Disclaimer: This is a long post. Do not read it if you are to leave it in the middle
MSc Physics students from Nepal should know this.
Who on earth wouldn’t be thrilled to know that the universe is physically bigger than our imagination? To know that there is a serious possibility of life in planets outside of our solar system? And not just that, even for the most naive of all experiences, how exciting it is to know that there is more to what we see, to know that the world that we see is just a tiny bit of what’s out there. It might seem humiliating as well when one discovers the extent of what’s out there and the proportion of what we really know. Where do we really get answers to all these questions from? PHYSICS. Except for hell-bent mathematics that doesn’t care to make sense and the crazy, lofty staircase of philosophy that just contradicts with itself by obvious reasons.
When Einstein saw a magnetic compass work at the age of 5, he was inspired to ask the question ‘how?’ That persuasion of curiosity is what gave us a new framework of understanding the cosmos in the form of GENERAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY. It is exactly such paradigm shifts or (‘spectacular realizations’ as some put it) that bring about progress in real sense. Every physics student in one way or the other are inspired to ask the question ‘how?. Well! they mightn’t have a noblest genius of Einstein but that might have been the case as well. For the sake of simplicity, lets argue that they are pretty average student without any gifted ability. The question we ask here is ‘Is it possible for them to make a career as a successful physicist even if they are studying in the most average institutions in a developing country like Nepal? The answer, as this article will show, is a big YES.
The biggest challenge that physics students in Nepal face is the lack of information. Information is knowledge and knowledge grants us an ability to make decisions. And decisions are what matter for an aspiring physicist who has the primary challenge of being in a developing country. Developing country and fundamental research? ,,, what? Many would laugh here itself. But we can learn from Pakistan, India, SriLanka and many more. It is not impossible to make a successful career as a physicist in Nepal. But the real issue here is not the lack of opportunities. It is simply put, lack of motivation. This has many forms. It can be not knowing what subject you love the most or what subject interests you the most? It can be not knowing what to do. MSc physics students in Nepal are posed with a difficult question of what elective subjects to choose and whether or not to do the thesis. Not knowing precisely what your interests are and not being serious enough about thesis are some common mistakes.
Based on my experiences, I will try my best to debunk some common myths that are prevalent among MSc physics students here. Let it be told, neither I am an expert nor consider myself being one. But Yes I have to admit that time has allowed me to garner quite a few experiences. These are what I want everybody to understand in time.
MYTH No. 1 This Field is better than that…
When you ask this question, it is always necessary to know the basis of comparison. If the question is, ‘Is this field better than that field for getting a job?’ ‘Does Solid State Physics have more job opportunities than that of cosmolgy?’ then yes it surely does have more job opportunities. But the answer to that isn’t settled yet. Just because something has a good scope, doesn’t mean you will be at your best with it. It is better to be the best at something you love rather than being good at something that doesn’t interest you. It is always a good idea to pursue your interests since, a perfect field of study doesn’t exist. Cosmology was at its best in 1960s and 70s but that has changed now. Astronomy was at its peak around 2000s when hubble expansion of the universe was detected experimentally in 1998. Only certain fields under observational astronomy like Black hole observation has got scope lately. Mystery about the origin of universe isn’t settled yet. So any astronomical probes for time scale beyond 10 to the power (-43) has scope for the future. Similarly, the detection of gravitational waves that just happened a few years back hints that observational Astronomy is the limelight yet. The James Web Space telescope will start working from 2021 and it will be operational for 2 more decades. So may be you have got a scope there. Some 20 years ago, nanotechnolgy and biomedical physics were insignificant as a career but now the times have changed. You are more likely to find a job as a Biomedical physicist compared to that of an astrophysicist. Career as a cosmologist or astrophysicists is extremely challenging abroad.
MYTH No. 2 The US is the best country for Physics studies
Before delving into this issue, let me first clarify what a US physics degree is like. In US, after a 4 year undergraduate degree, those students who want to pursue their career in fundamental research, directly go for PhD. It normally takes 5 years to complete a US PhD. Almost all universities which offer courses in fundamental research, have no masters program. They only have masters program for IT, computer, engineering fields and they call it an MS degree. MSc degree is non existent. The 5 years PhD program is called Integrated PhD Program because it is actually 2 years coursework of Masters plus 3 years research degree of PhD. Some universities might provide you an informal masters degree certificate after your 2 years of coursework is completed but that is of no use if you do not complete your PhD.
Europe on the other hand, though very selective has 3 years PhD programs. But those programs are extremely competitive. There are newer better opportunities in Japan and Korea especially in the field of Plasma physics, nanotechnology and biomedical physics. You can save some significant amount of time if you enroll into a PhD program in Europe, Japan or Korea. People think that US is best because of their immigration rules. Once you can enter into the United States you can always find some reason to stick round there and stay for as long as you want unless you do not exit the country. But in Europe, that is not just possible. You have to leave the country once your program is over unless you don’t find a sponsor to work for. And that’s very challenging to happen for a fundamental physics program like ours. In Japan, no matter how long you stay, the immigration rules are difficult to live as a citizen. So because of all these reasons, people think that US is the best country for students. US might be the best country for students (with the exception of Australia) but I am not sure if that holds true even for physics students.
MYTH No. 3 Career of a physics PhD student is easy in US
As I already stated, a US PhD is 5 years long on average. After you complete your masters degree from Nepal, you would have already been around 26/27 at best. Now take time to apply for the program. Take the GRE exam. If you can do all this while you are still in the second year (3rd and 4th semester), you are doing a great job. But it is an irony that our results are never out on time so there is a high chance that even though we prepare well on time, because of not having transcript and our documents ready, our application process will be protracted by a year at least. So if everything goes well, you will be around 33 years old once you complete your PhD. After you complete your PhD, you will realize that your career as a physicist has just started. This is not to take you off the boat. But that’s how it is. Academia and universities address PhD students as ‘Early career Physicists’ so you know what I mean. It is always a good idea to know all these things in advance so that you can prepare well rather than being surprised and depressed when everything is over.
MYTH No. 4 US visa is 100% guaranteed for a good GPA
Hell No. Immigration rules are complex. You have to pass two phases here. One is that a university has to be willing to give you admission into their program. You can always find some university that is willing to enroll you in their program. Second is, you have to pass the US visa interview. And keep in mind, the US visa interview is the absurdest thing ever. None ever knows what will happen. Generally speaking, a successful US Student Visa is a combination of the following factors. A university selects you on the basis of following criteria.
GPA definitely is important. The more you have, the better. There are some universities which do not accept candidates below a certain threshold GPA. But such universities are generally top-tier. A GPA of 3.5 and above is considered a good GPA by global standards.
b). Standarized tests scores.
This include GRE and TOEFL or IELTS. As a maths and science student, you will nail the maths (quantitative section) of GRE. But for the English (Verbal section), Msc physics students generally have a hard time. So start improving your English for the GRE just from now onwards. English is not something that can be improved within a few months unlike maths. It has to come to your practice. Just check the university requirements in the website of the respective university
c). Letter of Recommendation.
This is very much overlooked in Nepal since it is just a matter of formality here but keep in mind that your professors have the power to enroll you entirely on the basis of recommendation letters. It explains your hidden genius that is not shown by grades. It might be your excellent way of thinking or great expertise in experiments. May be you have done something incredible that is not covered by your grades, Here your professor can explain all and let the universities know if he believes in you or not. There have been examples where students have been enrolled entirely on the basis of recommendation of professors even with low GPA and standardized test scores. If the professor is renowned and has good things to say about you, kudos to you.
d). Alignment of your thesis topic and the program of your study
I haven’t seen anyone talking about his but this is very crucial. If you are aspiring to do a PhD in Physics, now is the time to decide if you want to see yourself as a nuclear physicist, a particle physicist, a condensed matter physicist, a nano technologist, a bio-medical physicist, or an astrophysicist, a cosmologist, a string theorist, or a fucking theoretical physicist. Decide it now while you are yet to start your third semester. I mean, its possible to take astrophysics as your elective subject and do a PhD in Bio-Medical Physics but why would you do that? You could have just done better by choosing Biomedical physics if you are to do PhD in Biomedical physics later on. Decide it now. If you are doing thesis, make sure that you do thesis on a topic that relates to Biomedical physics only. You have to be responsible for yourself. A supervisor is busy with his own life. Don’t take his decisions as to what should be your field of thesis. A supervisor can help you decide a topic but it is you and only you to decide which field should you be doing thesis on. Make sure it is going to be from the same field as your PhD program.
e). Your Personal contact with the professor abroad whose research interests align with yours.
In the previous section, I said that your thesis topic should be from the same field you will be doing your PhD on. This is for a reason. When you have a research in the form of your thesis, you finally have something to brag about. Now choose a professor who is doing the same research and communicate. But keep in mind, ‘do not communicate for the sake of communicating’. If you have put a lot of effort in your thesis, you will have enough confidence to talk about it with anyone. Those professors have spent all their years and life thinking and doing that particular research. They can recognize your talent in an instant. Don’t expect them to be your God Father yet. If you are good enough, they will try their best to enroll you in their research group because they care for a great research team as much as you do for a great professor. They are also searching for bright young minds to whom they can leave their work to continue working after they are gone.
f). Justification that you can afford your living expenses and tuition fees by yourself without working more than 40 hrs a week within the university
This is justified on the basis of what your financial status is. The scholarship that you obtained from your university and written in your I20 letter. Are you offered RA, TA and what allowances are made and whether or not they are enough to sustain for your program
g). Weather of the day
There is some mysterious factor that is chaotic and hence unpredictable. So good luck with that
MYTH No. 5 MSc thesis work is extremely difficult and takes a very long time. So if you are concerned about time, please don’t take thesis
This is absolutely wrong. How long a research takes depends on the complexity of the topic, your ability as a researcher and the number of hours you allocate for your research on a everyday basis. And take the word ‘research’ in the lightest sense possible. The university doesn’t expect you to do a groundbreaking work as a thesis. This is just to train students to get to understand the process of how an actual research is done. It doesn’t have to be extraordinary. Anything that is different from the norm or some similarity and differences that you can show between things that aren’t discussed in your book, can be a topic of your thesis. Research is all about how you do it rather than what topic you choose.
MYTH No. 6 MSc degree from central department of physics is superior compared to others.
This is plainly wrong. However when you study in central department that is mainly dedicated to physics only, there will be many physics professors and so there is more to learn from. There will be many events and going-arounds allowing you to have more opportunities compared to other colleges. But when it comes to the degree only, there is just no difference. Its the same program under the same university.
MYTH No 7 The Reality of ICTP Diploma programs and other such short-term programs
As the name suggests, the one year diploma program that ICTP conducts for students from developing countries is just a year long training program. Before starting your PhD, if you think you should train yourself well and are damn serious about being a professional physicist, you should try to enroll on it. There is a hoax that says that only topper students are allowed to go based on the recommendation of professors. If you are serious about your physics degree and your GPA is good enough, you should talk to your professor for the recommendation letter. You will be provided Euro 800 to afford for food and living expenses if you are selected for the program by the ICTP. After this training, your chances of being enrolled in a top-tier university for a PhD becomes exponentially high.
MYTH No. 8 I don’t have a good GPA. Neither my professors like me. Neither I know what to do.
You can still try for PhD programs. I already explained that you are overqualified for a US PhD. Try to nail your standardized test scores and give a try. Physics graduates are looked upon by abundant respect all over the world. The fact that you did a masters in Physics is already a big accomplishment.
MYTH No. 9 There are no labs in my college or university, so we can’t do good research here.
The MSc physics program that TU runs is a Theoretical High energy Physics Masters Degree. How can you expect the university to have HI-Tech labs and what for when the program itself is theoretical High Energy Physics? You need a good internet connection, a great supervisor and an urge to work hard in order to be able to do quality research.
MYTH No. 10 Life of a Physicist is difficult
Definitely not. You have always been a good student since your school. Many students are stuck in +2 itself. You made it. You could have had studied just about anything but you loved Physics and so you studied it. And you have made it too. Just imagine all those hours you have put into your studies. Learning Calculus the first time wasn’t easy. But you did it all. It is absolutely because that physicists care for the universe and the nature of reality, they are doing physics. They could have made a fortune had they studied Investment Banking or stuffs like that. When you do a bit of google search about the most notable people in the history of mankind, you will see many physicists and scientists there. They matter. And you are in the same legacy as theirs. We are studying something that people like Dirac, Einstein and Heisenberg would have difficulty with. Modern physics has progressed so much. There is plethora of what is to know. Have you noticed how excited your professors become when they explain something beautiful; those smiles when they discuss the absurdities of Quantum Theory. Physics is a beautiful subject and only those who have got a taste of it will enjoy it. Physicists and Scientists are people after beauty and aesthetics. They might not have realized this by themselves but they are into beauty. So when we develop a universal mindset and consider this fleeting chance episode of the cosmos in the form of us and the world that we have created, it becomes evident how much these people do matter. You are studying the toughest subject in the history of humanity and please embrace it that you are awesome.