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As a European applicant...

Posted: Tue Dec 15, 2015 7:38 pm
by godwin
I want to express my deepest sympathies towards the American students because holy *** are they being abused. You people must be nothing short of superhuman to have survived under this kind of human rights violation throughout your high school and undergraduate career. Something about this whole application process, the insane stress, all the deadlines and countless little things that you can *** up really blows everything way out of proportion. You forget a physics department is made up of human beings that simply love their work and do not get paid very much. Instead these application committees become pantheons of stern old-testament gods with the power to crush your dreams and take away your reason for living.

European PhD positions, especially where I'm from, are essentially job openings and are treated that way. They appear throughout the year, allow you to apply for them, be interviewed to see if you got what it takes, and possibly be hired. You have useful skills and departments look for your useful skills. You are a valuable person. In no way, shape or form are you expected to pay upwards of $125 for the privilege of applying to the position. You are not constantly being reminded you're just one small packet of paper among hundreds, insignificant and prone to be judged by a mirthless group of grim, grim professors who will throw out your file over the slightest transgression.

The paranoia I've seen on here is understandable, even justified. At first, it was kind of amusing to see those threads that essentially read "I only got 950 for my pGRE, please recommend efficient ways to off myself". Now, I completely see where the attitude comes from. Standardized testing is a cruel, cruel beast. You are forced to learn an arbitrary set of techniques that you must apply in a 170-minute window which tells you how much better you are than others. Because indeed, you are told exactly where you rank. And for some reason you have to pay hundreds of dollars to be submitted to this torture and another few hundred to have your execution warrants sent out (because clicking 'send email' is a $27 dollar job now and adding a cc is apparently another $27). I understand Americans are primed for these tests way in advance and are often told the number that rolls out of them is directly proportional to their value as a person. I also heard the Chinese and Indians have cracked these tests and integrated 'giving' them into their culture. My own results in these tests were only okay, but I think I'll take my 'only okay' score over a lifetime of panicking

Don't get me wrong, I am glad I went through all of this. I set out to do something and no matter the outcome, I have done it to the best of my abilities. But the sheer stress that is so particular to the American grad school application must be acknowledged. Good job, guys and girls. I admire you just for having weathered this onslaught all your lives.

Re: As a European applicant...

Posted: Wed Dec 16, 2015 1:41 am
by quizivex
- I think applying online from home is much more convenient and less stressful than in-person interviews. Traveling somewhere far away and not getting the job would really suck. Also, don't the European programs use a paper application to select candidates to interview? There's no way they could want to and afford to interview all applicants.

- Indeed some of the applications fees were outrageous, especially Stanford's. I can understand there being a modest fee for processing charges and to discourage unqualified/uninterested students from submitting too many apps. But it should be illegal to charge what they charge. Stanford was abusive... over $100. And some of the grad programs were inconsiderate enough to make us mail TWO official transcripts.

- For the people who hate the PGRE so much, I wonder what they think of prelims. I think prelims are worse because they're pass/fail and there's only a few problems, so the randomness of the outcome is more severe. The PGRE has 100 questions. Standardized tests in general can be quite helpful to students from unrecognized undergrad schools who are trying to go to top grad schools.

Re: As a European applicant...

Posted: Wed Dec 16, 2015 5:56 am
by godwin
Interesting perspective, thank you. Maybe I'll see it your way when the initial wave of frustration has abated but right now there's a need to vent a bit.

It's true in Europe you still need to pass an initial selection before the actual interviews. Having to meet in person is inconvenient but we have Skype now. An overall lack of interviews by itself isn't all that terrible but it does contribute to the feeling of being undervalued. I would also argue SoP and recs do a much better job uncovering hidden talent from low-ranking schools than GREs do.

Then again US produces a lot of nobel laureates so they must be doing something right. And a program that's worth all the hassle is bound to be good.

Re: As a European applicant...

Posted: Wed Dec 16, 2015 2:05 pm
by TakeruK
Coming from Canada, I am so surprised at the amount of standardized tests and the level of competitiveness at US schools, for all levels of post-secondary! When I was in school, I only took 3 standardized tests ever: Grade 4, Grade 7 and Grade 10. These are low pressure tests just to evaluate how students are doing. They aren't used to compare schools against each other and assign funding, so there's no pressure from the school to get their students to do well. I was so surprised to learn that the GRE even existed. I didn't take SATs at all and Canadian schools in physics/astro do not require these tests at any level.

In Canada, getting into grad school is also more like a job interview and hiring process, like in Europe. This was not a big deal for me though, since I did a co-op work program in undergrad, so I had interviewed for research positions many times before. As Canada is really big, you often have Skype interviews rather than in-person interviews, but many schools will still fly you out to meet the faculty. One big difference with the interview process is that you do need to decide on project(s)/advisor(s) ahead of time and that you might be the 10th overall ranked applicant and still get accepted over the 5th overall ranked applicant because maybe all #1 through #5 wants to work with another professor. That is, you are only competing against other students applying to work in the same group(s), not everyone in the department! Personally, I like this method better because it's more like the world I'm used to (i.e. applying for jobs is the same way). However, now that I am in the US, I do see an advantage to the US system where you don't have to commit before coming to grad school. But, maybe requiring students to make a decision earlier isn't necessarily a bad thing (Note: Also, PhD programs come after Masters and the Masters acceptance process is more similar to the US where you don't have to choose right away).

Also, the other really interesting thing I learned about US colleges is how many essays and even reference letters(!!) that high school students had to submit to apply to University. In Canada, for Universities (4-year degrees) I just submitted my high school transcript in February and if it was above some number, then you get early acceptance, otherwise, you resubmit your final transcript in June and if you're in the top 2000 (or however many spots they have) then you get in. It's weird to me that US colleges want to see things like leadership or volunteering etc. to just get into a bachelor's program. The college (2-year degrees, with transfer options to 4year universities, also called community colleges in the US) are first-come, first served. The first X number of applicants that meet the minimum requirements are accepted. The idea is that the government funds enough colleges that everyone who wants to go is able to access higher education. So typically, a Canadian high school student will apply for a college early on (fall of Grade 12) to have a backup plan, usually a college in their hometown, and then apply to 2 or 3 universities.