What Makes a Strong PhD Applicant in Physics?

  • #1
MustySponge
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Hello,

I'm having a difficult time figuring out my chances of being accepted to PhD programs, and what tier schools to realistically apply too. My GPA is 3.47 and my only research experience is my senior thesis that was started this semester. I have also been a TA for two years and am the vice president of my college's SPS chapter. I don't expect to get into top tier PhD programs, but I am unsure on what tier of schools to aim for. I am interested in Georgia Tech and University of Florida and I think I have a decent shot at getting into the programs but am still unsure.

Any insight is appreciated, I feel lost and fear I might be aiming too high and not get accepted into schools that I even considered as safeties.

Edit: Wanted to add a few details. I didn't specify initially, but it is indeed a PhD in physics that I want to pursue. My GPA is being weighed down by some humanities and required classes I took that weren't part of the physics curriculum that I didn't care about much at the time. In the upper level physics classes I have all As besides two Bs in intermediate mechanics and math physics.
 
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  • #2
Don't concern yourself so much with "tiers" of university, as identifying what you'd like to study. First narrow it down to a subfield of interest. Astrophysics? Medical physics? Solid state? Geophysics? Etc.

Look at your personal strengths. What kind of work do you enjoy doing? Coding? Lab work? Data science? And what do really excel at? This will help you to identify the kind of project you might be interested in.

Read about current work being done in your subfield of interest. Identify the projects or experiments that you find really cool, or that you feel are really importance? What kind of project would you be proud to be a part of?

Reflect on your learning style and how you like to be mentored. What's been successful in the past? What hasn't worked? Do you like rigid schedules, or do you need freedom and independence? Matching up with a supervisor who you jive with can make a tremendous difference in your PhD.

Start researching schools where the Venn diagrams of all these factors overlap. Visit them if you can. Speak with graduate advisors, potential supervisors, and current grad students. Find out who is taking on new students, (and who is not).

The external ranking of a school really won't have as much influence on your career as will getting involved with a project, supervisor and school that will facilitate your best work.
 
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  • #3
First, talk to your advisor. What does she say?

Next, what did you get on the GRE? If you didn't take it, it may close some doors.

Where you want as an undergrad matters. A 3.47 from MIT or Chicago is something very different than from...er...Brownvard. Which is different from East Cupcake Community College.

I agree that tiers are meaningless. However, usually the rule of thumb is that most people go down one tier when going to grad school, and the trick is to find a program that is still very strong in the subfield you are interested in. I don't really see the commonality between Florida and Georgia Tech.
 
  • #4
How did you decide on those 2 schools to apply to specifically? As mentioned by Choppy, getting admitted to PhD programs is first and foremost about research fit. Find the programs where there are researchers that are currently conducting research in the field(s)/topic(s) you'd be interested in pursuing for your PhD. Then contact them expressing an interest in their research, giving a brief overview of your background, and inquiring if they think you would be a good fit for their research and, if so, are they anticipating accepting new students in the upcoming cycle. Any affirmative responses is a program you should consider applying to. If you have additional constraints (e.g. location) eliminate any that don't meet them.

From that list you can try and estimate your chances of admission based on your GPA. Of course there's more that goes into admissions like the extensiveness and relevance of your research experience and the strength of your LORs, and your letter writer's/professor's may be able to give you a sense of how competitive an applicant they feel you would be to the different tiers of programs.
 
  • #5
MustySponge said:
I am interested in Georgia Tech and University of Florida

Vanadium 50 said:
I don't really see the commonality between Florida and Georgia Tech.
what he said (very small).jpg


U. of Florida doesn't even HAVE a PhD program in physics, just undergrad.

Ga Tech used to be a premier Engineering School (mostly EE, but some others) when I graduated there in the late 60's and it has been working assiduously (and apparently quite successfully) ever since then to diversify itself away from just engineering. I've read numerous articles over the last few decades about various physics and computer science contributions made by Ga Tech folks --- and that's not because I'm a graduate; I paid zero attention to it for several decades then started seeing the kind of articles I just mentioned, which surprised me because it didn't sound like the place I went to (and that is an improvement).
 
  • #6
phinds said:
U. of Florida doesn't even HAVE a PhD program
Yes they do.

Georgia Tech is definitely evolving. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about going there to understand where it was, where it is, and where it is going before applying there. (Good advice in general) It could be a great fit. Or not.
 
  • #7
Vanadium 50 said:
Yes they do.
Huh. The web site I looked at said undergrad only but I found a different one that says they have a masters degree (in physics). Do you mean that they have PhD program in that they lay the groundwork for future graduate work beyond the masters?
 
  • #8
Vanadium 50 said:
Georgia Tech is definitely evolving. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about going there to understand where it was, where it is, and where it is going before applying there. (Good advice in general) It could be a great fit. Or not.
Also, it is a MISERABLE place to be in the summers :smile:
 
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  • #9
And Florida is better?

Yes, Florida has had a PhD program for a long time. (And Sally Field's brother teaches there)
 
  • #10
phinds said:
Huh. The web site I looked at said undergrad only but I found a different one that says they have a masters degree (in physics). Do you mean that they have PhD program in that they lay the groundwork for future graduate work beyond the masters?
We're talking about the University of Florida at Gainesville, correct? Yes they do have a full-fledged physics PhD program: https://www.phys.ufl.edu/wp/index.php/graduate/. That's where John Slater setup shop after he retired from MIT.
 
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  • #12
This is a bit of a rehash of the above posts. Physics department websites provide much information about their faculty, research programs, and even recent publications and the usual hype about why you should go there. What could help you out a great deal is to be able to show why you will be an asset to the desired program. Lacking hands-on UG research experience is a handicap. However taking a deep look at your abilities, interests, skills, and how they interface with the research program at the universities of interest as Choppy suggests you might be able to come up with a strong LOI. You have to learn to sell yourself now to grad school and later to prospective jobs.

And to reemphasize the fact that some universities have research programs that considerably outrank their departments.
 
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