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I am applying to US universities for PhD in theoretical physics (for Fall 2015). I was earlier an engineering undergraduate student from a reputed college in Asia with GPA of around 8.0 (on a scale of 10). Due to my research experience during undergraduate, I got scholarship to do my PhD in Europe at one of the top-30 universities in the world. But after two years into the graduate program and publishing one journal paper, I realized that I was only doing numerical methods which did not really suit me as I always wanted to do rigorous math and discover new physics. So I left this program (in good standing) to pursue theoretical physics research.

Immediately, I joined the topmost physics institute in my country for research in string theory, cosmology, general relativity. Within a year, I was able to produce three publications in top high energy physics journals like the Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP) with my collaborators, who are well-known. So these collaborators have provided me good recommendations as well. Additionally, I have good GRE and GRE Physics scores.

My question is how an unconventional profile like mine will be seen by graduate admission committees at good US Universities. Would my engineering background (especially dropping out part) and lack of official physics coursework put me at disadvantage ? How much my four publications would help me in the process ?

Thanks

  • when you say immature decisions being 16, does this mean you were a PHD student in the UK at 16? Unless that is the case, I think the 16 years old does not make you immature. What age were you when you went to the phd program and why, is probably more relevant – user-2147482637 Feb 3 '15 at 15:28
  • I was 20 when I went for PhD (16 for the undergraduate). But in my home country, there is very little exposure to pure sciences. I was immature in the sense that I always thought that engineers also make real physics discoveries, which is why I continued my engineering studies into PhD in UK. But then I saw most people doing simulations, and I also ended up doing same numerical methods and simulations. I wrote huge codes for two years, which made it completely boring. – singularity Feb 3 '15 at 15:44
  • A bit tangent, but i would advise you to be careful about broad statements that engineers dont make 'real' physics discoveries. It is also still not clear how your home country was so different. If you went through years of undergrad and still applied to engineering, was it your specific program or the field that did not fulfill your expectation – user-2147482637 Feb 3 '15 at 15:48
  • My home country is poor and there is very little money for pure sciences...so most people discourage pursuing a career in sciences. I always liked physics but I thought I will be able to make original discoveries as an engineer. I would not generalize to every engineer but I didn't see any way of discovering something fundamental while being an aerospace engineer. And there is very little research that is being done at my undergraduate program. I always tried random things to start on and ended up doing programming and numerical methods so I thought a PhD would provide me a better chance. – singularity Feb 3 '15 at 15:58
  • Also, people switching to sciences after engineering is very common in my country as many students go through something similar as me. Both of my string theory advisors were also engineering graduates (one of them did his PhD in the group of a Nobel Laureate in US). – singularity Feb 3 '15 at 16:23
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The only problem I can see with cases like yours is that some people may look at the file and think "This is someone who can't finish what they start." It is essential for you to communicate in the statement of purpose why you left the old program and why you believe you will complete a new one.

  • Thanks for the prompt response. But wouldn't my three publications in string theory be seen as my commitment to the physics research. I have talked about my immature decisions in my personal statement. The thing is that in my country pure sciences are not encouraged socially due to lack of good reputed jobs. So most people here who love sciences end up doing engineering. – singularity Feb 3 '15 at 14:15
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    I think letters from your previous supervisor would do a better job in this front. Your abilities are not in question, your persistence and will to continue could. – Davidmh Feb 3 '15 at 15:29
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    Thanks. One of my PhD annual viva examiners has provided me recommendation letters. I was also TA for this examiner during my three year stay in UK. – singularity Feb 3 '15 at 15:48

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