physics grad school

Applying for Physics Graduate School

[Total: 11    Average: 4.2/5]

 

We have now reached the final year of your undergraduate program. By now, you would have gone through courses in the fundamental pillars of physics (Classical mechanics, Quantum mechanics, and E&M), and even courses in Thermodynamics/Statistical Physics. Academically, this is where you start taking more advanced courses, even some graduate level courses. There are plenty of options, depending on where you go to school, how large your physics department is, etc. The choices can range from a class in Solid State Physics, Particle Physics, advanced laboratory work, etc. If you already have a clear set of interest and know what area of physics you would like to end up in, then this is where you want to try to enroll in a class in that area. But even if you don’t know for sure yet (and this tends to be the case for most students), it is still valuable to enroll in one of these “specialized” area of physics, even if you may not eventually go into that field.

The start of your senior year requires that you do some serious thought on what you wish to do upon graduation. Most physics majors will go on to graduate school with the hope of obtaining their doctorate. So in this part of the series, we will concentrate on the application process of going to graduate school. If this is the path you intend to take, then you need to prepare yourself in a number of ways:

1. Prepare to take your Graduate Record Examination (GRE). This should include both the GRE General and GRE Subject Test. While the GRE scores may not be required for admission application in many schools, they are usually required if you are seeking any form of assistantship. So it is best if you already have the test scores.

2. Apply to graduate schools EARLY! If you intend to enroll in the Fall, you should have ALL your applications in by December of the previous year, especially if you are seeking assistantship. In many highly competitive schools, your applications may need to be in even earlier. It is NEVER too early.

3. Unless you have a 4.0 GPA, have outstanding letters of recommendation, and the son of the President of the United States, you have some uncertainty if your first choice of schools will accept you. It is ALWAYS recommended that you group the schools you are applying to into 3 categories: (i) Top Tier schools that you know are very difficult to get in (ii) Middle tier schools that you may have a chance to get in and (iii) lower tier schools that you think you can definitely get in. Note that these does not have any reflection on the QUALITY of instructions/programs at each school. In many instances, it is only the ”perceived” prestige that makes one school more ”desirable” than the other.

4. Do as much research on each school that you are applying. If you know of some program or research area that a school is good in that you are also interested in, then look it up and try to find the latest publications in physics journals. Your admission application usually requires that you write an essay regarding your aims, ambitions, and why you would want to study there. So it is always good to be specific, and not just give some generic description. Mention things specific to that school and that physics program and why you want to be involved in that. It is extremely important if you can also show a previous interest or work in a similar area. This will tell the admission officer that you are a candidate that can be beneficial to them. Note that saying such a thing in your application typically does NOT commit you to that particular area of physics. You can still change your mind later on if you wish. So don’t hold back on the enthusiasm.

5. This last part is a bit dicey, since the situation can either turn out very positive, or very bad. If you feel confident enough in your ability, you may want to contact directly a faculty member of school that you would like to attend. Obviously, this would be a school that is highly competitive. You want to do this in cases where you think a direct communication may enhance your chances – so don’t do this if you think your contact may backfire. The best way to do this is to see if any of the faculty member of your undergraduate institution know of anyone there personally. It is always best to have such recommendation. If you do decide on such contact, tell the person why, your interest, and that you would be interested in working in his/her research group, etc.

In the next installment, I will try to describe what you can expect graduate school to be BEFORE you get there.

Next Chapter: What to Expect from Graduate School Before You Get There

 

 

9 replies
  1. Alpha Scope
    Alpha Scope says:

    "3. Unless you have a 4.0 GPA, have outstanding letters of recommendation, and the son of the President of the United States…"You may believe that you've kidnapped the president's son, but I think he only has two daughters.

  2. bhobba
    bhobba says:

    I just want to mention this is the situation in the US.

    Here in Australia if you want to go to graduate school you do an Honours year that prepares you for research.

    The other way is you bypass the Honours year and do a Masters with a significant research component – its probably a better preparation, but generally takes a semester longer. The other advantage is you generally need a first or high second class Honours degree, but with a Masters that’s not required – although you generally need to have done well.

    Because admission is based on an advanced degree this GRE thing isn’t needed.

    Thanks
    Bill

  3. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:

    Just as a clarification, in the Introduction part of the series, I explicitly stated that the guide was written for the US educational system. While some of the content may be applicable to other parts of the world, it is almost impossible to write one series that will apply to every single person here on Earth. So that is why the guide makes no pretense to be that.

    Zz.

  4. ZapperZ
    ZapperZ says:
    Phylosopher

    I hope it is ok commenting on this old post/ insight!

    What should I consider as Top, Middle and Lower tier? I usually use http://www.timeshighereducation.com to see universities ranking. Would you say that the top 100 universities "Globally" are top tier, 200-300 middle and 300+ lower?

    There isn't a hard-and-fast-rule for this. Often, the "top tier" aren't anymore top tier than middle tier. It has to do with name recognition that caused so many people, especially outside the US, to think that those are the only institutions worth going to. Most people think of, say, MIT or Harvard first as having a greater name recognition than, say, University of Michigan or University of Illinois. Yet, those two latter schools often can outrank both MIT and Harvard in certain areas of studies.

    One of the things I always advice a student to do is the talk to one's academic advisor and ask him/her to help map out the different schools that one should apply to. One can still obtain a darn good education and experience at a less well-known schools when compared to the brand-name schools.

    Zz.

  5. bhobba
    bhobba says:
    ZapperZ

    One can still obtain a darn good education and experience at a less well-known schools when compared to the brand-name schools.

    This is VERY VERY true. I once posted a lot on Yahoo Answer's in the education section. I noticed in the US there is this cult of the Ivy's. Some do not even understand that schools like MIT and Caltech are as good as Ivy's – although most know that one. What is much harder is getting across there are often schools that beat the usual suspects, but most simply do not know about. For example in people going on to do a PhD Caltech heads the list, but just after that are schools like Harvey Mudd and Reed, even ahead of Harvard etc. Personally my favorite science school is Harvey Mudd ahead of MIT, Stanford, Harvard etc and I always mention those interested in science/technology consider this school. Yet many have never even heard of it. And in some areas like Industrial Engineering schools like Georgia Tech are often ranked higher. We have even had posts here on Physics Forums (deleted of course because it is misinformation) that when this is pointed out start calling those trying to give a balanced answer lairs etc etc – all in a very indignant tone. Its quite exasperating.

    To the person asking what is top tier etc a much better way to choose a school is to post here with your career goals etc rather than look at rankings etc.

    Thanks
    Bill

  6. Phylosopher
    Phylosopher says:
    bhobba

    This is VERY VERY true. I once posted a lot on Yahoo Answer's in the education section. I noticed in the US there is this cult of the Ivy's. Some do not even understand that schools like MIT and Caltech are as good as Ivy's – although most know that one. What is much harder is getting across there are often schools that beat the usual suspects, but most simply do not know about. For example in people going on to do a PhD Caltech heads the list, but just after that are schools like Harvey Mudd and Reed, even ahead of Harvard etc. Personally my favorite science school is Harvey Mudd ahead of MIT, Stanford, Harvard etc and I always mention those interested in science/technology consider this school. Yet many have never even heard of it. And in some areas like Industrial Engineering schools like Georgia Tech are often ranked higher. We have even had posts here on Physics Forums (deleted of course because it is misinformation) that when this is pointed out start calling those trying to give a balanced answer lairs etc etc – all in a very indignant tone. Its quite exasperating.

    To the person asking what is top tier etc a much better way to choose a school is to post here with your career goals etc rather than look at rankings etc.

    Thanks
    Bill

    Yes, I did not hear of Harvey Mudd before, but I have seen Reed in my search….
    My answer to your question is a bit ambiguous as I am honestly not sure what field should I get into, but anyway!

    I am looking for a PhD program in theoretical physics, I would appreciate a supervisor with a rigorous approach to the physical problems (Not mathematical physics)… I am not sure of the field I am most interested in!… My senior project/thesis was on classical field theory and I was really interested in it, so I would say maybe I am interested in QFT or QED.

  7. bhobba
    bhobba says:
    Phylosopher

    I am looking for a PhD program in theoretical physics, I would appreciate a supervisor with a rigorous approach to the physical problems (Not mathematical physics)… I am not sure of the field I am most interested in!… My senior project/thesis was on classical field theory and I was really interested in it, so I would say maybe I am interested in QFT or QED.

    I too am interested in Field Theory, but am definitely more in the mathematics mould so I am not the right person to seek advice from for your goals.

    My suggestion is you create a new thread in this this sub-forum asking specifically for advice on what you say above. This will hopefully attract others to help you.

    Thanks
    Bill

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply