Best use of free time for grad school application

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Nishikata
Posts: 39
Joined: Sun Sep 23, 2018 6:37 am

Best use of free time for grad school application

Postby Nishikata » Thu Oct 25, 2018 2:09 am

Hi All,

I have free time from now until the application deadline (15 Dec for most programs). I have taken my pGRE and gGRE and results were OK. I've also talked with my letter recommenders and they already agreed to write for me. I suppose the remaining parts are SoP and Resume.

Can I have some opinions on how should I spend wisely this free period?
For example:

How would you spend this period to find out your purpose in graduate study or craft a winning SoP?

How would you respond to the temptations of applying to slightly more worldly programs (instead of physics) that has become more available in the recent days?

We've applied physics for quite some time now, but recently I also find programs on geophysics, planetary science, ocean and atmospheric physics, environmental science, etc.

What do you think of these specialized programs that are easier to explain to your families or friends or even yourself, as you would need to continually answer why you enter grad school on this particular problem now and later on?

studying earthquakes or typhoons sound more understandable to the public than studying majorana fermions, for example...

I do not think I am writing my applications with the right mindset at the moment. I pretty much align my SoP with the research that the faculty member does in my destination university. Some universities' have their webpages outdated so I cannot do that for all my applications either.
My reasoning is that there is little use in applying to work on the problem you're interested in if there's no faculty member doing the same research as what you've wanted, or that you'll lose out to competition from other applicants as your undergrad research experiences do not match what you want to do in grad school (for example, my undergrad research was on CMP, but I won't be able to use that optimally to apply for HEP).

I am international Asian Male applicant, so I believe the competition is super strong for my profile here. Applying for the best 10 universities.

I know it is a long post, but please help if you could. Thanks.

kronotsky
Posts: 5
Joined: Thu Nov 01, 2018 10:29 pm

Re: Best use of free time for grad school application

Postby kronotsky » Wed Nov 28, 2018 1:42 pm

Hey! I've had some similar thoughts in the past few weeks, and I was wondering what conclusions you've come to since October. Personally, I decided to apply to a variety of somewhat different programs, and focus within each application, but I can't tell how similar our perspectives are.

Why do you think your mindset for writing SoPs is bad? If you aren't 100% sure about what you want to do, it makes sense to me to try to find inspiration in the faculty of the places you want to go to for other reasons (location, intellectual environment, prestige, etc.). Also, are you interested in PS, geoscience, applied physics, etc. more because of how it will look and how you'll be able to make a career out of it, or because you simply find these subjects interesting? There is a bit of a stigma against the first option, but I don't think it's a bad reason to make a big decision - however, it may affect how seriously you think about alternatives.

Also, there are lots of ways to get into these fields with a physics degree, though it's definitely harder if your background is in theory (but, of course, still entirely possible). You can make contacts while you work on your thesis, or explore topics on the boundaries (CME for APh, astrophysics for PS/geoscience - heck, PS is often a part of the astro department). If your first choice field is highly competitive, maybe you can write a little about second choices like these; depending on who reads your application (which is influenced by your field choice, of course), you might not be hurting your application. It could also make the department more understanding if you decide you don't want to pursue your first choice after all. That's all speculative, of course, but really I think worrying about these things too much can be a distraction when you're just trying to write an SoP about what you like. These are the first and not nearly the last decisions you will make on this subject.

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Nishikata
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Re: Best use of free time for grad school application

Postby Nishikata » Thu Nov 29, 2018 3:33 am

kronotsky wrote:Hey! I've had some similar thoughts in the past few weeks, and I was wondering what conclusions you've come to since October. Personally, I decided to apply to a variety of somewhat different programs, and focus within each application, but I can't tell how similar our perspectives are.


First, Thanks for replying this post. I'm so happy this post finally got noticed.

kronotsky wrote:Why do you think your mindset for writing SoPs is bad? If you aren't 100% sure about what you want to do, it makes sense to me to try to find inspiration in the faculty of the places you want to go to for other reasons (location, intellectual environment, prestige, etc.).


I think it is bad because I know it is neither sincere nor consistent. For example, if someone were to look at all of my SoPs, they'll find out that I actually do not especially care about what systems I will be working in my graduate school or that I care more on where I go than what I will do.

These few weeks, I have been looking for specific topics that would convince me to dedicate my next 5-6 years to study them in physics program. Looking for the holy grail, I would say.

At this moment, I am settling on high Tc superconductors as my go-to topic for the basis of my SoP. I believe that is the reason why I am so interested in applying to Stanford, as their faculties focus on these. However, it was not an easy decision to convince myself and to write for schools that do not perform research on superconductivity. (Caltech, for example). Princeton was quite difficult as well, since I became aware that the faculty who listed HTS as his research has recently moved to another university this year (but they still keep his profile in the university webpage, come on).
For these schools, I have to write my interest to a wider reach, such as strongly correlated systems, or even as vague as theoretical condensed matter physics in order to stay relevant with other professors in these fields but are clearly not doing superconductivity research.

The recurring question is always:

Q: if they don't have HTS, why am I still applying there?
A: but, it's princeton/caltech/insert prestigious schools, you'll still be in good hands even if you are doing something else!

Q: Then if you care so much about the schools, why not apply for another program that you might be interested in? say, maybe apply to CS, or heck, you liked racing cars don't you? why not ME/AE?

A: But my undergrad backgrounds are not aligned with those! how will I get admitted in the first place given the competition?

Q: You might be right. how about PS/GS/AP? Your undergrad background would still be relevant for these.

which was why i made this post.

kronotsky wrote:Also, are you interested in PS, geoscience, applied physics, etc. more because of how it will look and how you'll be able to make a career out of it, or because you simply find these subjects interesting? There is a bit of a stigma against the first option, but I don't think it's a bad reason to make a big decision - however, it may affect how seriously you think about alternatives.


As mentioned in the original post, i find these subjects are more sociable (to others) as well as more purposeful for me to do, compared to the current physics research topics, I feel most of them are so alien.

I chose theoretical physics because it is so versatile to move into different topics and systems. You'll need to read more literature and develop new computational tools, but these are certainly simpler than what experimental physicists have to do. They will have to dispense their old tool, ask for lots of money and lab space for buying a new one, and only can then start doing new research. I found many of experiment researchers/faculties in my institution who end up stuck being an expert in their obsolete equipment/technique and unable to move to new fields.

I honestly wish not to be like that.

Also, there are lots of ways to get into these fields with a physics degree, though it's definitely harder if your background is in theory (but, of course, still entirely possible). You can make contacts while you work on your thesis, or explore topics on the boundaries (CME for APh, astrophysics for PS/geoscience - heck, PS is often a part of the astro department). If your first choice field is highly competitive, maybe you can write a little about second choices like these; depending on who reads your application (which is influenced by your field choice, of course), you might not be hurting your application. It could also make the department more understanding if you decide you don't want to pursue your first choice after all. That's all speculative, of course, but really I think worrying about these things too much can be a distraction when you're just trying to write an SoP about what you like. These are the first and not nearly the last decisions you will make on this subject.


Yes, it was quite a distraction.
I decided to prioritize first-tier admission first, and apply for 2nd tiers in the next round. Procrastinate FTW.
I have written most of my SoPs. In them, I mostly talk about my first choice field (CMT) and maybe put a passing note that I am open to my second choice (CME) should there be opportunity.

All in all, I think the dilemma was a combination of impostor syndrome plus a fear of loneliness. Such a deadly combination.
We'll see then.

If I get in, I will do physics in the best places possible.
If I don't, I will do something else in 2020.

Russia?
If he dies, he dies

kronotsky
Posts: 5
Joined: Thu Nov 01, 2018 10:29 pm

Re: Best use of free time for grad school application

Postby kronotsky » Thu Nov 29, 2018 12:04 pm

Nishikata wrote:
First, Thanks for replying this post. I'm so happy this post finally got noticed.

I know what you mean - as you mention below, if you are not in school with a cohort of people applying to the same places, this can be a pretty lonely process. Even on this board, which seems to be kind of a ghost town except for the rising tide of AerNickEU's spam posts which thankfully have not yet breached the levees on this specific sub-forum...

It sounds like you found a healthy approach, but it's nice to talk about these things, so I'll just add comments from my perspective. I think it's different than yours, so hopefully it's clear that I'm not disagreeing with you anywhere.
Nishikata wrote:I think it is bad because I know it is neither sincere nor consistent. For example, if someone were to look at all of my SoPs, they'll find out that I actually do not especially care about what systems I will be working in my graduate school or that I care more on where I go than what I will do.

I think it is okay to want to be a generalist first and a specialist later, at least in general. I have even encountered some schools advertising the diversity of their program to potentially undecided students (although maybe it's telling that the clearest example came from Harvard SEAS, not from their physics program). But I think you are saying that this is not your attitude, and it would not be reasonable for you to write your SoPs this way, especially given that you are in one the most competitive niches (international AM with a focused interest in CMT).

Nishikata wrote:These few weeks, I have been looking for specific topics that would convince me to dedicate my next 5-6 years to study them in physics program. Looking for the holy grail, I would say.

At this moment, I am settling on high Tc superconductors as my go-to topic for the basis of my SoP. I believe that is the reason why I am so interested in applying to Stanford, as their faculties focus on these. However, it was not an easy decision to convince myself and to write for schools that do not perform research on superconductivity. (Caltech, for example). Princeton was quite difficult as well, since I became aware that the faculty who listed HTS as his research has recently moved to another university this year (but they still keep his profile in the university webpage, come on).
For these schools, I have to write my interest to a wider reach, such as strongly correlated systems, or even as vague as theoretical condensed matter physics in order to stay relevant with other professors in these fields but are clearly not doing superconductivity research.

I'm glad you found your "one true sub-field" - it became clear to me pretty early that I wasn't going to find one, which is a pain since I have been way behind schedule since I started this process, and now it's clear to me that I will be quite short on sleep these next couple weeks just from writing SoPs. From the next few quotes, I do think we are coming from somewhat different places:

Nishikata wrote:The recurring question is always:

Q: if they don't have HTS, why am I still applying there?
A: but, it's princeton/caltech/insert prestigious schools, you'll still be in good hands even if you are doing something else!

Q: Then if you care so much about the schools, why not apply for another program that you might be interested in? say, maybe apply to CS, or heck, you liked racing cars don't you? why not ME/AE?

A: But my undergrad backgrounds are not aligned with those! how will I get admitted in the first place given the competition?

Q: You might be right. how about PS/GS/AP? Your undergrad background would still be relevant for these.

which was why i made this post.

This is exactly the kind of second-guessing which is the source of all my biggest flaws as an applicant (and honestly, one of my biggest flaws as a person), so I feel you here. I am coming from a different direction in my doubts, though: I made it 90% of the way through a math major, quit when I realized that I would be inevitably unhappy doing math research, and have been sliding down the pure-applied spectrum ever since. I sometimes think that a physics Ph. D. might end up just being a stepping stone on the way to a career in renewable tech or earth science, and that it might make sense to cut out the middle man. And so late at night, when the caffeine wears off, I will have conversations with myself wherein I come up with all sorts of crazy ways to hedge my bets, try to game the system, worry about not applying to programs I haven't even really researched yet, which I've decided is just wasting time I don't really have anymore.

But the next thing you say I agree with, which is why I am applying to physics programs anyway:

Nishikata wrote:As mentioned in the original post, i find these subjects are more sociable (to others) as well as more purposeful for me to do, compared to the current physics research topics, I feel most of them are so alien.

I chose theoretical physics because it is so versatile to move into different topics and systems. You'll need to read more literature and develop new computational tools, but these are certainly simpler than what experimental physicists have to do. They will have to dispense their old tool, ask for lots of money and lab space for buying a new one, and only can then start doing new research. I found many of experiment researchers/faculties in my institution who end up stuck being an expert in their obsolete equipment/technique and unable to move to new fields.

I honestly wish not to be like that.

My experience with experimentalists has been a bit different, but that might just be because I've been fortunate enough to be surrounded by lots of talented researchers with lots of money. I do think that there is a real value in having started with theory, even if one eventually ends up doing experimental research, or even just building things. That was sort of the whole philosophy of the undergraduate part of the institution I went to, so maybe I've been indoctrinated, but all I learned there has led me to believe that the effort you need to put into the applications is inversely proportional to how well you understand the theory. And, being young, this is probably the best time to try bleeding edge research for myself if I think I might not do it for my entire life.

Nishikata wrote:Yes, it was quite a distraction.
I decided to prioritize first-tier admission first, and apply for 2nd tiers in the next round. Procrastinate FTW.
I have written most of my SoPs. In them, I mostly talk about my first choice field (CMT) and maybe put a passing note that I am open to my second choice (CME) should there be opportunity.

All in all, I think the dilemma was a combination of impostor syndrome plus a fear of loneliness. Such a deadly combination.
We'll see then.

Yeah, for sure. If it helps at all, from what you've said I think you converged on a pretty optimal response. Self-doubt is a hell of a drug haha.

Nishikata wrote:If I get in, I will do physics in the best places possible.
If I don't, I will do something else in 2020.

I agree 100%. The easiest way to kill your dreams is not to believe in them. Although the second easiest way might be to look like an idiot to the admissions committees :P




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