April 14, 2004

Graduate school decision

Posted by Matt

I haven't blogged lately, and as opposed to the usual reason (laziness) this time it's because I have been exceedingly busy. I've made my grad school choice, after a lot of consideration. I'm going to Cornell. This seems to surprise a lot of people, who would have thought Harvard, Berkeley, or Stanford to be better choices. But I've given it a lot of thought. Here is my reasoning.

(This post might be somewhat more personal than most of the content of this blog, but it will provide the context for a lot of my future posts, and it is somewhat academic.)

I want to do particle theory, somewhere on the spectrum between collider physics and string theory. Mostly I think my interests lie in the area of model-building and general theoretical work beyond the Standard Model, but not formal string theory. However, I do want to be familiar with string theory and I also want to be able to do more concrete work with collider physics. When the LHC data begins coming in a few years from now, I want to be positioned to help understand it.

Now, all four of the schools I named above are quite good at particle theory. But the emphasis varies. At Cornell, Csaba Csaki is positioned more or less where I want to be on the spectrum, between string theory on the one end and collider physics on the other, but able to deal with both. Much of his work lately has been on model-building with large extra dimensions. (Mostly in warped geometry, inspired by the AdS/CFT correspondence.) However, his most recent paper is on the phase structure of SUSY gauge theories, building on recent work of Intrilligator and Wecht. Maxim Perelstein is somewhat more toward the concrete, experiment-oriented end of the spectrum. Henry Tye is doing string cosmology. He knows string theory well, but is very focused on getting experimentally testable results. This is much along the lines of what people at Stanford are doing. He was one of the originators of the idea of inflation, so he knows cosmology well. Beyond these three people, there are experts on lattice QCD and on B physics, and probably a new hire in the next year or so.

What appeals to me most about Cornell academically is that Csaba's grad students have been involved in multiple projects, and have had a lot of publications. If I were to work with certain professors I spoke with at other schools, I would be primarily focused on one project. This could be interesting, but I think that as a grad student there are many aspects of physics I need to learn to do well, and I want to be able to publish in several of them. With Csaba I could work on extra dimensions, on supersymmetry, or perhaps on cosmology. With Maxim I could work more specifically on understanding experimental predictions of various models. And with Henry Tye I could work on string cosmology. What's more, it seems encouraged and very feasible to work with all of these people over the course of graduate school. Although the group is very small compared to, say, Berkeley, I think the breadth of my education there would be very good. After graduate school I think I will want to work with someone who is more focused on deeply understanding on big new idea at a time, like Nima Arkani-Hamed at Harvard or Savas Dimopoulos at Stanford.

Aside from academics, Cornell does have some advantages. (Yes, I can hear you all laughing, but I'm serious.) Ithaca is nice enough for a town of its size. The surroundings are pretty, and there's good hiking (not like I would have access to by driving a few hours from Berkeley, but still nice). Getting to New York City for a weekend is very feasible (for a day, not so much), which is nice, as I like New York, and I could easily visit my friend W. at Yale. I have a couple of friends in grad school at Cornell: a physics experimentalist I know from work and from quiz bowl at Chicago, who is in his first year there now, and a history student who was one of my roommates at Chicago, who also starts in the fall. Also, one of my undergrad friends at the U of C might be transferring to Cornell for her third and fourth years of college, because she wants to do art, and the U of C is not the best place for that. Besides this, the professors and grad students all seemed exceptionally friendly. And I don't mind cold weather, most of the time. I think it will be a nice enough place to spend four or five years; I don't think I would want to live in Ithaca on a longer term than that. Another advantage is its relative cheapness; with my NSF fellowship I should be able to easily travel to nicer climates if I need an escape sometime.

So, in the fall I will be at Cornell. I'll take a string theory course from Henry Tye, I might take some of the normal first-year grad stuff like statistical physics or E&M (after all, I've never been forced to work large numbers of Jackson problems), and I'd like to try to take algebraic geometry or Lie algebras in the math department. I also plan to dive into research right away, and to try TA'ing some classes (for the experience, and a bit of additional money). It sounds like a lot to me, but the grad students there tell me it's perfectly feasible.

I'm pretty busy preparing a talk for the American Physical Society April Meeting (held May 1-4, for some reason), but hopefully I can manage a regular rate of posting in the future.

Posted by Matt at April 14, 2004 10:37 PM

Thanks for sharing!

Personal opinions [of academia] like yours are a gold mine for me, as I'm in Sweden and thinking of trying to go abroad for grad studies in a couple of years. It can somtimes be quite hard to get a clear picture of everything at your side of the pond.

Posted by: Johan Hermansson at April 15, 2004 04:58 PM

Hi Matt--

It looks like you made a sensible and well-thought-out decision. Csaba is a good guy and a great scientist, as are the other people you mentioned. Going somewhere where you'll be comfortable and have people you might want to work with is much more important than going to a school whose name is better-recognized by people on the street. Good luck with grad school.

Posted by: Sean Carroll at April 17, 2004 03:36 PM

Hi Sean,

Thanks for saying so. I'm not so concerned with name recognition among people in the street, as with physicists who told me things like "Go to Harvard or Berkeley if you can." But generally Cornell seems to have a good enough reputation, and Csaba seems well respected. I do think I'll be comfortable there: after all, it has cold weather and depressed undergraduates, much like the U of C.

People I've talked to seem happy with your class this quarter, by the way.

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