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 Post subject: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 12:09 am 
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This is mainly to admissionprof, but to anyone else who can give some insight.

I have asked the following question on one other occasion; however, no one really seems to have a clear answer. Most people generally think that students applying to graduate programs in theoretical physics must have better grades and better GRE scores than students applying to experimental programs (and experimental students must have more years of research). Also, I have heard that funding is much lower for theoretical physics and there aren't many spaces in reputable institutions for students to study this field. Lastly, I have been told that the reputation of a student's undergraduate university is a major factor for those applying to theoretical programs. How true are these assumptions?

I am mainly asking because I plan to apply to theoretical programs next year (I am currently a junior at a small, liberal arts university--not too well known for physics), and I have completed a semester as a research assistant, an independent study of special/general relativity for the past two years (that will hopefully lead to a senior thesis), and will complete an REU this summer. My GPA is fine, but I am very worried about the GREs (taking them in the Fall). Theoretical physics is an area of physics that I enjoy; however, I am beginning to wonder if I will even be able to get into a good, theoretical physics program because of the assumptions that so few people are accepted, etc.


Thanks for your time,


theoretical_phys


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 12:22 am 
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I have time and time again seen anecdotal evidence that many institutions accept an extremely small number of theory applicants each year. Just take a look at some schools you might want to be applying to. See how many theory faculty they have, and then look at the size of their research groups. There is much less funding in theory. You should have a higher GRE score if you are applying to theory.

Your best bet (after acing the physics GRE) is to apply to schools that are well known for theory and have a lot of theory faculty. I know UCSB is great in condensed matter theory, and I know Princeton is better in theory than experiment. As an experimentalist, that's all I know :) Take one of the practice GRE exams and see how you score to get a realistic sense of what you can expect.

This may get me some flames, but if you have experimental research experience, you have the option of applying to experiment and then switching once you are in graduate school.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 2:27 am 
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i for one can tell you that you can overcome any poorly-recognized undergraduate institution in the application process, even for theory. i'm an example of that - just look at the 2008 profiles thread.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 10:41 am 
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Thanks for your responses.

Nvanmeter, I went to LSU for a semester after Hurricane Katrina. I'm at a Jesuit university in New Orleans (wow, I pretty much just told you where I am). My college experience has kind of been a wreck: Indiana University during Hurricane Katrina (I evacuated New Orleans), back to New Orleans during the Spring until the university cancelled the physics major (and everyone was like...WTF??!!), fled to LSU Fall 2006, back to New Orleans for Spring 2007 because the department (and major) were brought back into operation. I have been at this university since this time.

I am planning to start studying for the November Physics GRE once midterms are out of the way, but I have a feeling I may not do as well as many (I am shooting for a 990, but I realistically hope for a ~700). I am honestly terrible at standardized tests and didn't even do well on my practice GRE (this was a horribly embarrassing score)--I am planning to buy a Kaplan book just for reading strategies on taking these sort of tests.

@grae: Oh, and the type of theory I am looking for is cosmology, general relativity, quantum gravity, etc. I would really rather not apply as experimental. My experimental research involves freshmen year of high school (which wasn't really experimental because I was writing script in MATLAB) and the last two years of high school (which I am not sure if I can even include on my application).

Thanks for your replies. I hope it doesn't sound like I am freaking out too much.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 2:44 pm 
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theoretical_phys wrote:
@grae: Oh, and the type of theory I am looking for is cosmology, general relativity, quantum gravity, etc. I would really rather not apply as experimental. My experimental research involves freshmen year of high school (which wasn't really experimental because I was writing script in MATLAB) and the last two years of high school (which I am not sure if I can even include on my application).


You're right, don't apply to experiment with that background :wink:

just be aware that you are going down a very difficult and competitive path with theory. You truly need to distinguish yourself as the best to do theory at a top 10 institution, even more so than every other physics PhD applicant, and I think we are, in general, already more distinguished than the applicants for any other field. You are already competing against hundreds of applicants with perfect gre scores, perfect grades, and multiple publications and conferences.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 9:23 pm 
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Hello.

Grae is right. If you apply to a top ten school, and express an interest in theory, then you're going to need substantially higher test scores than if you apply to experiment. At many schools that are NOT top ten, however, it doesn't really matter whether you mention theory or experiment. People change a lot, and a course in quantum field theory will often dissuade some students.

The reputation of an undergraduate institution does matter, but that can be made up for with a strong subject GRE.

Look, if you want to do theoretical physics, you don't have to go to a top 10 or even top 20 school. I've known many students who are successful theoretical physicists, with faculty jobs at decent institutions, who got their degrees at schools ranked 30-60. As long as there are a couple of active theorists, and you do good work and get a decent postdoc, you'll be ok.

And schools ranked 30-60 don't care as much whether you are interested in theory or experiment.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 10:59 pm 
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How can we say which schools are top 10 or top 20? I get confused when people use this terminology( top 10, top 20 etc)without specifying any metric or without mentioning what type of schools they consider are top 10 or top 20.
(Grae313, I know you have posted the ranking of physics dept couple of times on this forum, but lot of us here tend to agree that US news ranking may NOT be the right ranking of the Universities. I am curious to know what admissionprof think about this.)

I have been accepted from Wisc-Madison, now what type of school is this in condensed matter( theory or exp)? Is it top 10, top15, top 20 or NONE? :?:


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 11:09 pm 
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VT wrote:
How can we say which schools are top 10 or top 20? I get confused when people use this terminology( top 10, top 20 etc)without specifying any metric or without mentioning what type of schools they consider are top 10 or top 20.
(Grae313, I know you have posted the ranking of physics dept couple of times on this forum, but lot of us here tend to agree that US news ranking may NOT be the right ranking of the Universities. I am curious to know what admissionprof think about this.)

I have been accepted from Wisc-Madison, now what type of school is this in condensed matter( theory or exp)? Is it top 10, top15, top 20 or NONE? :?:


There is no "right" rankings.

rankings are almost entirely arbitrary. the factors that people use to rank universities might not even be important to you. There is sort of an accepted list of sorts based on prestige from US News, and for all its flaws, that is generally what people refer to. It's just about prestige. Top 5 means MIT, stanford, harvard, princeton, caltech. Top 10 includes chicago, berkeley, santa barbara, columbia, illinois, etc...

Wisconsin is top 15/ top 20.

if you want a real rankings, you have to make one yourself. factor in how much money the department spends on CM research if that is important to you. factor in how well they pay their students if that is important to you. factor in their presitige, the number of international students, the number of citations per faculty member, if that is important to you. the real rankings are 100% subjective. US News sucks, but it just a benchmark


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2008 11:29 pm 
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@ VT

There really only are two rankings -- NRC and US News. The top 20, 50, etc. are similar for both of them, so there's not much generality lost by not specifying which ranking you're using.

US News is purely a prestige survey. NRC has some other stuff in there as well, but the data is old and the new ranking won't be out until later this year.

As grae said, ultimately the only ranking which matters is a personal one. However, I think these rankings have some utility as well (I've written my views elsewhere), as evidenced by the fact that we can't get away from using them.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Mon Feb 25, 2008 11:09 am 
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Grae is right. Ratings are widely variable, and EXTREMELY field-dependent. For example, Georgia Tech is excellent in AMO/CM, but very low (not even top 80, IMHO) in particle theory; William and Mary is top 10 in experimental nuclear physics, but experimental plasma physics is nonexistent. So you have to take the US News and NRC rankings with a ton of salt.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Tue Feb 26, 2008 2:27 am 
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I would trust the ratings as a guideline for a specific subfield, but not as much for the overall rankings. The number of faculty in different fields vary from department to department, so one subfield can influence the overall ranking more than others.

I used the specific subject rankings as a starting point, and then ranked the departments for myself and my needs/wants/interests. No two students' needs are exactly the same, so do your own research, and your own judgments are the best rankings for you!


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Fri Feb 29, 2008 7:44 pm 
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@ admissionprof:
What do you think about Wisc-Madison in CM theory or exp? I'd appreciate your input. Thanks.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Fri Feb 29, 2008 9:31 pm 
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VT wrote:
@ admissionprof:
What do you think about Wisc-Madison in CM theory or exp? I'd appreciate your input. Thanks.



Alas, VT, I'm not really an expert in that area, so I can't really help. In general, I'd prefer not to publicly make comments about how good school X is in area Y (even though I did so in a couple of example cases upthread). I could easily be wrong. Privately, no such restrictions :-)


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Fri Feb 29, 2008 9:56 pm 
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Can I request for a PM then? Thanks.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sat Mar 01, 2008 5:24 pm 
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VT wrote:
Can I request for a PM then? Thanks.


I don't know how to do that. If you send me a PM, then I know how to reply :-)


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sat Mar 01, 2008 6:07 pm 
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admissionprof wrote:
I don't know how to do that.


To the left of each post is an envelope icon and a person icon. Clicking the envelope icon will let you send a private message to the author of the post. There are other ways to do it as well.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sat Mar 01, 2008 7:55 pm 
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It also depends on what you define as theory and exp. I, for one, processes data from a telescope and sometimes do operate it too... 100 year old equipment really does (insert mumbled curse here), but mainly do the processing. Now, I am considered an experimentalist. Esp. in the field you are looking at, GR and cosmology, the line is pretty this. You can be theory but still write a thesis on observational data, as the grad student that ran away from the project tried to. It is all up to what specifically you want to do. On the other hand, you have the "theory" faculty sitting around and categorizing X-ray sources, and galaxy clusters. Would not really call that theory.

Quantum Gravity on the other had is "hardcore" theory section. There I would be very careful. HEP theory and Quantum gravity supposedly face a problem with pumping out theses. I talked to the admission prof at my school (6 out of 28 faculty members are HEP theory) and he said that they rejected everyone that wanted to do HEP because they have too much of them already... no wonder when I see most of the grad students sitting around or being in the gym.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Mar 02, 2008 6:43 pm 
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How about condensed matter vs High Energy? I've heard HE is tougher to get into.

Is this true even for Experimental High Energy?


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Sun Mar 02, 2008 11:44 pm 
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I am scared of these huge machines they have in the lab. I saw those big machines in the lab, a clean room( for nanotech) etc. Those were enough to blow my mind away.

I want to get back to theory again. I am pathetic.

Why do theory people have such a hard time finding a job? Is finding a job extremely difficult or just difficult? ( I am an international student). I guess then I will do both theroy and experiment and *kill* myself.


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Mon Mar 03, 2008 12:01 am 
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Heh... It is kind of weird to be using machines that are worth more than you... Well, worth more than several years of your salary anyway...

EDIT: Most are actually difficult to seriously *** up accidentally. You get used to it.


Last edited by dlenmn on Mon Mar 03, 2008 12:03 am, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Mon Mar 03, 2008 12:03 am 
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yeah, dats rite!


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 Post subject: Re: Theoretical Physics vs Experiment Physics
PostPosted: Mon Mar 03, 2008 12:20 am 
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ComboOrgan wrote:
How about condensed matter vs High Energy? I've heard HE is tougher to get into.

Is this true even for Experimental High Energy?


HEP is i would consider one of the hardest theory fields out there. I mean you have to be more of a mathematician then a physicist at some point, shows in the fact that string theorist have dual appointments or are in math departments in some universities.

Condensed matter is weird to say the least. I can just tell that i had more experience with theory condensed matter people. I mean there are only somewhere around 5 true experimental faculty at my place.

Experimental High energy is a thing... I mean it usually involves high multi-billion dollar equipment, then again there are a lot of people working it... isn't it somewhere around 1300 people in the first publications that the LHC will produce. I remember when visiting Fermilabs there were 3 to 4 grad students there working on a signal detector that day.

dlenmn wrote:
Heh... It is kind of weird to be using machines that are worth more than you... Well, worth more than several years of your salary anyway...

EDIT: Most are actually difficult to seriously *** up accidentally. You get used to it.



No it isn't and this comes from a guy who has already brought down three storage farms.... ups. I mean i have worked with SQUID, DR, and in clean rooms, but as long as you keep your cool and don't go running through the lab like a brainless huma.... , ,sry, monkey you can even do that.

On the other hand, I have seen faculty members that have both, grad students for theory and experiment. so you get the best of both worlds... sort of


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