Should I go to graduate school?
If you are mostly thinking about applying to graduate school because “it feels like the next thing to do” rather than being sure that a research-intensive career requiring a PhD is what you want, we recommend that you spend a bit of time with this useful document which has questions you might want to ask yourself. It is definitely not a failure to take a few years between undergraduate and graduate to figure out what you want. Even if you think you want to become a professor, the best time to take time is before graduate school. Not sure if you want a research-intensive career that requires a PhD? Check out Career Resources for other options!
What do I need to do to apply?
Check out this handy dandy pamphlet on applying to graduate school for Physics and Astronomy. The advice in here applies to other STEM fields like geology and engineering.
Each application will require three letters of recommendation and a Statement of Purpose. For letters of rec, reach out to your letter writers early and ask if they are willing and able to write letters for your graduate applications! For a new writer, give them at least one month of notice and for ones that have a letter, give them at least 2 weeks of notice. Remind them the day before a due date. We recommend putting together a Google Sheet with due dates and program/department names for each school and sharing the Sheet with your letter writers. Share this list of schools early and ask your writers if there are any schools for which they don’t think they will be able to write you as strong of a letter. Keep in mind that your letter writer might be writing letters for multiple people who might apply to the same school. Have a conversation with them if you think this could be a concern.
Write your statements early and get feedback from multiple people to improve them. A good goal is to adjust them until you receive conflicting advice from people about small things. At that point, the only flaws with your statement are due to an individual’s preferences and biases. When writing a statement for each program, make sure the school’s name is right, and definitely include a section that shows that you have done your research and are interested in that specific program (not just grad school, any grad school).
Where do I even start finding programs to consider?
First, talk with your advisor and/or a professor who does work you would be interesting in doing and see if they have any suggestions. Note that, for graduate school, there are not really any “prestigious” vs. “safety” schools, and many of the programs you apply to might sound out of your league. This is only because large schools have the ability to host large graduate programs. Don’t be surprised if your advisor recommends you apply to Yale, Harvard, MIT, or Caltech.
Second, you will want to start with a large list and then narrow down based on how well your interests align with those of the faculty at each program. Many community members keep an updated online list of all physics and astronomy graduate programs in the States. Additionally, you might choose to narrow down programs based on their GRE requirements. Many programs require–or accept and use in consideration–scores from the General GRE and/or scores from the Physics GRE. If one of the programs you are interested in requires the GRE, you will have to take it. To take the GRE, register for a test online.
How will I know if I want to attend a program?
First, don’t consider this question until after, once you’ve been accepted places. There’s no need to waste energy pondering about whether you should go to School A vs. School B if you’ve not been accepted into both schools. If the program has faculty you would be interested in working with and courses you would be interested in taking, it’s probably worth applying!
Second, PhD programs in STEM will offer visits to the institution for accepted applicants. These visits are usually two days long and are fully funded by the institution (flights, hotel, food). Your acceptance letter (or email) will likely come with information about this visit. We recommend you go! Most visits will be in March since most acceptances are sent out in February and final decisions are typically due mid-April. On the visit, talk to any and all faculty you would be interested in working with (see if they have funding for a first year!) and ask what they’re currently working on. More importantly, speak to as many graduate students as possible! They will help you get a true sense of the culture and opportunities in the department. After acceptance and after the department visits, you will likely know which program to attend.
Grad school FAQs
Q: How much does it cost to attend graduate school?
A: For a PhD, none! In STEM fields, your tuition is covered by the department and you even receive a small but livable stipend (around $25k, 2023). These funds come from your work efforts, so you will be hired as either a Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant, depending on the funding available within the department and any specific department rules or expectations. Some Masters programs will offer similar funding, but it is significantly more rare.
Q: Do grad students really have to survive off of ramen each night?
A: Not at all! Most programs scale their TA-ships and RA-ships to a livable wage. With careful budgeting, you should be able to rent a 1-bedroom apartment, afford health and dental insurance, and eat “normal” meals.
Q: Ok, but what about loans?
A: Your student loans will continue in whatever state they are currently in; some accrue interest with time, others don’t until after a 6–9 month grace period after graduation; some require monthly payments while in school, and others don’t until after a 6–9 month grace period after graduation. While enrolled full time in a graduate program, you are still in school and would not enter any grace periods. Make sure to verify with your lender(s) that they are aware that you transferred institutions after graduation but are still enrolled as a full-time student.
Q: How hard is graduate school? Are graduate students insanely busy?
A: Check in with a faculty member about their experience!