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Older Applicant coming from non-Science field - Advice?

Posted: Tue Jan 14, 2014 2:14 am
by davidthedavid

My situation is as follows: I'm a 28-year-old piano teacher, and for the past 3 years I've been going back to school getting a BS in physics (1 year of that was part time, the past 2 years have been full-time). I'm about to go through the fall 2014 application process for experimental physics PhD programs (looking for something computationally-oriented).

I've been doing pretty well in my classes (3.98 GPA at a local public college, no reputation), and I should have a first-author publication and several second-author ones by the time I apply. I'm not sure what I'm going to get on the PGRE, but I got 168V / 164Q / 5.0W when I took the general GRE two years ago (definitely retaking for a higher quantitative score...)

I was basically wondering if anyone has ever been in my shoes (transitioning from a fundamentally different field into physics), or could possibly give me advice as to what kind of programs I should expect to be accepted to / rejected from. I'm aiming for a top-20 or top-30 PhD program, but I'm not sure that's realistic given my situation.

Re: Older Applicant coming from non-Science field - Advice?

Posted: Tue Jan 14, 2014 12:30 pm
by TakeruK
I don't think you will be in a huge disadvantage. By the time you apply to grad school, you will have the same educational background as any other physics undergrad, except you'll be a bit older, but that's not necessarily a bad thing since you will likely be more mature and come with more life experience! So, I wouldn't even consider you as a "non-science field" because you will have a full Physics BS, right? And, you have a great profile--research publications (I am assuming you mean in major peer-reviewed Physics journals right?) and high GPA!

My advice would be to:

1. Don't bother getting a higher GRE Q score. 164 is very good, well above most minimums. Most top Physics programs don't even list General GRE minimum scores. As long as your scores are still valid (i.e. <5 years old) then don't retake the GRE. Also, I think even STEM programs will care more about the GRE V than the GRE Q (many opinion articles online will show that many people think the GRE V is a better predictor of grad school success than the GRE Q). Also, the GRE Q only covers high school math--things you should already know very well if you have a BS in Physics. Also, see the point below:

2. Do well on your Physics GRE. I think the PGRE is way more important than the general GRE score for physics grad programs, especially more important than the GRE Q. I remember the toughest questions on the GRE Q being some weird obscure geometry stuff. The PGRE will test math skills that are more commonly used in Physics research and Physics coursework problems.

3. Make sure you write about your past experience in a positive way and demonstrate how you will fit in with the places you're applying. This is true for everyone, but since you will have more previous experiences than the "traditional" applicant, you have more material to draw from and thus you may be able to make a stronger case than the younger applicants.

Re: Older Applicant coming from non-Science field - Advice?

Posted: Sun Jan 26, 2014 2:40 am
by davidthedavid
Thanks so much for your reply, TakeruK.

I am simply worried that, despite my "high stats" or whatever, I will be put at a big disadvantage in the admissions process applying to my target schools (top-30 experimental programs) due to both my age and the fact that I might be competing with much younger students with comparable or better profiles for the same limited number of spots. Plus, even worse for me, I have a first degree from another college that is absolutely atrocious (multiple F's), which I'm sure admissions committees will want to see as well for top programs.

My research unfortunately isn't in a peer-reviewed physics journal, but rather a physical chemistry one, as the specific type of computational work I'm doing right now makes it easier for publication there. There is a great deal of overlap between computational physics and computational chemistry however (they are practically the same thing, really), and I'm hoping that by demonstrating the capacity for first-author publication in any rigorous science field I'll be bolstering the chances of my application.

Re: Older Applicant coming from non-Science field - Advice?

Posted: Sun Jan 26, 2014 7:41 pm
by TakeruK
Sure, being older is going to be a disadvantage, even though admissions isn't supposed to be based on age. However, that's only true if you have nothing to show for your "advanced" age. I think you do have accomplishments to show! Also, you would be finishing your degree in your mid-30s, which is definitely young enough!

As for the article, was it a peer-reviewed Physical Chemistry journal? It doesn't really matter if it's not in Physics or in your proposed field of study. Research experience is research experience! However, I do think it does matter whether or not it's the journal is peer-reviewed though. Usually, there is some standard that is almost equivalent for all peer reviewed journal. For non peer-reviewed publications, some are really easy to get in and some are just as difficult as peer-reviewed journals, but there's no common standard that makes it easy to judge.