Help me narrow down my grad school list?

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Posts: 15
Joined: Wed May 23, 2018 9:56 pm

Help me narrow down my grad school list?

Post by hopefulastro » Sat Nov 23, 2019 10:01 pm

I'm applying to PhD programs this fall for observational cosmology and galaxy evolution, and am also very interested in data science. I have 15 schools on my list right now (two of them are masters as safeties), and I'm having a hard time narrowing this down to something more feasible. Ideally I'd like to apply to maybe 10 PhD programs, plus the two MS programs. Here are my stats:

GPA: 3.63 (last two years cumulative GPA from a top school); 3.92 (first two years at a lesser-known public school before transferring to the top school)

Major: Physics

GRE: 162Q, 159V, ?AW (waiting on score)

PGRE: 650 (38th percentile, but a lot of schools don't require this)

Letters of rec: 4 from previous/current PIs; they should be fairly strong.

Research: Did research in theoretical astrophysics (creating models of interstellar dust extinction) throughout my 4th year, which resulted in a poster presentation at my school’s undergrad research day as well as at an astronomy conference. I also did two summers of research (summer before 4th year and summer before 5th year) in the Planetary & Space Sciences department, and this professor told me his letter of rec was strong. Since I graduated (Dec 2018), I’ve been doing a lot more research. From Jan-June I worked with a professor at my school in observational astrophysics. In July I started working full-time doing science and data analysis of data from a NASA-funded satellite which is run out of my school, and this is what I’m doing currently.

Additional coursework: I took a grad course at my school in cosmology/extragalactic astrophysics (the second one in the grad series, without taking the first one), and got an A. I’m also currently taking a machine learning in R class online (offered through my school), which I will get an A in.

Other: I was very involved with the Physics department (leadership positions in almost every astronomy/physics/women in physics club), and was also the manager of a student-run research project where I mentored younger undergrads.

My current grad school list:

1. UCLA — PhD in Astronomy/Astrophysics
2. UC Irvine — PhD in Physics
3. UC Santa Cruz — PhD in Astronomy/Astrophysics
4. UC San Diego -- PhD in Physics
5. University of British Columbia — Masters in Astronomy
6. University of Pittsburgh -- PhD in Physics
7. Penn State -- PhD in Astronomy/Astrophysics
8. University of Southern California — PhD in Physics w/ Masters in Computer Science (joint program)
9. UMass Amherst — PhD in Astronomy
10. University of Washington -- PhD in Astronomy
11. Wesleyan University — PhD in Physics
12. University of Chicago -- PhD in Astronomy
13. Columbia -- PhD in Physics/Astronomy
14. San Fransisco State — Masters in Physics w/ concentration in Astronomy
15. Cal State Northridge — Masters in Physics

Obviously I have a lot of reaches on my list (Chicago, Columbia, Washington, Penn; even the UCs I might consider a reach). I do think it's good to include some reaches, but I also want to be realistic because I want to get in somewhere! But it's hard for me to even imagine what a safety PhD program would be... I was thinking of adding Oregon to my list, but the research there is slightly less exciting to me than the other schools on my list and they appear to have a much smaller department.

What would you suggest removing from my list? Also please let me know if I'm overlooking any programs you might know of that could be a good match for me or more of a "safety". Also, for the schools that say the PGRE is optional, would you recommend reporting it or not in my case? Thanks!

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Joined: Sat Jun 08, 2019 1:10 pm

Re: Help me narrow down my grad school list?

Post by geekusprimus » Sat Nov 23, 2019 10:40 pm

So, first things first: are there any schools on the list that you're applying to just for the heck of it, places that you might not really be interested in attending? If so, take those off. Otherwise, you're just wasting time and money.

Next, one of the biggest parts of admissions is based on funding. Your safeties, therefore, should be based on places you have connections, not necessarily places where your admissions profile is in the 99th percentile. For example, I'm going to apply to my own undergraduate institution as a safety school, but it's a safety because my undergraduate research advisor has stated he would be happy to take me on as a master's student and has the funding to do it. I know a guy who got rejected from a lesser-known state school while simultaneously getting accepted to Brown. Similarly, you might have better odds applying to schools with really large programs, regardless of how you stack up, simply because they have more funding and assume that someone will be willing to work with you.

Lastly, pay close attention when you apply to a master's program. A lot of them are self-supported and aren't necessarily intended as research degrees. If San Francisco State or Cal State Northridge aren't going to offer you funding for a master's degree, they're not safety schools; they're just two years of student loans (I left out UBC because Canadian universities operate differently).

I'm assuming based on your list that you either did an undergrad in California or are originally from California. This is going to sound a little paradoxical, but you might have a little more success thinning out your list if you widened your net a little; you might be able to eliminate some of the schools that are similarly difficult to get into. I don't know what their specialties are, exactly, but I know ASU, NMSU, and UNM have good astro programs, and I'm pretty sure that UT Austin has a killer cosmology program. Have you looked into any of them at all?

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