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Undergrad school suggestions in NY

  1. Mar 30, 2012 #1
    I am a NYC resident but I'd really like to attend UC Irvine because one of my best friends who is a grad student (in a top five school, nonetheless) referred me to a specific professor with whom if I play my cards right and do good research work with, can network me with very good experiences in general and subsequently faciliate my acceptance to the same school my friend is currently attending.

    The most obvious problem on the surface is that the bank will not let me take out a loan for out-of-state tuition without a co-signer and FAFSA/Pell/Stafford can only give me so much.

    I have considered this:
    1) Move to CA after my first year at Community College here in NYC
    2) Find a homeless shelter or a church that will take me in exchange for work that is nearby a Community College (granted if I cannot find a job immediately and job availability these days is something I am not particularly expectant of or optimistic about)
    3) Attend this Community College for a year to establish residency in CA
    4) Transfer to UC Irvine with significantly lowered costs

    I am 24 years old with no money and nothing to my name (I don't have any family either), so if I maintain good grades I won't lose any financial aid (hopefully).

    If this doesn't work out, I don't mind staying in NY but I don't know any schools here or any professors that I know will be a shoo-in to work with in order to get into good graduate schools.

    Does anyone have suggestions for schools in NY for Physics/Engineering or Computational MatSci/Engineering programs?
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 1, 2012 #2
    Shameless bump for any suggestions!
  4. Apr 1, 2012 #3
    Does it have to be UC Irvine? Do you have to follow your friend's footsteps?

    I'm from NYC. CUNY - City College isn't that bad of a school. I slacked off like hell in high school and had to start in the CUNY system before transferring. I am studying mathematics and CUNY - College of Staten Island was basically teaching me calculus at a level lower than high school but if you ask me, it is what you make of it. A friend of mine from high school graduated same year as me from high school. He has already finished his undergraduate studies at CUNY - Brooklyn College and is now in a very strong PhD program (top 20 or so).
  5. Apr 1, 2012 #4
    If you're going for undergrad and you have good grades, you should be able to get into plenty of schools without needing a professor/research advisor as a contact. Most undergrads don't do any research, and most undergrad schools' physics curricula are exactly the same. (I'd say the quality of teachers doesn't vary that much--even teachers at lower-tier state schools are Ph.D.'s who have completely mastered undergrad-level physics.)

    I'm from NJ and have worked at CUNY City College. I didn't get that great of an impression of their department, but I'm sure they offer a better-than-average program for undergrads. Plus, you get to meet Michio Kaku. Cornell would be the best state-school option though, and I'd give 2nd place to SUNY Stony Brook -- they have a great physics program (because they associate a lot with Brookhaven). But any of the CUNY or SUNY schools that offer physics programs would probably be on par with Irvine. Even though they're not known for physics, I would love to take classes or work at Hunter College--they have a full physics department (they award physics Ph.D.s) and you get to be in a great part of the city!

    If you're really set on abandoning NY and moving to Cali, I would suggest also applying to Berkeley and Santa Barbara. Both have really good physics departments. San Diego is good too. But I would at least apply in NY before taking such drastic steps.
  6. Apr 2, 2012 #5
    Since he is 24 and since he stated that he was thinking about starting at a community college I would suspect that Cornell and Stonybrook are out of reach at the moment. (I apologize for saying he if you are a she.)

    Moving straight to California would also be a bad idea because there is a chance that the school will not accept him dumping him deeper into the hole he is already in but I do agree with the fact that Stonybrook and especially Cornell have physics departments that if not better than are on par with UC Irvine.
  7. Apr 2, 2012 #6
    Just to make it clear, I'm not trying to follow in anyone's footsteps, per se - who doesn't want to get into a great school? I just thought I could use my friend's experiences as a guideline to get into his school (MIT) or even UCSD, CU Boulder, and Madison which are lower ranked schools, but still good. But who wouldn't want to get into the best, right? I don't know anyone else in the graduate Physics or MatSci programs at MIT so I can't ask them for details on their personal experiences, which means my one friend's experience is the only sure guidance I can accurately rely on, as opposed to blindly putting in the same work and effort at another school and yet not get accepted into any schools.

    My friend made it clear that the reputations of professors at the schools are the key to getting into the best grad schools for your field - meaning a letter of recommendation from someone who has made a name for themselves in the field, such as a professor who has won a Nobel prize or a reputable NAS member - has a lot more weight in recommending a student to a very good REU program which looks good on your grad school application, as well as the influence they have in recommending you to the graduate school you are applying for. I'm just afraid that at any other school, I might not be able to network with anyone significant enough to get my foot in the door.
  8. Apr 2, 2012 #7
    It seems to me like you might be giving too much importance to the letters of recommendation (and who writes them) for getting into grad school. I think if you had to stack it up, the most important aspects to get into grad school would be

    Relevant physics publications (this is a huge bonus that most applicants don't have)
    The curriculum you took as an undergrad--classes, majors, degree, etc.
    Your grades in those classes
    Content of letters of recommendation
    Who wrote letters of recommendation and what their relationship to you was
    Awards/recognitions/REUs/other resume items
    GRE scores
    How good your undergrad school was
    everything else

    If you want to do research, and you think any school gives you a much higher chance of getting your name on a serious physics publication, try to get into that school. But I don't think the move to California to study with that professor at Irvine would really increase your chances THAT much, unless you and he have the same highly specialized research intrest. Most physics departments have a wide range of research opportunities.

    If your dream is MIT, I have a friend from undergraduate who's a phd student at MIT. If you want his advice, I could probably get you in contact. I don't know if his advice would be that valuable to you, though, since he (like me) got into a phd program at 22 years old. I'd advise you to get advice from someone else in your position: someone who started graduate studies in their late 20's, and ideally someone who started undergrad around 24. I think that's a much more important factor in your application prospects than which school you're applying to. [Also, the fact that you need financial aid for undergrad is a big factor.] I have a few fellow grad students at Brown who are a bit older, and I could get you in contact with them, too. However, I think most of them took time off between college and grad school rather than before college.
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2012
  9. Apr 2, 2012 #8
    Honestly, it's not me who's putting the emphasis on letters of recommendation and the people you know. My friend listed the qualities that grad schools consider in order from most important to least important:

    1) Research experience, closely followed by
    2) Letters of recommendation and who writes them,
    3) GPA (he says that as long as I can maintain a 3.5 or more, then I should be fine and it doesn't really matter too much. He had a 3.8 himself), and
    4) GRE (he says he didn't perform too well on this; scored like in the 50th percentile but as long as I don't bomb it, he says I should also be fine)

    I asked him about publications and he says that it's rare for undergrads to have any and he didn't have any himself. Other than that, he got a few awards for his department and that was all. He said that he lucked out on the awards and says the recipients are pretty much random, though he didn't quite understand the process himself.

    My friend actually worked for 4 years first before going to school so he could pay it off instead of accruing interest on loans, though I haven't had that same opportunity so I'll have to pay my way through school and be in debt (which I'm not too concerned about). So he went to community college at 22, then transfered to UCI at 24 on a whim, just because his wife was studying there, no other particular reason. He just got into grad school last fall which he didn't really expect, but once he gave me the news I felt as if my dreams weren't impossible anymore, if I could start fresh like he did.

    Does age really matter in terms of graduate school applications? What does it matter to them if a student meets all of the qualifications?
  10. Apr 2, 2012 #9
    Age? Doesn't matter.

    I would rank what graduate schools consider most important similarly, but I believe 3.5 is not the average. 3.5 is the minimum.

    Like I said in my first post. It is what you make of it.
  11. Apr 2, 2012 #10
    There seems to be a lot of conflicting information, such as Jolb's list of priorities for graduate school and my friend's, and you say that age doesn't matter but Jolb's post seems to imply that it makes a difference which is why I should seek someone who's experienced going to school at a later age...unless I'm misunderstanding
  12. Apr 2, 2012 #11
    One of my friends got into Cornell just a few weeks ago and is 25 years old. He applied to most of the top 10 schools and got into some very good schools (Michigan, Maryland, etc.), but the tippity top sent back rejections despite him having two published papers and a ~90% PGRE score. Perhaps the quality of the school does matter a bit, but if you can publish then it hardly matters where you went, and if you can do really well on the PGRE then that is a plus as well. Letters of recommendation matter a lot, especially if they're from people you've done research with. This is the next best thing to publishing a paper, because it is an indication of how well you can do research.

    Being dead-set on a particular school for undergrad isn't smart, in my opinion. You can go to any dumb, big state school and get into top places if you're a bit lucky. If you go to a good institution with a good physics program, getting published and these other rare things tend not to matter as much. If you went to Caltech and did one semester's worth of a research project but made really good grades and other good stuff, people tend to believe you're going to be good at research. If you went to Backwater South Alabama U., it's harder to convince people of that without doing some extraordinary things.

    I recommend you take a look at this thread, and others from the years before:


    Admissions is a funny thing, so don't rely too heavily on this small sample. It's just to give you an idea of how things go, but for the most part you can't really predict who is going to get in where. It's very weird. Rest assured, however, that no matter where you go, if you work really hard, do a lot of research, get good letters of recommendation, good grades and a high PGRE score, you will get into some very, very good schools.
  13. Apr 2, 2012 #12

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    If your friend is a grad student himself, it is unlikely he was involved in the admissions decisions, and as such is providing information that is at best second-hand and at worst nonsense.
  14. Apr 2, 2012 #13
    Age is not a big factor but it does play a part. They definitely look at what you've been doing with your life, and they interpolate how much of your life you've dedicated to physics (and how much you haven't) by looking at your age. I've gotten the impression that there are two age-related things they consider when they review your application.

    First, they like to see that you have a dedication to physics and have been actively doing physics continually. For example, in applying to a ph.d. program, it's typically better to apply fresh out of college instead of taking years off (unless you're working in a lab, getting a masters, or something else physicsy). For example, if we took two copies of a physics major college grad, and had the first apply directly to a phd program, while the second took two years working as a musician and then applied to the same program, they would probably favor the first copy. Taking two years off to play music would make them feel like you're not as enthusiastic about physics, not as reliable in your career choice, and probably rusty on your physics.

    Second, and this is the more politically incorrect thing, is that they like to make sure you don't have too much else going on in your life. Even though it qualifies as illegal discrimination, physics grad programs typically don't accept many mothers. Applicants who are successful in some area of business (e.g. someone who applies after taking a year to make and sell software) are also discriminated against, since they don't want you to be distracted by making money when you're supposed to be doing research. (Also, people who have lots of money typically are more lax about spending an extra year or two to finish their phd, which they don't encourage.)

    The point is that they want to see that you've lived a life dedicated to physics and aren't invested in other activities. Age is definitely an indicator they use to judge that.

    With regards to the discrepancies between your friend's list of priorities and mine, one thing to remember is that different schools have different priorities. And the process isn't rigid: sometimes your essay can make an impression on the reviewers, or maybe the reviewer knows the person who wrote your letter of recommendation. So they make exceptions. Schools also like to diversify their acceptees--they usually like to have a mixture of different nationalities, ages, backgrounds, and they prefer not to have 100% men.

    However, I stick by my general list. One nitpicky point I would make is that your friend says GPA is the only thing from undergrad that matters. Obviously having a 4.0 as a Marketing major won't get you in anywhere. But even moreso: they know which are the easy-A physics classes, and it's a big minus if you've only taken the easy physics courses and then preserved your GPA by not attempting any advanced physics classes. An applicant with straight A's in the required physics major courses would be a BETTER applicant if he went ahead and got a B in a graduate quantum many-body course.

    The only significant discrepancy is how heavily you weight the letters of recommendation. The thing about letters of recommendation is that they're not always reliable. Some professors write great letters even for students they don't even know very well. Many strong applicants get all their recommendations from professors who aren't world-renowned. Getting that big-deal professor to write you a recommendation is good but not the ultimate plus, since every applicant needs letters of recommendation and they can't all go to the one or two big-deal professors in a department. Run-of-the-mill professors are just as qualified to judge you and write a letter for you, and they definitely take letters of recommendation seriously even if they're from unknown professors. (I think the more important factor is that you get at least one letter from an older, more experienced professor. They typically don't like to see that all of your recommendations come from "Assistant Professors" or other younger positions.)

    What it boils down to is that content is more important than author, but letter content isn't as reliable as course grades. So course grades are a better meter of the applicant.
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2012
  15. Apr 2, 2012 #14

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    I have found neither of these things to be true.

    I worked in industry (IT) before graduate school. I was accepted by all but one of the schools I applied to. (I was accepted there, but without support, which is a polite rejection)

    I have never, ever, ever heard anything like what you describe as "the politically incorrect thing" in committee deliberations. It's so far from what's discussed that it would be laughable, if it weren't so serious. Do you have any evidence for this, or is this just repeating a rumor?
  16. Apr 2, 2012 #15
    I can't give you any objective evidence, only what I've personally observed in the physics departments I've been involved with. Granted I don't have access to records of everyone who's applied, but it seems like the demographic makeup of the classes has got to be skewed from the pool of people who apply.

    First, in the departments I've been in, the largest segment of newly admitted Ph.D. students are fresh out of college. (I'd say roughly 50%). Those who aren't typically didn't take any years off and instead did a masters or worked in a lab. I have got to believe that there are many students who take a year or two off, and they seem to have a marginal presence in who's actually admitted.

    Second, I have NEVER met a physics grad student who was a mother when she was accepted. I have to believe there are at least a few mothers who apply, so in my experience they have ~0% acceptance rate. I definitely have heard this as a rumor.

    Anyway, I think the academic climate nowadays is such that even though review committees do discriminate against mothers, they don't say it aloud at their meetings. If the discrimination laws weren't so draconian, maybe they would discuss the possibility of mothers being relatively more distracted, but the PC police are always around. Anyway, I challenge you to find ONE example of a mother of a young child being admitted to a physics phd program.
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2012
  17. Apr 2, 2012 #16
    I believe if a regression analysis was ran on this chances are it would be a more significant conclusion that women in general have less of an interest in physics. Another way to look at it would be for someone who is qualified to attend an institution that has a decent physics program it would be plausible to think that person is probably smart enough to realize that they would not have time for the PhD and thus not apply.
  18. Apr 5, 2012 #17
    Also, I know Stony Brook is a fallback school for most high school applicants so I'm not sure how difficult the transfer rate is, but on College Confidential it seems a lot of students easily transfer there from other schools.

    Cornell on the other hand, being an Ivy League and ranking much, much higher than Stony Brook (I'm using ARWU but US News also places a huge gap in ranking between the two schools), I think would be impossible to transfer into as an undergraduate. I know schools like Harvard don't even accept any transfer students so I'm guessing that the transfer rate for Cornell is extremely low, probably like 1% or something. Plus they would not let me into the school since I cannot afford the tuition and no bank is going to let a college kid take out a loan worth $50,000 per year (that's before financial aid/Pell Grant and stuff, so a bit less).
  19. Apr 5, 2012 #18
    I trust ARWU rankings more but I wouldn't base my decisions solely on rankings.
  20. Apr 5, 2012 #19
    This is a rather unscientific point of view. It is fine to share anecdotes but portraying it as fact is absurd. You can't make claims like this without data.
  21. Apr 7, 2012 #20
    This isn't the "Quantum Physics" or "Differential Equations" board. This is the "Academic Guidance" board. Guidance generally doesn't represent a scientific point of view, especially with regards to graduate academics, where they just don't publish their applicant data.

    I think it's clear that when a person is giving guidance of this sort, they are talking about their personal experience and observations, not trying to make some empirical claim. Therefore, I felt that all my posts came with an implicit "My personal experience and observations have led me to believe that..."--I apologize if it wasn't clear but now it's on the record. Okay?

    If a banker told you, "Bankers like to eat steak," clearly he hasn't collected data on an unbiased sample of bankers and a control sample and run a regression analysis to determine whether their preference for steak is statistically significant. But I'd still take the banker's advice, and if I ever had an important dinner with a banker, I'd lean toward steak rather than sushi. Am I being stupid for taking nonscientific advice?

    My point is that if you try to stick to the "empirical evidence" that exists on grad schools, your best bet is US news or other rankings agencies--and the data they provide is minimal and virtually useless. (And also typically wrong/manipulated--for example, acceptance percentages are always wrong because the schools have ways of misrepresenting the true value.) That's why guidance boards exist: to get personal advice from real people who have actually had experience. Granted, there can and will be disagreement between people with different experiences, but I still don't think my posts are "absurd" unless you insist on being an overly-scientific stickler.
  22. Apr 12, 2012 #21
    Sorry for highjacking this thread to talk about something unrelated, I just recently found some interesting statistics about women with children in physics. Most of these are from the AIP. They don't really address applicants' acceptance rates, but that's because that data simply isn't given out by institutions.


    All those were from this article: http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v65/i2/p47_s1
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