Thoughts on the application process from an intl student

  • This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

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Joined: Thu Dec 05, 2013 10:20 am

Thoughts on the application process from an intl student

Post by flobadobadie » Tue Apr 15, 2014 4:26 pm

Hi guys, I'd like to share my thoughts on the US physics application process, from the viewpoint of an international applicant. I see a couple of what are, in my opinion, shortcomings in the procedures. I'd be interested in what other people think about my views.

A little about myself. I am a masters student at cambridge university. I have been through the application process before, last year I applied for hep-th at eight top unis without offers. I am reapplying this year with more insight. I include this information only to provide context - I would prefer this discussion to be about my views rather than my personal position.

The first point I would like to make is that the aspects of the US application procedures I address are, to my knowledge, particular to the US.

Emphasis on research experience

Universities want applicants who will do well at PhD research. They want to differentiate between good and bad candidates. I personally believe that research experience is not a differentiator either in ability or potential to carry out research. What is the difference between an applicant A who has completed a summer project, and applicant B who has not? It is rare for someone to quit halfway through a project, so it is not a measure of an applicant's sticking ability. Nor is it I think a good measure of intelligence/physics ability, certainly not as good as the PGRE or undergraduate GPA.

So the difference is that applicant A got a summer project, while applicant B did not. Why did one get a project and the other not? I see that ability could play a part at this stage. Perhaps a supervisor chose applicant A over an applicant C because of superior GPA. But I think the role played is minor. The most important factors to getting a undergraduate research project are luck, who you know and applying to as many opportunities as possible. Are these a measure of an applicant's ability to carry out PhD research? I do not think so. There are other possible circumstantial reasons why one applicant got a project while the other did not:

a) Opportunities for research experience vary between countries. Science in the US is highly funded relative to other countries. There are more opportunities, such as REUs, for which there are no equivalent in most countries. It is not a fault of the applicant where they were born.
b) Priorities and culture. It is unusual for an undergraduate, at least in europe, to publish a paper. Even some postgraduates have not published by the time by they defend their thesis. The culture I feel in europe is that the PhD marks the beginning of your research career. Undergraduates are generally not yet skilled enough to carry out original research, most summer projects are menial and not reflective of a PhD. Undergraduates in the US are no more or less skilled, however they are more likely to pursue research experience, especially when they know the emphasis grad schools place on it. Applicants unaware of the different culture in the US are caught out.
c) Luck and circumstance. Two powerful driving forces.

These factors lead, I feel, to the conclusion that research experience is not a differentiator of applicants, and should play a small role if any in the selection process. The emphasis US grad schools place on it is not good. So how can adcomms differentiate between applicants who are identical in all ways except research experience?


As an outsider, the fact that US grad schools do not usually interview their applicants is bizarre. It is like buying a house, without looking at it. I think US grad schools are missing out on much by not doing so. I know of two reasons commonly given as to why they do not:

a) The extra resources, especially time, required to interview candidates. I feel this is not a valid point. By offering an applicant a place, they are committing to ~6 years of teaching and training students. This is worth a 30 minute interview. If the number of applicants is too high, then a short list can be created from paper applications, and then interview those applicants. This is the method used by all universities, at least in the UK, not to mention all companies to select the best applicants.
b) How could the applicants be interviewed? Skype would be a good way. Many companies conduct interviews this way. If that is not possible, then by phone. What if the applicant is in a significantly different time zone? I know of no-one who would not stay up late for the opportunity of being interviewed by Harvard. Applicants will be happy, especially if they feel they are being given the chance to show more of themselves.

I think grad schools do not interview applicants because it is not the done thing.

GRE general paper

Most people I think would agree that the GRE general paper is not a good indicator of graduate physics performance. There have been studies which show this to be the case ... erformance So why do grad schools ask applicants to spend $195 and tens sometimes hundreds of hours on this exam? No reason. I personally find this particularly pointless and demeaning.

To summarise, if I were running a university's physics admissions procedure, I would create a shortlist of 2x the number of offers I plan to make, and then interview those applicants, 10 minutes general questions, 20 minutes technical questions. I would not ask applicants to take the general gre. I would probably put the aspects of a student's application in the following ranking of importance: Interview, grades, LoRs, PGRE, SoP, research experience.

These are all just my opinions. I'm interested in what other people have to say, for or against. Give it to me! :D

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Joined: Thu Apr 03, 2014 9:50 pm

Re: Thoughts on the application process from an intl student

Post by Lunaray » Tue Apr 15, 2014 5:11 pm

I've spent a year studying abroad at Cambridge, so I have some familiarity with both the US system and the Tripos system. So here are my two cents/pence:

I don't quite agree with you with the claim that "research experience is not a differentiator either in ability or potential to carry out research." I think that research experience can be an indicator of motivation. Research and publications are not strictly required for graduate school applications, but in my opinion, the message they send to admissions committees is that you have some commitment to at least the notion of doing research. Otherwise, why spend all summer working in a lab when there are other things (e.g. more lucrative internships) one could be doing? Moreover, it gives students the opportunity to interact one-on-one with professors in a professional setting that wouldn't be possible in a normal classroom setting. This means that the faculty member whom you worked under will know more about you than just what grades you got in class. They get to see your attitude and approach towards research, and this will probably make for better letters of recommendation in the end (which I think IS the crucial differentiator in applications).

My question is this: if research experience is not a good differentiator, what is? LORs certainly are, but as I've mentioned above, research experience can allow faculty members to get to know students on a more personal level. Aside from LORs, what else is there? Grades? I'm very skeptical of the claim that a single number or degree classification alone is a good measure of ability. Luck and circumstances can also play a pretty big role in determining grades. I could elaborate more on my own experiences, but I would prefer to do it privately.

I agree with your comments regarding interviews. They do it for the biological sciences, but not for physics. I wonder why.

Regarding GREs: I think that they are a necessary evil (and this is coming from one who whose application was perhaps weakened by it). When evaluating candidates with all sorts of different qualifications, there needs to be some sort of objective standard by which all these qualifications can be compared. The GREs and pGREs are that standard. Most universities, to my knowledge, don't really put much weight on the general GREs anyway - I think it's more to assure them that we are able to write cogently.

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