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zxcv's grad school visit blog

Posted: Sun Mar 02, 2008 11:40 am
by zxcv
UC Davis

I'm in the Sacramento airport right now, waiting to catch a plane back to my school after spending the past two days in Davis.

I've been convinced that Davis has a strong physics program overall, and there are a number of faculty here who I would be happy to work with, most likely in the fields of condensed matter theory or complex systems. It also has a pretty nice location, but that was true for every school I applied to! Yet Davis was also my safety school, and it's going to be hard to pass up offers from my other schools, especially Berkeley, which was probably my first choice going in.

Davis got me to visit here through some strategic choices in terms of notification dates. I spent some talking with Daniel Cebra, chair (co-chair?) of the admissions committee. Davis's strategy is to target the people they want most and try to send them letters as soon as possible -- I got mine within two weeks of the application deadline, and I think that was the norm. Out of 300 applications, this year they are aiming for a class of about 15-20 students, a bit smaller than the longer-term average they will shoot for in the future (25) and the average in the recent past (maybe 30 with high variance).

So far they have admitted 40 applicants, all domestic, and 21 of us were at the visiting weekend. I definitely got the sense that along with a few others there who had also gotten into top 10 schools that I was probably a stronger candidate than most students. People also were there from all sorts of schools, many from essentially no-name schools in physics, or at least schools I hadn't (or had barely) heard of. But that doesn't mean those students weren't well qualified, as nearly everyone I talked to had research experience of some sort, and one of those students from a school with one physics professor (a lurker on this site) had research experience at SLAC and Davis and had gotten into Caltech, Cornell and Stanford. Still, it's an interesting perspective on admissions, and overall I was impressed by how it seems that committed students can get in from all sorts of schools. Your undergrad institution is not going to hold you back.

For those of you who are still hoping to get into Davis, the plan is to apparently admit about 10 more students sometime soon and then waitlist 20 more students, which depending on funding and enrollment may be able to be accepted later. Those 10 students will include all of the international students, which they expect to be only about 20% of the class (this is because the UC system has strong funding disincentives against international students).

Also interesting is that all of us at the visiting weekend had received a $5000 "department fellowship." This is a one year "signing bonus" to encourage us to come, and is only for the first year. A couple years ago when they tried to save money by dropping this bonus they ended up with only 12 students enrolled. I think a lot of schools offer these incentives, but it's important to keep in mind that unless explicitly noted otherwise, they probably don't last past the first year -- definitely ask. They also don't make a long term difference in terms of funding, so it's worth averaging them over the 5-6 years to get a PhD compared to TA or RA compensation.

Future visits

I'll be at University of Washington next weekend and at Berkeley (most likely) April 2-3, and I'll share my thoughts on those schools when I come back. I'm still waiting on Caltech and Santa Barbara, and if I get into either of those I'll try to visit, too. I may go to San Diego, too, where I was last summer, but right now I'm holding off because Santa Barbara would be a preferred choice for me and they have the same date for the visiting weekend. Also, purely on superficial constraints (e.g. location) they're a lower choice than Berkeley and UW for me. Since I'm still not sure what I want to study (leaning towards theory or computational physics and more "table-top sized" fields like condensed matter), I basically chose to apply to top physics schools filtered by location, since I wanted to get back to the west coast.

Re: zxcv's grad school visit blog

Posted: Sun Mar 09, 2008 6:48 pm
by zxcv
University of Washington

First thoughts: very nice facilities, beautiful campus, great location. UW physics is in a fabulous pretty-new building. Seattle seems like a great city, and it's also in the Pacific Northwest which I'm familiar with (I'm from Portland) so there are amazing opportunities for hiking and outdoor adventures, of course -- mountains surround Seattle on all sides. Weather is not always warm and sunny, but I in general it's pretty mild and with superb summers: to my taste. One third year at the student panel told us he backcountry skies 10 days a month. In terms of superficial constraints, UW beats Davis (which had first year grad student offices in a trailer) by about an order of magnitude.

The campus is very nice with picturesque views. Something that impressed me on Saturday morning is the tour of lab facilities. I guess I just haven't seen that much coming from a relatively non-research oriented liberal arts college, but I was really impressed by these labs. It seemed like around every corner there was some gigantic fancy apparatus. This was especially true in the experimental gravity group, where the experiments sound like fantastic precision work. I don't plan to be an experimentalist, but I still thought it was pretty cool that they took us on the lab tour.

In terms of research, I'll admit that I'm not quite as excited. There is a lot of good physics going on, but in terms of my interests (mostly theoretical) the strongest area by far is in nuclear theory (there is the Institute for Nuclear Theory) and I'm not sure that that is the area I want to get into. Ideally I would study things that are maybe a little more concrete, but I'm not entirely sure about that -- my concerns about specific fields at this point are mostly pragmatic, to be honest. They do seem to have respectable condensed matter theorists. Still, in my crude approximation the research here is at least as good as Davis and I'd much rather live here, so I think I can cross Davis off my list right now.

One area of research I'm glad I'm not especially interested in is particle theory. Although apparently they have a pretty strong program (I didn't look too carefully), I heard incidental reasons for not doing particle theory (at least at UW). First of all, money is tight, so you'll likely be only half funded as an RA (other half as TA) through your full time. Then, at least in past years, there have been way more students who wanted to do particle theory than could. Apparently in previous classes as much as 15/20 have entered with an express interest in it, although this year I found only one student (I think) who expressed that as her dominant interest. Later most people seem to have happily found other research interests. But still, from one disaffected grad student, I heard this story of a guy who wanted to particle theory. He had done an REU at UW and was assured by a professor that he would be set coming here, so he chose it over Stanford. Then he got beat out by two other allegedly stronger students, and is now apparently much happier doing oceanography after having dropped out of physics.

According to the hearsay out of the women in physics breakfast, UW may not be a great place to be a female student, but take that with a grain of salt because it's second hand and I don't know how it compares. Although apparently the particle theorists are the worst.

I also had significantly more fun here than at Davis. I definitely recommend drinking with grad students to hear the real story. I worry if this is some superficial bias of mine, but somehow I think I related more with the people here. The other prospective students were pretty cool and helpful, too, especially in terms of being able to give me concrete advice about various fields and top schools, beyond a silent expression of awe. I was impressed by the cult-like customs of the MIT kids (I am in jest) with their beaver rings, a group of friends who had all applied in sequence following one guy who really wanted to come here, and of course, had failed to get in.

Something else, that my be of interest to the administrators of this site: has near 100% penetration of students applying to these grad schools. It was brought up twice in different groups and everyone was familiar with it. Not everyone thought it was healthy to obsess over grad admissions, but there were many more lurkers than posters and almost everyone had at least heard of it or used it for studying for the GRE. So good job, Grant, you seem to have created a success.

Admissions info: UW has admitted 79 students so far aiming for a class of 25. About 37 of us were at the visiting weekend. Apparently domestic admissions are over, although a few international applicants are being accepted.

Future Visits

I've decided that since I'm still not completely sure what to think, I should go visit UCSD at least to get more perspective, and there's still a chance I'll go there, even though Berkeley seems solidly #1 right now.

Re: zxcv's grad school visit blog

Posted: Sat Mar 15, 2008 6:00 pm
by zxcv
UC Berkeley (a brief visit)

I'm in the bay area for a wedding this weekend and so decided to get in touch with a couple of professors at Berkeley whose work I was interested in. Both were very friendly and seem to have all sorts of interesting projects in mind. Even though they are in either the chemistry or computer science departments, Berkeley apparently has very few institutional barriers to working across departments. Birgitta Whaley, for instance, right now has four physics students with none from chemistry, even though that's her home department.

I got to see grad student offices and the Berkeley Quantum Information & Computation Center, which is basically a large seminar room/lounge for people at Berkeley who do that sort of work. There aren't that many people at Berkeley doing quantum computing, although apparently they are hiring right now one or two more professors to do theoretical or experimental work.

It was also good to see the campus and the city of Berkeley, which very quite nice. I think I would be happy to be here, and I'm actually very excited Cal right now, and it's exceedingly likely right now that this is where I'll end up, so I think I may not visit San Diego after all. I'll also be coming back in a few weeks for the visiting days, at which point I'll have a much stronger sense of the physics department. But right now, I'm very excited about the research which is really the critical part.