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PGRE - A message to undergrads from physics grad school.

  1. Dec 13, 2012 #1
    I recently joined this forum because I wanted to provide a "physics grad student perspective" which I often felt was missing. (This is only possible because I have a little extra time lately; I will soon evaporate back into my research, but while I am here...)

    American students are not used to taking high stakes exams as are students from pretty much everywhere else. The PGRE is a rude introduction for the US student who has "learned a lot" in their undergrad courses, but been passed along with last-minute study habits and curved test scores. I view American physics undergrads as idealistic cherubic Pollyanna neophytes. I believe this because I used to be one.

    One of my previous advisers describes physics as a "full contact sport". After two physics grad school experiences, I believe this to be an understatement. I was recently at the funeral of a physics professor where another physics professor made a speech. He eulogized the deceased for having done well professionally while all the time being a "nice guy" in a field where everyone is very good, but each thinks they are the best. Think "shark tank". There is a very good reason why physicists found their way to Wall Street; Wall Street is less douchy.

    Every worthwhile professional field has a set of standards that must be met. Often there are professional exams that establish these standards. I will not lie to you; physicists at the PhD level view themselves as the top of the food chain of intellectualism. Whether or not you agree (and you should), rigorous exams are *the bare minimum* of meeting the standards of this club. The PGRE is the first such exam American undergrads will have encountered. The SAT/ACT, general GRE, undergrad finals; these are jokes in comparison (but not undergrad finals in Europe/Britain where they don't mess around).

    American undergrads are sitting ducks, they are not ready, I was not ready but became ready. And it is such a shame since the PGRE is 1/3 of your "physics portfolio". Most US undergrad programs are "criminally negligent" in not providing an entire course on preparing for this exam. And too bad because it is actually a lot of fun once you get going, once you start getting good at it. The PGRE for the average US physics undergrad (obviously not the atypical brilliant student), is an exam that must be met with 200-300 hours of training. I am an older, non-traditional student. I did poorly as an undergrad, and came back to grad school after many years to find that life had toughened me up and made me smarter. I studied for the PGRE for four months. I cannot begin to describe how many holes I found in my knowledge base. But I kept at it, studying (in quiet, without TV or internet) every night until I passed out exhausted. I ended up with an 820 and was VERY disappointed. In retrospect, I should have redoubled my efforts and retaken the exam. I'm sure that I could have pushed into 900's, and then (because of my undergrad research) many better schools would have been open to me.

    Trust me, now that I have studied physics for many many years, I view the PGRE as a joke, a "piece of cake", an easy thing to do. This is because I put in the time to master the material. You can get there, too (here I am speaking to the average American physics undergrad). I assure you that I am not smarter than you, and I was probably a lazier undergrad than you have been. But that must end now, now you must buckle down. Because what is waiting for you is some seriously difficult learning experiences, some shark infested waters, and a very competitive job market.
    But isn't this a club you want to join? Of course it is! There is nothing else as intense or awesome as getting a PhD in physics. Those credentials are going right on my tombstone!

    Many students do poorly on their first attempt. My advice is always the same, study hard and retake it. If you don't do well the second time, study harder and retake it. Until you can master this exam, how do you conceive that you will survive the following:
    1) Qualifier exams. At many if not most US physics grad programs, there are quals that you must pass either UPON ARRIVAL or WITHIN THE FIRST YEAR. These are always harder than the PGRE by a factor of two I would say. If you have not learned to study hard and master the PGRE, it will be that much harder for you studying for the quals. (Often the new physics grad student spends the summer before grad school prepping for the quals. Get started early by prepping for the PGRE!)
    2) Core courses. Every American university requires that you master "the core" in order to get a PhD in physics. What is the core? E&M, QM, StatMech, Classical, and MathMethods. Does this ring any bells when you think about the PGRE?
    3) Written Comprehensive Exam (and usually oral comps in addition). At one school I was at, where there was some contention about what material would be on the comps, one professor said that it was mainly the core, but anything could be on it since as a PhD physicist, you are expected to provide a reasonable answer to any problem in nature. (The student receiving this news was not happy.) Nevertheless, you must study your core material and know it inside and out or you will not be allowed into the club. (And yes, you are a physicist, you step up while others fall aside. I once built a self-guided, map-solving robot just because I didn't want it to be said that an engineering student could build a robot and I, a physicist, could not. How much did I know about robots when I began? Nothing. I hate robots.)

    But here is some positive news, studying hard for the PGRE helps you every day of physics grad school (until you pass your advancement to candidacy exam, I guess). By studying hard for the PGRE, you will have become more fluent in the basics, you will be much faster at the easy stuff, you will have made up (to some extent) for poor course grades, and you will have taught yourself the most essential skill for getting a PhD: surviving high stakes exams. And it is 1/3 of your grad school application, so shouldn't you be taking it more seriously?

    I know that the really good schools will only look at your first exam score, and others will average your scores. But I had a friend at OSU (math dept admittedly) who was let in conditionally provided she increased her score to 50% (I believe she went from 20s to 70s, it's called "studying"). So rules get bent or may not even exist for the mid-level schools. And quite honestly, if you are still reading this, then we are talking about how to get you, the average US physics undergrad, a PhD from a mid-level physics grad program. I knew an undergrad with outstanding grades, great research, excellent letters, but (unfortunately) a poor PGRE. His highest acceptance was a school ranked in the 80s, and he chose one ranked over 100. He was miserable there because the other students were "sub-par" (it really helps to be in an environment of highly dedicated people). He should have studied hard and retaken the PGRE, he should have applied late to some other schools, should have-would have-could have... I know, this is my opinion, you must weigh my advice for yourself, and your own situation. But if you think that maybe the real reason you don't want to retake the PGRE is that you are lazy, or you don't have enough time to study properly, then you are precisely the person who should be studying and retaking this exam (in April), because in physics grad school things get "intense" and you need to start preparing.

    (Note: I was accepted to more than one school with a late application. Your mileage may vary, but I always say that it NEVER hurts to ask. And often mid-level schools won't get the number of acceptances they were hoping for ESPECIALLY FOR FEMALE STUDENTS. Retake and kill the PGRE and prove you have the right stuff.)

    Here, I will give you million dollar advice because never have you seen a physics loser go to a physics all star as I did.
    1) Study by practicing old PGRE problems. Don't waste your time reviewing class notes or reading texts. That ship has sailed, it will have to wait for your grad school core courses.
    2) Study one field at a time. Begin with your strongest field, and master this section first. It will give you confidence. At the time, mine was classical, so I would go through all the practice exams and do just the classical problems. Once I could nail 90% of the classical, I moved on to E&M. Then quantum. Then atomic. You get the idea.
    3) Do each problem as if it were during the actual test: go as fast as you can, and try to imagine that you feel the pressure. You CAN train yourself to become good at exam-taking! I would do 10-15 problems fast (and without cheating by looking at texts), and then I would grade them. Anything I missed, I would then look up and learn how to do. So my cycle was: GO-GO-GO for exam-taking practice followed by slowing down and learning.
    4) Know the exam. I began to notice patterns in the test material, WITHIN each category. At the time, I could even tell you which subcategories I was weak on and would be likely to skip during the exam. You would be surprised at what a few hundred hours can do, how it can make you an expert on this material. I noticed that I almost always got tricked by the special relativity questions, so I put in more time studying the tricks.
    5) Be stubborn, learn it all. By the end, there was not a single problem on the old practice exams that I did not fully understand how to do (or so I thought). Studying for that exam made me so smart that I might as well have skipped the undergrad classes entirely (which was good because I had been a terrible student).
    6) Redo the problems, cycle through the practice exams more than once. This may not work past twice, it depends on how good you have gotten. When I tutor students, I often tell them that physics problems are like waking up to find that you have been buried alive. You start with NOTHING, and must claw and scratch your way out. And the beginning is the most terrifying part since you never know where to begin. In physics, you get addicted to this wild sensation (why you are doing this). Anyway, a problem is always useful to you if you don't know how to begin it because it forces you to "dig for your life". (Students always waste too much time practicing their algebra, i.e., the easy part of the problem where you have figured out what to do and set up some equations to solve. This is just crank turning, a comfortable place to be. Force yourself to operate in the danger zone. You will be expected to do this every day past the bachelors degree. Physicists are often hired for their awesome "problem solving skills" (not mathematicians). It is because we can find our way in the dark. There are actually "Problem Solver" positions nowadays, a buddy of mine has applied to a few. Practice this skill!)
    7) Study with others? I don't know if this will help. I studied exclusively on my own. But it would have saved me some time to work in a group since on my own it often required a lot of time to research how to do some of the material.

    I know there are a lot of so-called geniuses out there who say that over-studying for the PGRE is like cheating, that it doesn't really demonstrate how good you are at physics (whatever that means), but just your test-taking skills. This is rubbish. Do not listen to them. In one of my grad school experiences (at a school where I did not enjoy myself and thus my transfer to U Arizona), I did every homework set in my core courses entirely by myself. I was able to compete with any student in my year, even the one everyone thought of as "the best". (The student considered "the best student" in your year is usually the one with the highest PGRE. Don't you know that the faculty dig through your application materials before you get there to know "who is who" among the new grads?) I always scored at the top or near the top in my course exams and finals, and I absolutely killed my comps. And yes, I have worked very hard to be this smart, but it all began with PGRE studying. My true belief is that we are smarter than others because (in addition to genetics) we got a little ahead in 1st grade, and kept going from there. Use the PGRE to get a little ahead now, and it will pay dividends. It's a compound interest sort of thing.

    (Actually, my definition of "being good at physics" is being able to solve any problem they throw at you, and I bet Feynman would have agreed with me.)

    I knew a guy who got successively on the PGRE: 27, 18, 9 (he was getting worse!). He now has his PhD from a good California school, but he had to do some serious "out-of-the-box" thinking (and time consuming things) to get there (as well as learn how to pass these kinds of exams somewhere along the way). I was once told by a professor of a woman who got a 0% and yet did very good in grad school and eventually became an astronomy professor. Let me warn you however that astronomy programs do not put much stock in the physics GRE (and often only use the general GRE). If you want a PhD in astronomy, then I recommend finding a school where astronomy and physics are two separate departments (like here at U Arizona) because otherwise you will have to survive all the physics crap that you don't enjoy.

    Alright, I don't think I have any more time for this website tonight, I need to get a ton of research done. I hope that some undergrad out there will read (some of) this, and perhaps it will help them get some perspective, and convince them to study like mad for the PGRE (and possibly lobby their department chair for a PGRE course). Good luck young undergrads, good luck achieving your destinies!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 13, 2012 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Great post!

    One thing you should also point out is that the GRE/PGRE is the first stat used to weed thru applications before anything else is looked at.
  4. Dec 13, 2012 #3
    I agree with you that this is usually the case. But here at U Arizona (rank 36), the PGRE score is viewed in combination with your grades and (especially) undergrad research. We do have students who did not do great on the PGRE, but were in many other ways excellent students. Once they get here, the core courses usually whip them into shape, so it is not such a big deal. But you are right, at most schools, the PGRE is simply used to make two stacks of applicants, the second one being tossed. So my main point about studying hard for the PGRE is valid in most cases.

    (So all that PGRE studying I did did not help me get into U Arizona, ha ha.)
  5. Dec 13, 2012 #4
    What do you have against mathematicians?
  6. Dec 13, 2012 #5
    I used to be in mathematics. The approach to problem solving in math -vs- physics is 180 degrees completely different. I had to unlearn many math skills to get good at physics. A physicist is good for solving any kind of problem quickly at a certain level of accuracy. A mathematician must spend a long time proving a truth to an infinite level of accuracy (leaving applied math somewhere in the middle). Mathematics is the study of truth, while physics is the study of models of reality (my definitions based on my experiences). I don't have anything against mathematicians, and would most likely have been better off staying there. But by and large, mathematicians do not tend to be the workaholic, over-the-top, monster problem-solvers that physicists are. I base this on a couple of different grad school experiences, I'm afraid. It's basically like comparing hockey to golf.
  7. Dec 13, 2012 #6
    Great post though, I just hate how there can be so much division between fields (and within them). I'm most likely not going to go to grad school for physics, but I will take your advice and study for the PGRE as much as possible.
  8. Dec 13, 2012 #7
    This is like a physicist's Chuck Norris joke (except you should have ended it by round house kicking your robot into space). Good post tho, this is the sort of advice I have been seeking. I wonder how serious you are about not reading notes/texts. I'm allocating 8 months to prepare, getting more serious as time goes on. I'm starting with a few months of reading/review/math.
  9. Dec 13, 2012 #8


    Staff: Mentor

    The usual view was that Physicists play fast and loose with the math as long as it works but Mathematicians will be very cautious. The most famous historical perspective was in the development of Calculus where it was used extensively in physics before mathematicians put it on rigorous grounds (i eby defining the limit concept more precisely).
  10. Dec 13, 2012 #9
    With regard to reading/reviewing, I have noticed that every time in physics I felt lazy, I focused on reading texts rather than working problems. Physics is 100% about solving problems. I am not saying that you shouldn't read a text (in your grad cores you must read to learn). I am just saying that it is always better to let problems and problem solving direct your learning. I got the high score on my comps by using a similar study strategy as I did on my PGREs. I would get a hold of old comp problems and take them as if it were the real thing, fast and without resources, forcing my brain to operate in panic mode, in ignorance mode, until I got really used to that sensation of starting with NOTHING. Then afterward, I would correct my mistakes (usually a lot, but less and less over time) often having to reread sections from texts. But do you see? I didn't go through E&M reading chapters out of the text, I quickly read sections that taught me to correct my error on a particular problem. So I recommend letting the problems direct your studies or you are being INEFFICIENT.
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2012
  11. Dec 13, 2012 #10
    You built a robot for the sole purpose of proving you can do what engineers can do?
  12. Dec 13, 2012 #11
    We also have two machine shops in the physics building that physics grads use in their research even though we are not "machinists". But yes, I had an engineering buddy that would not shut up about his robot. So I built one. It wasn't R2D2 or anything, but it was cool and it worked. (One of my former students is now getting his PhD in our robotics department making robots that mimic the motion of living creatures. I admit that I would never keep up with that level.)
  13. Dec 13, 2012 #12
    Yeah, that for me is the core lesson of this thread. I never thought of my reading as letting my lazy come out, but it's true. Some books you gain a lot more from reading than others, but I'd say that it's a fair rule that problem solving is more instructive than reading.
  14. Dec 13, 2012 #13


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    I think this post is ok in that it encourages studying. I agree that studying will trump natural ability nearly every time. However, I think the OP's 1st post here is riddled with hyperbole about the importance of the GRE. I am a graduate student and having spoken with my classmates about our scores we were interested to find out that they were all over the map! I don't put any faith in rankings as a satisfactory way of measuring the merit of a program, but in case the OP does, I go somewhere more highly ranked than Arizona by over a factor of 2! Also in rebuttal to the OP's claim about mathematicians, there's also a famous example of Hilbert developing parts of GR almost in parallel with Einstein after just a brief written correspondence between the two men. Also, although physics is competitive in many respects, it is also highly collaborative. Tests like the GRE, and even course grades to a degree, are not necessarily related to the ability of a student to do innovative research in physics. There may be a correlation, but how strong? I think there are a lot of intangibles that these things cannot measure. Surely, though, these tests are of great importance to getting into a good program, but a "good" (well ranked) program does not necessarily mean a good adviser and a "bad" (poorly ranked) program does not necessarily mean a bad one.

    In my opinion, much of the advice in the OP is good, but some of the claims must be taken with handfuls of salt.
  15. Dec 13, 2012 #14


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    You make it seem like the PGRE is a technically hard exam and you generalize American undergraduate universities way too much. I agree with the above that there is a profuse of hyperbole present.
  16. Dec 14, 2012 #15
    Ouch! I am nearly famously known for my hyperbole so maybe I have revealed my identity!

    And actually that is a good point about undergrad programs being different. Being at a highly ranked (and usually expensive) undergrad program surrounded by bright, driven, motivated students (working day and night on physics) definitely provides one a better physics knowledge base (and access in general). I didn't have it myself, but I saw it later (through teaching). And often top notch profs at top notch schools are able to place their undergrads in better PhD programs, which can indeed make up for a lower PGRE than someone without "the pedigree". To be fair though, I did say "here I am speaking to the average American physics undergrad".

    But to claim the rankings don't matter, I believe that is incorrect. Please write a probability function for obtaining an R1 professorship that is a function of program rank. Plug in 10. Now plug 30. Now plug in 60. Compare these numbers. I will bet real money they are quite different! Now write a probability function to get a tenure track position at a 4-year college (i.e., you still get to be a prof). Same thing happens, high rank wins. Hmm. Now the probability for getting a national lab position. Now for getting a grant approved. On and on it goes.

    All things being equal, one should always try to get into the "better programs". What is the difference between #4 and #10? Probably nothing. Between #15 and #40? I would say it matters. Obviously there are profs at lower ranked schools that are able to position their students better than others. But not every grad entering that school's program can work for them! And there probably are some real duds at the very best schools. So a few people there step on land mines. But ON AVERAGE it does matter. And if you don't know exactly what you want to do, and exactly who you want to work for when choosing schools, how should you make this decision?

    Studying hard and doing well on the PGRE gives more options to the average student. And when you consider how little effort is required to do well (in relation to doing research and getting good grades), this is a no brainer.


    Yes I agree, doing well on the PGRE means NOTHING about being a good research scientist. It is a hoop to jump through.


    I make the PGRE sound "technically hard"? I am trying to encourage average US students to study for it more seriously than they typically do (trust me, they do NOT study hard enough). You are correct though, it is actually quite easy. That is why everyone scores 100% and gets into the program of their choice (which in turns causes the rankings not to matter). Is that enough hyperbole for you? I can deliver more...I am a hyperbole machine!


    General relativity? I wonder how many physics PhD students have taken a graduate GR course as part of their curriculum (probably not many). I wonder how many physics profs know anything at all about GR and can do the simplest calculation (probably not many). I will admit GR is more of a mathematics, but I will also claim GR is not mainstream physics. Except for theoretical particle physicists drawing Dynkin diagrams, how many physicists are worried about something like the compactness theorem?

    Unlike you, I do not see a great deal of collaboration between mathematicians and physicists except perhaps (on seldom occasions) at obviously trivial levels (like "joint appointments" on websites). I do not see them writing grants together. I do not see them flocking to each others' colloquia. I do not often see shared papers. (I do see people obviously misplaced, usually someone located in a math department that ends up doing physics.) And searching my brain space, I cannot remember at any time EVER thinking, "I'd better go find a mathematician to help me solve this."

    I have had the experience of speaking to math grads about physics. But there always seems to be such a disconnect. Their interest is about the structure of the mathematical models while our focus is on the use and physical implications of those models. Having gone through the math grad school core courses: abstract algebra, real analysis, topology; I can't think of anything I studied that would translate to helping in the real nitty-gritty of everyday physics research (except maybe for certain extreme theory cases). We might *use* Lie algebras in physics, but we don't *study* Lie algebras in physics. Admittedly, applied math is more ambiguous. But I do remember once trying to describe a computation I was making regarding a reciprocal lattice to an applied math coworker and getting nowhere. It was very frustrating, the valley too wide to cross; he did not have any framework to understand the particulars of what I was describing (in this case condensed matter).


    Anyway, yes, please take anything and everything I say with a grain of salt. I refuse to be held liable for your life choices. And this is a forum, by the way, a place for sharing OPINIONS.

    I have seen physics grads walk through a "rose garden" to PhD and others crawl through "mine fields" (and others destroyed). The typical experience is a mixture of both rose gardens and mine fields, but everyone's perspective is unique. My opinion is that you had better be tough, and really be in love with physics, or else physics grad school will make you miserable.
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2012
  17. Dec 14, 2012 #16


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    This is not a reply so much to content as tone. Presenting yourself as an expert on grad school admission (intentional or not) and the constant hyperbole irks me. If the message you want to relay is, "If you want to do your PhD in physics, then you should study hard and do well in the PGRE." I think you can do that in less words.

    Other than that, I'm failing to see a point behind most of the letters you strung together. Is there a point? I like to think, "study for the PGRE" is a common sense idea.
  18. Dec 14, 2012 #17


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    I suspect a school's "rank" matters a little more in the US than in other countries, but I've always been of the opinion rank should not be a first order concern for students interested in graduate school. Your ability to perform far outweighs your school's rank according to a set of arbitrary standards. Part of academic maturity is learning how to "rank" potential schools according to your own criteria so that you can identify where it is you will perform best.

    In any of the search and selection committees I've been on I can honestly say that the rank of of the school the potential candidates come from has not factored into the decision.

    It's easy to present an "all things being equal" scenario where this higher order effect may play a role, but in reality all things are never equal. If you can't do well at a high ranking school because it's on the other side of the country from your sweetheart, or your supervisor's mentorship style is in conflict with your own, or no one there is working on anything you're interested in, or you can't find anything to do with your down time to blow off steam, or you spend your days volunteering with the "high rank scociety club" and not on your research, or.... then all the rank in the world isn't going to help you once you get out into the real world.
  19. Dec 14, 2012 #18


    Staff: Mentor

    My brother was stuck in just such a minefield. He was assigned to do work under a new prof in the department and initially things went well for the first year or so.

    However after a spell, the prof got disinterested in his research and was increasing less available for consultation. Other profs began to notice that he did that with other grad students under his care, some of these students just left the program for other grad schools or industry.

    Finally one of the senior profs asked why aren't any of his students graduating. So after 6 years of hard work, my brother finally got to graduate with his PhD. Now he's working in industry on physics related projects doing software engineering design.
  20. Dec 14, 2012 #19


    Staff: Mentor

    One thing I've noticed about PF is that newcomers have to get acclimated to the style of discourse presented here. There is a form of ranking going on simply by the number of posts you've submitted.

    With respect to JavaNut's post, I liked it. I genuinely liked it. I saw the hyperbole but thought that its a necessary component to get an undergrad to take the test more seriously and to really prep and study for it.

    We all know this test has limits on what can be tested and that this shows its superficiality but it is useful to grad schools in sorting through the morass of student applications using a simple number common to all students.

    We also see numerous posts from frantic students asking for help because they blew the test and they worry the end of the world is near. So why not try to reach these students earlier and get them to prep for this test and thier qualifiers at the same time.

    Go Hyperbole!
  21. Dec 14, 2012 #20
    No, you are right. That is all I had to say. It's too bad more students don't study (hard enough) for the PGRE even though you are right that it should be common sense. The hyperbole is for entertainment so sorry for irking you. And I am certainly not an expert on physics grad school admission, I am sure it varies greatly between departments, and within a department with who is on the acceptance committee for that year. These are only my specific opinions about how to get into physics grad school in the absence of certainty with which most of us operate. I have had too many friends/students, who were (in my eyes) brilliant, not get into programs they deserved (or not go at all) because of that test (and not studying for it properly).
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2012
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