Graduate School FAQs

Contents

Why should I consider graduate school?
How can I afford to go to graduate school?
Which kind of support is best and what will be expected of me?
Which graduate schools should I apply to?
When should I apply?
What are GRE's and when should I take them?
What does the GRE Physics Exam cover and how should I prepare for it?
How well do I have to score to get an assistantship or fellowship at my first-choice school?
When will I start hearing about my applications and when will I have to decide?
I have these n offers. How do I finally decide which one to accept?


  Why should I consider graduate school?

While the B.A. or B.S. degree with a major in physics has a broad acceptance in a variety of fields, it is not in itself sufficient for professional competence as a physicist. Relatively few occupations which employ persons with an undergraduate major in physics actually require that they do much physics. Rather, the physics bachelors holder often works as an engineer, computer programmer, technician, sales engineer, or any of a variety of jobs requiring good analytical, problem solving, or laboratory skills. Perhaps surprisingly, a physics B.A. is one of the most readily acceptable undergraduate degrees for applicants to graduate schools in business, law, political science, and medicine. However, as important as your concentrated study in physics will be to your undergraduate education, it does not convey the same occupational identity as would, say, a degree in engineering. In fact, most people who identify themselves as physicists have earned either the M.S. or Ph.D. in physics or an interdisciplinary field, such as biophysics or geophysics. For employment in some settings, the advanced degree requirements are very explicit. Teaching and research at the college or university level nearly always require the Ph.D. Industrial research and program management have similar expectations for either the M.S. or Ph.D.

Approximately 4,200 bachelors degrees in physics are awarded by all colleges and universities in the United States in a given year. According to the American Institute of Physics Annual Survey, the immediate post-baccalaureate plans of these graduates in 1996 broke down along the following lines:

  • Physics/Astronomy graduate study 33%

  • Other graduate study 21%

  • Employment 42%

  • Undecided 4%

It is not essential that students planning on advanced study move directly from college to a graduate department in a university. Some students may want to sit out a year before moving on to graduate school. However, the longer you wait before attending graduate school, the more undergraduate physics you will forget, and the more time you will have to spend reviewing. In general, unless you are strongly motivated to continue your studies at an even more demanding level than at Southwestern, you may find that graduate school becomes quite burdensome. The hours are long, the teaching often less than inspiring, and the rewards along the way may be few. However, if you enjoy learning nature's secrets and delving more deeply into the topics to which our courses introduce you, then graduate study can be very satisfying. For some students, the intellectual challenge of studying sophisticated and difficult ideas and phenomena is a motivation in itself. For others, it may be the opportunity to apply special abilities with equipment, computers, or mathematics that draws them to pursue advanced study.

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How can I afford to go to graduate school?

Virtually all graduate students in physics and related areas receive substantial financial support from the university where they are enrolled. This support is typically in the form of a teaching or research assistantship, fellowship, or some combination of these. In effect, you are paid to work toward your degree. Yearly stipends vary somewhat from one institution and geographical region to another, but often amount to $10,000-$12,000 for ten months of service. In addition, tuition and fees may be fully paid or at least reduced substantially, often to a few hundred dollars a semester. Summer appointments are sometimes granted, even to incoming students. Many students find that they are able to build up their savings accounts during graduate school years. (It's a welcome change from writing big checks to Southwestern twice a year!)

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Which kind of support is best and what will be expected of me?

Broadly speaking, teaching and research assistantships require a commitment of time from the graduate student; fellowships and scholarships usually do not. Under the new tax laws, both forms of support are treated as ordinary income, but recent changes in legislation may exempt some non-service forms of aid. The graduate department making the offer will usually be able to clarify the tax implications of a particular financial offer.

Teaching assistantships in physics usually require 8-15 hours per week of service to the department. For first-year T.A.'s, this usually means handling 2-4 lab sections in the large introductory courses. Some grading and proctoring of exams is often part of the job. At some schools, T.A.'s will conduct recitation and problem sessions. Graduate students with fluency in English are always in demand. Paper grading tasks for the upper class courses are sometimes assigned to students who are less adept in the lab or with English. Advanced lab courses usually garner assistants in their second or third year of graduate study. You may be able to assume a leadership role among graduate teaching assistants if you gain experience by serving as a lab assistant while at Southwestern.

Teaching assistantships are less available in engineering programs, and those that are offered often require students to have an undergraduate engineering degree. Graduate students who have special expertise with electronics, computer programming, or other specialties will find their services in greater demand. 

Research assistantships received early in a graduate student's career may require that he or she help with the thesis research of a more advanced student or a group. After the student has passed the appropriate exams and chosen a research topic for either the M.S. or Ph.D., then he or she can usually devote most of his/her research time to his/her own project. Students supported by fellowships often take one more graduate course than their comrades with assistantships. This can allow them to progress slightly faster through the course work. They may also be held to a higher standard of performance, as expressed in the graduate G.P.A. Combinations of the two called "teaching fellowships" are becoming more common.

One drawback of both R.A. and fellowship appointments is that they deprive the student of valuable teaching experience. Such experience is essential for students thinking of a career in teaching. Within limits, the more extensive and varied the teaching experience the more competitive the new Ph.D. will be for teaching positions at the college level. (Many of the applicants for faculty vacancies in this department are at a decided disadvantage because they have little or no teaching experience of any kind.)

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Which graduate schools should I apply to?

This is a question which your advisor and other faculty who know you well can help you answer. There are a few guidelines which apply to most students.

  1. Apply to enough schools so that you have some choice. Most students apply to between 5 and 10 schools.

  2. Study the latest AIP Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy, and Related Fields, kept in Bob Gallup's office. It is a wealth of information. Not all departments offer strong programs in all subfields of physics or any other discipline. The statistics on the numbers of degrees awarded and the average length of time to earn the degree can reveal a lot.

  3. Apply to a range of universities, not just the Harvards, Stanfords and MITs. In general you should apply to a few schools where you have a very good chance of receiving an offer, and then some long-shots.

  4. Read the graduate catalogs and departmental brochures of different schools, but don't be swayed by the pretty pictures of the campus. (The basement of one physics building looks a lot like the basement of another physics building.)

If you have any interest in a particular department, you should probably apply. Some schools establish application fees to discourage applications from students who are less serious. Some schools only assess these fees if they make an offer of support.

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When should I apply?

Each school will have its own calendar of deadlines. In general, national fellowships, such as NSF, fall due the earliest, well before Christmas. University fellowship applications are often due by mid-January or early February. Assistantships are often open year-round, but applications by mid-February for fall enrollment are encouraged. There is little to be gained by applying before Christmas, although it is good to have forms in hand before leaving for the holidays. Faculty letters of recommendation, official transcripts and Graduate Record Exam scores are not generally available much before the first of the year. Also, some universities do not send out forms and catalogs before late fall.

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What are GRE's and when should I take them?

The Graduate Record Exams are offered in many fields and consist of both aptitude and subject area tests. They are either required or are strongly recommended by the better physics departments. The physics portion of the exam is especially important when a student is applying to a school which is not familiar with our program.

Online registration, test dates, FAQ's, test descriptions, directory of graduate programs, and much more can be found on the GRE web site. Paper-based tests are generally given in April and November of each year. Computer-based testing is available on many dates.

Students should plan to take the verbal, quantitative and analytical exams in October of their senior year. No particular preparation is required for these exams, which will remind you of the SAT and ACT exams, albeit at a higher level. However, you should get copies of the sample questions for the other sections, published by GRE.

The timing of the physics exam is really dictated by the academic calendar and deadlines for graduate applications. Given the heavy concentration of advanced courses in the first semester of the senior year, it is to the student's benefit to wait until December to take the physics exam. Scores will then be available by mid-January, and will be sent automatically to those schools listed by the student. Postponing the exam until February means that scores will not be available for the schools with March 15 deadlines. It also rules out competition for the NSF pre-doctoral fellowships.

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What does the GRE Physics Exam cover and how should I prepare for it?

The questions are drawn from all the major areas of classical and modern physics which are covered in the typical complete undergraduate curriculum for majors. Since the format is multiple-choice, there is no partial credit for showing your work. It is very much a physics test and not a mathematics test although some "math methods" questions are asked. While questions are often phrased in quantitative terms, they deal with physical concepts.

A common misconception among students is that only highly theoretical topics from the most advanced courses are covered. This is not the case. Questions cover everything from elementary mechanics up through quantum theory. Every course we offer in the normal sequence for majors falls within the domain of the exam. Particular emphasis is placed on mechanics, electromagnetic theory, modern physics (including atomic, nuclear and solid state), and optics. Questions from analog and digital electronics, statistical mechanics and the laboratory regularly appear, but in small numbers.

A booklet of sample questions is available from Bob Gallup. All students planning on taking the exam should review this booklet and test themselves with it. This will familiarize you with the style of the questions and the variety of topics and difficulty of the questions. In general, the ability to "think like a physicist" is far more important than the ability to memorize a lot of formulas. However, there are questions for which knowing the formula, or at least the quantitative connections, is required. Dimensional arguments and reasoning based on conservation laws and symmetry principles are often the key to answering some questions. Multiple choice answers are rarely distinguished by small numerical factors like pi or square roots of integers. Order-of-magnitude calculations crop up regularly. Students report that the notation on the exams is usually familiar if they are knowledgeable about the topic or concept. There are always questions covering topics not addressed in our curriculum.

Given the heavy course demands during the first semester of the senior year, it is unrealistic to expect students to spend many hours reviewing for the GRE. Those who have prepared themselves along the way have often been rewarded. Some students have benefited from working out problems in the preceding summer. It is particularly beneficial to spend some time working short problems from those courses and topics which have faded away or were never conquered in the first place. It is especially wise to review the many topics in modern physics. Probably no single course contributes more questions than modern physics, although the advanced understanding gained in quantum mechanics, advanced math methods and statistical mechanics is clearly required, too.

Some final suggestions: Go into the test well-rested and clear-headed. Physics cannot be crammed. The best test-taking strategy is to go through the exam and answer the "easy" questions first. Complete this cycle, leaving the hardest questions or those dealing with unfamiliar areas to last. Points are deducted for wrong answers, so guess only if you can narrow down the possible answers. There is a steep rise in the percentile ranking with raw score once the 600 point level is reached.

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How well do I have to score to get an assistantship or fellowship at my first- choice school?

There is no way to answer this question since the awarding of appointments is also based heavily upon letters of recommendation from faculty, grades in your major, and experience in research. It is the score on the physics part that is examined by those schools interested in such numbers. For very selective universities, an otherwise excellent student would probably still need to score in the top 20 percentile in order to be competitive for an appointment. For other universities, any score in the upper 50 percentile makes the student even more attractive for a good offer. A large number of good departments ignore GRE scores altogether, since their predictive power for students from liberal arts colleges is poor at best. The AIP Graduate Programs in Physics, etc. gives median GRE scores for many departments, although these do fluctuate from year to year.

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When will I start hearing about my applications and when will I have to decide?

Almost no letters will go out until complete applications have been received by the graduate departments. This means that February is usually the earliest that anyone can expect to hear anything. Most departments send out offers to their first choices by mid-March. Spring break often falls about the time students receive most of the offers they will get in the "first round." A few schools send out offers very early to the students they are most interested in.

Some departments will notify students when materials are lacking from their files, while others do not. Students should call the department office if they wish to confirm that their files are complete by a given deadline. It is possible for letters and GRE scores to be sent but not make it in to student application files.

It is true with most universities that students will not be forced to accept or decline an offer of appointment until after April 15. Some departments which are particularly aggressive will try to pressure students to decide before then. Many schools will keep an offer open beyond this date. In recent years, there have been as many as 600 assistantships remaining unfilled at the end of May at quality institutions. Some students may get in as late as mid-summer.

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I have these n offers. How do I finally decide which one to accept?

There is a cardinal rule which should be followed no matter how many offers are received. "Don't decide to attend an institution until you have visited the campus and the department." You may be spending the next 5 or more years at the place you choose. There is no substitute for a tour of the facilities and, more important, interviews with faculty and graduate students. Some students may find that the location of the campus is so unattractive that they could not imagine living there. Others may be influenced, both positively and negatively, by impressions and information gained during their visit to the department. Women students, in particular, should seek out female graduate students and faculty to determine how supportive and sensitive the department is for female graduate students.

Spring break is the most common time for trips to visit prospective schools. In this more competitive time for students, graduate departments will often encourage visits and even pay travel expenses. It is possible to be flown to institutions on either coast, visiting several places on one trip. Students should not be shy about asking the offering department if they will help pay for such visits. Sometimes a mileage allowance is given.

In the end, your success in (an enjoyment of) graduate school will depend to a large extent on the relationship between you and your thesis advisor. While it is obviously impossible to identify an advisor at this stage, it is pertinent to consider such matters as the size of the physics department (faculty, undergraduate and graduate students) and the type and variety of research opportunities. It is also important to gain a sense of the "atmosphere" which surrounds the working relationships of the graduate students and their advisors. There is a tremendous range of variability in this intangible, yet important quality.

In the final analysis, only you can decide what seems the best route to follow. We in the physics department will do everything we can to help you up to that point.

Adapted for Southwestern College use and is used by permission from The Physics Department of Gustavus Adolphus College

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Physics