Advice to UNH Physics Majors

Things to consider if you'd like to go to graduate school in physics

  • Strongly consider taking more mathematics courses than required. Math 647 (Complex analysis for applications) is the most important as it is sometimes assumed in graduate school, and not covered anywhere else. Math 646 (Introduction to Partial Differential Equations) is also very useful, but you will see some of this in your 700 level physics courses. Math 645 (Linear Algebra for applications) is also useful (you don't need this course if you've taken Linearity I and II), though you will see eigenvalues and eigenvectors in several other places as well. Math 753 (Introduction to Numerical Methods) can count as a physics elective as well as will introduce you to many very useful techniques.

 

  • Your grades in 600 and 700 level courses should be B's and A's, and of course, A's are better. C's at this level indicate that you may not be ready for graduate level work. If you do get a C, you should seriously consider retaking the course. You can also take graduate courses at many schools through continuing education, if at a later date (after graduation) you want to improve your chances of getting into graduate school. A good grade on a graduate level course will be even more effective than re-taking the undergraduate level course. You can take graduate courses at UNH as an undergraduate if your GPA is high enough.

 

  • Participating in research in physics either during the summer or school year shows your commitment to physics and gives you invaluable experience in the practice of science. Your research advisor should be able to comment on your work ethic, your ability to work independently, creativity, and your enthusiasm for physics; they can write a detailed recommendation for you. These letters will most often carry more weight with a graduate admission committee than any other letters. If you worked closely with a more junior member of a research group (say, a post-doc), feel free to ask that person to write a letter in addition to the advisor's--if backed up by the advisor's or group leader's letter, this can carry a lot a weight.

 

  • You will need at least three letters of recommendation. These are best if they come from someone who knows you well. For example, if there has been a class that is very exciting to you, and you have asked lots of questions (either in or out of class), gone above and beyond (at least on occasion) on the homework, the professor will be able to write a detailed and enthusiastic letter. A good way to ask is "Can you write me a strong recommendation?" This gives the professor an opportunity to say "no" - you don't want a weak recommendation. Usually all the letters should come from physics faculty, though one letter can come from someone in a related field (chemistry or math, for example). Of course, if you did research with someone in another department (for example, materials science with an EE professor) that letter will be very important.

 

  • The GRE's (both general and subject) are important. AIP Guide to Graduate school will give you average GRE scores for students at each graduate program.
    • You should aim to get nearly perfect (800) on the quantitative general GRE. But don't ignore the verbal part as well; you do need to communicate as a physicist and verbal GRE's are taken as a measure of how well you can do that.  Be sure to take at least one practice test so you know the type of questions that are going to be asked.
    • Read the GRE literature to learn the best strategies.  For example, when is it good to guess?  (Typically if you can eliminate two answers, guessing will - on average - help your score.)  How much time do you have for each question?  (Typically if you don't see how to solve a physics question in about 30 seconds, it is best to move on and come back if there is time.)
    • The subject GRE is daunting because it covers so many subjects in physics; however, from the one test we have seen, we note that if you really understand your freshman text, that covers about 60% of the exam questions. But you really need to understand it. Practice, practice, practice. There are practice exams in the physics library. Study for the subject test by reviewing your intro level text and/or Schaum's outlines (which gives lots of problems). Don't forget to read the chapters on nuclear and particle physics that were not covered in 505.
    • Take the sample tests (both general and subject) available on the web (www.gre.com). They are very different from anything you have done lately. Practice taking the test under timed conditions.
    • We strongly advise taking the tests early (e.g. during the summer between junior and senior year). This allows you time to retake the tests should you not score well enough. Also, in general, you may have more time to study during the summer than during the school year.
    • Study with other students, so each of you can be the expert on something and share that expertise with others. Begin studying in August, if possible. 
    •  The cost is at least $250. If you know the schools you want to apply to before you take the GRE, the reports are free.
    • Advice from those who took the Physics GRE in Fall 2013: 
      • Be sure to take the test under timed conditions to get a feel for how much time you will have.
      • From your score on a practice test, evaluate what topics you need to study most.
      • Chapter summary sections of Phys 407, 408, 505 text give you lots of key formulas; at least 60% of the exam is on these fundamental ideas and equations.  You do need to have many fundamental equations memorized and understood.
      • Conceptual understanding will help you answer many questions quickly without calculations. 
      • A few questions can be answer by unit analysis, but not many.
      • Check on the web for Physics GRE review sheets and GRE test prep answers with explanations.
      • The night before the exam, don't study too much (if at all).  Relax and get a good night's sleep.

 

  • Budget $500-$600 for graduate school. This includes GRE's, transcripts, application fees, and visits. Consider this an investment in your future.
    Budget $700-$1000 for graduate school. This includes GRE's, transcripts, application fees, and visits. Consider this an investment in your future.

 

  • To decide which schools you want to apply to,
    • Check out Peterson's and AIP guides available in the library that gives information on all the physics programs around the country. Also, check out Gradschool Shopper, specifically for physics grad programs and make use of the department web sites. The AIP guide to graduate schools has the more detailed school listings.  You can find out how many professors are in each subfield of physics.
    • US News and World Reports on-line ranks graduate schools.
    • If you are interested in particular field or fields, (e.g. astrophysics, nuclear), look where those fields are studied. Ask professors here in the same field where good places are for this field of physics.
    • Consider other things that may be important to you: location, size of school, big city or small town; size of department. There are pros and cons to each. For example, large departments will offer lots of courses and choices but may feel impersonal. Don't consider schools in LA if you can't stand the smog or large cities. Consider going to graduate school in other countries as well.
    • Just as for undergraduate applications, you want to apply to many schools (at least four). Some schools are harder to get into than others (see Peterson's and AIP for the acceptance rate). The number of graduate slots is much less than the number of undergraduate slots because funding is limited. Some years (typically when jobs are difficult to get) it is more difficult to get into graduate school. Be realistic in your choice of graduate school. There is a certain randomness in the whole graduate admission process, and you can never rely on getting into any particular graduate school, so have more than one backup on your list. This year, UNH had 60 applicants for 5 slots. Other years we have had more slots and fewer applicants, so the acceptance rate fluctuates a great deal.

 

  • It is very helpful to make personal contact with professors at graduate schools of interest. A visit is best. If a visit is impossible, use the approach of sending an email saying that you will call at a specific time a few days away, to ask about programs and research areas. This approach is better than a phone call out of the blue, which always comes when the professor is doing something else. It is also better than a letter or email which are easily ignored. Also make contact with students in the research groups. Study the department web sites and contact specific people. This takes time and effort, but is a good investment.  Sometimes a UNH professor can make an introduction for you.

 

  • Don't give up. Can go back later, especially if you have kept up physics interest and skills in the meantime in your employment. 

 

  • The norm is that grad students are paid to teach or do research; tuition is also paid. If you have your own funding, be sure to say that on your application - it will be easier to be admitted.