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From electrical engineering to physics

Posted: Wed Sep 16, 2015 9:15 am
by egnomic

I am an electrical engineering junior (just started junior year) at an American university (state school, more known for engineering. I'm at a branch campus abroad but I get the university's exact same degree). I intend to pursue my PhD in physics, particularly computational physics and nonlinear optics. I'm hoping to get into a top 10 school in the US (applying as an international student).

My qualifications:
  • Minor in mathematics (I've basically formally done all the math courses most physics majors would study except PDEs, more to follow on that).
  • GPA 4.0
  • Currently styudying for PGRE, I still have 14 months to go until my last chances so I think I should be able to do well.
  • 2 years of ongoing research experience at my university (nonlinear optics, mainly computational and some theory).
  • 2 month research program at a rather solid optics research institute in Europe.
  • Upcoming publication in physical review letters, 2 more in preparation and hopefully will have a minimum of 3 journal papers by the time I apply.
  • 1 conference paper and 1 poster presented at conferences.
  • 1.5 years of teaching experience in physics (both E&M and mechanics). I'm basically a TA for my primary research advisor.
  • I should be able to get solid references. 2 of my professors are MIT and Stanford alumni, and the 2 other professors I've worked with in research are also well known in the field and quite prolific. Two of my 3 main references work in theoretical/computational nonlinear optics and dynamics, the third is in experimental nonlinear optics). They have all offered to write me references before I even asked.

My massive downsides:
  • Haven't learnt much physics formally. Only intro mechanics and E&M and modern physics (basically the relativity/QM/atomic physics/stat physics portion of GRE).
  • Haven't done a PDE course, but hopefully my research experience (which is very PDE intensive) might help with that.
  • I do not even have the option to do any more physics classes before I graduate to make up for this (engineering only branch campus, too late to transfer to main campus).

I have talked to all my physics professors whom I have done research with, and all of them think that I should ideally have a solid chance at some of the top schools. I think that they are being too optimistic about this, my research record is not particularly that special, and my background in electrical engineering should be a massive drawback.

I will be applying in my senior year, so I have around 15 months until application deadlines. My questions are:
    1. Realistically, what are my chances of getting accepted at top schools like MIT, Stanford, Harvard, etc? I care a lot about where I get my PhD because I intend to work in academia, and landing a tenure track position with a tier 1 PhD is already hard enough.
    2. How can I benefit the most of this period, besides obviously studying for the GRE as much as humanly possible and doing more research.

I'm sorry if I sound like I'm showing off, I'm truly not and I'm constantly trying to improve myself, I just wanted to list my raw qualifications and see if anyone can give me more advice as I'm very worried.

Thank you and sorry for the long post.