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Thinking About Graduate School

  1. Jan 17, 2010 #1
    As a high school senior who hopes to pursue a career in physics, I am learning more about how I want to continue my education every day. Originally, I had hoped to get in the very highest ranked universities (with respect to the physical sciences) as an undergraduate, but I've come to realize that I'd much rather find a university that will provide me with a comparable education while still not putting me several hundred thousand dollars in the hole. But anyway...

    On top of deciding at which university I would have a quality undergraduate experience, I am trying to determine the necessary path in order to gain acceptance to a high-level graduate school. To put this in perspective, I have considered going to a school such as Case Western Reserve University for my undergraduate school--a school with a good physics program in a smaller department and many research opportunities. Because graduate school is the time where most of the academic "heavy-lifting" is done, I would like to put my best foot forward in order to get into a top-tier graduate school.

    My question is: If one puts forth the necessary effort into their undergraduate experience in order to receive a high GPA, solid research, resounding recommendations and maybe a few publications, on top of a rigorous curriculum (hopefully this doesn't sound too exceptional), will you have a good chance of getting into the graduate school that you want? I ask this because I don't know about the degree of "elitism" that is common among graduate admissions--that graduate schools are more willing to submit applicants from more renowned undergraduate programs.

    I'm aware that most of you are individuals who have a lot more insight that I do in regards to college and beyond, but I want to express that I'm not trying to establish a course in my education that I must abide by. I'm not doing this an attempt to get a headstart in padding my academic record in order to get in the most prestigious school possible. I just want to have an idea of how to continue in the path I hope to follow.

    Oh, and if any of you would like to share your thoughts about Case Western, graduate school, or your college experience in general, feel free to provide your thoughts.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 17, 2010 #2
    If you are talking about a specific top 10 school, I wouldn't become too obsessed with that idea. Thats great to have a goal to shoot for, that's the only way you can find out how good you can really be. But there will always be those worse than you and those better than you and you have to be ready to accept that too. For me I won several awards for physics excellence in high school, but university was still a serious reality check. Why is being accepted to a top school important to you? (You don't have to answer that, just a question you might want to ask yourself.)
  4. Jan 17, 2010 #3
    I wouldn't worry too much about it at this stage of the game. One thing that I've learned is that "brand name" isn't that important in the grand scheme of things. Do what you can to learn the material, have some fun, and the "brand name" stuff will work itself out.

    Physics graduate schools really don't separate themselves into "tiers" very easily. The two important things are that you do research you are interested in with people that you like working with, and that doesn't separate itself out into tiers easily.

    Let's start with what you want to do with your life.....

    If you want to get a professorship at a major research university, you are going to face the fact that there are very, very few of those jobs, and you are very unlikely to get one, and the earlier you realize that, the better off you will be since you can figure out what else you want to do.

    Now if you just want to study physics for the rest of your life because you think it's cool, then there are lots of ways you can do that, so you shouldn't worry too much about getting into a prestige graduate school. It's nice if you can, but it's not the end of the world if you can't.

    The problem with giving advice about how to get into a "top tier" graduate school is that someone is going to have to lose. If you have a 1000 applicants, 100 positions, I give advice to everyone on how to get into those 100 positions, everyone does it, then you will end up with 900 people out of luck.
  5. Jan 17, 2010 #4
    Aye, I agree with this. You would not believe how many people out there are smarter than you are. For somebody who has a large ego regarding their intellect (I did -- and most of the top physics and math majors usually do), this is a really hard pill to swallow.

    If I were you, I'd forget all about grad school right now and focus on doing well in undergrad. When your junior and senior years roll around, you'll know A LOT more about what you want to study. When that time comes, go take a look at the faculty-research pages at the Ivies, MIT, Cal Tech, etc. If there isn't something that interests you, forget about attending that school.

    And really, you should have a passion for the subject, rather than a passion for the schools.
  6. Jan 17, 2010 #5
    One thing that I would seriously suggest that you do is to spend a lot of thing studying history, philosophy, literature, and something other than physics. The problem is that since kindergarten, you'll been playing the same game. Get good grades, get selected of the top, move to the next level. Get good grades, get selected out of the top, move to the next level.

    One thing that you will have to realize is that at some point in your life, this will break down. You might get into the top graduate schools, but then you'll find that there is a rat race for post-docs. If you win the rat race for post-docs, you'll find there is another one for junior faculty. Suppose you win that, you'll then be in the rat race for tenure. If you fight that, then you'll be fighting for awards and grants, and all sorts of other things. And then you die.......

    At some point you'll probably fail to get to the next level, and then you'll wonder "now what?" Even if you somehow make it to the top, then one day you'll look around and wonder "now what?"

    So what I'm trying to say is that I think it's a bad idea if you think of your undergraduate education as just preparation for graduate school. You should really think of your undergraduate education as preparation for life. One thing that you should really think about (and taking a good literature or philosophy course really helps you think about it) is why it is that you are on the path that you are on.
  7. Jan 17, 2010 #6
    Thanks for the insight.

    I'm not a kid who aspires to be defined by the university that he attends. In terms of having an interest in the school as compared to physics, I am not caught up in the rank of what school I want to go to. I am simply looking at the quality of the education I receive. I believe the reason why I'm looking so far ahead is because I am taking post-secondary work at a local university right now, so I'm developing an idea of how I would like to continue my education.

    At the age of 17, I don't profess to know where my education will take me. I'm not trying to get ahead of myself, nor do I intend to channel all of my efforts into this one goal of getting into a good graduate school. It was a mistake of me to use the phrase "top tier."

    I wouldn't be speaking with you all if I didn't have a passion for physics. I ask this because if physics is ultimately what I want to be involved in, I would like to make the best use of the undergraduate years that I'm given; not to develop the perfect plan in order to get into the best graduate school, but explore the best way to facilitate that course with respect to my own interests.

    If I do choose physics as my major, what would you suggest I aspire to?

    twofish-quant: Are you saying that I should examine my situation before I decide that I want to attend graduate school? Given what you've said, it is reasonable to have physics as a career?
    Last edited: Jan 17, 2010
  8. Jan 17, 2010 #7
    I would argue that this rat-race is true of any career worth having, not just academia. Do you not think so?
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