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)

2 thoughts on “Day 1: college visits as a prospective PhD student

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