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.


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