Visiting Minnesota, part 1

Last week, I visited Minnesota as a prospective student, under the following conditions:

  • A maximum $US500 for airfare
  • 3 nights of lodging provided
  • $US30 per diem for meals

It turns out that, due to the $500 restriction on airfare, it effectively limits the ability of the department to invite internationals, and effectively restricting Minnesota to inviting students attending universities in the US, Canada or Mexico. For this reason I was the only international that actually attended the open house day at Minnesota. Plus I found troubling to find a lookalike student that resembled another masters student back home that was also due to complete a masters at the same time as I was, and I even got fooled into thinking that this particular student would also attend Minnesota, or at least, consider doing so. I would only learn two nights later the full extent of Minnesota’s troubles with recruiting in Canada.

Figure 1: The Golden Gopher at Coffman

Figure 1: The Golden Gopher at Coffman

That said, as I always seem to do when visiting other colleges one way or another, I take pictures and I purchase some school clothing. This time around, it had to be long-sleeved, since, owing to the cold nature of Minnesota (actually not much different from home) I knew that I would have to wear what “proof of visit” I would then purchase for much of the year, were I to attend. Because, back home, clothing from schools outside the city is treated as a proof of visit (especially true of the large # of people wearing Harvard clothing while not standing any chance whatsoever to attend, in any shape or form).

And, of course, as I will spend years 3+ at Tate it made sense for me to visit Tate, and PAN as well, especially since years 1-2 will be spent either at PAN, for Physics And Nanotechnology or at some undisclosed location. Also, since during these years 1-2 there will be no guarantee whatsoever that my TA sections will actually take place at PAN, I thought it was worthwhile to get a feel for the East Bank side of campus at first.

Figure 2: Tate Laboratory

Figure 2: Tate Laboratory

Got a chance to ask a few current students about their experiences of attending Minnesota, as well as the administration whether there were any other applicants, or admits even, from Canada or Mexico. The answer was that all other applicants this year from the two aforementionned countries were either rejected or waitlisted. And, back in my hotel room, I had a heated discussion about QFT, renormalization and its shortcomings with my roommate.

P.S.: I still didn’t get out of the waitlist at Carnegie Mellon… which means that this final decision will, more likely than not, actually be final, in which case I will attend Minnesota.

Visiting Carnegie Mellon, part 2

Unlike the first day, the second day was well-structured, with little wiggle room. And man, Pittsburgh can be a hilly city. I knew that very few could consider Carnegie Mellon to be a backup plan to anything, not even for a PhD. As is usually the case with such visits, the department head begins the “D-Day” with an overview of the department and the research graduate program, alongside some other people who couldn’t come to the reception the day before, either because they chose to come on Friday rather than Thursday or because they are from other schools in the Pittsburgh area.


Figure 1: The opening slide

Then there was a sequence of two mini-seminars about the overview of research being done at Carnegie Mellon, first in nanophysics (with respect to condensed matter, they’re very similar to Rice, in that they focus on nanoscience) and later with biophysics, where the head of the graduate program presented his own research, that is, membrane and interface physics. Then came the first individual meeting with faculty, where I showed Mr. Paulini that I was eager to learn and work, as well as understood the implications of doing a PhD, as well as the realities of work once in a PhD program. I was told to meet with Rothstein, but I didn’t like his research directions as much; he may use effective field theories but not to do the things I want.

Then came lunch time, where the prospective graduate students could meet with other faculty they were not originally scheduled to meet. That was a brief respite, where I ate the only meat on this trip as part of an Italian sandwich. And another set of mini-seminars on astronomy, particle physics and quark interactions (or, should I say, nuclear physics since their nuclear physics offerings are one-dimensional) at the end of which I had five faculty meetings. The only professor that actually knew about my undergrad and wasn’t a quantum computing professor at CMU prior to this visit was, in fact, the second (Brière) and that one had more of an interview feel. Plus neither the quantum computing guy nor Brière recalled receiving any application whatsoever from University of Montreal.

And I felt like I was ashamed to reveal the primary purpose of why I wanted to attend CMU (or Minnesota, for that matter) to one of the professors: as a protest move against Canadian civilian scientific policy. Needless to say, this was the worst of the one-on-one faculty meetings, in which case I know now who not to work under (and gravitational waves just isn’t my thing either, despite the use of field-theoretic methods).

Then came the campus tour, guided by a current graduate student at CMU, and where we could ask a variety of questions about life in Pittsburgh, as well as life as a graduate student. I even asked about the sports teams at CMU, and how much would it cost to attend football games at CMU. That said, the Tartans are in Div.3 and, while they may be good in an UAA context, would find a preseason road trip in Canada to be a risky proposition at best, and Canadian college football teams range from low-level Div.2 to Div.1 FCS for the topmost 5 teams or so (Calgary, Laval, McMaster, Montreal, Western).


Figure 2: Civitella

At one point during supper at Trapuzzano my front neighbor even claimed that some US high schools put so much emphasis on athletics, and particularly football, that some physics teachers are first hired because they can coach athletic teams and that any one between my front neighbor, my neighbor on the left and me could do a better job at teaching high school-level physics than that football coach would. After all, if we’re good enough for a physics PhD (my front neighbor got offers from LSU and UMBC, while I got an offer from Minnesota and my neighbor on the left had an offer from CMU) then our mastery of the material is sufficient since, usually, little or no training is afforded for TAs, and that TAs can still be effective teachers without the need for that additional training.

Figure 3: The board games

Figure 3: The board games

On the final day, I ate breakfast at a restaurant whose walls were adorned with board games. It was unreal how I avoided meat as much as I could during the trip, only eating meat when absolutely necessary.

Next week: Minnesota!

Visiting Carnegie Mellon, part 1

Carnegie Mellon is one weird beast of a physics department: they try to invite what waitlistees they can. Per Roy Briere, since CMU, unlike most physics departments, actually earmarks spots in the class for the waitlistees, waitlistees are still in the running. That said, even if they actually stand a chance, there actually were only two internationals visiting, admits or waitlistees: some Brazilian student interested in observational cosmology and me. Plus there are quite a bit of current students I talked to over the course of the past three days that were admitted off the waitlist. At most other schools, however (e.g. WUSTL), the waitlist is there as a reserve against having too many students that decline.

Now for the actual trip. I had to wake up at 3AM so that I could actually catch some early-bird flight to Detroit, and eat before I could leave home, from where I took a flight to Pittsburgh, and I thought that airport security and border pre-clearance would take a rather long time. As with most early-bird flights, that flight to Detroit had a large number of empty seats. On such short-haul flights on regional jets, the carry-on allowance is, in fact, twofold: one for the cargo hold, in which case you check that in at the gate and you also claim that at the gate, and another one for the personal item.

Once I arrived at Pittsburgh, I had the impression that my waitlist position has to be rather high (even given the terms and conditions, as well as the waitlist process at CMU) for CMU to spend this much on an international student (even though the airfare for me in particular is not any higher than for those students that would come to CMU from Sonoma State or UC Irvine) to visit, since every single visitor had the chauffeur service from the airport to the hotel in a luxury taxi.

Luxury taxi

Figure 1: Luxury taxi at Pittsburgh

Because I was the first to arrive, I had to do some scouting around Shadyside to locate one of the key areas of the second night, that it, Trapuzzano. And the Carnegie Mellon campus, with a whole bunch of pictures from it (I couldn’t get a clear shot at the outside of Wean Hall though) and even a T-shirt from CMU (couldn’t get one with the university seal on it, unlike at UPenn last summer) as proof of visit.

Fine Arts building

Figure 2: The Fine Arts building

Finally, at the opening night reception, there were a sizeable number of visitors, but obviously not all of them. As for the food: crudities, egg rolls. And there were a few current graduate students, but, between them, the center of attention was obviously Tabitha Voytek, a student that just defended her dissertation on some radio-astronomy topic a couple of weeks, or even days, ago. For all the fun I had on the first day, I had but one frustration: I couldn’t access my email boxes (and that seems to be an issue while I am on the road) for much of the first day.

Research offerings vs. undergraduate choices

Now that you have narrowed down your undergraduate choices to a short list of institutions to attend (assuming you got at least two offers), the time has come to compare the schools you got offers from, in terms of academics and otherwise, unless you applied early decision, in which case this really is something you should do before confirming an early decision application.

One aspect that may come across as paying too much attention to the details would be to pay attention to research activity in your field(s) of interest. Of course, this is going to affect what research opportunities you will have access to internally, as well as upper-division electives and hence what you will get out of your degree. Also graduate applications are written with research fit as the centerpiece. But don’t go too deep into debt, though, since you’ll only likely feel the difference academically in the last two years of undergrad.

Décision finale/Final decision

À la suite d’un rejet de la part de UPenn, j’ai pratiquement perdu tout espoir pour Columbia, mais à moins d’un miracle de la part de Columbia (ou d’une sortie d’une liste d’attente à Carnegie Mellon, auquel cas je fréquenterai Carnegie Mellon) je suis pratiquement sûr que je fréquenterai l’université du Minnesota.

Je ne le cacherai pas, je suis beaucoup plus déçu de ce rejet de la part de UPenn que d’être rejeté par Princeton; après tout, j’avais promis de ne dire que la vérité, rien que la vérité, toute la vérité. Et surtout quand j’avais affaire à des profs qui prenaient chacun un étudiant (Mark Trodden avait un étudiant dû pour graduer sous peu, alors que Justin Khoury n’en a qu’un), en sus de tout contact que j’aurais pu avoir… néanmoins, comme avec UChicago et Princeton, comme ils rejettent des centaines d’étudiants qui seraient capables d’y réussir, je m’y attendais un peu.

Since I got rejected at UPenn, I lost almost all hope for Columbia, but, unless a miracle occurs at Columbia (or that I get in off the waitlist at Carnegie Mellon, in which case I will attend Carnegie Mellon) I am almost sure I will attend the University of Minnesota.

I won’t hide it, I am a lot more disappointed in this rejection from UPenn than to be rejected from Princeton; after all, I promised to say only the truth, nothing but the truth, the whole truth. And especially since I dealt with professors that took on one student each (Mark Trodden had one student due to graduate soon, while Justin Khoury only had one student) on top of any connection that I might have had… nevertheless, as with UChicago and Princeton, as they reject hundreds of students that have what it takes to succeed once there, I expected it somewhat.


Advisor and advisee at the same time

Because I think it’s definitely a situation that will happen again (as a PhD student or as a postdoc if I elect to do a postdoc after graduation) that I will have to be both an advisee for someone and an advisor to someone else, I am writing about this because I am de facto co-advising an undergraduate capstone thesis.

My own end of the research work has not made much progress because I was writing my masters thesis; as a result I spent the whole of February with what little time for actual research being spent with that undergraduate. I may not know much about when to trust an advisee to do your work, for example, but I know I am getting more out of this masters, learning-wise, than if there was no undergraduate in my lab for a capstone thesis.

But I learned that an advisor should not have too many students, or else they will not have enough quality time with their advisor for them to be given a chance to succeed. If there was a need to cut into the time an advisor can spend with an individual student, on the other hand, an advisor should keep some time with the less advanced students. Hence why some professors may claim that they have the funding but not the ability to take on another graduate student.

Aiming too wide for my own good

Now that I’ve got rejected from Tufts, I’ve began to wonder whether I have been aiming too wide. Even though rankings are, in a research context, amusing at best, they may be used against you if you try to get out of research. Very few HR departments even know about NRC, ARWU or other rankings of that ilk, and the ones that do usually belong to entities that engage in R&D.

Oh, but, with the appropriate legal training, you can do patent law and is sensitive to prestige somehow. Patent law is another beast altogether: employers that hire patent lawyers don’t care about where you did your scientific or technical training as much as they care about where you went to law school, as with many, if not most, areas of legal practice do. Most legal employers would rather interview a lawyer with a PhD from, say, Case Western and a JD from Harvard than a lawyer with a PhD from Harvard and a JD from Case Western.

For as much as I’d love to believe that I wasn’t tufted and there were legitimate reasons for me to be rejected at Tufts (and what applies to Tufts applies to Dartmouth too, from which I was rejected as well), I will list those reasons I believe are legitimate.

  • People of interest are unable to take an additional student next year (lack of funding, time, etc.)
  • Small department size (and painful decisions had to be made)
  • Lack of papers

I find it a little weird that my acceptances and waitlists are sandwiched between rejections (if you look at them through the lens of the physics US News rankings) but, now that I learned that I actually have connections at Minnesota (Vainshtein) beyond merely having faculty at my undergrad that went to Minnesota (Carlos Silva, who first recommended Minnesota to me) as I would have at UPenn (Trodden and Khoury, and, if I ultimately attended UPenn, Mark Trodden would, in all likelihood, become my advisor), given that Minnesota is a protectionistic school (if only because it’s a state school) it gives me some hope for UPenn.



  • #26 Minnesota
  • #54 Notre Dame


  • #36 Carnegie Mellon
  • #44 WUSTL


  • #2 Princeton
  • #7 UChicago
  • #11 Michigan
  • #54 Vanderbilt
  • #70 Dartmouth
  • #77 Tufts


Speaking of UPenn, I feel like they had yet to render decisions to anyone for particle theory (cosmology or not); my current advisor claimed that there were a rather large number of withdrawals (in a subfield’s context) from people who were cross-applicants to top-20 schools and UPenn who got accepted elsewhere in the top-20. That and combined with my connections, as well as Carnegie Mellon’s waitlist without connections (despite being between Minnesota and UPenn for cosmological prestige) it still gives me some hope for UPenn, less so for Columbia.

And UPenn in particular is a little peculiar in the context of US schools (but rather common in Europe, where sometimes the application deadline depends on when the predecessor files the first draft of his/her dissertation): it releases decisions by subfields (Feb. 6 was HEP-EX, Feb. 19 was microwave astro). Perhaps it’s a whole new format for them, with growing pains, perhaps no one who got acceptances for condensed matter or biophysics, or even particle cosmology, decided to make their offers public.

La Liste du Bonheur/The List of Happiness

Comme mes profs m’avaient prévenu au tout début de la maîtrise que continuer en recherche après le PhD serait difficile peu importe le dossier de publication, et qu’il fallait prévoir des portes de sortie de la physique, je devais sérieusement m’inquiéter de ce dont j’aurai droit à la sortie. Tout d’abord, c’est bien connu, le monde de la recherche (industrielle ou fondamentale) en a d’abord et avant tout pour le dossier de publication et la réputation du superviseur doctoral d’une personne, sans égard au prestige institutionnel.

De plus, il y a des emplois qui ne regardent pas vraiment le dossier de publication des candidats (ce sont donc des postes hors de la recherche) mais où les habiletés fournies par le projet du doc y sont tout de même utiles. Par contre, bien des postes de ce type-là sont sensibles au prestige institutionnel, parfois même au point de favoriser un candidat ayant connu un doctorat merdique à Columbia vis-à-vis un bon doctorat à Minnesota. Néanmoins, j’estime que, à cause de la délocalisation, le marché du travail pour les détenteurs de PhD en physique va être appelé à devenir de plus en plus élitiste à moyen-long terme. Désolé si j’agis comme une “pute du prestige”, mais un doctorat d’une université sur ma Liste du Bonheur me rendrait heureux pratiquement “ever after” après la soutenance… Voici ma Liste du Bonheur:

  • Harvard
  • Princeton
  • Yale
  • Columbia
  • UPenn
  • Brown
  • Cornell
  • Dartmouth
  • Stanford
  • MIT
  • Caltech
  • UChicago
  • Duke
  • Berkeley

Bien sûr, ce sont toutes des universités très prestigieuses, mais peut-être que je ne suis rien de plus qu’un élitiste idiot (il y a moyen d’être en mesure de compléter des études supérieures en physique tout en étant un idiot dans une autre sphère) mais j’ai appliqué à 5 universités sur cette fameuse Liste du Bonheur: UChicago, Princeton, Dartmouth (3 rejets), UPenn et Columbia, desquelles je n’ai reçu aucune réponse. Je me sens coupable d’avoir appliqué à UChicago et à Princeton; si c’était à refaire, j’aurais appliqué à Brown et à Duke à la place, qui auraient été plus réalistes.

Pour finir, si je n’y arrivais pas au doctorat, peut-être que je pourrais me servir du postdoc pour me racheter.

Since my profs warned me at the very beginning of my masters that pursuing research after the PhD would be difficult regardless of one’s publication record, and one had to plan some exit routes from physics, I am seriously worried about what I can expect to get at the exit. First of all, it is well-known that the world of research (industrial or fundamental) cares first and foremost about the publication record and the reputation of one’s supervisor, regardless of institutional prestige.

In addition, there are jobs that do not look at the publication record of the candidates much (these are therefore non-research jobs) but where the skills supplied by the doctoral project are still useful. But many jobs of that sort are sensitive to institutional prestige, sometimes even to the point of favoring a candidate that had an abysmal doctorate at Columbia over a good doctorate at Minnesota. Nevertheless, I think that, due to outsourcing, the job market for physics PhD holders will become more and more elitist in the long term. Sorry if I’m acting like a prestige whore, but a doctorate from a university on my List of Happiness would practically make me happy “ever after” after the dissertation defense… Behold, my List of Happiness:

  • Harvard
  • Princeton
  • Yale
  • Columbia
  • UPenn
  • Brown
  • Cornell
  • Dartmouth
  • Stanford
  • MIT
  • Caltech
  • UChicago
  • Duke
  • Berkeley

Of course, they are all very prestigious universities, but perhaps I am nothing more than an elitist jerk (it’s possible to be capable of completing graduate studies in physics while being a jerk in another area) but I applied to five universities on that List of Happiness: UChicago, Princeton, Dartmouth (3 rejections), UPenn et Columbia, from whom I received no response. I feel guilty having applied to UChicago and Princeton; if I had to do it all over again, I would have applied to Brown and Duke instead, which would have been more realistic.

Finally, if I failed to make it in for my PhD, maybe I will make use of a postdoc to redeem myself.

An emotional rollercoaster

I might be a little unstable right now, but this entire cycle has been an emotional roller coaster for me. I am currently in one of these moments where I curse not my lack of ability but my lack of judgment. I even doubted the worth of a physics PhD from Minnesota or Notre Dame to the point I would even contemplate what would I have done if I dropped both physics and mathematics for special education during my third semester in undergrad. First there would have been no desire on my part to attend Ivies because special education jobs at home are not prestige-sensitive at all.

But, at the same time, even with a rejection from Dartmouth, I’m still awaiting a decision from UPenn and Columbia. If either school accepts me, I’ll attend either school without fail, especially since I expect the job market for physics PhDs to become more elitist in the future, if only because of outsourcing of PhD-required/preferred jobs. I wonder whether I will find happiness again if I go to Minnesota (or Carnegie Mellon if I make it out of the waitlist)… unless I could, in a rather distant future, make up for it with some other advanced degree, like, say, a MBA (even the joint EMBA degree from unaccredited Brown Prime with IE Business School would likely suffice as far as fulfilling this objective is concerned)?

And I also berate myself at this time because I didn’t apply to Duke when I should have. Plus I think I behaved like a common law 0L (civil law 0Ls tend not to care as much about where they end up going to law school) because I put prestige as one of the primary considerations… And, if I really wanted nothing to do with Chicago or Princeton back in the day, I would have picked Brown and Duke in their stead.