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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Banks, Bender and Wu

The week before the road trip began (which ended four days later, and I wrote the posts pertaining to the trip after the trip itself was actually over), my PI asked me to do a presentation on an article that, between ourselves, we all called “Banks, Bender and Wu” which actually was about large-order perturbation caused by a system of equal-mass anharmonic oscillators with two degrees of freedom. Did the presentation the old-fashioned way, with a blackboard, because I found the article to be a very heavy reading and that beamers were too fast for the weightiness of the content.

We were mostly interested in the multidimensional tunneling techniques outlined in the paper, and, while my personal notes contained many aspects that I thought were pertinent to cover, just explaining what led up to these took a while because of the complexity of the mathematical arguments. Everyone was befuddled but, then again, I would say that, if it was simpler, we wouldn’t have a lab group presentation. In order to spare the other people in the lab additional pain, I was simply summarizing the last two parts by saying that these methods can be generalized to an ever-increasing number of degrees of freedom, as well as nonquartic coupling, without telling how. And we found out that there were multiple typos in the original article and that I took notes without correcting the typos.

Nevertheless, as a masters student going into my second year I still learned quite a bit from this excruciating experience. I tried to juggle my own research and the reading of this very complex article, with some success but now that this presentation is over, I know what to expect should I be asked to do something similar again.

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.

Visit plans go awry

It is sometimes a good idea to visit a prospective graduate school, but only after you did the homework about the school you’re contemplating a visit to. Visits are important in order to gauge whether the school, its facilities as well as the department culture really is for you. Sometimes mishaps happen, like, say, the prof moving on the very day you’re scheduled to visit. And that’s precisely what happened to me.

I knew, two months before I received the email from Justin Khoury, that the other professor I was interested in at UPenn, Mark Trodden, both of which came to be on my radar because of a visit on the Center for Particle Cosmology’s website, so I planned this very visit around a meeting with Justin Khoury. Rather than to be a visit made in order to meet with a potential advisor, as well as to tour the facilities, it is a visit now intended to meet with the students of either professor. Because, in fact, the questions I might have about the life at UPenn as a PhD student would be best answered by the students in the thick of it.

Simply put, if you do plan on visiting, please contact the prof(s) you’re interested in first, while stating your research interests and why you want to work with the profs in question.

Astronomical arms race in town

Montreal is a city with two well-regarded physics departments (and arguably they are both top-5 in Canada), although, historically, they took vastly different directions, both in undergraduate and research terms. In these troubled times, where funding for science is scarce, to actually see both departments out-doing each other in a physical field (astronomy and astrophysics) where private funding is effete at best is a ray of hope for physics at large. Although the arms race is mostly a research kind of thing, I still have to introduce the differences between the two to give you some context to this arms race. I graduated from one of the two so please forgive my bias. Plus the opinions expressed in this post reflect only me, and not the opinions of the physics departments involved.

There is McGill University, the English-language department, whose physics department has been around for much longer than the French-language one (covered in the next paragraph). It was historically focused on nuclear and particle physics, and, when it comes to particle physics, they have focused on the theoretical aspect of it more. There is, to my eyes, one major undergraduate problem with that department: due to their two-speed course system (major and honours; they often say that the major is for experimentalists, and honours for theorists) they teach no course twice a year, which can be an impediment if a student failed a course, and teaching students at different standards is likely to hurt the students taught at the lower standard after they graduate. But under Gale and Grütter, they tried to make inroads in astrophysics (galactic physics, compact objects and particle astrophysics/cosmology mostly at this time).

And there is the University of Montreal, the French-language department, where its historical focus has been astrophysics and plasma. It has focused on astrophysics to the point where external inspectors suggested to rename the physics department, the department of physics and astronomy. Because all physics undergraduates there are taught at the same standards (the equivalent at McGill would be to teach every physics undergraduate at the honours level), it has the ability to teach some critical courses twice a year, hence it can accommodate the winter class (or demi-année in French; for them, the opportunity of an education should not be denied on the basis of extenuating circumstances, plus I was myself a demi-année student) properly. However, it is not free of undergraduate problems of its own: the students in the other two programs are held hostage to the scheduling conflicts that arise due to the very existence of the physics-computer science program (I will discuss the problems of that program in greater detail in a later post)

As to how the arms race manifests itself from each side of the mountain (both campuses are actually on opposite sides of Mount Royal): on the north side (UdeM) Julie Larrondo is just the tip of the iceberg, and she fills an astrophysical gap in that department, galactic/extragalactic astrophysics, adding to the current strengths in white dwarves, solar physics and massive stars, and, to a lesser extent, exoplanets. With the intent of hiring an additional three professors in exoplanets (on top of a plasma experimentalist and a quantum condensed matter theorist, to replace retiring profs) the department wishes to open a special unit dedicated to exoplanets, the Institut de Recherche sur les Exoplanètes, whose aim is to regroup all exoplanets expertise in town under one unit.

From the south side of the mountain, the physics department is in the process of setting up the Astrophysics and Space Research Centre, with an outreach coordinator who will be allotted 20% of its work scheduled for astrophysical research, and, likely, additional astrophysics faculty (astrophysical disciplines yet to be disclosed at this time, although exoplanets are likely to show up as well). Then again, from their side, they could use their new hires to diversify their astrophysical portfolio, even if it meant fighting for observation time at Mount Megantic, the instrument jointly operated by all physics departments in Quebec, aside from the other instruments (Hubble, CFHT, VLA, et al).

Who knows… maybe the astrophysical landscape in Quebec and, by extension, in Canada, will be vastly changed in the years, or even decades, to come.

Qualifying exams

Although I am not in position to talk about what qualifying exams really feel like, I can tell you that the quals are a major milestone towards a PhD. Not only that, but most quals formats can fall into two categories: comprehensive exams about everything you learned prior or the defense of a research prospectus. Both formats can be quite terrifying. There are those departments where quals can be skipped under certain conditions, however.

  1. Comprehensive exams. There are those departments where the tests cover the basic material (in physics, there is typically one test on classical mechanics and on electromagnetism, one test on quantum mechanics and on statistical mechanics, but sometimes there are other tests sprinkled in as well) where the objective is to know whether one actually knows the material required to move on to the dissertation. Example department using this format: University of North Carolina physics and astronomy
  2. Research prospectus defense. Here one has to do a literature review of one’s intended dissertation research, as well as to identify a working hypothesis and the aims of the research. The objective is therefore to assess the familiarity of the student with the research in the field, and its knowledge thereof. Example department using this format: Vanderbilt physics and astronomy
  3. Quals with conditional waivers. Departments where one can, in whole or in part, waive quals under certain conditions. Take Tufts’ physics and astronomy department, for example. One can waive one of the tests if the grade in the corresponding course(s) is A- or better.
  4. No quals at all. This might surprise you but there is that rare department where there are no quals at all. Starting in 2014, the University of Chicago physics department decided to phase out the quals.

Addendum: Here’s a quote pertaining to the University of Chicago physics department choosing to phase out the quals from a current University of Chicago physics PhD student that prefers not to be named:

Starting in 2014, the candidacy exam in the University of Chicago physics PhD program is pretty much cancelled. Instead, you take a placement exam upon arriving, and then a counseling committee decides which courses you need to take, based on your performance. You are qualified once you pass the courses they tell you to take.
Apparently, the faculty wishes to make the qualifying process less stressful by this new system.

And, unless phasing out the quals is also something the astronomy department will do in the near future (due to some administrative action), it looks like its astronomy department students go through what amount to three dissertation defenses, each of which are increasing in scope. And the first two defenses would, together, comprise the equivalent of quals.

Online resources beware!

Undoubtedly some people that want to earn a PhD have some use for some of the following resources:

These websites have their uses, but many users of these websites are quite neurotic, and their users tend to be among the better candidates. That is not to say that lesser applicants can’t find any use for them, even if they had to live with non-elite programs; just that most people willing to post their profiles are much better than average.

So please take in account that the profiles posted are skewed towards the upper end, and pay attention to any observation bias caused by these tendencies if you elect to use these resources.

A warning to high schoolers

Although most posts I previously wrote were related to the application process for graduate school, this time around I am talking about how to shop for an undergraduate education with a major in mind, It’s perfectly understandable that one might want to shop a college with a major in mind, provided one’s credentials and budget are accounted for. And one may very well be tempted to shop for an undergraduate education with a graduate guide. Again, I can understand why one would even do so, but, in my opinion, graduate guides are good gauges for only one aspect of undergraduate education: research internships.

There are schools who, without question, do a great job of educating both undergraduates and graduate students in a given field (my undergrad is one as far as physics is concerned), and others who do neither. But, quite often, there is a tradeoff being made: often, at research-intensive departments, the professors will be more preoccupied by research, they won’t put much thought into their teaching, even though many faculty teaching contracts have some stipulation that, in non-sabbatical years, they have to teach undergraduates. And, especially in the natural sciences and in engineering, undergraduate teaching labs may not stack up against research labs.

One could say that such a discrepancy between graduate and undergraduate isn’t usually so great because the professors know their subject matter (and said professors are the same for everyone), because the library collections are accessible to every student. Humanities and social sciences are usually not fields where discrepancies between undergraduate and graduate education are considered as either common or large.

So, in essence, if it’s possible for you to check whether undergraduates seem to get a great education or not, consider doing it prior to application; if a college requires a “Why X” essay, then you may use the contents of your communications with students.

Academia: the types of environments

Many PhD hopefuls want to earn a PhD so that they can, long-term, teach in a university. That’s perfectly understandable, but I have heard so many PhD hopefuls/students that aspire to work in academia that they preferred to teach in departments with graduate programs. I am going to go against the current and say that I would rather teach at a physics department without a graduate program. And many undergraduates who eye graduate school actually study at departments offering graduate degrees as well. Let’s say that I never heard about liberal arts colleges until late in undergrad (Middlebury was the first one I ever heard about, and then Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore) or full-fledged universities (the definition of a university I personally use is: an institution of higher education offering at least one graduate program, conferring at least one advanced degree yearly) whose physics (and sometimes astronomy as well) department does not offer a graduate degree.

I learned about the latter during my advanced statistical mechanics class. The professor didn’t stop lecturing about the statistical mechanics phenomena observed in white dwarves, and white dwarves in general; I can’t blame him because he is one of the leading white dwarf scholars in the world. He mentioned the Villanova White Dwarf Catalog, named after an astronomy department that did not offer a graduate degree. Yet Villanova is one of the foremost schools in the US for white dwarf research, second only to the University of Texas at Austin. But how most departments that still somehow maintain some research activity manage to do so despite the lack of graduate students are, in fact, doing it with a copious amount of summer internships (by the standards of such departments, budget permitting) or with senior theses. In fact, a combination of both is likely in use at Villanova (not in particular but I suspect Villanova is representative of what happens at that sort of schools).


 

Schools with graduate programs:

Pros:

  • You can perform research year-round on projects whose scale and scope is larger than at non-graduate departments
  • You can train graduate students
  • Your teaching load is lighter and you have the opportunity to teach advanced coursework

Cons

  • You are expected to publish and to win research grants
  • The responsibilities of labs and graduate students are actually quite heavy and you have to deal with them year-round
  • The temptation is very great to favor graduate students over undergraduates

Schools without graduate programs:

Pros:

  • You are not expected to pursue grants and publications as intensely
  • You don’t have to deal with the stress of dealing with research students year-round (or at least it takes less room, and it goes without saying that lab responsibilities go hand-in-hand)
  • You have more freedom to choose research topics provided the research can be conducted without the need for large budgets (especially appealing for theorists)

Cons:

  • Your teaching load is heavier
  • You may not be able to contribute to research as much
  • You may not be able to teach advanced coursework as you would have liked to

Nevertheless, regardless of whether one teaches at a department with or without graduate programs, a faculty job at the university level is highly stressful.

 

The past lightcone, part 2

I would describe my undergraduate department as follows: it is long on astrophysics and, to a lesser extent, condensed matter and plasma, and, as far as particle physics is concerned, it is more of an experimental school. So my dear particle cosmology is contained in a rather small group of particle physics theorists. As an undergraduate program, one has three programs to choose from and the vast majority of the students are enrolled in one of the two honors programs, physics honors (more popular among experimentalists) and physics-mathematics joint honors (more popular among theorists) but the third choice, which is a physics and computer science joint-honors degree, is much less common than the other two. Virtually no one minored in physics unless one was placed on probation, hence the minor being used as a second chance to earn a physics degree. And, as far as quality is concerned, it’s one of the best undergraduate physics programs I’ve seen in my lifetime; it’s a very demanding program, as one would expect from a honors physics curriculum.

But, due to its particular context, my undergrad is, simply put, the most consanguine physics department in the world at that level of physical reputation. Here consanguinity means that students tend to stay at that school from a degree to another, which, from my viewpoint, is not the best move, unless one is industry-bound.