# Getting into physics grad school

• Schools
I know this is a year old but I have a question: Do grad schools tell their applicants if a TA or RA job is available to them after being accepted?

I'm also doubful on the below scenarios.

Situation 1: There was also a mention about some classes having more weight then others. What if an applicant had a 3.3 GPA but his college required him to take many humanities and social science courses which he did poorly in, but this student has aced every physics and math class he took. Would this make it very unlikely he would be accepted or does he have the grades that could make him a competitive applicant? Ceteris paribus.

Situation 2: How about an applicant with this upward trend of gpa's in his 4 years of undergrad: 2.6, 3.3, 3.7, 4.0. This gpa has an average of 3.4; would it be considered bad or good by a committee?

It seems that Vanadium has experience with acceptance committees so I would like people with similar experience to give an insight instead of speculation.

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jtbell
Mentor
I know this is a year old but I have a question: Do grad schools tell their applicants if a TA or RA job is available to them after being accepted?
Yes, when they offer admission they also tell you whether it includes a TA or RA, and the financial terms. At least that was the case when I applied to grad schools many years ago.

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
My experience is the same as JT Bell's.

As far as the other questions, the answer is, I am afraid, whatever the committee thinks of it. One school might look at low scores outside of physics and think "well, only his physics grades matter" and another might think "doesn't work so hard on things he's not interested in." That's why people get in in some places and don't in others.

Choppy
Most schools will have their own conversion schemes which should be printed in their calanders. For a very general approximation:
A+ = 4.0 = 90 - 100% (= 4.3)
A = 4.0 = 85 - 89%
A- = 3.7 = 80 - 84%
B+ = 3.3 = 77 - 79%
B = 3.0 = 73 - 76%
B- = 2.7 = 69 - 72%
etc.

In Canada, schools that have honour rolls will generally establish the cutoff around the 80%, A-, 3.7 line and the majority of students who get into graduate school are at or above this line.

Fizex,
Actually, most schools should be able to explain financial support before you even apply. It should be on their web pages. In some cases though, they won't make any guarantees until you receive a letter of offer.

For both of your scenarios, remember that graduate school admissions work on a competative basis. Once you make the minimum requirements, you are lumped into a pool of candidates for a set number of positions. Candidates in the pool are ranked and if there are N positions, the top N candidates are offered admission. So, in light of that, in scenario 1, this candidate would likely come out ahead of another candidate with the same average who didn't do as well in the upper year physics classes. Similarly, in scenario 2, this candidate would likely be ranked higher than one with the same average with consistent numbers or worse, a trend that went the other way.

I think that the odds of getting into grad school if you are a serious student is a bit larger than those numbers indicate. The GRE is an international test so there are pretty substantial numbers of people taking it that will not end up in a US grad school.

There may be a lot of self-selection here, but every US citizen that I know that wanted to go to physics grad school with a decent application has gotten in somewhere, and I don't know anyone that has made a "serious application" that wasn't able to get in somewhere eventually.

I think that the odds of getting into grad school if you are a serious student is a bit larger than those numbers indicate. The GRE is an international test so there are pretty substantial numbers of people taking it that will not end up in a US grad school.

There may be a lot of self-selection here, but every US citizen that I know that wanted to go to physics grad school with a decent application has gotten in somewhere, and I don't know anyone that has made a "serious application" that wasn't able to get in somewhere eventually.
Is it? I thought only US grad schools wanted those.

Most schools will have their own conversion schemes which should be printed in their calanders. For a very general approximation:
A+ = 4.0 = 90 - 100% (= 4.3)
A = 4.0 = 85 - 89%
A- = 3.7 = 80 - 84%
B+ = 3.3 = 77 - 79%
B = 3.0 = 73 - 76%
B- = 2.7 = 69 - 72%
In Alberta from my experience it generally goes like this:
A+ = 4.0 = 97% +
A = 3.9 = 93%-96%
A- = 3.7 = 90%-92%
B+ = 3.3 = 85%-89%
B = 3.0 = 80% - 84%
B- = 2.7 = 75%-79%
C+ = 2.3 = 70%-74%
C = 2.0 = Below 70%

There is no "set" percentage, it's based on z-scores and a bell-curve normally.
Not sure how the hell someone would be worth any of A with a grade in the "80-84" range...

Choppy
Hi Camaron,

Here's a conversion chart from McMaster's website. As you can see, it's pretty school-dependent. Also, there's a difference between percentage obtained on exams and final grades. The 3.7 = A- = 80-84% line seems pretty standard from my experience. It's also worth pointing out that this is for undergrad. My experience is that graduate grades, although following a similar scale, will have a significantly higher cutoff for what constitutes a pass.

http://careers.mcmaster.ca/students/education-planning/virtual-resources/gpa-conversion-chart [Broken]

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In Alberta from my experience it generally goes like this:
A+ = 4.0 = 97% +
A = 3.9 = 93%-96%
A- = 3.7 = 90%-92%
B+ = 3.3 = 85%-89%
B = 3.0 = 80% - 84%
B- = 2.7 = 75%-79%
C+ = 2.3 = 70%-74%
C = 2.0 = Below 70%

There is no "set" percentage, it's based on z-scores and a bell-curve normally.
Not sure how the hell someone would be worth any of A with a grade in the "80-84" range...
Where did you get 3.9 from? Judging by the UofA's official grading system explanation, an A translates to a 4.0. Also, I know I just finished my first semester here, but from my experience thus far mark boundaries are lower. For example, in Newtonian Mechanics you were able to get an A+ with less than 90% total, and the cut-off point for an A- in some of the Maths courses was as low as 83%, as well. I can't really tell for other courses, though, because I didn't see their mark distribution.

Is it? I thought only US grad schools wanted those.
I know that some schools in China encourage people to take the GRE. In any case, if you are even thinking about applying to a US school, you'll need to take the GRE, even if you don't end up going. Also US universities generally give some preference to US citizens, and native English speakers don't have to worry about TOEFL scores.

So if you are a US citizen, I think your chances of getting in somewhere are considerably higher than 50/50.

Also one important thing about GPA is that there is a threshold effect. If you have a low <3.0 GPA, then you will find it extremely, extremely difficult to get in. On the other hand, the difference between a 3.7 and 3.8 is pretty much irrelevant. The reason for this is that schools are different enough so that it's pretty much impossible to compare a 3.7 and 3.8, but if you have a 2.9, then you really did mess up somewhere along the line.

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
So if you are a US citizen, I think your chances of getting in somewhere are higher than 50/50.
I don't think it's that good.

There are ~700 PhD's awarded per year. Say 1000 students are accepted, to account for attrition. About 4000 people take the Physics GRE every year. Looks to me like 1 in 4 is a good first guess.

I know that some schools in China encourage people to take the GRE. In any case, if you are even thinking about applying to a US school, you'll need to take the GRE, even if you don't end up going. Also US universities generally give some preference to US citizens, and native English speakers don't have to worry about TOEFL scores.

So if you are a US citizen, I think your chances of getting in somewhere are considerably higher than 50/50.

Also one important thing about GPA is that there is a threshold effect. If you have a low <3.0 GPA, then you will find it extremely, extremely difficult to get in. On the other hand, the difference between a 3.7 and 3.8 is pretty much irrelevant. The reason for this is that schools are different enough so that it's pretty much impossible to compare a 3.7 and 3.8, but if you have a 2.9, then you really did mess up somewhere along the line.
Thanks, though I'm not really planning to apply to any grad schools anytime soon; I was just curious. I tend to read a lot of threads on matters that don't really apply to me.

I don't think it's that good.

There are ~700 PhD's awarded per year. Say 1000 students are accepted, to account for attrition. About 4000 people take the Physics GRE every year. Looks to me like 1 in 4 is a good first guess.
I don't think you can make such a direct correlation between the number of PhD's awarded each year and the number of PGRE takers. I'm far from being in admittance committee, a PhD, or even applying to grad school, but I think some people might just take it to see how much they can score on the test, or take it and then decide to not apply for grad school. Again, I have no data to base this on, so take it as you will. When I took the TOEFL (which is very different from taking the PGRE), some of the people who took it with me said they only took it to keep their options open, or that they're not going to have the time to take it later.

Since only about half of the people who take the GRE go on to graduate school, one needs to score roughly in the top half to be competitive anywhere, and substantially above that if one wants to be competitive at a more selective university.
Comment, in addition to Vanadium 50's nice compilation: it is very likely that standardized tests become more heavily considered when one hails from a less selective university. I apologize if this was already mentioned - in fact, I think it was, when discussing grades (that is, higher grades are much more crucial from the lesser known institutions). This would make sense, because when one's recommenders and coursework are well-known and regarded, the independent marker becomes less important.

Nevertheless, many schools will still take the standardized tests into consideration, and expect you to do your best. Some programs are more hard-nosed on them than others.

Another data point: I am speaking from knowledge of mathematics education, not physics, but I can't help but think the logic I gave should apply to most of academia. However, there are numerous things that could make the PGRE very seriously considered; perhaps it's considered a pretty good test of ability and a *good* standardization tool rather than just a standardization tool.

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I don't think you can make such a direct correlation between the number of PhD's awarded each year and the number of PGRE takers.
Again, I have no data to base this on, so take it as you will. When I took the TOEFL (which is very different from taking the PGRE), some of the people who took it with me said they only took it to keep their options open, or that they're not going to have the time to take it later.
I think you kind of answered your own doubt in a way. Sure, it's probably true some people take the PGRE without applying for a PhD in physics. But really, for what purpose? Are some of these engineers?

Perhaps in more experimental physics, some undergrads get jobs early, and want to take the test to see how they fare before they forget all their coursework and stuff.

Overall though, I think it makes a lot of sense to strongly correlate taking the PGRE with getting a PhD. I'm pretty sure that except for utterly insane people, taking PGRE's, math GRE, CS GRE, etc, are not things looked forward to. Indeed, applicants to top programs often try to avoid things like the CS GRE, and from what I hear the PGRE is quite feared. Simply "keeping one's options open" and taking such a test seems a little unlikely to me, but perhaps I underestimate the enthusiasm of our young adults interested in physics, for standardized testing..

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
I don't think you can make such a direct correlation between the number of PhD's awarded each year and the number of PGRE takers... but I think some people might just take it to see how much they can score on the test
Maybe, but to get up to 50-50 requires that there be as at least as many people in this category as those who are seriously going to graduate school. That seems like a lot. Especially as the test is not cheap.

I know lots of people who take the MCAT, for example, just in case they want to apply to medical school. A lot of them don't end up even applying. I would imagine that the same could apply to PGRE's. Also, don't you have to take the test in order to get your masters in teaching/education? I know a few people I think who mentioned doing this at my school, but I can't be certain.

According to AIP:
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/other/figurea.htm

About 35% of physics grads go to grad school (presumably for a masters or phd). This is higher than the 1 in 4 figure that you have given. Could you please elaborate on where you got your data from? Thanks. :)

I'm worried because I didn't realize that physics grad school was so competitive to get into.

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
I looked at some recent AIP stats, and there were 1400 PhD's awarded in the most recent two year period for which there is data. That means that about 1000 people had to be admitted per year, and about 4000 people take the physics GRE. Hence one in four.

According to the AIP, there were 11,000 BS's awarded in the most recent two year period. If 35% of them go to graduate school, that means just under 2000 enter graduate school and 2/3 of them don't get a PhD. That attrition rate looks too high, so the most sensible explanation is that this 40% is biased towards students who are going to graduate school - i.e. you are more likely to return the survey if you are in grad school. (Probably not crazy: if nothing else, if you are in grad school it's easier for the AIP to find you)

I'm worried because I didn't realize that physics grad school was so competitive to get into.
Something that should ease your worries a bit is that I think it's pretty simple to know your likelihood of getting in before you put in the application. If you have a decent GPA, decent letters of recommendation, some undergraduate research and the "standard package", I think you are very likely to get in somewhere.

Something that should ease your worries a bit is that I think it's pretty simple to know your likelihood of getting in before you put in the application. If you have a decent GPA, decent letters of recommendation, some undergraduate research and the "standard package", I think you are very likely to get in somewhere.
Well what counts as a decent GPA?
I have an A-/B+ average so a little above a 3.5
And I go to Duke, not sure how much that would impact things.

What I don't understand is that I'm usually in the top 25% of my classes but my gpa looks pretty terrible...I'm starting to get worried.

I know usnwr rankings mean squat in grad school rankings but for what its worth what number range should I be looking at? Ranks 20 and up? 50 and up? 100 and up?

I have an A-/B+ average so a little above a 3.5

What I don't understand is that I'm usually in the top 25% of my classes but my gpa looks pretty terrible...I'm starting to get worried.
Alright, let's not get carried away here ...

Well what counts as a decent GPA?
I have an A-/B+ average so a little above a 3.5
And I go to Duke, not sure how much that would impact things.
That's pretty decent. If they are in hard classes and you have the other things in the standard package, you should be able to get in somewhere.

One thing that I find curious is that when people talk about graduate school, they worry most about grades, when they often should be thinking about other things. Recommendation letters tend to be much more important than grades.

I know usnwr rankings mean squat in grad school rankings but for what its worth what number range should I be looking at? Ranks 20 and up? 50 and up? 100 and up?
Wrong question. You should think about what type of physics you are interested in, and then start looking at graduate schools that specialize in that area of physics. Something that people should definitely do by the time they are junior is to start reading the literature in the field that they are interested in, and know who the "thought leaders" are and at what schools they are studying at.

Simfish
Gold Member
Usually the committee does a first pass through the applications to select ~2Y applicants for a closer look. Usually there is not much arguing at this point - if it's questionable whether a candidate is just a little above or a little below this cut-off, the candidate is probably below the threshold for being offered admission. Also at this point, the candidate's package may or may not have been looked at in detail by all the members of the committee: that can come later. Instead, the committee can divide the applications - for example, if there are 6 members, each may look at 1/3 of the applications in detail, and the other committee members will often just glance at them. Clearly getting on the first pass list is vital. Once there, it's usual for the committee members to look at every application in detail.
Just wondering - how do they determine the cutoff? Could you pass the cutoff if your GPA is 3.15 from a state university, even if you have *both* high PGRE scores + an improving trend (3.6 GPA for last two years?)

What about those applicants who have amazing research+recommendations but poor GPAs? Do they frequently get filtered in the first pass?

Just wondering - how do they determine the cutoff?
You have X places and 5*X applications. Ultimately what happens is that they rank everyone and the top X people get offers. The first pass is to get rid of anyone that clearly has no chance at all of making the final cut. As far as the details of how much different things get weighted, that really depends on the people on the committee.

Could you pass the cutoff if your GPA is 3.15 from a state university, even if you have *both* high PGRE scores + an improving trend (3.6 GPA for last two years?)
Depends on the people on the committee.

What about those applicants who have amazing research+recommendations but poor GPAs? Do they frequently get filtered in the first pass?
Depends on the people on the committee.

There is a very heavy element of randomness here. The reason to apply to many schools is that once you apply to a lot of schools, the element of randomness goes down.