Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

muke
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Joined: Mon Nov 02, 2015 1:26 am

Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby muke » Fri Nov 06, 2015 6:54 am

Hi, all.

I am applying for a phd slot in the US this semester, but I feel hard to determine the subfield I want to pursue. I quite like those GR stuff in my undergraduate courses and I find on arXiv that the articles I am most interested in are from astrophysics, gr-qc and hep-th. I understand this as one can use the same theory to solve different questions in different subfields. Since the thing that interests me is the underpinning theory, I think I am able to find my interest in any of those subfields. Now I have four possible choices to apply to gradschool:

1. astrophysics in dept. of astronomy.
2. astrophysics in dept. of physics.
3. astrophysics in an ajoint dept.
4. hep-th in dept. of physics.

Here is the question: I am an international applicant in an unknown undergraduate program with no publications, so I think applying to hep-th would be unwise. As for the first 2 choices, I searched the website of many gradschools and found astrophysics(together with some profs) is often listed in both departments. I have heard that dept. of astronomy is not well funded, but I also heard that astronomy is less competitive. So should I apply to an astronomy program or a physics program? Or mainly focus on some ajoint depts. Which one do you think I will have a statistically better chance to get in a program?

I appreciate your insight!

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby TakeruK » Fri Nov 06, 2015 12:20 pm

As you pointed out, you're choosing a subfield that is often "in between" astronomy and physics programs. So, at some schools, you'll find the program in physics, while at others, it will be in astronomy, and in a few rare cases, it would be its own separate program. I think the right answer as to which program to apply to would depend on each school. I had a similar issue since Planetary Science (subfield: exoplanets) programs are often in astronomy but are also often in the earth sciences.

Here's what I would do to determine which program to apply to:
1. Determine the professors you want to work with. Find out where their offices are. Apply to the program that would put you in the same building as these professors. (Or, find out who their students are and do the same).
2. Look at the degree requirements. Apply to the program whose degree requirements line up with your own desires and interests more. For example, as an exoplanet scientist, I preferred the earth science programs where my courses would be in planetary physics (e.g. atmospheres, interior thermodynamics etc.) rather than things like cosmology or galactic astronomy (as I would have to take if I were in Astronomy).
3. Email the professors you are interested in and ask their advice. (When I did this, I got the first two pieces of advice here).

As for chances for admissions, I think doing the following would help you the most, as an international student:
A. Apply to schools/programs that have the best fit for you. At some places, you might fit in really well in one department or another.
B. Understand that public schools are very hard for international students to get into, especially the University of California schools. Apply to a large number of private schools as well.
C. If you are worried about the department having funding for you (especially as an international student), feel free to talk to professors about this issue. Also, look at the department graduate student rosters and see if there is a big difference in the fraction of international students in physics vs. astronomy. But, try to keep it to the same subfields....some parts of physics may be much better funded than astronomy, but hep-th (and most theory subfields) tend to be not as well funded anyways.

muke
Posts: 20
Joined: Mon Nov 02, 2015 1:26 am

Re: Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby muke » Tue Nov 10, 2015 5:01 am

TakeruK wrote:1. Determine the professors you want to work with. Find out where their offices are. Apply to the program that would put you in the same building as these professors. (Or, find out who their students are and do the same).

Thanks TakeruK for your reply. Your first point is really insightful which I have never taken into consideration before.

TakeruK wrote:3. Email the professors you are interested in and ask their advice. (When I did this, I got the first two pieces of advice here).


As to emailing a professor, I have learnt a lot from your earlier posts but here is a question that I didn't see in this forum:

Is it okay to let the prof know that he is not the only one I am emailing? I mean right after I ask if he is taking new students next year, is it appropriate to write something like "I have found five faculty[*] in his university working on topics[*] that I am interested in. Your information will be very helpful for me to determine if I will have enough options at his university that fit my interests. "

[*]If it is appropriate, should I say which five?
[*]These are actually 3 different topics.

I am explaining this because I don't want him to feel he is making some commitment to take me as a grad student, and I don't want him to feel he was spammed if he somehow knows I am emailing other profs in the same department. But will it make him think that I have no idea what to do in the grad school or think that he is just one of the mass produced spam targets?


TakeruK wrote:B. Understand that public schools are very hard for international students to get into, especially the University of California schools. Apply to a large number of private schools as well.

Also, I totally agree with you that UC schools are especially hard to get into for international students. However, I found some strange numbers about international students rate from an AIP survey that I do not understand, for example, stony-brook has 68% international students while Upenn and Columbia has only 15%.
So the question is: I understand we are costing more money than domestic(or in-state) students in public schools, but what might be the reasons that private schools like Upenn and Columbia prefer domestics than Internationals while stony-brook is so generous to us?

bfollinprm
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Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Nov 10, 2015 5:10 pm

In general, astronomy programs spend less time considering the underlying theory, and more time making observations and phenomenological models (we are some way away from understanding most complex astrophysical phenomena from first principles). That's not to say you won't engage with the theory, it's just that you won't spend that much time working on the theories themselves. That's done predominantly in physics programs.

bfollinprm
Posts: 1197
Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Nov 10, 2015 5:10 pm

In general, astronomy programs spend less time considering the underlying theory, and more time making observations and phenomenological models (we are some way away from understanding most complex astrophysical phenomena from first principles). That's not to say you won't engage with the theory, it's just that you won't spend that much time working on the theories themselves. That's done predominantly in physics programs.

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby TakeruK » Tue Nov 10, 2015 10:15 pm

muke wrote:Is it okay to let the prof know that he is not the only one I am emailing? I mean right after I ask if he is taking new students next year, is it appropriate to write something like "I have found five faculty[*] in his university working on topics[*] that I am interested in. Your information will be very helpful for me to determine if I will have enough options at his university that fit my interests. "

[*]If it is appropriate, should I say which five?
[*]These are actually 3 different topics.

I am explaining this because I don't want him to feel he is making some commitment to take me as a grad student, and I don't want him to feel he was spammed if he somehow knows I am emailing other profs in the same department. But will it make him think that I have no idea what to do in the grad school or think that he is just one of the mass produced spam targets?


Yes, it is definitely okay to email more than one prof and it is okay for the prof to know it. However, I would certainly not use the wording you provided here. It sounds so "distant" and reserved that it doesn't sound like you really want to work with that professor at all. I understand that different people have different ways of expressing themselves though, so don't change yourself to "fit in". But, if you are not intending to sound this distant, consider a different approach.

For example, I would keep the wording enthusiastic about the research but neutral about selecting that professor as your advisor. You could say things like "I would like to know if you would be accepting students to work on X next fall". Most professors know they are not making a commitment to you as their student because most departments in the US don't work that way. If you ask questions about your role in potential projects, if you use conditional statements.

You don't have to directly say that you are also emailing other professors. Just don't imply that his research is the only one you want. I think it's safe to assume that you will be emailing others. You can and should avoid making the professor feel like they were spammed by personalizing each message to be specific to their research group and your questions. Assume that they will compare your emails with other profs to see if it sounds like you are saying different things to each professor (they probably won't, but it's a good test). Also, it's likely that someone you emailed might forward your email to their colleague who works on similar topics. You probably also emailed this colleague so if you personalized each email, then the colleague will see that their own email from you is different and not "spammy".

muke wrote:Also, I totally agree with you that UC schools are especially hard to get into for international students. However, I found some strange numbers about international students rate from an AIP survey that I do not understand, for example, stony-brook has 68% international students while Upenn and Columbia has only 15%.
So the question is: I understand we are costing more money than domestic(or in-state) students in public schools, but what might be the reasons that private schools like Upenn and Columbia prefer domestics than Internationals while stony-brook is so generous to us?


I'm curious to see these numbers. Do you have a link?

Some potential issues could be that you must compare relevant numbers (i.e. international graduate students in fully funded PhD programs). Sometimes schools lump undergraduate and non-funded Masters students in too, which will mess up the numbers. And if there are small numbers (e.g. fraction for just one program or one year) then it could be influenced by this.

Even if it's all a fair comparison, I think it's also useful to remember that in any distribution, there could be outliers. Stony Brook might just be a weird case. I think the general trend is still that public schools will admit fewer international graduate students overall. But as you are showing (and I said in point "A"), it's worth it to research your specific schools and find things that will be good "fits" for you (e.g. high international acceptance rate). I wouldn't take a school off a list just because it's public---instead, I'd use the international student rate as one of many factors in deciding which schools to apply to.

muke
Posts: 20
Joined: Mon Nov 02, 2015 1:26 am

Re: Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby muke » Wed Nov 18, 2015 5:28 am

Apologies for replying so late.

bfollinprm wrote:In general, astronomy programs spend less time considering the underlying theory, and more time making observations and phenomenological models (we are some way away from understanding most complex astrophysical phenomena from first principles). That's not to say you won't engage with the theory, it's just that you won't spend that much time working on the theories themselves. That's done predominantly in physics programs.


I notice in some universityies there could be 2-3 professors listed in both departments, and their researches focus more on theory. I do not think they will treat astro students and phys students differently, but personally I would like to take more physics courses like grad level GR and QFT etc.. So am I allowed to take physics courses instead of things like observational astronomy if I get admitted to an astro program?


TakeruK wrote:However, I would certainly not use the wording you provided here. It sounds so "distant" and reserved that it doesn't sound like you really want to work with that professor at all. I understand that different people have different ways of expressing themselves though, so don't change yourself to "fit in". But, if you are not intending to sound this distant, consider a different approach.


Useful advice indeed. I did not even realize my wording was so distant before you pointed it out.

TakeruK wrote:Assume that they will compare your emails with other profs to see if it sounds like you are saying different things to each professor (they probably won't, but it's a good test).


So it is totally okay that, say, I tell professor A I am enthusiastic about gravitational wave while at the same time tell Professor B that I have a keen interest in cosmology? (•ิ_•ิ) I don't know how they will think of me when they find I am telling different things to different profs...

TakeruK wrote:I'm curious to see these numbers. Do you have a link?


It is in the AIP Roster of Physics Departments with Enrollment and Degree Data
https://www.aip.org/sites/default/files ... rost14.pdf

One can also find other years' roster of phys dept here
https://www.aip.org/statistics/rosters/physics

And also astro dept here
https://www.aip.org/statistics/rosters/astronomy

The rosters give the total student number and international student number, I calculated the rate myself.
After I looked through the data of 2010-2014, I found Columbia has about 55% international students on average, so the 15% in 2014 may just be a mistake. However, International students rate in UPenn is constantly around 15%...
I do not know for sure if those numbers are reliable, for example, according to the rosters, NYU has over 70% international students, however, NYU website says explicitly the number should be 45%.
http://physics.as.nyu.edu/object/physic ... issionsFAQ

Another thing I found interesting was International student rates in astro depts are usually lower than phys depts(also calculated from the rosters above).
For example, over the past 5 years, Cornell physics has ~46% international, while Cornell astro has ~1/3 or less. PSU physics has over 50% international, while PSU astro has ~1/4 or less.
I understand that astro programs are usually smaller in size, so statistical fluctuation may play a role here, but it is really hard to find an astro department that has a greater international student rate than the physics department in the same university. Although I am more likely to apply to a physics program, and dont want to rely on those numbers too much to decide where to apply, I am very curious about why astro depts usually have less international students. It may also be helpful for future international applicants who do not know which dept to apply. So any insight on this?

TakeruK
Posts: 813
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby TakeruK » Wed Nov 18, 2015 12:38 pm

muke wrote:
So it is totally okay that, say, I tell professor A I am enthusiastic about gravitational wave while at the same time tell Professor B that I have a keen interest in cosmology? (•ิ_•ิ) I don't know how they will think of me when they find I am telling different things to different profs...



Professors understand that students can have more than one interest. You should not say to Prof A that Gravitational Waves are your #1 favourite topic and then tell Prof B the same thing about Cosmology!

Instead, take a step back and find the underlying theme about your interests and tell people that is your main interest. Then, when talking to each professor, tell them what they are doing is one of your potential interests in the theme.

For example, for me, when I applied, I wrote in my SOP and emails that I was interested in exoplanet research. When speaking with Prof A, who might be working on spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres, I would discuss how I would be interested in potentially working on such a project. Then, when speaking to Prof B, who might be working on detecting exoplanets via imaging, I would discuss how that topic also interests me.

Be sincere though---if you just tell everyone whatever they are doing interests you then you will sound insincere but you would also be hurting yourself (since the goals of these conversations isn't to convince the prof that you want to work with them, but really to test the waters and see if they can actually provide what you want).

But overall, remember that no one expects you to apply to a school solely to work with one single person. It might even hurt you to be this specific because that prof might not have space for you and then you would get rejected even though you would have been happy doing something different. Being sincere and honest in your interests will help everyone the most!


It is in the AIP Roster of Physics Departments with Enrollment and Degree Data
https://www.aip.org/sites/default/files ... rost14.pdf

One can also find other years' roster of phys dept here
https://www.aip.org/statistics/rosters/physics

And also astro dept here
https://www.aip.org/statistics/rosters/astronomy

The rosters give the total student number and international student number, I calculated the rate myself.
After I looked through the data of 2010-2014, I found Columbia has about 55% international students on average, so the 15% in 2014 may just be a mistake. However, International students rate in UPenn is constantly around 15%...
I do not know for sure if those numbers are reliable, for example, according to the rosters, NYU has over 70% international students, however, NYU website says explicitly the number should be 45%.
http://physics.as.nyu.edu/object/physic ... issionsFAQ

Another thing I found interesting was International student rates in astro depts are usually lower than phys depts(also calculated from the rosters above).
For example, over the past 5 years, Cornell physics has ~46% international, while Cornell astro has ~1/3 or less. PSU physics has over 50% international, while PSU astro has ~1/4 or less.
I understand that astro programs are usually smaller in size, so statistical fluctuation may play a role here, but it is really hard to find an astro department that has a greater international student rate than the physics department in the same university. Although I am more likely to apply to a physics program, and dont want to rely on those numbers too much to decide where to apply, I am very curious about why astro depts usually have less international students. It may also be helpful for future international applicants who do not know which dept to apply. So any insight on this?


Cool! I guess one thing the data doesn't show is for schools that offer both PhD and Masters, they don't distinguish Masters and PhD students from the "Graduate Students" category. Unfunded Masters students may inflate the international rate.

In addition to statistical fluctuations, another reason I might guess Astronomy has fewer international students is because Astronomy may not be a "separate" field in many other countries. Even Canada, where it is very similar, Astronomy programs are almost always part of Physics programs and we are usually considered Physics students with a focus on astronomy applications to physics. In other countries, the degree programs may be more physics based than astronomy based.

---

Finally, I noticed you writing something about wanting to avoid observational astronomy classes. In this case, I think you would fit into Physics a lot better. Most astronomy programs will require observational and theory classes for all astronomy students!

muke
Posts: 20
Joined: Mon Nov 02, 2015 1:26 am

Re: Astro or hep-th? Need your advice

Postby muke » Thu Nov 19, 2015 10:43 pm

Thank you TakeruK so much for your advice! :) I feel much less stressed out about emailing professors now!




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