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 Post subject: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Sat Jul 31, 2010 11:55 pm 
Joined: Mon May 24, 2010 11:34 pm

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Joined: Mon May 24, 2010 11:34 pm
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I'll be 53 when I show up at physics grad school in fall 2011, if admitted.

Anyone know how really old grad students do at admissions? I have no doubt that I will tear up a physics program because I've done it before, I'm just worried about the admissions process.

I physics grad school to do engineering (digital logic design, mostly). The last few years I'm interested in the subject again and got three single author papers past peer review in the last year; in IJMPD, Found. Phys., and a conference proceeding. More are on the way. I'd just keep writing papers but I need to earn a living and it seems that nowadays a PhD is a necessity.

I took the general GRE this month and got verbal 690, quantitative 800, writing 5.5. These are more or less equivalent to what I got in the late 70s. Back in the day I had a 990 on the PGRE (and on the math subject GRE) but they don't accept scores after 5 years so I'll take it again in October. I should add that I don't have an undergraduate degree in physics, only the MS which was awarded for passing the PhD qualifying exams.

I'm worried about having to explain why it is I'm coming back after so long a time. And I don't want to have to take introductory graduate quantum mechanics again, especially after I've just published a paper on the foundations of quantum field theory.


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 Post subject: Re: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Mon Aug 02, 2010 9:25 am 
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Hi Carl, many (perhaps more than half) of the grad students at my undergrad school were "old" as in not coming directly from undergrad... they came back to school after years of work. But they were typically in their 30s... 53 is a few sigmas beyond that, but I don't see why there'd be any bias against you. Schools look for ability and for those most likely to make good contributions to their own research/labs. Your ability is obvious... a perfect PGRE score and single author theory papers are very very hard to get (and your general GRE is great too). If anything, your age implies your maturity and focus will be stronger than most kids applying who still get drunk too often and play too many video games. You may have lots of useful skills depending on your past work experience. You'd clearly be a good asset to any department's research since you were able to publish on your own even without a professor's guidance. To get a MS without a bachelor's... you must've been a special talent, as I think an undergrad degree is an official requirement to enter any graduate program. You must've really impressed some people to get around that.

So anyway, it seems from logic alone that there's no reason your age should count against you in grad admissions. This is a slow time of the year for the forum so you may want to come back and bump this topic up in 2 months or so to get more responses. An opinion from an admission prof (there's one who visits this forum in the fall) or a student who knew someone of your age in a PhD program may be more helpful. If you're looking to eventually get a permanent research position in academia or elsewhere, you're getting a late start on a very slow process, but that's not their problem... you'd be a great contributor to the research and diversity of a program.


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 Post subject: Re: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Mon Aug 02, 2010 11:23 am 
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I agree with quiz. I'm curious to see how you do, and I know many other people who have posted on this forum looking to come back after years away from school would be as well. Please stick around and let us know how it goes, or consider posting a profile in the profiles thread this admissions season.

As for your questions, you'll definitely have to explain your motives for entering graduate school in your statement of purpose -- everyone does -- but admissions committees may be even more interested in this part of your application because of your unusual circumstances. Elaborate in a paragraph of two about why you are passionate about going to physics graduate school and that should fine.

As for course requirements, that depends on the program. Some are more flexible than others, so do your homework in deciding where to apply and that won't be a problem. Cornell, for example, has only one officially required course (an advanced laboratory course). Of course, graduate level knowledge in the core subjects is also required but if you can demonstrate this knowledge you won't be forced to take the courses.


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 Post subject: Re: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Mon Aug 02, 2010 12:22 pm 
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I suggest you be specific as much as possible about your research interest and apply to schools that are active in that area. it doesn't seem reasonable that you are undecided between theory and experiment at this age. and the other concern for you might be the recommendation letters as a part of your applications, not as an evaluator. I personally think that in your case, committees wont be looking at them with great care. but since you said you just published a paper, you probably have some academic contacts to ask them write you letters.


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 Post subject: Re: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Fri Aug 06, 2010 11:54 pm 
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Pqortic; Yeah, it's not that I'm undecided as to theory vs. experiment; I left school because I enjoyed engineering (which is similar to experimental physics) more than the things that theoreticians do. On the other hand, theoreticians seem to graduate more quickly. So I'd choose experiment as a job, but theory as a thesis.

grae; I also think that the SOP is critical. There's a book that everyone seems to think is really good for this and I've ordered it: "Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice". My plan is to get my "generic" SOP along with transcripts (the full package) and deliver these to the letter writers, around November. The idea is that someone who hasn't seen me in a while might need a refresher and information on current state.

quizivex: "To get a MS without a bachelor's..." I had a BS and MS in mathematics at my rather small, not much known alma mater. I wanted to get into physics, so during the MS I started taking graduate physics classes. When I finished the MS in math, I applied for graduate school at various places in math and physics. All the physics institutions turned me down (perhaps I should have included safer schools), but Purdue offered to admit me in math. When I mentioned this to the president of my school (who had a PhD in physics), he quickly got on the telephone and had me admitted late to a more or less top 50 physics school. I recall that this process only took a few hours. In retrospect, I should have talked to him before sending out applications.

Meanwhile, I just took the GR8677 and ended up at 880 without preparation. The idea is to quickly find out where I need to study. I've not yet analyzed my errors to see where I need to study, but I know that I'm weak in optics, thermo, and some parts of E&M. The time I got a 990 in the PGRE was about 2 weeks after I passed the PhD "comprehensive exam" in physics; I suppose I was at the top of my game then. Do they make a "brain Viagra" pill?


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 Post subject: Re: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Sat May 12, 2012 9:00 pm 
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I guess I should add "the rest of the story", or at least the update to May 2012.

I ended up with a 990 on the PGRE but none of the schools I applied to accepted me. Those were schools where one could obtain a theoretical physics degree with some hope of being employed afterwards. So I looked around for schools where I could get an experimental physics degree again with some hope of employment. That list is far longer.

Since I designed high speed computer logic for so many years, I decided that an experiment with big data needs was a good idea. And since I'm interested in gravitation, I chose the LIGO gravitational observatory. There are many schools with PIs that are working on LIGO. The two that made my short list were U. Texas at Brownsville (a relatively unknown school but with 30 members in the collaboration), and Washington State University. On visiting WSU, I immediately decided that was the place.

I've just finished my first year. I took 5 classes both semesters (the usual graduate load is 3), and passed them with a 3.91 GPA. And I took the preliminary exams a year early and passed those as well. Next fall I'll take the remaining two required classes and I'll be done with classwork. In the meantime, I've just been admitted to the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, or LSC.


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 Post subject: Re: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Sun May 13, 2012 3:06 am 
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congratulations on your success, you are an inspiration to all of us who are not young 22ish year olds who seem to have the world at their fingertips. Even us older oak trees have a chance to do some interesting work and do well. (though I admit that at 28 I am not quite in your shoes but somewhere in between normal and oldish for grad school)


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 Post subject: Re: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Sun May 13, 2012 8:05 am 
Joined: Thu Jan 26, 2012 6:30 pm

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CarlBrannen wrote:
I guess I should add "the rest of the story", or at least the update to May 2012.

I ended up with a 990 on the PGRE but none of the schools I applied to accepted me. Those were schools where one could obtain a theoretical physics degree with some hope of being employed afterwards. So I looked around for schools where I could get an experimental physics degree again with some hope of employment. That list is far longer.

Since I designed high speed computer logic for so many years, I decided that an experiment with big data needs was a good idea. And since I'm interested in gravitation, I chose the LIGO gravitational observatory. There are many schools with PIs that are working on LIGO. The two that made my short list were U. Texas at Brownsville (a relatively unknown school but with 30 members in the collaboration), and Washington State University. On visiting WSU, I immediately decided that was the place.

I've just finished my first year. I took 5 classes both semesters (the usual graduate load is 3), and passed them with a 3.91 GPA. And I took the preliminary exams a year early and passed those as well. Next fall I'll take the remaining two required classes and I'll be done with classwork. In the meantime, I've just been admitted to the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, or LSC.


Out of curiosity, are we allowed to enrol in 5 courses in a semester, considering that they expect us to give our time for our TA duties?


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 Post subject: Re: Admitting really old physics grad students.
PostPosted: Tue May 15, 2012 2:41 am 
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blighter wrote:
Out of curiosity, are we allowed to enroll in 5 courses in a semester, considering that they expect us to give our time for our TA duties?


Very conveniently, the physics department doesn't have labs during the week that it gives preliminary exams. Since I didn't study for the exams, this was very convenient. I really believe that most prelim studying is a waste of time. What people should practice is math. If you can do calculus and algebra, and know the outlines of physics, you can probably pass the prelims. On the other hand, if you know all of physics, but make too many algebra mistakes, you can very easily fail these exams. (Same thing applies to the PGRE.)

From what I've heard, I got good marks from the student evaluations. There could be a number of reasons for this. For one thing, I always had their labs graded "on time", that is, a few days after they turned them in. I believe that it's not uncommon for grad students to get several weeks behind in this. And I grade one problem at a time so that I know I've given the same grade for equivalent work. Also, since I'm older, I believe the students argue less with me.

I made sure that the students did their lab work in the lab. This is department policy but is not well enforced. So in most labs students rewrite their lab notebook and turn in these incredibly polished reports. I do not allow this. The result is that they waste less time on labs outside of class.

Our labs follow the pedagogical theory of David Hestenes (you might know him from the Force Concept Inventory). This guy is my hero and I teach classes according to his theory. Most TAs give a 15-30 minute talk before the lab on the physics. I believe that 15 minutes is too long to keep their attention, and 27 is too large an audience for optimal. So I give them a 2 minute talk and get them started. Then I walk around the room and give talks on physics to 3 to 6 students at a time. This way it's much easier for them to ask questions. And the whole class doesn't have to wait for the slowest listener. I break the talks into 5 minute chunks and so I have to go around 3 to 5 times to get it across.

And I require that the teams work together to answer the questions of the lab. I do this by assigning grades according to the worst answer a member of the team turns in. You'd be surprised at how efficiently this will make your better students work at teaching their team members. The idea is that learning is done best in very small groups (but not alone).

Another thing I did was to assign extra work in the labs in the form of competitions. These were an experiment to see if it would increase the interest in the labs. Our labs are broken into 9 groups of three students each The groups change members each week. I renamed the groups "teams" and created a competition. Sometimes this was just making part of their lab more obviously competitive than was stated, and other times I added an extra stage to their labs. For example, when doing the "freefall" lab, each team had a target and three tries to hit it. These seem to have been well received. But to set them up, I had to do extra work outside of class (i.e. preparing unknown masses, etc.).

So overall, the department doesn't have any problems with how I've handled my teaching duties. (Probably the biggest problem I've caused would be the messy desk, but they actually haven't complained about it yet.)

And I believe that teaching is partially vaudeville and try to make things entertaining. Typical demonstration:

"This week's lab is about oscillation and resonance. You will be causing a spring-mass system to resonate. A great example of resonance is chalk squeaking. I've gotten old enough I can't hear it any more, but I used to be able to squeak quite effectively, when I needed to attract the attention of the students." [Takes chalk and squeaks it across the whole board and back. Student's faces writhe in horror. They never imagined that a squeak could be that loud nor last that long.] [Instructor grabs jaw.] "Wow! That must have worked; I think I've knocked out one of my fillings. Anyway, as usual I'll be talking to you in groups, let's begin!"


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