MS-PSD Alumni Profile: Prateek Bajaj '14

Prateek Bajaj (SM ’14) wanted to begin a career in theoretical physics, and for that he needed to be in a strong PhD program.  The problem was that none of the offers from his first round of applications seemed to be the right fit for his plans.  “Then this one application to Chicago came in, and that changed everything—it was like a totally different game.”

To prove himself as a physicist, Prateek entered the University of Chicago’s Master of Science in the Physical Sciences Division (MS-PSD) program in 2013.  He was drawn to the rigor of the program. “People know UChicago has really tough physics courses, and if you can do well in those classes, you show what you’re capable of,” he said.  In addition to taking high-level Physics courses alongside first-year doctoral students, he did research in experimental particle physics with Professor James Pilcher during his master’s year.  In Professor Pilcher’s lab, Prateek worked on “toy analysis” of data from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, developing techniques for analyzing high-energy experiments using low-energy data. The results of that analysis are part of the scientific community’s ongoing research on the Higgs boson.

Working with Professor Pilcher allowed Prateek to strengthen his applications to Ph.D. programs.  “A big part of why I’m still here is that he thought I’d be a good member of the department,” he said. But he also drew on advice from other UChicago faculty, such as David Reid in the Physics Department, who offered him insider perspective on the new application process, and the Director of MS-PSD, Professor Robert Wald, whose scholarship Prateek admired. “There’s no one better than him in General Relativity—and he takes the time out to work with us.” Prateek also acknowledged the career and résumé advice he got from Graduate Student Affairs, a resource available to all graduate students at UChicago.

Now he is a first-year PhD student at UChicago, and he is preparing to join the String Theory Group next year, where he will begin doing theoretical research. Prateek used his year in MS-PSD to develop the foundation he needed to move on to theoretical research at the doctoral level.  With his college degrees in mathematics and physics, “I could only go into experimental particle physics, but now that I’ve taken more classes, next year I can go into some serious theoretical research,” like what he’ll be doing with the String Theory Group.

“People who are in string theory are very optimistic, because it’s very possible that in your lifetime you’ll never even see it work out,” he said.  That optimism is part of its appeal for Prateek, but so is the fact that experimental particle physics relies on the predictions of theorists.  “You already know going in that most likely, nothing’s going to come out of your analysis, but you’re hoping that some day later, someone else can come and do a really good analysis that builds off yours.” 

Without accurate predictions from the kind of theoretical research Prateek hopes to do, physicists couldn’t find what they need among the enormous amounts of data generated in the search for the rare events that lead to new discoveries.  “If you go into the wild of physics with no math, you won’t find anything,” Prateek said.  “So that’s why we need people to step into the dark and be like, ‘I think there’s going to be a particle over here.’  Then people can actually find it.”

Prateek is glad to have had the opportunity to move his work forward as an MS-PSD student. “I was born in Chicago, so it was like I had come full circle,” Prateek said. “The MS-PSD program really made it possible to do what I want to do with my life.”  

Read more alumni profiles