Do admission chances depend on the field of physics?

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vicente
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Do admission chances depend on the field of physics?

Postby vicente » Sun Nov 18, 2007 7:34 pm

Hey everyone,

What is everyone's opinion on whether the field of physics you're applying to affects your admissions chances?

Are some fields easier to get into than others?

I would think so, but I thought that people don't choose their research groups until second or third year, so would admissions committees base their decision on your "intended field"?

Which fields do you think would be harder to get into than others? Do chances have anything to do with the "popularity" of certain areas of physics? Or on the school's own distribution of professors' research areas?

schmit.paul
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Postby schmit.paul » Sun Nov 18, 2007 9:59 pm

Your field of interest absolutely affects your chances of getting into a program. Funding has a large part to do with it, as well as distributions of preferences within the applicant pool. Regarding the former reason, there is certainly more money floating around in some subfields of physics more than others (more money in experiment than theory, more in condensed matter and bio than gravitation and string theory because of stronger industry/gov't interest, plus the relative fractions of funding allocated to the various subfields in the NSF/NIH/DoE budgets, etc etc), while every school will also have research groups in many subfields varying substantially in size, which is a reflection of both the available funding in the field as well as the strength and reputation of the program at each particular institution (arrow of causality is not clear in this case). Recycling rates for grad students is higher in experimental programs with many small experiments, slower in programs with only a couple large experiments (fusion and high energy are good examples).

Regarding the spread of interests in the graduate applicant pool, there are certainly a few fields that attract far more applicants than there are positions. High energy theory is a quintessential example, as just about everyone with an affinity for theoretical physics considers doing it at some point. The most reputable programs typically only anticipate a small handful of students entering high energy theory for any given year, and indicating a strong preference for this field can have pretty stark implications for your chances of getting into grad school at the very top programs. When I was visiting Caltech, about 10 people attended the information session for high energy theory out of a pool of roughly 60 or so accepted students, but there was no way all 10 of those students would wind up being able to do string theory/QFT for their graduate pursuit, as the department only has a few full time faculty (though they are prolific faculty). Most likely only 2-4 would make the cut for high energy and secure a faculty advisor. Despite my having very good test scores/grades/letters/physics research, I was rejected from Stanford, Harvard, and Berkeley (my applications to these programs stated a strong preference for high energy theory). Caltech was the only "top" high energy theory program I was accepted to, while my success in plasma theory programs was much better, as plasma doesn't have quite the rock-star status that high energy does! And from looking around at the incoming class at Princeton, almost all of the foreign students here to do theoretical physics (high energy, CM, and cosmology) have masters degrees and a significant amount of in-field research already, and there's only a handful of American first-year theory students here as well, many of whom have done great research or have graduate-level academic experience going into the program. So seeing this, it's no surprise to me why I didn't get into most high energy theory programs I applied to...there's very few spots at each school, and way too many overqualified applicants vying for those spots; the competition is fierce. Now this shouldn't scare you away from applying, but it should help give you some perspective into the situation--you are competing against a world full of students for one of a VERY finite number of slots at each school, so apply to several schools and be realistic with how you choose the *majority* of the schools (though everyone should apply to at least one of their dream schools, especially if there is a strong, relevant reason to do so, ie they do research that builds on research you did as an undergrad and you really want to stay in-field, etc).
Last edited by schmit.paul on Sun Nov 18, 2007 10:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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will
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Postby will » Sun Nov 18, 2007 10:02 pm

Just like experimentalists have much more money than theorists, theorists doing, for example, condensed matter usually have more money than those in say, quantum gravity, who in turn probably has more money than a professor of postmodern philosophy... A school can't admit an entire class of quantum gravity theorists, not only because the few professors they have in the field can't afford them all, but because everyone else needs cheap labor... ahem, research assistants... too.

As such, competition in fields mostly comes down to where the money is the tightest. Unfortunately for us starry eyed youngsters, there's a lot of money to be had in doping alloys with carbon and running electricity through it, and very very little in "sexy" fields like HEP-theory.

Of course, as you mentioned, not everyone comes in 100% decided on what they want to do, and the schools know that, they're just hoping to get a distribution of students that matches closely to what their faculty need in terms of assistants and can handle in terms of teaching.

The other reason they ask is to get an idea of the kind of student they'll be getting if they decide to admit you. If a school gets two applicants with equally mediocre math skills, and one wants to do condensed matter experiment and the other wants to do string theory, their numbers look the same, but it's clear who will be more successful there.

It's important to remember, though, that you aren't doing yourself any favors by outright lying. If your record shows a preference for theory, you'll actually look less qualified than potential experimentalists, so you're not gaming the system at all, and also it would be pretty tragic to sneak past admissions only to realize that no one has the time or money to take you on in what you really wanted to do.

schmit.paul
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Postby schmit.paul » Sun Nov 18, 2007 10:05 pm

well-put will

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will
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Postby will » Sun Nov 18, 2007 10:10 pm

why, thank you. :)

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fermiboy
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Postby fermiboy » Sun Nov 18, 2007 10:30 pm

As an aspiring CM/AMO theorist, I encourage everyone with 900 > GRE scores to become either a string theorist or cosmologist. That way my 730 can sneak me in the back door. :wink:

vicente
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Postby vicente » Mon Nov 19, 2007 12:57 am

will wrote:
"If your record shows a preference for theory, you'll actually look less qualified than potential experimentalists, so you're not gaming the system at all"

Ahh, what timely advice! I have a mix of theoretical and experimental research experience, but I'm heading into experiment, but I hadn't thought to emphasize my experimental experience in my SOP. I shall do that with the schools I haven't submitted my application to. Unfortunately I've already submitted my SOP for a few schools I really wanted to get into. Maybe I'll mail a revised SOP directly to the department.

doom
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What should we do then?

Postby doom » Mon Nov 19, 2007 1:36 am

So we all agree that we should be upfront about what our real interests are. But what advice can you give someone who is applying to one of the harder areas to get into?

I am applying with interest to go into particle theory. My stats aren't overwhelming (great GPA from lesser-known liberal arts school, decent GRE -- 710 subject). My research experience has all been in theory or computation, but I just haven't had the opportunity to work in particle physics.

Basically, my question is, what should those of us interested in the "sexier" fields do to improve our chances of getting in a program that is a good fit for us?

Any advice is welcomed, as are any other thoughts from people in similar positions.

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will
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Postby will » Mon Nov 19, 2007 2:00 am

I hadn't thought to emphasize my experimental experience in my SOP.


By all means do! Too much detail in personal statements is boring and should be avoided, but if there's special techniques or apparatus (AFM, STM, etc.) that you're already capable with, and the school you're applying to has groups that actively use those things, professors will want you to work for them, and that's about the best thing to have going for you in admissions.

Regarding doom's questions:

I'd say the first thing for people interested in sexy fields with good but not perfect stats, is to remember that sexy fields get plenty of study at places that aren't Harvard or Princeton. With a 710 GRE your application might get thrown out in the Top-5 schools, but Michigan-Ann Arbor and Wisconsin-Madison both have world-class HEP programs, and take on a much larger number of students each year. If you look at different schools' websites, find a couple professors whose work really interests you, and make note of why in your personal statements you'll look more committed to the field and to the schools, which bodes well for your success there.

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butsurigakusha
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Postby butsurigakusha » Mon Nov 19, 2007 2:12 am

there's a lot of money to be had in doping alloys with carbon and running electricity through it


It's a good thing I enjoy doping stuff with carbon. I guess I won't have to worry about finding a job.




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