Visit plans go awry

It is sometimes a good idea to visit a prospective graduate school, but only after you did the homework about the school you’re contemplating a visit to. Visits are important in order to gauge whether the school, its facilities as well as the department culture really is for you. Sometimes mishaps happen, like, say, the prof moving on the very day you’re scheduled to visit. And that’s precisely what happened to me.

I knew, two months before I received the email from Justin Khoury, that the other professor I was interested in at UPenn, Mark Trodden, both of which came to be on my radar because of a visit on the Center for Particle Cosmology’s website, so I planned this very visit around a meeting with Justin Khoury. Rather than to be a visit made in order to meet with a potential advisor, as well as to tour the facilities, it is a visit now intended to meet with the students of either professor. Because, in fact, the questions I might have about the life at UPenn as a PhD student would be best answered by the students in the thick of it.

Simply put, if you do plan on visiting, please contact the prof(s) you’re interested in first, while stating your research interests and why you want to work with the profs in question.

Physics GRE refund programs

Rumors abound about the existence of programs aimed at giving graduation gifts to high-achieving students, especially at departments without a graduate program. I wanted to implement such a plan (despite the existence of a graduate program), thinking that it would amount to implementing one of the recommendations made by external inspectors, for little cost, since physics GRE sittings cost $US150 a pop, and that 2-3 students could receive that gift from the department’s part. Here’s the recommendation in question (translation is mine):

Recommendation 7b): Inform second- and third-year undergraduates of the TOEFL and GRE tests for those who desire to pursue graduate study abroad. Idem for the NSERC grants.

Now, if you wanted to implement some sort of conditional refund program, you would want the conditions to be stringent enough to say that the recipients deserved to be funded, but just stringent enough to fit the budget allocated to this purpose. That said, I would say that such programs would make sense from the standpoint of a typical American physics or astronomy department without a graduate program (e.g. liberal arts colleges), or perhaps even those with graduate programs, especially since Carlos Silva, a condensed matter prof at my undergrad, said that many physics PhD programs in the US had trouble recruiting students domestically (with collaborators at schools like the University of Houston, I’d be willing to give some credence to that claim, if only second-hand). That would be true, based on 2007-2009 data, unless things have changed in the past five years: 44% of new physics PhD students in that period (on average 2,000 yearly) were internationals. (source: AIP).

In the context of my undergrad, though, I learned nothing that could have been of use in physics GRE in graduate coursework, so I could safely say that even an undergraduate that is above average, but not NSERC or FRQNT-caliber, can score a 75th percentile, despite the near-complete absence of multiple-choice items in homework and exams. Or even an average student can get a 50-60th percentile through the material of the first two years. Even so, I feel that a 75th percentile can be achieved with a summer’s worth of study, for most students with a 3.3 and up from my undergrad. So I would have fixed the threshold for an award at the 75th percentile at my school; I would have received an award had that program existed back then.

The same Prof. Silva said that, if such a scheme existed anywhere, the scheme would likely be borne out of endowment funds. So please inquire if such a scheme exists where you study; perhaps you will have taken the test for free, pending a minimum score.

Phys-info trouble

Comme promis dans le billet précédent, je parlerai des troubles dont sont affligés le baccalauréat de physique-informatique à l’Université de Montréal, que je désignerai par la suite par phys-info. Et, pour la première fois, j’écrirai un billet à la fois en français et en anglais. De nouveau, les opinions exposées ici ne reflètent que moi et en aucun cas ceci représente l’opinion d’aucune instance de l’Université. Voici sans plus attendre les problèmes dont sont affligés phys-info (en français d’abord):

  1. Tout d’abord, impossible de parler de ce qui ne va pas avec le programme de phys-info sans parler des CONFLITS D’HORAIRE! Ces conflits mettent en otage les étudiants dans les baccalauréats de physique et de physique-mathématiques (duquel j’ai moi-même gradué) de sorte qu’il y a des cours critiques aux trois programmes qui se donnent dans des plages horaires qui nuisent à la persévérance des étudiants (il y a de quoi démoraliser des étudiants dans les deux autres programmes quand il y a des cours donnés à 8h30 le matin, avec 4-5 heures de pause avant le cours suivant).
  2. Les clientèles anémiques du programme: on compte d’ordinaire 2-4 étudiants dans la cohorte entrante de phys-info, quoique la cohorte entrante de 2007-2008, la plus nombreuse de l’histoire troublée du programme, en comportait au plus dix. Pour cette raison, depuis que le programme existe, on parlait d’un programme qui est de facto non contingenté (physique et phys-math sont réellement non contingentés), alors qu’officiellement il l’était; ainsi on a une idée de qui sont les plus faibles à déposer des demandes dans au moins un des trois programmes avec les plus faibles de phys-info comme point de référence. Certains ont blâmé le fait que la physique numérique, quoiqu’attrayante dans un contexte de recherche, n’est pas nécessairement ce qui motiverait un étudiant désireux d’entreprendre un baccalauréat de physique. Les conflits d’horaire mentionnés au point 1 reviennent à mettre en otage jusqu’à 150 étudiants (une cohorte de 1re année) pour 2-4 étudiants.
  3. L’incapacité du programme de faire que les demi-années puissent obtenir leur diplôme dans la période nominale de trois ans (à coups de 90 crédits) à cause des conflits d’horaire entre les cours d’informatique et les cours de physique mentionnés au point 1. Même si, techniquement, les étudiants en demi-année dans les deux autres programmes peuvent graduer en six sessions, dans la pratique, bien des demi-années prennent une session de plus.
  4. La portion informatique du programme est déconnecté des besoins et réalités de la physique numérique.
  5. L’impact sur la persévérance des étudiants engendre des coûts pour le département qui fait en sorte qu’il y a moyen de fermer le programme sans engendrer de pertes nettes (on perdrait quelques étudiants à l’entrée mais on perdrait moins d’étudiants entre les sessions)

Ainsi, les rumeurs courent comme quoi le programme sera éliminé de la liste des programmes offerts à partir de la session d’hiver 2015; si la fermeture du programme se faisait plus tard, on risquerait d’avoir des problèmes liés au déménagement du département de physique, tout en laissant les étudiants déjà inscrits terminer leur programme. Après tout, le département de physique va faire partie de la première vague de déménagement vers le campus Outremont, alors que les départements de mathématiques et d’informatique feront, au mieux, partie de la deuxième vague.

As promised in the last post, I will talk about the troubles afflicting the bachelor’s degree program in physics-computer science at the University of Montreal, that I will thereafter designate as phys-info. And, for the first time, I will write a post in both French and English. Again, the opinions expressed here only reflect me and under no circumstances reflect the opinions of any University instance. Without further ado, the problems of the phys-info program:

  1. First, it’s impossible to talk about what’s wrong with the phys-info program without evoking the SCHEDULING CONFLICTS! These conflicts hold hostage the students enrolled in the physics and the physics-mathematics programs (I graduated from the latter program myself) in such a way that courses critical to all three programs are taught in schedule blocks that hurt students’ perseverance (students in the other two programs can be demoralized when there are courses taught at 8:30AM, with 4-5 hours of pause before the next course of the day).
  2. The anemic clienteles of the program: there usually are two to four students in the incoming phys-info class, although the 2007-2008 incoming class, the largest in the program’s troubled history, enrolled at most ten students. For this reason, since the program exists, one could describe the program as being a de facto open-admissions program (physics and phys-math actually are open-admissions programs), while, officially, admissions were limited; when can get a sense of who are the weakest applicants in at least one of the three programs with the weakest in phys-info as reference. Some have blamed the situation on the fact that numerical physics, while attractive in a research context, is not necessarily what would motivate a prospective undergraduate physics student. The schedule conflicts mentioned in point 1 mean holding hostage up to 150 students (a freshman cohort) for 2-4 students.
  3. The program’s inability to make it so that demi-années could graduate in the nominal three-year period (90 semester credits) due to the scheduling conflicts mentioned in point 1. Even though, technically, demi-année students in the other two programs can graduate within six semesters, many demi-années take an additional semester.
  4. The computer science section of the program is disconnected from the needs and realities of numerical physics.
  5. The impact on students’ perseverance engenders costs for the department that makes it possible to close the program without net losses (we would lose a few incoming student but we would lessen attrition between sessions)

Thus the rumors abound about the program’s elimination from the degree offerings, effective winter 2015; if the program’s closure came later, we would risk running into trouble caused by the physics department displacement, while letting students already enrolled complete the program. After all, the physics department is in the first re-localization wave to the Outremont campus, while the mathematics and computer science departments will be, at best, on the second wave.

Astronomical arms race in town

Montreal is a city with two well-regarded physics departments (and arguably they are both top-5 in Canada), although, historically, they took vastly different directions, both in undergraduate and research terms. In these troubled times, where funding for science is scarce, to actually see both departments out-doing each other in a physical field (astronomy and astrophysics) where private funding is effete at best is a ray of hope for physics at large. Although the arms race is mostly a research kind of thing, I still have to introduce the differences between the two to give you some context to this arms race. I graduated from one of the two so please forgive my bias. Plus the opinions expressed in this post reflect only me, and not the opinions of the physics departments involved.

There is McGill University, the English-language department, whose physics department has been around for much longer than the French-language one (covered in the next paragraph). It was historically focused on nuclear and particle physics, and, when it comes to particle physics, they have focused on the theoretical aspect of it more. There is, to my eyes, one major undergraduate problem with that department: due to their two-speed course system (major and honours; they often say that the major is for experimentalists, and honours for theorists) they teach no course twice a year, which can be an impediment if a student failed a course, and teaching students at different standards is likely to hurt the students taught at the lower standard after they graduate. But under Gale and Grütter, they tried to make inroads in astrophysics (galactic physics, compact objects and particle astrophysics/cosmology mostly at this time).

And there is the University of Montreal, the French-language department, where its historical focus has been astrophysics and plasma. It has focused on astrophysics to the point where external inspectors suggested to rename the physics department, the department of physics and astronomy. Because all physics undergraduates there are taught at the same standards (the equivalent at McGill would be to teach every physics undergraduate at the honours level), it has the ability to teach some critical courses twice a year, hence it can accommodate the winter class (or demi-année in French; for them, the opportunity of an education should not be denied on the basis of extenuating circumstances, plus I was myself a demi-année student) properly. However, it is not free of undergraduate problems of its own: the students in the other two programs are held hostage to the scheduling conflicts that arise due to the very existence of the physics-computer science program (I will discuss the problems of that program in greater detail in a later post)

As to how the arms race manifests itself from each side of the mountain (both campuses are actually on opposite sides of Mount Royal): on the north side (UdeM) Julie Larrondo is just the tip of the iceberg, and she fills an astrophysical gap in that department, galactic/extragalactic astrophysics, adding to the current strengths in white dwarves, solar physics and massive stars, and, to a lesser extent, exoplanets. With the intent of hiring an additional three professors in exoplanets (on top of a plasma experimentalist and a quantum condensed matter theorist, to replace retiring profs) the department wishes to open a special unit dedicated to exoplanets, the Institut de Recherche sur les Exoplanètes, whose aim is to regroup all exoplanets expertise in town under one unit.

From the south side of the mountain, the physics department is in the process of setting up the Astrophysics and Space Research Centre, with an outreach coordinator who will be allotted 20% of its work scheduled for astrophysical research, and, likely, additional astrophysics faculty (astrophysical disciplines yet to be disclosed at this time, although exoplanets are likely to show up as well). Then again, from their side, they could use their new hires to diversify their astrophysical portfolio, even if it meant fighting for observation time at Mount Megantic, the instrument jointly operated by all physics departments in Quebec, aside from the other instruments (Hubble, CFHT, VLA, et al).

Who knows… maybe the astrophysical landscape in Quebec and, by extension, in Canada, will be vastly changed in the years, or even decades, to come.

Factors to consider when choosing a graduate test date

Disclaimer: much of the following content is adapted from US News and World Report and was originally intended for use with undergraduate admissions tests (e.g. SAT and ACT). Here I have to say what it means in the context of graduate admissions tests, and may well apply to the LSAT, MCAT, DAT/TAED, and to a lesser extent, the GMAT. These tests are available on various dates throughout the year, although the number of dates vary greatly from test to test: it ranges from 3 a year to dozens of dates.

Many people who take graduate admission tests are people who took them as undergraduates, but beware pitfall #9: taking it on an untimely test date may ultimately cost you your coveted fat envelope. But I wish all of you success in this endeavor, regardless of the field. If you are struggling to choose the right test dates, these four tips are quite helpful.

  1. Departmental application deadlines: First, determine your application deadlines. You might find yourself in a crunch if you realize that the latest test date your program is willing to consider is fast approaching. Typically deadlines for PhD programs come in late December or early January (I advise you against applying any later, as PhD applications submitted past these deadlines are often not considered for financial aid), while med schools have much earlier deadlines (November is typical of a med school, like UPenn Perelman, November 1) and law/business schools, much later (Columbia Business School accepts applications until April 1, while Cambridge Judge round-5 deadline is May 1, but students who apply this late to a MBA program usually face longer odds than round-1 or round-2 applicants). However, you should remember that your scores are not immediately available. Once again, processing times depend on the test but 3-4 weeks is typical.
  2. Balancing multiple exams. It is also in your best interest to ensure your assessments do not overlap. Certain colleges and universities require the relevant test alone, while others, such as the University of Chicago’s qual-free physics PhD, may also request a GRE subject test. For international students whose first language is not English, the TOEFL must also be taken, unless one is applying to a JD program (which I advise against in the current condition of the American legal job market if one is a foreign student with respect to US law schools). Each exam will cover markedly different material, so it’s important to allot each test the individual attention it deserves. Students should also allow for the possibility that they will need to retake one or more exams. Studying for more than one exam simultaneously is difficult for most students, and it adds unnecessary stress and complication to an already challenging process. Finally, note that subject tests are available less frequently than general exams (3 times a year), which can further complicate matters if you are aiming for a PhD program that requires one.
  3. Consider school commitments: Even for those students who must only complete one test, there are several advantages to targeting nontraditional test dates. The summer, for example, may offer plentiful study time and a minimum of scholastic distractions. In this instance, the first advanced GRE (if applicable) or LSAT test date, generally in September or October, can enable you to capitalize upon ample prep time. For students who work full-time in the summer, or who attend summer classes, the school year – say, April – may be a more viable option. ​Jobs, internships and travel can also have a negative impact on your review habits. The intensity of your schoolwork, midterms or final exams and extracurriculars can also factor into your schedule. Plan your responsibilities ahead of time, and then choose a time of year that will have minimal distractions before your test date.
  4. Manage your family or job commitments: Finally, consider the world beyond academics. Many graduate student hopefuls have family obligations such as weddings and vacations, or job obligations like a business trip. Speak with the important people in your life and identify unavoidable commitments. You may find that you must alter your exam dates or, more radically, register for a different test (in the case of MPH or MBA hopefuls most likely, where they may have the choice of sitting for either the GRE or the MCAT/GMAT respectively). Since colleges and universities offering MPH or MBA programs often assign the GRE and the alternate test (MCAT or GMAT, depending on the case) equal weight, and the exams are scheduled on different dates, simple availability may factor into your decision. Take advantage of the full range of possibilities when making your plans. Sitting for a graduate test can be very stressful. You can mitigate this stress, however, with basic planning and preparation. Know your deadlines and try to give yourself enough distraction-free time to study, and you may soon find that scheduling your test date is much easier than you imagined.


Some additional unsolicited advice

“Please, stay in the natural sciences; people like you that end up working on Wall/Bay Street ended up causing a lot of damage to the economy” the proctor for my physics GRE test once said. Yet I can’t help but think about some mathematicians or physicists that ended up working in finance in various capacities (I-banking, both investment and international, hedge funds, merchant banking, and so on, so forth) and the physics GRE was a step in their original goals.

Subject GRE tests are often a tricky business for people whose first choice is a PhD (or, less commonly, a MA/MSc) program in a field that requires one but who are willing to consider another field if that first plan falls apart. Of course, if a program in one’s back-up field says that a subject test is at least optional, it means that they will, at a minimum, consider the subject test score, even though, in the end, it may not carry much weight. Fortunately, you have ScoreSelect to deal with such situations.

There are some people who are tempted to take a subject GRE test so that they can show proficiency in an area on which their chosen graduate field builds upon, while not having originally majored in the field they intend to pursue, e.g. an engineering student who would take either the mathematics or the physics GRE (in the case of chemical engineering, the chemistry GRE, or biology GRE for would-be biomedical engineers) for that purpose. Typically such students are career-switchers. In fact, some say that it does serve that purpose in that situation, while others would say that it would signal to an admissions committee that you’re a flight risk. Using the engineering example above, sending a mathematics or a physics GRE score could signal to an engineering admissions committee that the student is likely to have used a MEng/MASc (or perhaps even an engineering PhD) program as a backup to a mathematics or physics PhD, respectively.

However, taking different subject tests in different disciplines will hurt you for both disciplines, if you chose to send both scores, because it makes it obvious that you can’t make up your mind about either field. If you find out that your score in one subject test is significantly better than in the other subject test, then perhaps it is a sign that the field in which you scored is a better fit for you.

One last thing that I haven’t mentioned: for PhD programs, since the program size is so small, the year in which you’ll apply makes a difference. Unlike most undergraduate programs (in the US at least), where admissions offices are fairly confident that they will get a certain amount of students to enroll year after year, the highly volatile yields and applicant pools tend to blur the picture a little bit. To make things a little clearer:

  • Year 1: the program expects to enroll 20 students, the admissions committee sends out 55 offers. In the end 30 students enroll.
  • Year 2: Expecting students to enroll at the same rate as last year, the department sends out only 15 offers that year and, given the lower-than-expected yield rate, they realize that they must go deep into the waitlist to get 10 students to enroll.
  • Year 3: Faced with an exceptionally large applicant pool, they do not expect that many to enroll, but they have to send out 55 offers to get 20 students in the program.

That said, good luck to everyone!

Some TOEFL tips

Personally, I knew the TOEFL was not what will stop me from attending a PhD program in the US unless I bombed it. When I wrote it, someone else in the waiting room claimed that I was UCLA material without even knowing what I would have gone to UCLA for, much less what I would be building my application upon. Not that I would have aimed for UCLA, now that I know that UCs in general have tightened international PhD admissions. I realized that UCLA did not have a particle cosmologist on hand. Anyhow, enough of anecdotes, now move on with the test. Of course, some of these tips are variable, especially if you’re using TOEFL for a different purpose.

1. Make sure you understand the TOEFL! Although its intended purpose is to test the English skills of people, the truth is that the level of English tested is, in fact, quite shallow. I personally found the TOEFL to be not much harder than ministerial high school English tests (Secondary V version) but that might not be the case for you. Each section is scored out of 30 (iBT, or Internet-based test) but PBT (paper-based test) scores are quite different. You don’t pass or fail the TOEFL per se, or even a given section of it. What constitute passage or failure in the TOEFL depends on who is assessing your score, more on that below. Here is the test structure (per ETS’ website):

  • Reading (60-80 minutes, 36-56 questions): read four to six passages from academic texts and answer questions based on the texts.
  • Listening (60-90 minutes, 34-51 questions): Listen to lectures, classroom discussions and conversations, then answer questions.
  • A 10-minute break; please use it wisely even though it is here for a reason
  • Speaking (20 minutes, 6 tasks): Express an opinion on diverse topics; speak based on reading and listening tasks.
  • Writing (50 minutes, 2 tasks): Write essay responses based on reading and listening tasks, support an opinion in writing

2. Be prepared!

it’s a good idea to review what you need to aim for before you sit down and assemble your study materials, if any. Your target score will depend on what you’re using the TOEFL for. If you’re using TOEFL to enter a high school-level study abroad plan, you won’t have the same target score than if you were a prospective undergraduate or graduate student. For example, McKinney Christian Academy, a Texas private high school, asks for 50 on the IBT from an eighth-grader, and 75 from a tenth-grader, while the University of Toronto asks for 100 on the IBT, with a minimum of 22 on writing. So pay attention to whether the chosen program only has an overall score requirement or a subscore requirement.

Now, if you’re taking the TOEFL to enter a US university (other than for a JD; American law schools usually trust the LSAT to test one’s English-language skills at the JD level; LLMs for foreign-trained lawyers usually require it), you will notice that some of the tips I gave for the GRE are applicable to the TOEFL as well, and that there is some overlap with other admissions tests, especially with respect to reading and writing. When that overlap does occur, use that overlap wisely.

My advice: if you must use a textbook, please consider using a high school-level textbook for the writing and reading sections (it needs not be a TOEFL-specific textbook).

3. Read and listen to everything.

It is definitely not enough to just read and listen to things in your field of interest. You need to read and listen widely, not only for vocabulary reasons but for understanding reasons as well. You will read and listen to lectures about history, literature, even biology or astronomy. Some good resources include, despite the political bias and downsizing that has plagued CBC as of late, the following:

4. Learn to take good notes.

You probably are better at note-taking if you’re aiming for a graduate degree, but I can’t stress this enough: this is an essential skill you will need for the listening, speaking and writing sections of the test – AND a skill you will need later on at an English-speaking university. You can listen to each clip only once. You will then have to answer questions based on what you heard (it can be questions on what you heard, speaking about it or writing about it). Therefore you will need to take good notes!

  • Don’t write down everything you can, or even the words that you understand. You will need to write down the essentials. Otherwise you will use up your allotted three pages of scratch paper (OK, they’ll last you longer if you write on both sides of these sheets) before you know it.
  • Use symbols and shorthand wisely. Poor use of symbols and shorthand will likely hurt you rather than help you.
  • If you do find journalistic resources with both a video and a transcript, you may use them to practice note-taking. However, should you use journalistic resources to this end, I advise you not to look at the transcript before the video is over.
  • When you raise your hand during a test administration, you may ask for extra scratch paper. It takes a while for proctors to notice you, though.

5. Make sure your pronunciation is clear.

It is OK to speak with an accent. It doesn’t have to be perfect but it has to be clear, or else you can lose quite a bit of points. You have very little time to prepare your responses and even less to deliver them. The speaking section evaluates three things: the quality of the content, the grammar of the content and, to a lesser extent, how you sound.

That said, some questions will be about giving advice to people (I personally had to answer a question about on/off-campus housing, as well as another one for work-study) while others will about giving an opinion.

6. Learn how to write an essay in English

Forget about posterity, or even writing a life-changing document. Even though writing on the TOEFL is likely to be quite different from actual writing in your field, here you need to learn about the infamous five-paragraph essay if you are to achieve any kind of success on the TOEFL writing section.

  • Introduction – it introduces your essay (topic is introduced, defined, and then divided, each in increasing levels of specificity) your opinion as well as the topic you’re writing about
  • Body: 3 paragraphs that support your opinion (or, if you’re writing a dialectic essay, 2 that support your opinion and 1 that refutes the counter-opinion)
  • One paragraph, one idea; the first sentence of the paragraph explains what the paragraph is about, and the rest of the paragraph uses clear, specific examples to illustrate your opinion
  • Conclusion – a paragraph that summarizes your essay

7. Learn how to relax

It can mean quite a lot of things but, in the context of the TOEFL, this means primarily the following things:

  • There is a 10-minute break between the listening and speaking sections. Use this time to use the bathroom if you need to, eat a snack, and do some stretching to relieve the tension in your back and shoulders! You will likely be fatigued by the halfway point.
  • Get a good night’s sleep beforehand
  • Get a good breakfast
  • Know your way around the testing center once you made your selection of a venue (you won’t want to get lost on test day)
  • Some test centres are very large with lots of people taking the test at the same time. There is a lot of noise and a lot of distractions. Make use of the noise-canceling headphones.
  • Due to the various speeds of the test-takers, some people will be starting the speaking section while others are still doing the listening section, and this applies to writing vs. speaking as well.
  • You can retake the TOEFL as many times as you wish but you cannot take it more than once every twelve days. Before retaking the test I would advise you to wait for the results of the first sitting. If you do retake, I would advise you not to do it more than three times because after the third retake, scores tend to plateau. But it’s the first retake that often yields the greatest improvement.

The costs of applying to PhD programs

This post will read like a laundry list but so is the nature of a budget. You will soon realize that it’s quite expensive to apply to PhD programs, especially if you’re a foreign student applying for a PhD program that requires a GRE subject test. I will also categorize by whether these expenditures are incurred only by internationals or by domestic students as well as whether the expenditures are school-dependent or school-independent. Plus you will see my school list in its current condition (it’s quite unlikely that I will make any further adjustment at this point, because internal competition is unlikely to be a factor for schools on my current list other than perhaps the two topmost-ranked) as well as how much the applications themselves cost there. I’ll be applying to 10 schools, so keep that in mind.

Costs are in $US unless otherwise indicated. Exchange rates used are that of July 9th, 2014, at the closure of the markets, in this case understood as buying $US with $CAN, rounded up. Prices are also current as of July 9th, 2014. Testing assumes one sitting apiece, taken far enough in advance for the schools to throw out score reports due to “statutes of reservation” (for example, Tufts keeps score reports for three months unless an application is submitted within that timeframe).

School-independent, international-only expenditures:

This list of expenditures assumes that the student comes from a non-English-speaking country. If you earned your bachelor’s degree from an English-language college/university, you may omit the TOEFL and the transcript translations. In my case, some of these expenditures will be incurred only if I am not completely shut out, in which case I will matriculate somewhere without fail.

  • F-1 visa application: $160 (only if one is matriculating somewhere)
  • SEVIS fee: $200 (only if one is matriculating somewhere)
  • Transcript translations: $CAN200/$US188 (costs may vary depending on how many pages there are on the transcript being translated and the number of copies, as well as on the translator)
  • TOEFL: $240 (per sitting)
  • TOEFL score reports: $18 (per recipient)

About transcript translations: before you go on about ordering transcript translations, check whether the programs you’re applying to require official transcripts prior to reviewing applications or only if accepted and matriculating so that you won’t order too many or too few copies.

Section subtotal: $986 (assuming at least one acceptance)/$626 (if completely shut out)


School-independent expenditures for everyone:

  • General GRE: $185 (per sitting)
  • Subject GRE: $150 (whenever applicable; per sitting)
  • GRE score reports: $27 (per recipient)

Section subtotal: $632


School-specific expenditures for everyone:

  • Transcripts: $CAN11 (unitary costs depend on the institution(s) attended, hence why transcripts appeared in the school-specific category; $CAN77/$US72 total)

Schools marked with an asterisk are schools that require an official transcript for one’s application to be considered. Assume one is using the online application. Behold, the application list (some schools have varying costs for undergrad vs. grad programs, and even variable within grad programs but the prices are that of a physics PhD application):

  • University of Pennsylvania: $80
  • Princeton: $90
  • University of Chicago: $55
  • Tufts: $75*
  • Carnegie Mellon: $0*
  • Ohio State: $70*
  • University of Minnesota: $95
  • University of Michigan: $90
  • Columbia: $105
  • Vanderbilt: $0*
  • Dartmouth: $20*

Section subtotal: $752

Grand total: $2,370 (if admitted to at least one program)/$2,010 (if completely shut out)

Bottom line: applying to just one PhD program in the US is already quite expensive, and it’s often the first application that is the most expensive to write. So, before you aim for graduate schools in the US, check whether the educational or funding conditions are worth the significant costs involved. And, of course, whether your career objectives require it. International students, I know that schools in your home country could be less expensive to apply to in many cases, but sometimes funding or educational conditions may warrant such a move.


Suppose now that a student with a 32.6 R-score is competitive for these same schools at the undergraduate level. Admittedly the list below is reach-heavy (the University of North Carolina system enforces the 18% out-of-state cap by severely constraining OOS undergraduate admissions, rendering the Chapel Hill campus every bit as competitive as Duke for international students) but applications to local safeties for one such student are usually as painless as it gets, as long as it doesn’t involve a portfolio, auditioning or interviews.

If I’m not mistaken, although Quebec students do have to send both high school and CEGEP transcripts, American admissions offices will rely almost entirely on the R-score as far as grades are concerned. The lowest R-score I’ve ever heard about from a Quebecer Ivy League admit is in the 32 range (got into Yale, and matriculated at Yale with 45 credits of advanced standing IIRC) Should one such student desire to apply to the same list (I think that student will net at least one acceptance) as a prospective undergraduate, here are the costs incurred (other than the international-only expenditures, which remain the same):

School-independent expenditures for everyone:

  • General SAT: $85.50 (per sitting)
  • Subject SAT: $59 (on registration) + $26 for a language test with listening or +$16 for another subject test
  • ACT: $54.50 (per sitting; assumes writing component is in effect)
  • SAT score reports: $11.25 (per recipient)
  • ACT score reports: $12 (per recipient; multiply by the number of sittings)

Section subtotal: $316.25 (if only the SAT is taken, in addition to 3 subject tests)/$417.25 (if the ACT is taken but not the general SAT; 3 subject tests are assumed)/$512.75 (if both the ACT and the general SAT are taken; 3 subject tests are assumed)

School-specific expenditures for everyone:

  • Transcripts: $CAN11 (unitary costs depend on the institution(s) attended, hence why transcripts appeared in the school-specific category, plus one transcript is usually necessary upon matriculation; $CAN132/$US124 total)

Schools marked with an asterisk are schools that are part of the Common Application. Assume one is using the online application. Here’s the list, with undergraduate application fees:

  • University of Pennsylvania: $75*
  • Princeton: $65*
  • University of Chicago: $75*
  • Tufts: $70*
  • Carnegie Mellon: $75*
  • Ohio State: $60*
  • University of Minnesota: $55
  • University of Michigan: $75*
  • Columbia: $85*
  • Vanderbilt: $50*
  • Dartmouth: $80*

Section subtotal: $890

Grand total: $2,191.25 (if the general SAT is taken alongside 3 subject SAT tests)/$2,292.25 (if the ACT is taken alongside 3 subject SAT tests)/$2,387.75 (if one takes both the ACT and the general SAT, as well as 3 subject tests)

Conclusion: undergraduate admissions can be every bit as costly as graduate admissions for internationals. Given that many colleges in the US give paltry financial aid to international students (most of the ones with any degree of generosity are, in fact, “reach-for-anyone” schools) an international student is better off going to the US as a PhD student than as an undergraduate unless one is a recruited athlete in a “full-ride” sport or in a family that can afford full freight.

Ego-boost applicants

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to ask a few questions from someone who lived it recently enough for her information to be worth something to me. (Julie Larrondo, whom I referenced in an earlier post, while she was admitted at Yale, UMD and UCSC before ultimately choosing Cambridge, didn’t respond) I was told that even a highly-regarded program like the now-qual-free University of Chicago physics department has its share of ego-boost applicants, and these applicants are the reason why even UChicago have a low yield rate. Of course, it often happens that there are people who are accepted to any given program could be accepted to multiple programs, and that’s inevitable.

Every now and then, there seems to be those applicants who apply to what high-ranked programs they can (given their credentials, of course) for bragging rights if their applications are successful. They seemingly apply with little or no regard to what work they actually intend to do, hoping for the fat envelope to reach them and to brag about the fact that they got into some highly-ranked school regardless of whether they actually attend one in the end or not. And, as I said earlier, the students I call Chinese grant recipients seem to try and apply to as many high-ranked schools they can, be it schools that are prestigious in general, despite not being so great in their chosen field, or schools that are prestigious in their field, and for whom prestige is more important than what they actually do in graduate school.

It’s perfectly understandable that applicants do not know exactly know what research they want to do out of undergrad, and that there are some jobs where academic prestige is more important than the actual academic track record, at least when hiring newly minted graduates (I-banking, regardless of whether I means investment or international, comes to mind, but both investment and international banking seem to seek similar things in job candidates). But what constitutes an “ego-boost” move depends on the student’s credentials.

I am lucky not to have met any of them personally at my undergrad, but when you think about it, there are two kinds of ego-boost applicants, depending on what provides them the eponymous ego boost: the ones for whom acceptance provide the ego boost and often decide to attend a somewhat lesser school because it’s a better research fit, for instance. And there are the ego-boost applicants for whom acceptance is necessary but not sufficient for the ego-boost effect to kick in, but attendance of one such school will provide them that ego boost. And acceptance-type ego-boost applicants are more likely to do their homework about applications than attendance-type ego-boost applicants.

The only ego-boost student I’ve ever heard about that graduated from my undergrad actually is the most recent graduate from my undergrad to attend Harvard and, from the description I am given of that student, the student was an attendance-type ego-boost student. Because, as I said in the beginning, this department is very consanguine (a large percentage of the graduate admits are admitted internally, 2/3 is a ballpark figure), not that many will try to go out, and even less will write the physics GRE (1-2 yearly, 3 GRE takers is an exceptional number by my undergrad’s standards). Now, one might say that ego-boost applicants exist because, in part, of what one can do with a PhD degree that uses some of the tools of your field but that does not involve scientific research or teaching, or because of parents who try to micro-manage kids’ applications.

Qualifying exams

Although I am not in position to talk about what qualifying exams really feel like, I can tell you that the quals are a major milestone towards a PhD. Not only that, but most quals formats can fall into two categories: comprehensive exams about everything you learned prior or the defense of a research prospectus. Both formats can be quite terrifying. There are those departments where quals can be skipped under certain conditions, however.

  1. Comprehensive exams. There are those departments where the tests cover the basic material (in physics, there is typically one test on classical mechanics and on electromagnetism, one test on quantum mechanics and on statistical mechanics, but sometimes there are other tests sprinkled in as well) where the objective is to know whether one actually knows the material required to move on to the dissertation. Example department using this format: University of North Carolina physics and astronomy
  2. Research prospectus defense. Here one has to do a literature review of one’s intended dissertation research, as well as to identify a working hypothesis and the aims of the research. The objective is therefore to assess the familiarity of the student with the research in the field, and its knowledge thereof. Example department using this format: Vanderbilt physics and astronomy
  3. Quals with conditional waivers. Departments where one can, in whole or in part, waive quals under certain conditions. Take Tufts’ physics and astronomy department, for example. One can waive one of the tests if the grade in the corresponding course(s) is A- or better.
  4. No quals at all. This might surprise you but there is that rare department where there are no quals at all. Starting in 2014, the University of Chicago physics department decided to phase out the quals.

Addendum: Here’s a quote pertaining to the University of Chicago physics department choosing to phase out the quals from a current University of Chicago physics PhD student that prefers not to be named:

Starting in 2014, the candidacy exam in the University of Chicago physics PhD program is pretty much cancelled. Instead, you take a placement exam upon arriving, and then a counseling committee decides which courses you need to take, based on your performance. You are qualified once you pass the courses they tell you to take.
Apparently, the faculty wishes to make the qualifying process less stressful by this new system.

And, unless phasing out the quals is also something the astronomy department will do in the near future (due to some administrative action), it looks like its astronomy department students go through what amount to three dissertation defenses, each of which are increasing in scope. And the first two defenses would, together, comprise the equivalent of quals.