Physics Graduate School Admission -
How to Get into Physics Graduate School
First, if you havenít already done so, make a thorough examination of yourself as to whether you really do want to go into physics graduate school. Do you know what becoming a Ph.D.-level research scientist entails? Spend a few days, or longer, doing this exploratory work. Just make sure that getting into physics graduate school is really what you want to do. Donít apply to physics graduate school just as a backup for medical or dental school, or because you donít know what else to do with your life. Do take a little time out of your busy schedule to reflect if this is what you would like to do for the rest of your life. Thereís really nothing wrong at all about being a research-level scientist. You may even really like it. Just make sure that your temperament and personality fits this type of job and that you know exactly what it entails. Different people are suited to different jobs. You will excel and be happier in a job that suits you more than in one that is molded onto you by society. In fact, everyone can make a difference to society in any job. We need cashiers, people dumping garbage, taxi drivers, computer programmers, etc. In choosing your favorite occupation and excelling in it, you will make your stamp in this world most pronounced.
Second: Choose the physics graduate program according to your desired supervisorís reputation and not the reputation of the physics graduate program. It will be your future supervisor that will determine your future, not that of the physics graduate program. Sure, some physics graduate programs may have more supervisors that are excellent, but be careful that even for those programs, that you do not choose an inactive researcher because even if you get into that illustrious physics graduate program, your career will suffer. Having said that, though, it is still important to be familiar with the admission requirements of the particular department that you apply to because you most likely will need to meet the minimum guidelines, such as course requirements and grade-point average, for the department in order to have a chance to be accepted by the potential supervisor.
Third: Once you have decided that you really do want to go into physics graduate school and have studied your potential supervisor as well as the physics graduate school that you desire to enter, it is at this stage that you can make use of your energies to be innovative. Think about how you can increase YOUR chances of getting into your desired physics graduate program and getting accepted by your desired professor. Come up with innovative ideas of your own. Often, the ideas that we come up with, and not those from reading books, become some of the most effective strategies we develop. However, it is still imperative that you do purchase and read through perhaps three or four good books on the topic. Check out the Useful Books section on this site for some help.
Fourth: Get some research experience as soon as it is possible. Only then will you know what it is like working in a lab. Another reason to get research experience is that many physics graduate schools and professors find it extremely helpful if you have had previous experience, as it will help them out when they train you in their own lab. Thirdly, once you become a physics graduate student, having that experience will help you enormously in your experiments, as you will be much more prepared, as will understand better what is going on and perhaps what to do to troubleshoot. If possible, choose a good lab for your undergraduate research experiences, as it will really give you a taste of what research is like. Fourthly, this undergraduate experience can be a wonderful source of useful reference letters. If you are lucky, you may even get your name on a conference presentation or poster, or paper. However, do not put too much hopes on that, as it often does not happen, but if it does, it is definitely nice cream on the cake.
Fifth: Remember to contact the prospective supervisor that you are interested in. It would be helpful to have a phone conversation, or even an in-person conversation with your future supervisor, as you can get a feel as to what type of person he or she is like, and whether you think you would get along with them. As a side note, if that person suggests that you do co-supervision, try to stay away from it, as it is much better to have a single supervisor that having to deal with two.
Sixth: Take the GRE at the appropriate time. Do not take it too early, as you will be wasting time learning the material yourself instead of learning it during your lectures. Also, do not take it too late, or you will have forgotten much of what you have learned during previous years. Depending on when you apply to physics graduate school, you will have to time when you take your GRE accordingly. The most important thing is to be able to make the deadline. Also remember not take it earlier just because you are afraid that you may not do well the first time. Again, itís just wasting your time. Do take it before the deadline to make it for your physics graduate schools of choice, but try to take it only when you are ready for it. In terms of deadlines for GREs, it is probably best to check with the physics graduate secretary of the program that you wish to apply to because you may think that you may make the deadline, but you may also have misread something in their admissions regulations.
Seven. Keep your grades high. In the midst of dealing with your lab work experience, do not forget to keep your grades as high as possible. Yes, it is true that many people feel that grades are not important determinants of predicting scientific success. At the same time, though, getting high grades does show determination, intelligence, and willingness to work hard. You can always add a research experience, or do something to rectify weak technical abilities, but once you take a course, the transcript is basically set in stone. You canít change it. Thatís really the reason to do as well as possible with grades. For one thing, itíll give you more points on your application; and for another thing, you are at school to learn and the better you learn, the better you will be able to function in society. What you learn may not directly relate to your future, but it does indirectly help you.
In conclusion: If physics graduate school and becoming a research scientist is really what you want, go for it! Donít be afraid of the competition because a lot of time when people want to go into a physics graduate school, they are not really putting in the time necessary to get in. On the other hand, you will be because you have made up your mind to do the best you can. Do not be deterred of all the other keen students applying because there will always be spot for the determined.
Other topics that should be of interest to you:
How to Write Admission Essays and Personal Statements
How to Get Good Reference Letters and Letters of Recommendation
How to Do Well on Admission Interviews