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How to craft a reasonable list of grad schools - Physics

SoWestSoWest Registered User Posts: 179 Junior Member
Our older son wants to pursue a physics PhD (AMO). He is double majoring in math and physics at a big state university. He has taken the GRE (167V,170Q), has a 3.9 GPA, does research in math and physics labs, has presented his math research at a regional conference, will present his physics research at a conference later this fall and expects to have some physics research published soon. He will take the physics GRE this month. The professor who is advising him is encouraging him to apply to some big name universities. I know he's a very good student, but I'm sure that there are lots of other fantastic students applying to these schools. Should he also have the grad-school equivalent of a "safety?" Any resources for crafting a list? So far, he has checked out Grad Cafe. Suggestions appreciated!

Replies to: How to craft a reasonable list of grad schools - Physics

  • doschicosdoschicos Registered User Posts: 14,765 Senior Member
    edited October 7
    Paging @intparent parent whose child has recently gone through the process and I'm sure has good advice to share.
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 30,114 Senior Member
    I'm here! This resource was invaluable if you haven't found it yet:


    But his best resource is his advisor at college (hopefully a physics prof, maybe someone he has been researching with).

    Agree that a couple of "easier to get into" schools are a good idea. But he should be sure the stipends are something he can live on, and that health insurance is included if he needs it (or will need it by the time he is done -- he will be in grad school for 5-6 years). We had to look at the school websites to figure out the insurance question.

    Be prepared for him to spend his whole Thanksgiving break on apps, and a lot of winter break as well. There is no "Common App", so my D found them quite time consuming.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 11,672 Super Moderator
    My take on "safeties" is this: One, there's really no "safety" like there is in undergrad; some programs will be easier to get into than others especially for a strong student like your son. But even those programs probably have acceptance rates of lower than 20-30% just because of program size.

    In any event, I think it depends a lot on your son's career plans and goals. If he wants to go into academia, a better-reputed department/advisor is important for placement afterwards; going to a lower-ranked school can limit his options (or at the very least require a lot of work to claw his way into a position where he can compete for good departments' faculty positions). Some pseudo-academic positions at national labs or government agencies may also have this kind of constraint. There's also the fact that students who go to top programs are more likely to get top fellowships like the NSF or NDSEG or Hertz, although that could simply be because the top students tend to gravitate towards those programs anyway and not because the programs themselves. (It's probably a bit of both.)

    For some students, if they can't go to a top program they'd rather go do something else with their lives - or try again next year - than toil away in a mid-ranked PhD program. If your son feels that way, then applying to a smaller number of highly-ranked programs may be his strategy/approach.

    Others are really determined to get into any PhD program now, and they'd be far happier and it would satisfy their career goals to attend a mid-ranked program this year (and/or they knew that waiting a year or two wouldn't improve their chances for higher-ranked programs). So for them casting a wide net is a better strategy.

    The other thing that changes this is what is a 'safety' for your kid...he's a pretty strong candidate from what you've shared, so a more 'safe' program for him might still be a top 20-30 program, which still offers good job prospects in academia (and of course outside).
  • AroundHereAroundHere Registered User Posts: 2,577 Senior Member
    A professor in the field providing personal guidance is the best source of info.

    Safety schools may not even be worth going to! Who you work with for your PhD is a crucial career decision for academics.
  • MandalorianMandalorian Registered User Posts: 1,530 Senior Member
    The safest bet is to apply to a range of schools. He certainly sounds qualified for the top programs, but these things can always be a little bit random seeming.
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 30,114 Senior Member
    "Top school" is a little subjective. The right PI if you really know what you want to do and can find someone strong in that area can make a school that isn't a tippy top name a viable option.
  • SoWestSoWest Registered User Posts: 179 Junior Member
    Thanks for your replies. It's a hectic time for him and this is all very helpful. The process seems substantially different from college applications four years ago, so it's nice to have advice from those who have experience.
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 30,114 Senior Member
    So true -- it is very different. So much less info. Quite a bit less parental involvement. Still just as stressful for parents. :)
  • xraymancsxraymancs College Rep Posts: 4,265 Senior Member
    Having advised physics majors about getting into graduate programs as well as having been responsible for admissions in my department, I would say that your son is in a very good position with high GPA, GRE scores, and a strong research portfolio. Depending on how the Physics GRE goes, he can certainly be competitive for the most selective programs. What he needs to decide before applying to ~5 programs is whether he has a specific preference as to the location, the size of the department, and the research focus that he wishes to pursue. In general, if he has an open mind as to the area he wishes to specialize in, then a larger program with many opportunities is the best choice. If he already knows the direction he wishes to pursue, then he could find a smaller, less selective program with a strength in a specific area and use it as a "safety".

    Ultimately, for a career in research, the advisor is key. My department (Illinois Tech) is certainly not among the most selective physics programs but my Ph.D. students all have no problem getting quite good positions after graduating. I can say the same for my colleagues too, however, if a student wants to study atomic physics, we can't accommodate her because our department is relatively small.

    As a rule of thumb, you can find a good PhD advisor in many physics departments and pretty much any of the 50 most selective programs are quite good. The risk with applying to the usual suspects is just what you have identified, that is that there are many strong applicants in the pool and the competition for the limited number of slots is high. However, as I said before if he has a strong score in the Physics GRE, he will make the furst cut and have his application looked at carefully.

    One other suggestion is that he can apply for the NSF GRF or the NDSEG Fellowship programs as a Senior (deadline is in November) and if he is able to win one of those, he will have his own funding for up to 3 years.

    Good Luck!
  • BeaudreauBeaudreau Registered User Posts: 1,005 Senior Member
    edited October 11
    @xraymancs - Good post! I would just add that it's probably too late to apply for the NSF GRF or the NDSEG Fellowship programs. NSF applications are due on October 14th, NDSEG applications are due on December 31, and the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship are due on November 3, My son was considering these applications, but basically his research advisors talked him out of it. The applications are very time consuming and are due well before graduate school applications. He was advised to focus on his senior research, grades, and polishing his graduate school applications. The fellowships are not awarded until after universities make graduate school decisions so getting one should not affect admissions chances.

    @SoWest - your son seems to be a bit ahead of my son with his research, so perhaps he may still want to apply this year for fellowships. But if so, he needs to get started.

    My son will be applying to just four schools for a PhD in Aerospace Engineering - Michigan, Georgia Tech, Princeton, and Texas A&M. All but Texas A&M have outstanding established programs in plasma propulsion, the PhD concentration of interest to him. At Texas A&M, in 2015 the university hired two outstanding young professors (Michigan and Princeton PhDs) in this field to build a top-notch plasma research program there within the aerospace engineering program. My son is working closely with both of them right with the goal to graduate with a published paper with him as lead author. A&M has moved from 4th to 1st on his list because he already knows how much he likes working with these guys and is excited about helping to build a program. But I am encouraging him not to make any decisions until he learns where he's been accepted and has taken any offered visits. He already informally visited Michigan earlier this year and loved the university and Ann Arbor (he also visited U of M in high school and was accepted there He has also visited with the Georgia Tech professor who runs their plasma propulsion lab. That was also his second visit to Georgia Tech, which also accepted him for undergraduate.

    Next fall, he should be able to refine the required research proposal for his fellowship applications. His understanding is that you can apply up to three times, so he intends to start out stronger than with something that he would have to throw together this year. If he does decide on A&M and can get a fellowship, that would make him far more portable if one or both of his professors got lured away to another university, research institute, or industry job. But A&M has a lot of money and is still growing their engineering program, so they should be able to compete with just about anyone.

    BTW, half of the PhD candidates working at Michigan's Plasmadynamics and Electric Propulsion Laboratory, a part of Michigan's Aerospace Engineering Department, will earn degrees in Applied Physics, not Aerospace Engineering.
  • xraymancsxraymancs College Rep Posts: 4,265 Senior Member
    @Beaudreau - Actually the NSF applications for physics are due on October 27 but yes, that gives one little time to complete it. On the other hand, a student can only apply at 3 times: as a Senior, 1st year graduate, and 2nd year graduate and the competition gets harder as you go further along. Not making an effort as an undergraduate is simply wasting a chance. There is no expectation that a Senior knows what his/her project will be in detail so I find it disappointing that faculty discourage students to apply. The two students I know personally from Illinois Tech who have won the NSF award both did it as Seniors.
  • BeaudreauBeaudreau Registered User Posts: 1,005 Senior Member
    @xraymancs - You clearly know more about this subject than I do, especially when I am getting a lot of my information third hand or from websites. And I think my son may have been a bit overwhelmed by everything he has get done this semester, which may have shaded his discussions with his professors and his reports to me. I did encourage him to get started this summer on fellowship applications after he got back from his research program in Germany, but he really wanted to chill for a month before getting back into things. He has worked very hard to get where he is, so I couldn't really push too hard.
  • SoWestSoWest Registered User Posts: 179 Junior Member
    Thank you - more good suggestions to pass on. He is almost finished with the NSF application and is planning on applying for other fellowships as time allows. His research adviser encouraged him to apply for fellowships. I don't think he would have done that otherwise since it's such a busy time. Fingers crossed!
  • xraymancsxraymancs College Rep Posts: 4,265 Senior Member
    @Beaudreau - a good idea. I am sue he will be fine and get a good TA/RA offer. That is the most important thing.
  • Dave_NDave_N Registered User Posts: 721 Member
    Not a huge difference for this thread, but I believe the new(ish) rules for GRFP state that you may only apply twice, once as an undergraduate, and once as a graduate student.
    Effective as of the 2017 competition (Fall 2016 deadlines), graduate students are limited to only one application to the GRFP, submitted either in the first year or in the second year of graduate school. An exception is provided for first-year graduate students who applied to the 2016 GRFP competition in Fall 2015; these individuals may apply a second time in Fall 2016, if they are otherwise eligible. See Section IV – Eligibility Information for additional details.

    Source: https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2016/nsf16588/nsf16588.htm

    I've updated just in case someone searches GRPF and finds this thread. I would encourage any interested student to apply as an undergrad; you only get one shot in grad school.
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