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.

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