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I will be graduating from university (in the states) this semester with a bachelors in physics and mathematics. I applied for physics PhD programs (in the states) this cycle and obtained a few admissions. However, I am considering taking another year to improve my application and apply to physics PhD programs again, next cycle.

The problem is, I find it difficult to know what to focus on in terms of improving my application. Hence, I am asking how does one best judge what the weak points of their application is along a road to academia.

Clarification: Even though I am currently at the stage of entering graduate studies, I mean to ask this question for the more general setting of continuing on a path to academia.

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    Why did you apply to schools if you wouldn't go there when admitted? Were you offered funding? It sounds like your next step to improve in physics is to accept an offer and do a PhD.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 7 at 3:40
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    Why do you need to improve your application and apply to physics PhD programs again next year, if you've already obtained a few admissions?
    – Allure
    Mar 7 at 3:41
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    @SillyGoose how would applying another cycle help? Are you planning to apply with your partner and only attending a university that accepts you both?
    – Allure
    Mar 7 at 3:55
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    So you didn't have a 2-body problem in November/December but do now that it's March? I know that's quite possible but do think carefully about decisions that will affect you for at least the next 5 years and possibly indefinitely.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 7 at 12:15
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    "How do I best identify weak points in myself" – " what to focus on in terms of improving my application." These are two very different things. You can certainly do things to improve yourself (i.e., you can self-study). It is, however, highly doubtful that you can do anything to improve your application on your own (unless you have publications in the pipeline that can realistically be accepted before the next round of applications). What matters on PhD applications are tangible and verifiable facts, not your own assertion that you studied really hard all year to improve yourself. Mar 7 at 13:54

4 Answers 4

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You say that you "obtained a few [i.e., more that one] admissions"! Unless you deliberately applied only for schools that you thought were extremely weak in the belief that no stronger school would accept you, it is not at all clear what it would mean to "improve" your application. Clearly more than one school thought you were a good candidate.

My advice ... choose the school that seems like the best fit, and accept! It sounds (which might not reflect the reality of your experience, of course) as if the main problem is simply your self-confidence.

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While I don't understand why you would give up acceptance and spend another year, likely without support, I'll try to answer your direct question and give a bit of advice.

You can identify weaknesses by asking one of your professors, who presumably has gone through the system to get a doctorate as well as experience in academia in your field to evaluate your application and give you general feedback on your suitability for both graduate study and academia.

You are unlikely, though it is possible, to have enough self awareness to be able to do it on your own. Someone who doesn't know you is less likely to be able to give more than general advice ("Take this course. Take that course."). Ask someone who knows you and your work. Someone you trust. Someone who will be honest.

The advice, which I think you've already taken if I read it correctly, is to accept the best offer you've gotten and live with that decision. Presumably you applied to institutions that would be acceptable to you for study. Taking a year away is likely to set you back, since it puts you a year out from close contact with faculty letter writers and leaves you with little, if any, actual guidance. Those letter writers are essential in the US and they are likely to be better when the memory of the writer is fresh.

Take a year away only if you have no other options. It seems, to me, to be the worst option of all. It would be different if you'd suggested that you had a way to keep in close contact and do some important work and get some important feedback and make some important contacts and, and, and.... But you aren't suggesting that.

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Well, you are at such an early stage of your career that the weakest point in yourself is being "outside" of academia, and it seems you are deliberately putting yourself outside by rejecting PhD positions you were accepted for.

So that is the only point you can reasonably work on. Accept one of these positions and then work out your path from there. If the biggest problem is a 2-body problem, as a PhD you will manage it by a mixture of strategically placed workshops, remote working hours... and living frugally to afford planes to move around (you are in the US, so you are bound to use these 20th century technological marvels, which is better than nothing).

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"Weakest point" is relative. It depends upon the context. Do not fall into trap of reputation of an institute or your exam score or some people suggest you otherwise. Be clear to yourself about how much you are interested in the subject; and whether the institute you choose, has a way of teaching and other system that suits you.

I often find that I do terrible in courses or institutes that does not offer me with lot of time to think and library work.

I often do wonderful when a course or institute provides more time to self prepare, flexibility to choose time for library work, and there are places for correcting or making improvements from the past bad performances.

I need a lot of alone time and quite space, not bothered by people.

Even when I am outside campus, I keep thinking of what has been taught and what other concepts it relate with.

In the flip side I know several people who do not know how to self study. Whatever their teachers teach them, they just memorize that in a linear fashion, they do not make any bad performances in any of the terms, but given that there are scope of improvement applying past knowledge, they cannot apply and improve. Yet they can easily cope up with abrupt changes. When one teacher exits and the next teacher enters, they do not need a fraction of second to prepare themselves. They can multitask, they can listen to the class lecture and take notes at the same time. Most of them are social butterfly, and continuously need social stimulation.

Now most definitely, an institute which will favor me, will NOT favor the second type. Whereas an institute which will favor the second type, will NOT favor me. And up to my observation, the second type is usually the preferred type of students in my locale. Even when there are policy or system that favors the first type; the second type starts various criticism and protest so that the system shifts into the favor of the second type.

That is why I do not do great in regular courses, but I tend to do better with distance and vocational courses where they leave their students for most of the time. Sometimes I find that charitable institutes offer very good library facility with easy and simultaneous access to books, lending books to home, which is more suitable for me than regular courses.

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