AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

Planning for Graduate Studies in Physics and Related Fields

Introduction

This brochure is written for students considering graduate work in physics or related fields such as astronomy, biophysics, and applied physics. It also provides some information for physics undergraduates who plan on pursuing postbaccalaureate studies in the fields of engineering, medicine, law, and other professions that attract significant numbers of physics B.A./B.S. graduates. It will help each student decide whether to pursue a graduate degree and, if so, how to prepare for this path while still an undergraduate. It addresses the mechanics of the application process, the types of financial aid, and the final selection of a graduate school. It concludes with a discussion about what a student might expect during the first few weeks of graduate school, and an example of a personal timetable.

Throughout the brochure are specific references and links to websites where students may find useful information and carry out steps in the various processes. A great deal may be learned through the services of professional organizations, government agencies, national laboratories, and some commercial entities. Virtually all of these organizations maintain comprehensive websites, many of which address education, careers, programs, scholarships, publications, memberships, and issues of national importance. Universities and many of their departments are similarly represented, and an increasing number accept online applications. We list below some of the organizations and online resources that will be cited in the remaining sections.

American Institute of Physics
American Physical Society
American Association of Physics Teachers
Physical Sciences Resource Center
National Science Foundation
U.S. Department of Energy (education page)
Fermi National Laboratory (education page)
Los Alamos National Laboratory (education page)
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Associated Western Universities, Inc
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Council for Undergraduate Research
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
American Astronomical Society
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
Materials Research Society
American Society of Mechanical Engineers
American Society of Civil Engineers
American Medical Association
American Bar Association
Graduate Record Examinations

Because the accuracy and timeliness of some web addresses inevitably deteriorate, most links given here are to domain-name homepages only. Students should not overlook the paper medium, and they are encouraged to become familiar with the practice and literature of their prospective field through such journals as Physics Today, American Journal of Physics, Physical Review, The Physics Teacher, Science, Nature, Sky and Telescope, and IEEE Spectrum.

A few other disclaimers are necessary. This commentary cannot speak to every situation; obviously, you must consider these remarks in light of your own case. It is also beyond the scope of this brochure to predict future employment opportunities for persons with graduate degrees in physics or related fields, although this is certainly relevant to the decisions you will make before and during graduate education. For insights into these questions, students are urged to talk with their advisers and those in careers of interest.

Graduate study is not a simple extension of undergraduate work. Success as an undergraduate does not necessarily imply success in graduate school. You must objectively appraise your talents and capacities and consider them in relation to those required for success in graduate work. It is difficult to define the combination of qualities that ensures success in graduate school. Imagination, ingenuity, and intelligence are definitely important, but maturity, motivation, and effort are just as important. Success in graduate study demands intense dedication to the task at hand, perseverance, optimism, and resilience. Most people who have been successful in graduate work and in their subsequent careers have found that graduate study demanded more hard work, commitment, and concentrated effort than any previous undertaking. Many also have found graduate study exciting, exhilarating, and a very satisfying capstone to their formal education. If you have already experienced the thrill of discovery on any scale, or of suddenly reaching a new level of understanding in science, you can expect even more such experiences in graduate study and research.

You may find it difficult to evaluate whether you are suited for graduate study. You are strongly encouraged to consult with a qualified adviser as well as a friend or acquaintance who has had experience in graduate work in your general field of interest, before deciding whether to continue to graduate study.

 
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