Tips When Applying to Graduate School
Usually, most physics majors pursue one of two paths: a career in academia or a career in industry. Going to graduate school is definitely necessary for pursuing academia and sometimes helpful for a career in industry. This page is dedicated to providing information to help you learn more about graduate school.
Finding A School
- GradSchoolShopper is an amazing resource from the American Institute of Physics that helps you specifically select graduate programs in the physical sciences based on your preferences.
- Peterson's is also a good resource similar to GradSchoolShopper, however it is not specific to physics-related graduate programs.
- Ask professors and researchers, especially ones you have worked with, within your subfield where they think you should apply. These individuals will have an idea of which programs are stronger in your particular interest, as well as how difficult it is to be accepted at these various institutions.
Picking an Advisor
An important aspect of your graduate education is your PhD advisor. This person could potentially serve as your mentor and connect you to the world of physics and a successful research career. However, he/she could also not be a good fit for you and have ideas about your research direction and career which are not what you had in mind. Thus, you should be mindful of choosing your advisor, since this person can make or break your graduate school experience.
When compiling your list of prospective schools, make sure to look at their websites and the research of the faculty whose work interests you. Usually, their websites will list current and former students. Look into their careers to see if this advisor has been successful at getting these people good postdoctoral positions or if these students have won any prestigious fellowship or prizes.
If possible, try to visit your prospective schools and meet with the professors on our list to see what they are like in person. Make sure to do background reading on their research prior to visit, as it shows that you are willing to learn and can think complexly about the topic. Ask them interesting questions (not something that can be answered by a simple Google search!).
Also, meeting with their graduate students individually helps to get a better idea of what it is like to work with this advisor. Sometimes, if they are unhappy, they might not say it outright as it may get back to the advisor. Thus pay attention to their wording and "hidden" comments. Responses to look out for are:
- "He/she is okay most of the time, but prepared to work independently since he/she is not always around or too busy to answer e-mails..."
- "He/she can be a bit difficult to deal with at times..."
- "He/she loses interest if you are not doing exactly what his/her research direction is..."
Considering the School Itself
Look into some statistics and see how many students in the program go on to further their careers. If you can, visit your top choices. If the school is extremely interested, they will often fly you out or reimburse you for the travel funds. While looking at the school, pay attention to the community among the students and look into the offered classes. If you have the time, sit in on a lecture.
Questions to Ask While Visiting
To the Department
- What are the academic requirements to graduate?
- What percentage of students pass qualifying exams the first time?
- How many chances are there to pass qualifying exams?
- What is the average time to obtain a PhD?
- When and how do you choose your advisor?
- Who selects the dissertation committee?
- Is financial support offered through a teaching or research assistantship? How much is the stipend?
- How many hours per week is expected for a TA or RA?
- Is funding guaranteed?
- Is there a teaching requirement? How are teaching assignments made (lottery or choice)?
- What sort of computing facilities are available?
- What are the provisions for housing, day care, health insurance, etc.?
To the Current Grad Students
- Do different research groups interact? Is there collaboration with the department or across departments?
- What is the actual time commitment for a TA/RA?
- What is the social atmosphere like?
- Do grad students have access to university facilities?
- Is there a strong graduate student organization?
- Are the provisions for housing, health insurance, etc. adequate?
- What are your likes and dislikes about this department/program?
- Specifically, ask the female grad students: Do you feel this department/program is supportive of women?
Each graduate school program has a unique process of applying, be it paper or online, with different supplementary materials. It is a good idea to create a spreadsheet of application requirements for each school, as well as their deadlines, allowing you to better prioritize time. It is helpful to get a professor/advisor to look over your application to see if there is anything you have missed.
The GRE (General and Physics)
Usually, graduate programs require both the General and Physics GRE, however check with the graduate programs you are interested in prior to taking these tests. The GRE revised General Test is taken on a computer (unless you are outside the United States and Puerto Rico) and consists of three sections: Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing. You can score 130-170 points (in one-point increments) on the Verbal and Quantitative sections and 0-6 (in half-point increments) on the Analytical Writing section. The ETS GRE website has a bunch of information explaining the structure of the test, how scoring works, how to prepare for the test, and even a free practice exam. You can also register for the test, which is extremely flexible, as the general test is offered year-round, a couple times a week.
On the other hand, there is the Physics GRE, which is a 100-question, multiple choice exam, covering all topics from classical mechanics to specialized topics. You can score between 200-990 in ten-point increments. For both the General and Physics GRE, these scores are valid for five years. For tips on taking the GRE (both Physics and General), see the "Tips for Taking the GRE" tab.The topic breakdown goes as follows (as taken from the ETS Physics GRE website):
- Classical Mechanics (20%)
- Electromagnetism (18%)
- Optics and Wave Phenomena (9%)
- Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics (10%)
- Quantum Mechanics (12%)
- Atomic Physics (10%)
- Special Relativity (6%)
- Laboratory Methods (6%)
- Specialized Topics (9%)
The Curriculum Vitae (CV)
The CV is a succinct summary of your academic background and accomplishments. The purpose of the CV in this case is to get the reader interested and invite you to interview for their graduate program. The difference between a CV and a resume is that the CV is to specifically showcase all your academic accomplishments as opposed to tailoring a one-page document of general job experience for a specific job. Keep your CV updated with your academic interests, education, research experience, etc. The Career Services Center provides consultations to help you look over and edit your CV prior to turning it in.
The Statement of Purpose
A statement of purpose should convince the reader (specifically, the faculty on the selection committee) that your achievements show promise for your success ad a graduate student. Each school will have a different prompt, however, essentially, these prompts are asking for the same four pieces of information:
- What do you want to study at graduate school?
- Why do you want to study it?
- What is your experience in your field? (Discuss the relevance of your activities if you don't have experience explicitly relating to your field)
- What do you plan to do with your degree once you have it
Make sure to do background research on the program you are applying for, as well as relevant research currently being done at that university. Keep in mind the instructions regarding length and deadlines for each graduate program. Make sure to tailor a unique statement of purpose regarding each program you are applying for. It is beneficial to reflect on your academic, social, and personal journey in this statement.
The Letters of Recommendation
Usually, physics graduate programs require three letters of recommendation as a part of the application process. Ask professors who know you well or you have done research for. A good piece of advice is to ask the professor whether or not they can write a strong letter of recommendation for you, since it's always possible for professors to write a mediocre letter. You should compile a folder of information about yourself, your CV, your statement of purpose, the list of graduate schools you are applying for, and instructions for submission of recommendation materials. (Following the helpful graduate school advice of the Black Studies Department at UCSB)
Document with Information about Yourself should include:
- The classes you have taken with this professor and the grades you've received
- The research you've done with the professor
- Your ethnic/cultural history
- Any extracurricular activities throughout your college experience
- Why you are interested in the program that you are pursuing
- Your cumulative and major GPAs
- Any challenges that you've faced during your college experience
The Graduate School List should include:
- Name of the school
- Person/program to contact
- School address
- Deadline for submission of the recommendation
- Relevant website(s)
- A brief statement about why you're interested in the school and who you hope to work with at the school
Instructions for Submission should include:
- Whether the recommender will receive an email from the institution with submission instructions? If so, when should the recommender expect to receive the email?
- To whom should the letter be addressed?
- What specific questions need to be addressed in the letter?
- Does the recommender need to fill something out in addition to writing your letter?
- When is the deadline for submission of these recommendations?
- How the letter is submitted? (If by mail, include a pre-stamped and addressed envelope for submission)
- MAKE SURE TO FORMALLY THANK THE PROFESSOR FOR WRITING YOUR LETTER OF REC!