Struggling towards graduate program application & path choosing

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Posts: 4
Joined: Sun Aug 23, 2015 6:20 pm

Struggling towards graduate program application & path choosing

Post by CsmcSekr » Sun Aug 23, 2015 7:42 pm

Hi everyone,
As the topic suggests, it's been a hard time for me these days-particularly due to anxiety of the incoming application cycle for physics graduate schools.
Necessary backgrounds:
Currently I'm a senior undergraduate student with a physics major at Stony Brook University (no minor declared, very likely graduate with honors; senior year is from Aug. 24, 2015 till the August of 2016). I've been doing significantly well in the past three years, according to my previous "standards". And here the real problem comes. I got literally all As with only exception due to excessive course loads (22 credits with six upper level math and physics courses for one semester) with a 3.96 cumulative GPA. (I'm pretty sure I will get all As for the rest of my undergraduate period so this number will be much closer to 4.0, although it doesn't much different) The downside is, as a physics major, I knew one of the (maybe most) important components of undergraduate life as a prospective graduate student in physics is to participate in research only by the middle of my junior year (roughly around this February). The reason is, I was so self-conceit and did things only if I thought worthy to do. I was in my own enclosed universe and manually repel anything from outside that I thought either unreasonable or unnecessary.
Nonetheless, with such a stellar GPA, it's not hard for me to made it into a programming based summer project this year within one of the shining AMO groups in my school. It's mainly about writing codes that could emulate some crucial functions of the program that the group's been using. By now, I've made significant progress towards the goal, although it's still lacking usability at some circumstances. That's it. I planned to get involved in the real lab environment within this fall, yet if anyone asks me what's undergraduate research like, that's all I could say for now.
:( :( The real horrifying fact is, after checking the database of annually admitted prospective graduate students at some sites (including this one), I found my lack of research experience is just pain in the ass and could be fatal in my graduate school application, if I'm still aiming the top tiers. It's just like many of applicants would say: Tom did research on X for 2 years and Y for one year with several nth author publications with very promising letters from well-known professors. :cry: :cry: My research on annually Applicant Profiles and Admission Results of this site confirmed that idea and further impaired my confidence. Even though I will be doing a supervised graduate level reading on Lee Group with a very venerable professor who was my instructor on classical mechanics as well as lab research on ultrafast spectroscopy with the group for my summer project, I find it's still a shot on the moon for applying some of my dreamy schools like Caltech and Stanford.
So here is the choice I have to make: (the sooner the better) which path should I choose? After days of researches, I end up with following options:
# 1 (lower aim): Continue going on my current path, but aiming at lower-tier schools. I may almost certainly get a better chance on this route, but I may not always happy about my chosen path for 4-6 years in future, especially when I realized I could definitely have done everything (except my GPA) much better and get into some program I really want to among the top schools.
# 2 (cost more time): Stay around my home school and try to find a paid position in my interested group or at some national labs (if applicable). It should makeup my major drawback of lacking research experience-I'm very confident that I will make some achievements with publications if I have one year in there (as long as I really have interest in the topic). Besides, if I decide to graduate in 5 years, finanical problem will soon arise, and by choosing this path I can safely bypass it. However, it may cost me one more year towards my ultimate goal of getting my PhD since I will gain no access on graduate courses.
# 3 (cost more money): Apply for a MS or post-bacc. It would be beneficial since it could save time towards a PhD than path number 2. Likely, it may cost my family tuition of one more year (especially for a Master program), and I really don't want to give any more pressure to my parents. (They've been devoting most of their savings of recent 20 years to afford my 4-year regular undergraduate study)
That's it. Thanks for everyone who spent his/her time on reading this "harangue". If anyone could give me some advices, no matter it eventually works or not, it will be very appreciated.
PS: Some supplemental details about me:
Most interested in theoretical works, hoping to get into a program for string theory or supersymmetry.
International male. Arrived at the U.S. by the middle of 2012.
Excel in almost all kinds of video games with in depth research on my related acpects of it. More than 18 years of playing that.. :D alright it may not be advantageous.
:lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: thank you all! and best luck with you applications!

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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Struggling towards graduate program application & path choosing

Post by TakeruK » Sun Aug 23, 2015 9:07 pm

I think you will be fine. You are over worrying!

First, remember that the profiles you see on these websites are not a representative sample. They are people who are: a. confident enough to post their stats, and/or b. think/worry enough to check all these websites. The majority of my friends in grad school do not even know about these websites, or they only know about them but have never been on them. If you count all the profiles here, there may be about 100 students in total. However, there are thousands of actual graduate students in physics related fields. If you compare yourself to the profiles here, you will be mostly comparing yourself to the very top applicants and you'll surely feel inadequate. Don't do that!

Second, I have a friend in a top program with me. They had zero research experience, just a 4.0 GPA. In my opinion, graduate programs care about the whole package and they are looking for ways for you to demonstrate that you will be successful in their PhD program. There are many ways to show this, not just research experience (although I do think research experience is one of the best ways to strengthen your profile).

Finally, I think you should apply to PhD programs this fall and also think about the other plans you mentioned in your post. If you don't get into any PhD programs, then maybe you can consider staying an extra year or looking for research assistant positions?

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Joined: Sun Aug 23, 2015 6:20 pm

Re: Struggling towards graduate program application & path choosing

Post by CsmcSekr » Sun Aug 23, 2015 9:22 pm

Thank you so much Takeruk, you just rekindled my confidence! :lol:
Yes, I will try every way out this fall on showing that I will be a successful and promising graduate student to the admission committees. It's still hope out here. I'll also try lower tier schools to be safe.
By the way, I just contacted the UG director of physics department in my home school, and he said I'm in fact doing quite well and he'd give me some ideas tomorrow. Cheers. Love all you guys! :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol: :lol:

Posts: 354
Joined: Fri Oct 26, 2012 4:14 pm

Re: Struggling towards graduate program application & path choosing

Post by Catria » Mon Aug 24, 2015 7:47 am

It's really whether you have any research experience or not that determines the viability of the entire enterprise of getting into PhD programs in general, let alone top ones.

Do you want to do AMO? You may want to consider Maryland, CU-Boulder, Rochester and Arizona... if you tend more on the applied side of AMO, Northwestern.

Posts: 62
Joined: Wed Oct 15, 2014 8:47 am

Re: Struggling towards graduate program application & path choosing

Post by slowdweller » Wed Aug 26, 2015 5:22 am

The fact that you want to do string theory and related areas, which are very inaccessible to undergraduates, makes the fact that you don't have a lot of research less damaging. I got into 3 or so top 20 schools for string theory last year with only a few months of research. Similarly, I know of another person who only had one summer of research and is studying string theory at Michigan at the moment (like you this person took a lot of classes instead while maintaining a stellar GPA). However, I have noticed that string theory students at the very top schools (Harvard, Caltech, MIT) did have a substantial amount of theoretical research during their undergrads, so those might be more difficult. So what you can do is apply this year and if you aren't satisfied with the results, try getting more experience under your belt and try again.

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