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How do you apply to graduate school?

Though many physics students who choose to go into advanced studies remain in physics -- other students attend business school, law school, medical school, veterinary school, or engineering.

How do you prepare for graduate school?

Graduate schools tend to look at four things when considering the applications of students.

Your Academic Record
Grad schools look at the full 4 years of your academic career in order to see if you have shown a history of excellence in your studies of physics, mathematics and other disciplines. Though physics and mathematics are given the most attention ... schools do look for weaknesses in other areas as well. The stronger your academic record the better your chances of getting into the school of your choice.

Undergraduate Research
Actually involvement in physics outside the classroom. Mere academic excellence is no guarantee that you will be able to do research -- this involves synthesizing knowledge from many subfields of physics, pursuing open-ended questions, possesing physical insight, the ability to think creatively as well as logically, ... These traits have a chance to show up in a good research project. Students should try and take advantage of the research ooportunities on campus and off-campus (during the summer). See the section on How do you do reseach as an undergraduate? for more advice.

Board Scores
No one is willing to say what, if any, is the correlation between the GRE board scores and the ability to do physics. Certainly some students have done poorly on the GRE and have done very well in physics. And others have done very well on the tests but have not done well in advanced physics. But most schools seem to argue that the better you do on the tests, the greater your chance at succeeding in grad school. In any case, most schools require the GRE General test and most require the Physics Subject test as well. Again the better you do on these tests the better your chance of being able to choose which school to attend. See the section on How do you study for the GRE? for more advice.

Letters of Recommendation
The assumption by grad schools is that the faculty can give a very different perspective than can be seen in the board scores or academic record. If the faculty has the opportunity to get to know you very well in the 4 years of your undegraduate career and in research involvement they can often speak to your strengths and address any potential weaknesses in your application.

Of course grad schools looks at the complete picture and if you are weak in one area, corresponding strenghs in the other areas might be a convincing argument. But generally you want to present as strong and as balanced a picture as possible.

Some more advice from many universities can be found on line. You may also want to look at

Planning for Graduate Studies in Physics and Related Fields
- from the Committee on Graduate Education of the AAPT.

How do you choose a graduate school?

Start by asking your faculty what would be a good fit. They know your abilities and the programs better than you and if there is a history (good or bad) of how students from the department fare then they can keep you a good perspective.

Use your undergraduate research opportunities to explore particular schools that interest you.

In addition, you should be attending meetings as an undergraduate to talk about your work (if any) and to start seeing how the physics community functions in a professional manner. You can also use these meetings to see what problems are being worked on by various faculty and talk to graduate recruiters.

The collective wisdom of the faculty may weel be boiled down to
You should go to the best graduate school that you can afford.

Regretably this piece of sage advice is accurate but ambiguous. The words best and afford mean very different things to different people.

Cost is normally a lesser factor in the choice of graduate schools in physics programs. Many schools have stipends and work positions that cover most, if not all, of the cost of a graduate school. And so though cost may eventually be a determining factor, you should not let it be one in deciding to which schools to apply. Before you get to the point of accepting a school, they will provide you with information about how much support will be available to you. In addition, there are grants and fellowships that may be open to you in addition to what is provided by the graduate school. Check with your department for more information.

But afford has other meanings than financial cost. Graduate school is very different from undergraduate schol in its intensity and expectations. Many students worry about distance from home; the formidable commitment of time, energy and talent; and the "fit" of a school. Unfortunately, these are legitimate worriesand their impacts will be part of calculation you will need to make in deciding on a school.

Best is also observer dependent. Though a school may have a prestigous reputation if the environemt is unwelcoming, or if resources that you will need to draw on are not present, then perhaps another school may offer you a better environemnt to reach your full development in physics.




The American Insittue of Physics has descriptions of graduate programs on GradSchool Shopper.

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