Transition from Military to Physics

MementoMori04
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Joined: Thu Oct 14, 2010 7:54 pm

Transition from Military to Physics

Postby MementoMori04 » Sat Mar 05, 2011 9:23 am

Fellow aspiring physicists,
I, like many of you, am trying to determine what tier of graduate school I should apply to. I graduated with a Bachelor's in physics from West Point a few years ago. For those of you who aren't familiar, after graduating from West Point, you commission as an Army Officer. My service obligation, however, is coming to a close, and I want to get back into physics. I suppose what I am trying to gauge is how my undergraduate education will be viewed by admissions boards. West Point has no graduate schools and no physics-specific reputation, but has a good reputation overall. I had limited opportunities to do research (aside from a month or so I spent at Aberdeen Proving Grounds), and am not published. My letters of recommendation will probably come from other Army Officers (physics professors at USMA). My GPA was around a 3.8/4.0. I haven't taken the PGREs yet, and after not seeing a mathematical symbol for several years, I'm not sure how well I will do. I have some time to study and will make use of it, but it's unlikely that I will blow the test out of the water.
Does anyone have a sense of where I should be applying? I know it will be contingent on my PGRE, but I would like to sort of nail down the ballpark...
Thanks!

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

Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby bfollinprm » Sat Mar 05, 2011 7:24 pm

MementoMori04 wrote:Fellow aspiring physicists,
I, like many of you, am trying to determine what tier of graduate school I should apply to. I graduated with a Bachelor's in physics from West Point a few years ago. For those of you who aren't familiar, after graduating from West Point, you commission as an Army Officer. My service obligation, however, is coming to a close, and I want to get back into physics. I suppose what I am trying to gauge is how my undergraduate education will be viewed by admissions boards. West Point has no graduate schools and no physics-specific reputation, but has a good reputation overall. I had limited opportunities to do research (aside from a month or so I spent at Aberdeen Proving Grounds), and am not published. My letters of recommendation will probably come from other Army Officers (physics professors at USMA). My GPA was around a 3.8/4.0. I haven't taken the PGREs yet, and after not seeing a mathematical symbol for several years, I'm not sure how well I will do. I have some time to study and will make use of it, but it's unlikely that I will blow the test out of the water.
Does anyone have a sense of where I should be applying? I know it will be contingent on my PGRE, but I would like to sort of nail down the ballpark...
Thanks!


You'll have better luck in an applied physics program most likely. What work did you do in the service?

MementoMori04
Posts: 2
Joined: Thu Oct 14, 2010 7:54 pm

Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby MementoMori04 » Sun Mar 06, 2011 12:04 pm

I am an Armor - tanks and scout recon - officer. Totally unrelated (in practice) to physics. I wouldn't mind ending up working in the defense sector again someday, after going back to school. Just curious, why do you think I'll have more luck with applied programs?

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

Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby bfollinprm » Sun Mar 06, 2011 12:54 pm

MementoMori04 wrote:I am an Armor - tanks and scout recon - officer. Totally unrelated (in practice) to physics. I wouldn't mind ending up working in the defense sector again someday, after going back to school. Just curious, why do you think I'll have more luck with applied programs?


Oh, because you can BS your time in the military as pertinent to your grad studies for applied physics, but that'd be impossible for regular physics. I.E. "I made circuits/programmed/etc."

The_Duck
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Joined: Tue Nov 16, 2010 12:04 pm

Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby The_Duck » Sun Mar 06, 2011 6:41 pm

From what I've read around here it seems like the PGRE will be especially important, as I doubt most schools see a steady stream of applicants from West Point, so it will be a useful number to compare you to students from other universities. I suggest you take one of the 4 available past tests now (they're available at e.g. here). This will give you a sense of where you stand and some motivation to study, probably :) You can then take a look at this thread which collects some rough data about PGRE score vs admission results.

Beyond the raw numbers it's hard for us to judge; if you haven't I think you should just look through the profiles thread stickies over here to try to get a sense of things.

bfollinprm
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Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby bfollinprm » Sun Mar 06, 2011 7:12 pm

The_Duck wrote:From what I've read around here it seems like the PGRE will be especially important, as I doubt most schools see a steady stream of applicants from West Point, so it will be a useful number to compare you to students from other universities. I suggest you take one of the 4 available past tests now (they're available at e.g. here). This will give you a sense of where you stand and some motivation to study, probably :) You can then take a look at this thread which collects some rough data about PGRE score vs admission results.

Beyond the raw numbers it's hard for us to judge; if you haven't I think you should just look through the profiles thread stickies over here to try to get a sense of things.


And just a thought: some schools probably will place a premium on your application because of your service. It'd be worth trying to find out which ones.

pqortic
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Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby pqortic » Wed Mar 09, 2011 10:22 pm

Your situation is not too much different from other applicants except the fact that your service is a bonus. Your PGRE score majorly determines the range of schools you may have chance of admission. and the other important factor is your recommendations which will be based on your grades only. so ask the professors that you got good grades in their classes to write strong letter for you.

Good Luck

CarlBrannen
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Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby CarlBrannen » Thu Mar 10, 2011 12:58 am

On the practice tests for the PGRE, don't take all at once. They are a valuable resource to measure your progress. I'd suggest taking one before studying and the others while you're in progress.

Heebal
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Joined: Sun Mar 13, 2011 11:11 am

Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby Heebal » Sun Mar 13, 2011 11:51 am

I was in a similar situation, so I thought I'd share what happened with me. I'm a four-year Aarmy ROTC scholarship, did my undergrad at a small private liberal arts with no physics reputation. Additionally, I wasn't really committed to physics until my senior year and ROTC interfered with the limited class schedules, so no publications and zero upper-level QM although I did have a pretty good year-long senior thesis project. My GPA was also substantially lower than yours - 3.67 overall, and I think 3.6 in major. I don't know how that placed me in the department overall.

So: I'm finishing a deployment to Afghanistan right now. Fortunately, I'm a BN S1. This job is grueling for a non-AG, don't get me wrong, but though the hours are long, they are regular and let you live as a fobbit. For the first six months I spent literally all my free time on studying for the PGRE and got an 810. (And CarlBrannen is right on about not taking all the practice tests all at once - spread them out!) I applied to UCSB, UPenn, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, UCI, BU, Chapel Hill, and U of Oregon. I was rejected at UCSB and UPenn, waitlisted with invite for a visit at Carnegie, and accepted everywhere else, including an extra $5,000 fellowship from UCI. It's also worth mentioning here that one of my recommenders was retired and had difficulty with technology, and failed to get in my recommendation to UCSB, UPenn, Chapel Hill, and CM until over a month past the deadline. It's hard to say what role this might have played, but I can't imagine it helped.

Overall, I don't think my Army made the difference in getting me in anywhere, but I think it might have made a difference in how enthusiastic the schools that admitted me were in courting me afterwards. If nothing else, it gives you something to write about on diversity essays. I definitely wouldn't worry that it will hinder you. Just focus like a lazer on the GRE, and you will have all the pieces you need. It might not hurt to play up the independent thinking you had to exercise in your SOP. Some folks have the odd idea people in the army just follow orders and never have to think, whereas the typical officer learning curve on a first assignment is like an episode of Man vs Wild if Bear Grylls were trying to read the survival guidebook while in freefall to the ground and discovering that most of it was completely useless for the task at hand.

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grae313
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Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby grae313 » Sun Mar 13, 2011 2:52 pm

Thanks for posting, Heebal! I love to see people share their experiences like you have in order to help someone else -- that's physicsGRE forums at their best :)

t2kburl
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Joined: Thu Dec 23, 2010 2:52 pm

Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby t2kburl » Sun Mar 13, 2011 3:59 pm

If your research has any potential for any kind of military application, your experience may be a big plus on your application.
That and the fact that most programs are probably aware of the fact that most military folks are probably more likely to pay attention to details, persevere through challenges and finish what they start.

Heebal
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Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby Heebal » Mon Mar 14, 2011 2:01 am

I wouldn't try to play up an armor background as research whatsoever. I branched engineer and would never, ever pretend that the technical side of that in any way measures your readiness for a graduate program in physics. However, I think t2kburl is on to a good thing in talking about the self-discipline, commitment, forward planning, and time management you learned, since those are both important and completely believable. Just don't consume your SOP with them.

Some other thoughts on studying for the GRE for someone who's been out of physics and in the Army for years: go through a first-year physics text book cover-to-cover exactly as if you were taking the course over again. It should cover mechanics, E&M, thermo, basic fluid dynamics, and optics. Do every problem that has an answer in the back of the book, unless you can recognize immediately how to do it and do some of those as well so you know you're not bullshitting yourself. Do the same with a special-topics book - you know, the second-year ones that cover relativity, QM, and atomic - but probably skip the molecular section if they have one. If you devote enough time to this, you can probably get it all done in four months, and that's honestly about 70% of the PGRE right there. That's when I would take the first test. Make it a recent test, not an old one; the composition of the PGRE has shifted pretty dramatically over the years. Taking it before is a waste of time - it's not going to give you any guidance in what you need to study until you've covered the basics. And DO NOT cheat on the basics. I can't tell you how glad I wound up being that I had gone back to the beginning and worked up from there. For anyone who's been away from physics for four years, you get by far the most return on your time invested by working on the freshman and sophomore stuff than the more advanced material.

Afterwards, it's up to you what mix you want, but I did a small optics text cover-to-cover (recommend just springing for a real textbook and doing select chapters instead), six chapters of stat mech/thermo, eight chapters of classical mech, eight chapters of Griffiths E&M, and three chapters of Griffiths QM (but remember I had to self-teach my way through it with only a standard math reference text to help out, so if you have a better QM background you may get more mileage out of doing more). Space your remaining three practice tests out so you get a regular benchmark on your progress. And remember, the PGRE problems now tend to be simpler than on the practice tests, so you will have to get more for a good score. Practice time management and learn shortcuts. Memorize simple configurations and standard problems. Good luck!

t2kburl
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Joined: Thu Dec 23, 2010 2:52 pm

Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby t2kburl » Mon Mar 14, 2011 8:14 am

Heebal wrote:I wouldn't try to play up an armor background as research whatsoever. I branched engineer and would never, ever pretend that the technical side of that in any way measures your readiness for a graduate program in physics.

What I meant was that the research you may get involved in as a physicist may be related to your military experience. For example, working on aircraft laser detection and ranging systems is useful experience when applied to laser research. Not that the military experience was research related, just that the experience gives you a slight leg up on students who don't have it.

Great advice on the PGRE preparation.

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

Re: Transition from Military to Physics

Postby bfollinprm » Mon Mar 14, 2011 8:17 am

Heebal wrote:I wouldn't try to play up an armor background as research whatsoever. I branched engineer and would never, ever pretend that the technical side of that in any way measures your readiness for a graduate program in physics.


I know many people whose REU's in no way measured their readiness for a graduate program in physics. If you've played with an oscilloscope attached to something that actually matters, you're better prepared for (Applied and Experimental) Physics than most undergrads who trudged their way through their B.S.




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