Some advice for list construction

In a field like physics, especially in countries where professional schools are undergraduate-level (say what you will but Quebec is, for educational purposes, a country in its own right), many in these fields will want, or feel the need, for some professional reason, to pursue graduate education. But before you go on to take the GRE, prepare your statement of purpose, transcripts or translations thereof, here’s one major piece of advice:

– Most importantly, begin the process with choosing what subfield you intend to specialize in. It is alright (straight from undergrad) not to know the specific topic; however, more than anything else, the subfield will help you narrow down where you can study. It is important to understand, from the onset, that a department will be capable of providing specialized training only in a few subfields. Remember that, if you’re completely undecided, you may be a poor fit for a department since you could take forever to decide on a supervisor and a topic if you are completely undecided.

Knowing this, then you can prepare for the GRE, the TOEFL (if necessary), as well as other application materials. But there are a few dos, and their corresponding don’ts, for the entire process:

  1. Do check against your credentials before deciding whether to put a school on your list or not.
  2. It is alright to aim high, given one’s credentials, but don’t apply only to the big-name schools in your subfield; you might find yourself shut out.
  3. Do check whether there are other characteristics that can make your stay at that school enjoyable.
  4. Don’t put a school on your list, or cross a school off your list, merely because of other extraneous reasons (the prestige of the school, a partner currently attending the school, logistics, for example)

There definitely are more factors to consider when applying to graduate schools; some departments have formal physics GRE thresholds (650 at USC) or general GRE thresholds (307 V+Q at Dartmouth) but a common academic threshold is a 3.0 GPA. So keep these thresholds in mind as you build a list and be prepared to cut a school off your list if you can barely clear these thresholds.In fact, cut a school off your list if there is more than one threshold you have trouble clearing in a multi-threshold school.

But more on the general and physics GRE tests later.

The past lightcone, part 2

I would describe my undergraduate department as follows: it is long on astrophysics and, to a lesser extent, condensed matter and plasma, and, as far as particle physics is concerned, it is more of an experimental school. So my dear particle cosmology is contained in a rather small group of particle physics theorists. As an undergraduate program, one has three programs to choose from and the vast majority of the students are enrolled in one of the two honors programs, physics honors (more popular among experimentalists) and physics-mathematics joint honors (more popular among theorists) but the third choice, which is a physics and computer science joint-honors degree, is much less common than the other two. Virtually no one minored in physics unless one was placed on probation, hence the minor being used as a second chance to earn a physics degree. And, as far as quality is concerned, it’s one of the best undergraduate physics programs I’ve seen in my lifetime; it’s a very demanding program, as one would expect from a honors physics curriculum.

But, due to its particular context, my undergrad is, simply put, the most consanguine physics department in the world at that level of physical reputation. Here consanguinity means that students tend to stay at that school from a degree to another, which, from my viewpoint, is not the best move, unless one is industry-bound.

The past lightcone, part 1

First, some introductions are in order. My name is Yvan Ung, a particle cosmologist (or so I would call myself since I am doing a thesis masters in particle cosmology). Because the entire blog will be written from the perspective of a foreign student applying for physics PhD programs in the US, dreaming about particle cosmology. Why particle cosmology? one might ask. I learned very quickly that cosmology was, especially in the (very?) early universe, intertwined with particle physics, and not simply through QFT.

There are multiple undergraduate mistakes I made, the most fatal of which was the complete lack of research experience. I knew, back as an undergraduate, that any hope of success for this escape was almost dead because I was unlucky. But there also was the complete lack of teaching assistantship experience; while not as helpful as research experience, it could tip the scales in my favor. Back then, I dubbed the entire program a “direct-PhD”, whose label of direct has been dropped because I would be applying with a MSc in hand. So I simply chose to stay at my undergraduate institution for my masters so I could have a chance at fixing my undergraduate mistakes.

A common piece of advice given to grad school hopefuls is “Do not earn all your degrees at one university” and, from a level to another (i.e. from bachelors to masters, or masters to doctorate), change universities if possible. Personally I would say that it is less problematic to stay at one’s undergraduate institution for a masters if one doesn’t have any research experience than if one had research experience in undergrad because the reason behind that quote has something to do with exposure to different research ideas and, therefore, experience.

Because, in order to take the physics GRE, I needed my parents’ cooperation for transportation, my parents became aware of my plan and my intentions to pull the trigger on leaving Canada (curse you, NSERC, and, to a lesser extent, FQRNT) after I earned a MSc on top of a joint-honors BSc in physics and mathematics. They may have accused me of wasting $CAD700 (after exchange rates and travel expenses have been applied) on three tests, but I came to the bleak realisation that the PGS-D NSERC doctoral grant or the B2 doctoral FQRNT grant would be hard to gain, therefore I knew that I have to turn to the US to make the rest of the dream a reality. So, while the general GRE (thereafter referred to as the GGRE; $US185), the physics GRE (thereafter referred to as the PGRE; $US150) and the TOEFL ($US240) were three necessary evils I knew what I had to do.