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Physics Grad school as an International student.

  1. Jan 15, 2013 #1
    Hi all,

    I'm studying Maths and Physics at a University in Europe and I have a few questions regarding going to Grad school in the U.S. and I would be ever so appreciative if you all could shed some light on these. Thanks!

    1: The GRE
    I know that I must take the PGRE sometime in early 4th year (Senior Year) but what about the GRE? Do I need to take this also?

    2: English Language
    Thankfully, I come from an English speaking country. I assume I do not have to take any proficiency test do I?

    3: Research
    As some of you may know, it is more difficult to get undergrad research experience in Europe than it is in the U.S. but i'm still going to try! According to someone on the PGRE site, Grad school admissions in the U.S. are aware of this and take it into account in the admissions process. Is this true?

    4: Rigid Degrees
    Another difference between the U.S. and E.U. systems is that our degrees are often more Rigid than the U.S. (i.e. we have less opportunity to choose electives), would this harm me in the admissions process. Eg. I wanted to do Condensed Matter in Grad School but have no opportunity to take CM class? Is this taken into account?

    5: Area Specialization
    This isn't an International Student's question specifically, but how on earth does one choose what area of physics to go into? I'm having a really hard time choosing?

    6: Ph. D in US vs EU
    How long does a Ph. D in the US take? In the EU it takes approx. 3 - 4 years but that is starting research almost immediately. In the US as I understand it, one must take Grad Classes for the 1st year? Does it still take the same amount of time?

    Thank you for reading.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 15, 2013 #2
    1) Yes, the general GRE is generally required (no pun intended). It is also generally believed to be among the least relevant of your application package. Just make sure you smoke the math portion and dont bomb the other two portions.

    2) At my grad school you didnt need any proficiency tests if English is your first language. Otherwise you did need tests.

    3) No clue.

    4) Physics BS degrees in the US are usually pretty rigid too. With all the requirements of physics and the max credits for a degree set by the university I think many undergrad programs have trouble fitting in just the basics. Our dept made required upper level classes only 2 credits so that all the core physics classes could be fit in. There was no time for much electives at all and the dept didnt offer many electives at all. I believe this situation is fairly standard in the US.

    5) I suggest choosing the area that the school you are applying to specializes in. Otherwise, why apply to that school? That means that for different schools you tweak your research interests to fit their research area.

    6) The average time for a physics PhD in the US is about 6 or 7 years iirc. This is from getting your BS though, not from getting your MS. It usually includes about two years of coursework for the MS and then another 4 or 5 years doing research for the PhD.
  4. Jan 17, 2013 #3
    Thanks Modus! May I ask, when does one normally take the GRE?
  5. Jan 17, 2013 #4
    Normally in the US they take the GREs in the Fall, get the applications in by Dec. and then hear back over the winter or even spring. Sometimes people have to get their applications out before even getting their GRE scores, if the test was later and the application deadline was early.
  6. Jan 17, 2013 #5


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    Typically after your first year of graduate coursework you get a chance to spend the summer doing research with someone. It's your chance to see if that's what you'd like to do. If your goal is to have a career doing physics research (which very few people end up actually doing), you could look for a field where there are lots of jobs. A high percentage of incoming grad students think they're going to do theory, but only a small percentage actually do. Theory versus experiment is to some extent based on your grades in courses like field theory. Different fields involve working in groups of different sizes, and this is an important personal consideration. If you're in experimental particle physics, you're a cog in a wheel of a gigantic organization, and there is very little room for creativity or originality.

    In the U.S., a PhD could take as little as 4 years if you're a theorist and you latch on to a successful project early on. It could take as much as 9 years if you're an experimentalist and your initial project doesn't work out. There is a tendency for departments to keep experimentalist grad students around for longer because they're useful to their professors as cheap labor. Many experimentalists really have to be firm with their advisers in order to get out in a reasonable amount of time. In fields like experimental particle physics, there is a tendency for grad students to spend a lot of time doing tasks like programming that are useful to their lab groups but orthogonal to science.
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