Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

How competitive is graduate physics?

  1. Apr 7, 2010 #1
    I am currently a senior in high school who has been earning college credits and high school credits simultaneously for the last two years. This allowed me to finish my liberal education requirements last semester. Up until recently, my goal was to go into medicine, but now I feel that I would not enjoy that career path. This has lead me to do a lot of research on a career in physics. I have always been fascinated that our universe can be described in mathematics. The doctor I have been shadowing told me that physicists are generally people who would take apart televisions, computers, and other electronics at home. Is this true? Personally, I enjoy knowing the physics/chemistry behind how the combustion engine works instead of knowing how to take the engine apart. Is this a sign that I should not be pursuing a career in this field?

    I was also wondering how competitive it is to get into a top thirty physics graduate school compared to medical school? When I ask how competitive, I mean what type of grade point average would you need? The University of Minnesota is ranked at twenty six (Or something close to that number) which will be one of my top choices. What is the entrance test you are required to take as an undergraduate student in order to apply to graduate school (I am assuming they have something simlar to the MCAT)? What increases your chances of getting admitted into a phd program? Is it volunteer work, research, or just a good letter of recommendation? Sorry for the long question. Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 7, 2010 #2
    Some physicists take things apart and/or put them back together, but that might be a bit more common among engineers. Physicists in general are just very curious about how things work or why things behave the way that they do. That's not necessarily a practical interest, mind you (a lot of physics research has no immediate application).

    As for grad schools, I'm not sure how to rank competitiveness. My impression is that there is no hard and fast rule for GPA, test scores, or anything else, though I think there's usually a cutoff GPA of 3.0 or something similar below which you'll have a really hard time getting in.

    Research experience as an undergrad is a great thing to have on your application. If your school doesn't offer anything substantial (like mine--a small liberal arts school) you'll want to apply to summer REUs or similar programs. I've also heard that letters of recommendation can really make or break an application, so take whatever opportunities you have to get to know your professors (the applications I filled out all asked for 2 letters from professors and 1 from elsewhere). And yes, you'll most likely have to take both the general GRE and physics GRE (look it up!) I did pretty poorly on the PGRE and I still got into a decent program with only one summer as an intern at a national lab (not even doing real research).

    If you also develop strong research interests during your undergrad, you might find faculty at otherwise mediocre institutions who are doing great research and are well-respected in their field, so overall ranking might not be so important.
  4. Apr 8, 2010 #3
    There isn't a standard ranking for physics graduate schools, because schools can be very good at one thing and then have either bad or totally non-existent expertise in another. The important thing in physics grad school is the thesis adviser.

    Also GPA doesn't mean a much about. A lower (but still decent) GPA in which you take really, really hard classes is better than a high GPA in which you take easy classes. It's a lot better to get a B- in general relativity than it is to get an A+ in intro algebra.

    You take the physics GRE's, but they seem to be used different than MCAT's.

    Research, good letter of recommendations, decent GPA's in hard courses.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook