Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

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Zmvernlaro
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Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by Zmvernlaro » Sat Jan 25, 2020 7:25 pm

Hello all, I am a domestic freshman physics major at a very small liberal arts college with not much reputation/research in the field. The duration of our physics program is only three years, and most of our upper level physics courses are a semester long. I am also not too sure how comprehensive these courses are in particular. That said, the physics professors are incredible from the ones I have personally met.

Now, my plans for graduate school are to specialize within the inteface of both mathematics and physics (HEP-Th/String Theory). I know how competitive these fields are, and not to mention that doing research in them as an undergraduate is extremely difficult and out of reach.

So my question is, how can I optimize my chances of getting into an institution like Princeton or MIT for mathematical physics? My college offers no graduate courses, and the physics coursework may not be seen as comprehensive in the eyes of the admission committees. Should I consider doing a double major in mathematics to make up for this? I was looking into the idea, but from what I know, the highest level mathematics course in my college is either Topology or Complex Analysis, which are of course extensively used in Physics, but the formal double major itself would have many requirements that would be far too time-consuming and would take away my time from Physics (research, coursework, and PGRE prep). Also, my friends who are Junior/Senior math majors have told me that the upper level math courses are GPA murderers due to “poor teaching.” One thing I was considering is aiming to do well on the Putnam competition, which would show my ability in mathematics better than a formal double major at my school in actuality.

Does anyone have any recommendations for me? I appreciate any input and feedback. And I know many people have got into great Physics graduate programs from schools such as mine, but I don’t know whether they were aiming for HEP-TH. Also if it helps, I am from America so a Masters in Physics is probably not the best option before doing a PhD due to lack of funding from most schools (I cannot afford my undergrad college as is without a lot of financial aid) and I hear that I may have lower chances even.

geekusprimus
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Re: Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by geekusprimus » Sat Jan 25, 2020 8:33 pm

A few recommendations before answering your real question:
  • Give it at least a year or two before you start worrying about graduate school. I can't count how many classmates I've had who said on day one that they were going to grad school who decided after a couple years that they were sick of school and just wanted jobs.
  • Get some hands-on research experience before deciding you're definitely doing HEP theory. I changed my mind about four times before I finally realized the stuff I enjoyed was the stuff I was actually doing.
  • Figure out what employment prospects are like before deciding you're definitely doing HEP theory. Just about every freshman walks in and says, "I'm going to be a string theorist!" before they realize that string theorists are just about the most likely physicists to end up not doing physics for a living. "But I'm different! I really want it," you might say. Well, basically everyone else said that, too, and they're still not working as string theorists.
To answer your actual question on getting into a great graduate school: the most important features of an application (coming from one with absolutely no authority, I might add) as I understand it are your letters of recommendation, your personal research experience and statement of purpose, and your grades (particularly in your upper-level physics classes). Things like the PGRE are important, too, and cool awards and extra coursework certainly aren't going to hurt your chances, but you need to focus first on nailing your physics classes and getting all the research experience you can. If your school doesn't have a lot of opportunities, apply for REUs, research internships, and summer schools.

After that, if you're absolutely positive what you want to do, apply to people, not schools. You'll find that the best faculty in your field aren't always at Princeton, MIT, et al., and the guy doing the kind of stuff you like might be at Texas or UIUC instead. (I mean, they could be at Princeton or MIT, but it's not a guarantee.) As much as possible, try to get in touch with them beforehand. Find out what they're like as a person, whether or not they're actually taking on new graduate students, and whether or not you would be a good fit for their research group. You can drastically improve your chances of getting into a school if there's a professor who is willing to vouch for you on the admissions committee, and you can avoid applying to schools where the guy in your field is actually a world-class tool.

Zmvernlaro
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Re: Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by Zmvernlaro » Sat Jan 25, 2020 9:31 pm

Thank you for your response, @geekusprimus. I greatly appreciate your input.

The reason I want to do research in HEP-Th/String Theory is because of my prior interest in mathematics (I wanted to be a mathematician working in arithmetic geometry, however my interests shifted from mathematics to physics). I love seeing the applications of the abstraction behind pure mathematics within the context of physical beauty. Also I guess I could be a bit more general than “HEP-Th,” as I just love seeing deeply pure mathematics applied in various physical contexts, the ultimate marriage of the two most abstract scientific fields (theoretical physics and pure mathematics), be it string theory, matter physics, or anything.

As for what schools I am looking at, besides MIT and Princeton, I am interested in Georgia Tech, UT Austin, UCB, and perhaps CMU or UChicago. Honestly, any school with a good “mathematical physics” program is what I am interested in. I do understand what you mean by, “shop for a Doctoral advisor, and not a school.” That is very good advice.

Also, while the physics department at my school is small, we do have a professor who is well versed in my physics subfield of interest (mathematical physics + noncommutative field theory). And it isn’t hard to get a research partnership considering our size is so small. I will have to do some convincing though, since his work (like most HEP-Th research) is unapproachable for undergraduates, and I am not sure he will be comfortable with me doing research early on.

The only thing that really concerns me is my lack of coursework. Our upper level physics courses are like most standard colleges, but their one semester duration could potentially harm me based on what I read from another thread about something similar.

Overall, I greatly appreciate what you are saying. One thing I am curious about though, what do you mean by “world-class tool?”

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Nishikata
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Re: Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by Nishikata » Sat Jan 25, 2020 11:45 pm

Since you are a freshman, how about searching for exchange program/summer program opportunities in a school that has strong upper-level mathematics / physics modules? Better if the school has a reputation in these areas so it validates your acquired skills.

Zmvernlaro
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Re: Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by Zmvernlaro » Sun Jan 26, 2020 12:00 am

Nishikata wrote:
Sat Jan 25, 2020 11:45 pm
Since you are a freshman, how about searching for exchange program/summer program opportunities in a school that has strong upper-level mathematics / physics modules? Better if the school has a reputation in these areas so it validates your acquired skills.
One thing I was considering was transferring to Georgia Tech (I am a resident of Georgia). It’s much easier to transfer there than getting in as a first-year student. And of course, Georgia Tech has a strong reputation in mathematics and science.

geekusprimus
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Re: Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by geekusprimus » Sun Jan 26, 2020 12:38 am

Zmvernlaro wrote:
Sat Jan 25, 2020 9:31 pm
Overall, I greatly appreciate what you are saying. One thing I am curious about though, what do you mean by “world-class tool?”
Sometimes the greatest scientists are not the greatest mentors. I took my advanced lab course from an atomic physicist who earned his PhD at MIT. He was a student under Wolfgang Ketterle as part of the research group that did all the work on Bose-Einstein condensates that led to Ketterle receiving the Nobel Prize. Despite that rousing success story, my professor has absolutely nothing kind to say about Ketterle. Apparently the man was such a terrible mentor that my professor almost transferred to a different, lesser-renowned university just to get away from him.

In another story, when I was looking at graduate schools myself, my advisor and another professor who is a part of our research group warned me about a particular professor at UIUC. This man completely revolutionized my field and made enormous contributions, but apparently all his graduate students have basically said he's a tyrant, a slave driver, and a nightmare to work for.

Basically, the person you decide to work with isn't just going to magically transplant all their knowledge into your head and throw your name on a bunch of papers; this is someone you'll be working very closely with for upwards of five years (depending on how soon you start research, of course). Ideally, of course, you want someone like John Wheeler, who is both an amazing scientist and an amazing teacher, but with those being somewhat rare, it's a lot better to look for a pretty good scientist who is an amazing teacher rather than a fantastic scientist with the people skills of an angry Rottweiler.
Last edited by geekusprimus on Sun Jan 26, 2020 3:04 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Nishikata
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Re: Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by Nishikata » Sun Jan 26, 2020 2:14 am

geekusprimus wrote:
Sun Jan 26, 2020 12:38 am

In another story, when I was looking at graduate schools myself, my advisor and another professor who is a part of our research group warned me about a particular professor at UIUC. This man completely revolutionized my field and made enormous contributions, but apparently all his graduate students have basically said he's a tyrant, a slave driver, and a nightmare to work for.
who is this slave driver from UIUC, if I may know? (can also message me if you're not comfortable with naming the prof here)

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Nishikata
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Re: Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by Nishikata » Sun Jan 26, 2020 2:16 am

Zmvernlaro wrote:
Sun Jan 26, 2020 12:00 am

One thing I was considering was transferring to Georgia Tech (I am a resident of Georgia). It’s much easier to transfer there than getting in as a first-year student. And of course, Georgia Tech has a strong reputation in mathematics and science.
Yeah, why not. Consider all your options and do not be afraid to grab an opportunity if you can get it.

Zmvernlaro
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Joined: Sat Jan 25, 2020 6:42 pm

Re: Chances in HEP-Th/String Theory coming from a small liberal arts college and should I consider a double major?

Post by Zmvernlaro » Sun Jan 26, 2020 3:08 pm

Thank for you the responses so far, everyone.

I think I have my mind set, and that it’s probably best to transfer to Georgia Tech due to their greater opportunities for physics.

Does anyone have links to profiles coming from similar backgrounds as me who made it into HEP-Th programs?



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