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PhD admissions - parent experience :)

surfcitysurfcity Registered User Posts: 1,741 Senior Member
My S is applying for PhD programs in Physics. He has a good advisor and a thesis/research advisor and I am confident his application process is fine. He showed us his candidate statement and some other essays etc.

I am totally unfamiliar with graduate schools outside of professional (MD, JD etc) ones. Now that his apps are in, I have no idea what comes next. He says it's not like undergrad admissions where everything is systematic ("basically the physics profs decide who they want . . .") Here are some of the questions running through my head:

1. Do schools have a date they release decisions on? Do they send out some acceptances and wait to see if they enroll and then send out more? How do they control yield?

2. Will acceptances come with stipend and fellowship dollar offers? Will he be able to compare apples to apples in terms of expected work load and stipends/housing etc?

3. What else should he consider if he is lucky enough to have more than one offer? He is already researching the cities where his schools are located, incase he has a preference for some over others. But he thinks that PhD admissions are quite difficult and he will be happy to be anywhere at all next fall.

Any other advice welcome!
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Replies to: PhD admissions - parent experience :)

  • sylvan8798sylvan8798 Registered User Posts: 5,591 Senior Member
    edited January 8
    When I was accepted for mine, it was basically like a job offer of sorts - a letter saying I had been accepted and including the offer of a Teaching Assistant position, pay, etc. It didn't apply in my case, but in general finding a group with your research interests can be an important consideration when applying. If he has a particular area of interest he hopes to study, and one school has a better or more relevant group than another, then that should be THE decisive factor (once one is past the finances, of course ;) ).
  • cobratcobrat Registered User Posts: 11,305 Senior Member
    edited January 8
    1. Do schools have a date they release decisions on? Do they send out some acceptances and wait to see if they enroll and then send out more? How do they control yield?

    Depends on the university and department. While there's an official release date, sometimes one may end up getting the decision earlier or if the department is bogged down or has organizational issues...it may come later. Latter isn't as common from what my older relatives and friends experienced.
    2. Will acceptances come with stipend and fellowship dollar offers? Will he be able to compare apples to apples in terms of expected work load and stipends/housing etc?

    Depends on the university and department and how much funding they have.

    One thing to keep in mind is that if one receives no fellowship/stipends(a.k.a. full pay), it's really not wise to accept from both a financial and future employment situation....especially considering hiring committees for faculty will regard absence of fellowships on one's CV as a red flag considering the vast majority of competitive candidates will have such fellowships.

    Likely less of an issue in the field of Physics than many other fields.
    3. What else should he consider if he is lucky enough to have more than one offer? He is already researching the cities where his schools are located, incase he has a preference for some over others. But he thinks that PhD admissions are quite difficult and he will be happy to be anywhere at all next fall.

    If he has more than one offer, most important factors to determine decision:

    1. Does the department concerned have more professors with compatible academic interests AND COMPATABLE PERSONALITIES. Remember, your son will be working very closely with at least one Prof from this department for long periods of time...especially in the mid-end of the program and said Prof will have far more power over his academic and future career than an undergrad adviser.

    A bad/incompatible adviser in those areas or one who ends up retiring or being denied tenure because s/he's junior faculty who hasn't received tenure yet before your S finishes his PhD will severely impede or even destroy one's prospects of finishing the program.

    2. Does the department concerned have enough funding to fully/mostly support your S as a PhD student for most or preferably the entire period he's likely to be in the program? Some universities or departments have definitive limits on funding*.


    * I.e. Princeton has a strict 5 year limit on full-funding unless the individual department feels an extension of support is justified by some extreme few exceptional situations. If one's situation after 5 years doesn't fall into those exceptions and the program isn't completed, some departments there have the policy of either allowing the student to continue without departmental fellowship funding or kick the student out of the program altogether*.

    * Former was the case with a friend who is currently a Math Prof at a Southern LAC who despite obtaining outside fellowship funding still had to secretly work as a busboy at a country club to fund his last 4.5 years in the program. Latter was the case with an older college classmate's father who ended up having to complete his PhD at a lower-ranking university.
  • rosered55rosered55 Registered User Posts: 2,115 Senior Member
    I'm not the OP, but I appreciate the answers, too. My younger daughter has applied to several Ph.D. programs and I know very little about the process.
  • katliamomkatliamom Registered User Posts: 10,225 Senior Member
    edited January 8
    In my daughter's case, the first indication of departments' interest in her application was an invitation for an on-campus interview, which came in mid-winter. She had a formal acceptance by early spring. The acceptance included an explanation of her salary & benefits, since it's a funded program during which she is considered an employee of the university. She is not interested in pursuing an academic career, and wasn't interested in TA positions; she wanted to do research as part of her program.

    When weighing multiple offers, students should look at the reputation of the department, the length of the program (how long it takes to get the doctorate and how many years of funding comes with the offer) and the salary/benefits. For my daughter, it was additionally very important for the department to have strong industry ties since she's not planning on becoming a professor.
  • mom2collegekidsmom2collegekids Registered User Posts: 81,290 Senior Member
    My son had multiple offers, all with full funding and stipends, and the acceptances all came at varying times (with money), but final decision had to be made by one national date...either April 15 or another date...don't remember for sure. The offers came in anywhere from January - March.

    The acceptances also came with invites to visit and those visits were also funded (travel costs and hotel).

    As it got closer to "decision day," a couple of the schools increased their stipends to match son's best stipend offer.
  • warbrainwarbrain Registered User Posts: 638 Member
    Overall, I found the PhD application process to be very dysfunctional compared to the college application process. As other people have said, how the process works differs by program. In my experience with computer science, acceptances were sent out months before rejections. I personally found out I was rejected from my undergraduate school for grad school, because I saw posters in the department advertising the visit weekend.
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 27,146 Senior Member
    Your son should consider whether health care is included or just offered (premium cost paid by student). The ability to keep him on your plan could go away soon if the ACA is repealed. Also, he may want to ask questions about where the funding for the dept and his PI's work comes from. My kid is applying for Physics PhD programs as well this year, and I have concerns about (for example) whether Dept of Energy funding will hold steady for the next 5 years.
  • ihs76ihs76 Registered User Posts: 1,827 Senior Member
    DS went through a physics PhD application couple of years ago.

    Acceptances and rejections start being sent out in late January. They start filling the slots and send out more decisions as acceptees start committing. The longer one goes without an acceptance, the less likely it becomes. It's awful if you don't have an early accept someplace to have the rejections dribbling in one at a time. Majority of the seats are taken by late Feb. Some programs never replied (presumably a rejection). Applicant may be flown out for an interview in Jan/Feb. Some of these are group affairs. Accepted applicants will often be put in touch with current grad students to ask questions of them.

    All worthwhile positions will come with funding. There may be offers of 'fellowship' for one semester or more, which exempts one from work, if the candidate is desirable to the program. These can be offered sometime after the initial acceptance as an additional inducement. Amounts of stipend vary but really are in the ballpark with each other, as is health insurance. Cost of living, of course, varies quite a bit as well.

    Organized accepted student weekend visits happen mostly in late Feb/early march. They are at least partially funded by the dept and are helpful to attend.

    Many physics programs have high attrition rate amongst PhD students. I would ask what the reasons are that people leave the program, whether it is difficult comprehensive exams, difficulty finding advisors, etc.

    DS ended up changing his mind and is now a happy math PhD student.
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 27,146 Senior Member
    From what we have seen, the health care costs do vary. They are fully covered for some programs, a couple hundred dollars for the student at others, and fully the student's responsibility to pay the premiums for the school offered plan, which seems to be around $1800 at most of the schools my kid is looking at. $1,800 is a lot out of the measly stipends at most of them... so it isn't something to ignore.
  • rosered55rosered55 Registered User Posts: 2,115 Senior Member
    I was already nervous; now I feel terrified for my daughter for what she'll be going through for the next few months. Sigh. We never stop being parents, do we?
  • katliamomkatliamom Registered User Posts: 10,225 Senior Member
    No we don't, @rosered55 ! You just have to have faith in your kiddo: that he knows what he's doing, that he'll have good options, that he'll chose wisely. And he will, on all counts :)
  • ihs76ihs76 Registered User Posts: 1,827 Senior Member
    I think, just like college, one needs to apply to a variety of selectivity in terms of programs. A well prepared student, with good advising, should be able to place into an acceptable program, I would think.
  • cobratcobrat Registered User Posts: 11,305 Senior Member
    edited January 9
    I think, just like college, one needs to apply to a variety of selectivity in terms of programs. A well prepared student, with good advising, should be able to place into an acceptable program, I would think.

    I would strongly disagree to a large extent for most fields unless the department in question has a great track record* for job placement in reasonably good tenure-track academia and non-academia related jobs.

    In many fields, there's far too many top 8-15 PhD program graduates chasing far too few tenure track and/or related non-academia related jobs. And the odds get precipitously worse with those who graduated from programs ranked below 15...especially in oversaturated fields.

    Consequently, I agree with past undergrad advisers, older relatives with academia experience, and friends who are recent PhD graduates/current PhD students that if one doesn't have what it takes to get into a top 8-15 PhD program as a fully-funded PhD student, one should seriously consider pursuing other educational/career options.

    * Take what departmental websites/official university stats say with a few grains of salt and examine the figures carefully. Some have been known to manipulate or even inflate employment/placement stats so they don't put off grad school applicants from their department so they can maintain their supply of TAs/RAs.
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