Advice For Physics Majors (a serious article, for once)

Portrait of the author as an example — how I did, where I got in

Let’s say I’m not the perfect student…

The person who really nails all five of these can practically write their ticket. But what if you don’t feel so good about your GRE score, or you haven’t shown up at lab in a few weeks? You don’t have to be a superhero in all five of these to get into the school of your dreams. Let me put it into perspective using me as an example. (It’s not because I like to talk about myself, honest…)

I had probably three of these five solid. My GPA was good, although my undergrad college, as a public state school, doesn’t have the name recognition of an Ivy League school. I got pretty much all A’s in physics courses through school, and A’s and B’s in math and other science. I didn’t have any other majors or minors, though I did take some extra courses in biology to help my biophysics angle. Then it starts to go downhill… My GRE physics was pretty good — I got a 710 on the first attempt, and 750 on the second. These were somewhere around the 70% level at the time. I had hoped to do better, but these put me in pretty good shape.

My undergraduate research, as I mentioned before, is poor at best, nonexistent if I be brutally honest. I really didn’t put enough time and effort into finding a lab, and once I did, I made a heroically poor attempt at the work. Looking back, I think this was a sign that grad school was not for me, that I wouldn’t really be happy in a lab — I was resisting it already back then. So this was really my biggest weakness. My recommendations were decent, though they really suffered from being all from teachers — I didn’t have the nerve to ask my research advisor for a recommendation, because of course I didn’t give him any reason to be impressed with me. I wound up asking teachers whom I had had in class for a year or more — the ones whose classes I really nailed.

My essay, as I mentioned, was also abysmal. I should have asked someone for more help with it. In fact, if I had been working in a lab, and doing a decent job at it, my research advisor would have been helping me craft it into a readable research proposal. As it was, I went alone, writing my best guess at the research, and failing pretty badly.

So with this mixed bag of experiences, I didn’t think I had a shot at the very best schools, Caltech, MIT, Princeton, etc. And I was right. But I did get into most of the “second tier” schools I applied to, schools in the top 20 to 50 of physics grad schools in the national rankings. It helped that I applied to many biophysics programs, many which were in separate departments from physics, and tended to be smaller and less competitive. I finally decided on UC San Diego, a top-twenty school, in the physics department, which was pretty close to the best school I got into. Roughly speaking, I think if you have three or four of these five solid, you can expect to get into most everywhere except the top ten physics grad schools. To get in to the top ten, and to do well on national fellowship competitions like the NSF and DoD, you really need to be solid on all five.


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