Unsolicited advice, 1: How to get into graduate school

By Sean Carroll | December 20, 2005 11:53 am

Your humble bloggers here at Cosmic Variance have spent quite a bit of accumulated time in academic and research settings — in fact, my guess is that none of us have spent an entire year away from such a setting since the age of about six or so. That’s a lot of accumulated wisdom right there, and it’s about time we started sharing it. Since it’s that time of year when applications are being sent off to graduate schools, I thought I would start off by letting everyone in on the secret to how to get accepted everywhere you apply. Of course I can only speak for physics/astronomy departments, but the basic lessons should be widely applicable.

So, here goes: have great grades, perfect GRE scores, significant research experience, and off-scale letters of recommendation. Any questions?

If, perhaps, it’s a bit too late to put that plan into action, here are some personal answers to questions that come up during the process. Co-bloggers (and anyone else) are free to chime in with their own take on these complicated issues. Keep in mind that every person is different, as is every grad school — in fact, specific schools might behave quite differently from year to year as different people serve on the admissions committee. Don’t sink your sense of self-worth into how you do on these applications; there’s a strong random component in the decisions, and there are a very large number of good schools where you can have a fun and successful graduate career.

  • What do graduate school admissions committees look at?
    Everything. Keep in mind that, unlike being admitted to college (undergrad), at the grad school level the admissions are done by individual departments, with committees comprised of faculty members with different kinds of expertise, and often students as well. They’ll look at your whole application, and in my experience they really take the responsibility seriously, poring over a huge number of applications to make some hard decisions. Still, it’s well-known that careful examination of a thick file of papers is no substitute for five minutes of talking to someone, which schools usually don’t have the luxury of doing, so decisions are always somewhat fickle.
  • Even my personal essay?
    Well, okay. I wouldn’t sweat the personal essay; in my experience it doesn’t have too much impact. Let’s put it this way: an incredibly good essay could help you, but a bad essay won’t do too much harm (unless it’s really bad). To a good approximation, all these essays sound alike after a while; it’s quite difficult to be original and inspiring in that format.
  • Are GRE scores important?
    Yes. At least, in the following sense: while bad GRE’s won’t kill your chances, good GRE’s make it much easier to admit you. (We’re speaking of the Physics GRE, of course; the general tests are completely irrelevant.) It stands to reason: given two applicants from similar schools with similar grades and interests, there’s no reason for a department to choose the student with lower GRE scores. At the same time, you can certainly overcome sub-par GRE’s by being outstanding in other areas; this is particularly true for students who want to do experiment. I know at Chicago that we let in students with quite a range of scores.
  • What about research experience?
    Research can be a big help, although it’s by no means absolutely necessary. These days it seems that more and more undergrads are doing research, to the point where it begins to look unusual when people haven’t done any. There is some danger that people think you must want to keep on doing the kind of research that you did as an undergrad, although I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Mostly it shows some initiative and passion for the field. It can be very difficult to do theoretical research as an undergrad, but that’s okay; even if you eventually want to be a string theorist, it’s still great experience to do some experimental work as an undergrad (in fact, perhaps it’s especially useful).
  • How do I get good letters of recommendation?
    It’s more important to have letters from people who know you well than from people who are well-known themselves. One of the best side benefits of doing research is that you can get your supervisor (who hopefully has interacted with you quite a bit) to write letters for you. It’s really hard to write a good letter for a student who you only know because they took one class from you a year or two ago. Over the course of your undergrad career, you should find some way to strike up a personal relationship with one or more faculty members, if only to sit in their office now and then and ask some physics questions. Then they can write a much more personal and effective letter. Of course, if you are just a bad person who annoys everyone, it would be just as well to stay hidden. (Kidding!)
  • Is it true that the standards are different for theorists and experimenters?
    Typically, yes, although it might be different from place to place. Because a lot of undergrads haven’t been exposed to a wide range of physics research, a large number of them want to be Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking or Ed Witten. Which is great, since we need more people like that. But even more, we need really good experimenters. Generally the ratio of applicants to available slots is appreciably larger for theorists than for experimenters, and schools do take this into account. Also, of course, the standards are a little different: GRE’s count more for prospective theorists, and research experience counts more for prospective experimenters. And let’s be honest: many schools will accept more prospective theorists than they can possible find advisors for, in the hopes of steering them into experiment once they arrive.
  • So should I claim to be interested in experiment, even if I’m not?
    No. Think about it: given that schools already tend to accept more students who want to do theory than they can take care of, what are your chances of getting a good advisor if you sneak into a department under false pretenses and have to compete with others who came in with better preparation? It makes much more sense to go someplace where they really want you for who you are, and work hard to flourish once you get there.
  • Do I need to know exactly what I will specialize in?
    Not really, although in certain circumstances it can help. Professors like to know that someone is interested in their own area of research, and might push a little harder to accept someone whose interest overlaps with their work; on the other hand, most people understand that you don’t know everything after three and a half years of being an undergraduate, and it can take time to choose a specialization. In particular, at most American physics departments (unlike other countries and some other disciplines), it is generally not expected that you need to know ahead of time who your advisor will be when you arrive, or which “group” you will work in.
  • Should I contact faculty members individually if I’m interested in their research?
    That depends, mostly on whether the person you are contemplating contacting is desperate for more grad students, or is overwhelmed with too many requests as it is. In popular areas (ahem, like theoretical particle physics, string theory, and cosmology), there are generally more applicants than departments have advisors for. In that case, most people who receive random emails from undergraduates will just urge them to wait for the admissions process to take its course; remember that it’s a zero-sum game, and for everyone who gets in there’s someone else who doesn’t, and it would be a little unfair to penalize those applicants who didn’t contact faculty members personally. On the other hand, if you have reason to believe that someone you’re interested in working with is trying to get more students, or if you think your case is somehow unique and requires a bit of attention, feel free to email the appropriate faculty member with a polite inquiry. The worst that can happen is that you get a brush-off; I can’t imagine it would actually hurt your chances.
  • Is my life over if I don’t get into my top grad school?
    Yes. Well, only if you let it be. The truth is, how you do in grad school and beyond (including how you do on the postdoc and faculty job market) depends much more on you than it does on where you go to school. In the next episode of “unsolicited advice,” we’ll think about how to actually choose where to go, including how to get the most out of visiting different schools.

Actually this episode was not completely unsolicited; thanks to Philip Tanedo for suggesting we share some of our invaluable insight. See, sometimes we really do listen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Advice
  • http://www.crookedtimber.org Kieran

    The truth is, how you do in grad school and beyond (including how you do on the postdoc and faculty job market) depends much more on you than it does on where you go to school.

    Any data on that? In many fields, there is very little upward mobility in the short run (say, up to 10 years out), where mobility is defined as being at a significantly higher-ranked institution than the one you received your PhD from. Instead, the stratification system resembles a pyramid of champagne glasses: top tier schools circulate some students amongst themselves and pass the rest town to the second tier. Students at second tier schools have a much lower probability of making it up to the first tier, and are much more likely to get a job in another tier 2 school or (more often) a tier 3 school, and so on downwards. Most faculty teach at schools less prestigious than the one they received their PhD from.

    Upward mobility _is_ possible, of course: there aren’t legal barriers to entry. All the same, even the “typical atypical” profile or an upwardly mobile career is of someone who starts out with a tier 1 PhD and suffers a sharp dip after grad school (down to the 2nd or 3rd tier, say), followed by a longish climb back up the ranks as they produce very good work and come to be seen as underplaced. Quality of work in the hard sciences is in principle easier to establish than in the humanities or social sciences, which should tend to make strong upward mobility more likely; but for the same reasons the path-dependence associated with grant awards and free-time for research, etc, is also much stronger (this is the Matthew Effect), which militates against beating the odds. I’d agree that any individual success does depend a great deal on you, but I think this is very strongly conditioned on getting in to the best school you can. Many people who get in to top programs fail to make a stellar career for themselves; but it is much harder to make a stellar career if you don’t get in to a top program.

  • fh

    Cheers! I’m coming up to all that right now so these words are appreciated. Even though not everything applies straight to the German/European situation.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I have no data, and I completely agree that stratification is very strong. The top schools produce more students than there are postdoc jobs, and far more postdocs than there are faculty jobs, so downward mobility is the name of the game.

    But I feel (purely from personal experience, I’d love to actually see data) that this is mostly due to a huge selection effect: the students who go to the best schools were the best students to begin with, so it’s no surprise that they do well. I haven’t seen any studies on the value-added of going to a top grad school, and I imagine it would be hard to control for the relevant variables. I am sure there is some value added, since the top schools will be filled with smart and productive professors as well as fellow students, and you learn a lot from interacting with such people; but my personal impression is that individual initiative is somewhat more important than those factors.

  • Scott

    thanks for the advise Sean.

  • Moshe

    This looks like excellent advice, I wish I had it when it was relevant…one more point which may be also relevant for the mobility issue: many times the world-leading group in some specific topic is not in the big-name schools. If the student is already focused, and can access that information, those are ideal places to apply since it is fairly easy to get into the dpt. (though it is then fairly difficult to join the popular group…preservation of difficulty I guess).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Kieran: In my experience, it is difficult, but not impossible, to move upward after going to a lower-tiered school. While the top students tend to attend the top-tiered schools, some do graduate from lower-tiered schools for a variety of reasons, such as personal ones. I am such an example – I got my PhD from Iowa State (not usually considered a powerhouse in HEP theory!) as my husband was there. And I clearly did alright, although I feel that I had to work harder (especially while in grad school) to get noticed and overcome the stigma. The absolutely critical step for an academic career is landing a good first postdoc and doing well there.

    Sean: thanks for this post! I am on the admissions committee for the first time this year.

  • Anonymous This Time

    Re the stratification effect, my own career runs “upstream”, and I had not really thought this unusual until someone senior pointed it out to me. But apparently it is. (And I am posting anonymously, although I know that if Sean is curious he can see my IP address and almost certainly guess my identity)

    My feeling is that the biggest difference between a PhD at a top-drawer place and a not so good one is the opportunity it provides to develop “good taste,” which is something you learn by example and by osmosis as much as through formal instruction. This, rather than ability to solve problems or work hard is the single most important attribute of a working scientist, in my opinion.

    When I was a PhD student (at a very out of the way place), it was deemed impressive to be simply working in cosmology. I distinctly remember a conversation with a visiting big-shot in an adjacent field, and he asked me “what was the most interesting thing you found while you were a student?”

    I realized afterwards that a) this was probably a stock question he asked pretty much anyone he met in the same circumstances and b) my answer had completely failed to impress. Thinking about, it dawned on me, that for him, it was not impressive to be simply doing cosmology, the point was to be doing cosmology in a way that was of interest to other cosmologists. And that is the single most important thing I learned a a PhD student.

    Now, I am an assistant professor at a name-brand school in a different country and I get a vast number of post-doc applications to read every year (not to mention grad school apps, but there we are actively looking for diamonds in the rough and a lot of our best students come from out of the way places), and I realize that while I want to see some evidence that the applicant is technically strong, what really impresses me is someone who has a clear understanding of what is *worth* doing.

    For every paper I write, I can probably come up with another ten ideas that might be publishable — and the trick for me is to avoid tackling too many problems that might be technically cute, but which do not meaningfully advance the “conversation” the field is having about the early universe.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Hey, Anonymous This Time is going off topic by giving excellent advice on how to actually succeed once you are in graduate school! And beyond! Likewise Moshe’s point about smaller schools excelling in certain areas is very relevant to choosing where to go. We’re supposed to save that stuff for later, but I suppose you can’t hear it too often.

    Concerning mobility, JoAnne raises an extremely important point: the “memory” of your trajectory is very short. Once you’re in grad school it doesn’t matter where you were an undergrad, and once you’re a postdoc it doesn’t matter where you went to grad school.

  • http://www.angrystanek.com Becky Stanek

    (We’re speaking of the Physics GRE, of course; the general tests are completely irrelevant.)

    This does vary from department to department — a few departments don’t even require the Physics GRE, and others place more emphasis on the general than on the Physics. I suspect that the latter depends on who is on the admissions committee in a given year, however.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    I forogt to add a high-profile example of mobility: the director of SLAC, Jonathan Dorfan, went to grad school at UC Irvine. A good place, but not “Ivy League” and it clearly didn’t hold him back at all!

  • Richard E.

    I am coming up to my third stint on the admissions committee for our graduate program at a place some of the people reading this blog have almost certainly applied to :-)

    I actually find the personal essay very useful. Not only does it tell whether the person can string a sentence together, what I want to see is a coherent narrative that explains how the person came to be applying to graduate school, and perhaps even why they had chosen my fine institution.

    Too many of them are full of the most atrocious boilerplate along the lines “Since the dawn of time, man has attempted to understand the universe” or “Science is vital to our society”. All true of course, but it tells me nothing about the applicant — it is a little like going to a wedding and hearing the groom intone “Thank you all for coming today. I would just like to begin my saying that the family unit is one of the most important aspects of modern society and with this in mind, I have chosen Becky here to be my wife.”

    Now it is unarguably true that strong families do all sorts of good for both the people in them and society at large. But this (hopefully!) is not why poor Becky was chosen — this line of reasoning would apply equally well to any other person, and a far more persuasive speech would begin “Since the first time I glimpsed Becky standing next to the keg in my frat house basement / sitting with her laptop in Starbucks / holding the room spellbound as she spoke on her research / overtaking me as we ran with the bulls in Pamplona” I would have some clue as to why *this* person was important to the man who had just promised to spend the rest of his life with Becky.

    Likewise, I want to know why *you* chose physics and not some other equally worthy pursuit, and perhaps why you chose my fine institutution. (Although it is best to avoid simply saying the “interesting work of Profs X, Y & Z” if all that proves to me is your ability to use google, since X,Y & Z often have little in common beyond working in the same building).

    On the other hand, I distrust the essay that is overly specific — “I want to work with Prof. A on the B experiment” — what it tells me is that you are not aware that your opinions may change once you actually show up at my fine institution :-)

    I agree that GREs are largely useless — although I also tell students to do some work to prepare for them. A high GRE won’t get you in, but a low GRE definitely raises a red flag.

    Finally, I am a little concerned that it is becoming almost compulsory for prospective grad students to have had some undergraduate “research” experience. Not only does it tend to assume that you know what you want to do early enough in your undergraduate career to line up the appropriate REUs and so forth, it also means that it is harder to engage in other pursuits as an undergraduate.

    Good luck!

  • Anonymous This Time

    The other point I would add about mobility is that when I read a post-doc applicaton, I give very little attention to the institution it is coming from. What I *do* care about is the letters of support, and who wrote them. Unlike grad school applicants where the professors might not have a close relationship with the applicant, a post-doc letter of recommendation is often based on a detailed working relationship between the letter-writer and the applicant. A good letter will be full of specific information and comparisons to other people in the field (and previous students of the advisor).

    In this case, if the advisor is someone I know (either personally or by reputation) it does not really matter whether they are located at a middle ranked state school, or at Harvard.

    So, if you want to translate that into advice — by all means go to a smaller / less famous place, but chose you advisor carefully if you are ambitious. (Advice I certainly did not follow myself) You are looking for someone the department acknowledges as a “star” (and you will see this in the research accomplishes the department choses to highlight, as well as simply from the “word on the street”), by looking at what happened to previous students of this person, whether they are often heading off to give talks at other places, whether their research gets any attention in the “science press” (not a guarantee of quality, but at least it is a sign they are known) — and there are plenty of very good people at less well-ranked places.

    Finally, make sure your advisor is someone you hit it off with, and whose current students enjoy working with. This person will have a huge influence over the rest of your life (both by supporting your entry into the field, and also through the guidance they provide to you during your time as a graduate student) — now that I am supervising students, the responsibility involved is occasionally a little scary.

  • Moshe

    On the subject of the essay, this comes to mind, apologies if it is a well known cliche by now

    http://www.lucifer.com/~sasha/humor/admission.html

  • Aaron Bergman

    I read “Is my life over if I don’t get into my top grad school?” without the word “top”, and my immediate response was “no, it’s over once you get into grad school.”

  • http://www.crookedtimber.org Kieran

    Sean:

    I feel (purely from personal experience, I’d love to actually see data) that this is mostly due to a huge selection effect: the students who go to the best schools were the best students to begin with, so it’s no surprise that they do well. I haven’t seen any studies on the value-added of going to a top grad school, and I imagine it would be hard to control for the relevant variables.

    You’re right that there’s a terrific amount of endogeneity, which causes a lot of problems. In the short run, as you say, the best students select in to the best schools, so that’s confounding. In the long run, the highest-ranked schools should also be the most successful at recruiting and retaining the best faculty, which causes the same measurement problem.

    One apparent solution would be to emphasize that many top schools admit students that drop out or otherwise fail in the short- to medium- term, because it’s really very hard to measure quality — but this is still the same problem, because you can argue that the brilliant people are still selecting in and then surviving the grad school process. The counterfactual cases (people who would have succeeded brilliantly but did not) are really difficult to identify. So there are competing intuitions about the structure of the field and these are underdetermined by the evidence: is it more like a tough-but-perfectly-fair meritocracy, or more like a self-reproducing caste system? No-one really subscribes to pure versions of either of these views, but most people tend to have leanings one way or another — leanings which, alas, derive mainly from the phenomenology of their experience within the system itself.

    ATT:

    My feeling is that the biggest difference between a PhD at a top-drawer place and a not so good one is the opportunity it provides to develop “good taste,” which is something you learn by example and by osmosis as much as through formal instruction.

    Right — that’s what I was trying to get at with the social/cultural capital point in the original comment.

    (Sorry if I’ve hijacked this thread: Sean’s advice is really very good.)

  • Dissident

    Sean wrote:

    Your humble bloggers here at Cosmic Variance have spent quite a bit of accumulated time in academic and research settings; in fact, my guess is that none of us have spent an entire year away from such a setting since the age of about six or so.

    Ahem… and it shows. Zero experience of the Real World (TM) is probably required to consider universities attractive places of employment, and going to grad school oh so desirable.

    So here’s a piece of advice back: before writing a long post on how to get into grad school (really not all that difficult – physics departments run on and crave their constant fix of easily discardable slave/cheap workforce, aka TAs and postdocs) some thought should be given to the advisability of at all entering the infamous grad-school-post-doc pipeline, ostensibly to train for a chronically oversaturated job market. What’s in it for existing faculty is obvious; what’s in it for the applicant rather less so.

    As Clifford would say (where’s the old rascal, btw?): discuss!

    Maybe a few random links will help get you going:

    http://disciplined-minds.com/
    http://www.aaup.org/publications/Academe/2005/05nd/05ndheat.htm
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=280
    http://archive.salon.com/books/it/2000/02/28/postdoc/print.html
    http://chronicle.com/jobs/archive/topical/non_academic.hthttp://groups.google.com/group/sci.research.careers?hl=en
    m

    and for something really macabre

    http://pweb.jps.net/~gangale/opsa/Gradmurd/Gradmurd1.htm

  • Dissident
  • Another anonymous poster

    Yet another take on the GREs: I’ve served on admissions committees to top-ranked programs in both physics and astrophysics, and at both places general GRE scores were important. Most credible applicants (at least among native English speakers) have very high general GRE scores, so it is true that high scores aren’t much help. But “low” scores can sink an application (where “low” can be pretty high by standards in other fields). Success in science depends on communication skills, and it is a lot easier to teach an incoming physics student field theory or general relativity than to teach him or her how to write. The verbal GRE score and grades in non-science courses can be very useful markers.

  • a.krug

    Dissident,

    As a young physicist, I can tell you that I have never been used as “slave/cheap workforce,” I am fully aware of what alternative sources of employment are like, and academia was and is the most desirable career choice for me. No one is saying it’s the best choice for everyone. But for some people it is. I don’t think anyone starts grad school under the illusion that they’re entering some idyllic world of high pay and minimal work.

    In other words, what’s your point?

  • Dissident

    My point, dear a.krug, is that grad school tends to be viewed as the “obvious”, default choice by young, bright people who just don’t know (1) what they really want to do with their lives, (2) what the alternatives are, (3) what they are getting themselves into and (4) what’s most likely to happen to them once they’ve graduated and run through the 2-3 postdoc stints which seem to be the norm these days, for a total of a decade+ ultimately leading nowhere, since physics Ph.D. overproduction relative to jobs is something like 4:1.

    I’d like the young, impressionable and naive to stop and think before making what for most of them will turn out to be a life-changing mistake. Fair enough?

  • Aaron Bergman

    is that grad school tends to be viewed as the “obvious”, default choice by young, bright people who just don’t know (1) what they really want to do with their lives

    No, that would be consulting.

  • Rien

    Well, when I started grad school I didn’t know (1) what I really wanted to do with my life, (2) what the alternatives were, (3) what I was getting myself into and (4) what was most likely to happen to me once I’d graduated and run through the 2-3 postdoc stint. Still not sure about (2) and (4), but at least my second postdoc stint is feeling good so far.

    My point is, if you don’t know these things I think it’s definitely worth a shot if you have a feeling that this is what you want to do. I would have regretted it if I hadn’t tried.

  • Name? What name?

    How about a series on how to be successful in grad school once you get there?

  • Anonymous because it’s Hip in this Thread

    Here is a retro question (since I already got my degree) regarding the personal essay thingie!

    When I was applying to grad school I was :

    (a) overaged
    (b) underprepared (I can’t tell a bra from a ket since I don’t have a physics college degree, ok I did study hard for the GRE after I sent in my package…)
    (c) out of school for 3 years
    (d) foreign and got a bachelor’s degree from some no-name foreign institution (I think I am the first person from the school to actually get a PhD in astrophysics)

    After going through the application package, I found that the “essay” bit is my last hope that at least my own voice can be heard (as opposed to letters, grades etc where things are already out of my hands), so I put my heart and soul in it. I always held the belief that maybe my personal essay did something to alleviate some of the concerns above (that I am sure will raise multiple red flags in any admissions comm.).

    So, my question is : is the personal essay more important for less typical applicant like me? (Aww, don’t tell me that my personal essay had nothing to do with my admission! I worked so hard on it!)

  • citrine615

    My little delta addition to these wonderful ideas is to actually visit the institutions. I know, I know, it’s a big expense, but I think that it’ll pay off in the end. The department gets to see YOU and you get to see them. Seeing a bright, energetic person makes – I presume – a much stronger impact than seeing their application packet. On the other hand, the student gets a “feel” for the place. Do the grad students look majorly disgruntled and seem just about ready to erupt? Do the faculty look as if they are at loggerheads? If you can sense a lot of bad blood, avoid the place, even if everything else seems great.

  • Another anonymous poster

    For “Anonymous because it’s Hip”: the personal essay is most important for people exactly in your situation — those who have taken a somewhat non-traditional route to grad school applications. Essays from people coming straight out of a physics undergraduate degree are all pretty much the same. Some are better written than others, some are wittier than others, but none of it usually makes much impact on the admissions decision. But for someone with an unusual background the essay can be the make-or-break piece of evidence. In my experience, this is more true in astrophysics than in physics, because there seem to be more students applying “because it sounds cool, and I don’t know what else to do.” Your job in the essay is to convince me as the reader that your involvement in the field has gone well beyond that level, and that you’ve at least begun to grapple with the realities of graduate student life (and beyond) in a new field. I was once a math major applying to physics PhD programs, and I’ve switched fields again since, so I’m sensitive to the possibilities of changing directions. But for the committee, the safest candidates for success in field X are those who were already successful in field X as undergrads. You’ve got to convince them to take a leap of faith.

    Following up on citrine615: I don’t encourage visits before admissions decisions. Grad departments aren’t set up to host and interview people at random times of the year. When I served as a grad advisor, I usually just passed random visiting prospectives to a friendly graduate student to look after. Most top departments, though, will go to great lengths (including financial lengths) to make it possible for you to visit after you are admitted, and will make it easy to meet and talk with the faculty. At that stage, you should definitely visit any place you are planning to spend the next 5-7 years of your life.

  • David

    Hi,

    1.
    What exactly are the “Tier 1″, “Tier 2″ and “Tier 3″ schools? Could anyone give me 5 examples of each?

    2.
    Who determines how they are tiered?

    Thanks,

    David

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    The US system sounds extremely complicated :) In Europe we first study physics, write an M.Sc. thesis and then apply for a job as a Ph.D. student.

    The Ph.D. student usually can start his/her research straight away. Sometimes some specialized courses need to be followed.
    You write a few articles, compile your Ph.D. thesis and then you’re done.

  • Dissident

    Count Iblis, there is not one common European system. Programs vary a lot between different countries. A requirement of one or two years worth of coursework before spending a couple of years on your thesis (nominally at least, in practice it tends to take longer) is not uncommon.

  • twaters

    I was told by my professor that (if your interest is mostly in theory) in applying to grad school, you shouldn’t explicitly state your desire to be a theorist, since at this point you have no idea if that is what you are really cut out for. Rather, just express interest in learning all aspects of the given field. This will make it less difficult to get into grad school, since it will be easier to place you with an advisor until you are sure of what you want to do.

    This seems like good advice to me, but would you disagree? I agree that claiming to be interested in experiment when really not is no bueno, but this seems like a much safer plan if you honestly aren’t sure.

  • Anonymous

    I’d better post this anonymously.

    I’ve served on a number of faculty search committees at quite decent schools, and let me tell you that it DOES matter where you went to graduate school. When you’re looking at 200 applications from particle theorists that all start to look dizzying alike, it is definitely to the candidate’s advantage to have the name Princeton, Chicago, or MIT on the top of his or her CV. Podunk State? Not so much! And don’t forget that some of the people on search committees reading your application will not be experts in your field, and will NOT know that your advisor Prof X at Podunk State is one of the world leaders in your field.

    Do anything you can to stay inside the Golden Circle, my friends. If your PhD is not from a brand-name university, it WILL be harder for you to get a faculty position. Not impossible, or course, but certainly harder. I suppose I’m mostly arguing with Moshe’s point.

  • Nicholas

    As a student applying to grad school (most likely) next year, the advice is most welcome!

    Thanks guys (and girl :) ),

    NM

  • anonymous grad student

    In response to the anonymous above… I apreciate the insider info there, it is just as suspected.

    However, as a graduate student at a second tier school (and by second tier, I still mean a quality school but not premier league), I thought I’d throw in my tuppence for the perspective graduate students out there.

    Often, schools that offer a less competitve environment to work in are better places to thrive academically. There are many quality researchers at schools that are not MIT, Harvard, Princeton etc., and often, you will find that the lack of elitism that pervades these places rather refreshing. Depending on your personality, it makes learning, making mistakes and being allowed to have ideas a lot easier. In short, you’re allowed to flower a lot more (depending of course on your advisor).

    I personally attended the lowest ranked grad school I was accepted to and it has turned out to be the best decision of my life, especially when compared to my colleagues who are at ‘top tier’ universities. I wouldn’t have it any other way were I to make the choice again.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    David (#27) — there’s no official ranking, or at least that’s not what is being referred to. Just an informal semi-consensus about what schools are doing the best research in the field.

    Twaters (#30) — I think this is one of those times when it’s best just to tell the truth. If you want to do theory, say so; if you’re open to whatever strikes your fancy, say that.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Anonymous (#31) — I have to say I’m very surprised, and a little skeptical, to hear that anyone is making faculty offers on the basis of where someone went to grad school. If you had said it was on the basis of where the person was a postdoc, it would have made slightly more sense — but to choose new faculty members by what grad school they went to is both incredibly lame and quite the opposite of what I have actually seen. At the faculty-search level, what matters are your publications, your letters of recommendation, and the actual job visit once you make the short list. I’ve never even heard anyone mention the grad school someone came from, except in the context of “yes, they came from X’s highly productive research group at school Y, but they’ve subsequently established their own independent track record since they’ve been a postdoc.”

  • invcit

    Two questions:

    1. How are students from abroad viewed? If from Europe, they probably have studied a lot more.

    2. Why is the GRE physics so valued? It is just a speed test. Personally, I thought it gauged my potential for doing research more or less as well as a test consisting of adding a 1000 two-digit numbers really fast would.

  • agm

    it would be a little unfair to penalize those applicants who didn’t contact faculty members personally.

    Quite literally the opposite of what every other person I’ve ever heard give advice about grad school said.

  • agm

    Though perhaps I should add that usually the advice includes to requirement to inquire about a person’s research, whether they or people they know are looking to take on students in that field, and other assorted nuances, in combination with an injunction not to be an idiot and wait til the last minute because the person will likely be beset with a blizzard of email and start deleting messages as if they were all on the university-wide listserv…

  • http://www.steelypips.org/principles/ Chad Orzel

    My comments would be a bit too long for, well, the comments section, so here’s a manual trackback to the post on my own blog.

  • Dissident

    #36: invcit, you may find this interesting:

    http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/135.html

    Roughly 1/3 of grad students in the US are foreigners on temporary visa. My impression is that Chinese and Indians dominate, with a minor sprinkling of Europeans. There is much less of an incentive for the latter to go to the US for grad school than for the former; it tends to be the very best, most ambitious and adventurous that do, with the rest being quite content to stay closer to home (few European universities would qualify as “world class”, but the other side of the coin is that they can be rather more comfortable than US ones). So it’s reasonable to expect European grad students in the US to be talented and ambitious; knowledge level on the other hand can vary a lot, again because there really is not one common European system. Somebody coming out of a good German undergraduate program may have absorbed more course material than a British Ph.D. – the range is that wide.

  • Pingback: nanopolitan 2.0 » How to get into graduate school?

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Dissident, yes that’s true. In some countries the system looks more like the US system.

    Here the university from which you obtained your Ph.D. doesn’t play an important role. Your CV should contain a list of published papers that speaks for itself.

  • Hektor Bim

    I served on the admissions committee when I was in grad school, and I have to disagree with some points here.

    (1) Writing on your application that you want to do string theory and solve the fundamental problems of the universe will make it harder for you to get in. More than half the applications I read said something like that, and they are almost all written by people who don’t understand field theory (not that I expect them to have learned it in undergrad). They were just saying what they had been brainwashed to say by their undergrad professors and textbooks. Doing research in condensed-matter theory or experiment and saying that you want to do that will increase your chances of getting in, because professors have to match up students with their research programs, and everyone knows that 50% of the people entering won’t do string theory.

    (2) Particle experimentalists are the bottom feeders. They always need a lot of bodies for their experiments and data analysis and they aren’t as particular as everyone else. They are also always the people pushing for the size of the entering class to be increased. If you want to get in more easily, say you want to do particle experiment and then switch after you get in. One tactic that was used well was to get research support from the particle experimentalists until after the qualifiers were passed, and then immediately switching to another group. That worked well for several people I knew.

    (3) Low Physics GRE scores hurt you, but high scores from foreigners are suspect. Since there is zero preparation for GREs in most American undergrad institutions, it’s pretty rare for even good Americans to score above 900 or so. You want to be above 780 or so to be safe if you are coming from a good American institution. Below that and it starts to hurt you. If you score badly the first time, study for them and take them again. It is very common for people to improve their scores markedly the second time around and only the highest score matters.

    (4) Elaboration on (2). It is very much in your interest to express interest in a subfield that you know is not as well-represented in the entering class of students and make contacts with the professors in that subfield before you apply. If you have someone rooting for you, it doesn’t matter how low your GRE scores are, though obviously the recommendation letters matter most. By far the best thing is to get good recommendation letters from people at the school you are applying for. I’ve seen people who did good work with professors at the school they were applying to get in despite mediocre grades and awful GRE scores. Grad students need to be sorted into subfields, so if you say on your application that you want to do condensed matter experiment and people actually do that at the university, you have a better chance of getting in.

    (5) Once you get into grad school: realize that more than half of entering grad students work in a different subfield than the one they thought they would work in when they applied. 50%+ of people can’t work in string theory, and many of them won’t work in particle experiment either. (Not least this is because many theorists have little money and can’t support their students, so they spend a lot of time TAing when they could be researching.) There is always a drain of people out of theory into experiment, and a drain of people out of particle physics into other disciplines. You need to come to terms with that.

    (6) If you don’t go to a Tier 1 grad school, start seriously considering non-physics jobs as soon as you get in, because the statistical chances of you getting a tenure-track job in a research university are quite low. Even if you get into a Tier 1 university, your chances are still at best 50% and often worse than that. How many postdocs are you willing to take? How many times are you willing to move? Are you willing to get divorced and put off children? All of these questions come into play if you want a tenure-track job in a research university.

  • Hektor Bim

    One other thing. Sean’s point about “So should I claim to be interested in experiment, even if I’m not?” gets it exactly backwards. I knew a lot of people who weren’t interested in experiment when they came in who turned into perfectly good experimentalists. A lot of people change fields or have no idea what they are doing when they get in, even at “Tier 1″ schools. Don’t take yourself too seriously on what you want to do or not do as an undergrad unless you have done extensive work in at least two different subfields as an undergrad. (Very few people have this, by the way.) You need to be open to changing your mind. I knew a lot of people who went through a lot of unnecessary pain because they brainwashed themselves that doing a certain type of physics was the only thing they wanted to do. These kind of people almost always have long and unhappy grad school careers and then leave the field bitterly immediately after grad school ends.

    Look at grad school as a series of hurdles. Getting in is one hurdle. It doesn’t matter once you are in what you said on your application. I’m not suggesting untruth, but a reflexive rigidity or too strong a belief in ultimately malleable rules (that may not even exist) will get you into a lot of trouble.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I have to agree with Sean (#35). I’ve served on and chaired several faculty search committees and the name of the graduate school is basically irrelevant. If a school is doing a search for a faculty member, they care what kind of research the person has done and is doing and how well it is respected. If a school is looking at the graduate schol qualifications (at least for a physicist) they are making a serious error that the places I know well wouldn’t make.

  • invcit

    “If you don’t go to a Tier 1 grad school, start seriously considering non-physics jobs as soon as you get in, because the statistical chances of you getting a tenure-track job in a research university are quite low. Even if you get into a Tier 1 university, your chances are still at best 50% and often worse than that. How many postdocs are you willing to take? How many times are you willing to move? Are you willing to get divorced and put off children? All of these questions come into play if you want a tenure-track job in a research university.”

    This sounds awful. Is there nothing that can be done about this situation? It makes me wonder if not the brighest people just drop out and do something else with their lifes.

    Also, what happens to all the PhDs who weren’t able to get post docs, but wrote their thesis on something as far from the “real” (read “low energy”) world as particle physics? Sure, some of them end up in finance, but nowadays there are special programs in financial mathematics so competition is fierce. As for other jobs, well, it’s not at all a given that most employers have any idea of what it takes to be able to complete a PhD in physics, or how this would relate to the jobs in question.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Sean (#35) and Mark (#45). Perhaps you’ve read more than I intended into my comments. I hasten to add that I’ve never seen a decision to hire someone based solely, or even significantly, on what school a candidate attended. Once it’s got to the stage that a long shortlist exists, such considerations are irrelevant, and the factors that you cited (publications, ref. letters, interviews) matter.

    Where PhD school does matter, however, is in the very initial stages of the search, at the very first cut. You’re sitting there, you’ve got literally hundreds of files in front of you, and you want to winnow it down to the few dozen worthy of further consideration. At exactly this stage, a typical committee member is going to be understandly drawn to people from schools he’s familiar with and that have high reputations. That’s just human nature. Now this is NOT a simple cut on what school you went to. If you went to a lesser-known school, but yourself are well-known in your field or have letters from prominently known people, you may well make it past this first cut. But we’re not doing anyone any favors if we don’t acknowledge that these biases exist, and my experience is that an applicant from Podunk State is at higher risk of slipping through the cracks.

  • http://cow-gone-mad.blogspot.com Helge

    Hey all :-)
    I have some questions concerning coming from Europe:
    Since I will probably do my master thesis here (which is 5 years of college). How long would it take for me to get a Ph.D. in the US? And what would I have to do to get one? Is it grad school?
    How many schools should you apply to? When I looked at the websites (just Ivy league) I saw that I could buy Sean’s book from the application few. So I rate it as expensive. ;-)
    Helge

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Helge– Yes, grad school is where you would get the Ph.D.; sometimes there are separate Masters and PhD admissions processes, but at many places they are just one process. The time it takes varies; say 5-6 years for someone with a typical U.S. undergraduate education. It could be less for someone who already had a Masters, but not appreciably less, since most schools still want you to jump through their specific hoops.

    I would say apply to 5-6 schools, but that’s up to you. It’s generally not free, but on the other hand it’s an important step in your life.

  • Dissident

    invcit wrote:

    This sounds awful. Is there nothing that can be done about this situation?.

    It is pretty awful, and the reason why I’m trying to inject a small dose of reality into the glossy PR picture presented here.

    If you ask Sean, Mark, JoAnne et al they will tell you that the solution is increased funding (tax-financed of course, but let’s not go into that now) so that all those new Ph.D.s can get academic positions too. But a moment of thought will tell you that this could never be more than a short term fix, for as long as the average professor produces more than one Ph.D. over the course of his career, the number of Ph.D. holders will grow exponentially, and therefore require exponential growth in funding and number of positions if they are all to become professors in their own right. Such a period of exponential expansion can only be temporary, or it would very quickly swallow all available resources (assuming a very modest production of 5 Ph.D.s per professor, it takes only eight iterations for the number of physics professors to grow from 500 to encompass roughly the entire population of the US).

    Two options remain: (1) drastically reduce the production of new Ph.D.s or (2) reshape graduate education so as to meet actual (i.e. non-academic) demand.

    The first option is anathema to the mainstream, since the academic system as it’s currently structured depends heavily on next-to-free teaching and research labor in the form of grad students and postdocs. Fewer grad students mean fewer TAs and more professorial time spent supervising mind-numbingly dull lab sessions and correcting homework instead of hanging out at conferences with Lisa Randall; fewer postdocs mean less research papers for the professor to put his or her name on (that being what gets you invited to conferences with Lisa Randall). The second solution is not much better, since non-academic demand for expertise in hot topics like superstrings, HEP phenomenology and early universe cosmology equals zero. Let’s face it, this stuff is fascinating in its own right (at least to us nerds) but as far as applications go, it’s useless. So going down this road – adapting to actual demand – implies all kinds of unpleasant things in terms of funding and job security of existing faculty.

    Ergo, neither solution will be adopted voluntarily by those currently in the “Ivory Tower”. Their “solution” is to keep suckering in as many as possible into the pipeline and use the resulting hordes of unemployed Ph.D. holders as evidence that research funding needs to be increased. No, it’s not a pretty picture.

    It makes me wonder if not the brighest people just drop out and do something else with their lifes.

    Indeed: “The number of the best American students who decided to go to graduate school started to decline around 1970, and it has been declining ever since.”
    (The Big Crunch, by David Goodstein, Vice Provost at Caltech, and one of the few honest voices speaking up on this subject within academia)

    http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/crunch_art.html

    Also, what happens to all the PhDs who weren’t able to get post docs

    Getting a post doc position (and a second, and far too often a third one) usually isn’t all that difficult. The typical academic career path ends there. Sundrum (of Randall-Sundrum fame) was about to go that way, to a job in finance (or so he hoped, at least) before he was “saved” by co-creating the extra-dimensional industry. Finance remains perhaps the best way to recoup at least some of one’s educational investment. IT (software development, consulting) is a given option, especially for experimentalists (who may also have a future in electronics, depending on their specialization). But horror stories of cab drivers and pizza delivery boys with Ph.D.s abound. Understand, there really is no demand outside academia.

  • http://cow-gone-mad.blogspot.com Helge

    Hey Sean :-)
    After what you write, on the time needed. It sounds like a bad idea for me to do PhD in the US, since I could get it here in something around 3 years. And it would be a lot cheaper, as far as I understand graduate education (you still pay tuition fees, and it is not completly sure you get support).
    I would still like to spend a part of my life in the US. Just when, all options till now always seem so expensive. ;-)
    Helge
    P.S. Smilies are not rendered in the preview.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Helge, it would likely be slower in the U.S., but not more expensive. You almost never really pay tuition fees; they will be paid by a research assistantship, teaching assistantship, or a fellowship. Of course you need to be sure that you get such support, but it is standard, not the exception.

  • weichi

    Statistics on PhD employment “one-year out” from AIP:

    http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/fall2005c.pdf

    Of the 1100 PhDs granted in 2002/2003 in the US:
    * 11% left the US
    * 25% took “potentially permanet positions”, 3/4 in the private sector.
    * 56% took postdoc positions
    * 6% took “other temporary positions”, 3/4 in academia
    * 2% were “unemployed the winter after they took their degree”

    Only 75 of the 980 students who stayed in the US found “potentially permanet positions” in academia immediately after earning the PhD. Here “academia” covers “universities, 4-year and 2-year colleges”. Even if all of these were tenure-track positions (which they certiainly all werent’) this is less than 10%.

    I looked for numbers on what the situation is 4, 6, 8 years after the PhD, but didn’t find anything.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Anonymous (#47). I still disagree. I’ve never seen the Ph.D. institution come in even at that stage. Typically, committee members not in the area of hiring will defer to those committee members who are in that area, at the early stages. If a university is looking for a theoretical particle cosmologist (say), and an established particle cosmologist (say) is on the committee, then if that person doesn’t know your work – that is a problem. If they do know your work, that and your letters will be what matters.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose that people from lesser known universities should apply for faculty positions to Mark’s school and not to mine. ;-)

    Your example of theoretical particle cosmology is atypical, in that this is a very small field, and you are likely to know anyone of interest personally. In other fields such as experimental condensed matter physics or experimental particle physics, most of the interesting candidates will be people that even the experts on the committee might never have heard of. In this case, coming from a brand-name school can give you an edge, although I will certainly agree that it won’t make up for a weak research record or letters. (On the other hand, a strong research record and good letters certainly can make up for coming from a lesser-known school—we’re talking about PhD school as one factor among many, not as a determining factor) As much as we might wish that school bias doesn’t happen, I’m telling you empathically that it is present, and I think it’s better to recognize that fact than to pretend it doesn’t matter.

    Would you really maintain that what school you went to has NO impact on how your application is perceived? If so, how do you reconcile that with the academic pedigrees of the large majority of your colleagues?

  • weichi

    Goodstein’s article “Inside Science” is also relevant to the issues Dissident raises.

    http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/science_art.html

  • invcit

    #50 Dissident: If everyone smart enough to complete a PhD was allowed to and then employed by academia, I suppose after a while we’d reach a balance where a professor has on average one PhD student. I guess that would be every physics nerd’s dream society. Of course, it’s not happening. Seems to instead be common to just tell students that there will be an increasing demand of science majors, when in reality there won’t be, just so that when they get to select who gets to succeed within academia, they have a lot of choice. It all seems to be very much about luck and very different from the fairytales we’re fed from the media, be that underdog stories such as Einstein’s or more straight-to-the-top-stories like Feynman’s.
    Btw, how come you’re the dissident? Someone who got fed up with the system and got into industry instead? A disgruntled graduate student? What? :-)

  • Hektor Bim

    Let me try to expand on some of the things that have been swirling around here.

    If most physics Ph.D’s don’t go on to research careers, then the important thing is to focus on your well-being in graduate school, rather than on some long-delayed future academic job. That means you should select advisors on the basis of whether it will be enjoyable and fulfilling to work for them, and whether they will help you get a non-academic job once you get out of grad school.

    There is also the question of money. Since a Physics Ph.D. does translate into a higher salary, it makes sense to get one. However, while in grad school you are typically paid extremely poorly, and have less freedom to pick the problems you want to work on than you would later.

    If we run the statistics, the smart thing to do is pick a subfield and professor that will translate into a good non-academic job once you get out. This analysis also implies that you should stay in grad school only as long as you enjoy it. The minute you find yourself wanting more money or responsibility or security, you should buckle down, write the thesis, and get out of there.

    This isn’t the way grad school is explained to most undergrads. If anything, the less time you spend in grad school, the better, because you can do everything you wanted to do in grad school as a postdoc, being paid better with more responsibility and higher status. This is most clearly shown in the British system, where Ph.D. take three or four years, as opposed to the American five or six. Now, I would agree that American Ph.D.s are better prepared for physics research than their British counterparts, but that doesn’t matter much if you aren’t doing physics research, which is true of most.

    There is one final thing to consider. The long road of grad school followed by multiple postdocs, each in a different place, takes a heavy toll on personal relationships. The system is set up for semi-celibate men with stay-at-home wives. That’s harder to convince people to enter into nowadays on a physicist’s salary. Divorce rates are high among physics professors, as far as I can tell. Others put off marriage and children indefinitely while looking for a job. Look at the contributors to this site (I apologize in advance for any mistakes here):

    Joanne: late thirties, married, kids, moved twice after her Ph.D.

    Mark: late thirties, married, no kids, moved three times after his Ph.D., also moved to a new country for his Ph.D.

    Clifford: late thirties (as far as I can tell), unmarried, no kids, moved at least three times after his Ph.D. including back and forth to England

    Sean: late thirties, unmarried, no kids, moved three times after his Ph.D., soon to move again after the recent tenure decision

    Risa: early thirties, unmarried, no kids, moved twice after her Ph.D. in 2001 and will likely move again after her Hubble Fellowship is over.

    So that is what being a very successful physicist is like. (I would characterize everyone on Cosmic Variance as a very successful physicist.) You are more unlikely to be married than not in your thirties, you are unlikely to have children, you have had to move around a lot since your Ph.D., possibly to other countries. You may in fact think that this sounds like a great lifestyle, and it might be for you. But you should go into this with your eyes open.

  • Richard E.

    There is one final thing to consider. The long road of grad school followed by multiple postdocs, each in a different place, takes a heavy toll on personal relationships. The system is set up for semi-celibate men with stay-at-home wives.

    Presumably you mean OR those with stay at home wives? Even assistant professors are let out of the office every now and then.

    That’s harder to convince people to enter into nowadays on a physicist’s salary. Divorce rates are high among physics professors, as far as I can tell. Others put off marriage and children indefinitely while looking for a job. Look at the contributors to this site (I apologize in advance for any mistakes here):

    Joanne: late thirties, married, kids, moved twice after her Ph.D.
    Mark: late thirties, married, no kids, moved three times after his Ph.D., also moved to a new country for his Ph.D.

    Clifford: late thirties (as far as I can tell), unmarried, no kids, moved at least three times after his Ph.D. including back and forth to England

    Sean: late thirties, unmarried, no kids, moved three times after his Ph.D., soon to move again after the recent tenure decision

    Risa: early thirties, unmarried, no kids, moved twice after her Ph.D. in 2001 and will likely move again after her Hubble Fellowship is over.

    So that is what being a very successful physicist is like. (I would characterize everyone on Cosmic Variance as a very successful physicist.) You are more unlikely to be married than not in your thirties, you are unlikely to have children, you have had to move around a lot since your Ph.D., possibly to other countries. You may in fact think that this sounds like a great lifestyle, and it might be for you. But you should go into this with your eyes open.

    I think what you have really proved is that blogging is the province of the childless, if not the single. Too much time on their hands (ducks for cover).

    More generally though, I think the arbitrariness of the job market (and the multiple moves it frequently entails, which are disruptive to social networks and families) is the bane of the young academic’s life. On the one hand, my post-doctoral career gave me the chance to live in both New York and Tokyo, two cities that I love, but would not want to spend my whole life in. On the other hand, you definitely reach a point in your life where you want to know you will not need to move in three years’ time.

    Like many young professionals, I suspect that the average age at which academics have children is increasing and sooner or later this runs into the limits of human biology (especially for women in the field). However, I am not aware that physicists divorce at a higher rate than, say, lawyers or doctors. If anything I would guess that the rate was lower.

    It is easy to make cynical arguments about academia, and they all contain a grain of truth. However, if you can point to some line of work that is well paid, free of extraneous personality politics, low stress, stimulating, and involves a 35 hour work week, I would very much like to know what it is. It is reminiscent of the old saw about democracy — it is a terrible system, but better than anything else we have tried.

  • weichi

    “It all seems to be very much about luck and very different from the fairytales we’re fed from the media”

    Is it really all about luck? Maybe an analogy to professional sports is helpful.

    Consider baseball. Every player in MLB is a *much* better baseball player than 99% of the population. But even among MLB players there is a wide range of ability. Manny Ramirez is much more valuable to your team than Tony Womack, despite the fact that Womack is a tremendous athlete and would dominate any recreational baseball leage he played in.

    MLB has a highly effective system in place to identify the best players and promote them. You will not find any players who failed to make it out of AAA, and for whom an argument could be made that they could have contributed at the level of a Manny Ramirez “if only they had the chance”.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of players in AAA who are just as good as the weakest MLB players, and quite a few who could probably be average MLB players, but never stuck in MLB. For this caliber of player, there is going to be an element of luck, or personality, or other factors other than skill that determine who makes it to MLB.

    So all of those with truly exceptional levels of talent make it to the big show. For those with “replacement level” skills – i.e., those as good as the average AAA player – it’s a crapshoot. If everything goes right, you get to play MLB. Otherwise, it’s the AAA bus for you.

    Would physics (and science in general) work in a similar way? Steven Weinberg is a much more productive researcher than Joe Average physicist at a typical university, despite the fact that Joe Average is still a very smart guy, and much better at doing research than your average tax accountant (who isn’t exactly stupid himself). Does anyone really think that there are researchers of the same caliber as Weinberg who are somehow unlucky and fail to find tenure-track research positions?

    Given the enormous advances made by physics over the last century, it’s hard to believe that there are. I mean, we’re doing pretty good already with this system – how much better can we reasonably expect to do?

    But luck can still be an important factor for Joe Average! For every Weinberg there are hundreds (thousands?) of Joe Averages, so that’s where the competition is fiercest. Since there aren’t enough positions for all the Joes, and since the differences among them are fairly small (especially compared to their collective difference from Weinberg), there could be a large element of luck in who gets the prize. That sucks for us Joe’s, but I’m not sure that there is ever going to be a solution for that problem.

  • invcit

    “Does anyone really think that there are researchers of the same caliber as Weinberg who are somehow unlucky and fail to find tenure-track research positions?”

    An interesting question, and probably not as clear-cut as you may think. Einstein clearly managed without the support of academia. If his personality would have been different and he’d been more prone to give up, who knows…?

  • Moshe

    There really should be some version of Godwin law about Einstein myths when discussing the flesh and blood realities of acedemia.

    I am puzzled by the direction the discussion took, I don’t see anywhere in Sean’s post anything promoting the idea of going to gradaute school, just good advice for those who make that choice.

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    #48 and #51 Helge and Sean:
    Helge:I support your idea to stay in Europe for your PhD. Gather your information and ask alot of questions of US schools, if you want to be sure, but I think that you will still have a loan to pay off at the end, which is the last thing you need with which to begin a new scientific (postdoc) life. I chose to go (from the US) to Germany for my PhD because not only was the researcher who I wanted to work with located in that country, but the PhD education was free and the time for the degree was strictly limited to three years. For me, it was a win-win situation to get the PhD degree (Note: I moved to Europe with an M.S.Physics degree already, so it was simple to embed myself in the German university system).

  • weichi

    amara,

    When you applied to US grad school, did you apply planning to only get MS? Or did you apply for PhD and then leave after the MS?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Moshe, you should know that people want to ride their hobby horses, not talk about the subject of the post. But the detour into the age and marital status of the CV bloggers was a little bizarre, I have to admit.

    For any impressionable young folks still reading: please understand that it’s the internet, anyone is allowed to comment, but not everyone knows what they are talking about.

    True: Scientific research, and academia more generally, is an incredibly demanding profession, demanding years of work and considerable personal sacrifice in the name of an uncertain future. Many more people get Ph.D.’s than get faculty jobs, as anyone with thirty seconds of contemplation and a small dose of common sense can figure out. A typical career track is quite unpredictable and can be very stressful; more so than it needs to be, in my own opinion, but we haven’t yet progressed as a society to the point where my opinions automatically become law.

    False: Graduate school is an embittering and slave-like existence, and if you don’t land a great job you’ll be washing floors for those that do. Sorry, that’s just not right. I’m sure there are plenty of embittered grad students, but there are quite a few people who look back at those years as some of their best. And, at least in physics, the rule of thumb is that you either get a postdoc, or a job out of the field that pays at least twice as well. Not without exception, but usually.

    True: Studying the secrets of the universe for a living is a wonderful and unique occupation; that’s why so many people want to do it. I don’t go around encouraging people to go to grad school if they don’t want to, quite the opposite — I think you shouldn’t go to grad school unless you are passionate about the material for its own sake, and aren’t too focused narrowly on careerist objectives. We don’t need more physics grad students, but we would love to have more good ones, and would be especially happy to have more people who can appreciate the beauty of the natural world while remaining interested in other things as well.

    Moral: Don’t go to grad school if you aren’t thrilled at the prospect. But if you are, don’t let the tiresome naysayers get you down. It’s an exciting ride.

  • weichi

    invcit – Einstein’s path in physics (myths or reality) isn’t really relevant in a discussion of the system in place today. His was a far different time.

    Moshe – you are right, this has taken a different turn. So I have a relevant question.

    If one’s goal is to teach at the college level, should one state this on their statement of purpose? Or is it better to pretend that your primary goal is to do research after you earn your PhD?

    My impression from conversations with physicist friends is that stating you are primarily interested in teaching is a bad idea, at least when applying to the top schools. The idea is that the top schools only really care about producing researchers who will do great research and give their school glory.

    The implication was that there is a catch-22: in order to have a realistic chance at getting a position at even a non-research instituion, it’s a huge help to have name-brand PhD. But the name-brand PhD’s don’t want you if all you want to do is teach.

    Is this accurate, or is honesty always the best policy?

  • Moshe

    Yeah Sean, that was the most puzzling aspect of the detour (and I should learn to use these smiley faces, as much as I dislike them, without them things sometimes look harsher than intended).

    weichi, that’s a good question, I honestly don’t know the answer, but I am curious what more experienced people have to say.

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    #64 weichi:
    When I got my M.S. Physics it was while I was working quasi-fulltime (my jobs always drove my education, rather than the other way around) and the goal was ‘just’ the M.S. degree; my university didn’t offer a higher degree, nor did I want it. why? I had already seen three generations of graduate students and postdocs go through my research institute where I was working and I didn’t want “that life” (too difficult to build a real life, I thought). At that time, I was a scientific programmer for about 15 years working for different astronomy groups. Some years after I finished my masters, I decided that a PhD was necessary for me to get the more interesting scientific jobs (programming or teaching or whatever), so I headed off to Germany where my advisor was. In my view, the advisor makes or breaks the PhD experience, and I thought that the person I chose in Heidelberg (I researched everything I could about him) was the best person for me (and he was). I published a Nature paper while I was there, so many things worked well. Once in Europe, I decided I liked it enough to stay. The road to my PhD was a long circuitous path, though, I earned my PhD at age 40, and doing the necessary things to live in two different European cultures (Germany and now Italy) has taken a toll in time. I suggest to be as flexible as one can when one chooses the “scientific life”. You never know where it will take you…

  • Anonymous

    I was once told by a faculty member at a liberal arts college (read “teaching-oriented college”) that it would be a bad tactic to apply for a job at his school while claiming to be interested in only teaching, even though in fact the members of his department did not have active research programs. His explanation was that even though they aren’t really doing research, they still like to think of themselves as researchers, and like to maintain the illusion that they’ll get back to doing research whenever they get a free moment. So his advice was to claim to have strong commitments to both teaching and undergraduate-friendly research, even if in reality you really are in it for the teaching and will be evaluated and promoted almost entirely on your teaching perfomance. Sounds like a weird self-delusion, I know, but that’s what I was told.

  • http://www.elementlist.com/ jackie

    My two cents:

    1) It’s important to try to visit the departments of your one or two top choices to get a feel for what the working environment is like and what the people are like. It’s also good to visit with as many of the faculty as possible so that they can put a face with the name when they’re reading applications. That’s really the best way to stand out from the crowd.

    2) It’s also important to find how who has research funding (and be aware of who doesn’t). If you want to do bellybutton research, but there’s only funding for toejam research, you need to know that.

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  • Hektor Bim

    I don’t regret going to grad school, and I don’t think it was a slave-like existence. But I definitely endorse going into grad school with your eyes open. If anything, that makes it easier for you when you get there, and it’s something you take into account when you apply to different places. More information is always useful, and grad school applications and grad school itself are systems that have rules, both written and unwritten.

  • agm

    I know people want to make grad school seem, for those who really would do well there, a great experience, but that argument gets blown out of the water after 15-20 minutes of reading Jorge Cham’s webcomic, PhD. I have the sneaking suspicion that there have been some fairly radical changes in the last 10-20 years, because of the few science and enginerring grad students I meet these days who haven’t heard of PhD, as soon as they read a couple, they go “My God, that’s my life…” The comp sci department at my school now gives his book to incoming grad students, both as a welcoming gift and a warning of what the next few years will be like, even with the most wonderful advisors and department and research.

    The fact that so many of us stick with it is amazing, the fact that so many more bother to try is mindboggling. The payoff, for those who make it, is absolutely worth it. But let no one claim that it isn’t a grueling, soul-sucking experience. To say anything else these days is a lie, just ask the grads students you know (not yours, they will NOT answer you honestly because it could damage the relationship). Potential grad students should go into this with eyes wide open, and an honest evaluation is prerequisite for that.

  • http://www.jumplive.com chimpanzee

    “Victory belongs to the most Persevering”
    – Napoleon

    http://www2.moment.net/~cocllano/Decision.html

    A Decision

    Good is the enemy of Excellent. Talent is not necessary for Excellence.
    Persistence is necessary for Excellence. And Persistence is a Decision.

  • Ponderer

    I am more pragmatic than some other posters:

    OF COURSE where you went to grad school is a key factor. If you spent 30 seconds per CV while reviewing 100′s of them, this is the first criteria that would jump right at you. Also, people seem to never trust themselves, and so knowing that other top schools at some point thought you were smart enough to get in (and finish) the program, is an immediate seal of approval for life. This is why you don’t see too many people from Podunk State schools making faculty at Harvard and other places. It’s true that its difficult to separate self-selection, but as a foreign (western-european) undergrad, I have seen plenty of super-smart people from my college not get into top schools, while other equally good people did, and their subsequent careers were almost invariably working downhill only. You will see the same thing if you talk to chinese or indian students – there’s oversaturation of smart chinese physics guys, to the point when if PhD applications were considered completely blindly, all top tier schools would be 90% chinese. So top schools have to reject some very smart people from China, and they almost never come back to top tier as faculty.

    I would argue that your PhD granting institution is actually more important than where you did your postdoc. The choice of grad school is more likely than not made based on quality of the program – but as a postdoc plenty of people make their choices based on the science, so it’s often justifiable to go to a few places down the list if that gives you better science for what you have been doing already.

    Finally, points raised by Dissidents are very valuable and important. This is the elephant in the room that nobody likes to talk about. I think most grad students and even postdocs are living in their personal dreamworlds. Many advisors feed on these dreams by encouraging people to work for them while knowing full well that chances of academic jobs for these people are slim to none. I have yet to hear about exchange between a professor and a potential postdoc or grad student along the lines of: “Work for me for 2-3 (6-7) years, but just so you know, I don’t think you will ever make it into academia. You can try of course, but if I had to bet on it, I’d rather bet on a person A who has a 2% shot vs. your .001%”. People need to face the truth that they are in a lottery with very low chances of winning, and that out of a class of 30, 29 of them will have to look for permanent jobs in careers that have very little to do with physics, and where their PhD might be quite useless (except to impress people since that’s what they see on CV, see first paragraph).

    PhD’s often take a lot longer in experimental sciences by the way. 7 or 8 years is not unusual nowadays.

    Very good points on enjoying grad school. This is pretty much the path I have taken and I have seen plenty of people to get “burned out” because of terrible relationships with bossy/jerky advisors, or even because of their own over-ambitious drive to get ahead.

    Trying to get out of PhD as soon as possible may be a good bit of advice, but I have seen plenty of people who got burned by this as well. It may sound counterintuitive, but if you want to stay in science, you might invest into developing a solid research record from your grad school years. Graduating with less than 5 publicaitons means you will compete for postdoc jobs against people who might have 10 or 15 or 20. Sometimes the final year or two of your PhD may be the most productive – sometimes you can accomplish more in those final 20% of your PhD than in previous 80% – at least in terms of research papers and other things which are important for bean-counters. Number and quality of publications is next to your PhD granting institution for people otherwise unfamiliar with you or your work.

    Let me offer an example of someone I know personally – a student who graduated in experimental field from top of Tier 2 type school with 3 publications because he desperately wanted to move onto “higher paying slave” position of a postdoc – except new position at Tier 1 type school required some new technique and new science, and now 3 years after his PhD he has produced only one very technical and insignifican publication during his postdoc stint, and is applying for faculty jobs. What are his chances with 4 publications, vs. those with 20? An extra year or two of PhD would be extremely productive as he already learned the basics and could have cranked out plenty of experiments.

    Postdocs are tricky, especially for experimenters. Experiments take a long time to set up and even longer to complete and write up. Two or three years of postdoc go very quickly – last year is essentially spent looking for new job, and first year is spent learning the new ropes.

    So if you are trying to write up your PhD at any cost, you may be sacrificing your career to some extent. True, you could try to do in your first postdoc the same thing you would otherwise do in your final PhD years, but then you would have to spend your second postdoc doing what your competitors may be doing in your first postdoc etc. Overall people look at your publication record much more than at how many years it took you to finish your PhD.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I give up. I’ll say it one more time clearly and then I’m done. In my experience of faculty hiring in theoretical physics at a research university, which is quite a lot recently, Ph.D. institution is essentially irrelevant. Who you are, what you’ve done and what your reputation is are the key points. This is actual data. Take it or leave it.

  • Anonymous This Time

    I am more pragmatic than some other posters:

    OF COURSE where you went to grad school is a key factor. If you spent 30 seconds per CV while reviewing 100′s of them, this is the first criteria that would jump right at you. Also, people seem to never trust themselves, and so knowing that other top schools at some point thought you were smart enough to get in (and finish) the program, is an immediate seal of approval for life. This is why you don’t see too many people from Podunk State schools making faculty at Harvard and other places. It’s true that its difficult to separate self-selection, but as a foreign (western-european) undergrad, I have seen plenty of super-smart people from my college not get into top schools, while other equally good people did, and their subsequent careers were almost invariably working downhill only.

    To be honest, I think this is nonsense.

    Firstly, it is simply untrue that a CV gets looks at for 30 seconds before being tossed. I have served on several faculty search committees, each of which dealt with > 100 applicants. In each case, the committee divided the list so that each application was read closely by two or three people, and the whole committee went through the whole list. You are undoubtedly right that a PhD from Harvard looks good but it makes epsilon’s worth of difference in the long run — at the faculty level, the key issue is what the person has produced, and what their letters say about them (and the letters are more important if you work in a big collaboration, since we will want to know what *you* did and a good letter will explain your own contribution to some large project.) Hiring at the faculty level is the single most important thing an academic department does, and a surprising amount of work goes into identifying and recruiting candidates.

    Secondly, the initial cut is to draw up a long list, and that will often have 20 or 30 names. If it is not self-evident you should be on that list, then your chances of making the short-list are very slim indeed.

    Thirdly, as to the case you cite of the person who graduated with a couple of papers and then had an unproductive post-doc at the more famous place: that person is in deep pickle. And it is not because they don’t have the Harvard/Stanford/Princeton seal of approval on their diploma, it is because their publication list does nothing to convince a search committee that they will be able to set up an independent research program. Moreover, reading between the lines of what you said, the new job involved mastering cutting edge techniques (presumably) they not picked up at their not-quite Tier 1 institution, which suggests that the students graduating from the Tier 1 place are in better shape when they go on the job market. This may be unfair, but it is an excellent example of the feedback mechanism which ensures that people graduating from top-drawer places are more likely to have done cutting edge work than their colleagues at Tier 2 places, independently of any differences in their raw talent.

  • JC

    Over the years I’ve noticed that people who did not get an assistant professor job after 2 or 3 postdocs, are quick to say that it’s only people with PhDs from tier 1 universities (ie. Harvard, Princeton, etc …) who get all the jobs. They essentially blame all their “failures” on the fact that they couldn’t get into Harvard or Princeton for grad school, when there’s other obvious reasons for their failure to get an assistant professor job.

    On a closer examination, frequently the main reason for these folks’ failures was that they did not publish many papers other people were interested in. They don’t want to admit that hardly anybody (or nobody for that matter) was interested in the papers they published. So instead of blaming themselves for their failures, it’s always easier to blame it on the pedigree of the grad school they went to.

    It’s human nature to not want to take responsibility for one’s actions and decisions, and instead blame it on something and/or somebody else outside of one’s self.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Can’t speak for my co-bloggers, but I’m clearly only 29! In fact, Hektor Bim of #58 guessed wrong on every single detail describing me….

  • Ponderer

    In ideal world everyone would be evaluated on their science instead of where they got their degrees.

    In real world this becomes increasingly difficult with so much science done.

    I still think publication record (quality and quantity) is the best criterium.
    Recommendation letters underwent so much inflation it’s hard to say whether the letter is really really positive or simply “really positive”, which I guess stands for negative. When was the last time someone got a neutral or negative letter?

    Publication (and citation) record however is very field-specific. All things equal I would rather prefer to hire a postdoc with Harvard PhD than Kansas State (no offense to Kansas people) PhD. The difference is substantial to overcome some difference in terms of publication record, even though only to some degree.

    I think there’s some truth to #78 – people like to blame it on outside circumstances, but people with Top 10 school degrees (and I am one of them) – you can’t deny it helps you get your foot in the door.

    They did blind studies where professors were shown fake identical CVs with either female or male first name and when asked to guess the level of professional position (assistant professor, postdoc, etc.) – people put males higher than females. I am pretty sure if the same study was asked to evaluate identical publication records with different PhD granting institution, people would rank Tier 1 school CVs much higher than, say, Tier 3 school.

    I’d like to believe committees were completely blind to that, but they are not. Just like some “hot” fields of science get preference over lesser known fields – even though science may be of much higher standard.

  • Anonymous

    I agree 100%, Ponderer (#80). In fact, this seems so self-evident to me that PhD school is not a neutral factor that I have a hard time grasping the objections. Maybe the only way to reconcile Mark’s “actual data” (#76) and my own experience, which is also “actual data”, is to conclude that it depends on what institution is doing the hiring.

  • ksh95

    regarding (#81)
    another way to reconcile Marks “actual data” could involve one of you looking at the world through “rose colored glasses”

  • Ponderer

    ksh95, it’s either “rose colored” or “anti-rose colored” (“purple-colored”?) glasses, depending on your perspective.

    Mark, I realize you are frustrated with people contradicting your experience at Syracuse, but looking at rumor mill pages it does seem there’s a correlation with degree institution – offers to people from top places with relatively modest research CV are quite commonplace. I think this is because often decisions are made based on potential, rather than past record – and how do you measure potential?

    I am not saying that faculty search committees sort applications into “Tier 1″ and “Tier 2+” piles, or that they would bring up this issue out loud – like most stereotypes those could be quite more subtle. I think it’s great when department tries to isolate good science regardless of where it’s coming from, but how would we ever know that it’s not happening on subconcious level?

    Three new faculty hired at Syracuse this year are all theorists and hold PhD’s from Harvard, Berkeley and Colorado Boulder. All three are clearly outstanding schools, but perhaps it’s self-selection like Sean argues? Who knows…

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Hi Ponderer. I guess it seems like self selection to me because I never see any evidence of any other way this comes into the discussion. I was happy to refer to experience I’ve had, but obviously won’t get into any details of the actual searches at my school.

    Thanks for your comments.

  • Hektor Bim

    Fair enough, JoAnne. Sorry about that.

    JC is mostly right. In most cases, the faults are in ourselves. People work in the wrong subfield, get stuck in a project that is going nowhere, fail to get enough PRLs, annoy their advisor unnecessarily, etc. Most of these things can be foreseen and avoided with iron discipline and great focus and persistence.

    But this happens to people at Harvard and Princeton (and other Tier 1 schools) too. It’s not like getting into a top ten grad program guarantees you an academic job. Far from it. Even in the top ten schools, your chances are still 50% or less, sometimes much less, depending on your advisor and subfield. (This is based on “actual data” by the way.)

    The problem is that is isn’t much fun to be engaged in an activity where the slightest misstep takes you out of contention. There isn’t much of a margin for error. Make a mistake, and the wave takes you away.

    That’s why people should think a lot about grad school and have some serious strategies for where they will go and what they will do. The price of mistakes is high, if you want a research position.

  • Emile

    Sean, Mark, JoAnne & all others engaged in this conversation:

    I’m finding these observations fascinating because I’m at the stage of planning for grad school apps. The tangent involving postdocs & faculty appointments is still interesting from my self oriented point of view in part because of the recurring, but unspecified, references to the top ten grad programs. I am not in a research environment & so have no personal data on which to base such a list. Would any of you care to offer your personal top ten? I realize that no department is uniformly strong in all disciplines, so let me suggest crafting a list according to your personal criteria. I’ll offer my own list, but please be tolerant of my limitations. The list is not objectively determined because I am inexperienced in this field (so much so that I can think of only eight). So, here it is in approximate order (I don’t have confidence to include universities outside the U.S.):

    1. Cal Tech
    2. MIT
    3. Princeton
    4. Stanford
    5. Harvard
    6. Berkeley
    7. Chicago
    8. U of Illinois
    Chicago is unique – the only one not associated with an engineering school (as far as I know). Probably impossible to move very far up the list without this potential synergy.

  • anon.

    Emile — are you interested in condensed matter, or astrophysics, or particle physics, or what? Also, experiment or theory? The answer to which schools are best is strongly dependent on that. If you’re not sure, it’s probably best to focus on schools with very large departments with many strengths (e.g. Berkeley), so that you can be happy there no matter what you decide to specialize in. If you think synergy with engineering is relevant, it sounds like you’re probably interested in more applied fields….

  • Aaron Bergman

    I don’t really think any fine-grained ranking is particularly useful, especially given how things can vary by subfield. All the schools you list are quite good, however. You could probably also include UCSB and Cornell, off the top of my head.

  • Emile

    Anon-

    Theory is more appealing & my current interests are General Relativity & Cosmology with particle physics and condensed matter as runner-ups.

  • anon.

    Most of the schools you name are fairly strong in cosmology, as are UCSB and Cornell, which Aaron mentioned. On the other hand, they are not all so good at particle physics. Princeton and Chicago, for instance, have a number of very good string theorists (and have good particle experimentalists) but are not so strong at particle theory. (If by “particle physics” you include string theory, then all of the schools you name are strong.) I can’t really comment on condensed matter. There are some other quite good state schools you might want to consider as well (Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan come to mind, there are probably others). I suggest you either try to narrow your focus and look into the work of specific professors you might be interested in, or if you don’t want to decide on a specialization, try to stick with larger departments where you have flexibility.

  • Ponderer

    all of those schools are very good. Urbana, Cornell and Harvard are particularly good in condensed matter – both experimental and theoretical.

    Also keep in mind that Berkeley and MIT have huge departments, while others (Caltech, Harvard, Princeton) are relatively small. This cuts both ways, obviously.

  • Anonymous

    Hmm, my top 8 had Michigan instead of Illinois, although I might have Illinois in the top dozen.

    It’s easy to come up with the top 7 or 8 … not so easy to do the next 10.

    Weren’t we promised a future blog entry on how to choose a grad school?

  • http://dimer.tamu.edu/simplog/?blogid=3 Jim Hu

    In case anyone is still reading this far, and is worrying about the whether instead of the how, a Brian Weatherson discussed grad school at Crooked Timber, and I have some thoughts on his post here. Weatherson was talking about philosophy, and I’m a biochemist, but from reading Sean’s advice and the comments, it seems like the generalizations apply. My bottom line:

    …grad school is a prereq for certain careers, including joining the tenure-track professoriate. Necessary but far from sufficient. So the choice is basically whether to keep those careers in the mix or not. From what I can tell, it’s easier to go from grad to med, law, or business school than vice versa, at least in my field (Biochemistry). This is not because what I do is intrinsically harder; it’s because students who have been out of school for a while are more likely to be reluctant to come back to grad school. However high the opportunity costs are for a recent grad, they only go up with time.

    The question of how the school you go to affects your long-term job prospects is a complex multivariate problem. But I think that Mark is absolutely right that PhD institution per se is significant at the search committee stage. If I’m looking for a quick triage, it’s based on pubs. Pedigree influences perception of quality of those pubs, but for that, postdoc gets weighted more than PhD.

  • http://nanopolitan.wordpress.com Abi

    As an outsider (I studied materials science), I have always been intrigued by the lengthy post-doc dance that physics (and may be biology too) seems to require before landing a faculty position. Many people have already written about it here.

    In most engineering subjects, on the other hand, one post-doc is the norm. If one has worked in ‘hot areas’ even that is not necessary for landing a faculty position. Quite a few of my contemporaries became assistant professors immediately after their Ph.D.

    I have always wondered what made physics choose the culture of extended postdocs.

    Any insights?

  • Emile

    Abi (#94)

    As I understand it, this practice started sometime in the early era of the development of quantum physics (1920s). The principle driving force (my conjecture) was due to the fact that physics graduate level training was in an upheaval caused by all the new physics – not only QM but also relativity (as a consequence of which Maxwell theory became a necessary part of the curriculum) as well as statistical mecahnics. So there was a conversion from the late 19th century course of study to the new 20th century curriculum, coupled with an explosion of research into many new areas which are commonplace today. I believe it became clear that PhD training was insufficient for mastery of the field in general, and much less so for mastery of one’s specialization. Private institutions funded a network of postdoctoral studies opportunities throughout Western Europe. The concept grew from there and has taken hold in the US with the added impetus of the last few decades when PhD supply has been far in excess of faculty-position demand, causing a need for a holding pattern (again, my conjecture). No doubt there is also the advantage accruing to search committees of seeing evidence of an applicant’s ability to initiate and sustain a viable research program, which would tend to enhance acceptance of this practice.

  • Ponderer

    I think you are correct – in fact among friends physicists who recently got hired as junior faculty, disproportionate number did so by joining EE or Mat Sci departments, rather than Physics – even though their degrees were in physics with a little sprinkle of engineering. Just heard today from a friend who has joined a faculty in biomedical engineering at one of the top schools, despite physics training with no biomed background – he was doing some ultrafast laser physics that has only tangential relevance to biomedical problems.

    I think part of the reason is that those departments are undergoing tremendous expansions at many schools. It’s probably somewhat easier to get funded working on more applied problems. Let’s face it – we have been facing overproduction of Physics PhDs for many decades now.

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  • weichi

    Hey, how about some advice on how to choose which grad school to attend once you’ve been accepted? It’s getting to the time when we start to hear back from schools!

    This assume we get accepted to more than one, of course :-)

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  • subash k shrestha

    i am looking forward to study my masters degree aiming
    to do something.for that i am seeking for the opportunity to study in such college
    hope i my regards will be fulfilled.
    thank u
    faithfully
    subash

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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