Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

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scytoo
Posts: 18
Joined: Wed Dec 05, 2018 7:26 am

Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by scytoo » Fri Jan 04, 2019 8:27 am

So I know my overall profile is pretty good, but it does also have its weaknesses.

Institution: International, small, but well-respected for astrophysics
Major(s): Physics, Applied Mathematics
Minor(s): N/A
GPA in Major: 4.00
Overall GPA: 4.00
Length of Degree: 3 years BSc, 1 year Honours
Position in Class: No official rankings, but top
Type of Student: International (for Oxbridge), white female
Prospective Course: PhD in Astrophysics (theoretical)
GRE Scores: N/A (not applying US)

Research Experience:
- 2 months with alma mater in first year, extended over the 4 years and resulting in a first-author publication concerning AGN (theory), and two poster presentations (one national, one international)
- 3 months with national lab in second year concerning quasars (data analysis and observation, no publication)
- 12 months full-time with alma mater in AGN (theory), leading to a thesis (no publication)
- 8 months with alma mater, after graduating, in cosmology (no publication, ongoing)

Awards/Honors/Recognitions:
- 3 scholarships for science
- All university awards for physics and mathematics
- Travel awards for conferences
- National award for physics thesis
- University medal

Pertinent Activities or Jobs:
- Peer and private tutor
- Marker
- Public speaker for astrophysics
- State representative for astrophysics in schools
- Tour guide and student information leader for Open Days etc

Letters: I know it's sorta impossible to know for sure, but I think they're very strong. I'd consider all of my letter writers to be personal friends. I don't necessarily use all of these for all programs, but
- 2 from research supervisors
- 1 from professor, head of department, and unit coordinator I do tutoring under
- 1 from professor, head of faculty

Misc: My primary research supervisor attended both Cambridge and Oxford, one as a graduate student and the other as a post-doc.

Special Bonus Points: I grew up in poverty in the state, so my outreach work is directly tied to engaging disadvantaged communities etc. A festival I annually present at was recently awarded $10mil to build a planetarium in my tiny hometown.

And I know, that's great and all.

My only concern is that I'm applying to do some heavy theory for PhD, and I don't actually have a math background that's all that strong. I did a course in cosmology and general relativity, but other than that, I didn't do any tensor calculus and I am not competent in that kind of theory as-is. I have basically no linear algebra other than a brief, introductory half-course. My Applied Math major was mostly stuff involving PDEs and nPDEs, so I just don't have the algebra background that is probably needed for the kind of work I'm proposing (can't be sure, my prospective PIs aren't keen to discuss projects with me in one case). And I am not competent in that mathematics.

Would my lack of relevant background be a really big red flag? I have research experience and grades, but they're in tangential areas and I can't demonstrate that I have that theory under-wraps already.

I am also applying to two "safety" schools, but don't really want to attend those because they're honestly quite below where I should be aiming. Due to some bad circumstances, I had to seriously cut down my list of schools and only Oxbridge made the cut for the "good" universities. But now I'm worried that I'm relying too heavily on getting into programs that are exceptionally competitive and I might not clear the bar for them.

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Nishikata
Posts: 152
Joined: Sun Sep 23, 2018 6:37 am

Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by Nishikata » Fri Jan 04, 2019 9:03 am

scytoo wrote:So I know my overall profile is pretty good, but it does also have its weaknesses.

Institution: International, small, but well-respected for astrophysics
Major(s): Physics, Applied Mathematics
Minor(s): N/A
GPA in Major: 4.00
Overall GPA: 4.00
Length of Degree: 3 years BSc, 1 year Honours
Position in Class: No official rankings, but top
Type of Student: International (for Oxbridge), white female
Prospective Course: PhD in Astrophysics (theoretical)
GRE Scores: N/A (not applying US)

Research Experience:
- 2 months with alma mater in first year, extended over the 4 years and resulting in a first-author publication concerning AGN (theory), and two poster presentations (one national, one international)
- 3 months with national lab in second year concerning quasars (data analysis and observation, no publication)
- 12 months full-time with alma mater in AGN (theory), leading to a thesis (no publication)
- 8 months with alma mater, after graduating, in cosmology (no publication, ongoing)

Awards/Honors/Recognitions:
- 3 scholarships for science
- All university awards for physics and mathematics
- Travel awards for conferences
- National award for physics thesis
- University medal

Pertinent Activities or Jobs:
- Peer and private tutor
- Marker
- Public speaker for astrophysics
- State representative for astrophysics in schools
- Tour guide and student information leader for Open Days etc

Letters: I know it's sorta impossible to know for sure, but I think they're very strong. I'd consider all of my letter writers to be personal friends. I don't necessarily use all of these for all programs, but
- 2 from research supervisors
- 1 from professor, head of department, and unit coordinator I do tutoring under
- 1 from professor, head of faculty

Misc: My primary research supervisor attended both Cambridge and Oxford, one as a graduate student and the other as a post-doc.

Special Bonus Points: I grew up in poverty in the state, so my outreach work is directly tied to engaging disadvantaged communities etc. A festival I annually present at was recently awarded $10mil to build a planetarium in my tiny hometown.

And I know, that's great and all.

My only concern is that I'm applying to do some heavy theory for PhD, and I don't actually have a math background that's all that strong. I did a course in cosmology and general relativity, but other than that, I didn't do any tensor calculus and I am not competent in that kind of theory as-is. I have basically no linear algebra other than a brief, introductory half-course. My Applied Math major was mostly stuff involving PDEs and nPDEs, so I just don't have the algebra background that is probably needed for the kind of work I'm proposing (can't be sure, my prospective PIs aren't keen to discuss projects with me in one case). And I am not competent in that mathematics.

Would my lack of relevant background be a really big red flag? I have research experience and grades, but they're in tangential areas and I can't demonstrate that I have that theory under-wraps already.

I am also applying to two "safety" schools, but don't really want to attend those because they're honestly quite below where I should be aiming. Due to some bad circumstances, I had to seriously cut down my list of schools and only Oxbridge made the cut for the "good" universities. But now I'm worried that I'm relying too heavily on getting into programs that are exceptionally competitive and I might not clear the bar for them.
Nobody knows for sure, but i think you have a fair chance.
The danger is that with only two schools, there’s a big luck factor. Do they have many similar candidates with the same research interests this year? That will be the deciding factor.

From what i see, you have many strengths in your profile. Yes you lack the exact relevant mathematics background, but unless you mentioned it in your application, i think they might assume you had it from your research experiences. No publications are abit of a regret, but well who knows. They couldn’t verify the maths needed for your research, which is “good” to “hide” your “weakness”.

If you could secure an external fellowship, that’ll improve your chance by a lot. So maybe you should try if you’re eligible. If not, that is fine too. Let’s just see what happens.

scytoo
Posts: 18
Joined: Wed Dec 05, 2018 7:26 am

Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by scytoo » Fri Jan 04, 2019 9:24 am

Nishikata wrote:Do they have many similar candidates with the same research interests this year? That will be the deciding factor.
I really can't answer that. I do know that I was the first person to reach out to all of my prospective PIs, and I've talked a few times over Skype with Cambridge who seem very excited to work together.
Nishikata wrote:No publications are abit of a regret, but well who knows.
I do have a first-author (of 9) publication in theoretical astrophysics from my work in first-year.
Nishikata wrote:If you could secure an external fellowship, that’ll improve your chance by a lot.
I'm not a US citizen, and I don't think my country really has anything analogous to that. I was given scholarships to do my research projects, but that's about it. I'm also applying to the Gates-Cambridge, and I got to the final-final round for Rhodes but didn't cinch it in the end. The funding is decided at the same time or after admissions though, so it can't help me get in. It'll only affect if I can accept any offers.

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Nishikata
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by Nishikata » Fri Jan 04, 2019 9:45 am

scytoo wrote: I really can't answer that. I do know that I was the first person to reach out to all of my prospective PIs, and I've talked a few times over Skype with Cambridge who seem very excited to work together.
My sentence was rhetorical, i mean we never know how good are the other candidates, so it is down to luck.
Good for you that the skype went well.

I do have a first-author (of 9) publication in theoretical astrophysics from my work in first-year.
Ah, missed this one. Sorry about that. :D

I think you’re fine, even though i maybe am under-qualified to comment this; your profile is stronger than mine :)

kronotsky
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Joined: Thu Nov 01, 2018 10:29 pm

Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by kronotsky » Fri Jan 04, 2019 3:01 pm

As Nishikata said, your profile provides no evidence that you cannot do the math required for these programs, it merely lacks evidence that you already know the math. At least at Oxford, there is an expectation that you will do some coursework, and I think vanishingly few Oxbridge students already know all of the math they need to do their thesis work, so there is some expectation that you will learn a substantial amount. Actually, is there any coursework component to either of the Astronomy courses (or related courses) at Cambridge? It seems like the answer is no, but I've only just skimmed the pages. Anyway, you've already done theory research and have a double major in AM, so why would they assume you are not capable of doing this? There will definitely be applicants who are ahead of you in this department, but that is because oxbridge gets the very best. I think this is exactly where you ought to be applying. I can't comment on the nature of your bad circumstances, obviously, but I do think it sucks that your list of ideal schools is so short. Are you committed to going to grad school next year? If you didn't end up going to any of these four schools, what would you do? As long as you can something to work on that is related to astrophysics in the next year, there is likely nothing wrong with reapplying to more schools next year if you get rejected.

scytoo
Posts: 18
Joined: Wed Dec 05, 2018 7:26 am

Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by scytoo » Fri Jan 04, 2019 10:09 pm

kronotsky wrote:Actually, is there any coursework component to either of the Astronomy courses (or related courses) at Cambridge?
Nah, there isn't. In fact, since I'm applying under astrophysics for Oxford (not theoretical physics), I wouldn't be doing any coursework there either. I'm 100% done with classes.
kronotsky wrote:Anyway, you've already done theory research and have a double major in AM, so why would they assume you are not capable of doing this?
I had to send through my transcripts, so I'm assuming that they'll look at them and see the lack of relevant math courses. Plus, there are lots of different kinds of "theory". Mine so far has been in computational work leading to simulations, but I'm applying to do much more blackboard-theory and basically no simulations.
kronotsky wrote:I can't comment on the nature of your bad circumstances, obviously, but I do think it sucks that your list of ideal schools is so short. Are you committed to going to grad school next year? If you didn't end up going to any of these four schools, what would you do? As long as you can something to work on that is related to astrophysics in the next year, there is likely nothing wrong with reapplying to more schools next year if you get rejected.
My original list was closer to 10 in total, but there were family emergencies, sudden trips, final thesis hand-in, and serious illness that all happened at once, and it was all around the same time as a lot of applications were due. I just couldn't handle getting them all done, and Oxbridge were the only ones with later dates that I was really set on. I'm not really expecting to get into Oxford, but I think my chances with Cambridge are higher.

If I don't get into Oxbridge then I'm staying where I am. I do have a deal with them that'll mean I spend at least half of the PhD in the UK anyway, and get a PhD from a UK university at the end along with my local one. But that does mean I have to spend at least a year at my current university.

oxenbrie
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by oxenbrie » Sun Jan 06, 2019 11:37 am

But now I'm worried that I'm relying too heavily on getting into programs that are exceptionally competitive and I might not clear the bar for them.
You're not aiming too high at all! I was admitted to Oxford and Cambridge last year as an international student, and let me assure you, your profile is much stronger than mine. Having talked with professors at Oxford, what they're primarily looking for is high grades and extensive research experience, both of which you have already. That first-author publication is very impressive and having a perfect GPA puts you at the head of the pack.

For Oxbridge, the challenge isn't getting admitted, it's getting funding. Unlike North American schools, funding is not guaranteed for PhD students in STEM fields. There are scholarships available (the Clarendon Scholarship at Oxford and the Cambridge Trust Scholarships), but they are very competitive. Domestic UK students typically get their funding from the government-funded Research Councils and similar funding schemes. Also, it's easier to get funded if you're from a country in the EU than if you were from Asia or North America.
My only concern is that I'm applying to do some heavy theory for PhD, and I don't actually have a math background that's all that strong.
I wouldn't be too worried about lacking a strong theoretical background. Your first year at Oxford would consist of taking courses, and you always have the option of sitting in on undergraduate lectures even as a graduate student. You're also expected to do a significant amount of self-study and there's generally less hand-holding than in undergrad, but that's true for any graduate program.
Nah, there isn't. In fact, since I'm applying under astrophysics for Oxford (not theoretical physics), I wouldn't be doing any coursework there either. I'm 100% done with classes.
There actually is coursework for the first year. From the Oxford astrophysics FAQ: "The D.Phil programme is a research degree and you normally start working on your main research project as soon as you arrive. But in parallel with that, you will be expected to attend a taught course in astrophysics in the first year, comprising lectures and discussion classes at a graduate study level."

Coursework isn't graded, but you are expected to attend all your classes. All incoming students start as "probationary research students" (PRS). You don't officially reach DPhil status until after submitting a report on your research and passing a qualifying interview, which typically happens after your first year.

The other hurdle that hasn't been mentioned is the interview process. This is done over Skype if you're an international student. In my experience, the interviews for Oxford are much more formal. You are expected to give a presentation on a project that you completed as an undergrad, and you're typically interviewed by a group of professors in your research area. At Cambridge, you have informal one-on-one interviews with the faculty members you're interested in working for. It's less intimidating, but you should prepare ahead of time by reading their recent publications.
Last edited by oxenbrie on Sun Jan 06, 2019 12:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.

kronotsky
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by kronotsky » Sun Jan 06, 2019 12:00 pm

scytoo wrote: I had to send through my transcripts, so I'm assuming that they'll look at them and see the lack of relevant math courses. Plus, there are lots of different kinds of "theory". Mine so far has been in computational work leading to simulations, but I'm applying to do much more blackboard-theory and basically no simulations.
It's a plus to have taken these classes already, but I hope you realize that many others haven't, and that having taken the courses already is not the only way to show that you can understand the material! Getting into grad school is (if the admissions committee is functioning properly) at least as much about proving potential than about flaunting accomplishments. Even though you might need to learn some more math, I just don't think many people would look at your profile and worry about whether you'd be able to handle it. Moreover, it's really easy to pick holes in your application through this process, even when it's very strong - which it is. I think you have the right to feel confident.

All that being said, if you personally are worried about whether you don't know enough math to succeed if you get in, now (you're out of school, right?) is a perfect time to find a copy of Munkres or Spivak or Dummit and Foote or Lee's "smooth manifolds" etc. and try to read through as much as you can. As long as you put in some effort, it doesn't matter if you don't understand everything - it will come to you much more easily the second time around, even if you felt like you learned nothing the first time. But having finished your undergrad I suspect you will find yourself well-equipped to self-study.

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Nishikata
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by Nishikata » Sun Jan 06, 2019 10:16 pm

scytoo wrote:
I am also applying to two "safety" schools, but don't really want to attend those because they're honestly quite below where I should be aiming. Due to some bad circumstances, I had to seriously cut down my list of schools and only Oxbridge made the cut for the "good" universities. But now I'm worried that I'm relying too heavily on getting into programs that are exceptionally competitive and I might not clear the bar for them.
By the way, did you consider UIUC? 15 Jan is their deadline, so you can still make it.
Or is it already one of your safety schools?

(Credits to kronotsky, I became aware and applied to UIUC from his info too)

scytoo
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by scytoo » Mon Jan 07, 2019 12:49 am

Nishikata wrote: By the way, did you consider UIUC? 15 Jan is their deadline, so you can still make it.
Or is it already one of your safety schools?
I'm actually not applying anywhere that requires the GRE or pGRE. But there aren't many forums to discuss admissions in general, so here I am.

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Nishikata
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by Nishikata » Mon Jan 07, 2019 1:30 am

scytoo wrote: I'm actually not applying anywhere that requires the GRE or pGRE. But there aren't many forums to discuss admissions in general, so here I am.
I see... there aren't many schools that are on par with Oxbridge and not requiring GRE/pGRE.
Maybe Ecole Polytechnique or other French graduate schools are alternatives, but I think GRE is used more widely now.
(LMU-Germany, Utokyo - Japan, are also using it)

scytoo
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by scytoo » Mon Jan 07, 2019 2:17 am

Nishikata wrote:(LMU-Germany, Utokyo - Japan, are also using it)
Only for US applicants, which I'm not. I'd only be doing the GRE/pGRE if I were applying to the US, but I didn't want to take the test so I've never had any US schools on my list

oxenbrie
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by oxenbrie » Mon Jan 07, 2019 3:57 am

Nishikata wrote: I see... there aren't many schools that are on par with Oxbridge and not requiring GRE/pGRE.
Maybe Ecole Polytechnique or other French graduate schools are alternatives, but I think GRE is used more widely now.
(LMU-Germany, Utokyo - Japan, are also using it)
Astrophysics is somewhat unique among the physics subfields because there are several high ranking programs that don't require the pGRE. There is a spreadsheet that someone compiled of pGRE requirements, and the universities where the pGRE is optional are mostly astronomy/astrophysics/planetary science programs.

Top 25 programs where pGRE is optional or not accepted:

Caltech (planetary science)
Harvard (astronomy)
John Hopkins (planetary science)
Northwestern (astronomy)
Ohio State University (astronomy)
University of Arizona (astronomy & planetary science)
University of Colorado, Boulder (astronomy & planetary science)
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (astronomy & physics)
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (astrophysics)
University of Washington (astronomy)

Top 25 programs where pGRE is recommended, but not required:

Caltech (astronomy & physics)
University of Chicago (astronomy & astrophysics)

Unfortunately, other than Illinois, I believe that most of the deadlines for these universities have already passed.

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Nishikata
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by Nishikata » Mon Jan 07, 2019 4:00 am

oxenbrie wrote:
Nishikata wrote: I see... there aren't many schools that are on par with Oxbridge and not requiring GRE/pGRE.
Maybe Ecole Polytechnique or other French graduate schools are alternatives, but I think GRE is used more widely now.
(LMU-Germany, Utokyo - Japan, are also using it)
Astrophysics is somewhat unique among the physics subfields because there are several high ranking programs that don't require the pGRE. There is a spreadsheet that someone compiled of pGRE requirements, and the universities where the pGRE is optional are mostly astronomy/astrophysics/planetary science programs.

Top 25 programs where pGRE is optional or not accepted:

Caltech (planetary science)
Harvard (astronomy)
John Hopkins (planetary science)
Northwestern (astronomy)
Ohio State University (astronomy)
University of Arizona (astronomy & planetary science)
University of Colorado, Boulder (astronomy & planetary science)
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (astronomy & physics)
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (astrophysics)
University of Washington (astronomy)

Top 25 programs where pGRE is recommended, but not required:

Caltech (astronomy & physics)
University of Chicago (astronomy & astrophysics)

Unfortunately, other than Illinois, I believe that most of the deadlines for these universities have already passed.
Regrettably, she did not only skip the pGRE but also the general GRE too..

scytoo
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by scytoo » Mon Jan 07, 2019 6:35 am

Nishikata wrote:Regrettably, she did not only skip the pGRE but also the general GRE too..
There aren't any US schools that interest me though, so there has never been any reason for me to take the GRE or pGRE. No universities I'd be willing to attend are going to require an international student to take a US-test.

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Nishikata
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by Nishikata » Mon Jan 07, 2019 8:22 am

scytoo wrote:
There aren't any US schools that interest me though, so there has never been any reason for me to take the GRE or pGRE. No universities I'd be willing to attend are going to require an international student to take a US-test.
I am interested now. Which are the good schools that you wanted to go, but you had to miss due to your circumstances?

kronotsky
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Re: Am I aiming too high with Oxbridge?

Post by kronotsky » Mon Jan 07, 2019 1:40 pm

Nishikata wrote:
oxenbrie wrote:
Nishikata wrote: I see... there aren't many schools that are on par with Oxbridge and not requiring GRE/pGRE.
Maybe Ecole Polytechnique or other French graduate schools are alternatives, but I think GRE is used more widely now.
(LMU-Germany, Utokyo - Japan, are also using it)
Astrophysics is somewhat unique among the physics subfields because there are several high ranking programs that don't require the pGRE. There is a spreadsheet that someone compiled of pGRE requirements, and the universities where the pGRE is optional are mostly astronomy/astrophysics/planetary science programs.

Top 25 programs where pGRE is optional or not accepted:

Caltech (planetary science)
Harvard (astronomy)
John Hopkins (planetary science)
Northwestern (astronomy)
Ohio State University (astronomy)
University of Arizona (astronomy & planetary science)
University of Colorado, Boulder (astronomy & planetary science)
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (astronomy & physics)
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (astrophysics)
University of Washington (astronomy)

Top 25 programs where pGRE is recommended, but not required:

Caltech (astronomy & physics)
University of Chicago (astronomy & astrophysics)

Unfortunately, other than Illinois, I believe that most of the deadlines for these universities have already passed.
Regrettably, she did not only skip the pGRE but also the general GRE too..
Harvard astronomy (uniquely, as far as I can tell) doesn't even accept the general GRE - if you include it as part of your application, they will deliberately avoid looking at it. However, the deadline has passed already, and I get the sense that scytoo's decision not to apply to US schools has more to do with "US" than with "schools." Hopefully this thread doesn't come across as too prying, scytoo. Moreover, I hope you're feeling a little more confident!



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