Narrowing my son's grad school search
November 27, 2013 5:54 PM   Subscribe

My son is a junior physics/math major at a small midwestern state university. He needs to start looking at graduate programs. He would prefer to stay in research or academia. How can I help him start this process? (B.S. for me) Location is not an issue. It's more a question of what programs offer the best opportunities and fields of study. How can we find out that kind of information? How can I help him start with a reasonable number of candidates?
posted by DaddyNewt to Education (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
He needs to ask his professors about this. Ideally, this should be not a parent-driven process (or even a process in which you're involved at all). For graduate-level study, he needs to be self-motivated and fairly independent in order to succeed, and that includes researching his own career and academic options.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:56 PM on November 27, 2013 [58 favorites]

I know you mean well, but this should definitely not be a "we". Graduate school is extremely hard on people who can't self-manage to this degree, and it's better to get started on it now. Be someone he can talk to, a sounding board, not a source of information.
posted by Sequence at 6:04 PM on November 27, 2013 [24 favorites]

He also should probably decide what field he wants to go to graduate school in before he starts thinking about programs.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:10 PM on November 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

I agree with the above that he needs to be working on this process with his advisor, not so much his dad.

If you feel a need to nudge him about something, and he's serious about doing physics grad school, nudge him about studying for the Physics GRE. You can't start studying too early, and most graduate departments will weight the Physics GRE score heavily in their decision. His score will in large part determine what caliber of program he can realistically get into. What exactly he should study is another thing he should be discussing with his advisor.
posted by BrashTech at 6:23 PM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding that he needs to talk to his professors about the programs they would recommend. They ought to have a reasonable sense of his talents and how high he should aim. He might also contact a few graduate program directors in programs that interest him and ask for their advice--whether he's competitive, whether the program is a good fit, etc.

First, though, he needs to decide on his field. In grad school, the institution is much less important than the program. A university could be great for experimental physics but terrible for geometry, or vice-versa.

You need to let him do this on his own. I was recently advising a former student who is applying to grad school who sent me a list of places he was planning to apply. Half of them were completely inappropriate given his interests. When I asked him why he put them on his list, he replied that his family had suggested them--apparently based on location and overall reputation as undergraduate institutions. I had to point out that you don't pick graduate programs that way. Plus, as PhoBWanKenobi said, he needs to be motivated to do this on his own. I've seen plenty of grad students drop out of their programs, sometimes because they weren't prepared or capable, but more often because they didn't have the fire in the belly to stick with it.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:29 PM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is all entirely field-dependent. The universities that have physics departments that are good for astrophysics are completely different from the universities with departments that are well known for string theory. He needs to talk with professors and his classmates and other grad students and figure out where to direct his focus.
posted by deanc at 6:41 PM on November 27, 2013

He should be talking to his professors about this, as well as probably grad students associated with his department.
posted by Sara C. at 7:06 PM on November 27, 2013

How can I help him start this process?

You can encourage him to explore all his options and do his research. And you can promise to support him through the process.

How can we find out that kind of information? How can I help him start with a reasonable number of candidates?

This is his job, not yours. He needs to do the research himself and make his own decisions about the next step in his life. He will, if he is like most people his age, make some mistakes. Let him. They are part of growing up (as is becoming self-sufficient and able to tackle challenges without parental assistance).
posted by schroedingersgirl at 7:25 PM on November 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

You should not be helping him at all. Act as a sounding board, introduce him to anyone you know in the field (if at all), but you need to be hands-off. If he can't do this process on his own grad school will go extremely poorly for him.
posted by Anonymous at 8:49 PM on November 27, 2013

When I was trying to winnow down graduate school possibilities, I found the American Institute of Physics's compendium of graduate programs useful. Your son's department may have a copy. The same information is available in more searchable form (including selecting by state, subfield, etc.) at .
posted by janewman at 10:19 PM on November 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, speak to faculty--they are the people who keep up with the current research coming out of different departments, and the research is what you go to grad school for. If the physics and/or math departments have a 'director of undergraduate studies' or similar faculty advisor, they might be a good resource--it was such an advisor who suggested I apply to the program where I am now earning a math Ph.D. General academic advisors will probably be less helpful--at my undergrad I had one, but her contribution was limited to "You're going to grad school? That's great," and to tell me I should use Interfolio, which ended up being a tremendous hassle.

And yeah, my parents gave me moral support but everything else was my job.
posted by Aquinas at 10:31 PM on November 27, 2013

I heartily endorse PhoBWanKenobi's thread-opening comment. That said, a very concrete thing you might be able to help with is ponying up money for the application fees!

Interfolio may or may not be a hassle depending on the number of schools to which he is applying, and whether or not his letter-writers want to write individual letters for each school. (Interfolio also has fees.)
posted by dhens at 2:45 AM on November 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I disagree that you shouldn't be a big part of this process. 21 year olds can be terribly naive and make horrible life decisions. You can't pick his field but you can certainly advise him. It's very easy to be admitted and get loans to a less-than-fully-funded graduate program, or less-than-top-ranked law or business school, and his current professors won't necessarily tell him how dumb it is to accept those things.
posted by MattD at 6:14 AM on November 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi, I'm a theoretical physicist at an American research university. Nthing everyone else's comments that applying to grad school is going to have to be on your son's initiative. Grad school is hard (though certainly not all bad, I had a wonderful time during my grad school years), and is defined after the first few years by independent research. I haven't been on the graduate recruitment committee yet, but a lot of what I think we're looking for when reading applications is some indication that resources are going to be well allocated, certainly to the people who have the academic background necessary, but also that we're bringing in people who have the self-motivation to see it through to the end (though the reasons that people don't complete a degree are multifaceted, and are not simply "they couldn't hack it." Grad school's not for everyone, and a PhD is not a "I'm smart" award). This is to say, as a prospective advisor for a student, I'd be pretty nonplussed if a parent tried to get visibly involved in their child's graduate decision-making process.

That said, you're his parent and you want to give him the best advice possible, and academia, like any other field, has its own expectations and career progressions that can be difficult for someone who didn't go through it to know ahead of time. If this is something he wants to do, strongly encourage him to talk with his physics professors right now, and get their advice. Going into his junior year, there is a lot he could be doing to make sure he's in the best position possible for his applications (though maybe he already is). Also, letters of recommendation are critical, so he needs to have a good relationship with his professors, which only he can build, and takes time.

He also should be doing some undergrad research; again, like grad school, this is not your job to get him a position, but you can certainly have a talk with him about his options. He should be working with his professors to find something he can work on, if not at his home university than in the summer somewhere else. There are summer REU programs at many R1 universities (R1 means top-tier research-focused university) he can apply for, as well at some national labs (he can also check through NASA). Bluntly, for many undergrads, I would say research topic doesn't matter too much for this sort of thing; it should be something that doesn't make him bored, he will learn something, but it doesn't have to be his life's work. I worked in a cryogenics lab at JPL as an undergrad, and I do particle physics now. I worked there for the simple reason that one of my undergrad profs knew the woman running the lab, and so recommended me. It was a good experience, probably helped me get into grad school, and taught me that I should not be allowed near anything in a lab.

Finally, for grad schools, he should of course be talking to his professors, but unless he's interested in a particularly esoteric subfield of physics, there aren't that many secret gems. The top-ranked universities in public rankings of physics programs are pretty much the top-ranked universities, and if academia is his aim, then he should have the goal of getting into the absolutely best one he can, though "the best" isn't the same for everyone. Grad school is a job, he will be earning his tuition and salary, and he should not go anywhere that cannot pay him - usually guaranteed for 2 or 3 years, then the expectation of joining a research group and getting paid through a professor's grants at a rate that should allow him to live frugally but not uncomfortably in the local area, but there's a lot of variation. Location should be no object, except that he should feel like he's going to be happy there. It's going to be 5-7 years (on average) of some of the most stressful work he'll ever do, and he should find a place to do it that doesn't drive him insane. Lots of great grad schools are in great cities or fun college towns; I think there's this view that academia is some sort of priesthood that you join without concern for salary, or quality of life, or anything like that, but that I think is the source of a lot of unhappiness in grad school (and after), and you can encourage him to think about these other issues.

I'll be happy to discuss more issues through email. If he happens to be interested in particle physics I can give more pointed advice, but nothing he couldn't get from talking to his professors, most likely. Memail me.
posted by physicsmatt at 6:24 AM on November 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

(phd in math here with experience in the physics world) i just want to second the advice about REUs. If it's an option, he should be applying to them, particularly since you say he is coming from a small midwestern university. Most top physics departments will filter the US applications by GRE scores i.e. throw out all the applications below a certain number, and then the decision comes down to recommendations. A recommendation is only as good as the reputation of the recommender and getting one from a REU advisor would be very helpful if the school he is going to is not well known for physics.

Just a reminder though, academic science in the US is very driven by pedigree and the career options for PhDs coming from second tier schools are only getting worse. (Actually, everyone's career options are only getting worse.) There are worse things than not going grad school at this point.
posted by at 7:44 AM on November 28, 2013

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