My first acceptance

Now that I have received an acceptance, I feel like it has removed quite a bit of stress off my shoulders. So, while I got deferred from Michigan-Ann Arbor, I got to wonder whether I’ll receive an actual decision other than a deferral, but when I checked the Grad Cafe, I realized that there were offers from Minnesota so I checked my email box about whether I received anything from them. An offer, a rejection, anything. I know that an unfunded offer will feel like a rejection.

I am elated to see that my first offer was an acceptance, and the financial details were enclosed with my acceptance. It feels… unreal. That I would still be able, somehow, to pursue theoretical particle cosmology for a couple more years and earn a PhD. And, honestly, I do not expect the life of a PhD student to be much different from the life of a student in a research-intensive masters program. So how does a $24,440 stipend fit in Minneapolis?

So I can say that I took one step towards securing my future, and then updated the verdicts page.

My first PhD acceptance letter

Information session, thesis-writing

First things first, I gave the information session, which was aimed at second-year undergraduates eyeing graduate study abroad. Of course, they realized that I was strongly biased towards US schools, but I tried my best not to sound as if I was doing advertisements for Ivy League schools, specifically UPenn and Columbia. They realized how complicated it was to apply for graduate school in general, at least vis-à-vis undergraduate processes that are, for them, painless when it comes to liberal arts or pure sciences. At least I was being transparent…

Then comes actual thesis-writing. I got nothing done in the lab this week but I spent the better part of 3 days building on the file I called the “inventory”, which began way back in the summer as the compendium of what I really did in the research project, but I realized by now that, if I could expand on the literature review that preceded the actual work, I could make a thesis out of it.

Lab computers… or the importance of backup data

When I came to the lab today, I tried turning on the computer, only to find that there were troubles with the booting sequence, in which the RAID hard drive was in a “degraded” status. I feared that the data was lost and that would prove a serious setback. I tried hitting “Ctrl+I” when I first rebooted the computer, and it proved promising, until the computer froze right after Windows 7 was accessed. But when I came to the computer technician, I had to run to the weekly departmental seminar, so I could only claim the aging computer (it was 8-10 years old at this point) after the seminar was over.

When the computer was fixed, I started zipping all the relevant files and then put the resulting zip files on Dropbox, which is a cloud storage service. Because I fear losing research-relevant files I made sure the entire content of the folders was saved. In the end, I accomplished something crucial but whose contribution to research is nonexistent.

Therefore one has to save the data regularly on an outside backup databank…

Chinese grant recipients revisited

I mentioned earlier that the best-and-brightest among Chinese-trained, undergraduate or masters-level STEM talent competed for grants that paid all application and test-taking expenditures to its recipients, and that it can be a crushing blow to be shut out of graduate schools abroad if you’re a recipient, and that the provision led so many to apply much more broadly than other grant recipients.

It turns out that the Thousand Talents Program, whose aim is to bring back foreign-trained top Chinese talent, is actually twofold. The best-known part is for established scholars to take up research positions back home. However, the other part, which concerns outgoing graduate students, is every bit as coddling upon graduation as it was during application season, but there is one major caveat. Recipients that do not return home within prescribed periods after graduation expose themselves to rather harsh penalties, including, but not limited to, refund of the grant. Upon their return, they have to work for a certain period, with penalties on a sliding scale if they don’t, according for how much of the obligations the recipient fulfilled. But these grant recipients, understandably, cannot account for the majority of the Chinese STEM talent in Western graduate schools.

And it’s currently unclear how the penalties assessed to dropouts stack up against the penalties assessed to people who graduate but end up staying overseas for work, beyond that such penalties exist.

Oh, of course, there are some private sources of outside funding that come with stipulations of working for X for Y years with penalties on a sliding scale and, structurally, the Thousand Talents Program is not much different from other competitive grants of the same ilk. Receiving the grant is seen as heaven while hell awaits those who fall short of societal expectations of the grant recipient, regardless of when they falter (be it before they are originally set to go to graduate school, while in graduate school or once they get out).

So, in short, one is not merely coddled during application year, but also in the first few years after graduation, when one is a Chinese grant recipient. But it’s coddling with caveats.

Deferred from Michigan

One would think I’m an undergraduate applicant with such a title. After all, the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) deferred thousands of early-action undergraduate applicants this cycle, and even made headlines for it. But, since the entire premise of this blog has to do with graduate admissions, I’ll have to say that my deferral increases my anxiety. I have since learned that one can get deferred multiple times in a PhD app process without you noticing that you were, in fact, deferred. That is because, while there is one deadline, decisions are released in waves.

If you’re outright rejected in the first round, it means that you’re clearly unqualified. But I came to the conclusion that I have been deferred because I did not receive an admissions decision on January 15 when others did (rejection or acceptance) so that would mean that, while I’m still considered at Michigan, I am not at or near the top of the applicant pool.

European graduate admissions processes

Disclaimer: I do not claim to have any expertise in any shape or form pertaining to European graduate admissions processes. I am very nervous about this part because I know I WILL be questioned about them when I will give my student conference on the topic of graduate school admissions abroad (from a Canadian perspective). I will admit that I am biased towards one destination because I applied to 12 schools in the US (a list that might come across as wanting to redeem from a broken undergraduate dream but, in the context of physics, actually represents a broad range of schools)…

Of course, at my department, there are some of these self-righteous students who would outright refuse to leave their home region. There are also some students who would not consider graduate study in the US because of tests (GRE, both general and subject, where applicable, TOEFL) but who would readily consider graduate school even though the logistical barrier (and, in some cases, language barrier) is higher. Others also quote the unappealing local culture of some destinations although one’s ability to immerse in the local culture is necessarily limited in graduate school vis-à-vis undergraduate study-abroad, due to the intense workload of graduate school, especially a PhD.

However, one caution one should take is that fully-funded masters in the Canadian sense are usually not sensible in continental Europe because, despite the large variation between countries, and sometimes within countries, in Europe, masters are more coursework-heavy, and you do little to no research since Europe masters are structured more or less like 2 more years of undergrad and hence charge tuition (nominal outside of UK) like undergrads. As a result, doctorates have little or no coursework. It is a result of the chasm happening between masters and doctorate there, instead of between bachelors and masters (or bachelors and doctorate in the US) as could be the case elsewhere in the world.

One thing that is quite different is that PhD admissions in Europe tend to ask for an outline of your proposed dissertation and that you have, depending on the country and university, 3, 4 or 5 years to defend. And that one holds a masters, in which case masters grades enter the equation to a greater extent than in the US. But, since test scores are not a factor, the application-independent expenditures (e.g. expenses that you incur once regardless of the number of applications submitted) are limited to the transcript translations (whenever applicable) or the student visa (if admitted).

If you have any additional information, feel free to comment with that information at hand.

Collapse in the PhD applicant pool?


Even though I am not a humanities student, I came across some indications that the applicant pools in the humanities and the social sciences (thank you, “that-girl-that-once-crossed-WUSTL-off-her-list-because-of-riots-in-Saint-Louis”) have dwindled. Although direct discouragement was not used to the same extent in humanities as it was in law (at least in common law jurisdictions, since direct discouragement was not used in Quebec, a civil law jurisdiction, in the context of legal education), it appears that poor job prospects of advanced degrees in the humanities and the social sciences could have scared away some people who would otherwise have considered such advanced degrees. Enter the exhibits (however, these indications should not be taken as data or conclusive evidence):

Exhibit 1: an undisclosed history graduate program has seen the transnational history segment of its applicant pool decrease by half (from 22 to 11)

Exhibit 2 (Daily Nous): an undisclosed philosophy graduate program has noticed a marked drop in the applications

Exhibit 3 (Rutgers English department): The deadline was extended by a week, from Dec. 15 to Dec. 22, although the two-part application system, in which one has to wait 24 hours after the preliminary information is entered to upload supporting materials, may have also played a role

Exhibit 4 (Fordham): The application fee for its masters program was reduced to $35 (originally $70), likely in an attempt to bolster its flagging English MA applicant pool

Exhibit 5 (Northwestern): The applicant pool for English has steadily declined in the past 5 years at NWU unless the 2014 data (not yet released) suggests otherwise

However, that is not to say that, despite the economic recovery (still fragile, I know) the applicant pool for graduate programs in STEM disciplines may not have collapsed the same way it did in the humanities. In fact, I would not expect the physics graduate applicant pool to have collapsed, given the ballooning numbers of physics graduates since the past ~10-15 years or so, per APS statistics. And the preliminary information for 2014 indicate that there were ~7,000 bachelors degrees awarded domestically in the US.

Now, if the median for these 7,000 were around 3.0 (a little on the high side but since some depts seem to grade more generously the more advanced the coursework, it could be true) this means about 3,500 of them can actually contemplate graduate study under any shape or form. Plus, so many of them will branch out afterward. Some will try their hands at law school (Vanderbilt always seems to have at least one pre-law in its physics graduates), others at med school (Minnesota seems to encourage physics majors to try med school more than the national average), others still will try to break into engineering or economics. On the other hand, one could say that the majority of those with actual research experience in undergrad will either aim for a PhD (even if said PhD was not in physics) or for med school (after all, research experience is valued by medical admissions committees) and, now that it’s made easier than never before, domestically the applicant pool could at least be maintained.

If you come in from other fields, please chime in as to whether you think your field has seen a downturn in its applicant pool or not.

Seminar refreshments… or how to substitute a meal with them


Undoubtedly, at the PhD level, attending departmental seminars is an important spot in a weekly schedule, where one will get in touch with the latest developments in the field. And usually these seminars are open to undergraduates so one should expect a lot of people when these seminars are department-wide. Also, for cash-strapped undergraduates, it can be tempting to attend events like these in order to eat one’s lunch or dinner (depending on the departments, the seminars can be held at lunch time or at dinner time) there so that they could downgrade their meal plans.

Admittedly, one’s budget can be tight in graduate school, or even in undergrad, so free food can be a good incentive to get students to come. Some depts can be a little stingy and not offer that much food but not everyone will substitute a meal with seminar refreshments so, if you elect to do so, make sure you come early; after all, refreshments are first-come, first-serve. For me to do so I need 10 cookies, as well as a cup of coffee.