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The GRE and Other Tests

 If you are one of the many graduate or professional school bound seniors you need to seriously consider a regimented preparation program for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or similar tests. The Center for Student Learning (CSL, in the Addlestone Library), 3-5635, has the Post-Grad Test Prep Program. They run workshops to prepare students for the general GRE, MCAT, LSAT, etc.

The GRE has two parts, the General and the Subject tests. The General part is the same thing taken by virtually any other graduate school bound student. It tests your verbal, mathematical, and analytical skills. The Subject test is discipline specific. There is a physics subject test that you will likely take. Each test takes about three hours. The general is offered online at commercial testing centers, while the subject tests are more traditional paper-based tests. See The ETS website, as well as the Physics GRE forum.

You would be crazy not to prepare for the GRE. It is very important that you do as well as possible. It is the one common factor among all applicants to a program. They all take the GRE. Some of them will make a huge effort to do well, working practice tests for months in advance. They aren't smarter than you, just more prepared. You should get a study group of like-minded physics students to study for the physics subject test well in advance.

When do I take the GRE? Ordinarily you will take both parts of the GRE during the fall semester of your senior year. Usually you would take the general test in September or October and the physics test in November or December. That gives you time to have the scores reported to schools you are applying to.

For Physicists

 There are many sub-fields and affiliated in physics: meteorology, nuclear physics, laser physics, surface physics, fractals, solid state physics, optics, chaos, atmospheric, plasma, relativity, vacuum, and fluids--to name a few. They all have complementary experimental and theoretical disciplines and are often closely allied with studies in other scientific disciplines. We have known many cases where physicists got very good graduate appointments in chemistry, engineering, medicine and other areas.

For Astrophysicists/Astronomers

'Astronomy' historically dealt with the positions and apparent motions of stars, while 'astrophysics' was the term applied to the study of the nature of stars, primarily through spectroscopy and theoretical modeling. Both branches make use of the same kinds of mathematics that physicists and many engineers use. In current usage the terms are virtually interchangeable. Our Astrophysics BS is specifically designed to prepare students for rigorous technical jobs or graduate work. The Astronomy BA is more designed for the pre-college teacher, or the enthusiast. In general, the physics GRE will still be required for those students pursuing graduate work in astrophysics.

Educators 

There are many graduate programs in education. Some are certification programs which will result in a teaching certificate, while others are professional enhancement programs.

We participate in the Masters Degree in Science and Mathematics Education. The MEdSM program is pre-eminent in the nation in terms of the intellectual intimacy of contact between science and math faculty and the teachers in the program.

Physicians 

We offer excellent, personalized opportunities for students aiming for medical school. We structure your program around the interests and needs of the medical school applicant, earning you a BA in physics with all of the other odds and ends (organic chemistry, etc.) needed to facilitate your acceptance into medical school. Our required senior research project can even be something relevant to your medical future. You need to make contact and use the resources available at the Health Professions Advising Office.

Getting in to Graduate School 

Getting into graduate school is a straightforward process of selling yourself. For entry into Physics, Astronomy, or related graduate schools the process is essentially identical. One especially nice aspect of graduate school is that virtually any domestic program which accepts you will give you sufficient resources (in the form of teaching and research assistantships and tuition waivers) that you make a living wage during graduate school and don't have to worry about details like out-of-state tuition, or what kind of job to get to support yourself through school.

Your attractiveness to a potential graduate school relies primarily on three factors:

  1. Your undergraduate record (courses taken, grades, research experience)
  2. Letters of recommendation (from faculty who know you well)
  3. The Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

No single factor is likely to make or break you.  

Gathering Information

Assuming you will start graduate school in the fall, you need to start gathering information the previous fall. Virtually every graduate program has an extensive web presence. A great starting place is the Grad School Shopper.  The AIP book "Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy, and Related Fields," which is available in the reading room or from Dr. Wragg is also a good resource. This book lists, by state, most graduate programs in the country, with extensive information about the program.

Talk to faculty members. We are the ones who have experienced graduate school, and will have a sense of how marketable you are for graduate school entry. Talk to more than one faculty member, as we have different perspectives.


To get application materials you can often fill out a form on the web, or email the department's Director of Graduate Studies. Don't bother with anything fancier than a simple email at this stage. You should have this information and application materials gathered by the end of November. You should have an academic resume ready when you first contact potential schools, as you never know when someone will ask for one.


Selecting schools to get further information from will involve some soul searching. Ask yourself the following questions:
Are there some regions I do not wish to live in?Am I interested in big cities, or rural schools, or both?What sub-fields of physics do I like?What size of department will I be comfortable in?

When to Apply

Ordinarily the best time to send out the formal applications is in December, after final exams are over. It is OK to do it earlier, and it is possible to do it later, but remember, schools are giving away slots that you want.

Now What? 

So now you have taken the GRE and gathered information on a couple of dozen schools you are interested in you need to narrow things down a bit more. Ask yourself if your target schools are realistic given your qualifications. Faculty members will be helpful on this issue, which can be a little painful at times. Dr. Wragg, who in a previous incarnation was the recruiter for a graduate program, can be especially helpful.

Road Trip! If at all possible you should visit some schools, even if they aren't on your short list of potential graduate schools it is worth a visit. You get perspective that way. If you are serious about a school you should send a copy of your resume (see Dr. Wragg for details) to the director of graduate studies at the department of interest. A week or so later email or give the director a call and ask if you appear to be a good candidate for their program. If you hear good noises in response to that question then ask if they have any money to defray the cost of a visit. Very often strong candidates will get some financial help for a visit. Our students have even been flown to a school and hosted for a couple of days.

Questions for a Department You need to get information about a department you are interested in. Some information isn't the kind that usually goes into their brochures. Ask the Director of Graduate Studies, other faculty, and especially other graduate students the following

  • When are qualifying exams administered, and what percentage of students pass?
  • How much money do I get paid? 
  • How much does the University take back for fees, etc.?
  • What is the cost of living?
  • What do I have to do for my money?
  • How many hours a week do I have to teach or do research?
  • Do I have grading duties outside of my direct teaching duties?
  • How long does it take to get a Ph.D. there?
  • (To grad students) Are you pleased with your selection of graduate schools?
  • Do I get an office? What is it like?
  • (To grad students) Are there faculty members I should avoid doing research with?
  • Can I get a summer research appointment for the summer prior to entering the program?
  • How is summer support during the program?

The Decision 

What constitutes a "Good" school? Good for you, value added to you, success for you. It doesn't do you any good going to a school where you don't succeed.

Offers for acceptance and support can be made any time, even as early as December, although most of them come during March and April, with April 15th being the latest date for general offers. With any luck and some diligence it is likely that you will have more than one offer. Unfortunately, you may have an offer which specifies a response time before you get all your offers. life is tough. Some departments will grant extensions to the decision time deadline, but don't count on it. Sometimes you just have to make a choice.

You can also get offers after the first round of offers have been made. If a department hasn't yet filled its slots they may make offers well into the summer. Make your best decision, but don't agonize over it. If you are unhappy, then you can change schools without too much difficulty. Don't confuse unhappy with unsuccessful though. Your portability depends on your record.