Advice For Physics Majors (a serious article, for once)

More tips on heading for Grad School

This is the part of the show where we dance… do the physics dance! Go Sean, go Sean, get down now, hyeeeah! Hernia. No, this is the part of my essay where I add on any extra bits of advice I couldn’t fit up above about heading for grad school.

Mo’ Money — science fellowships

Give these a shot, by gummit!!!!! I did try for many of these fellowships, and although I didn’t win a single one, I’m glad I tried for them. These fellowships, such as the NSF, the department of defense (DoD), Hertz, Howard Hughes (for those of you into biology), Fulbright, even Marshall and Rhodes, usually require the applications in late summer or September starting your senior year — a few months before your actual grad school apps are due. The Hertz is particularly early, as I remember, because I missed it completely. The application process is very similar to that for grad schools, but usually harder — you’ll need 3 or 4 recommendations, essays, transcripts, the whole ball of wax. If you force yourself to do these, you’ll be thanking yourself later when you have to run through all the same hoops filling out grad school apps. You may not feel like you have a good shot at any of them, but what’s the harm if you try and fail?

And if you win, so much the better — I got a couple Honorable Mentions, which didn’t get me any money or prizes (except for 10 hours of time on a supercomputer, for some reason — which I did not use to download porn at unprecedented speed, as was suggested). But I still put those on my resume, because they look good — I’ll probably be listing those as awards for the rest of my career. I was genuinely surprised to get even the honorable mentions, and I chalk it up to the fact that many more qualified students probably didn’t bother to apply.

Visit grad schools.

You’ll probably be invited for an interview session — definitely go visit as many schools as you can. This is good news — if you’ve been invited to visit the school, that means you have a really good shot of getting in. They wouldn’t spend the money on you if they didn’t like you, right? The purpose of the visit is to #1) get a personal impression of you, see how you present yourself, just to make sure that you really are as talented as you appear in your application, #2) sell the school to you. It’s as much about the school impressing you as it is about you impressing them. For the interviews, expect to be shuffled around to 5-10 professors for half-hour to hour long talks. Some of these will be for evaluating you — some of the professors are on the selection committee and will grill you on your research, education, experience, etc. Other interviews will be with professors you may want to work for — this is your chance to meet them, see their lab, ask them the tough questions, in short decide if they have potential as a PhD adviser. Most schools will ask you for a list of people you’d like to meet, and will schedule some of the interviews by your request — make sure you see the profs you’d like to work with, and let them know your priority. In fact, you would earn bonus points by contacting the really impressive profs directly, and mentioning that you’d like to meet with them during your visit.

Out of the 13 schools I applied to, I visited five. By the time visiting-time came around (Jan, Feb, March of your senior year), I had narrowed down my selections to these five. Of course, not every school wanted to see me (a sign that I probably wasn’t getting in). Seeing which schools did invite me gave me (most likely) my final list of choices, and so I was able to eliminate all but my top choices — the “safe” schools and the schools with not-so-interesting research didn’t get my visit. (By the way — if you don’t make it out to visit, the school may take it as a sign you aren’t interested, and won’t bother wasting an acceptance on you). I think pretty much every other weekend in Feb / March of my senior year was spent out on these visits.

Take advanced classes early.

Once upon a time, back in freshman and sophomore years, I wanted to be an astronomer — I was going to double major in physics and astronomy and follow that up with a helping of astrophysics grad school. As I laid out my schedule that first year, I had planned to not take any astronomy courses until my junior year, after I had some decent physics behind me. For some reason, I decided to jump in early and take them my sophomore year, and I’m dang glad I did. Midway through the winter quarter astrophysics course that year, I decided I really didn’t like astronomy after all, and I made the decision to drop the course and the major. If I had waited until my junior year, I would probably have come to the same decision, but would have been a year behind in finding a new specialization area. As it was, I had a good couple years to mull over finding a new area before I had to choose grad schools.

It’s too bad I didn’t learn this lesson well enough to apply it again. I’ve already mentioned my mistake in putting off the advanced lab class until the last minute, a few sections back. By assuming that I wouldn’t like more advanced lab work before trying it, I delayed realizing that I do like experimental work. If I have any coherent point (cue insults now), it is that you will do yourself a favor by trying a broad range of classes as early as you can, to give yourself enough time to make an informed decision on specialization. This really applies to everything you do in college — research, classes, even other majors (but you wouldn’t major in anything other than physics, would you?). If you have an inspiration for what you want to do with your life, try it out! Do it now, don’t put it off — you may wind up with a rude surprise later on. And the longer you wait, the more you invest in whatever it is that you’re doing now — and the more you’ll feel obligated to continue doing it, because you’ve put so much work into it.

Mo Money, Mo problems

Applying to grad school is not cheap. The GRE exams, the application fees for each school, the plane tickets and travel money, extra books and study material, they all seem to be $50-100 a pop, and it adds up quick. I spent close to a grand, all told. It also uses up a ton of time — as I mentioned, you need to allocate about the same amount of time you’d devote to another physics class for the whole process, for your entire senior year. With this and independent research, you’ve now got the equivalent of two classes’ worth of time eaten up already, before you even sign up for classes. I don’t mean to scare you, but you’ve got to know this before enduring it. No wonder we seem to take 5 or 6 years to finish undergrad these days…


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