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Careers: Physics/Engineering to Theoretical Physics: Requesting assessment and suggestions.


QUESTION: Hello professor! I have a B.E. in Electrical-Engineering (2011) and intend to take research in Theoretical Physics at one of the top universities in the USA. Since I didn't have much/sufficient Physics papers in my engineering course (which was of duration- 4 years), I have taken admission in M.Sc-Physics here (Duration- 2 years).
Now, my aggregate in B.E. was 61.76%, which is not a good score I understand; and I think I can score well in the M.Sc course here (of which 1 semester is already over) if that will help me in securing a position at one of the finest graduate schools.

I have the following questions:

1. Would you say that my low score in the B.E. will be a deterrent to my prospects of admission? How serious a deterrent?

2. Is it really important that I publish a paper or something? I ask this because I think my time in the M.Sc should be consumed by assimilating as much of basic Physics as I can; or am I wrong?

3. What can I do to improve my chances of getting admission, apart from preparing well for the GRE General and GRE-Physics?


ANSWER: Hi Chinmay:

You are doing the right thing in taking the M.Sc. in physics.  Theoretical physics is a hard area to work in.  You must be extremely strong in all areas of physics as well as in mathematics.  Many students who start a program thinking they will be theoretical physicists quickly find out that they are not up to it and move to computational or experimental physics.  You need to be open to that possibility.

You will enhance your chances to enter a strong graduate program but having extremely strong marks in your M.Sc. and getting a good score on the Physics GRE.  Of course having good scores on the general GRE is important as well.  If you have a publication it will improve your chances to get into the program you are interested in joining, however, I caution you on having unrealistic expectations for what program you can be admitted to.  Make sure you don't apply only to top 20 programs.  Your B.Sc. marks are not really strong enough to be considered for these kinds of programs.

Good Luck!

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks for your response!
What would you say constitutes realistic expectations?
About Theoretical Physics, I am 'very' willing to do whatever it takes, and I don't think I'll switch to other fields; but I'll keep in mind what you have said. Could you elaborate on what those realistic options might be?

Hi Chinmay:

If you are hoping for MIT, Harvard, University of Chicago, I am skeptical you will be admitted.  These schools get hundreds of applicants for a few openings and if you don't make the initial cut with grades and GRE there is simply no chance.

Look at and find the kinds of programs you like and see where they rank.  The data are from 2007 but it is a useful tool (US News rankings are also usable if you take them with a grain of salt).  I would guess that you have a reasonable chance at some of the middling public universities, say University of California Riverside or Colorado State.  I do admissions for IIT and you would probably be a middling candidate for us.


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Carlo Segre


I can answer most questions about studying physics in college and graduate school; questions about condensed matter physics; x-ray physics; synchrotron radiation; and general and modern physics. I can also answer questions about careers in academia.


Professor of physics for 30 years at Illinois Institute of Technology. Academic adviser for undergraduates and graduate students. I have served on university promotion and tenure committees, search committees for Deans and Department Chairs. I have also been an Associate Department Chair and an Associate Dean. I have 34 years experience in materials science research and I have been responsible for building and now managing a User facility at the Advanced Photon Source.

American Physical Society
Sigma Xi
American Chemical Society
American Associate for the Advancement of Science
International Centre for Diffraction Data (Fellow)
International X-ray Absorption Society

Nature; Physical Review Letters; Physical Review; Applied Physics Letters; Journal of Physical Chemistry; Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials; Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics; Solid State Communications; Physics Letters; Journal of Low Temperature Physics; Journal of Crystal Growth and Design; Physics Letters; Journal of Applied Physics; Journal of Archaeological Science; Physica C; Corrosion Science; Electrochimica Acta; Journal of Nuclear Materials

Ph.D. Physics, 1981 - University of California, San Diego
M.S. Physics, 1977 - University of California, San Diego
B.S. Physics, 1976 - University of illinois, Champaign-Urbana
B.S. Chemistry 1976 - University of illinois, Champaign-Urbana

Awards and Honors
Duchossois Leadership Professor of Physics, IIT Fellow, International Center for Diffraction Data

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