Graduate School in Physics… Where the Hell do I Start?!

Graduate school admissions committees are currently in the heat of figuring out who to send acceptance letters to. A flurry of admission and rejection letters are now sitting in hopeful candidate email accounts, waiting to spring upon candidates the first chance they get. A rejection letter is always hard to deal with; the feelings of inadequacy that come with one can get you into a state of total depression for days on end. There is nothing as awesome, though, as seeing that first acceptance letter; the validation of the community of cognoscenti comes with it a serotonin and dopamine rush which leaves you with a smile on your face that, no matter how hard you try, will NOT go away. What steps do you need to take to give yourself the best chance of achieving that cloud-9 feeling?

The process of applying to graduate school is just as stressful as waiting for admissions decisions, and planning your applications well in advance is crucial to making sure that you have a competitive application. I won’t go into the obvious: making sure that you maintain a good GPA, taking all the physics classes you possibly can, and starting research sometime around your junior year. I will go into the logistics of the application process, and setting up the proper timeline you’ll need to carry out your goal.

I CANNOT stress how important it is to do well on the Physics GRE. Top 10 schools have average scores in the high 800’s, with averages for foreign students being in the 900’s. These are very difficult scores to achieve, impossible without thorough preparation and practice. Begin studying for the exam in your Junior year, and make sure you sign up as quickly as possible. Even though you may not have all the necessary background to attack each problem type, it is never too early to gain acquaintance to the test format and question types. 100 questions in 170 minutes leaves one with only a single minute and 42 seconds per question. This isn’t enough time to spend doing detailed calculations and difficult integrals. Most importantly, it isn’t enough time to sit, stare and ponder. Each question requires you to make a split second decision:

1. I know enough about this problem to attempt it.

2. I don’t know enough about this problem, and I will skip it.

Guessing is detrimental to your score, and one can do a lot better by simply leaving a fifth of the exam questions blank instead of answering every single one.

A second major trick towards doing well on the exam is mastering the art of unit analysis. Many of the questions will try to goad you into setting up an integral to find an analytical solution to a given physical situation, and if you fall into that trap you will WASTE time. A quick unit analysis of the solutions can usually get you down to two possibilities, and a further examination of relevant variables and physical limits will do the job of pinpointing the right answer. Now, the only unfortunate thing about practicing for the exam is that there are no test prep books on the market (I don’t count the REA book, which isn’t even close to being an accurate representation of the test). There are, however, four five published exams by ETS which are floating around the internet. I have kindly collected them for you here:

Physics GRE Test 1

Physics GRE Test 2

Physics GRE Test 3

Physics GRE Test 4

Physics GRE Test 5

Once you’ve taken the Physics GRE in the second semester of your junior year, it’s time to start doing some hardcore research into schools. I would start at both the US News ranking of graduate programs and  PhDs.org. The first is a great start towards comparing programs by topic, while the latter has a lot of information about retention rates, demographics, and post-graduate statistics. I would suggest creating a spreadsheet with important information on it for the top 15 programs that you decide you will be applying to.

Once you know which schools have programs that you’re interested in, it is time to start researching the faculty and the specific research they are working on. Remember that even though a program does work in a field you’re interested in doesn’t mean that you will find the topics being researched by faculty interesting. Usually a thourough look at faculty interests will whittle down your list of potential programs to around 10. I would also advise emailing several poeple in each of these departments and asking about the programs. Whithin a few correspondences you should manage to find at least one person on the admission committee, at which point it is encouraged that you make your existence known! Don’t go overboard, however and inundate faculty members with emails that might leave them with a sour taste in their mouths… moderation is the key! Make sure you’re also updating that spreadsheet with everything you learn.

Your grad program research should be done by September, at which point most schools have started posting the current year’s applications. This would be a good time to start talking to proffessors and research advisors about writing letters of recommendation for you. Though all schools require three letters, it is a good idea to get four proffessors to agree to write letters for you. This could be a life saver for you if one of the proffessors backs out or accidently falls off the edge of the Earth. Simultaneously to asking for letters, you should start working on the apps themselves.

Don’t underestimate a grad school application. They are tedious beasts, that require quite a bit of time to fill out. You can create a general template for the essays you will have to submit, but quite a bit of personalization must go into each one before you evven consider uploading it onto an application website. The format I used was pretty straight forward:

1st Paragraph: Intro to the Awesomeness of me, short biography, and interests

2nd Paragraph: Coursework preparation and Extracurricular learning

3rd Paragraph: Research

4th Paragraph: Research

5th Paragraph: Research

6th Paragraph: Desires to work with Prof X and Y (and Z and …), desire to work at awesome facilities

7th Paragraph: Reiteration of the Awesomeness of me, and the Uber-Awesomeness of given school

Pretty straightforward, right? Just make sure you proof read it. Then make sure at least three more people proof read it. You don’t want any grammatical mistakes detracting the readers from you making your case that you belong at their institution for the next five years.

In tandem with writing essays and filling in app questionnaires, you’ll also have to order copies of GRE exam scores (Don’t forget to also take the general GRE, which is offered pretty much every week in most metropolitan areas), and transcripts. Some schools require you to send two copies of your GRE scores. Others may have you defer sending official transcripts until an admission descision is made. ALL of them will want digital copies of both documents, so get your butt to Kinkos or the computer lab, and save the documents on a thumb drive. This part of the application process can get pretty drainingl. GRE scores are about $20 per school, transcripts run around the same range, and the applications themselves can cost upwards of $120. You’ll no doubt end up spending close to 1.5k on 10 schools worth of apps, so make sure you get everything right since you don’t want all that moolah to go to waste!

Top tier schools have deadlines around the beginning of December, whereas lower tier schools have rolling deadlines up until the end of February. In either case, it is considerate to email your letter writers the week before a deadline to gently remind them that it is approaching. Once that has been done… the wait begins…

As a further lesson in proper etiquette, make sure that you keep your letter writers informed about the what’s happening with your applications. Once they have submitted all of your letters, be sure to thank them for all of their help. Don’t forget that they’re already members of the community you are applying to get into, and will no doubt be a part of your scientific family for years to come. As you learn from schools, tell them!

The entire process of applying to graduate schools can be very draining, but well worth the toil. You know why you want to go to grad school: you love science. You spend the nights thinking about quark gluon plasmas and neutron stars, you read mathematical texts for fun at cafes, and you make jokes about neutrinos that leave entire rooms silent because they have no clue what you’re talking about (yeah, it must totally suck to be a layman). Graduate school will deepen your understanding of the field you already love. It will hone your mind, turning you into a razor sharp weapon of utter Awesomeness. Making sure that you give the application process the due time and respect will ensure that you are a competitive candidate to the schools you apply to.

The months of extra work, headaches, and anxiety attacks are a small price to pay when you read:

“On behalf of the Graduate Committee, I am pleased to offer you admission…”

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3 thoughts on “Graduate School in Physics… Where the Hell do I Start?!

  1. To be honest, I think your article is skewed because you don’t emphasize the importance of research. If you really want to apply to grad school for physics (or any other science for that matter), the preparation really begins a couple of years before the application. From the moment you think you might eventually want to go to grad school, you want to get as much research experience as humanly possible (and if this means you start doing research in high school, that would be just awesome).

    Between an applicant with a first-authorship of a research paper and decent-but-not-fantastic (say 70th percentile) GRE, versus someone else with 99th percentile GREs but zero research experience, the applicant with the paper would get the offer hands-down.

    1. I didn’t really want to go into research in this post, but to emphasize different aspects of the GRE and to give potential applicants some tips on how to attack it. I do agree with you completely that research is an integral aspect of your application, and be prepared to see a post very soon about how to go about with it. Any suggestions you have on the topic would be greatly appreciated.

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