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What are my chances to be accepted in a PhD Physics program?

  1. Dec 28, 2013 #1
    Hello everyone, and Happy New Year! :wink:

    As you have probably already guessed, this New Year is especially important for me since it is the time when I fill the applications for US graduate schools on Physics. I am more than a little bit worried about my chances since, in case I won't enter any graduate school this year, I will have to serve in my country's army for a year, according to the law, and, I'm afraid, if that happens, my career in physics that has been going quite well so far may be destroyed.
    So, I want you guys to assure me that everything is going to be fine. :smile: Please tell me honestly what, in your opinion, are my chances to get into one of the universities I apply to?

    I'll try to sum up the most important facts about my background.


    I am a Russian student of Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT, the highest ranked university on physics in Russia) receiving my Master's degree this summer. Program of Fundamental Interactions and Cosmology.
    GPA: 4.63 / 5 overall, 4.67 / 5 in Bachelor's diploma.
    TOEFL: 99 (every subscore >=22)
    GRE: 164 Quant. (89%), 151 Verb. (49%), 4.5 Anal. (78%), 840 Phys. (78%)

    I have participated in the T2K experiment in Japan for 3 years, including 3 collaboration meetings visited in Japan. I have 5 collaboration papers with 200+ names including mine, and a publication in popular Russian journal "Nuclear Physics and Engineering" co-authored by my supervisor. I have some results, not incredibly outstanding, but useful for the experiment nonetheless.
    I also have a total of 4 conference speeches: 3 on my institute's conferences and one on an international conference in Moscow.

    I'm going to continue working in experimental particle physics and, so, I apply for the programs with opportunities for PhD students in popular particle experiments, such as T2K, ATLAS, CMS, D0, MiniBooNE, etc. Here are the universities I decided to apply (deadlines there are relatively late, so I am no late at all):
    University of Toronto
    University of Tennessee, Knoxville
    Louisiana State University
    Colorado State University
    University of New Mexico
    Florida State University
    University of California - Riverside
    New Mexico State University
    University of Houston
    University of Kansas
    University of Nebraska - Lincoln
    University of Oklahoma
    University of Delaware

    Strong points: 3 years of participating in the leading neutrino oscillation experiment in the world, I think, is the strongest advantage I have over most other applicants. 6 publications, although 5 of them are co-authored by 200+ other people, should also help me a lot. Also, I think, my GRE Physics result is very good for the universities outside of top-40 or so.
    Also a very strong point is the amount of courses we have in MIPT. For example, in Bachelor's diploma I have 1330 hours of General Physics course, 615 hours of Mathematical Analysis, 432 hours of Theoretical Physics and many different courses on experimental and theoretical particle physics. I don't think committees will have much doubt about my academic readiness for the PhD study.

    Weak points: The weakest point is recommendations, I think. The problem is I haven't persuaded my research supervisor to send more than 3 recommendation letters totally, so in most universities committee will probably be curious why I don't get a recommendation letter from him. Also, my GRE General Verbal score is quite low, although I've heard that it is far less important for international students (I hope I'm right) and my Quantitative score should more than compensate for it.


    So, how would you evaluate my chances? Should I add 2-3 "weak" universities as a safe heaven, or should I expect to be accepted in at least 2-3 programs?

    Thank you very much for your time!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 28, 2013 #2


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    You should also take your TOEFL exams since most US institutions will require that from non-English speaking students.

    Based on your academic record and the group of universities that you applied to, I'd say you have a good chance at being accepted to quite few of them.

  4. Dec 28, 2013 #3
    Thank you for moral support. :smile: I get the feeling that I underestimate myself too much. Many people tell me I have good chances, but for some reason I am a bit skeptical.

    As for TOEFL, I have taken it with a result of 99/120. Not excellent, but far above the minimal requirement of 80 for most of the universities I apply to.
  5. Dec 30, 2013 #4
    I would be surprised if you didn't get in to at least half of them, provided you tailored your research interests in SOP's to the departments' strengths (ie: they have profs in the field with sufficient grant money for new RA's in the coming years).

    But certainly try to do something about your 3rd letter writer. It's not like he/she needs to write a new letter for each school and most reference letters these days are sent electronically.
  6. Dec 30, 2013 #5

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    While I agree that you'll probably get into many of them, I think you need to get a letter from your supervisor. Indeed, your letters should be from a) your supervisor, b) someone else on T2K, and c) whomever you think will best complement a) and b).

    The weak point is actually the GRE score. You have a masters from the best school in Russia, and have spent a jillion hours in classes. Why then did you score only in the 78th percentile? It would be good to be able to answer this objection by having three strong letters. You want to get in on the strength of the recommendations, with the test scores being good enough, and not the other way around.
  7. Dec 30, 2013 #6
    At the risk of going off on a tangent, how is the OP's PGRE score a weak link? This is way above the admitted student averages for many of the US schools he posted (an exhaustive list of scores from admitted students can be found here). In fact I do not think it is far-fetched to say the OP has decent chances at much, much higher ranked schools if the OP's research interests are the right fit for the departments (or vice-versa).
  8. Dec 30, 2013 #7
    The problem is, he does not want to do it principally, claiming that applying to more than 2-3 programs means that I do not know where I want to go. Well, I tried arguing with him, but... Different people are different.
    In fact, 3 of the universities I apply to have T2K groups, and my supervisor agreed to write letters for all of them. So, I think, at least one of these universities is almost guaranteed, unless the groups are really full and accept no one else.

    I actually thought that my GRE General Verbal Reasoning is the weakest score. GRE Physics, while certainly could be much better if I tried at least a little bit hard to prepare, is, as Lavabug said, above averages to most of the schools I apply to. It would certainly rise some questions should I have applied to MIT or CalTech, but I don't think it will in these universities.

    Well, there are a few reasons why I didn't apply to schools from top 20 (except for University of Toronto, which is 21st in world ranking). First of all, I was a bit afraid that I would get into none of them, and then, given my described situation, my scientific career would be halted - I did not want to risk, and, since I am a student from not very rich country with respective financial situation, I just didn't have enough money to apply to 10 top universities and 10 average ones, so I decided to apply to those that seem quite possible to enter. The other reason may seem foolish, but I, in fact, am very tired of the academic challenges we had in MIPT: first 2 years were simply a nightmare, and 3rd and 4th years were very hard as well. I would like to have a little less intense academic pressure as I work on my PhD and to have more time freed for actual research. I know it is wrong and it is best to study at the best university possible, but... I can be a little lazy sometimes. :shy:
  9. Dec 30, 2013 #8
    You should explain to your advisor that graduate applications for foreigners in the US is a strongly stochastic process... I'm also from the old continent and I've encountered similar amazement from profs when I mention I'm applying to around a dozen US schools. One of my writers did his phd in the US and naturally didn't bat an eye when I said I was applying to that many. So it looks like it's a cultural thing.

    Your first reason is IMO unfounded, I think you really have a good chance at higher ranked schools so if you still have time (and feel like it), you might want to get a bit more ambitious and add some more schools/substitute some of the schools you don't like too much from your list with ones you really do. Rutgers is a strong school in your field for instance, and I can think about half a dozen others in the Northeast you probably have a chance at. We are pretty close to deadlines though... and I totally understand the financial considerations (I literally had to choose between paying January's rent and applying to 1-2 more schools).

    Also I am not sure that the prestige of the graduate institution correlates well with the intensity/difficulty of the course loads. US grad school is focused on research, as opposed to the EU where you get to do solely coursework all the way til you finish a MS (I'm sure your core analytical mechanics, QM, EM, and math coursework is leaps beyond the average US undergrad physics student's, you've probably already dealt with Goldstein, Jackson, Landau's etc. in your courses)
  10. Dec 30, 2013 #9
    Well, I tried, but I am pretty sure his say is final. He has had a few students previously who went for PhD overseas as well, and, according to them, he never gives more than 2-3 recommendations. I don't think it is much of an issue though, although maybe I misjudge the committees.

    Actually, I like all the schools I apply to pretty much. Your advice is good, though. Maybe I should try to aim a little bit higher and choose 2-3 universities from top 30 or so. But, yes, the deadline for most top universities is 5 January or earlier. I am going to Japan quite soon for the collaboration meeting, so there is not much time to decide. I will look at some of them after New Year.

    Honestly, I did not do really well on my 4th-6th year academically. Although my grades were still good at that period, I did not pay much attention to anything beside my research. I took many courses that all people on our faculty take, such as Quantum Field Theory, Accelerator Physics, Cosmology, Theoretical Particle Physics, Nuclear Physics... But, in the end, I did not study them well enough and, by now, forgot almost everything from them.
    Math and physics courses on the starting 3 years were very extensive and useful, however. You are probably right that they are well beyond many US undergraduate schools. However, there are certainly some things that I do not know from US undergraduate programs, since Russian programs are a bit different in some aspects - for example, our Math courses pay much attention to theorems and their proofs (we actually had to learn over 40 proofs by heart for most verbal exams), something that very rarely happens in US Math courses. Anyway, I think the first 1-2 terms will be quite hard, and, while I will certainly put much effort in them (more than I have put in my 2 Master's years, certainly), I would like to have some time left for research as well.
  11. Dec 30, 2013 #10

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    And I am telling you why. (Although I am perpetually amazed at the fact that students going through the process tell someone who has actually been on the other side admitting students that he's wrong)

    First, Lavabug's link is suspect. University of Washington has a mere twenty points between ("likely to get you in" and "extremely difficult for admission". Twenty-one schools appear to have a single "you're in" threshold. I'm sure they did the best they could, but the outcome is simply not reasonable. If nothing else, the weight given to the PGRE is way too high.

    The perception is that foreign students have a lower rate of making it through grad school. I don't know if it is statistically true, but anecdotal evidence abounds. Also, as a rule, students complaint rates about TA language abilities tend to be higher for foreign students. So since the school is taking more of a risk, they want to see a good reason for doing so, and thus the standards move: a foreign student needs a better portfolio than a domestic one.

    Now, onto the PGRE score. You can ignore the general GRE. The school will. The only GRE that matters is Physics. 78% is good. But it's not great, and when you consider that you have a Masters, not just a bachelors, and consider that it's from the best school in Russia, it starts to look anomalously low. Will it matter at some schools? Probably. Will it matter at all of them? Probably not. Will you be in better shape with three strong letters of the sort I describe? Yes,
  12. Dec 30, 2013 #11
    I see your point. It is reasonable to expect from someone from the best university in Russia, and with Master's degree, and with research in the top neutrino oscillation experiment, to have a very high Physics score.

    However, I have a GPA of 4.63 that is far from perfect, my Verbal Reasoning (although not important) is just quite bad (49%), and even Quantitative Reasoning is below 90%. I think it is easy to see just from these numbers that I am certainly not the best student of my school, just slightly above average, I would say. So it would be reasonable to expect just "good" Physics result, not "great".

    Is average Harvard student better than a great student of Louisiana State University? I don't think so, and, I guess, neither do committees. I'm not making any claims, I'm just trying to deduce the committees' logic. Why would they expect something academically extraordinary from an average student of the best Russian school? My research results, publications, conference speeches are good, and my academics are average - quite common situation for many people who start doing research on their 2nd-3rd year. Is the Physics result really so anomalous compared to other data? Well, maybe it is, but, honestly, other MIPT students had similar results to mine (actually, mine is a bit above average among the MIPT students - usually they get about 700).
  13. Dec 30, 2013 #12

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    Like I said. At some places it will matter. At other places it won't. Will you be in better shape with three strong letters of the sort I describe? Yes.
  14. Jan 8, 2014 #13
    Hello everyone again. The holidays were quite intense, and I have applied to 15 universities in total:

    1) University of Toronto
    2) University of Tennessee, Knoxville
    3) Louisiana State University
    4) Colorado State University
    5) University of New Mexico
    6) Florida State University
    7) University of California - Riverside
    8) New Mexico State University
    9) University of Kansas
    10) University of Nebraska - Lincoln
    11) University of Oklahoma
    12) University of South Carolina
    13) University of Florida
    14) Oklahoma State University
    15) University of Notre Dame

    Now I just need to rally my recommenders so they send their letters as soon as possible (I didn't manage to persuade my supervisor to write more letters though), and wait for decisions. Now that I'm done with applications, I have much more confidence in my chances. Still, there are a few worries and uncertainties since I don't know the actual consideration procedure very well. So I want to ask a few questions.

    1) Are telephone interviews usually necessary? I have not found much information about it sadly, and so far I only know that University of California - Riverside has an interview right before they make their final decision.
    Also, do these interview happen in a time pointed in advance? Or do they just call at random time? Since I apply to so many universities, I cannot possibly remember all the details about their programs, so such a random interview would be quite dangerous. Also, do they do this on phone exclusively, or is there an option to have an interview in Skype? I will be in Japan from Jan 17 to Feb 9 and my phone won't work there sadly.

    2) They say the first offers of enrollment come as early as late January. Is it so in reality? If I don't have any offers (or denials) by the middle of February or so, should I be alarmed?

    3) How early is it possible to get to the US, to get a room in campus and to start doing some work in university? The problem is, after I receive the Master's diploma in late June, I will be eligible to being recruited in the army, so I really need to get out of the country as soon as possible (don't worry, I'm not breaking the law, and they don't have right to summon me while I'm abroad; however, they can summon me at any time while I'm in the country, and that is disturbing).
    Ideally, I would like to board the plane the next day after I receive the diploma, or about Jun 20. Well, it would be good to have 2-3 days to spend with my family as I won't see them in a very-very long time after that. But by early July I desperately need to be in the US, or the situation might get tricky.

    4) How do the listed universities (except for University of Toronto, since it is evidently one of the highest ranked universities in the world) fair on the job market? Will I have a good chance to stay in the US after getting the PhD, meaning will I have much problem looking for a Postdoc position in Physics? Also, do I understand correctly that getting a Postdoc position in the university one graduates from is generally quite easy, or is it just as hard as getting it anywhere else?

    Sorry for taking so much of your time, but I really want to ensure that everything is going to be fine in all this business.
  15. Jan 8, 2014 #14
    I attend University of Toronto, and most of the grad students I know here had similar (some better, some worse) stats as you do. Most profs that I know have been on admission committee say they put a lot of emphasis on the statement of purpose. For Russian students, they want a GPA of 4.3/5 or better. They don't even require GRE scores, so unless you feel like they will help your application, don't attach them.

    Good Luck!
  16. Jan 8, 2014 #15
    Thank you for the information. I think my SoP is good: it describes in great detail what I did in T2K and what results I got and it points out specific research areas in a given university I am interested in. Specifically for University of Toronto, there is an active T2K group that, I think, may be decisive in the committee's decision. Unfortunately, the only professor accepting PhD students for the experiment recently retired, but the group is still there, so maybe I will find a place there eventually.
  17. Jan 9, 2014 #16
    3) will depend on when you can get your F-1 visa status, I have no idea how long this takes. But I'm guessing it may not happen before the summer, perhaps some foreign grad student in the US could chime in (or try asking at pgre forums). If it's that pressing of an issue in July, maybe you can try taking a vacation elsewhere until your visa status kicks in.

    1) Some schools conduct phone/skype interviews as tie breakers, search your institutions at thegradcafe and pgre forums for info on past applicants as occasionally some mention if and when they were interviewed.

    2) No need to worry. Offers can come as late as April and in some cases even beyond that if you were waitlisted and they happen to have funding for an extra student (but this is extremely rare past April 15th). Admissions offers are usually through Feb-March.
  18. Jan 9, 2014 #17
    Thank you for the response.

    I contacted the military department today, and they said that I cannot be summoned if I have a proof (F-1 visa) that I am going to study abroad. However, it will only be a proof once I receive it; until then, they can summon me at any moment. So it is very important that I receive the visa by the end of June. If not, I will have to wait in the country nearby, which is not very bad, but not exactly... legal. I hope it will not come to this.
  19. Jan 9, 2014 #18


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    As for (3), if money to live on is a consideration, you probably won't receive your first graduate-student stipend payment until end of August or end of September, depending on the terms of your contract with the university. Therefore you'll need to have at least two or three months' worth of living expenses in hand if you arrive in early July.
  20. Jan 9, 2014 #19
    Yes, I am aware of that. I am a relatively poor student (in fact, I'm struggling to squeeze a little bit more money to apply to 1-2 more universities). But I'm going to Japan in a week, and my salary there for 4 weeks will give me about $2,000. Also I'm saving my stipend (it is small, about $300 a month, but still). With all considerations, I would say I will probably have, after booking the trip, at least $3,000 when I arrive to the US. Should be enough for 3 months, I will just need to find a cheap accomodation, which should be possible: in 2010 on a student exchange program I paid only $200 a month for a house rented with 10 more students.

    Do they allow students to live in campus in July-August, by the way?
  21. Jan 15, 2014 #20
    Hooray, I was admitted to University of Kansas! All my fears were for nothing: this summer I'm finally starting working on my PhD in US. The dream of over 10 years has come true!
    I will still wait for responses from other schools, but UK is one of my top choices, so I know for sure that I will study where I want to anyway.

    Thank you guys very much for support, your posts certainly made me feel better about my chances and not worry as much as I used to about the possibility of failure. I will write again when I decide where I go in the end.

  22. Jan 15, 2014 #21


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    Yay :thumbs:!! Congrats, MayCaesar.
  23. Feb 22, 2014 #22
    Hello everyone again,

    And sorry for not updating you on my successes. There has been a lot going on recently, with 3 weeks trip for conference to Japan, with all these admission matters and such.

    The results exceeded even my most daring expectations. I have already been accepted to 11 schools out of 16, and not a single rejection so far! And one of my 2 top choices is secured! :surprised:

    University of Toronto still has not made their decision, but Canadian universities are usually later with decision, and I really shouldn't expect it earlier than early March, probably even later. But I have been accepted to University of Notre Dame (#18 US, #90 World Ranking) - I didn't even dream of actually entering it when I started this applications endeavor and applied there "just in case", without any real hope. Opportunities there are absolutely fantastic: all students having chosen high energy live from 1 to 2 years in Switzerland and work on the LHC, and those having chosen astrophysics (which I am currently inclined to) get to work with direct data collected from the Hubble telescope and a few more telescopes, and after graduation many students start working in NASA, something I foolishly dreamed of while watching those National Geographic documentaries and, listening to a professor talking about planets with "NASA" word on the sculpture behind him, thinking, "In some other life I, perhaps, would be as happy as this guy". I still cannot believe it, but I really have done the impossible and got accepted into one of the top 20 US universities!

    Has anyone of you worked or studied in Notre Dame? Do you think it is a better choice than University of Toronto to which I have not been yet accepted but, judging from my earlier success, well can be? Currently I am only really choosing from these two schools, and, if UT doesn't accept me, the choice is clear, but if it does... Anyway, I am already choosing between schools I've never dreamed of being able to get into, so I am as happy as a human being can get, and possibility to choose not the best one of them doesn't pose any inconvenience. It is just much harder to choose between two heavenly choices than between two average choices when, no matter what you choose, you end up having something average.
  24. Feb 22, 2014 #23


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    So were you finally able to get your adviser to write more than 3 letters of recommendation for you?

    Also, have any of the universities made any funding offers so far?
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2014
  25. Feb 23, 2014 #24
    No, my adviser wrote not even 3, but 2 letters in the end. Letters for all other universities instead of him were written by my colleague who worked in our group as PhD student and is currently working in Spain as Postdoc. I know it is not recommended for letters to be written by Postdocs, but, it seems, this rule is very optional.

    All universities that accepted me offer full covering of tuition fees and expenses, as well as TA. The amount of TA varies from $1,200 to $2,500 a month, and also some universities offer me additional fellowships.

    It seems I had good chances to be even accepted to one of the top 10 schools. For some reason I strongly underestimated my chances and was afraid of not getting into any school at all. Also, what I found is that taken courses and research experience may be much more important than letters of recommendation and test scores, provided they are very good, of course. All universities that accepted me wrote that they were strongly impressed by my list of taken courses, and most of them offered some kind of fellowship or opportunities for start working on the research in the field I am currently working.

    In case of Notre Dame, I am planning to switch from high energy physics to astrophysics. They say it is not hard to do so, I will just need to take some additional astrophysics courses and start working with some of the groups very early, preferably right from July when I arrive there, to be doing some serious research by the time academic courses will be over and I will mostly work on my PhD thesis.
  26. Feb 23, 2014 #25
    First of all congratulations, let me be the first to say "I told you so". :)

    FYI, check this year's and previous year's admissions dates at thegradcafe.com, should give you a rough idea when you can expect a reply from schools you haven't heard from yet. I have seen Toronto's astro dept. has already been sending out some admissions. I'm not sure about HEP, but in astro they are one of the big 5 powerhouses of reserach in the world.

    IMO, you shouldn't pick the school based on rankings, rather their research output and connections in your specific field, unless you want to work in something like Wall St. afterwards.

    If at all possible, I'd reccomend visiting some the schools even if you think you wouldn't pick them right now. Ask about travel reimbursements within the US, you might be surprised and some may even totally fund your travel and lodging to help you with the decision. One of the 2 schools I got accepted at offered this and I'm a semi-international, the other didn't because I hadn't told them I would be in the US around that time (thus making it sensible to offer me transport assistence) but still managed to squeeze me in their open house day with some lodging.
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