Grad School Open Thread

By Sean Carroll | March 28, 2008 11:46 am

Today is Grad School Recruitment Day at Caltech, from which I surmise that there must be dozens of readers of this blog who are currently puzzling over where they might want to spend the next years of their lives. And hundreds of readers who went through this puzzling at one point themselves, or will face it in the future. So, since “work” is preventing me from blogging very much, here is a place to share stories and questions; we’ve previously given advice, but you can never get too much. (Professors, did you know that these students are talking about you behind your back on the internet? A brave new world etc.)

My grad school story: I was an astronomy major at Villanova as an undergrad, but knew that I really wanted to do physics. Nobody in my department was really qualified to give advice about grad schools in theoretical high energy physics or cosmology, but there was a big book put out by the AIP that listed programs and the people working in each specialty; not sure if the book still exists, or whether it’s been replaced by a website. So I applied to five different places, all top-notch; got into three, waitlisted at one, and rejected at one. (I had a not-completely-unheard-of profile: small undergrad school, great letters, good but not perfect grades and GRE’s, vague and untutored desire to unify all of theoretical physics.) I wanted to stay on the East Coast for personal reasons (= “girlfriend”). Sadly, the school that rejected me (Princeton) and wait-listed me (Harvard) were the ones on the East Coast that I had applied to. So I visited Harvard myself to plead my case; to no avail, of course (I wouldn’t recommend doing this — it won’t work and can annoy people), but I was told that if I could get an outside fellowship they would accept me. And then I did get an outside fellowship, from the NSF; but Harvard still wouldn’t accept me. Apparently that was a bit of a tactic. So I called up the astronomy department and asked if they would let me in. They were a bit surprised that physics wouldn’t accept me, given that I was free, but happily took me on. Which explains why I have no degrees in physics, even though all of my subsequent employment has been in physics departments.

Did it matter that I went to an astronomy department rather than a physics department where my interests would have been a more natural fit? Absolutely — I hung out with people who chatted about redshifts in their spare time, not with people who chatted about Feynman diagrams, and that lack of immersion in a crucial subject has undoubtedly been a handicap. But I was generally in a good situation (you can’t really complain about being at Harvard), and I made the most of it — took many physics classes, spent time talking to professors, wrote papers with other students and mathematicians as well as my advisor, went to MIT and ended up collaborating with people there as well. If you go to someplace that is decent enough to offer opportunities, it will be up to you to take the initiative and make your time there a success.

  • King Cynic

    True story … I was interested in both particle physics and astrophysics, and applied to a number of schools, including Harvard Physics. Perfect grades, GRE in the high 900’s, lots of research experience, so it was thought a given that I’d be accepted everywhere.

    One day I got a phone call from someone at Harvard Astronomy, who said he had seen my application to the physics department, was impressed, and would I like to be considered for admission to Harvard Astronomy? I saw no downside to this, so said “sure”. After all, I was interested in astrophysics.

    Admission offers rolled in, including one from Harvard Astronomy. Finally I’d been accepted everywhere except Harvard Physics, which hadn’t notified me one way or the other. So I called up their office and asked what was up. I was told that my file had been transferred from Harvard Physics to Harvard Astronomy, and that the physics department admissions committee had not even considered my application.

    Certainly no one had ever told me that allowing Harvard Astronomy to consider my application implied withdrawing it from Harvard Physics. I was livid enough about this shabby treatment that I basically told Harvard as a whole to shove it up their collective ass, and went elsewhere.

  • Sam Gralla

    Many of us have had bad experiences with Harvard physics :). Did astronomy have a qualifying exam when you were there, Sean? People from a physics background who go to astronomy here (Chicago) often have a tough time with the qualifier. I know I wouldn’t want to learn all that stuff about stars and gas and whatever else they think is important… :)

  • David Nataf

    I find it hilarious you had the guts to contact harvard astronomy after the admissions deadline to show your application.

    It must have been challenging being a productive researcher in graduate school when you basically chose a path that forced you to take a double course load (astronomy and physics courses). I can’t imagine doing a double course load this year and next. I’d probably end up 40 lbs heavier and on medication 😛

  • Scott H.

    (you can’t really complain about being at Harvard)

    Ahem. When I visited Harvard (physics) as a prospective student (1993):

    1. The second professor — professor — with whom I spoke got angry at me for not asking him enough questions about what is wrong with the place;

    2. The graduate students who took me out to lunch spent the entire time trying to convince me to join the CIA rather than continue on in physics;

    3. The professor with whom I had an appointment after lunch told me he was kind of busy and would rather not talk to me.


  • Sean

    If you have a choice of going to Harvard or going to another great school (for example, Caltech), then of course there may be good reasons not to go to Harvard. My point was just that, in the larger scope of situations one might be forced into over the course of a long life, from defaulting on your mortgage to having a limb amputated, a sad tale of being forced to attend Harvard for grad school is not likely to garner much sympathy from the outside world.

  • mathematician

    Wait! Are you saying that physics and astronomy are two different subjects? Isn’t that a bit like saying country and western are two different types of music?

  • James

    No wonder people at Harvard, when asked where they go to school, say “somewhere in Boston”. No other school garners quite the livid response!

  • Professor R

    hi Sean, fascinating post (btwis there an Irish connection?)

    One thing confuses me – is there a big difference between Harvard Astronomy and Physics re graduate coursework? Presumably the cosmology courses you took would have been common to both. Or do you mean that you might have taken a different direction atogether? If so, Harvard did you a big favour – as a humble solid-state physicist, it seems to me that we are living through a golden age of cosmology!

    Regards, Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh

    P.S. Fabulous interview with John Horgan – do you mind if I use snippets in class?

  • Sean

    Professor R, you are welcome to use snippets from the interview. There is a big difference between astronomy and physics in terms of the basic required courses, but electives are pretty free, and I took a bunch of physics and math courses. Still, physics would have been a better fit; the kind of theoretical cosmology I do is much more physics than astronomy.

  • RD

    I’m the reverse of Sean — all my degrees are in physics, but most of my work has been in astronomy. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to do astrophysics until I was well into grad school so most of my grad school applications were to physics departments with astrophysics groups. Almost all the physics I learned in grad school has been useful for understanding astrophysics, but I did miss out on lots of astronomy lore and terminology; I probably messed up my first job interview by having to ask what an asymptotic giant branch star was.

  • Costanza

    Re #6

    They are at Bob’s Country Bunker in Kokomo, IN

  • Yvette

    Sean- the “big book” still exists despite the online version. Every year I get one as president of our Physics and Astronomy Club from the AIP, every year I put it in the undergrad lounge, and every year it gets pawed to death and disappears halfway through the semester after having several pages torn out of it. :)

    Here’s a question though that I’ve been wondering about- what is your opinion about accepting to a school you haven’t visited, or even emailing a professor from a department before you’re accepted saying you’ll be in town and would like to talk to him/her? The reason I ask is I will be graduating in December, and after throwing my applications in the mail I plan to do a backpacking trip around the world until graduate school starts. I’m really looking forward to it, but the downside of things is I will (hopefully) be accepted while on the road and won’t be able to visit anywhere before accepting an offer. Thoughts?

  • TomC

    Unsolicited response to Yvette:

    The difference between the right grad school choice and the wrong one can mean the difference between being stressed out, overworked, but still excited about your future as a scientist and being utterly and completely miserable. You can’t tell too much about a department by visiting, but you can tell one very crucial thing (as Scott H. alludes to): You can tell whether the grad students hate their lives. Of the three schools I visited as a prospective Physics/Astronomy grad student, only one appeared to have grad students whose eyes still held a spark of “wow, isn’t what we do cool,” and so that’s where I went. 10+ years on, knowing what I know about the departments I was considering, it was absolutely the right choice, and I never would have been armed with the knowledge to make it without visiting.

    So, short answer: Try as hard as you can to make some time to visit your prospective departments — even if you haven’t been accepted (or even applied) yet — and talk to the people who are the potential versions of you in a couple of years.

  • Sean

    Yvette– I will basically agree with TomC; your choice of grad school is a crucial one, and some of the most crucial aspects are things that are much easier to discern by visiting than remotely. You want to go somewhere that is scientifically a good fit, but personally a good fit as well. Of course, if there is simply no way you can visit, then you’ll have to decide using the information you have. But I might try to visit a couple of your most likely choices before you leave, and you should certainly email professors and students in those departments to get an idea what they are like.

  • jack brennen

    In my experience one shouldn’t be shopping for a graduate school, but should shop for potential advisors. The actual school you end up in is only important for a.) geography, b.) stipend, and c.) qual/no qual, while who your advisor is is only slightly less important to your life than who your parents are.

  • Yvette

    Thanks for the responses! Will take them to heart when it’s time to make a decision.

  • leaveareply

    I have a BA from an English University. I’m thinking of staying in England for another year for a masters before going to the states for grad school. Could this possibly count against me? (I know this is a stupid question, but people already having a phd are not usually considered so I’m wondering whether this partialy extends to people with masters degrees)

  • Sean

    Actually that’s pretty common, in my experience. You will basically have to start from scratch in grad school in the US, but you’ll be much better prepared than average.

  • Mark

    Hi leaveareply,

    This is essentially what I did. It most certainly doesn’t work against you. The biggest problem is that you might not get enough credit for it, in terms of waiving required classes, as you might like. Many schools will allow you to try to take their qualifying exam immediately (rather than after a year), and if you get some samples from them and practice over the previous summer, you’d probably be well prepared to do that. This would get you into research earlier.

    Your higher preparation will be valued by potential advisors in general.

  • Hektor Bim

    Finding out whether students hate their lives is very important for the first year or two, but after that it really depends on your advisor. One crucial point that other people haven’t brought up – try to find out how a prospective advisor’s previous students did. Did the advisor call their friends and try to help them get a job, or did they do nothing but write recommendation letters?

    Do students take 10 years to finish in that lab and still not get good jobs afterward?

    Also, one more thing – it is vastly easier to get an academic job as an experimentalist in physics. There is no comparison – your life will be easier and smoother on average (fewer postdocs, far more likely to get a tenure track position, more positions to apply for, etc.).

  • Hope

    I agree with those that say your happiness and success in a PhD program have a lot to do with your advisor.


    Deciding that someone would make a great advisor for you based on one good meeting makes about as much sense as deciding to marry someone after a good first date. I think that the most one can hope for from these campus visits is to identify places that are obvious “no’s” (i.e. students seem uniformly unhappy, your dream advisor acts like a jerk, etc.). Beyond that, my advice is to go somewhere where there are at least two or three professors that you could see yourself working with. Then take their classes, go to their office hours, and after a semester of meaningful contact, make your choice.

  • Baja Fresh

    If you are seriously set on pursuing an academic career, you really need to work for an advisor who has a “proven” track record of placing graduates into good academic positions.

    As a prospective student, you should not be afraid to ask for exactly how the graduates from the specific program/lab/advisor have been performing on the job market. For some advisors you can do this by looking at his/her CV and a bit of googling on the web, stalking those whom you have never even seen before. I think getting that info really is the only way to predict how you might typically end up after getting a degree with the advisor. If his/her past students have been performing well, the advisor is often very happy to let you know that. If not, well, you will be taking a chance with that advisor.

    And if you find out that you are not a good match with your advisor for your goal, you should not be afraid at all to switch advisors or transfer to another school at an “early” phase. I’ve seen so many students doing that to end up with a better situation for themselves. Good luck!!

  • would be advisor

    I had never had a student until this semester when a student enrolled with me to do a masters thesis. But they haven’t bothered to contact me all semester. What should I do now?

  • Baja Fresh

    would be advisor,

    You seem so clueless that you shouldn’t really be in a position to advise a student! If the ghost student was signing up for credit, just fail him/her. Or at the very least you should just drop the student email asking what’s up and what your plans should be before taking any nasty action (like above).


  • would be advisor

    Thanks, Baja Fresh. If you have any suggestions that I didn’t already think of, just let me know.

  • Fermi-Walker Transport

    Yes, ones fit with ones adviser is crucial. I did not get along at all with mine. We would only meet maybe twice a year. All other communication was by email which was maybe once every few weeks. Unfortunately, the other academics were afraid of this guy. I did though finish my thesis in just over five years and I was lucky to find a scientist at another institution in the same city who informally became deputy adviser. Not too long ago, I checked the papers of all those students who worked with my former adviser. I found that only 1 out of I think 14 had anything to do with him after they graduated.

  • would be advisor

    Oh wait! I just thought of something. Maybe I should contact this guy’s PhD advisor and see if he knows wtf is up with this situation.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar