What to choose for my PhD (university and major options)

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Hello! I am in my last year of undergraduate studies, as a physics and math major and I would like to continue to graduate school on theoretical physics. I got accepted to several program which are ok (ranked between 10th-20th) such as John Hopkins, Maryland, UC San Diego however I also got accepted to MIT on experimental physics. I am not sure what to do now. I have quite a strong background in experimental particle physics and I enjoy it, but I like the theoretical aspects more, but I don't have any experience in that (I am now working on a project which I enjoy, but it is still at the beginning). Should I go to MIT on experimental or pick one of the others on theory? I am afraid that I will not be good enough on theory, and then I will regret not going to MIT, but I am also afraid I will regret not going for theory (which I enjoy more). What should I do? If I go to MIT on experimental and decide I want to try theory would I have a chance? I asked my professors, but all of them tell me to go to MIT, because it is MIT, but this reasoning doesn't really help me much... Thank you!
 

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  • #2
Don't go to Johns Hopkins if you are not going to respect the s in Johns. They take it very seriously ;)
 
  • #3
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I know of nobody who is a successful experimental physicist who wasn't excited about being an experimental physicist. Something to keep in mind.

Personally, I think MIT's graduate program in experimental particle physics is good, but not super-duper exceptional. I would place it below Chicago and Berkeley, and close to Maryland or San Diego.
 
  • #4
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It's hard to recommend against MIT for students who are accepted, especially if you are offered assistantships and will not incur debt to attend.

I attended MIT, and while my PhD is in experimental physics, I had opportunity to publish five theory papers in AMO physics also while I was there (in addition to two experiment papers). And even though I still consider myself an experimentalist, I've also published a number of theory papers (most in other areas of science) since graduating. For more detail see:

https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/false-dichotomy-theorist-experimentalist/

I agree with your professors: Go to MIT because it is MIT. Is it the best for experimental physics? Probably not. But most Physics PhDs work outside of R1 research universities, and a PhD from MIT will put your resume at the top of the pile for so many of these jobs it is hard to recommend against it.
 
  • #5
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It's hard to recommend against MIT for students who are accepted, especially if you are offered assistantships and will not incur debt to attend.

I attended MIT, and while my PhD is in experimental physics, I had opportunity to publish five theory papers in AMO physics also while I was there (in addition to two experiment papers). And even though I still consider myself an experimentalist, I've also published a number of theory papers (most in other areas of science) since graduating. For more detail see:

https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/false-dichotomy-theorist-experimentalist/

I agree with your professors: Go to MIT because it is MIT. Is it the best for experimental physics? Probably not. But most Physics PhDs work outside of R1 research universities, and a PhD from MIT will put your resume at the top of the pile for so many of these jobs it is hard to recommend against it.

Thank you for this reply and congratulations for your career! So if I finish my PhD in experimental (particle) physics, will this appear on my diploma (I am not sure how this works)? As I said I like theory, so I am a bit scared by the fact that if I finish a graduate school in experimental, no one will allow me to work in theory, just because they will give priority to those finishing with a PhD in theory (even if I am from MIT)? I also heard stories of people working almost 24/7 on their assigned projects, so will I really have time to work on other things (i.e. theory papers) in my free time? Also why do you consider a PhD from MIT not the best (or among the best)? As far as I know MIT is ranked in top 5 in most rankings, and they have the biggest particle physics experimental department in the world (this are just things I read here and there so no official confirmation)?
 
  • #6
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I know of nobody who is a successful experimental physicist who wasn't excited about being an experimental physicist. Something to keep in mind.

Personally, I think MIT's graduate program in experimental particle physics is good, but not super-duper exceptional. I would place it below Chicago and Berkeley, and close to Maryland or San Diego.
Thank you for your reply. Why do you consider a PhD from MIT not the best (or among the best)? As far as I know MIT is ranked in top 5 in most rankings, and they have the biggest particle physics experimental department in the world (this are just things I read here and there so no official confirmation)?
 
  • #7
Dr. Courtney
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Thank you for this reply and congratulations for your career! So if I finish my PhD in experimental (particle) physics, will this appear on my diploma (I am not sure how this works)?

I don't know what the diplomas say (or will say) when you finish. My transcript which is what MIT sends employers says,

22 Feb 1995 Awarded the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy; thesis in the field of Physics: (Complete thesis title)

It says nothing about experiment or theory. My resume and CV (which employers also see) lists my education as:
Education

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1995 PhD in Experimental Physics, GPA 4.7/5.0

Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge
1989 B.S. Physics, GPA 3.95/4.0

I list my PhD as "experimental physics" because my adviser (Dan Kleppner) was a well known experimentalist and I was brought to MIT on a research assistantship to do experimental physics.

As I said I like theory, so I am a bit scared by the fact that if I finish a graduate school in experimental, no one will allow me to work in theory, just because they will give priority to those finishing with a PhD in theory (even if I am from MIT)?

Do you mean they won't allow you to or they won't pay you to? There's a big difference. No one can stop you from work in theory. Just don't expect to get paid for it. Most of my theory papers were labors of love. I probably only got paid for about half of them. Experiment is much better at paying the bills. But no one has ever said "you're not allowed to work in theory." The very idea of that is crazy and denies every tenet of academic freedom.

I also heard stories of people working almost 24/7 on their assigned projects, so will I really have time to work on other things (i.e. theory papers) in my free time?

I did in graduate school, and I have also had the time throughout most of my career. My grad school adviser was very supportive of my work in theory and never said (or even hinted) anything like, "You really need to focus on the experiment." The theory work was solid, and I was one of the most productive grad students he ever had in terms of publications per year.

Also why do you consider a PhD from MIT not the best (or among the best)? As far as I know MIT is ranked in top 5 in most rankings, and they have the biggest particle physics experimental department in the world (this are just things I read here and there so no official confirmation)?

Once you're at a school, your actual graduate education in experiment or theory depends much more on your adviser than on the reputation of the department. I do regard MIT as among the best, but at some point it's a beauty contest. I didn't go to MIT just to go to MIT, I went there to work with Dan Kleppner, and I got my money's worth.

But since I have not worked in AMO physics since graduation, no one else cares that I worked with Dan Kleppner. Mine is the only application in the pile with a PhD in Physics from MIT, and that gets their attention. Beyond that, it's more about all my publications, skills, experience, etc. No one who has ever hired me even knows who Dan Kleppner is. They all know about MIT.
 
  • #8
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I don't know what the diplomas say (or will say) when you finish. My transcript which is what MIT sends employers says,

22 Feb 1995 Awarded the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy; thesis in the field of Physics: (Complete thesis title)

It says nothing about experiment or theory. My resume and CV (which employers also see) lists my education as:
Education

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1995 PhD in Experimental Physics, GPA 4.7/5.0

Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge
1989 B.S. Physics, GPA 3.95/4.0

I list my PhD as "experimental physics" because my adviser (Dan Kleppner) was a well known experimentalist and I was brought to MIT on a research assistantship to do experimental physics.



Do you mean they won't allow you to or they won't pay you to? There's a big difference. No one can stop you from work in theory. Just don't expect to get paid for it. Most of my theory papers were labors of love. I probably only got paid for about half of them. Experiment is much better at paying the bills. But no one has ever said "you're not allowed to work in theory." The very idea of that is crazy and denies every tenet of academic freedom.



I did in graduate school, and I have also had the time throughout most of my career. My grad school adviser was very supportive of my work in theory and never said (or even hinted) anything like, "You really need to focus on the experiment." The theory work was solid, and I was one of the most productive grad students he ever had in terms of publications per year.


Once you're at a school, your actual graduate education in experiment or theory depends much more on your adviser than on the reputation of the department. I do regard MIT as among the best, but at some point it's a beauty contest. I didn't go to MIT just to go to MIT, I went there to work with Dan Kleppner, and I got my money's worth.

But since I have not worked in AMO physics since graduation, no one else cares that I worked with Dan Kleppner. Mine is the only application in the pile with a PhD in Physics from MIT, and that gets their attention. Beyond that, it's more about all my publications, skills, experience, etc. No one who has ever hired me even knows who Dan Kleppner is. They all know about MIT.

Thank you for your reply! So are you now working in industry (you said "No one who has ever hired me even knows who Dan Kleppner is" which is a bit surprising for someone working in research I guess)? Also by "won't allow to do theory" I meant get a job in that field, for example at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton (or anything focused on theory) or will in general other theorists be willing to choose me to work with them over other people who did a PhD in theory (I know I can work on it on my own, but I was wondering about my chances to be part of a collaboration)?
 
  • #9
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Why do you consider a PhD from MIT not the best (or among the best)? As far as I know MIT is ranked in top 5 in most rankings, and they have the biggest particle physics experimental department in the world

Ranking in experimental particle physics? I have not heard of such a thing. Overall ranking? That's a strong function of size.

It's experimental particle physics program is surely not the largest. It's 6-8 people, depending on where you draw the line between particle and nuclear. Ohio State is surely larger; Princeton and Penn are about the same size - and I would say Penn has a better program.

My overall opinion is based on seeing the quality and outcomes of their students. I can think of several places that have done better: Chicago and Berkeley surely; Penn and Michigan arguably. Santa Barbara possibly, although you run into small statistics there. One issue MIT has is that they have a reputation of joining experiments late. That makes it harder to have an impact. MIT has a good program, but it's not #1. Probably between #5-10.
 
  • #10
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Ranking in experimental particle physics? I have not heard of such a thing. Overall ranking? That's a strong function of size.

It's experimental particle physics program is surely not the largest. It's 6-8 people, depending on where you draw the line between particle and nuclear. Ohio State is surely larger; Princeton and Penn are about the same size - and I would say Penn has a better program.

My overall opinion is based on seeing the quality and outcomes of their students. I can think of several places that have done better: Chicago and Berkeley surely; Penn and Michigan arguably. Santa Barbara possibly, although you run into small statistics there. One issue MIT has is that they have a reputation of joining experiments late. That makes it harder to have an impact. MIT has a good program, but it's not #1. Probably between #5-10.
Thanks a lot for this. One more thing, thinking about my career after PhD, most people I talked to said that having MIT on your CV is a huge advantage over any other university. Is this true? Or it is the mentor you work with more important? (comparing 2 people with equal achievements during PhD) All these are for a potential career in research, not industry.
 
  • #11
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In research what matters most is, in order, a) what you've done, b) who your advisor is, and c) where you went to school (which measures what the other faculty have done). Most people hiring postdocs are clued in enough to know where the strong programs are and who the strong researchers are.

so will I really have time to work on other things (i.e. theory papers) in my free time?

If you're a graduate student with that much free time, someone is doing things wrong.
 
  • #12
Rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly) you will be judged by the University you receive your Ph.D. from. Honestly which University accepts you has a poor correlation with your ability to work independently and make breakthroughs in a field (if that is your goal). You need to decide if you want to be a leader or a follower throughout your career. If you want to be a follower then choose the highest ranked school and do as your told. If you want to be a leader, choose the advisor that will push you to learn on your own and become a true expert on a topic.

Interview the faculty at the schools you are considering. Make your selection based on your potential advisor. Remember at the Ph,D, level, no one can teach you how to learn - its about you being able to learn on your own and solve problems that haven't been solved yet.

I was told I did everything wrong because I didn't get a Master's degree before my Ph.D. I got the advisor I wanted and the project I wanted. IMO if you don't get the advisor you want or the project you want then get a Master's and do a reset for your Ph.D.

A Ph.D. is more of a frame of mind rather than an accomplishment. When you get a Ph.D. for a period of time you will be the world's leading expert on a rather narrow topic. If you are counting on your advisor to lead/guide you through the steps then you aren't really much more than a lab assistant who follows directions. You should be willing to learn more and work hard to exceed the knowledge of your advisor. If you don't know than your advisor then you don't really deserve the degree.
 

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