physics career

The US Graduate School System For Physics Majors

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Common Topics: sc, ph, graduate, degree, program



We are still stuck in the discussion of your fourth and final year of college. This time, I feel that a clear explanation of the US graduate school system is warranted, especially to others from the rest of the world who intend to continue their graduate education in the US. This is because there is often a great deal of confusion, from the conversation that I’ve had, regarding what is required to apply for a Ph.D. program in physics in the US.

The broad dichotomy of higher education in physics in US institutions can be lumped into (i) undergraduate education and (ii) graduate education. When you have completed your physics undergraduate education, you typically earn a degree of Bachelor of Science (B.Sc). (There are some schools that actually award a Bachelor of Arts in physics, but that’s a different path that we won’t discuss here.) Now, this is what we refer to as your undergraduate degree.

If you do decide to go on to graduate school, then the two different physics degrees available to you are the Masters of Science (M.Sc) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).

Now the next step is where US institutions differ from many educational systems throughout the world. If you intend to pursue a Doctorate degree in physics, you do NOT need to first obtain an M.Sc. degree. Practically all of the universities in the US that I’m aware of require that you have an undergraduate degree to apply to a Ph.D. program. Your undergraduate degree and transcripts of your undergraduate class grades are the ones being used to evaluate your candidacy. This is different from, let’s say, the UK system, where you first pursue your M.Sc, and then after completing that, go on with your Ph.D. In US institutions, if you are pursuing your Ph.D., you can get your M.Sc ”along the way”, since, at some point, you would have fulfilled the requirements for an M.Sc degree. In fact, I know of a few people who didn’t even bother declaring for their M.Sc degrees. So you will see some people with academic credentials as ”B.Sc in physics from so-and-so; Ph.D. in physics from so-and-so”, with the M.Sc degree missing.

These differences have created a sometimes confusing discussion from people intending to enroll in the graduate program in the US. The first confusion comes in when they check the average length of time to complete a physics Ph.D. Most are shock that the average length of time to complete a Ph.D. in the US is 5 1/2 to 6 years. I was told that it takes an average of 3 years in the UK. However, if you consider what I have mentioned earlier, the length of time for a Ph.D. is taken from the enrollment into the program by someone with a B.Sc degree, whereas the UK number is taken from the start of the program after someone has obtained an M.Sc. or equivalent. It takes an average of about 2 years to complete a physics M.Sc in the UK, I think. So now there is an explanation of the apparent discrepancy between the length of time. The total length of time to obtain a Ph.D. after someone has a B.Sc degree is still roughly similar in both educational systems.

The second, of course, is the idea that one must have an M.Sc degree before applying for a Ph.D. degree. Again, if one were to browse through the requirement for acceptance into a Ph.D. program at a US institution, one will see that the major requirement is an undergraduate degree. I know of many international students who either (i) stayed in their home countries to get their M.Sc and then apply for a Ph.D. program in the US, or (ii) apply explicitly for an M.Sc program in the US even though their goals are to obtain a Ph.D., because they assume that one must obtain an M.Sc first, before going on to a Ph.D. program. This can actually create additional annoying problems because one sometimes has to REAPPLY for enrollment into the Ph.D. program (this means you may have to pay again the application fee, fill in application forms, etc…) They also must apply for a change of status on their visas, because they are now pursuing a different degree… In other words, these are all messes and annoyances that could have been avoided had one understood the graduate school system.

So remember: check the requirements for admission into a Ph.D. program for a US institution. A B.Sc degree is required, not an M.Sc. So if you intend to pursue a Ph.D., apply directly for a Ph.D. program, using your B.Sc. degree.

Next Chapter: Part VIII: Alternative Careers for a Physics Grad



5 replies
  1. bhobba says:

    First – thanks so much for putting this out there – many don’t know it.

    The other issue with applying to graduate programs in the US from outside the US is countries like the UK, India and Australia do not have 4 year Bachelors. Some of these are recognised as equivalent (eg a 3 year degree from Oxford) – but some are not. I know Australian 3 year Bachelors generally are not – but you can get 4 year degrees by doing a double degree or an honours year – these are recognised. My suggestion if you are in one of these countries is do either an honours degree or a double degree in physics/applied math. But getting a Masters first is probably even better because that will give valuable experience in research work and only takes an extra semester over a four year degree.


  2. jtbell says:

    Another point that I think I should make… in the US, there is not even an official standard for which courses a B.S. in physics should require! (likewise for a B.A.) Different schools can (and do) require somewhat different sets of courses. If a school strays too far from a sort of general consensus pattern, then their regional accrediting agency is likely to question their requirements and make them justify them or even change them, but this still allows for some variation.

    In some fields, professional organizations publish standards that schools can adhere to, voluntarily, for their B.S. programs. For example, the American Chemical Society has this:

    [URL=’’][SIZE=4]ACS Approval Program for Bachelor’s Degree Programs[/SIZE][/URL]

    [SIZE=4]Schools that meet these requirements can advertise themselves as “ACS accredited”. However, the American Physical Society does not have a similar program.[/SIZE]

    [SIZE=4]Yet another point: in the US, course requirements for a degree are usually intended to be [B]mininum[/B] requirements. Students can and do take courses beyond the ones that are specifically required, even beyond any number of elective courses that they are required to take, depending on what they plan to do with the degree. I have the impression that in some countries, degree requirements are very complete and rigid, so this may cause some confusion.[/SIZE]

  3. jtbell says:

    [QUOTE=”ELB27, post: 5116747, member: 516388″]the names are a semi-arbitrary choice of the university?[/QUOTE]

    There’s no standard distinction between B.A. and B.S. in the United States.

    Some schools (such as the college where I did my undergraduate) offer only a B.A. in physics, some offer only a B.S.

    Some schools offer both a B.A. and a B.S., in which case the B.A. may be less “rigorous” in terms of physics courses, or it may simply include a larger number of “general education” classes outside of physics, for example in languages, history, etc.

    I’m pretty sure graduate schools in the U.S. don’t pay any attention to the precise title of the bachelor’s degree, but instead look at the actual courses that you have taken and how well you did in them.

  4. G01 says:

    It's somewhat arbitrary I think. It even happens with some masters degrees.  My graduate program actually did not offer an M.S. (or M.Sc.) in physics, only a masters of arts (M.A.) or a Ph.D.  The M.A. degree did not require a thesis component.  So perhaps this is why it was not called an M.Sc.Additionally, one could not even apply to the program with the goal of leaving with the M.A.  You had to apply to the PhD program and either declare the M.A. "along the way" to the PhD or leave the PhD program after getting the M.A.

  5. ELB27 says:

    Very helpful post!I have a question regarding the 2nd paragraph – what's the difference between a B.A. in physics and a B.Sc? I thought that the two are identical and the names are a semi-arbitrary choice of the university? Is there a significant advantage of getting one over the other? (in the U.S. at least?)

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