Graduate School Visits… It’s Time to Get the Ball Rolling!

So you’ve made it into a graduate school, eh? Congrats! So have I… and I keep thinking about my upcoming visit to the campus I’ll be attending. What’s it going to be like? Are the other graduate students and post docs going to be interesting? Will one of the professors whose work I find fascinating be available to be my advisor? What should I ask everyone while I’m there?

I’ve been roaming the internet, looking for answers to these questions, and my brilliant friend Kelle Cruz, who happens to be an amazing astronomer studying Brown Dwarfs at the AMNH, was kind enough to find and compile a set of links that are a great guide for the newly minted graduate student.

After perusing through the guide, I found that most of my questions were answered pretty well, however, given my somewhat unique circumstances, questions still remained. Unlike most students who go to grad school in Physics, I am not a recent undergrad. I have worked in the field of education in New York City and have been outside of the Ivory Towers for close to a decade. In that time I have continued to keep abreast of modern developments in Physics and Astronomy, and sharpened my mathematical toolbox to the point where I can breeze through tutoring undergraduates at Columbia, Hunter and NYU. I will be starting graduate school in the same age bracket as most post docs. I will have a plethora of real world experience from working for both the public and private sectors, and I am certain that amongst the incoming classes of 2011 I will not be alone.

How does someone like me view the graduate school process compared to an undergraduate?

First and foremost, I know what I want. I know where my interests in Cosmology, Field Theory, and simulations lie, and I am ready to get the ball rolling on my PhD dissertation. If you’re like me, then the prospect of another 5.5 years in school aren’t too appealing. Most grad school advice I’ve heard is to spend the first year filling in gaps in your knowledge base so that you can pass the quals during the start of your second year. Then another year is spent under a teaching assistantship, during which you should do a year long research project to help you decide whether you want to work for the advisor you’ve chosen (who has also chosen you!). Then the long road towards your PhD dissertation truly begins.

For those of us returning to the towers from the real world, this probably sounds like a load of bull. Hell, my physics and math knowledge is sharper now than it was when I first earned my undergraduate degree (Yay for a career in education!). So what I plan on doing is simple: I want to take the quals when I first enter into the program, and begin speaking to professors about taking me on as a research assistant. Most departments have copies of past qual exams posted on their graduate school pages, and you should definitely take a look at them if you’ll be doing something similar to my plan. Hopefully this will get me out from under the TA and under an RA in the shortest time possible. To ensure that the process goes smoothly I also plan on grilling potential advisors about the funding that they’re receiving, and whether or not they’ll be able to get me under their fellowship umbrella.

I know 3 years is probably not going to happen, but I’m aiming for 4.

If all goes according to plan, there’s no reason any of us shouldn’t complete our doctorates in that amount of time. I look forward to the adventures ahead, and wish the best to all of us returning to the contemplative serenity of the Ivory Towers!

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3 thoughts on “Graduate School Visits… It’s Time to Get the Ball Rolling!

  1. Congratulations! I got my physics degrees approximately 5 years ago (UC Riverside). No advanced degree, however. I have friends that are debating about going back, but they seemed to have forgotten much of what they studied (teaching and tutoring in the interim is so much more valuable than people realize–something many of them did NOT do). But good luck with your quals! Three years is quite a goal, but wolfram finished his in one year…so who knows! 🙂

  2. Hi Damian,

    I really identify with this post. I don’t know if I ever mentioned it in Astro, but I was also out of school for around ten years before retuning to, as you put it, the “ivory halls” to get my BS, and now MA in physics. It really is a difficult transition and even after the four years of undergrad I still feel like I’m playing catch up. Any way love the blog. Keep up the good work.

  3. Howdy Damian,

    I know this response is kind of two months late, but have fun in grad school over the next few years. I’d tell you good luck, too, but you won’t need it. You’ll be out of there in no time.

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