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!

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