Preparing for Graduate School — a timeline for freshman through seniors

Why go to grad school? Well, for one, physics is awesome! Also, you even get paid a salary for being there!

Undergraduate seniors in the United States usually apply directly to a Ph. D. program in physics (they earn a master’s too about 1-2 years into this program). Students are generally offered a stipend which covers their tuition and fees, as well as living expenses for the year. Sometimes you can get a separate fellowship for a higher amount of money, or that frees you from teaching/grading responsibilities.

Stipends can vary greatly depending on your university or grant: from $14,000 at a smaller state school like Missouri S&T to $34,000 for an NSF-funded fellowship, all the way to upwards of $50,000 per year for doctoral candidates at EPFL in Switzerland. Some of these fellowships come with teaching responsibilities, others require you only work towards completing your research and dissertation. The more prepared you are to apply for graduate school and fellowships, the better!

We don’t know everything, so feel free to seek out advice from other sources as well, like the College of Arts and Sciences pre-grad advice. There are lots of other great self-help guides elsewhere on the internet too.

(Students who attend a program that leads to only a master’s degree almost always do have to pay tuition and do not get a stipend.)

Freshman and sophomore year

Coursework and education
  • Learn about different areas of physics through classes, research, or attending talks
  • Explore related fields (math, electrical engineering, biophysics, chemistry, etc.)
  • Talk to advisers about the possibility of grad school
  • Get to know your science professors
    • you’ll need 3 scientists to write you recommendations
  • Consider learning a foreign language often used in science
    • Physics Ph. D.’s don’t usually have language exams, but closely related fields like math do
    • French, German, Russian, or Chinese are common requirements
  • Learn how to write code
    • C++, Python, or MATLAB are all good places to start.
    • Once you know one language, it’s a lot easier to learn another!
  • get involved in research!!! You have essentially zero chance of getting into a good science grad school without prior research experience, whether at a university or elsewhere
  • Also regarding research – talk to the grad students/professors in your lab and around the department (they’re generally friendly) about what their life is like. If you can’t picture yourself doing that for 4-6 years, or possibly the rest of your life, then the research-centered PhD programs – and the jobs they lead to – probably aren’t for you.
  • participate in SPS and other physics-related activities
  • consider getting involved in community service, teaching, or outreach projects
Explore your options
  • Is a PhD right for you?
    • prepares you for careers in academia, research
    • takes on average 6 years to complete (~2 years of part-time coursework, part-time research; 4 years of almost all research)
    • is it necessary for your desired career?
    • will it lead to expanded opportunities or higher salaries?
    • will it be personally fulfilling? Will you feel the same way a decade from now?
    • find out what people do with their Ph. D.’s in general
  • What sort of graduate school are you aiming for?

Junior and senior year

Exploring graduate schools
  • Which graduate programs are a good match in terms of
    • academic background (GPA, GRE scores, research)
    • Where you want to live for the next 4-8 years
      • it’s hard to transfer graduate schools
      • it’s virtually impossible to transfer after the second year
    • your research interests
      • many physics students successfully pursue graduate programs in related fields: astronomy, math, engineering…
  • Which graduate schools are geared towards your goals?
    • Find out what recent Ph. D.’s have done at the schools you’re applying to or do in general.
    • if academia isn’t your goal, that’s okay: the percentage of Ph.D.’s that actually become tenured professors is fairly low.
    • However, be aware that a Ph. D. is a degree that is specifically meant to train you for research-oriented jobs
Preparing to apply
  • Things to do beforehand
    • Decide where to apply
      • Places you would actually attend if admitted (grad schools have low admit rates)
      • The department at each school with researchers closest to your interests. This might be not physics – check out astronomy, materials science, electrical engineering, etc. 
    • Look up application deadlines (as early as September of senior year for some programs and fellowships)
    • Continue to build your resume
    • Be prepared for fees (below) or research fee waivers
    • Standardized testing
      • Prepare, prepare, prepare!
      • take the general GRE exam (offered year-round, costs $205 in 2017)
      • take the Physics GRE (offered once in spring and twice in fall, costs $150 in 2017) – if you’re only applying to engineering or applied math, check with each program to see which/if a GRE subject exam is required
  • Graduate school application components…
    • Resume
    • Transcripts, test scores, etc.
    • Statement of purpose (usually 1-2 pages)
    • Diversity statement (often optional)
    • 3 letters of recommendation from scientists
    • Application fee + cost to send official GRE score + cost to send official transcript (~$75-150 per school in 2017) or look into fee waivers
  • Apply for fellowships and other sources of funding
    • If you get a fellowship…
    • You won’t have to worry about whether your dream advisor has funding to support you
    • You might have less semesters of mandatory teaching/grading
    • It probably pays better than what your school would offer
Other options
  • You might consider doing a bridge program for one or two years to transition to a Ph. D. program
    • These are master’s programs that have free tuition and provide you with a full-year living stipend
    • Specifically geared to underrepresented minority students
  • Taking time off before applying to graduate school
    • check out employment opportunities related to physics
    • speak to your advisors about options that may help beef up your resume
  • Programs abroad
    • Look at Fulbright, DAAD, and other grants for specific countries
    • There are also a few very famous fellowships for degree programs in England like the Churchill, Marshall, and Rhodes Scholarships. You may notice that these are for shorter periods of time (like a 1-2 year master’s) and may pay lower stipends than U.S. programs, but they are considered highly prestigious (and you’ll have no problem getting into a US PhD program afterwards). You’ll need to go talk to the fellowships advisors early on if you want to pursue one of these options!

Washington University SPS