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Prospects of attending a top 20 in US physics grad school?

StrikerX2StrikerX2 Registered User Posts: 1 New Member
edited August 25 in Graduate School
Hopefully I'm not misguided in posting this, but finding such information as "what is a standard applicant among top 20 physics graduate schools" has been a bit difficult, and I'd like to hear others' opinions. My stats are:

Rising-junior undergrad
Major: physics
GPA: 3.64
Undergraduate institution: a top university
I've done a bit of research in astronomy (largely data reduction) and in condensed matter. In both cases I mostly dealt with programming and will have decent (though I imagine not outstanding) letters of recommendation. These would be from a relatively new prof. who I think is gaining traction in CM and the other in astronomy from a senior research scientist.

I will try for theoretical condensed matter research throughout junior year if possible, but whether I get to do so depends on whether some profs reply.

On top of my prospects in getting in to a top 20 US grad school, I would like to know what are the financial prospects. Would I be likely to take on something like $40k of debt, or would it be likely that I can get through a master's or PhD without taking on almost any debt?

Replies to: Prospects of attending a top 20 in US physics grad school?

  • bluebayoubluebayou Registered User Posts: 25,544 Senior Member
    A top PhD program will be fully funded. MA programs generally are not. Moreover, not all top 20 programs even offer a terminal MA/MS for which you could apply. In other words, they offer a PhD only.

    Duke is a top 20-25 program, so you can see the raw numbers on the link below, as an example. Your GPA should continue to rise as you take upper division courses in your major of interest.

    But the numbers just get you in the ballpark: research, recs and your SOP will make the difference.


  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 35,302 Senior Member
    Most top US physics grad programs require you to take the Physics GRE test (along with the regular GRE). Your current GPA is a touch low for the very top schools, I think.

    My kid found this website useful when looking at US grad schools for Physics, but be sure to verify any info with the school websites, too:


    The gradcafe website has some good info, and the website physicsgre.com has a section where students list their stats and results.
  • Mom2aphysicsgeekMom2aphysicsgeek Registered User Posts: 4,308 Senior Member
    Did you apply for an REU for this past summer? They are excellent opportunities for research. You should definitely plan on applying for one for next summer. IIRC, applications open around Christmas time and close somewhere around Feb. Research experience is a huge part of the grad school admissions process. https://astrobites.org/2018/01/08/its-reu-application-season/

    Fwiw, our ds just went through the grad application process this past yr and is now at a top 5 program. (And, agreeing with others that your grad program should be funded.) Based on his experience, I would recommend working hard to raise your GPA, definitely finding research to participate in on your home campus, applying for REUs, and studying for the PGRE.
  • collegemom3717collegemom3717 Registered User Posts: 5,654 Senior Member
    REU's are limited to US students (citizens & permanent residents), but there are some summer research programs available to international students (check out Brown, CMU, UMi- I think they at least used to have some things that were open).
  • Mom2aphysicsgeekMom2aphysicsgeek Registered User Posts: 4,308 Senior Member
    Yes. I wasn't sure if the OP was a US citizen or not. I posted the astrobite link bc it does list options for international students.
  • MandalorianMandalorian Registered User Posts: 1,754 Senior Member
    Any program worth doing, especially the top 20 will be fully funded. Talk to your current professors and ask them for recommendations based on your research interests. They'll know who's doing what in the field.
  • washugradwashugrad Registered User Posts: 711 Member
    @eyemgh is correct... the top 10 list for condensed matter experimental is not the same as the top 10 list for theoretical particle physics and so on. If you get a research position this fall and like it, talk to your advisor about what departments you should be looking at to stay in that general field. And as others have said, your tuition will be covered and you'll earn enough for living expenses, usually by acting as a TA your first year or two and then being paid for your research work the rest of the time off of your advisor's grants.
  • intparentintparent Registered User Posts: 35,302 Senior Member
    You can find finding well outside the top 20, too.
  • xraymancsxraymancs Forum Champion Graduate School Posts: 4,572 Forum Champion
    @StrikerX2 - Welcome to the forum. I agree with many of the points made by others. Your GPA is good but hopefully will rise this year with upper division physics courses. if what you mean by "top" programs is those which are highly selective, then you will need a higher GPA and very strong GRE scores. Hopefully you are taking quantum mechanics this year so that you are prepared for the Physics GRE in April 2019 or Fall 2019. The General GRE can be taken just about any time but the Physics GRE is only twice a year.

    As for research experience, make sure you keep doing research this year and next. It is not important what you work on specifically but it is essential to getting good letters of reference. If you are not an International students, make sure to apply to several REU programs in February. These are good for getting more experience and the universities use them for recruitment as well.

    Do not enter a PhD program without the commitment of full funding, that is tuition and a stipend. You will likely start as a TA and then move on to an RA once you have passed to candidacy. There are many good PhD programs in physics and not all are among the highly selective. If you have a specific kind of research you are interested in, then seek out where it is being done and more specifically what faculty are doing it. You might find that a program that is not among the "top" ones is that best place for you. For example, my program at Illinois Tech is certainly not a "top" program in physics for various reasons, including that we are relatively small. However, my students not only get the opportunity to work at the Advanced Photon Source doing materials research at the beamlines I operate, but they have the chance to learn how to set up the beamline and the entire experiment in a way that a general user never does. That is experience that makes them very attractive to employers and they invariably get very good jobs after graduation.
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