Although four years sounds like a long time to work for an undergraduate physics/astrophysics degree, in no time at all graduation approaches. So what’s next? Most people’s first thought is to go on to grad school.
Graduate school is not for everyone, however. The classes will be more in-depth and require a lot more effort on the part of the student. A bachelor’s in physics is more than enough to be done with school and get started on your career (see my past blog post)! For those who want to brave it, however, here are some very general things I have discovered, and hopefully they can help you decide if graduate school is right for you.
What can you expect in grad school?
Generally, the first two years are a lot of advanced lecture courses, usually to prepare you for some exams that will test your overall knowledge of certain areas of physics; if you don’t pass these exams, you don’t go any further. Whether it be on to a Ph.D., or acquiring your Master’s, neither will happen without passing the exams.
I’ll be honest with you, this part of grad school terrifies me. But you have to remember, it isn’t an unrealistic goal to pass them because you will be taking advanced courses that are preparing you for these exams. And once you get these out of the way, most grad schools have you choose your research advisor and the rest of your degree is purely research-oriented (unless you’re in a Master’s program without research; then it’s all classes for you!). This is the part I am looking forward to and the part that keeps me going, despite the prospect of so many intense exams coming my way. After a few years of research, you will write a report of what you have been doing, aka a thesis. You will present this research for a panel of physicists, and if it’s satisfactory, you get your Ph.D. While this sounds scary, too, again you have to remember you will have been working on this research for 40+ hours a week for several years by the time you write and defend your thesis, so you should know your stuff fairly well.
How do you choose which ones to apply for?
The best way to find the right graduate school is to figure out what kind of research you want to do. Universities have all their faculty and their research listed, so it’s easy enough to figure out what people are researching. The hard part is narrowing it down to exactly what you want to do. The most difficulty I am having with this is I am interested in too many different areas of physics; once you narrow it down to something like “nuclear physics,” or “condensed matter,” or “black holes,” all you need to do is Google which universities have the best research in that specific field. A really good website I found while doing this is this one. Here, you can either search for a specific university or you can enter which level of degree you’re looking for (ie Doctorate), what you’re interested in (ie plasma physics), and where you would prefer to go to school (ie New England), and this site will give you a list of grad schools that match your criteria. Florida Tech grad degrees are listed here.
I have had it recommended to me by several people to find some research that interests me at my potential graduate schools and then to contact the professor in charge of that research before applying. That way you can hopefully determine if it’s the kind of research you would like to do, if you and the professor will get along, and if the professor even has positions available for grad students. Plus this way, when your application goes through and you have him/her listed as a possible advisor, the professor might be able to put in a good word for you when the graduate school committee is going through all the applications!
How do you pay for grad school?
For physics/astrophysics graduate degrees, nearly all universities will waive your tuition once you have been accepted into the program. This is because the professors have grant money (usually) from an outside source, some of which is used specifically for hiring grad students to help on their projects. On top of that, grad students are given financial assistance in the form of either a Teaching Assistant (TA) or Research Assistant (RA) position at the university, which can be used to pay for living expenses.
Fellowships are also available from outside sources. You have to apply for these in addition to your grad school application, and if you get one, they normally come with full tuition coverage and a generous stipend. A combination of all of these should be enough to ensure you aren’t taking out loans to pay for graduate school. I have also heard from several people that if you end up needing to take out a loan, then you either need to try somewhere else or don’t go to grad school.
So keep in mind how much work graduate school really is, and ask yourself if you want to spend another five to six years getting a higher degree. Also ask yourself if you really need a master’s or a doctorate; what opportunities, if any, will grad school open for you, or can you get the same job with your undergraduate degree? Most importantly, remember that if you get to graduate school and it turns out to be not your thing, it’s okay to quit and find a job elsewhere.