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Admissions (UK) Where to apply for theoretical PhD programs in Physics?

  1. Aug 29, 2016 #1
    Firstly I'd like to apologise as I know this is a pretty common topic to post questions on!

    Basically I recently graduated with a first class (72% average) from the University of Southampton (Russell group, but obviously not Oxbridge level) and am planning to spend a year out applying to PhD's. My interests are moderately broad within theory, including black holes, GR, AdS/CFT, QFT, string theory and maybe some theoretical astro/cosmology.

    My question is where I should realistically be looking to apply to, considering my grade is a very low first and I have read elsewhere that many theory departments will expect candidates to average in the 80s! My grade does show a strong climb over the course of my undergrad, averaging around 66% in 2nd year, compared with 78% in 4th year, additionally I performed will in some relevant modules such as Advanced GR (88%), Advanced Quantum Physics (82%) along with a masters project on AdS/CFT (79%) and a 3rd year dissertation literature review on extra dimensions (79%).

    Clearly places like Oxbridge/Imperial etc will be a step too far, but I have been looking at (to name a few) Kings College London, UCL, Queen Mary College London, Sussex, Nottingham and Southampton. I wonder if I would stand much of a chance in applying to any of these universities, or would it even be worth applying to some of the top institutions?

    I'll also mention that while applying I do plan on home studying a few textbooks to keep my mind fresh (namely Gauge/Gravity Duality by Ammon and Erdmenger, Polchinski's String Theory text, Carroll's GR notes and David Tong's QFT lecture notes if possible!).

    Thanks in advance for any advice! :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 29, 2016 #2
    The fields you mention are insanely competitive. I advise you to apply to as many institutions that you can, because your chance of getting is pretty low given your GPA.
    Now, I don't know the situation in the UK and how they grade their, but in my country (Belgium) a 78% in your 4th year would get you into no PhD program for these subjects.
  4. Aug 29, 2016 #3
    Thanks for the reply. I am aware I will need to apply widely due to the competitive nature of the areas I am looking at. As for the grading, in the UK the highest grade classification is a first class which is 70%+, so, at the risk of over valuing myself, 78% is a fairly strong performance (although not enough to warrant applying to somewhere like Oxford/Cambridge I don't think). For reference, may people in less popular subjects such as quantum optics and nanotechnology, can easily get onto PhD programs with an upper second class (2.1), which is between 60-69% overall (I have even received emails from our optics department asking me to apply to a PhD position due to my strong grades), which leads me to speculate that the grading in the UK is harsher than in Belgium, although I could be wrong regarding the value of my grade! I appreciate the feedback however!
  5. Aug 30, 2016 #4


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    I don't think you mentioned Durham. They definitely have people doing holography there based on papers I've seen.
  6. Aug 31, 2016 #5

    Larry Gopnik

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    I'm about to go into my third year on the MPhys so I'm in the same boat of thinking about PhDs.

    I've been told that in the UK, a 1:1 is a 1:1, when applying for PhDs it doesn't really matter what percentage you get overall, if you have got a 1:1 you're eligible. My lecturer mentioned that they will look at grades of relevant modules but not really the other all grade and what separates the 1:1s out into people that get places and people who don't get places are the people who have done good work/ summer placements that are relevant to the course. The websites of the universities say they look for a 1:1, some a 2:1 for application.

    Did you graduate with a BSc, an MSc or an MPhys? If a Bsc it might be worth finding a Masters. Now that there are student loans for masters it makes taking them easier now too.
  7. Aug 31, 2016 #6
    Good call, although I do worry Durham is one of those 'too good' places near the Oxbridge level, I know they have some areas which interest me though, thanks!
  8. Aug 31, 2016 #7
    Sorry, my degree was an MPhys, somehow completely forgot to mention that in my original post, my bad! The thing is I've sort of heard conflicting reports to be honest, a PhD student once told me basically a first is a first, the exact grade shouldn't matter too much, then a professor I spoke to stressed the importance of strong marks, leading me to believe my low first might still be inadequate. My thinking is that I should stand a decent chance in getting onto a PhD somewhere, but I wouldn't mind getting an idea of where my ceiling is in terms of the universities I can apply to! Thanks for the reply!
  9. Aug 31, 2016 #8


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    First of all, the system in the UK is different to the system in the USA meaning much of what you read on this forum will not apply.

    Unless you are applying to a CDT (which is as close to "graduate school" you can get in the UK) you won't be applying to a university as such. What usually happens is that a researcher gets some funding from e.g. the EPSRC to work on a particular problem, and sometimes some of that funding will pay for one of more PhD students.

    There are good (and well known) researchers in Oxbridge but there are also good researchers elsewhere, meaning finding a position with a less well-known researcher in e.g. Oxford might be easier than finding the equivalent position at some of the smaller universities (some of the smaller universities have very strong theory groups, but the whole department might consist of 2-3 groups).

    Hence, whereas many (but not all) universities will have some minimum requirements for PhD students (which since you got a first class degree you have probably met) it is really up to that particular researcher to determine who he/she want to hire. This means that there are no exact rules for what grades you will need to have in order to get accepted.

    When I look for PhD students a good recommendation from a colleague who has worked with that student as part of e.g. a summer- or final year (or even MSc) project is more important than grades (as long as the student has passed the relevant courses). I can't see myself ever hiring a student solely based on his/her grades.
    That said, I am an experimentalist and I am interested in how well the student will function in a lab, things might be different if you want to do theory.

    Note also that there isn't much funding for the areas you mentioned, I suspect you will find that some years there might not be ANY PhD positions available and then there isn't much you can do.
  10. Aug 31, 2016 #9
    Thanks for the long response! Firstly I have learned that the forum is a lot more US oriented, as I spent a good few hours reading through older threads in the hope to find some relevant information without a huge amount of success.

    I am aware of applying to groups rather than the universities themselves but I assumed each group will have requirements which are essentially dependent on the prestige of the university itself, so thanks for clearing that up for me. Again I knew that my exact grades wouldn't be the main factor in dictating getting a place and not, but as mentioned wanted to gauge whether there are certain places it simply wouldn't be worth applying to, and from your reply I am leaning towards suppressing these concerns and just going for it in the hope that my project and references will hold up, which I hope should be the case as I performed fairly well in the project, and hence hope to receive a positive endorsement from my supervisor.

    Thanks again for the helpful reply, I think I was probably placing too much weight on the importance of my grade, which was due to constantly being told I need to focus on getting my first (going into my final year and I was on a high 2.1 hoping to 'bump' it up, which is why I decided not to apply then and wait until I definitely have the first!).
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