Real Talk: GRE Scores and Physics Graduate Programs

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Professional Development - Tips to Build Your Career

Real Talk: GRE Scores and Physics Graduate Programs


Kendra Redmond, Editor

As part of the admissions process, many graduate programs in the United States require students to take the standardized Graduate Record Examination (GRE) general test. The “general GRE” includes sections on verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing, and test takers receive a numerical score in each area. Many physics graduate programs also require students to take the standardized, subject-based physics GRE. Physics GRE test takers receive a single numerical score.

But what do the scores actually mean? If you score low, should you start applying to jobs instead of graduate programs? If you score high, does that mean you’ll be a tenured physics faculty member in no time?

A team led by Casey Miller, a PhD physicist and associate dean for research and faculty affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology, recently analyzed 10 years of student data to find out whether GRE scores—verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, or physics—predict successful completion of a physics PhD. Their results were published in January in the journal Science Advances.1

Q&A with Casey Miller

What is the “bottom line” finding of your study?

GRE scores do not predict success in PhD physics programs very well.

What should physics students know about the GREs?

A GRE score does not reflect your potential to be a PhD-level scientist. There is much more to graduate education. As a result, students who score low can, and often do, become excellent scientists. Students who score high can, but do not always, make excellent scientists.

What is the problem with using GRE scores as physics grad program admissions criteria?

The main problem is when programs use the scores in unenlightened ways to select who gets to do the science of the future. For example, some require a minimum score for admission. This is not in line with how the test maker says to use the test. This practice significantly biases who is deemed “acceptable,” and it is especially damaging to the representation of applicants who identify as female, Hispanic, Native American, African American, and US citizens.2 Combine that with our results that question the tool’s utility, and you have a serious systematic problem.

What would you say to a student who takes the physics GRE and does poorly?

Your score is not necessarily related to your ability to do PhD-level physics or to become a PhD-level scientist. But because of the misuse of GRE scores in the admissions process, you will be overlooked by certain programs—at their loss.3

What would you say to a student who takes the physics GRE and does well?

Your score is not necessarily related to your ability to do PhD-level physics or to become a PhD-level scientist. Completing a PhD requires numerous skills that cannot be measured by such tests.

What advice would you give to students applying to physics grad programs?

Consider programs based on multiple dimensions, including non-science-specific issues such as culture and location, to make a best guess about how well they might fit your life.


  1. Miller, C. W., et al. Typical physics Ph.D. admissions criteria limit access to underrepresented groups but fail to predict doctoral completion. Science Advances. 2019 Jan. 23: 5(1). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat7550.
  2. Editor’s note: Research reveals that standardized GRE tests show significant gender and race-based differences. As Miller et al. write in the paper, “Although the best evidence suggests that faculty are well intentioned when selecting students, many are unaware of demographic patterns in GRE scores and they carry out admissions according to inherited practices that include using cutoff scores. Programs using the [physics GRE-P] as an integral part of their admissions process may be unwittingly selecting against underrepresented groups and U.S. citizens.”
  3. Editor’s note: If you find yourself in this situation and would still like to be considered by a program that uses a cutoff, you can retake the general and physics GREs. Utilizing GRE prep materials may help you improve your scores. Alternatively, you may want to explore programs that do not require the GRE, a criterion that can be selected for on

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