required for all PhD positions I have ever applied for/seen others apply for.
  8. Aug 5, 2009 #7
    Jobs.ac.uk looks to be a useful resource- thanks!

    This was the impression I'd got :frown:
  9. Aug 5, 2009 #8
    This transcript might be a new thing, I'm a decade out of date with job searching, and several decades with applying for PhDs...

    Do the application forms now actually say list the % for all your courses?

    If not:

    I agree you need to highlight the *essential* courses, but "Physics 2i, including first class standard in final year theoretical astrophysics project", IMHO, would be far more useful all round than listing every little itty bitty course you've taken. CV readers get bored and might miss the important bits, so just include the important bits...

    No one wants or needs to know that you "only" got 60% in your first year, or what your A level grades were. For instance, I have five A levels, 3 at grade A and 2 at grade D, I only mentioned that I had three As on my CV! No one ever asked what the other two grades were...
  10. Aug 5, 2009 #9


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    No, they say that you must include CV, two(/three) reference letters and a university certified transcript of module marks.
  11. Aug 5, 2009 #10


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    I wouldn't be so down: if your poorer marks are in lab courses, then surely the fact that you've done better in theory modules will then be highlighted by your transcript.
  12. Aug 5, 2009 #11
    Sadly I don't have this get-out- I managed to scrape a 1st in 2nd year labs, and didn't do any in my 3rd year. In general, my transcript doesn't reflect my strengths or my weaknesses all that accurately.
  13. Aug 6, 2009 #12
    Final year projects count for a lot, make sure they are aligned with your interests & strengths & what you want to do next! Even if you slip into a 2i a good project & references could get you where you want to be...

    I again speak from not-too-bitter experience. My main final year project was "sociology of science" oriented but I decided half way through the final year that what I really wanted to do pursue was cosmology, and therefore should have really pursued a cosmology project.

    So really think hard about where your choices will take you!

    If you pursue a "thinking" project what does that equip you for? Doing a PhD in the philosophy department? Fine - a detailed analysis of the foundations of QM might get you that. But with a philosophy of physics PhD where do you go? School teaching? You don't like computer programming (my ultimate path!) so where else? Maybe nuclear physics could get you to a better place (Chernobyl :-)?

    P.S. I'm now quite into "sociology of science" again! Probably why I spend too much time hanging around these forums...
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook