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I would like to know how graduate admission committees at US Universities look at alphabetical authorship publications in a CV (particularly in high energy physics). Since the convention in high energy physics is to have authors in alphabetical order, how do the committees determine the contribution of the applicant (I guess recommendation letters is one way)? Also, do the committees actually read the papers (mentioned on the CV) on arXiv or the journal website to check the quality of the papers?

I am applying to US universities for a Ph.D. in high energy physics. Because my surname starts with one of the ending letters in the English alphabet, however, my name on all of my publications is last in the sequence. Could this create confusion in committee members about my contributions?

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    Don't say HEP in general, that's just a phenomenon prevalent in HEP-experimentation, with the big collaborations and all. – 299792458 May 24 '15 at 13:31
  • @The Dark Side: No, it is all of high-energy physics. – Matt Reece Jun 9 '15 at 10:40
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    I think that a simple footnote in an appropriate section of CV with proper clarification will be enough to prevent confusion in committee members' minds. – Aleksandr Blekh Jun 9 '15 at 10:52
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    @MattReece - FWIW, I am an hep-ph, nucl-th guy! Disagree. Doesn't happen in theory. – 299792458 Jun 9 '15 at 12:27
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    @MattReece Surely you can see how five non-alphabetical and 17 alphabetical listings means you are both correct if you are claiming that your experiences can generalize and you are both incorrect if you are claiming that your experiences always generalize? – Tim Jun 9 '15 at 17:46
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I can't speak to how every department does it, but in my department (and I think typically) your application would be read mostly by people working in a similar field who are aware of the conventions. You could always add a note to the CV pointing out the alphabetical author convention if you're concerned about it.

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You should definitely request one or more of your letters of recommendation from senior researchers, preferably tenured professors, who worked directly with you on this paper. You should request that the letter writer directly address your contribution to the project. Admission to graduate school is largely based on promise, and letters are crucially important. Even the best students may have only a publication or two to their name, and many do not yet have any. The letters help flesh out the applicant to the admission committee.

The issue of scientific contribution is a challenging and subtle one that persists throughout the academic lifespan, from student to faculty member to Nobel Prize Winner. Committees may not grasp the full significance of the scientific work, nor your contribution to that effort. You will need to address the significance of the research and your contribution to it both in your statements, and in your letters of recommendation.

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If you are talking about graduate admissions, having authored any paper will be a huge advantage for you, regardless of where your name appears in the author list. The faculty members reading your application are going to notice if the authors are listed in alphabetical order (unless it's only two or three authors), and they will take that into account.

Really, the people reviewing your application are not going to judge your contribution based on where your name appears in the author list. You ought to have a strong letter of recommendation from whoever supervised your undergraduate research, and it is that letter that will explain your contribution and place it in context. (If you do not have a letter from the research supervisor, that would be a red flag.) The letter will explain what you did and how important it was to the publication. That will allow the admissions committee to get a good feel for your talents as a researcher.

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