What should a Physics grad do until grad school?
April 16, 2005 5:45 PM   Subscribe

My friend was sadly rejected from all of the physics grad schools to which he applied. He wants to apply again next fall, so in the meantime. . . What should he do to make himself a more appealing candidate the next time around? What fun adventure of a life should he have in the next year? These two things may hopefully be one and the same.

He got a good GRE score (>900) and had okay grades. Was surprised by all the rejections and would like to have better luck next time around. What can he do to impove his chances? What job or internship or project or tactic will help?

Additionally, he needs a plan for the next year of his life. He enjoys Northern California, creative writing, the outdoors, drawing, and of course, physics. He's outgoing and friendly and funny.

Ideally, his life plan for the next year will fatten his CV, but it need not - his mind is open to anything exciting.
posted by mai to Work & Money (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Join Metafilter and ask his own questions? Bwa ha ha. Anyway, practical work in his field would definitely look good on his application for next time. Also, does he do other stuff- volunteering, art classes, theatre, sports, etc? I remember a kid in my high school who had a 1500+ on the SAT, but didn't get into his first choice school because he wasn't involved in anything.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:00 PM on April 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

Did he do any undergraduate research? Proving you can do research is a pretty nice trick to have in your hat for grad applications.

Is there any way he could talk a professor into letting him do something comparable in the mean time, while he's waiting to apply again?
posted by hototogisu at 6:07 PM on April 16, 2005

Response by poster: Yes he did research, although he switched groups midway through. He wasn't published or anything. As for professor talking-to, it's in the gameplan, although advice on exactly how to get professors to want you to work for them full-time is appreciated.
posted by mai at 6:10 PM on April 16, 2005

Can he afford to work for a professor for free? Grant money is short these days, most professors seem to jump on someone who will work for them for free. He can also try to get a research internship, which is a little harder. Either way, he will have the chance to let more people see what a great graduate student he would be, and that helps.

He can ask the schools who rejected him what would make him a better candidate. It never hurts to let people know you are still interetested, and will apply. He can try to actually talk to professors with whom he would like to work, as opposed to talking to the program coordinator.
posted by copperbleu at 6:20 PM on April 16, 2005

Tell your friend to try to publish some of his undergrad work. Then, try to get in touch with few professors that he really wants to work with. Everybody considers first people they have met. Perhaps, he should go to the annual meeting/conference in his specialty (or check http://www.aps.org/). There are lots of people there he can meet and discuss. Finally, everybody LOVES people who bring their own money. Tell him to try to obtain (even a small) assistantship/scholarship/award from third sources (info obtained from Internets, local libraries, his undergad school).
Ahhh, my personal opinion: don't work for free. First years in grad school are hard and starting a project might not bring the best outa you. Better show off what you've done already.
posted by carmina at 6:26 PM on April 16, 2005

and something else, is he sure about his reference letters? If he applied to a lot of schools of different level and got rejected from all of them then there might be something wrong with his references... I have seen this happen.
posted by carmina at 6:31 PM on April 16, 2005

Ideally, his life plan for the next year will fatten his CV, but it need not - his mind is open to anything exciting.

I think he should join a busy volunteer fire department - like the one in Kentland, MD ("Home of the Second Busiest Engine in the Country, Still Doin the Deed"). Departments like Kentland have facilities where volunteers can live. On the West Coast there is the Malibu Mountain Rescue Team. And of course, there are volunteer departments all over the country that he could join.
posted by mlis at 7:12 PM on April 16, 2005

No idea what he should do, but volunteering, involvement, or other "extra-curriculars" will not make him a more attractive candidate. Those things can matter for undergrad, but no grad school is going to care. That's not to say he shouldn't do it if it's something he'll enjoy. But don't do it as a cv-builder, cause it won't work.
posted by duck at 7:14 PM on April 16, 2005

Maybe some better GREs? I had a combined 1300 and didn't have much of any luck getting into grad schools, and that includes an ok GPA and lab experience. However, for me, it was probably more a result on the schools I applied to which can be a problem...is he applying to top-notch schools or also keeping the option open for, um, lesser-tier schools? I made the mistake of only applying to top schools and am now going to have to wait at least a year.
posted by jmd82 at 7:24 PM on April 16, 2005

The thing about fighting fires (or putting a bandage on someone, or helping someone down from a mountain) is that it is a very different experience from academic life. It is not a series of endless existential questions - when you are extricating someone from a car wreck, it matters whether you are right or wrong. Your friend would meet people he would otherwise not meet and definitely have experiences he would otherwise not have. Good life experience for him.
posted by mlis at 7:40 PM on April 16, 2005

If your friend has a passion for physics, that should have manifested itself during his undergraduate work. If it did, it seems reasonable to assume that at least one professor noticed it. If so, he should talk to such (a) person(s) about what he might do, and whether he really has any realistic chance of getting into a PhD program, and what, if anything, can be done to improve his chances. (I assume he needed letters of reference, which would be the place to start.)

It makes little sense to spend a year waiting for a second opportunity if there really is none.

Also, does he love physics so much that he is willing to (a) work for free in that field while (b) living as inexpensively as possible and (c) working a second job, of whatever type is available, to cover his expenses?
posted by WestCoaster at 8:13 PM on April 16, 2005

have GRE scores changed in recent years? 900?

I would say your friend should take advantage of this opportunity to explore possibilities. There are two sides to this question - what to do with the time off, and how to get in next time around.

For the first, I would say it's practically a benefit that he's been forced to take some time between his BA and his grad school. Americans so commonly go straight from high school to college to grad school that there's hardly a chance to interact with the "real world" and consider what it means to be an adult, on your own, etc. Some people I meet who never take time off really do seem kind of sheltered and, well, just extra-young, somehow, in their personalities. Obviously this is not an absolute or anything, but percentage-wise, I really think time off is a plus for personal depth & that sort of thing. Whether he travels, works, or pursues some kind of internship, advise him to explore and expand his horizons, rather than living in his parents' basement or whatever.

As for getting in next time around, how many applications did he send out? Did he have an advisor who helped him choose programs that could serve as mid-level or safetys as well as those that were perfect? Is he sure his recommendations were strong?

I would not try to spend the year doing something that will fatten up the resume, though. Don't remind them that he was rejected; just take it as if he was planning a year off anyway.
posted by mdn at 8:21 PM on April 16, 2005

I second the GREs thing. Just >900 is not great. How'bout the subject GRE? Top schools pay attention to that, although you could have perfect score and still not get in.

Anyway, he could always ask professors or administrators from the departments he didn't get offers, what was wrong with his application. It's really OK and he can get lots of free advice for next year.

My opinion is, if he really wants to go to grad school to keep at it. In physics (especially theoretical) patience is and will be his greatest asset.
posted by carmina at 8:25 PM on April 16, 2005

Response by poster: I meant >900 (930, actually) on the subject GRE because the general doesn't matter much. Since that one is out of 1000 (or maybe it's 999), a 930 is a good score.
posted by mai at 9:08 PM on April 16, 2005

Response by poster: BTW, thanks for the variety of answers. Since he is still surveying his options, he will appreciate hearing from a variety of perspectives.
posted by mai at 9:11 PM on April 16, 2005

the general doesn't matter much

Really? Who told you that? Seems to me any decent grad school would pay close attention to an applicant's verbal, quantitative and analytical writing skills as well as the score on a test in a particular subject. Out of curiosity, what were his general scores?
posted by mediareport at 11:00 PM on April 16, 2005

There is only one thing that really matters, and he apparently does not have it. The expression, "publish or perish" pretty much sums up careers in most academic fields including physics. If he wants to fight fires, he can go play with hoses. If he wants to be a physicist he should get a job as a research assistant with a primary investigator in his field of interest, and he should bust his ass to get some papers on his CV.

The challenges will be finding a PI who is productive and ideally at a place he'd like to go to for grad school, and picking a project that is both in line with his interests and likely to yield results. The pecking order of most labs gives the grad students dibs on good projects, leaving a potential minefield of fruitless goose chases for undergrads, techs, and the rest...
posted by drpynchon at 4:49 AM on April 17, 2005

As someone who actually has an advanced degree in physics, let me comment on this.

First, you're not going to be able to publish. Period. Move on. Any journal that would take an undergrad's research is worth anything, and if his research is so great and important, he wouldn't be in this mess. End of discussion there. It's not English, people.

Second, apply to other schools. He'll get in. He's american, right? There are so few american grad students in physics that many schools are in danger of losing funding.

On the GRE: I had a perfect score on the general GRE (well, 99th percentile, actually), and scored a 26th percentile on the physics GRE, which is pretty damn high for an american undergrad. The problem with the physics GRE is that there is a lot of material that simply isn't covered in a limited american undergrad school, unless you're at a specific technical school. I went to a minor ivy league undergrad school and got a liberal arts education, which makes me more well rounded than some of the nerdlingers I work with. Art? What's that? My experience is that most schools do not place a lot of weight on the physics GRE.

If he's having trouble getting in, I would first look at where you are applying. CalTech and MIT only take the best. Second, I'd start thinking about a more realistic grad school choice. Maybe Material's Science? Engineering? If I could go back in time, this is what I'd do. It makes you a lot more rounded and gives you a chance of getting a real world job. Or is he so pie in the sky he thinks he can get a professorship?

Kids are so cute when they're young.

Me, I'm old and bitter. You'll be lucky to make half what you're moronic boss makes, btw.

posted by kungfujoe at 6:10 AM on April 17, 2005

i'm confused. i wouldn't expect an undergrad to have published anything (unless from a pushy american college i guess, but i thought that simply meant they came from a pushy american college rather than that they were actually competent...)

anyway, one thing he could do is some kind of computer simulation work. it doesn't have to be ground-breaking, but if he wanted to do some kind of numerical simulation work, showing that he's already written some related software and put it on the web would be a big plus (you might focus on making a bunch of weights and springs look pretty, with a nice gui, etc, but make sure you understand the underlying implementation - whatever (matrix based?) algorithm the engine uses, etc).

i'm more involved with astronomy than physics, so another example comes from there - the new thing is astronomy is the "virtual observatory" using web services to access data. a recent graduate could easily find a niche where a library to help astronomers use these packages would be appreciated (eg a toolkit for python).

so if he's motivated and can program, he can do something. but it sure as f*ck won't involve creative writing and the outdoors (hello?!).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:30 AM on April 17, 2005

I would either sign up for, or audit (often can be done late) a graduate school class without being "in" the school. Maybe take a bunch. I would work my ass off for A's. At the end of the year, reapply and show those A's. Get in good with a professor at a school. Have them write the recommendation for you. Better the school you "take a class at" better your chances of acceptance to a good school after. Personally, I think this will work. Your friend needs to prove he is a proven no-risk applicant.
posted by xammerboy at 8:57 AM on April 17, 2005

Grad student in physics in here (and judging by your zip code, you and your friend are at University of Chicago, just like me.) Talking to people who were on the admissions committee this year, some schools have been spooked by various government funding cuts and are not admitting nearly as many students this year as they have in previous years. Here at the University of Chicago, for example, we accepted about 25% fewer students than we have in previous years. Experimental high-energy physics was, from what I've gathered, particularly hard-hit.

My general advice to your friend is to try to find a job at least tangentially related to the field and work hard at it for a year. Working in some professor's lab here at the U of C would be great. If your friend can code, he might look in to working with ASCI Flash. He could try to get a job as a lab tech for a year (one of my friends did this right after graduating from college.) But as other people have stated, his application will not look much better (and, indeed, might even look worse) if he applies next year having been completely out of the field for some time.

If your friend wants to contact me, send him my e-mail. If he's graduating now, it's conceivable that I already know him (I was a TA for the first-year honours classes when he would have been a freshman.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:15 AM on April 17, 2005

Response by poster: Johnny Assay: Actually you were my TA (I'll leave it you to guess who I am).

Andrew Cooke: thanks for the advice. I only included info about writing and the outdoors because it is not a sure thing that he wants to spend the next year doing something physics-related. You know how it is when you're young and still exploring the world. But point taken.
posted by mai at 10:40 AM on April 17, 2005

Alright, I'll throw in my own experience here. I was applying for some very selective grad schools in a similar major (Applied Math) and I ended up not being a first-round offer.

My situation is slightly different, I've published once, and I have another paper in proceedings. By the way, there are a lot of conferences and such that you can get published at which don't have the same weight as a peer-reviewed journal but still look good on the CV.

I ended up getting into the school I wanted, but while I was waiting, I considered heading out to a nice area (like Bozeman, Montana) to do a year of coursework that would strengthen my math background before reapplying.

In my opinion your friend should start exploring what he wants to do by taking related coursework that's not directly physics. If he wants to do computational biology, take a couple bio/physiology courses; simulations and modeling, a few software development classes under his belt won't hurt.

And, man do I feel empathy for your friend, I was feeling the exact same blues a week ago. I wish him the best of luck!
posted by onalark at 11:12 AM on April 17, 2005

is he sure about his reference letters?

I second this - recommendations are very very important, possibly the most important thing. Also, you need to make sure the politics are working in your favor - this is a little hard to figure out as an undergrad, but you can ask the recommenders what they think of a particular place, etc. In retrospect I'm pretty sure I didn't get accepted in one particular place because the group I said I wanted to work in there in my statement of purpose was headed by someone who does not like my advisor at all (and it seems to be on some kind of personal level, too).

i wouldn't expect an undergrad to have published anything

First, you're not going to be able to publish. Period.

(quotes from two different people)

I don't know about physics, but in at least computer science, biology, and cognitive science it seems quite common for good undergrads to be authors on conference papers. They are seldom (if ever) first authors, so what this means is that they did some of the necessary scutwork, and possibly participated in discussions about the work, not that they set the research agenda and wrote the paper. This often carries over to journal papers that are the later product of conference papers (in the fields I know about, very few things turn straight into a journal paper).

In the cases that I know about (including my own), this is the direct result of the undergrad taking some kind of initiative and getting a job in a research group. People who don't get to participate in research like this, it seems to me, don't mainly because it never occurred to them to try to get involved in some way. It's certainly not that most of them aren't capable of it. It's better to get involved in research early on in an undergrad career, because at the very beginning most jobs like this are fairly removed from the actual research - it takes a while to build up your knowledge/skills/reputation to the point where you can be an active participant.

It's very unlikely that any undergrad will have research that they can really call their own published (though this is to some extent also true of grad students in the hard sciences, as far as I can tell), but it is simply wrong to suggest that undergrads cannot be authors on published papers. In fact, this seems to be becoming more important to grad school acceptance in the US, as things get more competitive.
posted by advil at 11:13 AM on April 17, 2005

It's very unlikely that any undergrad will have research that they can really call their own published (though this is to some extent also true of grad students in the hard sciences, as far as I can tell), but it is simply wrong to suggest that undergrads cannot be authors on published papers. In fact, this seems to be becoming more important to grad school acceptance in the US, as things get more competitive.

Again, amen to this. I don't know what those other guys are talking about. While it's no guarantee, having some decent authorships will help a grad school application far more than just about any other component. And it's fairly common for many applicants to do posters/conferences at least.

I didn't bother to apply, but as an undergrad I published two legit papers to major journals (Biophys and J Phys Chem) with one first author. People were practically begging me to go to grad school or MD/PhD at top tier programs, and I hadn't even taken the GREs.

Like I said, it ain't easy, and it's surely a bit of a crap shoot, but if you want to lock up an application this would be a way to do it: a small role on the tail end of a project with multiple authors that's sure to get results. The way you've described things, unless he got a nasty letter of rec, the weakness in his application still seems like it's in research experience. That gap is only going to become more apparent if he spends the following year away from the lab. It'll be the first question anyone asks at an interview: "you want to be a physicist, you got rejected last year, and spent the next year soul searching? pfft..."

Of course, if he's genuinely that wishy-washy on the prospects of a graduate degree in physics, it may not be such a good idea to begin with. Even if you're incredibly successful, that road is not for the faint of heart.
posted by drpynchon at 11:53 AM on April 17, 2005

I second the "it's pretty ridiculous to think that he'd publish in physics as an undergrad". Of course it does happen, but his not doing so isn't why he was rejected. Conversely, if he can get in on a project now, it would indeed help, but I doubt he will be given the opportunity.

One lousy-enough letter is enough to get you rejected everywhere good. It's quite rare -- almost everyone will say "I don't know enough to write you a letter" because not doing so means less work for them. But it happens; it happened to me.

One very good way (mentioned above) to forestall such a problem is to ask your potential recommenders what schools you should apply to; if their first suggestion is University of West Bumfuck then consider someone else.

Really, I think his best hope is to apply to lesser schools, which will be painful coming from Chicago.
posted by Aknaton at 4:47 PM on April 19, 2005

"Exit interviews" would be exceedingly useful. At least SOME places will have department chairs or chairs of admission who should be willing to take some time out now to (via telephone usually) go over the application, and tell someone where he was weak. Some of them will spout generic platitudes, but by averaging over the responses of a number of such interviews, one can get a fairly good idea of what to do to improve for a second go at the process.

Given that it's past April 15th, a lot of acceptances should be finalized, and admissions' loads should become lighter: I'd start emailing or writing or calling and trying to set up these "exit interviews" now. Be polite but definitely tenacious.

Best of luck to your friend! Otherwise, more research never hurts. The GRE subject score is absolutely fantastic, by the way.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 5:26 PM on April 19, 2005

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