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Undergrad at a large state school?

  1. Aug 9, 2013 #1
    I'm facing the possibility of going to UC Berkeley for undergraduate. I will be majoring in physics and possibly double majoring in math. I have a few questions:

    1. How can I stand out in a class of 100 students and find an opportunity to coauthor a research paper or two before I graduate?

    2. If I were to do grunt-level research work for a professor, how could I progress into significant research for strong letters and possible coauthorship?

    3. I have enough of the math done to graduate in two years with a physics degree. Could I possibly apply to grad school after my sophomore year and, if I'm not accepted to a grad school that I want, simply enroll in mostly grad courses for junior year? Could I repeat this process after junior year, giving me a total of three chances (including the application after senior year) to get into my desired grad school(s)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 9, 2013 #2
    I go to a large state school ranked similarly to yours. Here is my take on your questions.

    1. This is an issue only for introductory courses, in which pretty much the only way to distinguish yourself is to go to office hours and do well on exams. The more advanced courses you take, the smaller the classes become. In fact most of my classes in my second year or beyond had 40 or less students and in quite a few the number was less than 20 (I even had a class of 5 students once). In any case, if you want to do some good research with a professor, you're gonna have to go see him outside of class and make an impression, which will be possible in upper-level classes. Once you get advanced enough to know what your interests are, you could also do an independent study with a professor as a way of getting to know him/her better and depending on how that goes, it may turn into research.

    2. I wouldn't recommend doing "grunt-work". IMO a better use of your time would be to find an area you're really interested in, and spend your first couple of years learning as much as you can about it, and once you know a fair amount, go to a professor who works in that area and ask for research. However this may leave you like me where your interest is in something really advanced and you can't really get started during undergrad, so be careful. Some research is better than none, but if the research you're doing is actually interesting to you, you have a much better chance of doing well and getting a strong recommendation.

    3. The question of early graduation is quite commonly asked by eager young high schoolers who have done well so far. However in most cases people realize how competitive graduate school applications actually are and how much weaker they're application would be if all they have on it is a 2-3 years of courses and little to none research. I would recommend staying all four years where you spend the later one or two taking graduate courses and doing research. When I was starting out, I was considering graduating in 3 years because like you, I was in a rush to finish everything as soon as I can. However, now I'm even contemplating taking a fifth year where I do research, since I haven't really been able to start on research (though I've done a few independent studies) so far and working for a professor for another year might give my application a well needed boost.
  4. Aug 9, 2013 #3
    Thank you for the thorough reply. I have just two more follow-up questions:

    1. Is admission to a highly selective grad school (e.g. Princeton, Stanford, Berkeley) much more difficult if you don't happen to land a coauthorship or super valuable internship, but still do a fair number of URE's and various school year research?

    2. If I didn't graduate early, but I instead spent two years on graduate courses and research (as ahsanxr suggested), could those grad courses that I take undergrad help me to earn a PhD sooner, even though I wouldn't officially graduate with a Master's? In other words, could those grad courses that I take in undergrad "replace" some of the courses I would have to take in the beginning of a PhD programming, thereby enabling me to graduate with a PhD in less time?
  5. Aug 9, 2013 #4
    Here's what you have to understand. Pretty much everyone who applies to these schools has a GPA above a 3.8 or 3.9, with a strong curriculum and also would have done a decent amount of research. As a result, letters of recommendations are extremely important. I would say it's a better situation if you have someone famous and someone who the physics department at say, Princeton, knows pretty well writing you a good letter of recommendation without necessarily having a paper published, than having a paper published as a coauthor with someone they don't know that well or isn't established. This thread at the Physics GRE forum should be helpful:


    I've taken/will take a few graduate courses and thus have asked the same question to a few professors. My impression is that it depends on the school. Some may require you to retake all, or some of the classes, others may be happy as long as you can pass their qualifier regardless if you took their classes or not. So best case scenario would be that you take and pass all the qualifying exams your first semester or year, which would probably cut your PhD time by a non-negligible amount.

    OP should also wait to hear from others, as I'm only an undergrad about to start my senior year, so some more experience definitely could be used.
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