Johns Hopkins versus Stony Brook

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Johns Hopkins versus Stony Brook

Post by jabennett2194 » Sat Mar 21, 2020 11:20 am

My objective after my PhD (after a visiting professorship or postdoc likely) is to land a position at a small liberal arts college so I can engage undergrads in research and focus of teaching.
My main area of interest is high energy theory (HEP-th), holography specifically but also more formal math aspects. I think I would be open to trying out condensed matter theory (CMT) as well, and in the case of Stony Brook, nuclear theory (NUC-th) or RHIC/Brookhaven quantum chromodynamics/ quark-gluon plasma (QCD/QGP) work.


Johns Hopkins has name recognition around the globe, and even in physics they are ranked above Stony Brook (#17 over #23 according to US NEWS). I think JHU is ranked higher because of their astro prestige. (They are in charge of the Space Telescope Science Institute — ... _Institute.)

But Stony Brook is easily one of the top ten HEP-th places (maybe top 20 depending on how formally you define HEP-th) in the country. Around 2008 Jim Simons ( ... ematician) previously an academic mathematician, 1/2 of Chern-Simons theory for those in the field, who left academia to become a billionaire hedge fund guy) donated $60 million to create the Simons Centers of Geometry and Physics (— basically IAS in Princeton but at Stony Brook and for only math and theoretical physics. And Brookhaven National Lab ( is 10 minutes down the road. This makes them top 3 for Nuclear (which includes QCD and Nuc-th!) in the country. (BNL has CMT as well as a matter of fact! I didn't know this.)

This exemplifies the main difference between the two schools. Which I start the next section with below.


1) Amount of research opportunities

Not taking into account 2 professors I know no longer take on new PhD students, there are 17 PIs at Stony Brook/Simons Center and 11 PIs at Brookhaven/RIKEN doing work in HEP-th, QCD, CMT, NUC-th, etc. that I might be interested in. That is an insane number!
At Johns Hopkins there are 2 HEP-th PIs (one of which is shifting NEARLY ENTIRELY to theoretical machine learning. he is a rock star of holography/CFT/etc. but he is now paid very well by a Google-esque company and he said he is roughly 80% ML and 20% HEP-th). More on the other HEP-th PI in the next section, I love him. There are 2 CMT PIs, one of which is willing to explore super mathy stuff that I would be into, and also collaborate with the HEP-th professor that I love.

2) Likelihood of getting an advisor

2.1) Stony Brook

As you would expect from the number of PIs mentioned above, there are an enormous # of students at Stony Brook. Roughly 50 first years and 250 total. As such, (at least in the HEP-th area as this is the only field that the current PhDs I've gotten in touch with are in, so this way not be the case for CMT! knock on wood) the competition is fierce! From what I've gathered so far, competition manifests itself in several ways:
  • you need to do well on your qualifying exams/quals (more on this below)
  • you need to do well in the advanced courses pertinent to your intended field (more on that later)
  • you need to succeed in some trial projects a prospective advisor gives you in your first summer or during your 2nd year
Now, some background on me. Small liberal arts school. Which means:
  • I am not a great test taker,
  • I have no graduate courses, no rigorous upper level physics courses like relativistic quantum mechanics or anything (although thankfully I'm doing courses like these right now during my year abroad in the Netherlands through the Fulbright between my bachelors and my PhD).
Thus there is no way that I will be able to pass the quals at the level necessary to skip the core courses (the "placement level"). But even more, after having looked at their archive ( ... tony_Brook) of recent years past quals, I am concerned that even if I take the core courses, I will struggle A LOT with passing the quals even at the "PhD Level."

All of this is contributing to the feeling that, regardless of all the research opportunities mentioned in section 1, if I can't complete all the steps listed above, I'll just be forced to leave with a Masters or something after failing the quals and not get a chance to explore research with the awesome PIs there.

2.2) Johns Hopkins

This is in STARK contrast to Johns Hopkins.

There are NO QUALS. This would be such a stress relief you have no idea. These old exams from Stony Brook look impossible.

And because (not including their astrophysics people maybe) they are a small department, when I Skyped with the second HEP-th PI I mentioned in section 1, he had the ability (and did) say that if I come there he can without a doubt supervise me.
This is very different from Stony Brook, where (while I've only talked to PhDs so far and haven't Skyped with PIs there yet) I don't think they would ever be able to tell a prospective student, "yes I can without a doubt be your PhD advisor if you come here."
We would have to prove ourselves first.

You start "research" from day 1 at Johns Hopkins (in the sense that you choose an advisor to do reading course/etc. under immediately). You can either rotate through several of these advisors or stick with one that works out. pretty cool system.

3) Classes in advanced topics

Because of the amount of student interested in pursuing HEP-th at Stony Brook there are a TON of extensive QFT, GR, strings courses. According to the PhDs, these courses are incredible as well, since they have 3 magnates in the field who teach them consistently. There are also advanced stat mech courses covering things like entanglement entropy, and mathy CMT courses.
At Johns Hopkins there are just much less.

4) Living in a city or living on Long Island (biking or buying a car)

Living in the Netherlands has led me to fall in love with biking.
And so not having to buy a car (which is apparently almost absolutely necessary on Long Island) and being able to ride a racing bike around Baltimore sounds heavenly!


Do you think this discrepancy in number of research opportunities makes Stony Brook a clear winner? Or is the education/personal attention/more research time/no quals at JHU as big a factor as I think it is?
  • One of my previous mentor and her PhD student (both in HEP-th) think the amount of opportunities at Stony Brook make it the best choice.
  • My previous (has known me the longest, all of college) advisor hated the insane competitiveness of Princeton during his PhD and left after a year for a very small Physics PhD program and flourished.
  • My current Fulbright mentor here (and a huge name in HEP-th) is a big proponent of "being the head of a mouse and not the tale of an elephant" hahhaha! I.e. he thinks going somewhere small and getting a ton of adviser attention, and being the best there did him well in his career and that going somewhere competitive may have messed him up.
Thank you immensely for the advice! :D
Last edited by jabennett2194 on Sun Mar 22, 2020 12:17 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Johns Hopkins versus Stony Brook

Post by AstroObs » Sun Mar 22, 2020 4:38 am

Disclaimer: I am an incoming student and know only as much as you - if not less as an astro guy.

First, the high number of professors doing research in your field isn’t actually that big a factor. At Johns Hopkins you have two HEP profs and others like CMT profs - you only will end up working with one, and even if your first choice doesn’t work out based on interest or personalities you have more than one backup. So you’re safe; Stony Brook’s massive size will have other very important implications in terms of community and number of classes, but it doesn’t sound like there is a difference in finding an adviser. If you really have niche interests that would be different, but maybe Johns Hopkins people will work more to accommodate, plus it is good to be open minded at this stage.

Second, not having a qual sounds very attractive but I would encourage you to look past that. You want to be a theorist, and based on your success in having two great options (congrats btw!!!) you can probably do just that. Thus, a physics qual is something that, through hard study, you should be able to pass. Yes, it will be a struggle and you will likely have to take some or all of the core courses (would you not at Johns Hopkins?), but that will be the case for everyone. I was in a similar boat - two choices, one had no (astronomy) qual. However, I figured that I really should know the stuff in the qual so it wasn’t something to be afraid of.

Hope this helps your theorizing. There are so many other factors in this big decision, but you really can’t go wrong.

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Re: Johns Hopkins versus Stony Brook

Post by mssg123 » Fri Feb 17, 2023 10:49 am

May I know which school you chose in the end?

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Joined: Sun Feb 19, 2023 1:46 pm

Re: Johns Hopkins versus Stony Brook

Post by Y-2-H » Thu Feb 23, 2023 10:55 pm

Did you get offers from both of them?

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