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I am currently working in the field of my undergrad study in "computational systems and microelectronics". I have pursued my graduate masters project in Quantum Transport which have gotten me an A+ along with a Frist Class CGPA and the praise of my professors for laying the foundation of quantum transport simulation in the university in addition to publishing the quantum transport simulation paper in a high impact journal.

Now I am interested to pursue my PhD in quantum information/condensed matter/atomic and optical physics. I have emailed around 40 professors all around the world so far, around 10% of them seem interested and have called me for a PhD interview in renowned Universities (a good sign I suppose) but then they all have rejected me after the interview so far, citing a preference for more experienced candidates in the field. 20% of them outright respond back to the email enquiry, saying that I do not have the necessary background for their research. While a vast majority of professors don't even respond back (I assume they send the email to trash on sight).

I am autodidactic and have been ameliorating the courses that I didn't undertake in school such as Statistical mechanics, Optics etc. However I do have the necessary background in the mathematical and physics framework such as Tensor Calculus, Abstract Algebra, Electrodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, Solid State physics etc.

Is this a "fools errand" for a person of my background attempting to pursue the PhD in condensed matter/ atomic and optical physics or should I power through the rejections and continue approaching professors via email until one eventually hits ? I have met and seen people with my background pursue a PhD in these fields, one or two professors (no PhD openings unfortunately) on consultation even have said that my background is not an issue at all, which gives me hope.

I am currently lost and I wonder is the rejection rates I'm facing normal for PhD applications ? Should I even attempt trying or is this to be expected during the application phase? I have a preference for American or UK universities as these places offer more opportunities post graduation. I hope people who are from these fields and academics could advise me on this dilemma.

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  • The answer for US and UK would be quite different, I think.
    – Buffy
    Apr 12, 2023 at 15:31
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    So 4 interviews, if each considered 2 candidates and flipped a coin, 1/16 people would be in your spot; that's a fair number, p>0.05, not enough power to reject the null. Even less unusual if they interview more candidates. Could be that something about your interview personality is off. Presumably someone has supervised your masters work? What do they think? Broadly, in the US PhDs are longer and it's expected that incoming students still need some courses; in Europe it's expected you more or less have a project ready to start.
    – Bryan Krause
    Apr 12, 2023 at 15:44
  • My friend, a Bostonian professor, may be looking for a PhD student, to do research in AFM (atomic force microscopy). Please drop me an e-mail, if interested. Apr 12, 2023 at 19:13
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    Dear @Michael_1812 thank you for the swift reply and the offer to help :) . Yup I am indeed very interested. I have sent you an email. Thank you for the assistance Michael Apr 13, 2023 at 14:34

3 Answers 3

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The following applies to the US, but, possibly not UK.

As an undergrad, you can contact a professor at a doctoral institution for advice and to express interest, but it will be very (very) unlikely to affect any admissions decisions.

The same is true even for those with a masters, to a somewhat lesser extent.

In the US, admissions is by committee of faculty who look at all the applications in a cycle and make decisions based on formal application materials.

Also, because of that custom, the most likely answer you get from a professor, is "I encourage you to apply." Even if they are on the committee, outside communication is unlikely to affect anything.

The first task of a new doctoral student, in most departments and fields, is to take the advanced courses that help you pass comprehensive exams. You don't need a dissertation advisor for that. Even with a good masters, you need to be aware that comps are usually an gate that must be passed through.

Some other places than the US requires you to apply to a professor who will ultimately be your funding source.

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For a physics Ph.D. application in the US, you are generally expected to take the subject and general GRE tests, and the TOEFL test if English is not your native language. Furthermore, the complete application includes a letter of intent describing your background and the kind of research you want to pursue. Additionally, you need an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or above (preferably). Beyond that, any research publications you might have will help your cause. The system works that way. A committee then decides on the applications and offers positions according to the department's needs which are related to funding. So cold emailing as you do might not help you get into a program I think.

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There are many universities, and in my experience a majority of the top schools, where the professor will rarely if ever formally commit before the student has spent some time at the institution.

Basically, they want to see how you will perform in their program, irrespective of previous achievements in other programs.

The default position is for you to apply for admission, get accepted and then set the stage on fire during your first year (usually coursework) when you get there.

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