1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

What do physics graduate schools really look for, aside from an excellent GPA?

  1. Apr 25, 2012 #1
    Besides obtaining an outstanding GPA, what are the major things that graduate schools look for in candidates? Any input is greatly appreciated, but please do try to provide a bit more detail.

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 25, 2012 #2
    Physics graduate schools really look for one and only one thing, and that's to what extent you'll survive and thrive in the doctoral program. Everything else basically just supports that.
  4. Apr 25, 2012 #3
    Research and publication.
  5. Apr 25, 2012 #4

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Nano-Passion is speaking from the perspective of a college sophomore. So he's not speaking from experience and is even less familiar with this that you are.

    Twofish is correct - they want to select students who will "survive and thrive". So doing well in a research environment is important. Publication - which at the undergrad level is something driven more by luck than anything else - is much less important.
  6. Apr 25, 2012 #5
    Hey Vanadium 50,

    Your comment on undergraduate publication intrigued a question. Suppose that I'm the first author of a publication on one of the selective journals (the Phys. Rev. series, for example), does that not give me an advantage in applying to grad school? Thanks!
  7. Apr 25, 2012 #6
    I'm not a PhD candidate but looking at profiles of admitted student at highly ranked/top schools the PGRE is very important. A not so great PGRE score can be overcome (usually by heavy exposure to undergraduate research) but if you want a great shot at a strong it would be very helpful to score at least an 80 percentile on the PGRE. You can get into a top program without *extensive* research experience but your stats otherwise will need to be stellar.
  8. Apr 25, 2012 #7
  9. Apr 26, 2012 #8

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    Compared to what? Someone who did no research? Sure. Someone who spent as much time doing research but wasn't the first author of a paper? In that case, the letters which describe what the student actually did and actually learned will be far more valuable.

    I think you meant :redface:
  10. Apr 26, 2012 #9
    It's better than not having publications, but.....

    This reason that there isn't a "cookbook" criteria to get in is to avoid having people game the system. If I tell you that having an undergraduate publication is the check box that people need to get into graduate school, then people will just "check the box" and get undergraduate publications.

    Graduate school admissions are different than undergraduate in that there is a lot less box-checking, because there are fewer applications and so people are less likely to look at applications mechanically.

    For example, one thing that the committee will try to figure out if you have an undergraduate publication is how much work you actually did. Being first author is *much* less impressive than having a recommendation letter that goes into detail about what a good researcher you were.

    The other thing is that conventions for publication order are very different in different fields of physics. In astrophysics, publication order doesn't mean very much. Often, you want the most senior person to be first author, so that they have a large list of publications when they apply for grants. However, because everyone knows that the order is based on seniority, being first co-author really doesn't mean a huge amount.

    The other thing is that different schools and different people will have somewhat different criterion. This is a good thing. The odds of getting into one particular school involves a great deal of randomness, but if you apply to six to eight schools and you can't get in anywhere, it's unlikely that luck was the main reason.
  11. Apr 26, 2012 #10
    I think that people are overly obsessed with this "top school" "school ranking" non-sense.

    Something to point out is that Harvard Business School graduates about 900 students each year.

    The *total* number of physics Ph.D.'s issued by all schools in the United States is between 1000 and 1500 each year.

    If *anyone* accepts you, then you are in good shape. Because there is this huge pool of foreign graduate students, even the *worst* physics graduate schools by whatever criterion you choose to use in the US can set pretty high standards for who gets in.

    The other thing is that physics departments are very different from each other. Quick question: which is better the local burger joint or a five-star French restaurant? The answer really depends on whether you like French food or not, how much money you want to spend, etc. etc. etc.
  12. Apr 26, 2012 #11
    Here comes the awkwardness. I didn't actually interact with my advisor very much. Most of the work was done independently. The major thing that my advisor did was to offer me a topic(which is VERY important). After that, I just worked on my own and reported to him when I got results so he could check whether it made sense(The research was in theoretical physics). He seemed to be impressed by my work, but I don't think he could say much about me.

    I do consider myself lucky in terms of being able to have a publication after 2 months of research. But I'm actually not going to grad school in physics.
  13. Apr 26, 2012 #12
    I'm pretty sure he could say a lot that's relevant.

    Independent worker. Needed little supervision. Showed a lot of initiative. If mentions that he gave you a problem, and a month later you showed up with a lot of progress.
  14. Apr 26, 2012 #13
    What is the significance of the Harvard business school analogy? There are way too many confounding factors and differences between top business schools and *all* physics programs to really extrapolate anything meaningful from such a comparison.

    I believe obsessing over school rankings in theory is nonsense. There are an infinite number of ways to rate graduate programs, and even by switching methodology only a small amount rankings usually change a lot. People take USNEWS as gospel when there are many ways to assess a program's quality and an infinite number of ways to distribute the weight of how important each standard used is.

    However I believe (as do many others) that the importance of going to a "top" program is self-perpetuating to the point where it has real world significance. Looking at university faculties the overwhelming majority of professors having attended prestigious programs gives you some indication what you should strive toward if your objective is to go into academia. Likewise in industry employers in general I'm sure are far more swayed by a doctorate from MIT than one from Arkansas state.

    Good shape for what? If your objective is to learn physics then yes, you are doing great. But looking at opportunities beyond the next six years paints a very different picture.

    Another motivating factor is a personal feeling of satisfaction. People want to associate with prestigious institutions to assess their own self worth (however ridiculous this might be) by going to the universities that the giants in the field are associated with.
    Last edited: Apr 26, 2012
  15. Apr 26, 2012 #14

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    What that tells you is what things were like 20 or 30 years ago. If you look at recent hires, you'll find a much broader distribution.
  16. Apr 27, 2012 #15
    It tells you that if you get accepted to *any* physics Ph.D. program, you are already in a very selective and elite group.
    It tells you what you could have done had you had a time machine available. What basically happened was that in the 1960's and 1970's there were a ton of new programs opening up. The people that got hired came from a small number of universities, because those were the only universities that were producing Ph.D.'s. The trouble is that those universities started producing graduates, and you end up with saturation.

    Instead of traveling into the past, it's better to think about traveling into the future. My guess is that it will have something to do with the internet.

    Not true for physics Ph.D. hiring from US schools. (That's true for MBA hiring and for non-US schools, but for different reasons.)

    If you look at where most astrophysics Ph.D.'s working on Wall Street get their Ph.D.'s, it's mostly from the big state schools. Again there is the "frontier" effect. Big state schools are producing large numbers of physics Ph.D.'s, banks are hiring physics Ph.D.'s.

    If your main objective isn't to learn physics, then you shouldn't be getting a physics Ph.D. If the job market continues to be what it is, you are doomed if you go the traditional route. Now if space aliens invade, then they'll be a ton of demand for Ph.D.'s from anywhere.

    Or more accurately where people that know absolutely nothing about physics think the giants of the field are.

    One thing that seniors looking for graduate schools really should do is to become familiar enough with the field to know where the giants of the field really are. In my case, SUNY Stony Brook, University of Arizona, and Florida Atlantic University happen to be really big names.

    The other thing is that physics is a field in which it's not that hard to become a center of excellence in one niche.
    Last edited: Apr 27, 2012
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook