Advice for Applying to Graduate School

Physics Grad School Advice/FAQ

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about applying to grad school.  Please keep in mind that different people may give slightly different advice, and specific best answers may vary according to physics subfield, and might vary according to the particular schools and programs you are interested in.

You are encouraged to consult your mentors and get different opinions.

Questions about Applying to Grad School

When should I start thinking about grad school?  When and how should I prepare to apply to grad school? 

The most important factor for getting accepted to graduate school is, by far, research experience.  Typically undergraduates get involved in research in the summer after sophomore year; the usual time to start looking for mentors and positions would be January or February of sophomore year.  However some students start earlier, and some don't start until later.  Feel free to ask the Director of Undergraduate Studies for advice.

In your junior year, you will want to start thinking about the GRE (which must be taken by around October of senior year for grad school applications) and talking to mentors about specific schools and programs.  Applications are due around November or December for the following academic year.  (Although see note below about the GRE.)

Is it better to have a single research experience or several?

It can be fine either way.  You probably don't want to have very many short research experiences (gives the impression of lack of attention span, and it will be hard to accomplish anything of depth if you don't spend enough time in a given research group).  However having a couple of different experiences is fine, and will give you some breadth as well as more potential letter-writers.   A single research experience culminating in a major accomplishment can also be very good.  In general, don't worry too much about this when choosing research projects; focus on working on projects you are excited about.

How do I figure out which schools to apply to?

Talk to your research mentor(s)!  They can often give you very good advice about which schools have research programs you might be interested in, and which faculty members you might want to work with.

You can also look on the web, but often information found there is out of date.  Again, your research mentors will often know which information is reliable.

If for grad school you are interested in a different subfield than you are currently doing research in as an undergraduate, you can seek out faculty members working in your area of interest for the future.  The Director of Undergraduate Studies can help suggest people to talk to.

You also want to consider how likely it is you will be accepted at a given school, given your portfolio.  Again, discussion with your mentors will help.

How many schools should I apply to?

Since it costs effort and money to apply to a school, you usually won't want to apply to too many.    A typical number is five to ten.

You want to make sure you pick at least some schools you can be reasonably confident of being accepted by.  Keep in mind that there is randomness in the grad student selection process at any institution; sometimes some schools accept fewer or more than usual in a given year.

What is most important in a grad school application?

By far, the most important component of your grad school application is your letters of recommendation.   

See the next question for advice on letter-writers.  Give your letter-writers plenty of time (at least several weeks).  Also let them know ahead of time the list of schools you will be applying to and the due dates (a Google spreadsheet can be helpful).  It's also a good idea to share your CV and research statement with your letter-writers (you can ask for feedback on these at the same time, too).  

It is sometimes OK to have more than three letters-- if this is allowed, and you have more than three letter-writers, go ahead.

Good grades, good GRE scores, and your research statement also matter.  But a weakness in any of these areas can sometimes be compensated by strong letters of recommendation.  (Note that many schools are now no longer requiring GRE scores.)

How should I choose letter-writers?

It is especially important that at least one of your letters, and preferably all, come from a research mentor.  It is OK if some letters come from faculty members you have taken courses from, but letter-writers who can describe your research accomplishments are more valuable for your application than classroom instructors.    It is much better to have letters from instructors who have taught you physics, math, etc., rather than non-science or non-technical subjects.  In general, avoid letters from coaches, employers, etc. unless these people know you in the context of research work.  Ask your primary research advisor for advice on who else to ask for letters.  Sometimes if you are applying to a particular school and are interested in a particular research program, you may want to find letter-writers with connections to that school or program.

What if my research mentor was a postdoc or a graduate student?  Is it OK to ask them for a letter?

Letters from faculty members (or equivalent, like senior staff at a national laboratory) will usually carry more weight in an application.  However, if the person you worked with primarily is a more junior person, one thing you can do is to ask them to write a recommendation to be "embedded" in their supervisor's letter.  They can write some paragraphs that their more-senior supervisor can quote in a letter for you.

Is it important that I take advanced physics courses/graduate physics courses?

No.  It is better to do well in core undergraduate physics courses than to take advanced courses; overall GPA, and GPA in physics courses, are what admissions committees mostly look at.  If you take advanced courses and do well in them, that's good, but take these courses because you are interested in them, not because you want to impress graduate admissions committees.  In general you are better off putting your time and effort into research work than advanced courses.

Is the GRE important?  How should I prepare?

Different grad schools weigh the GRE differently, and the landscape is also changing.  Recently, based on research that suggests that GRE scores don't seem to have much correlation with success in grad school, and furthermore, that GRE requirements limit access to underrepresented groups, many physics department no longer require the GRE for graduate admission.   In some cases, the dropping of GRE requirements is a temporary COVID-related change, but in other cases it will be longer-lasting.

When GRE is considered for admission, the physics subject test is usually more important than the general GRE, as most physics undergraduates do reasonably well on the general (but do spend at least some time practicing for general test anyway).  The importance of doing well on the physics subject test varies, however.  For some schools, a good physics subject score is quite important for admission, especially for students who want to do theoretical research.  If you are applying to schools requiring the GRE,  you should try to do as well on the GRE as you can.  Take practice tests, and learn strategies as well as material.  In general, good understanding of introductory physics material is more important than advanced topic knowledge.

However, if you don't do well on the physics GRE, do not interpret this to mean you will not do well in graduate school.  In my experience (as an experimentalist), I have seen examples of students with poor physics GRE scores who have been spectacularly successful, as well as students with excellent scores who haven't done well in grad school.  My experience is consistent with the results of the studies linked above; i.e., the correlation of physics GRE score with overall success in grad school is quite weak, if it's there at all. 

Is it necessary to have publications to have a chance of getting in to grad school?

No, it's not necessary.  Very many successful grad school applicants do not have publications.  If you have any, it's a plus.  How much of a plus it is depends on subfield, so consult with your advisors.  However, it is very important to have some research experience and letters from research mentors.

What should I put in my statement?

Most physics graduate schools require a short (few-page) research statement, or statement of purpose.  Here is what the admissions committee is looking for: ability to communicate clearly, information about research experience and research interests, and enthusiasm.   Describe research you have done so far and why you enjoyed it.  You should tailor your statements to the schools you are applying to-- mention a few topics existing at that institution and faculty members you might be interested in working with.    Admissions committees often use these statements to determine which faculty members should read your application.  Don't just write down a laundry list of research at that school from the web.  Make it clear why you are interested in that research and the specific school. 

Do not make excuses in your statement for any shortcomings in your portfolio.  If you had a personal or medical issue that seriously affected your performance or caused a gap, it is fine to mention this, but be straightforward and businesslike about it, and don't overemphasize it.  Here is a good example--- key advice from this article is, "Explain, but don't dwell".  Focus on your strengths and interests.

It's OK to have a little bit of material in the statement about what or who has inspired you, but this should not take up too much space, especially if space is limited.  It's better to emphasize what you have done and what you are interested in-- this kind of specific material is what will distinguish you from other applicants.

Be aware that some schools apply more stringent criteria for scores and grades to applicants who want to do theory (as opposed to experimental research).  You should always be honest about what you want to do, but unless you are completely sure that you are really only interested in theoretical research, do not write that you want to do theory only.

Proofread carefully, and have your peers and (especially) your mentor(s) give you feedback.

Should I mention personal interests, hobbies, etc. in the statement?

Applying to grad school is different from applying to undergraduate school in that you are not especially trying to demonstrate breadth; you are primarily trying to convince the admissions committees that you will be successful in research.  While of course it is totally fine to have interests outside physics (everyone should have some!), in general you don't need to include these in your grad school statement.

Is it OK to mention experience and interest in teaching in the statement?

Yes, in general (most departments are happy to have good TAs!).  However a description of your research interests should be more prominent, since grad school is mostly about research.

Is it OK to take a gap year?

There is no single answer to this question; it really depends on your particular situation.  Some students benefit from a gap year.  If your portfolio is strong, then I would advise you to apply for grad school in the fall of your senior year, even if you think you want to take a gap year after getting your undergraduate degree.  If you are accepted, many (although not all) schools may accept a deferral for a year.  

If your portfolio is not strong in one or more aspects, you might be able to strengthen it before applying to grad school by excelling in a research-related position during a gap year.  It is best if you are doing some kind of physics research during the gap year.   Keep in mind that more than one or two years of gap will not likely strengthen your application.  

Should I contact potential advisors before applying?

Opinions vary about this, but my personal opinion is that it can be effective to send emails to potential advisors.    If faculty members are looking for grad students, then they may remember your name when looking at applications.   However, it is very important that your email be clearly personalized to the specific faculty member you are contacting, and that it indicate that you are actually interested in that faculty member's research.   Do not email everyone in a department; pick only research groups you think you really might be interested in and try to find something out about them.  The email should be polite, short and simple and not make complicated requests.  You don't need to include your CV; a brief summary of who you are, your research and interests (a few sentences), is fine. If you have heard about the faculty member's group via one of your mentors, mention that.  Don't ask generic or logistical questions about the program; these are best asked to the Director of Graduate Studies.  

For example: 

 Dear Professor X, 

  I'm an undergraduate at <college> and have been doing research on <short description> with Professor Y, who suggested your research group to me.  I am considering grad school at <university>.  I was wondering if you will be accepting new students into your research group next year.

Do not be too discouraged if you do not get a reply though (some people are not very good about responding to emails), but you can take it as a good sign if you do get a response.

Personally, I always respond to emails from prospective graduate students if it is clear they have genuine interest in my research group.  I delete emails that look as if they are mindless spams to everyone in the department, or show no awareness of my specific research activities.

I suggest that you don't ask directly for a phone or video interview.  Many potential advisors are already swamped with Zoom all day and such a request may make them less likely to respond.  However, potential advisors who are actively looking to recruit students might well be interested in having a conversation with you.  A statement like "I'm available for a Zoom call if you would like," is therefore more effective than "I'd like to request a Zoom interview with you."

A different approach is to contact the Director of Graduate Studies at the institution you are interested in.  You can mention your research interests, and ask them to forward your request to faculty members whose research matches them.  This can be helpful if you don't have information from a current mentor about likely research groups at the institution.  The DGS can also often answer general questions about grad school at the institution (course requirements, qualifiers, process for placing grad students into research groups, etc.)


General Questions about Grad School 

Do I have to pay to go to grad school in physics?

In the U.S. (and some other countries), you almost never have to pay to go to grad school in physics.    You are typically paid by a teaching assistantship for the first year or two, and sometimes longer.  In many cases, after one or two years, you join a research group and get paid a stipend for research from a faculty member's grant.    It's usually not lavish pay, but a reasonable living wage.  Grad schools vary considerably in how and when students TA and join research groups, so it's worth investigating the details when you are choosing a school.

There are also opportunities for fellowships.  If you get a fellowship, you usually do not TA (and your research mentor does not pay you out of their grant).  Fellowships are sometimes offered by grad schools at the time of acceptance.  For other fellowships, you apply at around the time of grad school application or in your first year (e.g., NSF fellowships) or sometimes later.  Some fellowships are available only for specific physics subfields or types of research; consult your research mentor to find out if there are opportunities to look out for.

Should I apply for a Master's degree in physics before a Ph.D.?

No, not in the U.S.  In physics in the U.S., it is usual to apply directly to a Ph.D. program.  At some schools you will pick up a Master's along the way to a Ph.D., or be awarded this degree if you do not finish the Ph.D. program.   Note that this is different in other fields, such as engineering (where terminal Master's degrees are more normal and common), and in other countries.

What about grad schools in other countries?

The physics grad school process and experience outside the U.S. can be quite different from grad school here, and it varies a lot in timing, application procedure, research group selection, funding, etc.  You can consult web resources or possibly consult directors of graduate studies at institutions abroad to find out more about a particular country.

If I am accepted to several grad schools, how do I choose which one to attend?

There are many factors in finding the best grad school for you: research options, department climate, quality of life, etc.  Most schools will invite accepted students to visit; take them up on this to get a sense of the place.  Often there will be an open house-type event over a few days which accepted students are invited to, but sometimes students visit individually.  If you can't attend the school's grad open house or visiting day, then ask the institution's DGS if you can visit at another time-- often this request will be accommodated.

Ask the institution's DGS about details of graduate school: will you TA?  How do students find a research group?  What are the course and qualifier requirements?  It's often best to have more than one research group possibility at the institution.  Ask your faculty mentors for advice about the research options.  Ask current graduate students at the institutions you are considering about quality of life.

Can one negotiate for salary or other perks when deciding where to go to grad school?

Sometimes this can work.  In many cases, salary will not be negotiable, but sometimes schools may offer teaching relief or fellowships if they are really trying to recruit you.  Sometimes faculty members are willing to support students with research assistantships right away when they arrive.  This kind of flexibility varies a good deal, but if you have more than one offer and are trying to decide between them, it does not hurt to ask.  Also, sometimes there is support available to start research in the summer before your first semester, so if that is of interest to you, ask about it.

If I have taken graduate courses at Duke, can I get transfer credit at my graduate institution?

Not usually, although you may be placed in graduate courses according to your experience, and you might be able to skip some coursework at your new institution if you have already taken advanced courses.  This will vary by institution, though, so you should find out how it works at a given place when you are deciding on graduate schools.

Kate Scholberg
Updated October 2020

Some helpful slides about grad school by J. Cizewski