Looking back on my Physics GRE experience

Although many a student who takes subject GRE tests are, in fact, taking them today, in hopes of getting admitted to the graduate program of their choice, and prepared for weeks, if not months, for that one test that will, right or wrong, decide their future in their chosen field, if their field requires a subject GRE to be taken, that is, if one is an aspiring biochemist, chemist, biologist, physicist, literature scholar, mathematician or psychologist. For just about any field with a subject test, the subject test score holds more weight than the general GRE scores.

But, since I took it in April, at a test center located about 3 hours away from home, I was to drive my mother’s car, especially the closer to the test center I got, since I was the one who knew the directions to the test center. My mother and my sister both wondered why I was taking this test and what constitutes success or failure on this test. Last practice test I took, I scored somewhere between the 85th and 90th percentile; if the general GRE was any indication, back then, I would expect to do about as well on the real test vs. the last full-length practice one.

Security was a little less stringent than airport security but, since I do not have the dexterity to use a mechanical pencil for cheating, I found it a little suspicious that I couldn’t have a mechanical pencil on hand. And… man I felt alone during the test. The room I was placed in was a room that was normally used to train dental assistants, hence all the mentions to dentistry on the walls. There were two more test-takers, both of which were there for the psychology test. One was an undergraduate at Queen’s and the other was an undergraduate at McGill. We were placed on different rows, and even columns, for test security. The very room that was used for the LSAT a few months earlier, and the proctors said that there were 20 LSAT takers last time.

In fact, it was normal for the test center to look this empty, especially since it was the “low season” of GRE testing. Man, the test felt like I spent three hours in dental school; it was exhausting but well worth it. I skipped about 10-15 questions and wasn’t confident about ~8-10 more so I could reasonably expect my score to fall within the range of what I got on the practice tests. Because it was a scantron-based test I expected the scores to be released within one or two weeks (I had to take in account that the mail could take a couple of days to receive all the scantrons from all around the world) and, after two weeks have passed, I started checking MyGRE 3-4 times a day until the happy news came at midnight on May 5th.

9-1-0. 910. This is what I got.

Now I could double-check whether my list was realistic. Fantastic! Especially given the nerve-wracking general relativity final, I felt that my hopes for the Center for Particle Cosmology at UPenn were still alive.

Multidimensional grading

Now that I have graded the first problem set in an applied abstract algebra course, let me tell you a few things: there are people whose errors would suggest that they don’t know the material (or that they made technical mistakes) and there are people whose errors would suggest that they don’t understand the material but know how to use it. For this reason, I gave out multidimensional grades.


Suppose that, here, N is the number of dimensions in a grade; for all intents and purposes, N=2 for what follows. Of course, multidimensional grading is not without its complications; it could seem a little arbitrary to set only two dimensions, but there are reasons why two dimensions are best: if one uses N > 2, in general, one will receive one grade with its modulus but with N-1 phases because the grades would then be expressed in N-spherical coordinates. Here are the highlights of the method, as used in two dimensions:

  • Set Gmax as the maximum numerical value of a question or an assignment
  • The perfect phase is at 45 degrees
  • Set i and j, orthonormal basis vectors (i.e. modulus 1 and their inner product is zero), as representing the two criteria in use
  • Each component cannot have more than a certain value
  • If there are multiple questions in an assignment, calculate the total grade as a vector before calculating its modulus and its phase
  • Components cannot take negative values (this effectively limits phases to be between 0 and 90 degrees)

Perhaps this is a crazy idea but I wasn’t satisfied with standard numerical grades (one-dimensional) so I am trying something new.

Confessions of an ego-boost student

I’ll cut to the chase and admit that I am more of an “Ivy or bust” type than the past students that tried their hands in the US from my undergrad, except maybe for the one who attended, and graduated from, Harvard. Therefore, despite all the research I did into the graduate programs I’m applying to, I am, partially at least, showing signs of being an ego-boost student. Although the data I have is incomplete, I know for a fact that the last one that got admitted to Princeton (even though Berkeley was that guy’s final decision) didn’t act like this.

Let’s say that how I came to be an ego-boost student began since the day where I first heard about what really went on at the undergraduate level in the US thanks to, once again, Carlos Silva (he really does have collaborators to a wide range of schools, even if the actual number of schools where he has collaborators is not that high) and Gilles Fontaine (he is a Rochester graduate) and they both said that US schools often did not teach undergraduate courses at the same level of rigor, and, due to the sometimes ridiculously expansive distribution requirements (Columbia, Chicago come to mind), they had to either grant easier (or easy even) access to graduate-level courses, if at a school with a graduate program, or cover less physical ground altogether, hence the lengthy coursework component designed to put everyone up to speed.

Mr. Silva claimed at the time that, if one were to draw a few upper-division undergraduates at random, and promise them that all financial need is covered for them to go on exchange at top-tier US schools (Cornell, Princeton, MIT, that sort of thing), with the study abroad experience as the prize, they would perform as well or better than the regular students enrolled there, although he himself never had a MIT student on exchange in his classes (despite having research collaborators there). All of this was later confirmed by Robert Brandenberger (best known for string gas cosmology), who used to teach at Brown before he moved north, with a Tier-1 Canada Research Chair that allowed him to take as many as eight graduate students at McGill at a time.

Since physics is a field where one needs near-complete devotion in their study to reach a level where they are actually able to contribute in research, sometimes I feel that, while the skills acquired in other fields have their uses, the learning curve in graduate school is steeper for the students without exposure to graduate-level material. For this reason, given the advanced coursework I took and, for the most part, did well in it, I felt like I really was Ivy League material and, naturally, everyone else who performed at a similar level or better that took these advanced courses.

However, I have higher hopes for UPenn and/or Columbia than for Princeton to take me. (I omitted Dartmouth because, despite visiting it, it’s not on the same level for particle physics/cosmology than the other three) Perhaps it’s because of what one can do with a physics PhD – and, in fact, physics PhDs, even in intensely theoretical areas like particle cosmology, can still do quite a lot of things – that I seek to get into an Ivy League school because some of these jobs are sensitive to school-wide prestige, rather than departmental prestige (as would be the case with some R&D jobs). But I sure hope that I will still be able to find happiness in research even if I am not admitted to any of these four Ivies I’m applying to.

If early decision existed for PhD applications…

… would you use early decision on any one school, provided that school in question offered that option? If so, which department at which school?

One may wonder why undergraduate admissions (and, to a lesser extent, law school, medical school and business school) commonly offer the option of applying in early decision (mostly private schools in the case of undergraduate admissions, but Virginia Tech and the College of William and Mary are two of the top publics that offer it) but PhD programs don’t. Before I get to answer that question, let us review what early action and early decision are.

  • Early action (EA) requires students to submit applications early, and decisions are made by December. It allows one to decline the acceptance offer if admitted, so it’s non-binding. One can therefore submit multiple early action applications.
  • Early decision (ED) still requires one to submit applications early, with decisions made at around the same time as with early action. However, unlike early action, early decision is binding. Two releases from ED are possible: through deferral (unless a school has two rounds of ED) or through proof of inability to meet financial contribution (for undergrad). Because ED is binding, one can only submit one application under ED.

Business schools are unique in the sense that there are multiple rounds of early action (usually the first round if a B-school offers more than one round) offered, in which case early action truly is your best chance most of the time. But a succinct explanation as to why there are no early admissions mechanisms in use for PhD programs has been supplied on PhysicsGRE.com, if only a little incomplete.

One major difference is that in undergrad admission, there are [hundreds] (or more!) or seats, so the school can afford to do something like set aside some fraction of the seats and offer them to the top X% of early decision applicants knowing that these are students they would have accepted anyways. However, PhD programs are more specialized and with the smaller number of applicants and openings, it’s not really viable.

Most PhD programs will want to see all of the applicants in order to pick the best ones, especially since they might want to do things like balance subfields and other factors. In addition, the only students that will probably be so good that the school wants them without even seeing the rest of the applicants are going to be the ones who get good offers from many schools. Thus, it’s not in the best interest of these students to commit to only a single school. This case would be helpful when a really strong student really wants to go to a single school only, but I think these are really rare!!

So, I think the only people that would benefit from this type of program are the students who are only interested in one single school AND somehow need to know the decision in e.g. late Fall instead of Feb-Mar. I think this population is so small that it’s not worth implementing all the logistics to evaluate applications early.

Single-choice early action is, like early decision, used on only one school but it is not binding.

Extracurriculars in the graduate admissions process

Now comes the time to talk about a topic I neglected since the very beginning. Some application forms ask for community service and other extracurricular activities. Admittedly, one would think that they’re there for a reason: the admissions committees would look at them and assign some weight to that component. But do they actually look at ECs?

The answer is: depends strongly on the field. First, programs leading to the practice of healthcare professions actually expect you to do community service, take part in clubs, shadow professionals in your chosen profession. There have actually been reported cases of 4.0/35 students who were shut out from medical school because a close examination of their extracurricular record would indicate a lack of interest in medicine. But, while ECs are used to make a second cut (the first one, in healthcare professions, is the numerical component), they are by no means make-or-break once one makes it past, since once one gets interviewed, the interview is the deciding factor.

Business schools look at ECs differently: they look for leadership in them rather than simply devotion. And often it can make a difference; many would not even think about getting a MBA (with or without thesis; although the vast majority of MBA programs are non-thesis, there are those rare B-schools where one may be given the option of writing a thesis at the cost of taking less coursework, like University of Calgary Haskayne or UQTR) without having 3-5 years of work experience first, and work experience definitely counts there. Here ECs mean the difference between rejection and interview and, from there, acceptance.

And, of course, there are other professional degrees, like a MSW, a MEd, or, more generally, degrees leading to professions where human contact and values are important, where ECs that provide indications of one’s social skills are valued. But graduate engineering programs (MASc if with thesis, MEng if without) place value on internships (research or industry) instead.

But, surprisingly, for a professional program, law school doesn’t place much weight on ECs (or softs in legal education parlance) except at the edges of acceptability, where admissions committees actually scrutinize the minutiae. And, if you see research experience as ECs, these are the only ECs that actually matter to research-based academic degrees (some MA, MSc and PhD programs), with rare exceptions (University of Minnesota and Yale, as well as a few others). ECs, in the undergraduate sense of the term, might mean the difference between acceptance and waitlist but only, again, at the edges of acceptability.

Staying sane during grad school applications

Many among you had to face a painful undergraduate application season. But, luckily, I didn’t; I knew what I wanted to do, and knew what constraints I operated under, whether you are talking about credentials, geography and budget, and it was, as with most people who want to study a pure science in French in Quebec, provided it wasn’t a life science, and even biologists didn’t have to meet overly stringent standards to do so. Most of what follows are applicable to both undergraduate and graduate admissions; the list is adapted from FamilyCircle.

  • There’s a department for everybody. Yes, graduate applications are cutthroat and competitive, but pay attention to research fit carefully (if you’re applying to research-based programs) or expertise strengths (if you’re applying to non-research-based programs)
  • Get in the zone. As I mentioned earlier in previous posts (Application strategy and number of schools applied to and Some advice for list construction), the way to maximize your chances of the process having a happy ending is to check against credentials and academic interests, and make sure you’re being realistic.
  • Organization saves the day. Set up a system to track paperwork. It should include bins with hanging folders for each school, files for financial aid and supplemental materials, and a centrally located calendar for plotting deadlines.
  • Don’t mention graduate school too often. It’s OK to ask questions or voice concerns with your friends, but you must not overdo it, even if your friends are trying to strike deals with you about where they’re applying to.

As I said earlier, for grad school, the big picture begins with what academic interests you have. For this reason, a list of must-haves for grad school must contain at least one academic item and that item is usually the one that is truly nonnegotiable. You might have heard of students who, for undergrad, tried to narrow down their college list primarily based on nonacademic factors (other than budget), like student-run media, sports, dorms or geography. From what they could use to narrow down an application list, you can gain some information as to where their priorities lie.

That said, dedicate time to research. It will come in handy when the time comes to write the personal statement. You can also ask professors about this, if their research interests are somewhat related to what you want. Therefore, don’t hesitate to email the relevant people to clear up what is not made clear on a departmental website.

Du rêve juridique à la réalité/Making a legal dream come true

Ceci est une rediffusion d’un article paru dans l’Électron libre de janvier 2014; l’article a été écrit de la perspective d’un bachelier de physique québécois, avec quelques modifications entre parenthèses carrées.

À la différence de la médecine, où il y a une entrevue, en droit, si on effectue le bon choix juridique, on n’a aucune entrevue à faire. Si, par désir de quitter le Québec après le baccalauréat en droit (que je désignerai par la suite comme LLB) pour des raisons professionnelles, et que, par conséquent, vous voulez aller à McGill, le processus deviendra beaucoup plus douloureux que prévu, pour des raisons qui deviendront claires plus tard.

Quatre des cinq facultés de droit de la province ont un processus qui est, comparativement à la dernière, sans douleur : le bureau des admissions reçoit votre relevé de notes universitaire à travers le système de la CRÉPUQ et, au cas où on n’a pas complété 50 crédits encore mais que l’envie du droit nous prend quand même, le relevé de notes collégial, fin de l’histoire. Pas de lettres de référence à soumettre, pas de LSAT, pas de liste d’activités parascolaires, et aucune contrainte sur le programme d’origine.

Maintenant, on sait que, si vous désirez pratiquer le droit au Québec, et que les écoles de droit civil (i.e. Laval, Sherbrooke, Montréal ou UQAM) correspondent à vos désirs juridiques, les notes font foi de tout. Si vous avez eu une cote R autour de 26-28 au cégep et que vous rêvez de droit, il vaut mieux avoir eu 3.5 et mieux en première année de bac (je dirais même première session si vous lisez ceci et que vous êtes en première année de bac) pour remonter la pente, mais, si vous êtes présentement en deuxième ou en troisième année de bac, le droit civil est accessible à partir de 3.3, étant donné la difficulté du bac de physique, avec des lettres d’acceptation conditionnelles au maintien de 3.0 qui sont monnaie courante dans le monde juridique québécois. Si vous êtes aux cycles supérieurs, c’est pratiquement garanti que vous allez pouvoir aller en droit étant donné que les bonus de cycles supérieurs applicables en médecine valent aussi en droit et que le minimum pour avoir accès aux cycles supérieurs se situe autour du minimum pour avoir accès au LLB à titre d’étudiant en transfert, du moins à Laval ou à Montréal; à l’UQAM les notes comptent seulement pour 1/4 du dossier dans le cas des transferts, et le 3/4 restant va à l’entrevue, auquel cas un 3.3 en physique permet probablement d’avoir l’entrevue, réservée aux candidats en transfert.

Toutefois, si la common law vous intéresse et que vous désirez pratiquer le droit au Québec comme dans le reste du Canada, vous avez trois choix: soit vous vous tapez quatre ans de droit en français (trois au LLB dans une école de droit civil et un dernier au JD à l’UdeM ou à Sherbrooke) au Québec, vous allez à McGill, où le programme de droit de trois ans va couvrir les deux systèmes juridiques (civil et [common]) au prix toutefois d’un désavantage une fois à l’École du Barreau ou au DESS en droit notarial si vous décidez, en cours de route, que vous voulez rester au Québec pour pratiquer, ou, enfin, si vous avez le budget et les notes, d’envisager de faire le JD hors-Québec si vous êtes absolument certain que vous ne voulez rien savoir de pratiquer le droit au Québec.

À noter que les écoles de common law sont des écoles qui vont exiger des lettres de recommandation, auquel cas, comme dans le cas médical, demandez des lettres de recommandation comme si vous vouliez de telles lettres pour l’admission à des programmes gradués en physique, le LSAT (je reviendrai dessus par la suite), une liste d’activités parascolaires (encore une fois, ça dépend des écoles de droit, mais McGill, [Windsor], Toronto, Yale, Stanford et, dans une moindre mesure, Osgoode Hall [et Queen’s] vont accorder de l’importance au contenu de cette liste, alors que même Columbia ou Harvard ne le feront pas) et, dans le cas de McGill, une entrevue. Et, pour finir, comme le JD, qui est monnaie courante en common law, est un programme de deuxième cycle, il faut, en général, avoir complété un baccalauréat d’ici à la date d’entrée prévue. Même si le programme trans-systémique de McGill est un programme de 1er cycle, il faut tout de même avoir terminé un baccalauréat si on a complété plus de 30 crédits à l’université; dans le cas contraire, la cote R occupe une place prépondérante et, dans ce cas-là, il est impossible d’avoir une entrevue si on a en bas de 30 et, même si on a 30-31, il vaut mieux avoir des notes de malade en 1re année de bac et, bien entendu, maîtriser l’anglais.

Maintenant, les notes requises dans cette situation: au pays comme à l’étranger, il vaut mieux avoir 3.5 et mieux (vous pouvez dire ce que vous voulez de la difficulté d’un bac de physique, [mais] les écoles de droit canadiennes-anglaises vont probablement en tenir compte davantage que les écoles de droit états-uniennes, qui, hélas, n’en tiennent pratiquement pas compte [sauf dans les cas limites, mais, dès qu’on quitte le top-14 états-unien, les facultés de droit états-uniennes sont moins exigeantes sur les notes du moment où on réussit bien sur le LSAT]) alors, pour vous démarquer, il vous faudra bien faire sur la dissertation qui explique pourquoi vous voulez pratiquer le droit, et comment votre bagage académique vous permet de profiter d’une éducation juridique et aussi avoir un bon score sur le LSAT (164 et mieux, ce qui est un peu au-dessus de la moyenne la plus récente des physiciens, qui est de 162.1, selon les données fournies par l’AIP).

LSAT à gauche, LSAT à droite… excusez-moi d’avoir mentionné le LSAT tellement et tellement de fois sans avoir au moins expliqué ce que c’était! C’est un test qui permet d’aller dans un programme de common law qu’on n’a pas le droit de passer plus de trois fois dans une période de deux ans (à 165$ par passage c’est un pensez-y-bien). Le LSAT est noté de 120 à 180, avec six morceaux à l’examen (dont une portion qui n’est pas comptée mais qui doit tout de même être faite parce qu’il n’y a aucun moyen de connaître quelle section est la section expérimentale) avec les cinq portions notées qui sont réparties comme suit : deux portions de raisonnement logique, qui visent à tester la capacité à disséquer et à analyser des arguments, une portion de compréhension de lecture, une portion de raisonnement analytique (les « jeux de logique » diront certains) et enfin un texte qu’il faut écrire à partir d’une problématique et deux critères admissibles, qui justifie votre décision face à la problématique de la question. Pour ce qui est du LSAT, qui dure de quatre à cinq heures, c’est stupide à dire mais, étant donné que la plupart des gens ont des cotes Z de 3.5 et plus, le LSAT compte davantage dans l’évaluation des dossiers.

Si vous avez une cote Z en bas de 3.0, n’ayez crainte: le rêve juridique n’est pas totalement compromis, à condition d’être prêt à emprunter (et dépenser) une fortune sur un JD à Northwestern et à avoir 171 et plus sur le LSAT [en sus d’avoir deux ou trois ans d’expérience de travail après le bac]. Par contre, pour la plupart d’entre vous, une cote Z en bas de 3.0 signifie la fin du rêve juridique, pour des raisons budgétaires. Néanmoins, je ne vous conseille pas d’aller en droit à l’étranger à moins d’être confiant d’avoir [3.5]+ et [168]+ sur le LSAT et de vouloir fréquenter les écoles de droit les mieux cotées… le monde juridique, plus que presque toute autre profession, est un monde où le prestige institutionnel pèse dans la balance des employeurs, et encore, on parle ici des grands cabinets d’avocats plus particulièrement.

Mais il est aussi concevable que, une fois dans un JD hors-Québec, on se rende compte qu’on préfère rentrer à la maison pour pratiquer le droit, auquel cas vous aurez à comparaître devant le Comité des Équivalences du Barreau avant d’être autorisé à fréquenter l’École du Barreau, même si les frais de comparution sont assez élevés (1 000$ environ) et même à ça, dans la plupart des cas, on impose une formation complémentaire en droit civil si le common law est à la base de votre formation.

Comment savoir si on a ce qu’il faut pour étudier, et ultimement, pratiquer le droit alors qu’on est encore en physique? Contrairement à la médecine, il n’y a pas l’ombre d’un cours de physique qui ressemble le moindrement, en termes de style pédagogique, à un cours de droit. Certains cours du bloc Y, des cours en sciences politiques et en philosophie, notamment, y ressemblent davantage. Néanmoins, cela ne signifie pas que les habiletés acquises en physique ne vous seront d’aucune utilité en droit! Par contre, les habiletés transférables sont indirectes. L’on parle ici de résolution de problèmes, de logique, de pensée analytique, principalement. L’écriture juridique est tellement différente de l’écriture de rapports de laboratoire ou d’articles scientifiques qu’il faut faire attention.

Le domaine du droit qu’on associe le plus aux gens avec des sciences pures ou de l’ingénierie derrière la cravate est sans contredit le droit des brevets. En droit des brevets, vous pourrez tout de même faire de la physique par la petite fenêtre d’en arrière, parce que, même si vous n’aurez que peu d’audiences à faire devant les tribunaux, vous aurez à utiliser vos connaissances juridiques autant que vos connaissances scientifiques. Même si vous n’avez aucune envie de faire du droit de la propriété intellectuelle (le droit du brevet est une sous-branche de la PI) il y a d’autres domaines juridiques où on peut utiliser des habiletés pas trop éloignées de celles de la physique…

Et le mot de la fin: si vous croyez réellement que le monde juridique vous attend, la vie étudiante est comme le jour et la nuit si on la compare à ce qui se fait en physique. Peut-être que l’école du Barreau (au cas où on désire pratiquer hors-Québec, pas d’école du barreau, seulement un examen du barreau) est moins coupe-gorge que le LLB, mais la vie au LLB est un véritable enfer comparé à la physique, pour deux raisons principales: en raison de l’évaluation normative, qui assigne les lettres en fonction du rang dans le groupe (contrairement à la physique où tout le monde pourrait avoir A/A+ dans un cours si tout le monde est suffisamment bon – et c’est régulièrement le cas aux cycles supérieurs) les étudiants ne s’aident pas vraiment entre eux (et même si ce n’était pas vrai, il faut choisir ses compagnons d’étude avec soin) et la majorité des étudiants en droit (aux trois cycles) sont assez carriéristes merci.

English version: This is a translation of an article that appeared in the January 2014 issue of the Électron Libre; the original version was written from the perspective of a Quebec physics undergraduate.

Contrary to medicine, where there is an interview, in law, if one chooses the right schools, one does not need to interview. If one wants to leave Quebec after the bachelor of laws (that I will thereafter designate as LLB) for professional reasons, and, as a result, you want to attend McGill, the process will become that much more painful, for reasons that will become clear later.

Four of the five law schools of the province operate under an admissions process that is painless, compared to the last one: the admissions office receives your university transcript through the CRÉPUQ system and, in the event one doesn’t complete 50 credits but you still want to practice law, the CEGEP transcript, end of story. No letters of recommendation, no LSAT, no extracurricular list, and no constraint on the program of origin.

We now know that, if you desire to practice law in Quebec, and that civil law schools (i.e. Laval, Sherbrooke, Montreal ou UQAM) correspond to your legal desires, grades are everything. If you had a R-score in the 26-28 range in cegep and you dream of law, better have 3.5 or more in the first undergraduate year (I would even say first semester if you’re reading this and you’re a first-year undergraduate) to make up for it, but, if you’re currently a second-year or third-year undergraduate, civil law is accessible from 3.3 onward, given the difficulty of the physics degree, with acceptances contingent on maintaining 3.0 that are common in the Quebec legal world. If you’re in graduate school, it’s practically a given that you will be able to go to law school given that the graduate bonuses applicable to medical school are also applicable in law and that the minimum for graduate school is around the minimum to access the LLB as a transfer student (i.e. as a student changing programs) at least at Laval or at Montreal; at UQAM grades are weighted for 1/4 in the case of transfer students, and the remaining 3/4 is for the interview, in which case a 3.3 in physics will probably allow you to get the interview, reserved to transfer students.

However, if you’re interested in common law and that you wish to practice law in Quebec and/or in the rest of Canada, you have three options: four years of law school in French (three for the LLB in a civil law school and one last year for the JD at Montreal or Sherbrooke) in Quebec, you go to McGill, where the law program will cover both legal systems (civil and common) at the cost of a disadvantage once in bar school or in the notarial law DESS if you decide, in the end, that you still want to practice in Quebec, or, if you have the budget and the grades, to do the JD outside of Quebec if you’re absolutely certain that you don’t want  to practice law in Quebec.

Please take note that common law schools are schools that will demand letters of recommendation, in which case, as with medical school, ask for letters of recommendation as though you were asking them for a graduate physics program, the LSAT (I will talk about the LSAT later), a list of extracurriculars (once again, it depends on the law schools, but McGill, Windsor, Toronto, Yale, Stanford and, to a lesser extent, Osgoode Hall and Queen’s, will grant some importance to the contents of this list, while even Columbia or Harvard will not) and, in McGill’s case, an interview. And, since the JD, which is common in common law, is a graduate program, in general, one needs to have completed a degree by the starting date of law school. Even if the trans-systemic program at McGill is an undergraduate program, one still needs to complete a degree if one earned more than 30 undergraduate credits; otherwise, R-score still occupies an important position and, in this case, it is impossible to get an interview below 30 and, even if you had 30-31, one better have great grades in the first undergraduate year and, of course, master English.

Now, the grades required in this situation: in Canada, as with abroad, better have 3.5 and better (say what you will about the difficulty of a physics degree, but English-Canadian law schools will probably put more weight to it than US law schools, who, alas, practically not take it into account at all, except in borderline cases but, once one leaves the American T14, US law schools are less demanding about grades provided one does well on the LSAT) so, in order to stand out, do well on the personal statement that explains why you want to practice law, and how your academic background allows you to take advantage of a legal education and also to get a good LSAT score (164 and better, which is a little above the physics average, which is 162.1, according to data supplied by the AIP).

I kept mentioning the LSAT left and right… excuse me of mentioning the LSAT so many times without having explained what it was! It’s a test that allows you to apply for, and attend, a common law program that one cannot take more than three times in a two-year period (at $165 per sitting, think twice before taking it). The LSAT is graded from 120 to 180, with six portions to the exam (of which one portion is not graded but that must still be written because there is no way to know which section is the experimental one) with the five graded portions that are allotted as follows: two logical reasoning portions, which test the capacity to dissect and analyuze arguments, a reading comprehension section, an analytical reasoning section (the « logic games» some will say) and finally, a text one has to write from an issue and two criteria to decide what to do with the issue in the prompt. As for the LSAT, which takes four to five hours, it goes without saying but, since most prospective 1Ls will have GPAs 3.5 and above, the LSAT is weighted more heavily when reviewing applications.

If you have a GPA below 3.0, don’t fear: the legal dream is not totally compromised, on the condition to be prepared to borrow (and spend) a fortune on a JD at Northwestern and to score 171 and better on the LSAT, as well as having 2-3 years of post-graduation work experience. However, for most among us, a sub-3.0 GPA means the end of the legal dream, for financial reasons. Nevertheless, I advise you against going abroad for a legal education unless you’re confident in having a 3.5+ and 168+ on the LSAT and to attend the highest-ranked law schools… the legal profession, more than almost any other profession, is a profession where institutional prestige weighs heavily on the employers’ scales, and again, we’re talking about big law in particular.

But it’s also conceivable that, once in a JD outside Quebec, one realizes that we’d rather return home to practice, in which case you will be summoned before the Comité des Équivalences du Barreau before being authorized to attend bar school, even if the summons fee are quite high (about $1,000) and, even so, in most cases, the Comité imposes complimentary training in civil law if you’re trained in common law.

How to know that you have what it takes to study, and ultimately, practice law while still in physics? Contrary to medicine, there is no physics course whose pedagogical style remotely resembles that of a law course. Some out-of-discipline electives, in political science and in philosophy, among others, resemble law school courses more. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the skills acquired in physics are of no use in law! However, the transferable skills are indirect. We are primarily talking about problem solving, logic, analytical thinking. Legal writing is so different from writing lab reports or scientific papers that one has to be careful.

The legal field most commonly associated to people with a STEM background is, without a doubt, patent law. In patent law, you will still be able to do physics through a backdoor, because, even though you will do little pleading in the courtroom, you will have to use your legal knowledge as much as your scientific knowledge. Even if you want nothing to do with practicing intellectual property law (patent law is a sub-branch of IP law) there are other legal fields where one can use skills not too far removed from physics ones…

Conclusion: if you really think that the legal field awaits you, student life in law school is like day and night when compared to that of physics. Maybe bar school (in the event one wishes to practice outside Quebec, no bar school, just a bar exam) is less cutthroat than the LLB, but life in the LLB is hell on Earth compared to physics, for two primary reasons: due to norm-referenced grading, which means assigning letter grades as a function of class rank (contrary to physics where everyone could get an A/A+ in a course if everyone performed sufficiently well – and that’s quite common in graduate school) the students don’t help each other very much (and even if it wasn’t true, one has to choose his/her study companions carefully) and the majority of law students (undergraduate or graduate) are quite careerist.

Exilés du passé/Exiles from the past

Ayant appris que, dans les années 80 et 90, les gens qui s’essayaient aux États-Unis aux cycles supérieurs en physique à partir de l’Université de Montréal avaient souvent Cornell sur leurs listes, et plusieurs d’entre eux ont effectivement fini par la fréquenter. En fait, c’est à cet héritage auquel je dois tâcher de m’en montrer digne cette saison. Les dossiers présentés ici contiennent jusqu’à trois facteurs (sur les cinq dont on dit couramment qu’ils déterminent l’admission à des programmes PhD; les deux autres étant les lettres de référence et les lettres de motivation) parce qu’on abandonne généralement le droit d’accès à l’un d’entre eux au moment du dépôt de la demande et le dernier est purement subjectif. De plus, ils sont listés en ordre chronologique et les données sont manifestement incomplètes et floues, parce qu’il y a deux cas d’étudiants ayant déposé des demandes d’admission aux États-Unis et les seules informations dont on dispose sont leur ordre dans la chronologie, leurs sous-disciplines et les programmes gradués qu’ils ont ultimement fréquenté. On parle ici des candidats des 8-10 dernières années…

AVERTISSEMENT: J’ai été autorisé à rendre les données publiques à la condition de ne pas nommer les personnes à qui appartiennent les dossiers. S’il y a quelqu’un dont son dossier apparaît ici qui se manifeste, j’ajouterai avec plaisir le nom associé avec le bon dossier, ainsi que toute information supplémentaire qu’il/elle voudra bien me fournir.

Dossier #1:

  • Cote Z: 4.28
  • GRE de physique: 990
  • Expérience de recherche présumée, publication(s) suspectées au premier cycle
  • Décision: Harvard
  • Sous-discipline doctorale: Astrophysique des particules observationnelle
  • Autres demandes inconnues

Dossier #2:

  • Cote Z: 4.15
  • A appliqué à: Cornell, Princeton, MIT (rejeté; autres demandes inconnues – ce qui est connu est que l’étudiant a été refusé de toutes les universités états-uniennes où il a déposé des demandes)
  • 2 stages d’été
  • Pas de GRE de physique au dossier (cause de son blanchissage)
  • Décision: Université de Montreal
  • Sous-discipline doctorale: Physique mathématique

Dossier #3:

  • Cote Z: 4.1
  • GRE de physique: 740
  • 1 an et 1/2 d’expérience en astrophysique observationnelle, un pre-print
  • Décision: Cambridge
  • Sous-discipline doctorale: Astrophysique observationnelle
  • Demandes (et acceptations) connues: Yale, UMD, UCSC

Dossier #4:

  • Cote Z: 4.0+
  • Présentation de poster (publication présumée)
  • Décision: Cornell
  • Sous-discipline doctorale: Physique des particules théorique
  • Demande connue: Perimeter Institute

Dossier #5:

  • Cote Z: 4.25
  • GRE de physique: 990
  • 2 stages d’été, une note interne au CERN
  • Décision: Berkeley
  • Sous-discipline doctorale: Physique des particules théorique
  • Demandes connues: Michigan, Cornell, Toronto (verdict inconnu), Harvard (rejeté), Princeton (accepté)

Alors je ne peux m’empêcher de penser que je suis le plus faible de ces cinq étudiants quoique, par ma propre admission, de peu. Pour cette raison, alors que les cinq plus hautes sur ma liste d’applications pourraient fort bien s’être retrouvées sur la liste de n’importe lequel des cinq (en fait, le dernier a appliqué à deux d’entre elles), le fond de ma liste reflète ma volonté de regarder un peu plus profondément.

Parce qu’il y a des retours diminuants en ce qui a trait aux notes une fois qu’on a dépassé 3.5 (même sur l’échelle du 4.3); une moyenne de 3.7-3.8 n’est pas nécessairement plus attrayant qu’une moyenne de 4.1-4.3, si on présume que les quatre autres composantes sont globalement similaires, même si les valeurs particulières qu’elles prennent peuvent varier de manière considérable. En ce qui a trait à l’expérience, je ne suis pas tellement différent des autres, n’eut été de l’absence d’un pre-print à l’heure actuelle.



I learned that, back in the 80s and 90s, people who tried their hand in the US from my undergrad in physics commonly had Cornell on their application lists, and several did, in fact, matriculate. In fact, this is the legacy I have to live up to. The files contain up to three metrics (out of the five that are commonly said to determine admissions to PhD programs; the other two being letters of recommendation and personal statement(s)) because access to one of them is usually waived and the second is purely subjective. Furthermore, they are listed in chronological order and the data is manifestly incomplete and sketchy, since there are two known occurences of a student applying to, graduate schools in the USA, and the only three pieces of information known are where these cases fall in the timeline, their subfields, and what schools did the students end up attending. We’re talking about the last 8-10 years’ worth of applicants to the US…

DISCLAIMER: I was authorized to make the data public at the condition of not naming the people whose files belong. If anyone whose file is mentioned here is willing to manifest him/herself, I will gladly add the name associated with the right file, as well as any additional information they may be willing to provide.

File #1:

  • GPA: 4.28
  • PGRE: 990
  • Research experience assumed, publication(s) suspected as an undergraduate
  • Decision: Harvard
  • Doctoral subfield: Observational particle astrophysics
  • Other applications unknown

File #2:

  • GPA: 4.15
  • Applied to: Cornell, Princeton, MIT (rejected; other applications unknown – what is known is that the student was shut out from all the US schools the student applied to)
  • No PGRE on file (in fact, it was the cause of his shutout)
  • 2 summer internships
  • Decision: University of Montreal
  • Doctoral subfield: Mathematical physics

File #3:

  • GPA: 4.1
  • PGRE: 740
  • 1 1/2 year of research experience in observational astrophysics, one pre-print
  • Decision: Cambridge
  • Doctoral subfield: Observational astrophysics
  • Known applications (and acceptances): Yale, UMD, UCSC

File #4:

  • GPA: 4.0+
  • Poster presentation (publication assumed)
  • Decision: Cornell
  • Doctoral subfield: Theoretical particle physics
  • Known application: Perimeter Institute

File #5:

  • GPA: 4.25
  • PGRE: 990
  • 2 summer internships, one internal CERN note
  • Decision: Berkeley
  • Doctoral subfield: Theoretical particle physics
  • Known applications: Michigan, Cornell, Toronto (verdict unknown), Harvard (rejected), Princeton (accepted)

So I can’t help but feel like I am weaker than the weakest of these five students although, admittedly, not by much. For this reason, while the top 5 schools on my application list may well have been on the lists of any of those five (in fact, two of them were applied to by the last one), the bottom of my list reflects my willingness to leave no rock unturned.

Because there are diminishing returns to GPA once one is past 3.5 (even on a 4.3 scale) as far as GPA is concerned; a 3.7-3.8 GPA is not necessarily much less attractive than a 4.1-4.3 GPA, if we assume that the other four components are similar in the aggregate, even though what particular values each component takes can differ wildly. Experience-wise I am actually not much different, if not for the fact that I have no pre-print at this time.

Some signs you have been on College Confidential too much

College Confidential is an useful resource for would-be undergraduates and their parents. Unfortunately, CC, as with most college counseling websites, often attracts bright kids (in fact, a significant percentage of CC users have set their sights on some of the most selective colleges and universities in the world) in search for tips to build their undergraduate applications. Notice that, whereas many will talk about college applications or being in college, I would talk about undergraduate applications and being in undergrad respectively. Without further ado, here’s a list of signs you have been on CC too much:

  1. Once in undergrad, you think of transferring just so that you can graduate from the most prestigious college you can afford
  2. You have signed up for many colleges’ email newsletters just so that you can demonstrate interest towards the colleges in question
  3. You grub for grades incessantly in AP/dual-enrollment courses (provided your high school offers them in the first place)
  4. In the event your high school doesn’t offer either AP or dual-enrollment course, you want to transfer to a school that does just so that you can take them, regardless of whether you can actually succeed in them, or even if the offerings are of interest to you
  5. You sign up for, and try to get a leadership position in, an extracurricular you’d otherwise never care or hear about only because it looks impressive on an undergraduate application
  6. You think your life is screwed over if you don’t make a major achievement in high school (and subsequently get into, and graduate from, an Ivy League college)
  7. If you don’t think your life is screwed over if you don’t graduate from an Ivy League school, though, you’d still think Ivies are the best eight schools worth attending
  8. You shrug off an otherwise pleasurable activity because it doesn’t help strengthen an undergraduate application
  9. You think a 2200 on the SAT (or a 33 on the ACT) is worth retaking from
  10. You think other high schoolers are worth getting chances from
  11. You endlessly debate every single aspect of undergraduate admissions, life or outcomes with your friends
  12. If you don’t get into your dream school for undergrad, you plan your undergraduate stay around getting into that school either as a transfer student or as a graduate student (provided your undergraduate dream school actually has a graduate program in the field of your choice)
  13. You think of a college visit solely (or primarily) in terms of whether it will help you get into the college you visited
  14. You are nervous about putting a school as a safety because you fear you will suffer from Tufts Syndrome
  15. “Early Action” just means that you receive your acceptance letter at an earlier date
  16. You care more about admissions (undergraduate or graduate) than the education you’re about to receive
  17. You took both the SAT and the ACT multiple times
  18. You know all your past standardized test scores off the top of your head, including subsection scores
  19. You think it’s normal for high schoolers to do internships and research with professors
  20. You call your children (D)S or (D)D (and S1, S2, D1, D2, and so on, so forth, if you had more than one son or one daughter)
  21. You wish something bad happens just so you can write about that experience in your essays
  22. You think of ways to get more out of financial aid than you can legitimately qualify for
  23. You think other high schoolers are worth getting your college essays reviewed by even if you’re a graduate applicant
  24. You have been stressed about getting into an Ivy since freshman or sophomore year
  25. You know more about the colleges you want to attend in comparison to your Guidance Counselor
  26. You research summer programs online in the fall, so you can apply next summer
  27. You compare yourself to every single chance thread and post on CC
  28. You take a ridiculous amount of AP/IB classes (just to take them, that is, if your high school offers them in the first place)
  29. You juggle intense course-load, several extra curricular activities, and multiple leadership positions.
  30. You often have to argue with your parents about your classes because they think you’re taking more than you can handle
  31. The nearby university that your parents want you to go to is, in your mind, only a backup
  32. You constantly have to explain what a match school and a reach school are
  33. You know the freshman profile of three classes before you (at your dream school)
  34. You already know how to deal with various types of roommates before you even have a roommate
  35. You try to determine how many hooks you have in your application (if any)
  36. Any school with rolling admission is a safety
  37. You have the top 20/14 USNWR university rankings memorized (for undergrad and law school respectively)
  38. You know the EA vs RD acceptance rates of all the top schools (or all your top choices)
  39. You know the answer to “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” (especially true if you’re an undergraduate applicant at the University of Chicago, famous for its exotic essay prompts)
  40. You rely more on fellow CC’ers than you do a guidance/college counselor

If you can think of other signs, please comment!