Reconsidering Graduate School

The school experience. School related queries, discussions, and stories that aren't specific to a subject.

Moderators: gmalivuk, Moderators General, Prelates

User avatar
Bears!
Posts: 98
Joined: Wed May 14, 2008 1:31 pm UTC

Reconsidering Graduate School

Postby Bears! » Thu Dec 15, 2011 4:08 pm UTC

Hi all,

So, I've basically come to the breaking point where I've acknowledged that what I'm doing in graduate school isn't really what I would like to be doing. I received my undergraduate degree in molecular biology at UIUC and chose to go to graduate school at the University of Chicago in a teacher education program. However, I've kind of realized that it isn't really my forte. I didn't really appreciate the hours required for teaching or the complex social context of CPS, and these issues made me realize I wasn't really suited for teaching in high school. In addition, I never really wanted to do biology anyway. I always wanted to do physics in undergrad/grad school. The reason I didn't is long and complex; basically, I was an engineering physics major and wanted to specialize in biophysics, but having discovered that the specialization I *thought* existed no longer did, I opted for a biology major with an emphasis in biophysics. However, such a thing never really was an option (though I was unaware at the time) since the university didn't offer as many biophysics courses as it officially says it does. Coupled with the fact that my research experience was pretty terrible (as in, I hated going into the lab because I lacked any direction), I decided that I didn't really enjoy molecular biology. Still, I remained realistic and recognized I needed to graduate (especially since I didn't really have the money to keep going), so I stuck with my biology degree and completed it in four years.

I'm also married and my wife and I rely on my financial aid through the university. Soooooooo, advice about finances (particularly for the first year of school, since this is when I'll be playing course catch-up) is greatly appreciated.

Now I've sort of admitted to myself that I made a mistake. I want to do physics. I'm pretty passionate about it and regret not doing it in the first place. I want to know: 1) how realistic is it to switch up and do a physics degree now? are programs that allow non-physics majors to play "undergrad catch-up" commonplace, or am I basically looking at redoing undergrad should I apply to a typical institution? 2) I've been looking at different schools; obviously, if I could do the University of Chicago, that'd be amazing - in addition, they seem to have a physics graduate prep sort of thing going on where I could essentially get my undergrad physics coursework taken care of in a year, except that it costs a billion million dollars; what if I simply chose a not-so-academic school to do my physics degree at? would it really make a difference in career opportunities for someone with a physics degree? 3) what sort of career opportunities are there for someone with an advanced physics degree? A cursory internet search suggests there are many, including engineering positions. I think I may prefer academia, but knowing that I have the industrial world to fall back on is comforting.

(If it's worth mentioning, I have all of the math prerequisites that a typical engineer would have: Calc 1-3, Differential equations, Linear algebra. I also have entry-level physics done: mechanics, E&M, quantum, and thermo.)

Thanks for any and all input. I apologize if my thoughts are convoluted. I'm still trying to sort it all out myself.
"It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." - James Baldwin

B.Good
Posts: 271
Joined: Fri Jun 04, 2010 9:34 pm UTC
Location: Maryland

Re: Reconsidering Graduate School

Postby B.Good » Thu Dec 15, 2011 5:07 pm UTC

I know of some schools where they admit students provisionally in some subjects. I.e., "You can be a graduate student here as long as you get A's/sufficiently well in these classes." I don't know how typical that is but it's worth looking into.

Durin
Posts: 192
Joined: Fri May 02, 2008 11:31 pm UTC
Location: Champaign, IL

Re: Reconsidering Graduate School

Postby Durin » Fri Dec 16, 2011 10:47 am UTC

I know this is in no way helpful, but hello fellow UIUCer!

patricksaurus
Posts: 1
Joined: Mon Jan 16, 2012 4:25 am UTC

Re: Reconsidering Graduate School

Postby patricksaurus » Mon Jan 16, 2012 4:53 am UTC

Depending on the program you enter, there is definitely the chance to play catch-up. When I was an undergrad in physics, it was routine for first year grad students to either audit or flat out take undergraduate courses. On the other hand, there are places like MIT and Caltech that say you need mechanics at the level of Goldstein, E&M at the level of Jackson, Stat Mech at Reif, etc. Those programs are not the right fit for you unless you go back and complete an undergraduate physics program prior to application.

I think you can find a department that would accept you as-is, especially if you did well as an undergraduate. It might mean a year of "remedial" work, but so what? You are also ideally situated to work on interdisciplinary projects, so you could do some google-fu and find programs where a professor is researching molecular biophysics (check out RPI, I seem to remember there's a guy there who works along these lines) if you are open to that kind of research. If you find a PI with a funded grant and your molecular biology background compliments his physics stuff, and you want to do that, your chances of admission are very good.

As for money, most of the time in the hard sciences, you can get tuition paid for and a stipend for either RA or TA work, or a fellowship. You can also apply through FAFSA for additional money, and the awards are not paltry. If you are frugal with your money, this can support you and your wife... even more so if your wife works.

My last bit of possibly useless observation is to reiterate something that you probably already know, which is that you should be certain that the program you're entering is a good fit for you before you take the plunge. Grad school is good in many ways, but in a great many other ways it is horrible. Your interest in what you're working on has to be enough to keep you going, and if it's not there you won't succeed. What are the course requirements, what's the timeline for graduation (physics PhDs take a longer than most other degrees), do you like the culture of the department, do you have an adviser in mind, and if so do you know and like him, etc.

Also, just throwing it out there, but UIUC has what is probably the best condensed matter physics program in the world. If you think prior attendance might be helpful, and you are interested in solid state, you should consider it.

Andromeda321
Posts: 123
Joined: Fri Sep 18, 2009 11:31 pm UTC

Re: Reconsidering Graduate School

Postby Andromeda321 » Mon Jan 16, 2012 9:37 am UTC

I think your best shot would be to apply for various M.S. programs, first writing to them explaining your circumstances and experiences and see what they think. I think a few would be willing to get you up to speed with a TA position to boot to support yourself, and if you do well in the M.S. you can apply for a PhD program.

To be blunt, I don't think many physics PhD programs would accept you because there would be serious concerns about whether you could pass the qualifier. You could perhaps change this perception by doing super awesome on the Physics GRE exam (most schools require it), so take a practice test to see what sort of questions they have and gauge your knowledge (this reminds me, physicsgre.com has forums that this question is probably worth re-posting in). So yeah, if you can show them that you are going to be able to pass the quals and they're not wasting their time on you you'll have a much better shot, if not I wouldn't even bother applying honestly.

By the way, if you already have a biology background does biophysics interest you all as a course of study? Lots of great programs out there.

User avatar
Bears!
Posts: 98
Joined: Wed May 14, 2008 1:31 pm UTC

Re: Reconsidering Graduate School

Postby Bears! » Tue Jan 17, 2012 1:34 pm UTC

Andromeda321 wrote:I think your best shot would be to apply for various M.S. programs, first writing to them explaining your circumstances and experiences and see what they think. I think a few would be willing to get you up to speed with a TA position to boot to support yourself, and if you do well in the M.S. you can apply for a PhD program.

To be blunt, I don't think many physics PhD programs would accept you because there would be serious concerns about whether you could pass the qualifier. You could perhaps change this perception by doing super awesome on the Physics GRE exam (most schools require it), so take a practice test to see what sort of questions they have and gauge your knowledge (this reminds me, physicsgre.com has forums that this question is probably worth re-posting in). So yeah, if you can show them that you are going to be able to pass the quals and they're not wasting their time on you you'll have a much better shot, if not I wouldn't even bother applying honestly.

By the way, if you already have a biology background does biophysics interest you all as a course of study? Lots of great programs out there.


I actually did work in biophysics as an undergraduate; it wasn't as compelling of a research field as I had initially hoped. I'm more drawn to quantum/GR problems, and am actually currently in the process of applying to a Master's program here at the University of Chicago that is exactly what I needed. I've contacted several other Ph.D. programs, and they basically raised the same point you did: how would I pass the qualifier? Fortunately, UC created this Master's program specifically for students like me who either want to do interdisciplinary work or who want to switch fields entirely. I'll have the fortune of being able to do research with the likes of Robert Wald and Ed Blucher, which is really cool and exciting. Seems things worked out pretty well for me.
"It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." - James Baldwin


Return to “School”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 5 guests