Words of Advice on Applying to Physics PhD Programs

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Professional Development - Tips to Build Your Career

Words of Advice on Applying to Physics PhD Programs

Q&A with Professor Robert Riehn, Associate Director of Graduate Programs, Department of Physics, North Carolina State University

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Robert Riehn. Photo courtesy of Riehn. How do you write a good essay or cover letter?

The biggest recommendation I give students is to show us (the graduate committee) your strengths through a narrative. Many students have a wide variety of strengths, and it is hard to provide such a diverse group with a prompt that effectively encompasses this range of strengths.

Good letters provide a compelling narrative and highlight the applicant in a unique way. Students have diverse interests when applying to graduate school, and so you have to explain to us why you believe you will be a good researcher and why you are well suited for a challenging program. Many students provide a narrative of how they decided to go to graduate school. If you do this, know that we are looking for the ability to present this as a path with reasoned steps.

The strongest essays prove that the applicant is a suitable student, a good researcher, and that our school is a good fit for them. It’s important to state why you’re interested in our institution and relate your interests to our program. From the cover letter we can also judge how well you write, which is very important to us since writing is a large part of completing a PhD.

If students have done research, should they discuss that?

Research is a very important part of being a graduate student. If a student has a research background, we look for an explanation of that research, the findings, and the student’s contribution to the field of research. We expect that all strong applicants identify who they would want to work with within the program, why they want to work with those specific groups, and why they believe they are specifically suited to that work. Make sure that your letter has this piece and that it fits into the broader narrative. Additionally, if you have overcome significant hurdles in your life, provide a description of how you approached and overcame these hurdles. How people overcome hurdles tells the committee a lot about how they will address challenges as a researcher.

How does a student stand out as an applicant?

Achievements. Students often lower the impact of their application by writing about things they did but not identifying why their contribution to the field is unique and why their work is significant. When you write your story, your narrative, in terms of achievements and with context, that is the strongest indication that you can write and that you are aware of where you stand in the world.

What’s changed from last year to this year, in a pandemic research world?

I am speculating, as we are beginning the process now, but there is increased uncertainty in the level of preparation. When a committee examines applications, they are looking at two different things:

1) Proven successes – Using completed courses and research experience, the committee looks to see if the student will be able to complete the class work, join a research group, and complete the work required to graduate.

2) Potential to excel – Using the student’s research experience, time management skills, resilience, and demonstrated planning skills, we try to judge whether someone will succeed in research and make outstanding contributions to their field. There are many things that go into being a researcher, and the committee will look for students who put their heart into a project or an activity that mattered to them. Many of the best graduate students didn’t have access to the best academic resources as undergraduates. We seek to identify such applicants and give them the opportunity to develop their full potential.

Because of the uncertainty in how courses were conducted this spring, the grades of applicants will be harder to interpret. This means that committees will have to look at other measures of students’ potential for graduate study. I am afraid that some schools may weigh the reputation of the undergraduate institution or their experience with previous students from that school more heavily. We will look for students that will put their hearts into their programs and who have excelled given the current environment. At the end of the day, we want students who are self-motivated, have a passion for their research, and will succeed in the program—even if their last semesters were challenging because of the pandemic.

In their applications, how can students address their academic preparation during the pandemic?

If asked, I recommend that you briefly explain how courses were conducted in the spring and fall of 2020. Was the transition smooth or rough? Where you can, highlight achievements that continued through the spring and beyond. Students can also comment on how they transitioned to computational or more theoretical work over the past year, if applicable. Explaining how the pandemic shaped choices in research direction and opportunities may be important when you discuss your target research area, since many students that wanted to do experimental research were forced to change their short-term plans when labs closed. If you were involved in other activities and leadership opportunities, we want to know about that too.

How many labs should a student mention they want to work with in their application?

I suggest mentioning three people. Research groups are often 3–5 students per faculty member, but in many fields there are multiple professors and researchers working on overlapping projects. It’s totally possible that a specific group does not have space for you in a given year but that there is space in a different group in the field that collaborates with your first choice. If you identify three faculty members, you usually can find a research home, even if it is not with the one person you identified first in your application. Interestingly, about 50% of students decide to join a PhD adviser they didn’t foresee working with when they started the program. This typically happens when students arrive on campus, take classes, and discover a new field of research that lights a fire for them. I recommend listing not too many potential advisers, and if you can’t decide on who to list, it’s best to be honest about it. Authenticity is an important aspect of an application—write what you mean.

What if a student is hesitant to apply because they can’t visit the school in person?

Apply! We waive the application fee for domestic students so that there is no financial barrier, and I believe there is a growing number of departments that take the same path. Without a fee, an application is only a few extra hours of effort. Learn as much as you can online, and see if the research at that school excites you. In your essay, be as specific as you can about your interests and why the school is a good fit for you. If a school is interested in your application, they will give you all the information that you request to convince you to join them.

Is there any advice you think all students should have?

Contact the graduate program if you have any questions at all. If you are not clear on something—required grades, tests, or groups you could work with—contact the program. If you don’t have all of the required preparation, some schools will work with you on a way of completing the coursework necessary to succeed. If you have a transcript from a well-known school, admissions staff will be able to judge your transcript easily. If your transcript is from a less well-known school, ask the graduate program if there is anything that they are interested in seeing, such as a textbook list or syllabi. If you are a mathematician or a computer scientist or an engineer and you discovered your passion for physics late, departments can still work with you. If you are worried about your application, ask the program what they would like to know about you. Programs want applications that help them understand you at a deep level.

Many professors are willing to start a conversation with you before applying. They may be able to tell you the kinds of skills that they are currently looking for and whether you may be a good match. You could find a research adviser even before joining the graduate program. Be sure you do your homework before writing that first email—the more you know, the better your email, the more likely you are to engage the professor in a conversation.

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