Getting Into Graduate School

Applying for graduate school can be a daunting process and along your journey you may come to hear a lot of conflicting advice. We are creating this page to provide physics students with a place to start, and to provide advice from those who have already gone through the process.

Most Common Questions

How important are grades?

This question can have a range of answers depending on the school you are applying to, and what the rest of your profile looks like. For a lot of universities it is just used to check that you actually understood the physics concepts you learned in your classes. For most applicants this just means that above a certain GPA threshold(~3.5-3.8 depending on the school to which you are applying), your GPA will make a very minute difference. This threshold depends on the school that you attended, and the school you are applying to(e.g. a 3.5 from Harvard will carry a lot more weight than a 4.0 from some little known university). UW is one of the top 20 physics programs in the nation, it also graduates the most physics majors every year. This means that many other universities have a good idea about the rigor of our courses, and how that translates to a grade on our GPA scale. It also means that even with a bit of a “lower” GPA(~3.0-3.3), you can still be competitive at most schools in the country. On the flip side, if you have ≥3.5 you can be competitive at most top programs. With this in mind though, a high GPA will rarely compensate for lack of research experience, especially since UW is an R1 research institution(more on this later). Also, keep in mind that if you do have research a lot of research experience this can definitely outweigh a less stellar GPA.

How important is research?

Research is probably one of the most important parts of your application, second only to letter of recommendations(more on this later). Universities want to see that you enjoy and thrive in a research environment as opposed to just classes. Speak to any graduate student, or even undergraduate that has done research, and they will tell you that classes and research are two entirely different beasts. Having a lot of quality research experience will show that you have a good sense of what a PhD will entail, and that you have the skills to succeed in a graduate program. This is often a much better indicator of success in graduate school than grades and hence is why it is often more heavily weighed. Since UW is an R1 research institution, it is very common for undergraduates to be involved in a research project here so many graduate schools will have expected you to have at least some undergraduate research experience(unless you have some extenuating circumstance). It is also important to note that it is not necessary for you to do research in the field that you want to pursue in graduate school. Universities understand that you are exploring your interests in undergrad, and are more interested in the skills that you pick up by doing a research project. Now you may also hear that it is necessary for undergraduates to have a publication under their belt before applying for graduate school. This is in fact not true and just causes unneeded stress to undergrads seeking to apply. Yes it may be true that having a publication or two can make a big difference at a top 10 school, but the vast majority of universities do not expect undergraduates to have published anything. They understand that getting a publication is largely a matter of luck for undergraduates as it depends on many factors such as: when you joined your lab, and did you happen to stumble across the solution to your research question right away. Plus keep in mind that there is a massive difference between an nth author paper, and a 1st author paper(almost no applicants will have a first author paper). Finally this goes without saying but, if you join a research project make sure that you are very involved, do quality work, and maintain consistent contact with your PI. Keeping a good relationship with them is integral to the next common question, which is getting a good letter of recommendation.

How do I go about getting my letter of recommendations?

I would say that letter of recommendations are the most important aspect of your application. Sadly, getting into the school of your dreams will most likely depend less on your individual background and achievements, and more on the connections and fame that your letter writers have. This is why it is important that you choose letter writers that know you, and your ability to do research extremely well. Luckily for us the UW has some of the most well known physics professors in the country(especially in condensed matter). Most schools will ask for a minimum 3 letter writers with more being optional. These will typically be your research and lecture professors. To make sure that you have a good connection with them make sure that you go to all their office hours, try to meet weekly or biweekly with your PIs, try take initiative in your research project, and try to attend any social events your research group may hold. When it comes the time to ask for letters MAKE SURE YOU ASK FOR YOUR LETTERS EARLY! Not only will asking for a letter last minute annoy your letter writers, it will also result in a lower quality letter, as they will have less time to tailor it specifically to you. It is also a good idea to provide your letter writers with a document containing your research interests, achievements while working with them, and what you want them to highlight about you(I will provide a template that I used below). The point of this is not to effectively write the letter for them, but to remind them about things they might have forgotten, especially since these are things that they should have a lot to write about if you maintained a good relationship with them. Finally, don’t be afraid to bug your letter writers with reminders every so often when the deadline is nearing. Remember that it is part of their job to write letters for students, and it would be a much worse outcome finding out you didn’t get in simply because your letter writers forgot to submit their letter in time.

More sections to come…

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