So You Want to Go to Graduate School
So You Want to Go to Graduate School
Matthew J. Wright, Associate Physics Professor and Chair, Adelphi University
Graduate school can be one of the most rewarding and exciting opportunities in your life. It can be transformative.
The training that you receive in the process of obtaining a PhD puts you at the forefront of human knowledge and technology while simultaneously exposing you to the deeper workings of the universe. You’ll develop confidence and the ability to solve nearly impossible problems.
Pursuing a master's degree expands your subject knowledge and prepares you for independent projects and leadership roles, while a professional degree, such as a JD or MD, is essential for some career paths.
A graduate degree can open up an array of career opportunities that were once inaccessible to those outside of an elite social and economic background, such as finance, management consulting, and faculty. Sounds amazing, right?
Get on the grad school path
If you’re considering graduate school, here’s my most important advice: Get out and meet people! Even if you’re a sophomore or junior, now is the time.
Many undergraduates in physics, astronomy, and related fields apply for summer research opportunities during their second or third year. Summer research is an excellent way to see what graduate school is like—you are paid to work on an amazing research project, develop relationships with experts who can give advice and write letters of recommendation for you, and get a peek into the lives of the graduate students in your lab.
Research opportunities are somewhat competitive, so apply to lots of external programs, such as Research Experiences for Undergrads (REUs), programs at national labs (e.g., the Department of Energy’s SULI program), international labs (e.g., CERN), the SPS Summer Internship Program, and any others that interest you. Also, ask about summer research opportunities at your school—sometimes there is nothing available until you ask! Applications for summer programs are often due in January.
Professional meetings are another great place to find out about graduate programs. Each year the American Physical Society and American Astronomical Society host big meetings with graduate school fairs. Attend, if you’re able, and talk to all of the representatives. The Physics Congress, coming next in 2025, is another fantastic conference for undergraduates that features a large graduate school fair. But you don’t need a grad school fair to find out about grad schools. Ask the people you meet where they went to graduate school and what it was like. Ask current graduate students about their programs, ask fellow undergraduates where they are planning to apply, and ask professors where they teach.
If traveling long distances is difficult, there are likely local and regional meetings, such as SPS zone meetings and APS section meetings, that can introduce you to graduate school options and potential mentors. If you want to go to graduate school in another field, check out the key meetings in that field. Talk to everyone, and ask tons of questions!
Don’t Miss the 2025 Physics Congress
Hosted by SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, the next Physics Congress will be October 30–November 1, 2025, in Denver, Colorado. Keep an eye on the SPS website for details, spsnational.org.
If you’re interested in programs that aren’t represented at meetings or you have specific questions, simply email the graduate program coordinators.
At the same time you’re looking for a great place to go to school, schools are looking for great students. Graduate students do vital work for universities, and they are always looking to bring in wonderful students (hint, that’s you) who are a great fit for them. So, while it might sound intimidating to attend a graduate school fair or email a graduate coordinator, programs are eager to hear from you. In fact, they’re hoping you’ll reach out.
Find programs for you
After you’ve explored lots of programs, it’s time to figure out how many and which programs you should apply to. This may not be easy. PhD programs take about six years, sometimes more, so think about location and quality of life as you consider your options. Here are some other factors you might want to consider:
- Field of study. Apply to schools that focus on the area you’re interested in, or if you have several interests, apply to those with many options.
- Advisors. Most professors appreciate hearing from students interested in working with them. If you find an advisor whom you trust and want to work for, that could be a great reason to apply to a particular school.
- Your long-term career goals. These can be hard to define, but start asking yourself questions like, Can I envision a pathway to my desired career from this program? What are the barriers to success?
The quality of a school’s research in your field is more important than the name of the school. Don’t just apply to the big names. Find schools that are a good fit for you, and cast a wide net. I applied to six graduate schools, but I have students who’ve applied to ten or more.
Craft successful applications
If you’re considering graduate school in physics, I advise taking the general GRE and physics GRE during the spring of your junior year or fall of your senior year. Not all graduate schools require or accept them, but some do. You don’t have to report your scores. And, arguably most importantly, the process of studying for the physics subject exam will be a beneficial review of the field. You’ll want to look up the exam dates and start studying early.
As part of your application, you’ll need to write essays. Think through what you are going to write for each school and be direct—address why that program should accept you. Have more than one set of eyes proofread your drafts, such as your school’s writing center and a professor. The writing center can help you smooth out your essays, and your professor can make sure they will resonate with admissions committees.
You’ll also need three letters of recommendation. Choose people you trust and have had good experiences with. Most of your letters should come from research advisors and professors in the field; however, it’s okay for one letter to come from a coach, boss, or nonscience professor with whom you have a strong history. Don’t feel bad asking professors to recommend you—they expect and enjoy writing letters of recommendation for their students. At least I do.
Wrap it up—for now
After your applications are in, it’s time to relax and wait. It’s common not to hear back for a couple of months. This can be stressful, but luckily, you’ll have plenty of exams and homework to keep you busy!
Working toward my PhD was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I became an expert in diode lasers, published papers, and walked out of the lab a professional—trust me when I say that I didn’t start there. The process transformed me! And I’ve seen it transform many of my former students too.
For now, talk to people and find out as much information as you can, take time to make your applications perfect, and meet the deadlines. You got this!
Get Funding for Conference Travel
SPS offers travel support to undergraduates presenting research at or reporting on national physics and astronomy meetings. Applications for SPS Travel Awards and Reporter Awards are accepted on a rolling basis. Learn more at spsnational.org/awards/individual-awards.