Top Schools Reality Check

kroner
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Top Schools Reality Check

Postby kroner » Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:33 am

I was wondering if anyone could help me gauge what level of school I have a shot of getting into, particularly if I have a chance at getting into a top school, because I really don't have a clue.

I graduated in 2008 from an ivy league with a very good reputation in math and physics, majoring in pure math (and a minor in CS for whatever that's worth). My GPA and math GPA are only about 3.4, but I tried to be ambitious in the courses I took. I focused mainly on algebra, as well as some analysis, but I didn't take much physics (I stopped just before QM). In the intervening year I've had a change of heart and have decided that theoretical physics is what I really want to be doing. I'm particularly interested in string theory, and I'm hoping my algebra background will be a boon. During that time I've been studying QM on my own and I'll finally get into the thick of GR and hopefully QFT once I'm done with studying for the PGRE. I don't have any research experience. By the numbers:
GPA: 3.4
GRE math: 800 (94%)
GRE verbal: 710 (98%)
GRE writing: 4.5 (54%)
mathematics GRE: 860 (95%)
physics GRE: TBA
I'm shooting for ~900 on the PGRE, so taking that as my hypothetical score, do I have any shot at getting into one of the top schools, like MIT, Cornell, Stanford, etc? Should I bother?

How about these:
UC-Santa Barbara
Columbia
UT-Austin
UC-SD
USC
SUNY-Stony Brook
Rutgers

Does that seem like a good range? Too wide, too narrow? What on that list (if any) is at a reasonable level? This is still very much a work in progress and everything on it is subject to change. If anyone has any other suggestions for schools to look into that have good programs for string theory, or can direct me toward any good resources for finding schools like that, I'd very much appreciate it. Thanks for your help.

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twistor
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Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby twistor » Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:44 am

Don't take this the wrong way, but if you only got a 800 on the math GRE after majoring in math, what makes you think you can pull a 900 on the physics GRE?

kroner
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Joined: Fri Sep 25, 2009 1:58 am

Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby kroner » Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:53 am

It's really a different game. 860 on math is 95th percentile (or at least that was the case when I took it), which seems to be around 950 on physics. Not to mention there's nothing on the math GRE I didn't learn in high school, so there wasn't really much benefit to majoring in math on that front.

But the estimate is based on taking PGRE practice exams. We'll see how it plays out in a couple weeks, but I'm just asking that that be used as a hypothetical.
Last edited by kroner on Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:55 am, edited 1 time in total.

physics_auth
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Joined: Sat Jul 18, 2009 7:24 pm

Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby physics_auth » Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:55 am

kroner wrote:I was wondering if anyone could help me gauge what level of school I have a shot of getting into, particularly if I have a chance at getting into a top school, because I really don't have a clue.

I graduated in 2008 from an ivy league with a very good reputation in math and physics, majoring in pure math (and a minor in CS for whatever that's worth). My GPA and math GPA are only about 3.4, but I tried to be ambitious in the courses I took. I focused mainly on algebra, as well as some analysis, but I didn't take much physics (I stopped just before QM). In the intervening year I've had a change of heart and have decided that theoretical physics is what I really want to be doing. I'm particularly interested in string theory, and I'm hoping my algebra background will be a boon. During that time I've been studying QM on my own and I'll finally get into the thick of GR and hopefully QFT once I'm done with studying for the PGRE. I don't have any research experience. By the numbers:
GPA: 3.4
GRE math: 800 (94%)
GRE verbal: 710 (98%)
GRE writing: 4.5 (54%)
mathematics GRE: 860 (95%)
physics GRE: TBA
I'm shooting for ~900 on the PGRE, so taking that as my hypothetical score, do I have any shot at getting into one of the top schools, like MIT, Cornell, Stanford, etc? Should I bother?

How about these:
UC-Santa Barbara
Columbia
UT-Austin
UC-SD
USC
SUNY-Stony Brook
Rutgers

Does that seem like a good range? Too wide, too narrow? What on that list (if any) is at a reasonable level? This is still very much a work in progress and everything on it is subject to change. If anyone has any other suggestions for schools to look into that have good programs for string theory, or can direct me toward any good resources for finding schools like that, I'd very much appreciate it. Thanks for your help.


Did you carefully search if all these schools in your list are specialized in string theory? Or you made a list with top schools due their good reputation only? Finally, turning from pure maths to physics is more difficult compared to turning from engineering to physics. What about optics? Statistical physics? Atomic physics? Nuclear physics? And a 900 score is not that easy to achieve as it may implied in some posts in this site ... .

kroner
Posts: 218
Joined: Fri Sep 25, 2009 1:58 am

Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby kroner » Fri Sep 25, 2009 4:31 am

I was talking to someone at the physics department at my school to get some guidance on this, and some of the schools on my list are there because she recommended them based on my background. They're ones that have someone there she knows of that does good work in mathematical physics or string theory. Some of the others are there because research I've done has shown they have some notable people working on string theory. But I'm sure there are a lot of other possibilities out there, and some or all of these may prove not to be the best options. That's why I'm soliciting advice here on broadening my search.

I'm also trying to get a gauge on how strong my application is, and what tier of school I have a shot of getting into.

physics_auth
Posts: 160
Joined: Sat Jul 18, 2009 7:24 pm

Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby physics_auth » Fri Sep 25, 2009 5:43 am

kroner wrote:I was talking to someone at the physics department at my school to get some guidance on this, and some of the schools on my list are there because she recommended them based on my background. They're ones that have someone there she knows of that does good work in mathematical physics or string theory. Some of the others are there because research I've done has shown they have some notable people working on string theory. But I'm sure there are a lot of other possibilities out there, and some or all of these may prove not to be the best options. That's why I'm soliciting advice here on broadening my search.

I'm also trying to get a gauge on how strong my application is, and what tier of school I have a shot of getting into.


Ok, then. I am of the opinion that since you want to follow mathematical physics, maybe Math GRE subject test suffices (because you have a good score there as you said). However, you had better rely on more than one opinions ... to find out what schools are good for you to apply. Ah ... and string theory may not be a promising branch to follow. I hear many mysterious things about this branch (about its success, how difficult is to find a job etc.)

Mataka
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Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby Mataka » Fri Sep 25, 2009 9:58 am

The weakest point of your application is the absence of research experience. To my opinion, this is actually a deal breaker. I would recommend to do a master's degree first, to gain some research experience in physics and hopefully publish a paper. This will make your application much stronger and it could give you a very good chance of getting into top schools.

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WhoaNonstop
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Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby WhoaNonstop » Fri Sep 25, 2009 11:01 am

twistor wrote:Don't take this the wrong way, but if you only got a 800 on the math GRE after majoring in math, what makes you think you can pull a 900 on the physics GRE?


I tend to agree with Twistor on this one. It seems that an 860 on the math GRE is very nice. However, even though there are many similarities between Physics and Math, I'm sure they are quite different. I'm not saying that you can't attain a 900 on the Physics GRE, I'm sure you are very capable of this. However, I would shoot through a practice test once and see reallistically where you stand. Especially if you haven't taken Quantum Mechanics, which is 20% of the test, makes it pretty hard to break 900. (I'm in the same position on the Quantum Mechanics. My school doesn't offer it until the next semester, my last semester, and therefore I have had to start studying it alone.) I seriously suggest if you want to get a 900, it's not going to be a walk in the park and you should start working your *** off now.

-Riley

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grae313
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Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby grae313 » Fri Sep 25, 2009 1:50 pm

I think you guys are being a bit ridiculous. His test scores are great, 95th percentile on the math GRE is a very good score, he owned the general GRE, and if he's self-studied through GR and QFT before grad school he seems like a strong theory candidate to me except for the lack of theoretical research, which is pretty tough to get anyways. Phys_auth, he wants to go into physics theory, for which a math background is much preferable to an engineering background. He doesn't want to do optics or nuclear physics or atomic physics, he wants to do theory. Why suggest to him experimental physics fields that would be better with an engineering background when he has a math background and wants to do mathematical physics? All good PhD programs are going to require the physics GRE, so no, his math GRE score will not suffice.

Kroner: just take one of the 4 available previously administered PGRE practice tests and see how you do. If you are close enough to 900 that you could realistically obtain this score or higher with a few weeks of studying (say, within 50 points or so) than I think you can definitely get into some decent programs, though top 10 might be a bit of a stretch. You may have a shot though. If you are really dead set on a top 10, I agree that you should consider spending a year doing some research and maybe try some graduate physics courses if you think you're at that level in your physics background. If not you need to be ready for grad physics by the time you apply so consider taking undergrad classes to fill in your knowledge gaps. You need people who can write you letters of recommendation that can speak towards your abilities in physics and physics research. This is what grad schools are looking for, and you'll need to really convince the admissions committees that you will excel in a research setting to get into top programs.

If you haven't found it yet, locate the two stickied profile threads on this forum. There is a ton of data there and it should be very useful to you.

physics_auth
Posts: 160
Joined: Sat Jul 18, 2009 7:24 pm

Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby physics_auth » Fri Sep 25, 2009 3:23 pm

grae313 wrote:I think you guys are being a bit ridiculous. His test scores are great, 95th percentile on the math GRE is a very good score, he owned the general GRE, and if he's self-studied through GR and QFT before grad school he seems like a strong theory candidate to me except for the lack of theoretical research, which is pretty tough to get anyways. Phys_auth, he wants to go into physics theory, for which a math background is much preferable to an engineering background. He doesn't want to do optics or nuclear physics or atomic physics, he wants to do theory. Why suggest to him experimental physics fields that would be better with an engineering background when he has a math background and wants to do mathematical physics? All good PhD programs are going to require the physics GRE, so no, his math GRE score will not suffice.


I refer to them because they are included in the stuff one needs to read for the physics GRE test. Only for this reason. However, I believe that if one is interested in mathematical physics then a good math GRE may suffice. (...and it may be possible to turn to theoretical physics through a math school since theoretical physics is loaded with mathematics, see cosmology for example.). As for the engineering or math background -> i mean that it is easier for an engineer to hit a high score in the physics GRE rather than a pure mathematician. The philosophy behind the way mathematicians tend to think is rather different as compared to the philosophy of the way of thinking of a phycisist ... and the relative backgrounds are rather different of course.

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grae313
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Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby grae313 » Fri Sep 25, 2009 5:28 pm

OK, I see what you're saying now, I thought you were advising him to go into one of those fields... However if he wants to be in a top 20 physics PhD program, he has to take the PGRE. It's grad school requirements and it's not waived except for the rarest of exceptions. If he wants to pursue theoretical physics through a math PhD program, that's a different story and a different forum.

Note that he's had physics courses up to QM and is self-studying QM and is quite possibly very smart. If he was really good in his physics classes there's no reason why an intelligent and motivated individual under his circumstances couldn't get a good score on the PGRE.

Kroner, keep in mind that a great score on the GPRE is not enough to get you into a top program. You'll have to demonstrate exemplary knowledge of, interest in, and aptitude for advanced physics especially in a way that points towards your potential for independent research. Acing the PGRE shows that you have excellent knowledge of lower division undergraduate physics, but doesn't necessarily show that you know physics at the level necessary for graduate classes, or that you are dedicated or hard working or will succeed in a self-directed research environment. You need people to write your letters of recommendation that will rave about you and you'll have to convince people that you are committed and prepared. This is tough to do without a record of physics courses in the standard curriculum but not impossible. It's tough to do without physics research but possible. However, I'm not sure if it's possible to do it lacking BOTH courses and research. Not for a top 10 anyway.

I think you have a fair coinflip of a shot at top 20 - 40 institutions assuming you get 900+ on the physics GRE and perhaps find a professor willing to mentor your self-studies in advanced physics who can write you a letter of recommendation in support of your abilities.

kroner
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Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby kroner » Sun Oct 04, 2009 3:10 am

Thanks for all the opinions.

Sorry, I didn't mean to give the impression that I hadn't looked at the PGRE yet. I've been studying for the test for the past month or so, and I think I'm in a good position. The last full sample test I took a few days ago (9277) I got 930 under test conditions. Hopefully that's not anomalously high, but I'll know for sure when I take it for real in a week. I'm out of practice exams to take now :(

I'm not set on a top 10 school. What I was really asking regarding them is if it's even worth my time to apply to any of them. I would be happy with top 50, basically as long as it's somewhere decently respected and doing work that I would enjoying being involved in. I still need to do a lot more research on exactly what programs those might be.

I'm not really sure what I could do in terms of finding someone to vouch for the studying I've done on my own. I'm not in school right now, and application deadlines are only a couple months away. Any ideas? The same goes for research experience. For pursuing mathematical physics and coming from a math background, would it make more sense to approach that by applying to math programs? Math professors doing physics seems like a pretty small niche.

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grae313
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Re: Top Schools Reality Check

Postby grae313 » Mon Oct 05, 2009 12:47 am

If you aren't set up on top schools, then why not just go ahead and apply and see what happens? If you don't get accepted you have a year to get some research experience or audit a few grad courses and then I think you'd be in excellent shape. In the long run you're not going to worry about the money, just apply.




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