How to approach the process of applying to graduate school (Podcast #3)

Welcome to the GradschoolShopper podcast. Today, Gary White, director of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma, shows us how to start the process of applying to graduate programs in physics, astronomy, or related fields.

Click the PLAY button to listen to this episode!

Have you started thinking about grad school? What approach are you taking in planning the process? Share your comments with us!

Gary White, director of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma

Episode topics

  • Should I go to graduate school?
  • Tuition and paying for graduate school
  • When should I start thinking about graduate school?
  • What type of degree is right for me?
  • Should I choose a specific research focus before applying to grad school?
  • What documents do I need for a grad school application?
  • A stepping-stone master’s degree
  • Advice for graduate school

Episode summary

Gary White is the director of the Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma honors society.

Should I go to graduate school?

There are several factors to think about when considering graduate degree. Specifically in physics (although this is applicable to other fields) you should ask yourself:

  • Do I like school?
  • Do I like physics classes?
  • Do I enjoy learning physics on my own?
  • Do I like research?
  • Is my curiosity often satisfied by the kinds of things that physics addresses?

If you find yourself answering “yes” to most of these questions, a graduate degree is probably the right track for you.

Tuition and paying for graduate gchool

If you attend a graduate program in physics, it is very likely that you will be paid enough through fellowships to “break even” and cover your tuition, thereby eliminating your need to take out a loan. This is true of other sciences as well.

Almost every physics graduate program in the country has a need for teaching assistants at the graduate level, even if they have a master’s degree only.

You can find average stipends for TAs and RAs in each of your preferred graduate schools by looking at the “Tuition/Financial Aid/Housing” tab on the profiles.

When should I start thinking about graduate school?

Ideally, you should start thinking about graduate school towards the second semester of your junior year. This will allow you enough time to plan the process more efficiently, take the GREs more than once if you want to, and apply to your top programs by the beginning of your senior year.

It’s hard to make the argument that getting an additional degree is a waste of money or time, because on average your salary will reflect your degree status.

Ultimately, it’s never too late to consider a graduate degree. You can always go back to school to increase your knowledge, and often your salary, simply by having a graduate degree in the field.

What type of degree is right for me?

If you’re thinking about graduate school, it’s important to think about what you envision yourself doing afterwards. For example:

  • Do you want to be a professor?
  • Are you fascinated by expanding your knowledge?
  • Are you thinking of a career in the industry?
  • Do you want to work in a particular field, such as medical physics?

While being a professor typically requires a PhD, other career paths may only require a master’s degree either in the general sciences (such as physics or astronomy) or specialized fields (medical physics, nano-science and computer science).

Should I choose a specific research focus before applying to grad school?

Try not to pigeonhole yourself to a particular focus at the undergraduate level. Instead, keep your studies more well rounded so that when you apply to graduate school, you have a variety of options to choose from.

Almost any topic becomes interesting as soon as you start researching it.

If you’re selecting five schools to apply to, make sure that at least three of them have a broad set of subfields you can explore.

If you have a field that you’re partial to, such as nano-science or astrophysics, be sure to choose schools with strong programs in these fields but don’t forget to consider whether or not they have large research institutions with a wide array of specialities.

Research these factors and more by checking out our school profiles on

What documents do I need for a grad school application?

There are three key components you’ll need in order to apply:

  1. Transcripts from your undergraduate program
  2. Results from the GRE (Subject GRE and General GRE, depending on the program)
  3. Letters of recommendation from your professors/employers

These are important to selection committees, so plan to start the process for each as soon as you decide you want to apply to graduate school.

A stepping-stone Master’s degree

If you feel like your undergraduate studies didn’t prepare you well enough for full PhD research, or you’re unsure of what specialty to choose, you should consider applying to master’s degree as a stepping-stone towards a PhD.

Despite what others may tell you, this degree would not be a waste of time. In fact, a master’s will likely help you improve your GRE scores, expand your pool of recommendation letters, and increase your work experience, all of which will reflect highly on your PhD application. Even if you decide to stop midway through your degree, you would still be at an advantage.

Sometimes I feel like undergraduates look to PhD programs straight away and don’t consider that this extra step of a master’s degree can be much more useful–albeit time consuming–in terms of helping them find the right niche for their PhD.

Advice for graduate school

Visit the campus you’re considering and talk to current graduate students there. You want to get a real sense of what their life is like and hear their honest feedback about the school.

Another good thing to do is to ask for a summer job in a research lab.

You don’t have to commit to anything long-term, but you can start in the summertime before your program starts. This way, you can also secure your accommodations and avoid competing with other students for housing during the fall.

You may also want to look at courses you can take during the summer. An intro class at your new school can be very helpful in giving you a head start.



Are you at PhysCon2012? You want to solve our awesome anagram challenge? Here’s a hint for you:

Light’s a wave. No, wait, it’s a particle. No! It’s a wave! A particle! A particley-wave. A wavey-particle. Something like that.

Look for more hints and solve our anagram online!


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Advice to Students

You want to be at a school where you’re going to be happy, because this will facilitate your ability to finish your degree. Choose locations and programs that offer a work-life balance in order to maximize your potential for success. — Crystal Bailey, Education and Careers Program Manager at the American Physical Society, Podcast Episode #2

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