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Posts Tagged ‘graduate school’

Grad School in the sciences is a life-changing endeavour, so do not be afraid to ask questions.

Hi Folks,

Quantum Diaries is not just a place to learn the latest news in particle physics; it is also a resource. It is a forum for sharing ideas and experiences.

In science, it is almost always necessary to have a PhD, but what is a PhD? It is a certification that the holder has demonstrated unambiguously her or his ability to thoroughly carry out an independent investigation addressing a well-defined question. Unsurprisingly, the journey to earning a PhD is never light work, but nor should it be. Scientists undertake painstaking work to learn about nature, its underpinnings, and all the wonderful phenomena that occur in everyday life. This journey, however, is also filled with unexpected consequences, disappointment, and sometimes even heartbreak.

It is also that time of year again when people start compiling their CVs, resumes, research statements, and personal statements, that time of year when people begin applying for graduate programs. For this post, I have asked a number of good friends and colleagues, from current graduate students to current post docs, what questions they wished they had asked when apply for graduate school, selecting a school, and selecting a research group.

However, if you are interested in applying to for PhD programs, you should always first yourself,  “Why do I want a research degree like a PhD?”

If you have an experience, question, or thought that you would like to share, comment below! A longer list only provides more information for applicants.

As Always, Happy Colliding

– Richard (@bravelittlemuon)

PS I would like to thank Adam, Amy, John, Josh, Lauren, Mike, Riti, and Sam for their contributions.

Applying to Graduate School:

“When scouting for grad schools, I investigated the top 40 schools in my program of interest.  For chemistry, research primarily occurs in one or two research labs, so for each school, I investigated the faculty list and group research pages.  I eliminated any school where there werre fewer than two faculty members whose fields I could see myself pursuing.  This narrowed down my list to about a dozen schools.  I then filtered based on location: I enjoy being near a big city, so I removed any school in a non-ideal location.  This let me with half a dozen schools, to which I applied.” – Adam Weingarten, Chemistry, Northwestern

“If there is faculty member you are interested in working for, ask both the professor and especially the students separately about the average length of time it takes students to graduate, and how long financial support might be available.” – Lauren Jarocha, Chemistry, UNC

“My university has a pretty small physics program that, presently, only specializes in a few areas. A great deal of the research from my lab happens in conjunction with other local institutes (such as NIST and NIH) or with members of the chemistry or biology departments. If you are interested in a smaller department, ask professors about Institutes and interdisciplinary studies that they might have some connection to, be it within academia or industry.” – Marguerite Brown, Physics, Georgetown

“If you can afford the application fees and the time, apply as broadly as you can.  It’s good to have options when it comes time to make final decisions about where to go. That said, don’t aim too high (you want to make sure you have realistic schools on your list, whatever “realistic” means given your grades and experience), and don’t aim too low (don’t waste time and money applying to a school that you wouldn’t go to even if it was the only school that accepted you, whether because of academics, location, or anything else).  Be as honest as possible with yourself on that front and get input from trusted older students and professors.  On the flip side, if you don’t get rejected from at least one or two schools, you didn’t aim high enough.  You want a blend of reach schools and realistic schools.” – Amy Lowitz, Physics, Wisconsin

Choosing a School

“One of the most common mistakes I see prospective graduate students make is choosing their institution based on wanting to work with a specific professor without getting a clear enough idea of the funding situation in that lab.  Don’t just ask the professor about funding.  Also ask their graduate students when the professor isn’t present.  Even then, you may have to read between the lines; funding can be a delicate subject, especially when it is lacking.” – Amy Lowitz, Physics, Wisconsin

“If you have a particular subfield/group you *know* you are interested in, check how many profs/postdocs/grads are in these groups, check if there are likely to be open slots, and if there are only 1 or 2 open slots make sure you know how to secure one. If they tell you there are currently no open slots, take this to mean that this group is probably closed for everything but the most exceptional circumstances, and do not take into account that group when making your decision.” – Samuel Ducatman, Physics, Wisconsin

“When choosing a school, I based my decision on how happy the grad students seemed, how energetic/curious the faculty appeared, and if the location would allow me to have extracurricular pursuits (such as writing, improv, playing games with people, going to the movies…basically a location where I could live in for 4-6 years).” – Adam Weingarten, Chemistry, Northwestern

“At the visitor weekend, pay attention to how happy the [current] grads seem. Remember they are likely to be primarily 1st years, who generally are the most happy, but still check. Pay attention to the other students visiting, some of them will be in your incoming class. Make sure there is a good social vibe.” – Samuel Ducatman, Physics, Wisconsin

“When I was visiting a prospective grad student, there was a professor at a university I was visiting whose research I was really interested in, but the university would only allow tuition support for 5 years. When I asked his students about graduation rates and times, however, the answer I got was, ‘Anyone who graduates in 5 years hasn’t actually learned anything, it takes at least 7 or 8 years before people should really graduate anyway. Seven years is average for our group.’ In some fields, there is a stigma associated with longer graduation times and a financial burden that you may have to plan for in advance.” – Lauren Jarocha, Chemistry, UNC

Choosing a Group

“When considering a sub-field, look for what interests you of course, but bear in mind that many people change their focus, many don’t know exactly what they want to do immediately upon entering grad school, and your picture of the different areas of research may change over time. Ask around among your contemporaries and older students, especially when it comes to particular advisers.” – Joshua Sayre, PhD, Physics, Pittsburgh
“If you know that you’re interested in an academic career that is more teaching oriented or research oriented, ask about teaching or grant writing opportunities, respectively. I know plenty of fellow students who didn’t start asking about teaching opportunities their 4th or 5th year of their program, and often by then it was too late. If you know that finding funding will be a big part of your future, joining a group where the students take an active part in writing grants and grant renewals is invaluable experience.” –  Lauren Jarocha, Chemistry, UNC
“For choosing groups, I attended group and subgroup meetings, met with faculty to discuss research and ideas, and read several recent publications from each group of interest.  What I did not do (and wish I had) was talk with the graduate students, see how they and the group operated.  For example, I am very motivated and curious to try new ideas, so in my current research group my PI plays a minimal role in my life.  The most important aspect is how well one’s working style fits with the group mentality, followed by research interest.  There’s a ton of cool, exciting research going on, but finding a group with fun, happy, motivated people will make or break the PhD experience.” – Adam Weingarten, Chemistry, Northwestern
“I went into [Condensed Matter Theory] and not [X] because (1) In the summer of my first year I had no research, and I came close to having no income because of this. I realized I needed someone who could promise me research/funding and real advising. The [X] group was pretty filled up (and there were some politics), so it was impossible to get more than this. (2) I thought the professors in CMT treated me with more respect then the [X] profs I talked to.” – John Doe, Physics
“I believe that choosing which grad schools to apply to should primarily be about the research, so this question is more for after you’ve (hopefully) been accepted to a couple schools.  If you are going into theoretical physics, and if you don’t have some sort of fellowship from them or an outside agency, ask them how much their theory students [teach].  Do they have to TA every semester for their funding?  Do they at least get summers off?  Or do they only have to TA for the first one or two years?  This shouldn’t be the primary factor in deciding where to go – research always is – but it’s not something that should be ignored completely.  Teaching is usually somewhat rewarding in my experience, but it adds absolutely no benefit to your career if you are focused on a professorship at a research university.  Every hour you spend steaching is an hour someone else is researching and you aren’t.  And 10-20 hours a week of teaching adds up.” – Michael Saelim, Physics, Cornell

Congratulations, Dr. Dale

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Last weekend was graduation weekend here at Nebraska (did any of you notice that we have a new blogger with UNL ties?). If you want to see a bunch of happy people, go to graduation; I can’t think of anything to be glum about there. This was a particularly happy graduation for me, as my first PhD student, Dale Johnston, received his diploma. (Equal credit, if not more, goes to my colleague Aaron Dominguez; we co-advise graduate students.) Dale’s thesis was on the Higgs search at D0; his work was a piece of the puzzle in the first exclusion limits on a high-mass standard-model Higgs. At the ceremony I got to help put his doctoral hood on him — the first time I’ve done such a thing, and I hope to have many more opportunities.

That evening Aaron and I drove out to Seward, about twenty five miles west of Lincoln, where Dale’s in-laws live, to help celebrate with his family. Everyone was very proud of Dale’s achievements, and rightfully so. I will admit that you can lose perspective when you spend all of your working days with people who have a PhD or who will be getting one soon. You start to think that everyone has a PhD! (I have even less perspective, as I come home to my PhD wife at the end of the work day.) In fact, it is a rare achievement. Only about 1400 people in the US will earn a PhD in physics this year. This is only a tiny fraction of the population, of course, and not even a very big fraction of, say, high-school seniors who imagine that they will become physicists someday. It’s not an easy path. So it was very rewarding to me to see how excited Dale’s family was about his accomplishments.

So, graduate students — we have a lot of respect for what you are doing, and we know how hard it is. Hang in there! You’ll be rightfully proud of what you have done when you finish.

Meanwhile: the end of the academic term means a bit more time to think about my physics research. I’ll be back at CERN next week for the CMS “physics week,” where we’ll be taking a hard look at where we’ve gotten with the data so far, and what we are hoping to get figured out in time for upcoming conferences. This would all be wonderful except for the fact that I and my colleagues are also mired in the move to our new physics building. We have been waiting for this moment for three and a half years now, but the move itself has been quite chaotic and stressful. We’re trying to keep our eye on the big picture, which is that we will have a wonderful new facility for research and teaching. Want to have the rewarding experience of getting a PhD in physics? Come to Nebraska!


If you don’t let yourself be happy now, then when?
If not now, when?

SmileyParticlePeople are bad at predicting the future emotional consequences of decisions they have to make or events that may happen to them. There’s plenty of science to back it up, and I bring this up because a recent post on how to pick grad schools reminded me of this.

We (everyone) get really stressed out when we try to decide things like what school to go to, or where to work, or live, or who to marry.  And we stress out as if doing one thing vs another would make all the difference between a life where we’ll be super-happy or a life where we will be utterly miserable.

This is often wrong, and is just one of several typical errors people make when trying to predict how they’ll feel in the future.

One researcher who’s really good at explaining why we’re poor-predictors is Dan Gilbert at Harvard.  His TED talk on happiness is pretty good and worth checking out.

We tend to think there are two kinds of happiness: the happiness you feel down the road after you’ve received exactly what you wanted (like admittance to a great school), and the happiness you feel (eventually) after you didn’t get what you wanted.  And we tend to think those levels of happiness are different.

It turns out, a few months or a year down the road, people who got exactly what they wanted and those who didn’t have statistically equivalent levels of happiness.  That’s really hard to believe isn’t it?  We tend not to believe the people who didn’t get what they wanted when they say they’re happy.  “Yeah right, you wanted to go to X, but ended up going to Y, and you think you’re happy?”

I used to not believe those people either, but such a position has become hard to hold on to.  Things we think are such a big deal, things that are just so important, turn out down the road not to have such a long term affect on our happiness as we thought they would.

I’m not saying one shouldn’t have preferences.  But please keep in mind as you make what you think are tough decisions, that no matter what school you get into, what research you pursue, or what job you get, or where you choose to live, or etc, – eventually you’ll be about as happy with one thing as you would have been with another.

Research shows that you’re a bad predictor of happiness – most everyone is – but it also shows you will do just fine in life despite that.  So don’t worry.



It’s that time of year again: hard-working college seniors all over the world are getting e-mails from American universities offering them positions as PhD students in, among many other fields, physics. [Other countries have slightly different time-scales and procedures for PhD applications.] To all of you who have gotten these letters: congratulations!

Image from PhD Comics.

Image from PhD Comics, (c) Jorge Cham.

Now comes the hard part: you have to commit to a PhD program which will frame your education and research for the next 4 to 6(-ish) years. If you’ve gotten this far, then you already mastered the ‘rules of the game’ for your undergrad years: work hard, do well in courses, and start doing some research. Here’s the hitch:

Picking a grad school is the first of many decisions before you where there is no clear path and no obvious set of rules.

Welcome to grad school!

Since this can be a bit of an overwhelming decision, I’d like to offer my thoughts on this matter with the caveat that they are based on my own personal experience in theoretical particle physics and may not apply to everyone. (I’ll do my best to be as general and objective as possible.) Most of my thoughts on this matter are collected in some detail an old post on an old blog, but I’d like to provide an updated and shorter presentation here.

How not to pick grad schools

The first thing you should know: grad school is not one-size fits all. There’s no clear hierarchy of programs. Your mother might want you to go to a big-name Ivy League university, but that is irrelevant unless that university has a strong program in your field. You have no obligation to go to a program just because the university is ‘more prestigious.’ You are judging particular programs (maybe even a particular advisers) and what matters most is finding a place where you can do good research and set yourself up for the next stage of your career. So unless your mother is a professor in your field, do not listen to what she says. (Unless it is ‘I love you’ and ‘I’m proud of you.’)

Similarly, let’s settle this right now: it does not matter what the climate is like or how big the city around the university is. Your job is to find a place where you can do exceptional science and if that means that for a few years you have to live outside your comfort zone, then so be it. (Besides, as a senior in college I’m not convinced that people even know what their ‘comfort zone’ is. You might be surprised.)

Gather the right information

Rule number two: visit each school and talk to as many people as you can. (They won’t mind too much if you skip all of the tours to talk to people in your field.) Most importantly, speak directly to any potential advisers. There are a few important questions that you should always ask faculty and their current grad students:

  1. How are students paired with faculty? What is the likelihood that you will be able to work with the faculty that you want?
  2. How often does each professor talk to his/her graduate students? Do the grad students play central roles in the group, or do they follow their faculty?
  3. What kind of funding does the group offer? How much will you have to teach, how many semesters will the group support you without having to teach? (This is especially important in theoretical physics.)
  4. How have the professor’s past students done? Have they found good postdocs and gone on to faculty jobs?
  5. What are they working on? Note: you should already have a good idea about this based on databases like SPIRES (for particle physicists).

Question #1 is especially important in theoretical particle physics where groups tend to be smaller. Having verbal assurance that an adviser will take you goes a very long way. I’ve seen too many students chose a grad program where they thought they could work with Prof. Y but then ended up having to find a back-up plan because that professor didn’t take any students that year.

Find the right fit: it’s all about you

Rule number three: figure out what kind of students benefit the most from each program, and decide if you match the profile. Some schools do an excellent job with preparatory coursework, but this would be very frustrating for students who already have a strong course background. On the other side of the spectrum, some schools expect students to be very independent from the very beginning, which may frustrate students who could use more mentoring early on.

Here’s what’s difficult: suppose you are choosing between two universities, X and Y, which have strong departments in your field. You think that X would provide the support you need, but Y is more prestigious and tends to do well placing its graduate students. You worry that going to X will reduce your chances of getting a good postdoc.

It won’t. Trust me. I’ve seen too many good students who have become frustrated at top-name schools because the program wasn’t the right fit for them, and I’ve seen just as many excellent students who have done exceptionally well after going to a lesser-known school with a program that was just right for them.

Evaluating advisers

How do you know which adviser is right for you? This is also a very personal choice.

  • Do you need someone with a more hands-on approach, or someone who can ‘point you in the right direction’ and let you explore? [If you haven’t done research before, then you probably want someone hands-on.]
  • Is the professor working on something you are interested in? (You should already have a good idea of what you are interested in!)
  • How have their past students done? How are they as an adviser? A Nobel laureate might be great for a letter of recommendation, but that doesn’t help if s/he isn’t there to help you develop into a good scientist as well.

You might want to think about how active an adviser is (this is correlated with age), whether there are external factors (faculty with young children have less time), and what kind of relationship you want with your adviser (research only, or chummy buddies). If you’re not sure how to evaluate potential advisers as scientists, the best people to ask are the faculty at your current university.

Let me emphasize once again: a personal assurance that you can work with a particular faculty member goes a long way. You do not want to end up at a university where none of the faculty have room for another student in your field.

More advice is good advice

Anyway, hopefully these paragraphs can help get the ball rolling. Probably the best advice I can give is to solicit advice from as many relevant sources as possible (especially faculty at your university) and figure out which is most relevant for you.

-Flip for US/LHC blogs.