Advice for students with offers of graduate admission from us

Our Web Pages

Inside the UofT Physics web site, clicking on Research and then Theoretical High Energy Physics in the menus brings you to the T-HEP Group home page. From there, you can explore a few pages, most notably our T-HEP People page and our Guide for New T-HEP Grad Students, which includes advice on what courses you should take to begin your research degree. Further information can be found in my online advice essay for prospective grad students. You should also study our Graduate Student Handbook which contains much valuable information about our PhD programme.

It is a safe assumption that you all did your homework before arriving by exploring our web pages. Accordingly, the purpose of this Tour is not to bore you by repeating the material in them, but to answer any questions you have about what it takes to get a PhD in theoretical high-energy physics at the University of Toronto. You really can ask me any question you want, and I will do my best to answer in an objective, caring fashion. I will not try to sell you our programme like a second-hand car salesman. Instead, I will give you high quality advice that treats you like a grown-up.

Our Faculty Members

As you all know from the Theoretical HEP/Astro presentation this morning, at present we have four regular faculty members: David Curtin, Michael Luke, Erich Poppitz, A.W. Peet (me), and one emeritus faculty member in residence: Bob Holdom. At the graduate level, in the recent past our group has covered the teaching of Quantum Field Theory, General Relativity, Special Topics in Theoretical High-Energy Physics, Electromagnetism, Statistical Mechanics, Conformal Field Theory, Supersymmetric Field Theories, String Theory, and more.

You can find out about our individual research interests by reading our individual web pages on the UofT Physics website (linked above) or by using the two gold-standard scholarly search engines in our field: INSPIRE and arxiv.org. My interests are centred around the following topics:-

The Numbers Game

Every prospective PhD student wants to know one thing when they visit: what is the probability that I will get the supervisor I want? The answer is: lower than you think in T-HEP, and the calculation is pretty similar anywhere in the world at present.

Currently each of us in our group supervises an average of two PhD students. It takes five years to produce a PhD (we accept very few candidates at PhD level; the vast majority come in at MSc/DE level). Each supervisor having two students in a five-year programme means that, on average, 0.4 slots open up per year per faculty member. If there are N prospective students vying for a given slot with a given supervisor, then your chances of making it in your year are 40%/N, unless you do something to stick out head and shoulders above the other (N-1) candidates. This is one reason why everyone who wants to do research in T-HEP should have a list of at least three potential supervisors with whom they would want to work before accepting an offer of admission, not just one. Even this does not guarantee that you will find a place in your first choice research group.

Basic arithmetic is one reason why prospective T-HEP PhD students need a plan B for their research field, to cover the real possibility that they may not be accepted by their group of choice. An equally good reason to have an intellectual Plan B is that putting blinders on to focus on only one narrow area of physics for years at the exclusion of all others will restrict future career prospects. You need broad general knowledge as well as deep specific knowledge and original ideas in your research field to be a good physicist.

The above numbers might sound scary, but they are nowhere near as scary as getting a secure job in our field. Getting in to grad school is easy compared to formulating your PhD proposal, writing your first paper, getting your first or second postdoc, getting a tenure-track job, and getting tenure. In T-HEP there are also no jobs in industry; you would have to do at least six months to a year of retraining to have a chance of employment in another field like financial mathematics or high school teaching. So you also need to have a Plan C for earning money that is better than naive.

Every year, some students come into our programme thinking they will do T-HEP and do not end up in T-HEP. They most frequently move to CITA (theoretical astrophysics), experimental HEP, or condensed matter theory, although not always. We have also had one T-HEP student shift over to the Math department for his PhD since I came to UofT, so that is also possible. This is a great reason to come to UofT, by the way: we have a department full of strong groups and a university full of strong departments.

Tips For Talking With Professors

You are here because you got an offer of graduate admission from the UofT Physics Department. That means that you passed our basic quality control checks (transcript, etc.) and got us interested enough with your research statement and recommendation letters to extend you an offer. We are well aware that you may have offers from other universities, and that your best choice may end up being somewhere other than here. So remember: this is not a beauty contest for us versus your other options, or for you versus the other prospective students. Stay humble and relax when you interview with us individually: you will do better that way.

The purpose of this Get To Know Us Weekend is to put at your fingertips all the information you need in order to make an informed decision about where you are most likely to flourish as a PhD student researcher and as a human being. So don't be a shrinking violet -- and do be prepared to talk about what physics you find interesting and why. Each of you has a maximum of 20 minutes with each faculty member during 4-6pm interviews this afternoon, so don't waste it on small talk. Make notes ahead of time of what you are going to say and ask. For instance, you might make notes to ask about what are the top six factors you should take into account in deciding on graduate schools.

Don't ask vague general questions like tell me about your research programme -- answering that gets repetitive and boring, and will take up the entire 20 minutes all by itself even before you get a word in edgewise. Show that you did your homework on the professor's research interests and know something about physics by asking a more specific question. In research, there are no answers in the back of the book, and the onus is on you to take the initiative to learn.

Here are the top four qualities I look for in prospective students. I require all four in every one of my students before I take them on, as well as other qualities. Your mileage may vary with other professors: everyone invents their own metrics for measuring students.

  1. Academic talent -- flies through required coursework, knows their stuff.
  2. Strong work ethic -- works as hard as possible and no harder (this takes self-knowledge).
  3. Initiative -- finds answers without hand-holding and formulates good questions.
  4. Communication skills -- is articulate (in English) both verbally and in writing.

You do not need to possess all these qualities right this minute, but you do need to exhibit them by the time you start looking for advisors early in the Fall semester. It is never beneficial to procrastinate on talking to potential advisors, but it is equally important to have something to say when you do talk to us.

Intellectual And Human Support Systems

You need two main things to get a PhD successfully -- intellectual support and human support. Going to a great university with an internationally highly ranked physics department is the most obvious way to get good intellectual support - you learn from the excellent professors and you learn probably just as much if not more from the other excellent students in your programme. Coming to UofT would be a great choice: we are at the top of the Canadian league table, and we score well on international rankings. We also let you start at a higher level than US PhD programmes while providing you with more general knowledge than a shorter British PhD programme. In recent years we have revamped course offerings and improved our average time to degree for the PhD cohort, among other improvements. But the Graduate Chair can sell you those parts better, so I leave that stuff to them.

It is equally important to look at the kind of human support you are likely to receive while you are in the PhD programme. The reason is that earning a PhD is an inherently difficult task, which can trigger forms of anxiety and depression, among other challenges. When challenges happen (and they will -- everyone meets their match in graduate school), you want to be at a university which treats you well as a human being. You want a broad range of high-quality student support services, such as health and wellbeing, clubs and groups, sports and recreation, and so forth, as well as decent equity policies and the like. You want to be in a city where you can access a broad range of affordable restaurants and entertainment, intellectual opportunities outside the Department and University, things to do, places to visit, and so forth. Toronto is a great place for human beings. I feel better supported here as a human being than I ever have done in my entire life, and I have lived in several cities in four countries and worked for money in three of those countries.

Ask the current and former students of a potential supervisor to find out how well they support their students intellectually and humanly. Practices vary widely between individuals. As a department we aim to stamp out emotionally abusive behaviour, but it does occur sometimes in secret. Choose carefully.

Some academics like to joke that you should choose your PhD supervisor more carefully than you should choose your marriage partner. The serious part of that message is that you should choose your supervisor VERY carefully, because most of your professional self-esteem for five full years is going to depend on that person's opinion of you -- and your job prospects will continue to depend on their support after that through recommendation letters.

Final Tip

I like to advise all my students making any major academic or life decision to get a big piece of blank paper and write down all the factors they feel they should try to take into account, with one factor per row. Then make a second column and estimate approximately what weighting each factor should receive. After you have written all of the factors down and renormalized their weightings so that the percentages add up to 100%, your decision algorithm is ready to go. Assign each offer you are considering a score on a scale of 1-5 for each factor, and then add up the partial scores to calculate the final result. Often the overall answer is a lot clearer than you think. And look at it this way: if you are having any trouble deciding between good options, then any choice will work out well. See also this article on How to make difficult decisions, with Dr Ruth Chang.

If you have any further specific questions, you are welcome contact me by email. Please choose "Prospective grad student" as the subject line to enable me to respond more quickly.

Good luck with your big decision!

[cartoonized picture of Amanda Peet the physicist]