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Junior level needs advice on graduate schools and academic culture

  1. Feb 20, 2014 #1

    I am a junior level physics major at a state university (first semester here, 1.5 years to go). I am the first in my family to attend college beyond a two year degree and I myself have recently transferred from a community college. With that said I suppose it is no surprise that I don't know much about academic culture and/or what ways I can improve my chances of getting into a decent graduate program and otherwise optimize my career path. I have some ideas of things to do but as I've found in the past there are simply things that I don't know that I don't know... ya know? I'm not sure of the best way to proceed so perhaps I will create a brief list of what I think I need to do and then open the floor for any advice and suggestions.

    I definitely plan on attending graduate school and doing so as soon as possible but I am working two jobs and have a wife and 4.5 month old daughter that come first. I say that because there are many opportunities such as summer internships and research opportunities out of state that make less sense for me than a typical undergrad unless I find that it's the only way (or a drastically better way) to proceed. On the other hand my wife and I are looking forward to leaving the state so moving is an option if necessary. Also one of my jobs is working as a physics TA in the physics helproom which I hear looks good.

    Lastly, although I am going to attend graduate school, I plan on working in industry instead of academia. (I beg forgiveness!) There are a number of really 'hot' companies that would be great to work for that seem to be popular around here such as space-x, planetary resources, etc. Beyond that I am really not too picky about how I apply my degree for the first several years after which I hope to run my own gig. Even non-physics applications would be fun as long as I get my physics fix one way or another.

    Summer 2014:
    Take GRE
    Prep for physics GRE (when is latest it is advisable to take?)
    Hopefully find work in a lab (is it rare to find payed work without lab experience even if student has lengthy professional experience outside a lab?)

    Fall 2014:
    Quantum I
    E&M I (I seem to be taking these late which is why I am worried about taking the physics GRE...)
    Misc. required courses

    Spring 2015:
    Quantum II
    Thermal & Statistical
    A Physics mathematics course
    Nuclear & Elementary Particle Physics (this semester is going to be interesting...)

    Fall 2015:
    Advanced Lab
    Atomic/Molecular/Condensed Matter

    I should probably squeeze my tier two classes in there such as E&M II, Classical Mechanics II, etc. They're not required but I'm not sure I can take E&M II on top of what I already have in spring 2015 while still working...

    Here are a few more things I am wondering about that I will look for answers to in specific outside this thread but I thought I would bring them in provided the context of this thread:

    When do I apply for graduate school?

    Is it normal to take the physics GRE more than once?

    Is that looked down upon?

    Participation in extracurriculars seems to be a way to improve your academic resume. Is being employed outside academia in any way beneficial also? Is it in any way a replacement for extracurriculars?

    Beyond lab work, a professional resume, some letters of recommendation, and decent grades what can I do to improve my chances?

    How difficult is it to get into tier 1 schools? (What a question, right?)

    Okay, sorry for the wall of text. Thank you for your time and advice!
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 20, 2014 #2
    Depending on where you live, are there any nearby labs or anything that you can apply for internships at? Also, I would not recommend taking the GRE before Quantum Mechanics I.
  4. Feb 20, 2014 #3
    I am actually in the process of contacting the professors at the university I attend for a lab job. I am worried though that I won't find paid work because I simply don't have time to volunteer 10+ hours/week in a lab. As far as local labs outside the university I don't know but will definitely look into it. There isn't much going on in this state as far as I can tell though. Thanks for the input!

    Also, with regard to the GRE, that makes sense. My understanding is that it is classical mechanics heavy, followed by the 3-4 other core level 1 courses, and finally with a touch of level two scattered in.
  5. Feb 20, 2014 #4


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    Staff: Mentor

    Have you read the "So You Want to Be a Physicist" thread that is "pinned" near the top of this forum? It has information about getting into grad school and what life is like there.

    Ph.D. programs in the US generally assume you're going to start in the fall, and the application cycle is structured accordingly. Since you're going to be taking undergraduate classes through fall 2015, you should figure on starting grad school in fall 2016. This means taking the GRE during summer or fall 2015, and getting applications in by the end of 2015, or maybe January 2016. You will have an academic gap in spring 2016, unless you can take an extra course or two and put off graduation for a semester.

    You can find when the GREs are given, on the GRE web site. Google "graduate record exam" and you'll find it easily enough. You should allow enough time in your schedule for the possibility of taking it twice in order to improve your score.
  6. Feb 20, 2014 #5
    I did read that thread a long way back when I first came to these forums. I have since made a number of decisions and changes. I will definitely to back through it with my new perspective and list of questions. Thank you.

    I guess starting in fall 2016 makes sense when you put it that way. The people on campus I talk to often say something along the lines of "you should take the physics GRE mid-junior year". That got me a bit worried that I was missing something but it seems my years are offset by a semester so I will have a little more time to prepare for the test than I previously expected. Thank you.
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