Tufts Syndrome

This post draws on what Dave Berry, an undergraduate admissions consultant, had to say regarding Tufts Syndrome with respect to undergraduate admissions. What he has to say may very well be applicable to law school and graduate-level business school as well. I’ll say it right off the bat: if the college is non-holistic, the odds a college will be afflicted with the Syndrome are almost non-existent. Look, I am not the first one who theorizes that Tufts Syndrome is a sickness caused by a lack of demonstrated interest but this thread on College Confidential flagged me forever as a proponent of this theory (Catria is my CC handle; I am also available for most undergraduate and law school chancing needs that do not involve transfers). Sorry if I’m writing this post about Tufts Syndrome like a physician would, but the very name suggests that the Syndrome is like any other ailment. Now, for the definition of the Tufts Syndrome.

Tufts Syndrome (also known as yield protection): A sickness that causes a college, a university or a department theoreof, to reject or to waitlist well-qualified applicants on the grounds that the student is unlikely to enroll if admitted.

Symptoms: Students get rejected or waitlisted from the afflicted college while their profile is as strong as, or stronger than, that of the students admitted; the admissions unit afflicted is not among the most selective in its category. (For the latter reason, the namesake of the Syndrome is cured since it is now in the “reach-for-anyone” category)

Diagnosis: Per The Collegiate Blog, it’s very difficult to prove whether a college is afflicted with Tufts Syndrome, since, often, the victims of the Syndrome will use the disease as a defense mechanism as they are primarily hurt by the bad news and/or insulted. Ultimately, only anecdotal evidence can be used for diagnosis.

At this point, you may ask: how does one prevent being tufted? Showing demonstrated interest. Demonstrated interest usually means the interaction between the school and the applicant, and often the admissions officers themselves, but one must not overdo it. One may contact faculty, but they run the same risks as prospective graduate students and one may visit (if overnight visits are available, they are recommended, but you should at least, if you visit when school is in session, sit in a class) a college. Usually, the more applied-to the institution, the less likely are professors to answer queries prospective students might have, much less to take appointments with prospective students.

Another factor you might point at is whether, at some point in the application (in the case of colleges applied to through the Common Application or the Universal College Application, supplements) the college asks for what other colleges the applicant is considering. In this situation, you may list three or four schools at, or below, the level of the school that requests it but don’t lie. Unless the university explicitly requests to list all colleges and universities one is applying to, one is under no obligation to respond with a complete list. It may also be applicable for law or busines school (and, to a lesser extent, medical school) but if one is applying early action/decision, one may be finalizing a school list.

Remember, the average Joe is lucky to get into one or two colleges that fits them. If you’re worried about, or feel like you are, being tufted, you’re one of the lucky few (and most likely a high-performing student). The sort of students who, historically, had to worry about whether they are afflicted by Tufts Syndrome are high-performing enough to apply to a broad range of schools, according to the standard Reach, Match, Safety approach.


Because many posts on this blog pertain to PhD admissions, I’ve decided to dig a little deeper for Tufts Syndrome at the graduate level, and all I found was this thread on the Grad Cafe. Of course, this is written in the context of English-language literature PhD programs, but, since the academic community in most fields is a tightly-knit world, especially when one goes into deeper detail (e.g. medievalists in English, particle cosmologists in physics), there could be communication between schools, disguised under scholarly communication at conferences or otherwise.

In a PhD context, especially when one is applying to 10-12 schools and more, there is an additional reason why many schools ask for what other schools you’re applying to: to assess whether one would actually give some thought into doing a PhD, as well as assessing fit. That’s why ego-boost students aren’t necessarily successful to begin with. They may have the stats, they may have the research experience, they may have the GRE scores, but they often do not fit because they did only minimal research at best. Don’t forget that one’s back-up school may be another’s dream school. And that fit, in a PhD context, is not limited to research fit, but also, due to one of the challenges being the discourse (and ideas) of your peers, it may also come to mean the fit as in the level of the students with you if admitted. And, to make matters worse, funding considerations makes it harder to determine whether one is tufted or not.

One last thing: watch out for questions pertaining to “did you hear back/receive offers from other schools?”

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Application strategy vs. number of schools applied to

This post is twofold: the first part is devoted to undergraduate applications (most of the content is actually applicable to law school applications as well), and the second part is devoted to PhD applications.


 

Surely one will run net price calculators before deciding to put a college on an application list or not. Because schools that, at first glance, look unaffordable at sticker price may well be affordable after all and vice-versa. So take that into account whenever you are to determine whether a school is off-limits or not, since you might want to minimize your debt load. This holds true especially if you want to hold a job that is contingent on maintaining a pristine credit record, like, say, accounting or other jobs where one is expected to hold financial responsibility, such as investment/international banking, or your career path calls for graduate-level, professional education.

Which leads me to the next section: check against your career goals and budget. If your career goals aren’t in any shape or form determined by undergraduate departmental or institutional prestige or you have some constraint due to geography or credentials, for instance, it’s OK to apply to a small number of schools.

By far the most critical schools to have on an undergraduate application list, and the schools one will often have the most trouble with, are the safeties, especially for those who aim for the top. It’s easy to fall in love with a match or a reach school. But, while human “chancers” on websites like College Confidential have their flaws, they are still better than undergraduate chancing algorithms on Cappex or Parchment. You have to make sure the safeties are affordable and that they are schools you like, because, while they are your fallbacks when you can’t get into a match or a reach school, you’re still attending a college in the end if you do your homework. How many safeties to have depend on how high you’re reaching and to how many schools you are applying. If you’re applying to:

  • 4 or less schools: at least half of them must be safeties/low matches
  • 5-8 schools: two safeties/low matches, the remainder split equally between matches and reaches
  • 9+ schools: two safeties/low matches, four-six matches/high matches, the rest reaches

When I used to do chancing on CC, I often described the chances of an applicant (provided the applicant wasn’t lying) as any one of the following:

  • Reach (0-20% chance of acceptance, as long as the chances are nonzero)
  • High match (20-40%)
  • Match (40-60%)
  • Low match (60-80%)
  • Safety (80-100%)

Of course, there are the students who won’t settle for less than a match if they get into one, and I wish every student the best in their application season, regardless of whether they are victims of the Tufts Syndrome or not. If you wish to attend law school in the US, despite the collapse of the legal job market, you can always go see Law School Predictor, but nowadays, LSP seems to underestimate odds of acceptance a little bit, given the collapse of the law school applicant pool that followed that of the legal job market.


 

For grad school, especially at the PhD level, the environment is so competitive one shouldn’t talk about safeties. That said, there definitely are schools that are easier to get into than others. There are some students whose school lists are apparently filled with reaches, with very little in the way of non-reaches. Some of these students are top ego-boost students, applying to highly-ranked departments with little or no clue about what they see themselves doing there (it’s more understandable in a field like pure mathematics, but not in other fields), while others are students whose credentials are average at best (by the standards of the PhD-bound crowd of a given discipline).

If you’re PhD-bound, although no school should actually be considered a sure bet (a safety in the undergraduate sense just doesn’t exist) there definitely exists schools that are less competitive to get into than others. When departments post average GRE scores, it gives you an indication but the picture then depicted is very, VERY incomplete, because the luck factor partially comes from the letters of recommendation, where you have no control over the content beyond whether your recommender knew you because of research or coursework. Add to that the fact that research experience, both qualitatively and quantitatively, hold more weight than GRE scores. Pay attention to the competitiveness of your discipline and even subfield within a discipline, for the optimal length of your application list depends on it. Here are some examples drawn from two different fields, physics and psychology that I’ve read about:

  • (Physics) Experimental condensed matter: 6-8
  • (Physics) Theoretical particle physics/cosmology: 10-12
  • (Psychology) Quantitative psychology: 6-8
  • (Psychology) Clinical psychology: 10-12

Even if you did as I said at the very beginning, factoring in the subfield and fit within the subfield, you should always have more non-reaches (in the undergraduate context, matches and safeties lumped together) than reaches, if only one more non-reach. You should also keep in mind, while searching for non-reaches, that you should pick non-reaches of varying levels of competitiveness, and make sure that a given non-reach is an offer you would accept if it was your only one. And split your non-reaches between “harder” and “easier” non-reaches.

There’s something said for ambition, but make sure the reaches are REACHABLE. Even a good fit isn’t enough for an application to be successful. For the record, my own list (as of August 28), as sorted in ascending order of reachability:


 

Reaches:

  • Princeton
  • UChicago
  • Columbia
  • Michigan-Ann Arbor
  • UPenn

Non-reaches (harder)

  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Minnesota
  • Ohio State

Non-reaches (not-that-hard)

  • Tufts
  • Vanderbilt
  • Dartmouth

 

One last thing: applying to 10-12 PhD programs requires almost as much work as an upper-division course in the PhD’s field that is worth 3 semester credits or 4 quarter credits.

Banks, Bender and Wu

The week before the road trip began (which ended four days later, and I wrote the posts pertaining to the trip after the trip itself was actually over), my PI asked me to do a presentation on an article that, between ourselves, we all called “Banks, Bender and Wu” which actually was about large-order perturbation caused by a system of equal-mass anharmonic oscillators with two degrees of freedom. Did the presentation the old-fashioned way, with a blackboard, because I found the article to be a very heavy reading and that beamers were too fast for the weightiness of the content.

We were mostly interested in the multidimensional tunneling techniques outlined in the paper, and, while my personal notes contained many aspects that I thought were pertinent to cover, just explaining what led up to these took a while because of the complexity of the mathematical arguments. Everyone was befuddled but, then again, I would say that, if it was simpler, we wouldn’t have a lab group presentation. In order to spare the other people in the lab additional pain, I was simply summarizing the last two parts by saying that these methods can be generalized to an ever-increasing number of degrees of freedom, as well as nonquartic coupling, without telling how. And we found out that there were multiple typos in the original article and that I took notes without correcting the typos.

Nevertheless, as a masters student going into my second year I still learned quite a bit from this excruciating experience. I tried to juggle my own research and the reading of this very complex article, with some success but now that this presentation is over, I know what to expect should I be asked to do something similar again.

One adjustment: Princeton

This isn’t an adjustment I made lightly. It was the result of months of bickering with people I asked advice from, be it people who read my first draft of my primary personal statement, undergraduates I mentored or their fellow classmates, or even professors I emailed, both at my undergrad and at other schools. Especially when applying to top-10 schools as an international kid (the competition is only somewhat less intense at Princeton specifically when it comes to foreign applicants from outside East Asia vs. East Asian applicants) one has to research the department carefully.

Everything began a week or so before the general relativity final, which itself came about 2 weeks before the PGRE score was released. During the weekly department-wide seminar, I was seated next to an emeritus professor, Mr. Taras, whose office was just next to the particle physics administrative assistant, and I was given some suggestions that I didn’t take seriously back then because I didn’t know my PGRE score yet. Then the emeritus learned about my research project and aspirations, namely very early universe, and then Princeton came up.

All I knew about Princeton back then was that it rejected a large number of applicants from all over the world who had what it takes to succeed once there and therefore, being rejected by Princeton is by no means an indictment of one’s physical abilities, so I would have good reason to say that I would still be able to do well once at Princeton. Here’s the list as it stood prior to the GR final, that one test on which I pinned all my PhD hopes because I knew, back then, that graduate grades were generally higher than undergraduate grades and it was common knowledge for just about any physics PhD admissions committee in the US:


 

  • UPenn
  • University of Rochester
  • Yale
  • William and Mary
  • Arizona State
  • Ohio State
  • UMinn-Twin Cities
  • Tufts
  • Vanderbilt
  • Tulane

 

Fast forward to late June, where I was in a state of breakdown because there was another rising senior I asked about her future plans. She had two trump cards against me: a higher GPA (4.3 vs. 3.7-3.8) and publications (2 vs. 0) and after reading a PhysicsGRE.com post, from which I drew advice for making adjustments (no Tulane, no W&M, no Yale, no Rochester, no Arizona State) and I had Harvard and Princeton on that list as it stood back in June:


  • UPenn
  • Harvard
  • Princeton
  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Penn State
  • Ohio State
  • UMinn-Twin Cities
  • Tufts
  • Vanderbilt
  • Dartmouth

After heated debates with the undergraduates I mentored, other undergraduates in the same class and the graduate students in their labs, in an attempt to make sense of her motives, I axed Harvard and Princeton, thinking both were unrealistic (and that I would axe UPenn only if she applied to all three of Harvard, Princeton and UPenn; turned out that soft condensed matter wasn’t her thing and therefore she ruled out UPenn). Because I axed Harvard and Princeton, then followed two rounds of adjustments: first, I put Brown in their place, and, once I realized that I would be a poor fit with Lowe, UChicago (my backup plan at the reach end of the scale if she applied to both Harvard and Princeton at the height of the crisis) and UNC-Chapel Hill were added to my list. Might have contacted Erickcek a little too early, but I didn’t expect a quick response at the time.

When Erickcek did respond weeks later, however, I was surprised that she saw fit to make some recommendations while only knowing about my research interests and experience. I chose to withhold all other credentials back then (and still do unless asked to). Here’s the quote, taken verbatim:

However I should warn you that the UNC physics department can only accept a limited number of international graduate students because their tuition, which is covered by the department, is substantially higher than it is for students who are eligible to become NC residents when they move to Chapel Hill.  I suggest that you also apply to private US universities, as they have an easier time accommodating international students.  For cosmology, I recommend University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Princeton, Case Western Reserve University, and U Chicago.

Princeton was mentioned too many times in the process for me to ignore at this point, and I was going to apply to two of the five schools she mentioned already, UPenn and UChicago, and I found out that I wouldn’t fit at Case Western, and ruled out Stanford because it was too far away from home. Princeton is perhaps the only school I would attend over UPenn, even though I do not feel as strongly about Princeton as I would about UPenn. I would suspect Mrs. Erickcek (and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Taras) to hold some preconceived assumptions about what other credentials would people actually capable of doing theoretical particle cosmology research claim: high grades, high GRE scores, strong letters of recommendation from research…

While UPenn have Trodden and Khoury, Princeton has the dissertation advisor of Khoury, Steinhardt, which would be the best Princetonian fit for me. That said, applying to Princeton amounts to buying a lottery ticket in my situation, even while knowing that not many would-be theorists actually succeed in getting theoretical research experience beyond an undergraduate senior thesis. Here’s my (hopefully final) application list, as it stands today, 11-school-long (in disciplines like chemistry or physics, the optimal range for a PhD application list is somewhere between 8-12 if one is theory-inclined; experimentalists can do with a somewhat smaller list, 7-10):


  • UPenn
  • Princeton
  • UChicago
  • Columbia
  • Carnegie Mellon
  • Michigan
  • Ohio State
  • UMinn-Twin Cities
  • Tufts
  • Vanderbilt
  • Dartmouth

Because of the addition of Princeton, I have updated the master list of the costs incurred. Unlike undergrad and law school, where one can easily afford to apply to a small number of colleges and still net at least one acceptance, if one is PhD-bound, or med school-bound, a large number of schools on an application is not unusual (for undergrad, only about 25% apply to 7+ schools). So, you see, one’s application list should never be considered complete until you press on the “Submit” button for the last school. Perhaps I am crazy to consider Princeton when considering my file, perhaps I am not, only time will tell.

ADDENDUM (August 26): modified this list by removing UNC-Chapel Hill and Penn State for Michigan and Columbia respectively. Will amend the master list of costs incurred in due time.

PhD personal statements

I started writing my personal statements. Why is the word “statements” written in plural? Because there actually are two documents that I dub personal statements and there are only two schools I I’m applying to that ask for the “secondary personal statement”: the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan.

The ubiquitous personal statement, or, as I call it, the “primary personal statement”, is the document virtually every PhD program (and most graduate programs) asks for, which outlines one’s background and research interests. Per Princeton’s physics department, here’s a sampling of questions one should address in a primary personal statement (paraphrasing from physics):

  1. What background […] have you had that is beyond the usual curriculum of [your field’s] major and that you think is important for us to know?
  2. What research experiences have you had? If you made significant or original contributions, please explain what they are and, if relevant, how they have influenced your interest in [your field].
  3. (Primarily applicable to experimental sciences): Are you planning to do experimental or theoretical [research], or are you undecided? If your […] coursework, [work] or research experience has influenced you in this decision, explain how.
  4. What kinds of [research] are you most interested in pursuing in graduate school, and why? What has influenced you in your decision?
  5. The research program of our faculty is on the web. Give examples of groups and faculty with
    whom you might be interested in working.
  6. What special aspects of your personality, talents, interests and skills make you think that you will be a good [scholar]?

That said, here are some dos and don’ts to go with what should go into the primary personal statement (of course, much of this is also applicable to the secondary personal statement): Do:

  • Proofread. It goes without saying but it shouldn’t be neglected.
  • Keep it simple. It is easy to over-write a personal statement in an attempt to impress the admissions committee.
  • Use specifics. The reader will be more likely to remember your application and your personal statement if you use specific examples to support statements in your SOP (and SOD).
  • Treat the personal statement(s) as you would an admissions interview. When the department doesn’t interview applicants it is your best chance to make your case for admission and to communicate important information not contained within all other documentation.
  • Make your personal statement responsive. Individual schools may ask you to provide specific information in your statement. Be sure to respond accordingly.
  • Follow directions. If a school asks for a 500-word personal statement, try to stay close to that limit. If a school asks them for 1-2 pages, give them 1-2 pages. Don’t try to cheat using small font. (although LaTeX users can find it quite tempting to use a document type with small font for the body; I myself have both personal statements written in 9-point Nimbus Roman) If there is no limit specified, the standard is usually the aforementionned 1-2 pages, especially when departments may call for much higher limits (UChicago sets a limit of 2,500 words, while Tufts sets a limit of 1,200 words).
  • Write about yourself, your interests and goals. This is what the primary personal statement is for. The secondary personal statement, while giving you another chance to do so, will be discussed later.

But there definitely are things you shouldn’t do on either personal statement. Don’t:

  • Submit a narrative of your résumé. While it is OK to expand on one or two items in it, especially if they help you answer any of the major questions outlined above, simply re-hashing your résumé won’t help.
  • Rely too heavily on spell check. Even the best automated spell checks are not perfect with respect to grammar, so, while it is good for the first run, it shouldn’t be your only check.
  • Submit a personal statement addressed to another school. Even if there are two or more schools on your list that have the same constraints to meet, the same prompts, at least change the names of the schools and the professors of interest! Graduate schools are aware that applicants are applying to multiple programs, but the committees want to feel that you’re special to them.
  • Write the statement with the goal of telling schools what you think they want to hear from you.
  • If you have the opportunity to write addenda for a given school (many schools don’t afford you such opportunities), don’t use the primary (or even secondary) personal statement to address something negative.
  • Ramble. Your essay must have a central theme.

Some fields are fields where the personal statement can only count so much (e.g. law); after all, one can only be so original in this format. In those fields, the personal statement is considered a “threshold credential”, like the TOEFL when it is needed, where a poorly written SOP will hurt you but, past a certain point, it won’t help you. And the threshold to meet must show the admissions committee that at least you care about pursuing a career in that field. In other fields, like business, personal statements are given almost as much weight as a GPA. Which leads to the secondary personal statement, also known as a diversity statement. Adapted from the NYU Pre-professional advising center (the original is written from the perspective of a law school diversity statement):

  • It is an (most of the time optional, but, for the UMinn-Twin Cities PhD application, it is mandatory) essay submitted in the application. Be sure to carefully review the application instructions from each school, as they may have differing writing prompts.
  • It is a statement on how their background and life experience would contribute to diversity within a graduate school community and to a school’s commitment to training individuals in an increasingly diverse society.
  • It should not be any more than one page or 500 words, whichever is shorter. Carefully review the school’s application instructions for specific details.
  • Like the [primary] personal statement, the secondary personal statement is a writing sample.

Now that we know what a diversity statement, or a secondary personal statement is, here is a list of what you must consider when writing your secondary personal statement:

  • Think about your upbringing and experiences to determine any and all aspects of diversity.
  • It is not just for underrepresented minorities.
  • It is not just about race, [ethnicity or socioeconomic status].
  • Consider your background, place in the family and culture in which you were raised, and how that contributed to [what you are today].
  • You may also discuss in what ways you did not fit into mainstream culture, how culture impacted your life, as well as any other social identities not discussed prior (gender, sexual orientation, health status, religion or ability)

If at all possible, have your personal statement(s) reviewed externally; a fresh set of eyes will be helpful even after you edited your personal statements multiple times.

Day 2: University of Pennsylvania

As with day 1, we had to go at a couple of places before we could get down to the business of visiting UPenn, while knowing that Justin Khoury couldn’t be on campus on that day and that he was moving, with Mark Trodden being absent on that day too. I emailed Millicent Minnick, the “TGDE” (this is shorthand for the equivalent position back at my undergraduate department) at UPenn’s physics and astronomy department in hopes of salvaging the visit, just a couple of days prior to departure. Within Philadelphia itself, I was the one driving the rental car pretty much all day.

First, the Chinatown. In just about any major city, finding parking downtown during the week is difficult, so we had to circle around Race/10th in order to get the parking. We eventually found some, free for two hours, in a residential area next to a police station. My parents found Philadelphia’s Chinatown to be a little underwhelming and, when compared to even the Chinatown at home, let alone the ones in Toronto, somewhat overpriced. And we proceeded to visit Washington Square, a military graveyard that dates back to the War of Independence, and later, the Liberty Bell. The line was long, but not long enough to make us overshoot our parking allowance.

In an attempt to appease my sister, who insisted to shop at Macy’s next to the City Hall, we tried fruitlessly to find a parking slot in downtown Philadelphia, and, after much frustration, we made straight for “The Lab” (or, more precisely, the David Rittenhouse Lab) which, in fact, houses not only the physics and astro department, but also the math one. The physics departmental offices are on the second floor, the library on the third and the math offices on the fourth floor and, as well, the Center for Particle Cosmology.

Figure 1: The David Rittenhouse Laboratory

Figure 3: The David Rittenhouse Laboratory

And, once I am on the fourth floor, I started looking for the offices of graduate students, and my visit began with Christina, another particle cosmologist (I don’t remember who is her advisor but I know for sure it isn’t Trodden, Khoury or Cvetic) but I could only ask questions about safety around campus or livability on the $29,000 stipend before I could get to meet Khoury’s graduate student, Benjamin, where I could talk about my own background, as well as the questions pertaining to the life as a student at UPenn in a more extensive manner than I had the chance to do with Christina, like TA duties (at first one talks about 2 TA sections a semester, and, in theoretical particle cosmology, one continues carrying on TA, albeit at a reduced rate).

And he helped dispel a myth concerning TA duties at an Ivy League school, whereas students would complain because that one homework, or course, would ruin their future, whether their future means I-banking (investment and/or international) medical school (and more generally, healthcare professional schools, but, since they all seem to teach some aspects of medicine, from now on, on this blog, medical school will refer to any and all graduate education leading to healthcare professions) or, to a lesser extent, law school, if only because physics flies off the radar of most pre-law students. At UPenn, complaints directed to TAs for physics assignments are mostly about miscarriages of justice and not about begging for a regrade without due cause.

Given that UPenn is seemingly less high-pressure as UChicago (although how much pressure does the phasing out of the quals at UChicago take off the students remains to be seen, but I could say that the sort of quals-induced pressure increases until you actually pass them, and the pressure, while there, is not quals-induced anymore past that point) I can now say that I would attend UPenn over UChicago and not regret that decision.

And so, I would gladly leave UPenn behind (hopefully temporarily) and proceed to the Philadelphia Art Museum, where we saw, and climbed, the Rocky Steps and we parked behind the museum while the very steps were at the other end. A really long walk for my mother and her weary bones.

Day 1: college visits as a prospective PhD student

Sorry for the inconveniences of the actual travel, especially for day 1, where we got lost so many times (first to even get to Hanover, NH on time) that I couldn’t possibly have the time to write this post. In fact, I had to wait until the actual trip was over to even begin writing the posts.

That said, I must begin by saying that most of the way to the border is farmland as far as the Canadian side is concerned, while the US side (almost all of it in Vermont, with us actually entering New Hampshire only near the very end) was covered in forest on both sides of the I-89. We got lost once, taking the wrong fork and forcing us to ride about 30 kilometers back in order to go where we originally wanted. But once we got there, we realized that Dartmouth is in the middle of nowhere (and so is Penn State, as we found out two days later) and that we wanted to eat something other than fast food. My sister wanted to eat either Indian or Thai, but my mother settled for pizza instead. And so we did, ordering a large C&A Special for the whole family.

I then drew the conclusion that, if I was to attend Dartmouth, I would probably have eaten at all the restaurants in Hanover at least once prior to graduation, or even the quals. And we were parked next to the Topliff residence hall; I even purchased a Dartmouth T-shirt prior to the visit, although I didn’t wear it during the visit. Because I am a prospective PhD student, rather than a prospective undergraduate, a campus visit will mostly be an abridged one since most of my on-campus needs are centered around the lab which, in theoretical particle cosmology, is mostly simply office space. Nevertheless, I took a picture in front of the Baker Library prior to the actual visit of the lab, for which I had an appointment at 2:00PM.

Figure 1: Baker Library

Figure 1: Baker Library

Now, for the visit itself. I began the tour with another professor doing similar research to that of the professor I was scheduled to have an appointment with, which will be mentioned in my personal statement for Dartmouth. They both seemed to do early universe research, and they encouraged me to apply, and, once I exhausted my questions for the professors, I got to sit down with a current graduate student and I realized that I actually had few questions that required the profs to answer, and these questions were mostly related to research directions. Most of the primordial questions were answered, though. I later learned that the department administration will have a rather different disposition towards students in their first two years whether the students comes with a masters or not (especially when it comes to coursework)…

Figure 2: Wilder Hall

Figure 2: Wilder Hall

I knew that the model on which I was working was a little artificial, but I then learned that many, if not most, models in particle cosmology are at least somewhat artificial, if only because of some models requiring fine-tuning (a.k.a. when a given model needs a parameter to take a very precise value for the model to fit the observations).

But a trip to visit colleges is definitely not all fundamental questions and seeing the facilities that matter. There’s also the matter of driving from one location to another; to go from Hanover to Philadelphia, one has to drive for more than six hours; we lost 90 minutes due to multiple losses, most of which occured in the greater New York City area, which is an area that is a veritable maze for a first-timer at night. So thank God I didn’t want to visit Columbia because driving through to the Morningside Heights campus is just a mess. And the tolls of the NJ Turnpike are sometimes exorbitant although one could wonder whether we paid $10.65 because we were delinquent at one previous toll station.


 

The takeaway from this: less applied-to departments are more likely to grant visits to prospective graduate students (and sometimes undergraduates) than more popular departments, and, since not everyone will go to the trouble of visiting, one must make their homework carefully before visiting. In fact, per Mark Trodden, hardly any potential applicants visit UPenn beforehand. But most people who do visit are motivated students.

If you do visit, though, here are my suggestions:

  • Figure out how to get to the facility, especially if you have an appointment: you don’t want to show up late to the lab
  • Plan your visits weeks, or even months, in advance (unless you’re applying to a department where an interview means you’re shortlisted, e.g. Carnegie Mellon in physics, in which case, if you can have an in-person interview, you can then exploit that in-person interview to visit the campus)
  • Do some research on your desired graduate program first
  • Most of the questions pertaining to lifestyle that you might have asked in an undergraduate visit are still valid in a graduate visit, so don’t hesitate to ask them to students
  • Prepare your questions for the faculty and the students
  • The attitude of faculty will be quite different if you visit before vs. after decisions are rendered so please keep that in mind, especially if you’re going to an open house (in which case it’s often not a typical workday)

The road trip begins

Tomorrow, I am going to begin a four-day-long road trip so that I can make the visits to two of the schools I am applying to. Of course, due to the logistics of the trip, I am visiting Dartmouth first, since Hanover, NH, is closer to home than Philadelphia is.

In addition, my parents are vacationing as well, and they wanted either to go to the beach or to visit some tourist attractions in Philadelphia (for some reason my parents always want to see, and shop, at a Chinatown whenever there is one available on the trip, hence why they insisted on the fourth day in Toronto, which I would have dispensed with, were I to do this trip alone) like the Art Museum, just a couple of blocks away from UPenn, or the Liberty Bell. Plus my parents are almost totally clueless about Ivies in general; for them, Yale is some school 5-6 hours away from home whose greatest physical asset is experimental particle physics. And because my current first choice is UPenn, for particle cosmology, my parents have started to associate UPenn with particle cosmology, while no such association with Dartmouth exists in their minds.

You may ask why am I visiting Ivy League schools and not other schools on my list. It’s not because of some snobiness or some Ivy League obsession, even though I’m applying to two “lesser Ivies”. Tufts, the second-closest to home, would require me to make a greater detour than Dartmouth would, if I was to go to Philadelphia from there, vs. going straight to Philadelphia. In short, logistics.

Plus there are so many who are clueless about what the Ivy League actually is: when I mention Dartmouth and UPenn as Ivy League schools, the undergraduates in my lab think of both as schools outside the conference, and somehow assume MIT, Caltech and Stanford are Ivy League schools (while they actually belong to the NEWMAC, SCIAC and Pac-12 respectively). And that UPenn lacks the glamour of the other schools of the conference; at home, I could say UPenn is the least-known of the Ivies (except maybe in international business circles), behind Brown or Dartmouth.

So I decided not to carry anything along with me that pertains to Banks, Bender & Wu or what I currently do in the lab, because this is my chance to unwind from what happens in the lab (or should I say office, since the setup of the lab, as a theoretical particle physics lab, is made as such that a graduate student’s office space is effectively one’s lab station as well) for more than two days at a time. Bon voyage.

To math or not to math?

Many among you, if you’re physics students, dream of doing theoretical physics (high energy theory, string theory, particle cosmology, among others), and there’s nothing wrong with one being motivated to study physics in order to, eventually, do research in a theoretical topic. And, in that case, surely you have realized that mathematics are everywhere in your field. If you’re an undergraduate at a typical US college with a physics department, regardless of whether the department grants graduate degrees or not, one may have realized that you can dual-major in mathematics and in physics while still fitting both majors within the complementary 120 semester credits. Case in point: Tulane (assume the recommended pre-graduate training is in effect)

  • At least 32 physics credits, including PHYS1310, 1320, 2350, 2360, 3630, 3740, 4230, 4470, 4650
  • Calculus I-II-III (MATH1210, 1220, 2210)
  • MATH3050, 3090 (real analysis I, linear algebra)
  • MATH3310, 4060, 4210, 4300 (scientific computing, real analysis II, differential geometry, complex analysis)
  • Honors thesis (and, as is usually the case with honors theses, some precious research experience is gained with it)

Now, compare the mathematics major requirements (this has to be one of the most content-free mathematics majors I’ve seen in my lifetime; however rigorous the mathematical content might be, there is just enough content in what follows to fill a math minor at my undergrad)

  • Calculus I-II-III
  • Real analysis I, linear algebra
  • At least four electives with some restrictions (3000-level and above, at least one at the 4000-level and above, at most one of MATH2170 or 2240 can be used to substitute for a 3000-level course, must be regularly scheduled math courses)

The physics pre-graduate training will fulfill all the mathematics major requirements, if only in a bare-bones manner. For so many, even with a physics major and the distribution requirements (unless one attends Amherst or Brown, in which case there aren’t any), there’s still some room to fulfill distribution requirements and often with electives to spare. End result: many Green Wave physics majors (even would-be experimentalists) and, if Tulane is actually representative of what happens at a typical American undergrad with a physics department, physics majors in general, end up double-majoring in physics and mathematics.

On a sidenote: many who study physics outside the US will not have access to such a luxury without extending their stay in school; the best-case scenario would, yes, amount to double-majoring with no change in how long one stays in school, but with some tradeoff in how much physics one covers and how much math one covers. Again, this highlights the propensity of US colleges to sacrifice depth for breadth at the undergraduate level. However, one must keep in mind that there are some jobs where one needs a broad education to do the job well, and other jobs where one needs to master a field in sufficient depth to do the work properly.

Dos and don’ts of contacting professors

As I’ve said in the PhD application timeline, one should contact the professors of interest beginning in August. Now, it might be a little early to some, but, at this point, you are likely to have identified a subfield of interest in your field, as well as professors that do what you want to do. And you might think about contacting the professors of interest in order to get an initial contact. Sometimes it can make a difference, sometimes it won’t. But you have to do so carefully.

Dos:

  • Write thoughtfully and proofread.
  • Introduce yourself before any mention of research.
  • Mention what skills and research experiences/interests you might have that are relevant to the professor’s work.
  • Pay attention to whether the program you’re applying to requires you to have secured an advisor prior to matriculation.
  • If you suspect, from the latest publications written by the one you’re contacting, that s/he may not do the research it says s/he does on the departmental website, ask for clarifications.

Don’ts:

  • Send emails too often.
  • Mention credentials other than research experience-related ones, unless specifically asked to do so in a reply.
  • Ask questions that the website or the department secretary can answer.
  • Ask questions that require a complete application package to answer.

Sometimes professors will be helpful, sometimes professors will only encourage you to apply, some others still will not answer, and most likely because they are busy. But that shouldn’t stop you from emailing the prof you seek…