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