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Schools What's the point of applying to selective grad schools?

  1. Dec 12, 2017 #1
    Something's been bothering me about the PhD application process. I know that your future advisor is the most important aspect in choosing a graduate school, and that future success with obtaining postdocs, etc. will depend primarily on your research prowess (which is heavily dependent on if you get along with your advisor, research fit, etc.). I also know that some of the best advisors are not necessarily at the "brand name" schools.

    So my question is: If I have a list of good advisors in my field that I obtained from my current undergrad advisor (someone I'm confident is "well-connected" and "in-the-know") and more specifically, these are all good advisors working on a specific high-energy experiment that I want to work on (meaning I'll probably end up being shipped to a national lab to finish my PhD after I finish my grad courses no matter where I go) why don't I just apply to the easiest schools on the list that I can get into? What exactly was the *point* of getting good PGRE scores, good grades, etc. during all of undergrad? I thought it was to be competitive for the "top" schools so I could have the best career, but this is apparently irrelevant. I'm just finding it odd that someone with very low PGRE scores and a low gpa, who still has a chance at say, schools ranked in the 100s, has the same opportunities if they work for this good advisor as someone that got perfect "stats" throughout undergrad. Why wouldn't the latter student just go to that low-ranked school as well? I feel like there must be some catch/reason why people don't do this. (People with top scores generally go to top places.)
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  3. Dec 12, 2017 #2

    Dr. Courtney

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    Whenever I've been on a hiring committee, we have a hard look at the undergraduate transcript, especially at grades. Slacker undergrads are at higher risk of becoming slacker employees and teachers who gift grades. No thanks.

    We've also always considered various factors relating to the reputation of the grad school, the difficulty of courses taken, and the earned grades in those courses. Other factors being remotely comparable, graduates from schools like GA Tech and above always had a better chance of getting an offer than grads from schools like LSU.
  4. Dec 12, 2017 #3


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    There is still a point to earning high grades. First off, those lower ranked schools can be quite competitive to get into particularly for those specific sub-fields they are known for. You'll still be on thin ice if you're applying with a 3.1 GPA, even at a lower-ranked school. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the grades are supposed to be a reflection of how well you understand the material. I know the system isn't perfect, but as an undergraduate with the intention of going on into graduate school and academia in general, you want to give yourself the best grounding in the field that you can. Just squeaking in by doing the minimal amount of work possible tends to lead to problems later on. Finally, I would also bring up the external scholarship factor. I'm less familiar with how it works in the US, but if you have a really high GPA as an undergraduate student in Canada and can come into a graduate program with a major scholarship, you end up brining in a lot more money than students without them. This can mean the difference between affording a one bedroom apartment and rooming with slobs, owning a car, paying down student loans, making some early investments, or simply not having to work a part-time job to make ends meet.

    But so why don't people just apply to the easiest programs to get into? That's a good question. Again, it's important to remember that just because a program is lower ranked, doesn't necessarily mean that it's easier to get into. It can be difficult to know which programs are going to be less competitive from year to year. And there can be a lot of other perks to going to bigger schools - student resources, the ability to build up your network, telling your mom that you got into a big name school, etc.

    As a student trying to figure out where to apply, you have a lot of factors to consider and it's worth investing a good deal of time in figuring out the best set of schools for you to apply to. Your criteria for what's important may be completely different from what's typically included in rankings. Often what's important to students overlaps with what gets a school a higher ranking, but not always.
  5. Dec 13, 2017 #4
    I want to reinforce a point that Choppy made. You've got this all backwards. The goal of doing well as an undergrad is not to get good grades and high test scores in order to qualify for admissions to a good grad school. The goal of doing well as an undergrad is to learn the material well; grades and formal tests, in principle, evaluate how well you have learned the material.

    Also, assume you have a research advisor who is a positive outlier in an otherwise mediocre department. Which student do you think he wants to take on in his group? A positive outlier in an otherwise mediocre class, or any mediocre student who got accepted?
  6. Dec 22, 2017 #5
    Choppy made great points about GPA, but I wanted to add to why a student may want to attend a selective school.

    First, you assume that most applicants know the specific project they want to work on, and have a "in-the-know" advisor who can tell them where to apply. This is an incredibly generous assumption. While most applicants will know the subfield they want to work in (though many do not - which makes for a worse app but I've talked to people who have still gotten in), very few people know the specific project they want to work on. And of those who do, how many people have some well-connected advisor they can approach to get advice on where to apply? You find yourself in a very lucky position, most people will not have such a clear cut list of schools.

    So, how should one select a school? If you know your specfic subfield, there are rankings avaliable, however these basically correlate with the rankings of top schools in general. There may be a few exceptions: MSU for nuclear, Ohio State for astro, etc. But those programs are just as selective for their specialties as the top schools.

    Even if you do know a specific project, like me, there can be dozens of schools with professors working on the problem. There is no clear way to decide among these except by knowing someone who knows the project well. For me, I found 30 different schools working on one specific problem. How do I choose?

    For both of the cases, the go to answer is to apply to the top-ranked/most selective schools. In general, these will tend to have the more influential professors. Beyond that, if one ever wants to leave academia, a PhD from MIT looks a lot better for job appliactions than one from Unheardof University, even if the latter has the best HEP program ever and you didn't even know it.
  7. Dec 22, 2017 #6


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    The easiest school on that list is probably fairly selective if it has a decent program. Why shouldn't schools put significant emphasis on PGRE scores or your GPA.it is the only metrics by which they can judge your ability/effort. The world is competitive. Excellent UG research and recommendations will help a good but not great student get into program into which he/she otherwise might not otherwise be accepted. Do not base your career decisions on anecdotes where you do not know all the specifics. You are the primary control your success. The rule for success is distinguish yourself whenever possible.

    IMO the fact that you posted the question above should cause you to ask yourself if physics is the right choice for you.

    An interesting survey is the number of application,acceptance, and enrollment stats for 176 US programs. which demonstrates the selectivity of physics programs.

    Of particular note is the enrollment vs acceptance which is typically less than 50% for selective universities. Which means that we will let you study here but we will only support half of the accepted. Thus I would surmise that those accepted that do not enroll do so because they were not funded going to a program that supported them. Only about 1% of PhD applicant and about 30% of MS applicants self fund their education per a AIP survey.

    From the above reference survey the average number of applicants for the 10 most popular programs is 732 per program, of these the average accepted is 105 (14.3%) and the actual number enrolled is 38 (5.2%). But I would bet that their are a substantial number that apply to three or more of these schools. Over 60% of the programs accept less than 30% of applicants. Only about 12% accept between 50% and 100% of applicants.

    About 3000 enter graduate physics programs (both MS and PHD) each year from about 8000 undergraduate seniors. Each year about 1800 PhD's are awarded and about 500 MS's from those institutions many of which do not have an official MS exit program. So we seem to loose some in the process So enrollment is no guarantee of success as noted above.
  8. Dec 23, 2017 #7


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    (emphasis added)

    I entered grad school more than 40 years ago, so feel free to adjust my experience for selectivity and current conditions. IIRC I applied to five schools (Ohio State, Case Western Reserve, Carnegie Mellon, Indiana and Michigan), was accepted by all of them, received offers of funding (assistantships) from four of them (don't remember which one offered nothing), and (of course) enrolled in one of them (Michigan).

    All of the five physics majors in my graduating class (at a small non-elite private liberal arts college) got into grad school somewhere: three in physics, and one each in math and engineering. Two of us ended up with PhD's: one in physics (me) and one in engineering.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2017
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