how admissions committees work

  • This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

stardust
Posts: 109
Joined: Fri Sep 21, 2007 8:15 pm

how admissions committees work

Postby stardust » Wed Dec 03, 2008 3:16 am

I heard that at some schools they bin the applications by pgre score first and then look
through them. I also heard at some places they may sort the scores electronically and
give sorted lists to the committee. In other words, the higher score people are looked
at first, and by the time they get to lower score people they run out of spaces and money.

Did anyone else hear such things? I think that would be completely horrible way of
doing things and by looking at GRE first it does injustice to the other things we have to
offer. What other sorting mechanism can they conceivably use?

Also, did anyone hear anything about how many different people look at a single
application and would it not be legit if only one person decided on your app?
Its kind of like when people might have worked together on hws. We could have discussed
each problem as a group, or it would be quicker if you divided up the problems and each
person did one. I think they do things the later way which I think would be horrible
in this instance too.

swepi
Posts: 33
Joined: Fri Nov 21, 2008 5:15 pm

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby swepi » Wed Dec 03, 2008 3:47 am

So here are my two cents. First, I heard a professor of physics from MIT, Leonid Mirny, give a talk at a nearby university. It was about how proteins find their site on DNA and whether it is done through Brownian motion or not. I was really quite interesting... anyway, he did mention that one could imagine that a protein may preselect sites on DNA like a professor may preselect applications for admission. He was rather vague about this, and now that I think about it, I don't even know how useful that information is.

Next, I have a portion of Robert Laughlin's 1998 Nobel Prize lecture where he talks about his graduate experience at MIT: "Physics graduate schools in America are for the most part set up as a first priority to service federal contracts, not to make fundamental discoveries, and a graduate student career makes no sense outside the context of one of these contracts. Indeed it was, and is, the practice at MIT to admit graduate students directly into research groups on an as-needed basis as a kind of labor pool. It took me a while to fully understand this depressing fact of life, but I eventually did and then proceeded to look for a home in a research group as a means of supporting myself while learning the things essential to achieving my larger ambitions." Aside from his obnoxious cynicism, Laughlin probably knows what he is talking about.

The link to the full bio is at:
http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/phys ... tobio.html

The moral of the story is, schools are probably looking to fill positions in research groups to continue projects rather than form an army of intellectually superior and yet socially inadequate graduate students. So if you know what you want to do, make that clear and you will probably fair better than you thought. Also, it may help to contact a professor directly if you are interested in the research they do. When your application roles around, they may remember you.

I am sure this does not answer the original question of the post, but I thought someone might find it useful.

User avatar
secander2!
Posts: 264
Joined: Mon Oct 27, 2008 12:25 pm

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby secander2! » Wed Dec 03, 2008 4:45 am

Here's the closest thing I've seen to a full out exposition of how admissions work by a professor from UW Astronomy: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2008/01/29/the-other-side-of-graduate-admissions/

It looks like they use a GRE/GPA/letters combo to weed out applicants. Then it looks like individual professors can weed out some more. Finally the strongest applications are read by the whole committee and decided on. It seems like a relatively good system, you can't get sunk by GPA or GRE alone, but then again, you can get weeded out by a single professor. Also, I don't think there is any perfect way to select applicants, I mean, what criteria can they use that are objective? Anybody can score poorly on a standardized test no matter how smart they are, GPAs can be abnormally low based on professors and difficulty of the curriculum taken, letters can be inflated, using research as a criteria is just asking students to have done graduate work before they get there (how fair is that? what if you want to go to graduate school to learn how to do research?), and SOPs are usually just BS.

admissionprof
Posts: 364
Joined: Sat Feb 02, 2008 7:50 pm

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby admissionprof » Wed Dec 03, 2008 11:16 am

I'm director of graduate admissions at a top 50 place. For domestic students, every member of our committee (4, 5 or 6 faculty) read every application and give it a numerical rating. We meet every week and admit the highest---if an application is ranked high by everyone, it's accepted; if it is ranked low by everyone, it is rejected; if it mixed, then we discuss it (and often put on a waiting list). Foreign applicants get looked at by a subset (because there are so many of them).

stardust
Posts: 109
Joined: Fri Sep 21, 2007 8:15 pm

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby stardust » Thu Dec 04, 2008 12:20 am

For secander2's link: I think that totally unethical that some (I think they said 1/2) of the
applications are not even read. People paid money. The payment of an application fee should
mean that the application gets read. If that's the case, then cutoffs or ranges should at least
be published or some baseline criteria so that people aren't encouraged to waste their fees. I
think its unethical anyway.

User avatar
xudis149
Posts: 148
Joined: Thu Jun 12, 2008 12:03 am

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby xudis149 » Thu Dec 04, 2008 1:11 am

@swepi

thanks for that link...

User avatar
valentino
Posts: 48
Joined: Thu Dec 11, 2008 9:29 am

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby valentino » Thu Dec 25, 2008 8:47 pm

@admissionsprof, what exactly do you mean looked over by a subset? is the committee sensitive to which country the applicant is coming from? for example, do you see an asian coming from china as the same as an asian coming from a developing country? how strongly do they discern? of course, i trust that the committee knows their geography.

cato88
Posts: 420
Joined: Wed Sep 03, 2008 12:46 am

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby cato88 » Thu Dec 25, 2008 11:13 pm

valentino wrote: for example, do you see an asian coming from china as the same as an asian coming from a developing country?

But China will own the US someday.

stardust
Posts: 109
Joined: Fri Sep 21, 2007 8:15 pm

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby stardust » Sat Dec 27, 2008 8:54 pm

@cato88
You mean like they own Taiwan? It may look like that economically, but as long as our
technology and military are better, its unlikely. Besides, that would mean communism wins
over democracy, and most people aren't willing to concede to that. Democracy will win
because we know how to change when we have to. If they are blowing us away on the
physics GRE its more likely that a copywrite infringement took place than anything else.

User avatar
naseermk
Posts: 93
Joined: Sun Dec 14, 2008 8:47 pm

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby naseermk » Sun Dec 28, 2008 8:10 pm

stardust wrote:@cato88
If they are blowing us away on the physics GRE its more likely that a copywrite infringement took place than anything else.


One just has to look at the typical undergraduate Physics curriculum in India/China to understand why they do so much better on the PGRE. I do not think it is copyright infringement or such sort of 'conspiracy' theories:

At a reputed Indian University for instance (IIT), a typical BSc Physics curriculum consists of a whopping 150 credits in Physics and related topics in Engineering. The same goes on in China with general courses making up just about 20-30 credits.

If you look at our curriculum, its more of the opposite which is why in terms of 'liberal arts' skills none can possibly compete with us.

Also, considering the fact that students in India/China specialize in their field of choice in high school itself we cannot compete in terms of 'hard' Physics knowledge.

On the flip side, one just has to look at the list of Nobel laureates + scientific achievement (let's say based on factors such as published research), to see which system of education is better. Clearly, US is ahead of the game in the sense that a conceptual approach to education is emphasized here as opposed to just 'mastering' a list of theorems/equations.

The only problem US will face in the long run is the number of students who will decide to pursue a career in science. In 'poor' countries like India/China, subjects such as Arts&Humanities are not really looked upon as a reputed area of study. In essence, the the subject of passion in terms of pursuing a career is just coming into the social imagination as opposed to a comfortable job/career (+money).

rockwhj
Posts: 23
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2008 12:38 am

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby rockwhj » Sun Dec 28, 2008 8:39 pm

some thoughts. to the previous reply.
the success of the US in scientific research is due to a combination of funding supports, good infrastructure, being able to draw the best talents from all around the world, and other factors, including possibly that of education.

regarding education, i remember one of the Chinese-American Nobel Laurents, Yang, once commented, that the physics education in the US is good for the really talented ones, because of its flexibility and freedom, the really talented people can fully make use of this freedom and achieve maximum potential without compromising the grasp of foundation. But unfortunately, majority of us are normal, therefore it may not be completely good. You may disagree on this and i think this view is more relevant to theory people, since Yang is a theorist.

Yes there is also the different views of university education. In the west a university education is probably seen as an integral part of your holistic education that aims to make you a better person, to understand yourself better, to understand the world better. The hardcore stuff come to you after you begin to work, or go to grad school.

In China, at least, i think college is seen more like a professional school or even grad school. It is understandably because you need to compete with so many people to secure a living with the ever expanding university system in China. Maybe a little irrelevant to the post, we can discuss this more if anyone's interested.

robertson
Posts: 65
Joined: Sun Oct 26, 2008 10:23 am

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby robertson » Sun Dec 28, 2008 9:29 pm

In my opinion the Nobel Laurates + scientific achievement is not related at all with your educational system. First of all, yours is a big rich country, a very important factor when one wants to do science. Another point is that yours is the best graduate system in the world. There is no doubt about this. Graduate school is more about specialization and research, and the latter strongly depends on the faculty. If american universities have better teachers, you generate better grad students, and in turn you generate better teachers... you see my point. You could argue that half of the students are foreigners, but the best of these will never return to their countries. You will continue to rule science as long as European or Asian universities don't copy your system.

I'm quite proud of my undergraduate studies, with about 2000 hours of lectures in physics and 500 hours of labs. In fact, I would not change it for a Bachelor at Harvard. But now, I see what my classmates are going to do in the graduate school and it is much worse than in the USA. And it is also very difficult to find internationally known research advisors to do your ph.D.

rockwhj
Posts: 23
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2008 12:38 am

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby rockwhj » Sun Dec 28, 2008 9:32 pm

well said above.

trupti
Posts: 42
Joined: Thu Jan 10, 2008 1:40 pm

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby trupti » Mon Dec 29, 2008 2:34 am

The other important point is that in US the undergraduate, graduate program and research are combined. All these things happen under one "roof" that is a university.

In India atleast, the research institutes and education system are more or less divorced (except for elite places like IIT, IISc). So teachers who teach in UG or post graduate colleges are not researchers and researchers don't teach in colleges or interact with students much.

admissionprof
Posts: 364
Joined: Sat Feb 02, 2008 7:50 pm

Re: how admissions committees work

Postby admissionprof » Mon Jan 05, 2009 7:26 pm

valentino wrote:@admissionsprof, what exactly do you mean looked over by a subset? is the committee sensitive to which country the applicant is coming from? for example, do you see an asian coming from china as the same as an asian coming from a developing country? how strongly do they discern? of course, i trust that the committee knows their geography.


I mean that the applications from China are divided randomly into two piles, and half the committee looks at each. If everyone says admit or reject, we assume that would carry over to the other half. If there is division, we look at them as a full committee. This saves lots of time. Non-Chinese are looked at by the full committee---it's just that there are so many from China.

And yes, we are sensitive to the country. A student from Nepal with slightly lower test scores will do better than one from Beijing University, since the former hasn't had the support network that the latter has. But it's not a huge difference.




Return to “Prospective Physics Graduate Student Topics”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Bing [Bot], Google Adsense [Bot], Yahoo [Bot] and 5 guests