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A study on "kisses of death" in grad school applications

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Just thought I would pass this link on to everyone. Great to read while you're working on applications just to make sure that you're not inadvertently conveying the wrong impression.

http://www.unl.edu/psypage/psichi/Graduate_School_Application_Kisses_of_Death.pdf

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One interesting kiss of death applicable for only physics: never ever ever say you have an interest in theoretical particle physics or theoretical astrophysics. It gets your application tossed because there's usually not many professors in physics departments who do this, the funding is extremely low especially for these non-applied theoretical fields (even in astrophysics, apparently the money is mostly in observation and experiment), they take very few students, so it ends up that even at low tier schools, the competition for this field is immense due to large amounts of applicants for nearly nonexistent seats. Turns out that most people in physics actually like that stuff, and shun the applications.

For those curious, the easiest admissions is to have interest in biophysics since they get NIH funding as well as NSF, and most physics guys don't know enough bio, and most bio guys don't know enough physical experimental methods or computational tools. These guys graduate immensely fast, 4-5 years for biophysics, with 3+ publications usually, but employment isn't that hot but still better than theoretical particle physics, right?

Edited by SymmetryOfImperfection

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For those curious, the easiest admissions is to have interest in biophysics since they get NIH funding as well as NSF, and most physics guys don't know enough bio, and most bio guys don't know enough physical experimental methods or computational tools. These guys graduate immensely fast, 4-5 years for biophysics, with 3+ publications usually, but employment isn't that hot but still better than theoretical particle physics, right?

Are you in biophysics? I'm not but I'm curious about how NIH and NSF works in the US. I have many friends in biophysics in Canada and our equivalent organizations are CIHR and NSERC, respectively. However, some of my friends' biggest funding worries is that fact that you can only apply to ONE of CIHR or NSERC for graduate fellowships, and if CIHR thinks your work is too "physical science-y" then they will reject you while if NSERC thinks your work is too "bio/health-sciencey" then they will reject you too (and neither agency will pass your application onto the other). So if you are doing work in something that is in between then it's a gamble when applying for funding!!

As for the "KOD", I think Symmetry's advice can be generalised to most fields as well -- that is, make sure you know the program you are applying to well (both their research strengths as well as how big their subgroups are) so that your SOP and application matches with the school (I think the linked article/paper said this too!). If you picked the schools that matches your interests well, then you shouldn't feel like you have to make up / fib about your research interests to get in. But you should definitely focus/highlight different experience and interests based on the school!

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Are you in biophysics? I'm not but I'm curious about how NIH and NSF works in the US. I have many friends in biophysics in Canada and our equivalent organizations are CIHR and NSERC, respectively. However, some of my friends' biggest funding worries is that fact that you can only apply to ONE of CIHR or NSERC for graduate fellowships, and if CIHR thinks your work is too "physical science-y" then they will reject you while if NSERC thinks your work is too "bio/health-sciencey" then they will reject you too (and neither agency will pass your application onto the other). So if you are doing work in something that is in between then it's a gamble when applying for funding!!

As for the "KOD", I think Symmetry's advice can be generalised to most fields as well -- that is, make sure you know the program you are applying to well (both their research strengths as well as how big their subgroups are) so that your SOP and application matches with the school (I think the linked article/paper said this too!). If you picked the schools that matches your interests well, then you shouldn't feel like you have to make up / fib about your research interests to get in. But you should definitely focus/highlight different experience and interests based on the school!

I am in experimental condensed matter - nanofabrication. This was for my undergrad research. My group(before I came) previously did a few conference posters on thermal stability of polymer nanostructures, unfortunately, I wasn't able to publish or do a conference before graduating. I am starting Fall 2012 in a MS program, still doing experimental condensed matter. In my experience, the field seems to be well funded since I know that a project I did was privately sponsored, and others came from non-NSF grants.

However, I did do a 8 month biochemistry project before for my first research, that I quit, so I got a tiny glimpse into NIH. Fortunately, this stint in biochemistry made me get out of life sciences. Anyhow, it turns out that NIH funds anything that relates in some way to health. Projects you'd think had zero relation to healthcare made it, like distribution of amyloid fibers vs. certain gene expression.

The problem with "fit" is that it turns out that the schools that actually have alot of people doing theoretical particle physics are Princeton, Harvard, Caltech and other top tier elite schools that have a 5% acceptance rate. You might have little sympathy, since you got into Caltech, but really, most people aren't as smart as you, nor as hard working, yet is it wrong to deny us a chance to pursue our dreams? Well, I'm just being realistic, and saying, that if you want to do theoretical particle physics, but can't go to a top tier elite school, then here's something that might help. Also, it isn't really dishonest, since lots of the same theoretical techniques used in particle physics are also used in the theory of solids, and you are technically "applying the theory of solids to interdisciplinary fields".

Edited by SymmetryOfImperfection

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The problem with "fit" is that it turns out that the schools that actually have alot of people doing theoretical particle physics are Princeton, Harvard, Caltech and other top tier elite schools that have a 5% acceptance rate. You might have little sympathy, since you got into Caltech, but really, most people aren't as smart as you, nor as hard working, yet is it wrong to deny us a chance to pursue our dreams? Well, I'm just being realistic, and saying, that if you want to do theoretical particle physics, but can't go to a top tier elite school, then here's something that might help. Also, it isn't really dishonest, since lots of the same theoretical techniques used in particle physics are also used in the theory of solids, and you are technically "applying the theory of solids to interdisciplinary fields".

I hope I didn't sound like I was unsympathetic, or that you thought I was thinking "Well I got into Caltech so you can too" because for the last year, I've been on the other end of that conversation!! I feel really lucky to have made it into Caltech -- my program actually accepted 8 out of 33 applicants, so it was much higher than 5% acceptance. Out of the people I met while visiting, let's just say that when we introduced ourselves and named our previous institutions, I was definitely the odd one out!

I was asking about NIH and NSF because in Canada, being eligible for 2 agencies often means that the one you apply to will try to pass the responsibility to the other agency! But your post seemed to say that in the US, you can end up with funding for both, and I was curious so i just wanted to check!

I also didn't mean to imply that "spinning" your research interests in the SOP is dishonest. But now I see that what I meant and what I said are pretty different. I assure I was not expressing "disapproval" because I did the same thing to help my applications. Particularly, for some applications, I applied to the Astronomy department with the intention of working with the Earth & Planetary Science people because I thought I had a better chance to be admitted in Astronomy (my official major in undergrad and MSc) than Planetary Science (where I have no formal training). Also, sometimes to get into a top tier department, I would apply to lower ranked / less competitive departments at the same school with the plan to work with people in the other department.

I agree that what you suggest is absolutely a good thing to do to increase your chances at getting into the school you want. The downside is that being officially registered in a different program might mean your office is somewhere else, or you have to follow a different curriculum, but you can still probably work with the top tier supervisors and fill as much electives as you can in your "interest" department.

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I hope I didn't sound like I was unsympathetic, or that you thought I was thinking "Well I got into Caltech so you can too" because for the last year, I've been on the other end of that conversation!! I feel really lucky to have made it into Caltech -- my program actually accepted 8 out of 33 applicants, so it was much higher than 5% acceptance. Out of the people I met while visiting, let's just say that when we introduced ourselves and named our previous institutions, I was definitely the odd one out!

I was asking about NIH and NSF because in Canada, being eligible for 2 agencies often means that the one you apply to will try to pass the responsibility to the other agency! But your post seemed to say that in the US, you can end up with funding for both, and I was curious so i just wanted to check!

I also didn't mean to imply that "spinning" your research interests in the SOP is dishonest. But now I see that what I meant and what I said are pretty different. I assure I was not expressing "disapproval" because I did the same thing to help my applications. Particularly, for some applications, I applied to the Astronomy department with the intention of working with the Earth & Planetary Science people because I thought I had a better chance to be admitted in Astronomy (my official major in undergrad and MSc) than Planetary Science (where I have no formal training). Also, sometimes to get into a top tier department, I would apply to lower ranked / less competitive departments at the same school with the plan to work with people in the other department.

I agree that what you suggest is absolutely a good thing to do to increase your chances at getting into the school you want. The downside is that being officially registered in a different program might mean your office is somewhere else, or you have to follow a different curriculum, but you can still probably work with the top tier supervisors and fill as much electives as you can in your "interest" department.

I noticed that physics actually has some of the highest rejection rates. Why is that?

For examples, Chemistry at Caltech has a huge pile of admissions: http://www.thegradcafe.com/survey/index.php?q=Chemistry&t=a&o=i&pp=250

While Physics at Caltech has a huge pile of rejections: http://www.thegradcafe.com/survey/index.php?q=Physics&t=a&o=i&pp=250

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