March Madness… for physics students


This time of year is a bit hectic in US universities. On the one hand, the NCAA basketball tournament kicks off. On the other hand, the last graduate school offers are made and seniors interested in PhDs are whisked away to prospective student open houses across the country.

Unlike here in the UK, American universities abide by an agreement in which all grad school offers are made by late March and no school can demand a response before April 15th. This way schools can’t “undercut” one another by requiring students to commit before they’re sure they’ve had responses to all of their applications. Also unlike the UK, government fellowships (NSF, NDSEG, etc.) are awarded to individual students rather than being allocated to universities. Students without external or departmental fellowships are supported by teaching. Hence one doesn’t usually have to worry about funding separately from being accepted to a program.

A note for any younger readers: While undergraduate tuition is expensive, you do not have to pay to go to graduate school in the sciences. This is not true for medical school, business school, law school, etc. But if you want to get a PhD in the sciences, you will be supported. This is something that needs to be clarified to younger students who may decide against pursuing postgraduate education because of financial constraints.

Anyway, at around this time of year students can assess their offers and travel to other schools to talk to prospective advisers and other prospective graduate students. For many selecting a grad program can be a very difficult choice. I suggest seeking advice from as many reasonable people as one can. Reasonable people include: professors, graduate students (both in your institution and those programs that you’re considering), and other mentors. Unreasonable people include your aunt who just wants to have a niece/nephew who goes to “Big Name Ivy League University.”

Here are a couple of good posts about graduate school selection that might get you started:

Ultimately choosing a program is a very personal choice. One should take into account both professional and personal critera, but one should also be aware of how one chooses to weight these.

Here are my own humble thoughts on grad school selection. But please take this with several grains of salt and the understanding that I’m just as confused as the next person.

1. Research

No matter how one weighs all the other factors involved in one’s grad school decision, the quality and type of research done by a program should be the single most important criterion. This doesn’t mean that you should stress over the #1 school and the #2 school in your particular subfield (if such enumerations are even well defined), but it does mean that you should not go to a school that is not active in your field just because it has nice weather, a prestigious universty name, or lots of money. (But if good programs in your field also have some of those features, then it certainly doesn’t hurt.)

Research is why you’re going to grad school. In principle one only applies to programs whose research encompasses one’s own interests; but it is also possible that our research interests shift slightly since we wrote our applications. Under no circumstances should you go to a grad program that doesn’t do research that interests you. For the younger readers interested in grad school: one of your goals during your first three years as an undergraduate should be to try to figure out which particular subfields really interest you.

2) Faculty

Another criterion that should be high on one’s list: prospective advisors. Graduate school is an apprenticeship, more so in some departments than others. Certainly you want to have an advisor who is a leader in your field and who is brilliant and well respected and all that.

But you also want to have an advisor who you can get along with. You could be working with the greatest mind of our day, but what good is this if he/she doesn’t have time for you, or if you can’t stand him/her, or if he/she is a particularly poor advisor? Yes—it is possible for a professor fantastic researcher while not being a very good advisor. One needs to understand that these are two different criteria to measure prospective advisors against.

The definition of a `good advisor’ is a function of the student. Some students are more independent than others, some prefer more interaction and encouragement, some require more direction in their first year, etc. Many of the differences between advisors don’t boil down to whether they’re `good’ or `bad’ at particular aspects of dealing with graduate students; more likely they’re questions of style. One advisor might have a large research group where postdocs and senior students mentor younger students, another might have a smaller group where each student is directly responsible to the professor and nobody else, for example.

Whether or not you `click’ with your advisor is an important factor in your overall happiness and effectiveness in graduate school.

But what about after graduate school? If you’ve made it all the way to March and you’re looking around at your colleagues and their graduate school offers, you’ll know by now that there’s nothing inherently fair about progressing in academia (more on this at the end). Sure, good students will tend to do better. But there’s also an element of being able to `play the game’ and jumping through the right hoops. Some advisors have better track records in placing their students in good postdocs than others. As a prospective grad student, it’s probably hard to look past the next couple of years—but one needs to consider the long term picture.

Some faculty have very strong connections with researchers at other institutions. Such connections involve taking one another’s graduate students as post docs. This isn’t necessarily ‘under the table’ dealing, either: such researchers have an interest in taking on post docs that have been trained in the style of a collaborator that they work well with, not to mention that this strengthens the bonds of a successful collaboration.

Advisors also play a big role in putting their students `on tour’ later in their graduate careers: allowing them to go to conferences to present research, to give seminars at other schools, and to develop their own collaborations. Some advisors are much better at this than others.

It’s a bit harder to figure out a faculty member’s record of grad student placement, but this is certainly a question to ask any of his/her current graduate students.

Another angle to the importance of picking a research advisor: in a given department, how many professors are there that you would like to work with? In case something goes wrong and you don’t get along with your first choice advisor (or you can’t work with him/her), do you have alternatives? Even if you do get to work with your first choice adviser, are there other people there for you to communicate and collaborate with?

3) Post docs, other students

The academic environment consists more of just your adviser and faculty with similar interests. One should also carefully consider the group of post docs and the other students as potential collaborators.

Post docs are natural candidates for graduate student mentors. They’ve recently been down the same path and can be sympathetic to grad student naivete. They are also important as researchers who have been trained at different institutions, and hence provide a breadth to the scientific approach within a given department. Don’t underestimate this as a resource for your own research directions. Some departments—such as those associated with national labs—have more post docs or are known as `hot’ places for the most wanted post docs. Keep this in mind when assessing a department.

During grad school visits you’ll start to see lots of familiar faces. Chances are that some of these faces will become classmates and officemates. Your fellow grad students also form an important part of your research (and social) experience. Are there a lot of students in your research area? Are the older graduate students happy? Do grad students collaborate with one another to keep to themselves? Do the other students seem like people whom you could have professional conversations with? One learns a lot from one’s fellow students, so keep an eye on this as well.

4. Location

Location, location, location! For some people this is irrelevant. For others it’s a key point. Is a place known for sunny summers or snowy winters? Is there a big city nearby, or is it nestled away in its own small community? Do you feel like you can fit into the local community (e.g. ethnic diversity)? Is it close to your friends and family? These are all very personal decisions.

There are, however, a few professional aspects to consider. What is the extended academic community of a given university? For example, the geographic separation between the West and East coasts lead to somewhat separated communities where researchers go `on tour’ within their own community a bit more than to the other (e.g. the `West Coast LHC Theory Network’). Even on a more local level, proximity to other schools can lead to a larger research community for a grad student to work with—for example consider the Southern California String Seminar or the Boston Area Physics Calendar. On a larger scale, one needs to be aware of where one wants to spend one’s future career. A graduate position in Europe might lead to a natural postdoc at CERN, but it would require extra effort to make your name known on the West coast.

5. Money

Money makes the world go ’round. Even the academic world. Even for poor grad students. Even if you think you’re all set because you got a nice fellowship.

While you’ll not have to worry about being destitute or having to take out student loans ever again, there are money issues that a graduate student has to worry about that extend beyond which flavour of ramen one will have for dinner.

Funding also reduces the need to teach, which translates into more time doing research. But beyond being able to pay tuition, a department (or an advisor) with lots of funding can afford to send graduate students to summer schools, conferences, and to other schools to collaborate with other researchers. These are opportunities that aren’t necessarily covered by national fellowships but that are very important for one’s professional development.

I’ve seen very good departments across the spectrum: some where not having external funding makes it difficult to do research, some that can afford to send its students around the world at [practically] a whim. One should be aware of this when choosing a department.

6. Academic Culture

Beyond just the dynamics of a particular research group, what is the general academic culture in a department? Is there a strong sense of camraderie among graduate students? Do staff and faculty get along? Are there social functions? (I’ve witnessed quite a breadth in holiday parties.)

More directly relevant to graduate students: are there qualifying exams? If so, are they a formality or are they actually meant to `weed out’ students? What is the process to pair up with an advisor? What is the expectation for time to graduate?

7. Prestige

To leading order, the brand name of a university should not be a major factor in one’s decision. (This means: throw out the US News World Report.) One’s primary goal is to be in a good research group, and the scientific community is more attune to good research groups than fancy university names.

However, there’s certainly a correlation (to an extent) that big name universities have big-time budgets to support research as well as the resources to lure big-shot faculty.

One should be careful in how much one weighs university prestige in any decision. If you plan on leaving academia, then it is true that there are some career paths that a degree from “Ivy League U.” will open doors that a degree from “State College” will not. Within academia, however, it’s more of a meritocracy where it is more important to be a good student in a good research group, independent of how blue-blooded the university might be.

The hardest thing is to explain to non-academic friends why there’s even a decision to be made between “Ivy League U” and “State College.” Ultimately, don’t be afraid to take Howard Roark as a role model in this respect.

End note: Admissions aren’t fair
I should close my noting something explicity: grad school admissions aren’t fair. A lot of really, really qualified people don’t get into their top choice grad schools. This year I’ve seen some very talented collagues not get any offers from the US, even though students with similar qualifications from American universities would almost certainly be accepted to any program. Don’t get too down if you don’t get the letter you hoped from your dream school; it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not very good or that there isn’t a place for you in academia.

So for everybody who is spending spring break visiting other schools: congrats and enjoy the month! For those who are still waiting (perhaps waiting until Part III results): hang in there!

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