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Physics / CS Background -- Looking for Advice for Computational Science Programs



Hello All,


Nice to meet you! Thank you in advance for reading my long post.

I recently graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in Computer Science (GPA 3.2). I have a somewhat unconventional background since my first two years at Caltech were dedicated to studying physics, where I progressed to introductory graduate classes (Lagrangian Mechanics, Advanced Quantum Mechanics, Tensor Analysis, etc.).

Now that I've been out of school for a few months, I've decided that I want to pursue a PhD that unites my love of programming with a hard science -- preferably physics. The PhD does not necessarily need to be related to physics as long as I have the background necessary to work in a research environment, but I've always been interested in physics and modeling.

To this end, I assumed that computational science programs would be most accepting of my programming background. However, I understand that a degree in CS weighs heavily against me for admission to programs in the sciences, and that my informal background in physics can only get me so far (despite the fact that Caltech has one of the best physics programs in the world and I made it through a good deal of the classes).

My question is: given my background, what is the optimal path for my time and energy with respect to admission into computational science programs? I don't have any unrealistic expectations like getting into top tier programs, but I do want to do the best I possibly can. Basically, I want to gauge what aspects of my background are salvageable for this path and what programs will be accepting of someone with my kind of background. For example, should I dedicate a large part of my time to the physics GRE, or would I be better off applying to programs in an applied mathematics department, studying for the mathematics GRE? 

My current plan is to volunteer for professors at a local university (hopefully pure science / computational related). Other than that, I plan to study hard for the general GRE.

I will apply in about two years, so I figured that now is the best time to ask for some advice about what to prioritize.


Any advice would be much appreciated. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and wishing happy holidays to everyone. 



Edited by mamemaki
added phd tag
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I am currently in a CS PhD and do not have a CS background. I think I can give you some useful advice.

Your current plan is good; if you have the means, volunteering in a lab relevant to the field you want a PhD in will strengthen your application. I remember when I was first applying, and I was concerned about my lack of a CS background (my bachelor's is engineering) a student told me "people don't get PhDs in CS to become a programmer." Basically, having those programming skills are fine, but not the end-all in terms of your application and not what pursuing the PhD is all about. If you can't afford to go that long without an income, getting a STEM job is fine too. Study hard for the GRE, some programs have a hard cut-off in regards to that test.

In terms of finding a program, the most important factor is your advisor. Spend the most time researching advisors, their work, and reaching out to them. Your advisor will make or break your PhD. If you can, try to visit their labs and talk to their graduate students to get the real story about how the lab is run, what work expectations are, etc.

Let me know if this is helpful or you have more questions!

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