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Archive for January, 2009

 

Congratulations to the JPL team for five years on Mars with Opportunity today.

Congratulations to the JPL team for five years on Mars with Opportunity today.

After finishing it all it may be wise to consider options if there are no acceptance letters waiting. 

Here is a list of ideas that I have gathered from what my friends (physics majors) are considering or what I have considered as an alternative:

Teach for America

I applied for Teach for America and got in, but when I received my first acceptance I weighed the options and my dedication to each one and withdrew my Teach for America application. I was excited to do it but I feel that graduate school is a better choice for me right now.

Teach Abroad (I wanted to do Japan)

I wanted to teach in Japan. Actual any excuse that would allow me to live in Japan for a year would have been awesome.

Travel for a year

Taking a year off to travel as a gap year seems like another viable option. It would be a definite breather before plunging into graduate school.

Get a non-academic job

I did not want to get an actual job, several of my friends (in physics) however want to make this thing called “money”. Some of the things I have heard being considered:

  • Engineering job
  • Weapons research
  • Nuclear Technician for the Navy
  • Pilot in the Air Force
  • Product testing for a Telecom company

The best thing to do for this is to go to a Science and Technology Career fair, especially since these jobs will be geared towards jobs in the local area. Unless of course you don’t want to stay in the area. For the jobs as engineers it depends on what type of background you have in physics, for me I have had a good course in Electronics and have also learned how to do accurate machining in a machine shop. I would probably apply to be an electrical engineer if was to choose. 

After any one of these there is always the option to re-apply to graduate school or defer acceptance to follow a particular dream (like living in Japan). Of course there are innumerable options out there.

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\Now to wait for the machinations of graduate committees.

Now to wait for the machinations of graduate committees.

With the online application complete, letters of recommendation secure and the personal statements done there is not much left to do. With the online application submitted a period of worry can start over whether documents like GRE test scores, official transcripts and letters of recommendation actually made it to the universities.

So far the universities with an online letter of recommendation system are not able to process letters mailed in and check them off on the online application. For one they said that the application was complete even though the listed a letter as missing. When in doubt you can e-mail the department but keep in mind that they have mountains of paperwork and sorting to do what with all of the stuff coming in.

To keep myself sane (an important thing to do) I made another list. If you cannot tell I am a fan of lists, especially in this process. I altered my previous school list with just the non-applications tasks I had remaining such as registering and uploading secondary information to asking about transcripts.

Just make sure everything arrives by the due date, my challenge was in the letters of recommendation. When everything was in relax there is nothing else you can do. At this point it might be wise to make sure that you are scheduled to graduate on time.

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Personal statements are the only thing fully in our control.

Personal statements are the only thing fully in our control.

Personal statements are hard. Hard to start, hard to write and hard to finish.

They feel like the most important part of an application and at the point of writing they are. Though not because they can influence an application completely, rather it is because it is the last and only thing wholly in our control in the later stages of an application.

GPA is set, letters are written and test scores are in. The only major aspect that can be changed is the personal statement. And so it feels so vital to the process.

I did a lot of pre-writing for my statement. I did several rounds of brainstorming, a couple outlines at least two false starts. Eventually I just gave in, sat down and wrote until I could think of no more. I wrote stream of consciousness with notes interjected into the writing and bracketed phrases that needed to be changed depending on the school. Once finished with this free write I went back and color coded comments according to if they are for editing, adding more in or just venting.

It sat on my desktop for a day before I went at it again. I kept every version I made just so I did not lose anything and so I could see how it evolved if I ever looked back at it. With a decent draft done I sent it off to two people who I trusted to edit it (both recently attained masters degrees in English related subjects) and give general advice.

My first draft was written on November 16th and the final version for all of the schools were finished December 9th. I have written previously about my experience writing the personal statement, mostly while I was in the depths of it.

One thing I found lacking on the internet was a personal statement for physics graduate school, so I am posting the general template I used for each school. I do this as a reference and I ask that no one copy it or plagiarize it in any way. Keep in mind that those reading these are not staff members but physics professors, who I would say are fairly smart people. And if someone can find this to copy so can they. For this draft I left blocks of text blank with [University] or [Professor], I filled these in with what I learned by talking to the professors, not just off the websites.

It is the intellectual challenge that drew me into science, the challenge of walking to the edge of the known and searching for the next step. I found this pursuit before my years at university through books such as Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace and Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell. These authors gave me an idea of how to think about the world as a physicist and what it could mean. When I read their words I did not know about the mathematical formalism behind the theories or even the idea such formalism existed. However, I did know that I wanted to study physics and enhance the knowledge of humanity. This aspiration has led me to apply to the [Department] at [University].

While many of my peers were beginning research positions with professors, I spent my junior year at Edinburgh University studying Astrophysics.

At Edinburgh my particle physics professor encouraged me to go to CERN’s last public open day. At CERN I found the work and challenges of the Compact Linear Collider completely fascinating. The guide gave a brief rundown of their current challenge involving the large electric field of the beam breaking down the walls of the waveguides. While she explained, I experienced a direct connection between classroom theory and a real problem faced by an experimental scientist. 

It was the combination of my trip to CERN and my year of astrophysics courses that led me to the fields of space and solar physics. I enjoyed learning about stellar structure and evolution in my courses and the experimental aspect of plasma and high-energy physics at CERN demonstrated to me what can be done in a research setting. Most of my exposure to these fields has come from reading professors’ research and attending various colloquia at my university.

While I work on my research doctorate in space physics I am interested in pursuing research similar to [research] by [Professor]. My goal is to work on space related instruments and technology as well as focus on research that will aid in furthering the exploration and achievements outside of our own world. Research in space and solar science can help me pursue my goals.

I feel the most important class I took to prepare me for advanced research was my second year physics honor’s lab taught by [Professor]. This was a yearlong class designed to introduce how to conduct research. In the first quarter I was given a seemingly simple experiment, such as finding a relation between the size of a capillary and its rate of flow. There were no lab manuals or instructions, and while I was given help by the professor, every step had to be my own. The second quarter of the course was dedicated to two skills: learning LabView in order to regulate the temperature of a copper bar and learning how to fabricate parts in the department’s machine shop. In the final quarter the class collaborated on building a piece of equipment for another professor. For this I learned basic drafting, CAD software, realistic design and how to work with a group on a project.

During my time abroad I applied for several summer REU programs so I could do some real research. Unfortunately, most of the programs were too impacted and I was unable to research over the summer. At the start of this year I contacted and joined [Professor] in his Experimental Cosmology group here at UCSB. I am currently working on two projects, the first is a cryogenic heat pipe and the second is using a micron bolometer for atmospheric modeling. The goal of the heat pipe project is to create an efficient cooling system for the next balloon borne instrument, the COsmic Foreground Explorer (COFE) that the lab will launch sometime next year. For the micron bolometer, I am currently designing and building an enclosure for long term outdoor use. The goal is to predict cloud formation to facilitate several of the telescopes operated by the group in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

I realize I have only begun what will become a lifetime of research and discovery, and to that end I am applying to the [University]. I feel that my skills and curiosity will be a match for the program at your university. I am looked forward to participating in the research opportunities offered by the [University] specifically in [research topics]. Along with the research being done by [Professor], I am also interested in the research on [research topic 2] being done by [Professor]. My background in astrophysics and my work with [Professor] has readied me for this kind of research and participation. I consider acceptance to the graduate program at the [University] one of the best opportunities I will have to pursue my research interests will lead to an even better understanding of how the world works. 

Since this is a personal statement most of this will only apply to me but I hope that the general structure and topics will help others writing their own personal statement.

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The online portion is fairly repetitive.

The online portion is fairly repetitive.

In conjunction with starting to contact school I also started with the only applications. For the most part the applications are fairly standard asking for contact info, GPA and sometimes deomographic information. Like all parts of the process it is really important to simply keep track of everything.

I listed every school with important information such as:

  • Link to online application
  • Login and Password
  • Due date
  • Unfinished sections of online application
  • Non-online documents required

While normally it is not a good idea to write down passwords I did it for the school since each one had a different requirement, some needed non alpha-numeric characters others required longer length. It is just easier to copy and paste, especially when you have an assigned username.Make a quick reference list of commonly asked information

When pulling out information from an application the required documents are either listed on the application or on the page linking to it. In some cases it is done either on the departmental website or that of the graduate school itself. I know that some of my school provided handy checklists while others sort of buried the information in odd corners.

Early on look for the requirements for the personal statement such as topic, length and formatting. I thought I was done with my personal statements and then I reread the prompt that actually required two separate essays, if I had waited until the last day to turn it in it would have been bad.

A surprise was the requirement of a resumé on a few applications. I had a resumé already made but a full year out of date, it was also written towards getting my a desk job instead of a graduate position. So this had to be rewritten and refocused to a research position highlighting independence, practical skills (machine shop, computers) and ability to overcome challenges. The resumé should complement the personal statement but not repeat material extensively.

Creating an easy reference of the following helps expedite the filling out of numerous forms:

  • Graduate date (estimate it)
  • Physics GPA
  • Overall GPA
  • Last 2-years GPA
  • GRE Scores with percentile
  • Recommender names, positions and contact information
  • For calculating GPA I used my schools GPA Calculator (written for the quarter system).

Do the online applications a little at a time and as a way to take a break from personal statements and GRE study while still progressing forward. Also start to brace yourself for the fees that come due at the end of the application.

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The GRE, a very relaxing subject.

The GRE, a very relaxing subject.

Two intensive steps of the application process are the GRE tests. While some parts of the application are cumulative over your academic career (GPA and experience) other aspects like test scores and personal statements can be changed the fastest if needed.

I took the general GRE over the summer prior to my senior year. I studied for about a month by working through a single GRE study book followed by memorizing vocabulary. I was not worried about the math section i just knew that I needed to work on the verbal part. In the end I found the vocabularly really did help and I ended up with 88th and 89th percentile in the verbal and math sections. The essay portion I did not practice and got a 37th percentile. I also did not like the prompts.

For the Physics GRE I should have worried more about it then I did. I decided to take it the fall of my Senior year, decided as in I did not think about it until I only had the fall option. If I thought about it ahead of time I would have taken it in the Spring of my senior year. This way I would have had more time to study and the chance to retake in the fall if needed. But I didn’t so here is what I did.

I did not have an idea of where to start so I started with my old notes. I gathered up the notesheets I had made over the past three years for my classes as well as the notes. I skimmed over the class notes writing down any derivation that looked important or diagram that seemed relevant. With a set of new notes and old notes I pulled them together into a set of master notes.

I then took my first practice test. (I got the tests from here)

My first practice test I received a 580, not what I wanted. I went over the answers I got wrong, added what I needed to my notes and started over. The second practice was a 600, with more wrongs coming from math instead of physics, I needed to slow down.

Repeating the process of going over problems and adding to my notes I jumped up to 680 on the third test and 700 on the last (and newest) practice test. Not great scores but at least they were passable.

Then the actual Physics GRE came around. I had the luck in that the test center was at my school and in a familiar physics lecture hall. This of course did not mean I was not nervous. I took the test and it is definitely going down as the most carefree experience of my life.

After the requisite eight weeks required to process a simple scantron test I received the results. A 690, placing me in the 54th percentile. At least I know now that the most recent practice exams are fairly accurate, or maybe just for me.

I did all my studying for the physics GRE over two weeks during the middle of the fall quarter. I should have given it at least a full month and more attention then I did. I am just glad that I am done with standardized tests.

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It may seem daunting but take it one step at a time.

It may seem daunting but take it one step at a time.

With a short list of universities I went on to start contacting the schools directly. I have heard arguments online touting the benefits and the pitfalls of contacting schools and professors directly. I figured that an e-mail will either be responded to or ignored, the professor would not be likely to really care about it any other way.

So why contact departments in the first place?

Asking questions is really the only way to learn more about a department in depth with the two sources of information being the departmental graduate advisor and the professors. The risk is that if you do not research what they are researching or ask non-specific bland questions it will just appear that you are contacting them to help your application. While you may be doing it to help your prospects it is more important to find a suitable department to join.

E-mailing the department’s general advisor is great way to find answers that are either not apparent on their website or are not there. Usually I initially asked a question about the application itself (like page length of personal statements) followed by who would be best to contact to learn more about research in a specific field of the department. I usually gave a few days to wait for a reply before I started to contact professors directly if they did not respond. Of course the earlier in the application season you ask the faster the response (asking a week before the due date will likely have a delay).

Sometimes the advisor will forward your e-mail to particular professor, if not you have to start the conversation. Admittedly it is hard at first to e-mail someone out of the blue but by the end it was actually quite easy. I tend to start with why I am contacting them followed by a few questions about their research. It really helps to actually look at their web sites to see what they are doing before contacting them.

I asked about their current research, what future projects they are planning, what their graduate students do and if there is anyone else that I should contact in the department. As an example here is a general template I used to get started:

Hello Professor [Last name spelt correctly],

I am considering applying to [school name] and I am interested in your research on [Science!]. Could you tell me more about what research and projects you are currently working on?

[Specific questions]

Best regards (or Thank you for the help/information),

[You Name]

[You most academic/professional e-mail address]

I found out that for some of the schools on my list there was no research I was interested in, I could tell because I found no questions to ask them aside from “Watcha doing?”. I then moved these schools to a secondary list to look at later, it could just be an apathetic or particular dispassionate day.

You may feel discouraged by the task at times but if you start early you can always set down the process for a few days and step back a bit.

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You can feel completely adrift when just starting the search.

You can feel completely adrift when just starting the search.

Probably the most daunting task of applying to graduate school is the first step. Once that is made it becomes relatively easy to parcel out the rest into reasonable steps. Thinking about it takes a surprisingly long time.

Most of what I say will apply to Physics graduate school but it could be easily applied to other academic graduate school programs. I say academic because I know that medical and law schools are structured differently and I have no idea about MBA programs.

The first step is to decide on what you want to do. It helps to know at least one thing you want out of graduate school, be it a degree type, field of study, region of the country or even a particular state. Something to help narrow down the schools. For my initial searching I used Gradschool Shopper which searches schools that offer programs in physics and related fields.

I really sort of chose schools at random. I knew where I did not want to go and started from there. I went through the schools of particular states and looked at their Physics (or related) departmental website and found their research section. If I was not interested in anything I was reading I threw it out and moved on. Every school that had a research topic that even slightly interested me I bookmarked into a folder. I then let it sit a day so I did not become overwhelmed and apathetic.

From this list I looked at each school in more depth but not too deep at this point. I checked out if the research still interested me, if they had other departments I did not see (like Earth and Space Science or Engineering Physics) and how the website felt. At this point I was looking for reasons to throw out schools since my list was probably about twenty or thirty schools. When I narrowed it down to say five I moved on.

I started again with another topic or another criteria, say the first time was West Coast schools now I searched for Space Physics or Condensed Matter. I probably spent a week or two during the summer doing this. The goal is to get a list of potential schools but most importantly help you decide what you are really interested in researching. I started with a rough idea and I was eventually pulled towards a more specialized area. With this I could narrow down even more start looking through schools again.

With a semi-final list of ten to twenty I created a spreadsheet. Here I used the information provided by Gradschool Shopper to list information about each school to compare them. In the end I found these the most useful:

  • Location
  • City Type
  • Acceptance Rate
  • GRE Scores (Average or Minimum)
  • Application Deadline

The acceptance rate and average GRE score helped me cut out schools that would simply be beyond my range. While it possible that I could have made it into a top school I felt it was not worth the time investment. I was also being realistic about my prospects (and as a side note oftentimes their research was not that interesting).

I used two other methods for finding graduate school programs that fit me. One was that I read (or skimmed) physics articles from sites like Space.com, PhysOrg and Scientific American for interesting articles. From these I found out where the researcher in the article was located and looked at their department. The second way was a complete mistake. I was interested in (but did not apply to) Washington State University, at a lab computer I googled the university and was really interested in their research. I then noticed that I was at the University of Washington’s site instead. Luckily I made that mistake as they have some really cool research.

By doing this I found enough schools to have a good range to look into further. I did not apply to the sixteen schools I found this way as I cut ten of them out after some time passed or when I started contacting the schools.

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