# Getting into physics grad school

• Schools
Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
It doesn't work like that. It's not like there is a checklist. It also doesn't matter - if the school accepts 20 people, they might review 50 students in depth. If you're worried about whether you are #50 or #51, you're not #20.

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.
Yeah I know that, but still the difficulty of getting into a school will be somewhat proportional to its rank, if only because perceived rank is how the majority of students will apply.

I just don't want to waste hundreds of dollars on application fees- so I want to know what "tier" or range of schools I should practically look at.

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
I just don't want to waste hundreds of dollars on application fees- so I want to know what "tier" or range of schools I should practically look at.
It's only your future. You wouldn't want to waste a few hundred dollars on it, would you?

We don't have your transcripts, your GRE scores or your letters in front of us. Your academic advisor would. Maybe you should set up an appointment.

Yeah I know that, but still the difficulty of getting into a school will be somewhat proportional to its rank, if only because perceived rank is how the majority of students will apply.
There isn't a clear rank, or at least the rank isn't what you think it is. In astrophysics, there are some state schools that are harder to get into than Harvard or MIT, and there is a *reason* why they are harder to get into, because for example in observational astronomy, MIT isn't a particularly strong school compared to University of Hawaii. If you like to do radio astronomy, University of Virginia beats Harvard. Loop quantum gravity, Louisiana State University. If you want to do high performance computing, then University of Texas at Austin or UIUC are good schools.

You aren't going to figure what schools are good or not based on general reputation. You need to go into the literature to figure out for yourself what the rankings are in the area that you are interested in. And this is impressive for the admissions people, because if you know that University of Tennessee at Knoxville is good at supernova research, that means that you have some familiar with the literature.

I just don't want to waste hundreds of dollars on application fees- so I want to know what "tier" or range of schools I should practically look at.
The good/bad news is that graduate schools just don't work that way. There is a *huge* amount of randomness in the admissions process and that's a good thing.

One other thing about graduate schools is that the quality of program is affected by the graduate students rather than the other way around. At the undergraduate level, people will admit thousands of students, and one bad student isn't going to sink the school. At the graduate level, the biggest schools will only graduate about 15 people a year, and there are tons of schools that will graduate only one person a year.

What that means is that if a big name school admits a few people that aren't that good, they are toast. Conversely, if you have a no name school that admits one or two people that are really good, then they can very quickly become a big name.

Getting a Ph.D. is really, really, really tough, and you need the right balance between arrogance and humility to survive. Just the right amount of arrogance is important, because if you always say to yourself, I'm a lousy student in a lousy school, then you are not likely to survive.

One thing that you should say to yourself where ever you get admitted, is that school X is a first tier school because they admitted me, and I'm going to do whatever I can to make school X a first tier school. You are likely to be one of only a handful of people that graduate each year, so at the graduate level, your actions influence the reputation of the school, more than the reputation of the school influences your actions.

This matters a lot because it can influence the tone of your personal statement. If your personal statement comes across saying that X is a subpar school and I'm only applying because I couldn't find anyone better, that's not going to go over well. If your personal statement comes across as "I know that school X is or wants to be number #1 in field Y, and this is what I can offer to make school X, number #1 in that field" you are more likely to get admitted.

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Why is this topic not stickied? This has been amazingly helpful for me as I am applying to Graduate school and the awesome posts just keep coming from Vanadium and twofish-quant.

@twofish-quant (or anyone): Do you happen to know off the top of your head which school has a reputation for exoplanet studies, I've been searching around so much. I found that Sara Seager from MIT (published by Princeton) wrote the widely cited book "Exoplanet Atmospheres" but it seems like there are lots of results but no specific university that harbours all the exoplanetary speciality. Any suggestions?

Simfish
Gold Member
@twofish-quant (or anyone): Do you happen to know off the top of your head which school has a reputation for exoplanet studies, I've been searching around so much. I found that Sara Seager from MIT (published by Princeton) wrote the widely cited book "Exoplanet Atmospheres" but it seems like there are lots of results but no specific university that harbours all the exoplanetary speciality. Any suggestions?
Penn State is really strong (it has James Kasting, who is perhaps the top researcher in the field). Washington also has some top-notch faculty (although it's not that big). I think Arizona State also has some.

@twofish-quant (or anyone): Do you happen to know off the top of your head which school has a reputation for exoplanet studies, I've been searching around so much.
No idea. But if you go to the Los Alamos preprint server and look at the papers there, and then google for conferences where that topic is being studied, then you can figure out where the research is being done.

Also, it helps a lot if you aren't too focused on what you are interested in. It may be that you just can't get into a the big name in exoplanets, but that the school that you get into has a really good reputation as far as interstellar medium magnetic fields.

It seems like there are lots of results but no specific university that harbours all the exoplanetary speciality. Any suggestions?
There probably isn't, but that's a good thing. It means that where ever you end up you'll have to interact with people from other universities. Also, one thing that helps a lot to understand a department is to go to their website and look at the seminars that they are giving.

Sticky this...

Also, is the rumor that smaller schools have greater chances?

Also, is the rumor that smaller schools have greater chances?
I don't see any reason why that should be true.

Quick word about PGRE scores - if you're a theorist, you probably should have fairly high PGRE scores.

And something interesting my university noticed about PGRE scores: no student who ever scored under 50 (or was it 40?) percent on the PGRE has ever failed quals exams. Some had to retake, but they all passed eventually. It seems like getting into a program is a big deal, but so is graduating. Not much point getting into a program only to fail at quals.

I don't see any reason why that should be true.
Say School A takes two people from MIT and there are one more potential candidate there, but they already have taken two people. Beside that candidate is another potential candidate from a school that is in the middle of no where.

Would they choose that person or just take everyone from MIT?

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
And what if you're in a lifeboat during Lent, and there's nothing to eat but meat. It's Thursday, but then without knowing it you cross the international date line, and....

You need to stop worrying about things that are beyond your control, and start boning up on some physics.

Would they choose that person or just take everyone from MIT?
No clue. This all depends on the person in the admissions committee and there is no real way of knowing what he thinks.

At some point, you just have to accept that there are things about the process that are just totally random and out of your control.

Did you just say random....?

Did you just say random....?
You're trolling, aren't you?

Did you just say random....?
Yes I said random. If you have two spots and after you've spend weeks discussing things, and you've narrowed things down to five great candidates, then at the end of the day, who gets chosen is pretty much random. They don't literally flip coins, but they use criterion that might as well be coin flips.

Candidate A has a 3.8 GPA and a 860 PGRE. Candidate B has a 3.9 GPA and a 840. Professor C happens to think that PGRE's are much more important than GPA's, but unfortunately for candidate A, his plane back from Europe was delayed so he missed the meeting where they set the cutoff, and his asked Professor D to substitute for him, and Professor D hates the PGRE. Not to mention that the fact that Candidate A got a 3.8, because he had a cold the day of the German final exam, and took too much flu medicine.

Having randomness in graduate admissions is something of a good thing. If it really is random, then it means that you have a different set of coin flips in different schools, which means that if you apply to a decent number with a decent application, you'll get in somewhere.

It should also reduce some of the fear that you see on the forum. People are terrified that if they make the wrong decision, they are doomed. You should worry less if you realize that what is the "right" decision and the "wrong" decision is somewhat random and out of your control.

And what if you're in a lifeboat during Lent, and there's nothing to eat but meat. It's Thursday, but then without knowing it you cross the international date line, and....

You need to stop worrying about things that are beyond your control, and start boning up on some physics.
THIS IS THE BEST ADVICE EVER. I don't think you understand how much this has helped me. (Not to mention how hilarious it is).

STICKY!

Yes I said random. If you have two spots and after you've spend weeks discussing things, and you've narrowed things down to five great candidates, then at the end of the day, who gets chosen is pretty much random. They don't literally flip coins, but they use criterion that might as well be coin flips.

Candidate A has a 3.8 GPA and a 860 PGRE. Candidate B has a 3.9 GPA and a 840. Professor C happens to think that PGRE's are much more important than GPA's, but unfortunately for candidate A, his plane back from Europe was delayed so he missed the meeting where they set the cutoff, and his asked Professor D to substitute for him, and Professor D hates the PGRE. Not to mention that the fact that Candidate A got a 3.8, because he had a cold the day of the German final exam, and took too much flu medicine.

Having randomness in graduate admissions is something of a good thing. If it really is random, then it means that you have a different set of coin flips in different schools, which means that if you apply to a decent number with a decent application, you'll get in somewhere.

It should also reduce some of the fear that you see on the forum. People are terrified that if they make the wrong decision, they are doomed. You should worry less if you realize that what is the "right" decision and the "wrong" decision is somewhat random and out of your control.
I just realize something, I am Canadian, so I probably won't even apply to MIT or any American Institution. How do people account for living there? I mean how do internationl applicants account for housing, food, travel?

Staff Emeritus
2019 Award
Same as anyone else does. You want an apartment, you sign a lease. You want food or an airline ticket, you buy it. If you standard of living doesn't let you travel as much as you would like, you give something else up or do without.

Based on this and the "transfer because I might not get student housing" thread, I have to say that you are not prepared for graduate school. Maybe academically you are, but there is more to being a successful grad student than academics, for example, living on your own.

How do people account for living there? I mean how do internationl applicants account for housing, food, travel?
Student housing and lots of ramen. If you want to travel, get a subway pass and go to the museum.

Same as anyone else does. You want an apartment, you sign a lease. You want food or an airline ticket, you buy it. If you standard of living doesn't let you travel as much as you would like, you give something else up or do without.

Based on this and the "transfer because I might not get student housing" thread, I have to say that you are not prepared for graduate school. Maybe academically you are, but there is more to being a successful grad student than academics, for example, living on your own.
I hear that education "fee" is compensated for giving back to the grad school (TAing etc...), but will you be able to earn a living? That's what i am worried about.

Well you can look up how much grad students get there, and then do the math whether it's enough for you to get by or not.

With 200$a month you can eat like a king if you cook your own stuff. That ramen thing is for lazy people. Housing shouldn't be more than 600-700. Most grad school stipends are 2000$/month. You can save enough money to buy a second hand car in a few months. I never got the whole "grad students are so poor thing".

Nabeshin
With 200$a month you can eat like a king if you cook your own stuff. That ramen thing is for lazy people. Yes but eating ramen for a month will likely only cost you$5!