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Theoretical Physicist

  1. Mar 26, 2009 #1
    I'm a freshman at Amherst College in my first college physics course (actually an E&M course). I was doing poorly at first (B-/B) but have gotten into the swing of things and am thoroughly enjoying the theory portion of the class(the experiments are also fun but are sometimes tedious). I have a few questions. What stats would be necessary for admission to CalTech/MIT/Harvard etc. for graduate school as a theoretical physicist (GPA, GRE, research, etc)? I am not sure what grade I will end up with in this class because of the first half of it so will that affect my chances badly as long as it's not a C+ or lower? I've also been doing reading with some theory and although the book is more for laymen, I think it is fascinating.

    Thanks for any information.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 27, 2009 #2
    You're going to need very good grades for those graduate programs. It's beyond just that though, each of those programs turn down many 4.0 students with perfect/near-perfect PGRE scores.
    You'll need grades, research, excellent letters of recommendation, and a top notch PGRE score.

    If you really enjoy the material, go for it.
  4. Mar 27, 2009 #3
  5. Mar 27, 2009 #4
    OK, here is perhaps a more concrete question for you all. While my strengths lie in the sciences I am taking about half of my classes in the humanities. It is easier to get a B- or above than in the sciences (you have to try to get a C in the humanities), however, it's also a lot harder (at least for me) to get straight A's in the humanity courses I take. Would grad schools see this as me having broad range of interests(I don't do poorly in the classes - B+ or A-) and not being afraid to challenge myself with something I may not be comfortable or would they see this as me not getting 3.8+ overall GPA and therefore I'm out(at places like caltech/MIT/harvard etc)?

  6. Mar 27, 2009 #5


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    You have to remember it's a competative process to get into graduate schoo.. They schools you're listing have very competative programs, so it's not a case of making some kind of minimum cut-off. Getting into graduate school is more about being the top candidate in the applicant pool.

    I strongly suspect for the the big name schools, you will be up against other students who have near perfect GPAs (both core and overall) and who distinguish themselves with additional merits such as research experience, publications, distinguished scholarships, impressive reference letters, etc.

    That being said, you can get what is likely an equivalent education from some of the less competative schools. One thing to keep in mind though is that if you're struggling to get a high mark in first year physics - it's not going to get easier. And stacking your courses to boost your overall GPA is not going to make you any better at physics. I think it's important to have some diversity in your degree, but selection committees know all the tricks.
  7. Mar 31, 2009 #6
    I suspect Amherst has a respected undergrad physics program (I went to a very similar institution), but you will likely need something in the range of A- to A average to be competitive at top grad programs. Fortunately ultimately those grades are really only essential in upper level physics courses... don't let your grades from this year cut off any aspirations. And take full advantage of the small liberal arts college environment by talking to professors for advice!
  8. Mar 31, 2009 #7


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    Unlike undergraduate admissions, in which a wide range of interests is a favorable factor, graduate school admission criteria are focused on the specific field you're applying for. That's not to say your overall GPA is completely irrelevant. I expect it would raise a red flag if you had straight A's in physics and a just-barely-acceptable C average (or whatever the minimum for graduation is at Amherst) in all your other courses.
  9. Mar 31, 2009 #8
    I don't plan on getting C's in the other classes, more A-/B+ average. That shouldn't be a problem then?
  10. Mar 31, 2009 #9
    To get into those schools you have to be a genius. If you are gettings Bs in freshman you are not a genius in physics. The only excuse you have for gettings Bs are a) you never took physics in highschool or b) you studied 1 hour a week. If this is all you are capable of with effort, let me hit you real hard and tell you that you will NEVER even make the cut off of those schools. Not because one C will screw your transcript; it won't. But because your grades in upper years won't be as good due to your lack of aptitude.
  11. Apr 1, 2009 #10
    What he's really trying to say is that YOU HAVE TO DEVOTE YOURSELF to whatever goal you are trying to persue. Study hard, get rid of video games (or at least a little :smile:), and find better hobbies that help you think. Best advice I can give you since I'm trying to do the same thing.

  12. Apr 1, 2009 #11


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  13. Apr 2, 2009 #12
    It is a lot harder than you might think to gain admission into a top graduate school.

    I had 1 B, straight A's otherwise, numerous national awards (Goldwater, Rhodes, etc.) and still got rejected from all the top 20 schools I applied to. I am pretty sure I had good letters of recommendation, too. It was a mix between the economy tanking and the competitive atmosphere (and crummy GRE scores). Everyone thinks that they will be the next great theorist at MIT or Caltech. In reality it's near impossible to do this.

    And the GRE is very, very important. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise. A good score may not save you but a bad score will doom you.
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