3rd Year Student Gauging Potential

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YodaT
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3rd Year Student Gauging Potential

Postby YodaT » Tue Dec 07, 2010 6:40 am

Hello, I'm posting this because I am just finishing my fifth semester as a physics major and am gauging my potential for graduate school. I believe I am at the right stage to consider if graduate school is "right" for me. I know this is an issue that should concern my academic adviser, but recently he has been preoccupied.

First of all I'd like to share a little background, you can skip this section if you'd like (this is to sort of show you where I'm coming from). I began college not knowing what to do with my life. I was recovering from two surgeries (from my senior year in high school) with a few years of untreated depression. High school was fine; 4.0 gpa, perfect scores on the math section of the ACT, nationally recognized scholarships awarded, and college courses under my belt, etc... but I went to 3 high schools (transferred 4 times) and actually didn't apply to colleges until December/January of my senior year. In reality I was trailer trash, told to drop out of school my 2nd year, with a father recovered from alcoholism. I'm sure all this has had an impact on my self-image and outlook on my future. So, I went to a second-rate college... because a high school counselor (after knowing her for ~2 weeks) told me to. Also, I'm an underrepresented minority (one of the rarest in physics: Native American), first-generation, and low-income (none of this I mention in any of my applications).

For college, I started as an undecided and took random engineering/computer science/math courses... to gain experience because I thought I was gonna drop out my first year (like I said I have horrible self-image). I did well, so I thought I was worth something and did something daring. I applied to a top-university that had less than a %2 acceptance rate for transfer students. I was wait-listed. I didn't go and I decided to just switch my major to physics (I have no idea why). The next year I got transfer acceptance to some top-universities (acceptance rates of %10 this time), but didn't go... I was concerned about my minority status. Basically, I thought I would not be taken seriously at those schools, because of who I was.

In physics, I did ok my first year with an average of B's and A's... I completed the first two years of physics that year, but was hit hard the next semester with life-threatening complications with my heart (pulled some C's). So, I slowed down and decided to just work with the full 4-year program for my physics degree (which would make 5 total years for an undergraduate degree for me). I did an internship that summer at a well-known program as a math tutor and took the math major sequence of analysis and advanced calculus at that school. I returned to school that fall and pulled a 4.0 in all my courses (it was a heavy load with 3 math courses and junior classical mech). I also started research on a theory project that I'm still on. The problem with that semester is that I went through heart surgery in November... how I pulled a 4.0 after ditching on classes during Thanksgiving is beyond me, but the next semester wasn't so great. In mid-January, after returning to school with a hole in my chest, I finished finals from the semester before and took a heavy load. Pain killers and hours of bandage changing takes a toll, so I got a some C's that semester again. But, I was able to get into a great REU program and worked with a well-known (famous) theorist, at top-ranked university.

I brought that REU project home (working at it tediously and am still communicating with that well-known theorist to hopefully publish) and working at a publication from my first project (I went to a conference this summer and will go to another one this spring). My projected grades from this semester are "ok". I expect, after this semester, a 3.85-3.9 GPA on all upper-level physics courses (does "Astrophysics" and "Planetary Science" count as an upper-level course, as in the same category as classical I/II, e&m, quantum, etc?). For physics classes next semester I have e&m II, quantum I, thermo & stat mech (all of which I expect an A... thus, a projected 3.9-3.95 GPA for upper-level courses).

Things worthy to mention are that I did a GR/E&M project at that REU (I never even took an e&m or GR course prior to that project), I hold multiple leadership positions (SPS president, Sigma Pi Sigma VP), can now speak 3 languages, and have entered art contests (receiving awards in some). I'm also a math minor and computer science minor (never owned a computer until 3-4 years ago). Also, my institute does not have a graduate program... so, I really can't take courses in CFT or QFT.

Some graduate schools I've thought about are as follows; University of Arizona, University of Maryland-College Park, Indiana University, California Institute of Technology, University of Washington, University of Chicago, Arizona State University, and Stanford University. Are these good, and realistic, choices to aim for? I fear that me not being that "ideal" physics student hinders my prospects. I don't even know what I'm doing or why I'm even doing all this, too. Physics was never my intention... I never even thought graduate school was a possibility 2-3 years ago. I feel I enjoy physics for the wrong reasons. I enjoy the images I see in my head when I look at a problem... I don't think about the physics or significance of the physical problem. I just build an image in my head and the math just flows afterward. I do a lot of artwork... I draw people, fractal images (by hand), and just sketch things I see on a day-to-day basis. I don't look up the latest trends in physics or technology, I don't disassemble radios or play with mat-lab, and I don't get involved in physics conversations... hell, I don't even read much into xkcd, haha. I don't see my family, I talk to classmates for about 1-2 hours a day, and spend a lot of time alone... well reading pointless things like philosophy, novels, maybe a Dover book, and dabble with my research. This seems, to me, a bit of an oddity and not an ideal student. So, I feel like I'm not fit for graduate school and I'm not even sure if I should apply. I know many people say this is something I should "love", but I don't "love" it. Sure I enjoy theoretical problems in chaos theory, toying with calculus of variations, general relativity, and field theory, but this is what I do as a past time... I don't want to be ordered around as a graduate student. Plus, a promising job doesn't interest me at all... I don't mind going back where I came from.

vttd
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Re: 3rd Year Student Gauging Potential

Postby vttd » Tue Dec 07, 2010 11:21 am

I think the most important factor is whether or not you would enjoy grad school. Many people have told me that graduate school is no walk in the park. Most of your time is spent trying to get something (whether that is an experiment or theory) to work and failing. You have to want to do the work and be willing to invest most of your time working on projects that do not have immediate results (years). If you really love doing it, then I'd say there's no question, you belong in graduate school. If you're still hesitant then perhaps you can speak with professors (they all went to graduate school) and even contact graduate students at other universities. If you are concerned about being told what to do, well you will face that in any job you have. Just go with your passion. I wouldn't worry too much about being alone most of the time. It seems to me that every physicist is quirky in some way, just know that collaboration is a big part of the field and that you will have to interact with others. I think you have a strong application (pending knowing your GRE scores, note that those are pretty important...I know because I had awful scores and failed to get anywhere last year). You may want to consider some UCs because they would look rather highly on your personal background and have some very strong programs. But take my comments with a grain of salt, I can only give advice given my history and contact with people in the field and it is a bit difficult to see how competitive your application is without all the information.

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YodaT
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Re: 3rd Year Student Gauging Potential

Postby YodaT » Sun Dec 12, 2010 3:55 am

Yeah, I tried talking with graduate students that were a part of this theory group at a school I did an REU program at. They were pure geniuses (given it was a top 5 school in the field), but sadly the only person I bonded with was the only undergraduate there... the grad students were pretty much overly cocky and that annoys me. Lets see how REU programs go this summer...

I'm pretty sure the only thing that will separate me from the rest is the PGRE... I have to run through several practice tests soon. The General GRE was ok. I did a practice General GRE test with a guy that use to grade the GRE (it was part of a scholar's program), and I did pretty well (being it was my first time looking at the thing). I got the following: Quantitative: 720, Verbal: 470, Writing: 5. I have to work on verbal (English was a my second language). My plan is to get Q up to an 800, V up to a 650, and W up to a 5.5 by spring break and early May. For my GPA, here is what it comes down to

Overall: 3.46, Major: 3.5, Upper-Level: 3.7.

I'm counting elective courses like Planetary Science and Astrophysics in my upper-level GPA (both of which are the only courses I got B's in for upper-level)... if I don't count those then upper-level GPA is a 4.0. I still have Quantum I, E&M II, and Thermo. & Stat. Mech. next semester... A's in those would knock me up to possibly a 3.8 for upper-level (counting those elective courses) and 3.65 for major GPA. Oh geez, my record looks pretty tarnished by now, haha. I really should work at publishing from my research. At this rate I might as well pop CalTech off my list and maybe put UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara in its place.

laser
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Re: 3rd Year Student Gauging Potential

Postby laser » Sun Dec 12, 2010 5:42 am

You seem to have such a different perspective/attitude/style than others, which means that you might . I'm supposing that would carry over into grad school. Like you might find that your experience is different from others, with regards to the "no walk in the park" and really wanting this aspects. I'm guessing the question to ask yourself is would you be happier going back to where you came from, or would you be happier trying your hand at grad school? I wonder which subfields exactly would appeal to such a visual thinker?

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YodaT
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Re: 3rd Year Student Gauging Potential

Postby YodaT » Sun Dec 12, 2010 9:21 am

I guess the most logical approach would be to "try" out grad school... but then again there's so much out there. I could go back to where I came from and live out my life (be happy and do community service). I could spend the next two years working on my artwork, perhaps concentrate on these animations I'm planning to construct, and build a portfolio for graphic designs and art. There's always teaching at a high school. I just fear these thoughts I now have won't be around for another 5 years... think about your thoughts, will you be thinking this way in 10 years? Its like we're at our prime moments of our lives... never will we be here again, yet we're wasting it on menial tasks. The only thing interesting me in grad school is research... to me it seems so current and exciting. Like you don't know what will happen next. Then again there are hundreds of people just like me... many of them far more qualified to do this work. It comes down to, will it be worth it? Sure its fun, but why not let the more qualified and enthused people do this stuff. They see the significance... I just see a brain tickling problem and a picture.

For a "visual" thinker (I guess that would be my classification, but I can't speak for everyone in my shoes), I find any subject that contains some form of geometrical structure to it. Vector & tensor analysis/calculus, differential geometry, and calculus of variations are my favorites (same goes for topology). For physics it would be classical mechanics (Goldstein and Landau & Lifshitz are by far my favorite authors), general relativity (Carroll's and Weinberg's book are good... Wald's is a little too much for me at the moment), relativity theory in general (only book I found interesting was AP French's book), and any aspects of classical E&M (I actually despise Griffiths book, but an old book written by Panofsky and Phillips is amazing). Basically pick up a copy of Classical Field Theory by Landau and Lifshitz... you found my arena. I adore Landau and Lifshitz... the way they describe everything just puts everything in perspective... it makes me feel the way I once did when I first read "The Elements" by Euclid. All of it has a structure and is basically an imaginative playground. I've had a recent obsession is chaos theory, particularly the bifurcation maps, Poincare maps, and especially the fractal images that arise. To answer your question, those sub-fields appeal to a visual thinker, like myself.

I don't really enjoy anything in astrophysics, astronomy, or all this talk about dark energy, dark matter, and cosmology (only thing intriguing about applied physics is MHD, magnetic fields of planets, and some few topics in geophysics). I cannot stand a lab and would not enjoy anything with material science or all this babble about particle physics. My problem with first year courses was that (literally) they were just too two dimensional. There was no formalism, no fundamental derivation of it all.

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zxcv
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Re: 3rd Year Student Gauging Potential

Postby zxcv » Sat Dec 18, 2010 7:08 am

I think you have excellent chances for getting into a top grad school IF you work your ass off for the next year. Start studying for the physics GRE at least three months ahead of time so you have time to prepare, do research over the summer and put in the effort to wow your research adviser. The letters of recommendation from research advisers describing your ability to independently direct and make progress on a research problem is what will impress admissions committees that you have what it takes to succeed in grad school. Publications are wonderful of course, but not necessary -- your advisers can testify to your research skills.

Whether grad school is the right choice for you is a more difficult and personal matter. Your fear of being ordered around as a grad student is actually the exact opposite experience of almost every grad student I know. Typically, the biggest challenge of being a grad student is that nobody tells you what to do. If you don't have a research adviser yet, it is possible to fall through the cracks at most programs for years -- until you fall flat on your face by running out of funding or failing a qualifying exam. Once you have a research adviser, he or she will give you feedback when you ask for it, but most are awful taskmasters.

Your motivation needs to come from within. It doesn't need to be "love" but it needs to be something that can still drive you forward after two projects in a row nose-dive and you feel that you just wasted the past 8 months of your life. Keep in mind that 90% of graduate school is research, when the rewards are few and far between.

In my opinion, most successful scientists succeed because when they're doing research, they're thinking about it all the time. Is that you? The time they spend reading physics jokes is entirely irrelevant.

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YodaT
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Re: 3rd Year Student Gauging Potential

Postby YodaT » Sat Dec 18, 2010 12:40 pm

zxcv wrote:I think you have excellent chances for getting into a top grad school IF you work your ass off for the next year. Start studying for the physics GRE at least three months ahead of time so you have time to prepare, do research over the summer and put in the effort to wow your research adviser. The letters of recommendation from research advisers describing your ability to independently direct and make progress on a research problem is what will impress admissions committees that you have what it takes to succeed in grad school. Publications are wonderful of course, but not necessary -- your advisers can testify to your research skills.

Whether grad school is the right choice for you is a more difficult and personal matter. Your fear of being ordered around as a grad student is actually the exact opposite experience of almost every grad student I know. Typically, the biggest challenge of being a grad student is that nobody tells you what to do. If you don't have a research adviser yet, it is possible to fall through the cracks at most programs for years -- until you fall flat on your face by running out of funding or failing a qualifying exam. Once you have a research adviser, he or she will give you feedback when you ask for it, but most are awful taskmasters.


That certainly gives a different perspective on graduate school. If I do another REU this summer I plan to start at least a month early through background reading and math/physics preparation... but I do believe this summer will have to be ten times what this last summer was. Overall, I plan to take four upper-level physics course this spring, along with a 400-level math course. I only have seven upper-level physics courses left that are required of me, four of them I will take next semester and two next year in the fall. I've narrowed it down to this: if I get a 4.0 this spring, then I'll commit a lot of time in preparing for the physics GRE and applying to graduate school... if not, then I won't waste time and just start looking into promising jobs.

zxcv wrote:Your motivation needs to come from within. It doesn't need to be "love" but it needs to be something that can still drive you forward after two projects in a row nose-dive and you feel that you just wasted the past 8 months of your life. Keep in mind that 90% of graduate school is research, when the rewards are few and far between.

In my opinion, most successful scientists succeed because when they're doing research, they're thinking about it all the time. Is that you? The time they spend reading physics jokes is entirely irrelevant.


That makes graduate school seem pretty interesting. I am a bit obsessive over research I've done (am doing) and I've certainly gotten hits from research. From this summer's research I noticed some interesting effects from a set of equations I derived and I was so fixated on investigating them... after two months of trying to self-teach some material a paper came out on what I was wanting to look into. I felt devastated... I felt like that was my idea and I was too slow and unmotivated enough to commit my time. It was an interesting feeling... never felt anything like it, but I picked myself up. So, in the event I apply to graduate school I've thus far narrowed it to the following list (in order of rank and reputation):

Stanford University
University of Chicago
University of Maryland-College Park
Rice University
University of Arizona
Indiana University
Arizona State University

My interests are concerned with relativity theory (special and general), electrodynamics (mathematical formalism), nonlinear dynamics and chaos (theoretical and mathematical), and magnetohydrodynamics/plasma physics (theoretical and mathematical). I'm also looking into computational and numerical fields of all the just mentioned areas of interest. Realistically (if doing well next semester and score high on the PGRE) I'm looking at UMD-College Park or Rice University.




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