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Going to grad school: what does it take?

Can I afford to go to grad school?

As a PhD student, the department’s policy on financial assistance will typically allow you to go through your entire graduate program at no cost to you. The stipend that goes along with graduate teaching or research assistantships is sufficient to provide for living expenses, but grad school is certainly not a way to build up your savings account. If you manage to obtain an outside fellowship, you will have the greatest possible freedom in your choice of PhD advisors and dissertation topics. Master’s students generally don’t get assistantships.
Working toward a PhD in physics is a full-time activity, so you shouldn’t plan on supplementing your income with an additional job.

What can I do with an advanced degree?

Beyond becoming professional scientists, physics students pursuing advanced degrees learn how to solve new problems, especially using mathematical methods of modeling and analysis. The skills you get in an advanced physics degree are useful in any career that involves solving challenging problems, which is to say just about anything. Students with advanced physics degrees go on to a range of technical careers: research at national laboratories; industrial and technical research in fields ranging from semiconductor fabrication to lasers and optics to financial modeling to medicine; and, of course, research and teaching at universities. Average earning power is significantly higher with an advanced degree. The bar chart shows a comparison from 2003:

So you could just as well ask yourself: Can I afford not to go to grad school?

What’s it like to go to grad school?

Of course, the above benefits come with a cost: an advanced physics degree is one of the most challenging and intellectually demanding pursuits there is. You’ll be expected to work hard, and often you’ll spend long hours finishing up that quantum mechanics problem set or getting data ready right before that important conference. Not everyone is cut out for a Ph.D. in physics. But if you are up to the challenge, graduate school will be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. There is nothing comparable to the high you get from finally getting your experiment to work or nailing a hard theoretical problem after months or years of effort. And your dissertation, if you put in the effort, will be something to be truly proud of.

Should I choose a Master’s or PhD program?

The master’s degree is shorter and may be obtained with or without a thesis component. The UO Physics Department also offers an Applied Physics Master’s program. PhD studies take longer and require significant original work, but as a PhD student you also receive more financial support. In particular, you don’t have to foot the bill for tuition, and you receive a stipend for the duration of your studies. Therefore, unless you have specific professional plans, it will typically be advisable to apply for the PhD program. If you are accepted but eventually cannot meet all the requirements for PhD candidacy, it’s still possible to “downgrade” to a Master’s degree provided you have passed the requirements for it.

How do I look for grad schools?

The first thing is to decide what aspects of grad schools are most important to you. Probably most important is to have an idea of what fields appeal to you (e.g., quantum optics, particle physics, biophysics, and so on), and whether you’re interested in theory or experiment. Geographical location might also be important to you.

Once you’ve decided on some criteria, you need to start getting some information about different grad schools. Surfing departmental web sites is too big a task until you’ve narrowed things down. Instead, try searching through the AIP’s Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy, and Related Fields. Your physics department probably has a copy (ask your department chair), or you can search the online version at, which will allow you to search by field and location. You can see the University of Oregon physics department’s entry here (pdf).

Another good source of information is to ask your physics profs or department chair. If you’re interested in specific fields, ask profs who are active in those areas, or ask them whom you can ask. They can probably also give you good information about graduate schools in the same region. Be a bit careful getting advice from profs who haven’t been active in research for a while, as their advice may be somewhat dated. Once you’ve narrowed the scope a bit, don’t be afraid to make contact before you apply. Physics departments with active, vibrant research programs are always on the lookout for promising young students like you, and will be happy to give you more information about their research. Incidentally, you can contact UO physics through the Office Manager, Jodi Myers..

What do I need to do before applying to grad school?

Study for the physics GRE. This will help improve your chance of getting admitted. However, in studying for this exam, remember that passing the GRE is only one of many criteria for success in grad school, and therefore a bad score won’t sink your application if the rest is good. Don’t study for the test alone (i.e., by doing practice tests): try to use the GRE preparation as a time of in-depth review, because that will go a long way towards mastering the qualifying examinations required by many departments.

How do I go about applying to grad school?

The official application deadline at the UO Physics Department is January 15, so you should aim to submit your application in December. You should talk to professors about writing you recommendation letters during the end of fall term. Also, write a letter of intent to accompany your application, summarizing in about 500 words how you see graduate studies mesh with your prior experience and career goals. The process of doing this can be valuable in itself since it leads you to identify areas of interest and perhaps also directions you’d like to avoid going into.

What about interdisciplinary research at UO?

Physics at the University of Oregon has many interdisciplinary connections. Researchers at UO belong to research institutes, which foster communication and collaboration in many research concentrations across traditional boundaries of disciplines and departments. In particular, physicists participate in the Institute for Theoretical Science, Materials Science Institute, Oregon Center for Optics, Institute of Molecular Biology and Oregon Center for High Energy Physics. It is not unusual to find graduate students in physics studying under faculty members in other departments, particularly Biology, Chemistry, Geological Sciences and Mathematics.

What are my chances of being accepted for graduate studies at the UO?

It’s hard to make general statements, because grad schools will look at your application as a whole to try to figure out if you’ll be a successful grad student. Having said that, you should be getting at least B’s and ideally mostly A’s in your upper-level physics and math classes. Undergrad research experience is a definite plus, but certainly not necessary. Also, talk to your professors or department chair, and ask them for their frank opinion; chances are they can give you a pretty good idea of your chances of getting into grad schools.

Am I too old to go to grad school?

The answer is no, there is no reason to fear grad school just because you’ve been out of college for some number of years. Although any graduate program requires some test-taking skills, the successful completion of a PhD degree depends to a large extent on your ability to be independent and original. Students from all age groups have demonstrated these qualifications in our department.

How diverse is the UO physics department?

As is true for all major research universities, diversity is an everyday fact of life at the UO Physics Department. Our graduate program provides an environment where intellectual, social and cultural diversity is valued and celebrated. You may well find that this makes graduate student life richer than the typical undergraduate experience. Approximately one-fifth of our graduate students are women. This matches the national average, and is in line with a continuing trend toward increased percentage of PhD degrees awarded to women.The department maintains a separate web page dedicated to gender issues, where you can find more specific information.

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