Applying to Graduate School

Applying to graduate school can be confusing and overwhelming (and no one ever tells you how damn expensive it all is). SPS is here to help deobfuscate the messy application process.

Disclaimer : A lot of this advice is based on personal experience from a limited set of perspectives. If something in here doesn’t resonate with you, that’s absolutely fine and you should follow your own path. If you flat out disagree with what’s written here, you can bring up your issue here and we can change the content of this page to reflect what advice is most agreed upon.

What does an application consist of?

Pretty much any application to a physics PhD program will consist of four things: a statement of purpose (frequently called the personal statement), a resume or curriculum vitae (CV), letters of recommendation, transcripts, standardized test scores, and for some applications a diversity statement (sometimes confusingly also called a personal statement). Unforuntunately there is no “Common App” for physics gradaute schools (although please make one), so each physics department has its own application and process, requiring you to submit essentially the same biograpihcal information and documents to each and every program. What follows is some advice on tackling each part of the application.

Statement of Purpose / Personal Statement

The Statement of Purpose (SoP) is a 1 - 2 page essay written by you that outlines your intentions in applying to a certain graduate program. You usually discuss your prior research experience and the specific research interests you wish to pursue in graduate school. This is also a place for you to write about any parts of your application that you’d like to clarify for the admissions committee (e.g. a few bad grades in one semester, low physics GRE scores, etc.). Many dismiss the SoP as having little use, as people generally don’t really know what they’re going to study in graduate school, and people in STEM tend to not be the most eloquent writers (i.e. most SoPs are trash). However, the SoP really is the ONLY portion of your application that you have complete control over , and this is what makes it important. If you are a good writer (or you put enough time into your SoP), you have an opportunity to really impress admission committees with your ability to professionally present yourself. When reviewing applications, faculty are looking for future colleagues , which they would prefer would be mature and able to present themselves. A well-written SoP can get this exact message across, which is why it is an important part of your application.

The SoP needs to be contrasted and separated from the Personal Statement (or diversity statement). The Personal Statement is a 1 - 2 page essay that clarifies your personal history and provides you with a space to discuss challenges that you’ve faced in reaching the current stage of your career. The Personal Statement is really the only area of an application where you as a person enters into play. These statements exist because physics graduate admissions tends to favor those with an abundance of opportunities (i.e. rich kids at prestigious universities), and the statement allows admission committees to place your application in the context of your own life. If you’ve found yourself pretty advantaged throughout your life, you might be at a loss to talk about disadvantages you’ve faced. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t write anything. In these statements, admission committees are also looking for you to show how you can improve the state of their own community . For example, do you have a passion for teaching or outreach? You can discuss those passions in your statement and talk about how you focus on bringing opportunities to communities other than your own.

In general, both your SoP and Personal Statement will be different for each school you apply to. A SoP needs to provide specific detail about why you are applying to each program, and is thus inherently unique for each application. As discussed earlier, you generally want to emphasize how you can enhance a program’s community in your Personal Statement, so each statement needs to be customized for each application as well. Further, schools may request specific information in your SoP or Personal Statement that other schools do not require, which further complicates the writing process. However, this does not mean you need to write a new statement from scratch for each program you apply to.

A SoP will generally have the following structure:

  • Paragraph 1: Introduce who you are and talk about your interests. Not like your name, but talk about your specific work interests, what your skills are, and what your interests in physics are. Make it interesting and make yourself sound appealing. You can talk about the specific parts of physics that fascinate you as they apply to the program you are applying to (e.g. it’s fine to talk about how dark matter fascinates if you want to work on cosmology projects in the program, but not if you’re interested in condensed matter theory). You can also use this space to quickly in 1 - 2 sentences explain away parts of your application that are weak (e.g. a semester of bad grades). In these sentences, try to take responsibility for the parts of your application that are weak and emphasize your growth as a student. For example, someone might say to explain away a low GPA, “Despite my rough start in the beginning of my academic career, resulting in a 3.0 total GPA, I was able to maintain a 3.7 GPA in my last two years of study in my physics and math courses, reflecting my commitment to obtaining a physics degree and continuing my studies.
  • Paragraph 2: Now is when you start name dropping. Name at least 3 specific professors you would like to work with. Discuss why their work intrigues you and what you can bring to the table when working with them. This is where you can talk in specifics about the work you imagine yourself doing in graduate school. At minimum, this is the only area you need to change between the Statements of Purpose that you write for each applcation.
  • Paragraph 3+: Talk about your research experience. Talk about the specific contributions you have made to the research you have been involved in. For each experience, mention who you worked with and where the work was performed. Each of these experiences you talk about will probably be written about in one of your letters of recommendations (some even underline the names of their letter writers as a cue that readers should cross reference what you wrote with your letters of recommendation), so you should write in a way to supplement what they may be writing about you.
  • Conclusion: Wrap everything up. Discuss again, now that your reader knows more about your experience and intentions, why exactly you are applying to this program and what you want to do there.

You don’t have to follow this structure, but this outline provides a nice starting point for writting a succinct essay that gets the point across that you have skills the professors want and you have specific ideas about what you want to do. If you find it difficult to write in this manner, try a different essay structure that feels more natural to you. No matter what you end up writing and no matter what structure your essay has, just make sure you follow these two rules:

DO NOT WASTE MY TIME

This should be the golden rule of all writing. Write with purpose and clarity so that the admission committee gets a clear understanding of your intentions in applying. This will also show them that you are smart and mature, which are good attributes to have in a grad student. Also keep in mind that admissions committees have to read hundreds of applications. If you’re wasting their time with your writing, it’s more reason to just glance over what you write which might weaken your application.

Every sentence and paragraph should serve some purpose in constructing an ideal image of you as a grad student in the reader’s mind. Try to actively think about what the image the reader constructs of you is as you write your SoP.

DO NOT WRITE ABOUT YOUR EARLY CHILDHOOD

This is a big faux pas, and some still make the mistake of starting their application with their memories of falling in love with physics as a kid. Some applications will go so far as to explicitly request that you do not talk about this. If you start talking about how you’ve loved science ever since you used a chemistry set when you were 9, you’re already breaking rule number 1.

Resume / CV

Resumes and curriculum vitaes (CVs) are pretty standard. To get an idea of the expectation for how your resume should be formatted, take a look at the CVs of the professors you want to work with at the various schools you are applying to. In generally, they should list the following information:

Biographical and contact information

Your name, address, phone number, email, etc.

Your educational history

The universities you have attended and your dates of attendence (no high schools), your majors, and your GPA

Your research/work experience

List each of the research projects you have worked on and what your contribution was. If you don’t have enough research experience, supplement with relevant work experience.

A list of your publications/posters/talks

If you have publications (most don’t, but if you do - great!), you should list them with a full reference. Also list any posters and talks you’ve given on your work.

(Optional) Scholarships and awards

List all of the scholarships and awards you have received in college. Don’t be shy, make it seem like a bigger deal than it is.

(Optional) Teaching experience

This can be listed under work experience as well, but it’s good to include any TAing experience you have, as TAing is a core part of many graduate careers. If you have enough experience, this can be an entire portion of your resume.

(Optional) Leadership and involvement

If you have relevant leadership experience (on an exec board of a club) or outreach experience, it’s good to list these on your resume

(Optional) Technical skills

You can also advertise special skills on your resume. If you program a lot, you can mention the useful languages you know. If you have a lot of experience in the lab, you can write down your lab skills and what special software you are adept with.

Your resume should be either exactly 1 or 2 pages. It might look weird to make it 1.5 pages or something like that (use your own judgement). There is generally a 2 page limit that prevents it from being too long. To make formatting easier, you should use LaTeX to write up your CV. Word is fine, but using LaTeX produces a more professional looking document. You can use a template to make it easier. This one is pretty good.

Letters of Recommendation

Generally, you’ll need three letters of recommendation for your applications. For some applications, they will accept more than three letters, but three is all that is necessary. Well in advance of your application deadlines, you should begin reaching out to people who you’d like to write your letters of recommendation. Generally, professors are happy to write a few good words about their students. However, some might just not have much to say, or they might be too busy, so provide room for (and prepare for) refusal when you ask.

In each of your letters, admission committees are looking for good qualities, such as tenacity, intelligence, work ethic, and resolve, that their colleagues have identified in you. In general, you want to receive good letters of recommendation, so you should seek out people who will write great things about you in each of these areas. Primarily, you should be asking for letters from people you have worked under, either professors or post-docs, in a research experience or a work experience of some sort. These should be people that you’ve worked with closely and have a solid understanding of and high regard for the impact you’ve had on their research. If you don’t have three people who you’ve worked with, your next best bet is a professor who has taught you in a course. In this case, you should seek out a professor who knows you well and who has high regard for you. You may have visited them many times in office hours and impressed them with your work ethic. It’s not necessary that you were the best student in their class, but it is necessary that you impressed them and that they have something unique to say about you and your qualities as a person.

Your letter writers may ask that you send them your CV, so make sure you have one prepared for them. Along with your CV, send them a draft Statement of Purpose so they can understand your motivations for applying to your chosen schools and tailor their writing towards your goals. If you don’t have a draft SoP, then at least in your request to them let them know explicitly what you hope they can write about you (e.g. you might say “I was hoping you could highlight X, Y, and Z about our work/time together” when you talk to them). Providing some guidance on what should be in the letter is a much appreciated step when requesting a letter. Finally, send each of your letter writers a well formatted spreadsheet that contains information about all of the schools you’re applying to and a link to where they should submit their letter. Make it as easy as possible for them to not mess up when submitting your letter!

Transcripts

You will either need to send an official or unofficial transcript in with each of your applications. You can get an unofficial transcript easily through SIS, and you can get an official UVA transcript ordered through UVA .

Standardized Test Scores

In general, programs will require that you send BOTH your scores for the general GRE and the physics GRE to them through ETS’s official score sending website. You will want to do this in advance of the submission deadline for each application, so that you can ensure your application is complete by the deadline. Some programs may not ask for you general GRE exam scores or your physics GRE exam scores.

General Advice

It’s a good idea to keep a spreadsheet with all of the schools you want to apply to along with information about which information you’ve sent them (transcript, letters, etc.), and which standardized test scores they require.

How do I pick a program to apply to?

This is probably the hardest part to give specific advice on as which programs you should apply to depends on a lot of different factors, and is inherently a personal choice. In general though, you should go to the school where you will have the most opportunities to do what you want to do . “Most opportunities” can mean a lot. It can mean the school has a lot of funding and allows you to explore research freely. It can also mean that there is simply the largest number of faculty who’s research intrigues you. It can also mean that that school has a nice science facility (e.g. an accelerator) where you can do your research. “What you want to do” is also vague, and is up to each person. Perhaps you are hyper-focused on research, and you want to go to a school where everyone else is like that. Perhaps you find the people you are with is more important to your happiness than the work you are doing, in which case you would want to ensure the faculty and students in your chosen department are friendly and have similar personalities to you. Perhaps you are more interested in the city you will be living in or the hiking opportunities available to you in the surrounding area of the school. These are all valid perspectives to have on what you want out of your graduate program, and they will all enter into your choice of schools that you apply to.

To get an idea of where different schools lie in how “good” they are, you can take a look at rankings, like the US News rankings or other rankings which use other objective factors . GradSchoolShopper is also an excellent place to find schools to apply to, and also provides information about acceptance rates at various schools. Pick a few school off these lists (don’t automatically rule out MIT!), and look at their websites for more information. Go through their faculty pages and read up on their research. Write down in a notepad or document all the people who have research that stands out to you. Look for buzz words that you think sound cool , as that tends to be a good indicator of you’re own interests when you’re unsure of what you want to do. You can use this as a starting point to narrow down which schools actually have science that sounds interesting to you.

Finally, just ask around! Ask your friends who have graduated which programs they applied to and why. Ask the grad students in the physics and astronomy departments about their experience with graduate admissions as well, as they will be able to have a much more specific and tailored conversation about your thoughts in applying to graduate school than this website can provide.

Personal experiences

Below you can find some advice from previous SPS members who have been through this process and wanted to share some words of wisdom to make your life easier.

Understand your profile as an applicant. But you should shoot for the stars too because you’re worth it!
Every professor in the department has gone through this process. Ask them about the program they went to. If you’re interested in potentially going to an international program, talk to Baessler.
Be sure that the research falls in line with your interests. However, your individual happiness is more important than anything, so be sure it’s somewhere you can flourish. When you visit, be sure to talk to the older graduate students about how they’re doing. Also try to get a sense of the community in the program. Grad school can take a toll on your physical and mental health, so it’s important that your superiors and colleagues are invested in you as a person.
As much as we don’t want to make money an issue, if the program doesn’t offer very much of it you should maybe consider another. Also look into the cost of living in the area.
Try to select a school that will make you happy in terms of every aspect, cause you don’t want to end up in a crappy situation for your life (which surprisingly exists beyond physics).

Online resources

  • APS’s guide to choosing a grad program
  • US News physics department rankings
  • The Chronical astronomy department rankings
  • GradSchoolShopper

How much will this all cost?

A lot. In total, one can expect to spend $1413 - $1921 on graduate school applications. One SPS student tallied up their own costs when applying to 12 schools, using fee waivers for applications, and spent a total of $1,141. So, make sure you have $1,000 - $2,000 saved up before applying to graduate schools!

Applications

Each application will cost you between $50 and $150 each to even submit them. Fee waivers can generally be obtained for applications if you qualify, and you should try to take advantage of those if money is an issue. Students usually apply to somewhere between 8 and 12 schools, which makes application costs ~$800 - $1200.

Standardized Tests

Taking the general GRE costs $205 each time you take it and taking the physics GRE costs $150 for each test . Considering many take the general GRE once and the physics GRE twice, you’re looking at a cost of $505 to just take the tests. Again, there are fee waivers for the GRE, however you can only claim one fee waiver for one test. The process for obtaining a fee waiver is needlessly complex and time consuming (including mailing a form !), so plan ahead and apply for a fee waiver well in advance of registering for one of the GRE exams.

Actually sending your scores to your schools is the last part of the financial burden. ETS charges $27 for each score report you send to a school (includes both general GRE and physics GRE). When actually taking a test, you will be able to send your scores to four schools for free . Take advantage of this to save $108! Again, using a figure of 8 - 12 schools, you are looking at a cost of $108 - $216 to send your scores.

Let your curiosity lead the way:

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  • Arts & Sciences
  • Graduate Studies in A&S

Your Personal Statement for Graduate School

Starting from scratch.

The personal statement is your opportunity to speak directly to the admissions committee about why they should accept you. This means you need to brag. Not be humble, not humblebrag, but brag. Tell everybody why you are great and why you’ll make a fantastic physicist (just, try not to come off as a jerk).

There are three main points you need to hit in your essay:

  • Your experience in physics.  Direct discussion of your background in physics and your qualifications for graduate studies should comprise the bulk of your essay. What research did you do, and did you discover anything? Did you take inspiring coursework or go to a cool seminar? What do you want to do in graduate school? There’s a ton to discuss.
  • Your personal characteristics.  What makes you stand out? You’ve probably done a lot in college that’s not physics research or coursework. You need to mention the most impressive or meaningful of these commitments and accomplishments, and you need to demonstrate how they will eventually make you a better physicist. Are you a leader? A fundraiser? A teacher? A competitive mathematician? A team player? An activist for social change?  All of these not-physics experiences may translate over to skills that will help you as a physics professor or researcher someday, and you can point this out!
  • Context for your accomplishments.  Is there anything else about your personal history or college experience that an admissions committee needs to know? The application form itself may only have space for you to list raw scores and awards, but graduate schools evaluate applications holistically. Thus they ask for the  essay  so you have a chance to tell your story and bring forth any personal details (including obstacles you overcame) to help the committee understand how great you truly are. Your application readers want to help you, and they’re giving you the chance to show how hard you’ve worked and how far you’ve come. But it’s up to you to connect the dots.

This type of essay is a lot more serious and a lot less creative than a college essay, a law school essay, or an essay for admission to a humanities PhD program. You’re basically trying to list a lot of facts about yourself in as small a space as possible. This is the place to tell everyone why you’re great. Do not hold back on pertinent information.

The following is going to be a general guide about how to write a first draft of your main graduate school essay. By no means think this is the only way to do it — there are plenty of possibilities for essay-writing! However, see this as a good way to get started or brainstorm.

If you’re completely stuck, a good way to start writing your essay is to compose each of the five main components separately.

  • Your research experience
  • Your outside activities or work experience
  • Personal circumstances
  • A story about you that can serve as a hook 
  • Your future goals + why you chose to apply to each school

At the end, we’ll piece these five different disjoint pieces together into one coherent essay.

1. Your research experience (and scientific industry employment)

This is the most important part of your essay, so it’s the place that we’ll start. We’ll pretend we’re structuring each research experience as its own paragraph (you can go longer or shorter, depending on how much time you spent in each lab or how much progress you made). Let’s see how it might work:

  • .Simple overview of research: what you worked on, the name of your primary supervisor (professor or boss), and the location (university + department or company + division). The first time you mention a professor, you call them by their first and last name: “I worked for Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown in Hill Valley.” All subsequent times, you address them by their title and last name: “Dr. Brown and I worked on time travel.”
  • “My research group was trying to build a time machine. My specific project was to improve the flux capacitor needed to make the machine work. I was able to make the capacitor exceed the 1.21 gigawatts needed for it to work. In addition, I helped do minor mechanical repairs on the DeLorean in which we built it.”
  • “When I came back, I decided to take two additional graduate-level courses on time travel, and I found a similar internship the following summer.”

Then you just jam it all together into a semi-coherent paragraph:

In 1985, I worked for Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown in Hill Valley. Dr. Brown’s research group was trying to build a time machine. My specific project was to improve the flux capacitor needed to make the machine work. I was able to make the capacitor exceed the 1.21 gigawatts needed for it to work. In addition, I helped do minor mechanical repairs on the DeLorean in which we built it. When I came back, I decided to take two additional graduate-level courses on time travel, and I found a similar internship the following summer .

You’re not a character from  Back to the Future , and it’s not beautiful prose, but you have to start somewhere. It’s more important to get all the facts you need down on the page before you work too hard on editing. Save that for after you have a well-structured and mostly-written essay.

2. (A) Your primary extracurricular activities or (B) your primary life experiences

(A) Tell the committee about any other major honors or experiences you’ve had in physics. Also write a paragraph or two about your interests outside of physics class and science research. Use this space to highlight the really impressive features of your activities:

  • a second major or minor
  • leadership positions in clubs, student representative to department/university committees, elected position in student government
  • science clubs: Society of Physics Students, Math Club, engineering organizations, societies for students underrepresented in the sciences, etc.
  • teaching activities: TA positions, tutoring, volunteer teaching commitments in any field of study, coaching a team, etc.
  • other regular volunteering activities
  • science advocacy and activism: political issues (government funding, global warming, nuclear policy, etc), improving diversity and inclusion in the sciences, science outreach on campus or in the local community
  • a significant time commitment: varsity sports, heavy school-year employment, etc.
  • other relevant skills: writing/publishing experience, public speaking, proficiency in other languages
  • major fellowships, scholarships, honors, prizes, or awards you’ve won and if needed, an explanation of their significance/meaning
  • attendance of physics conferences, symposia, summer schools, etc. that you haven’t already been able to mention in conjunction with the description of your research

If you have done many extracurricular activities, focus your 1-2 paragraphs on leadership positions, teaching, and service, particularly in the sciences.

(B) If you came to college a few years after you left high school, or if you are coming to graduate school a few years after you left college, then you need to write a few paragraphs discussing those life experiences. What did you do during that time? What experiences led you to choose physics graduate school as your next step? If you applied earlier but your application was rejected, how have you become more qualified since the last time you applied? You can feel free to ignore some of the advice we give later about how much of the essay you should focus on discussing physics experiences — structure the essay however you need to, to get the pertinent information across. Also, use Google extensively to find advice from other people who were in a situation similar to yours.

3. Personal circumstances

Now, look back at the various disjoint pieces of your essay that you need to fit together. What else might be relevant about you that you haven’t been able to mention yet?

Are there any major shortcomings in your application package? You need to address these, but do so INDIRECTLY. If you point your own flaws out to the committee directly, you are setting yourself up for failure. However, it is possible to leave pointed explanations for them in plain sight in your essay.  For example, if you have a GPA that might seem low by normal graduate school standards, you could explain the significant amount of time you devoted to other major activities or a job, or describe any obstacles you have had to overcome (with the implication that you did so while still maintaining a GPA and completing your degree).

Even if your raw scores are perfect and your research excellent, you need to make your application stand out by letting the reader know who you are as a person. More specifically, you need to give some indication of how you will contribute to the diversity in background, experience, perspective, talents, and interests of students in the program.

  • To quote a CommonApp essay prompt, “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
  • What makes you  you ? What makes you interesting/fun/cool? What makes you stand out that won’t already be visible from your transcripts, recommendation letters, and application forms? How might you contribute to the diversity in background, experience, perspective, talents, and interests of students in a graduate program?
  • How did you end up in physics? Why do you want to pursue physics? Is there some event, course, experience, or activity that was particularly meaningful for your life or that guided you into this path?
  • Was there an extenuating circumstance that affected your performance in college? Think carefully about how and where you will discuss it. For example, you could frame it in a positive light so that you come off as resilient. An example might be “Despite [this factor], I was still able to [accomplish that].” You can also ask a trusted professor to mention it in their reference letter.

4. The hook

The final major piece of writing we’re going to do is a hook to open your essay. Do you have some anecdote, story, or achievement that will really grab the reader’s attention right away? They’re reading through nearly a thousand applications in hopes of narrowing down the pile to under a hundred, so what will make you be among those who stand out? Think about this as you assemble the rest of your essay.

5. Your future goals and why you’re interested in each graduate school

For every school you’re applying to, you need to write 1-2 paragraphs (~10% of the essay) about why you’re applying to that school.

Now this can be tricky. You need to gather some information via the Google about each individual school beforehand:

  • What would you be interested in researching at that school? Are there particular professors who stand out?
  • Does the school prefer if you have a fairly defined idea of the 2-3 people you’d want to work for ahead of time, or do they favor applicants who aren’t certain yet?
  • Does the school evaluate all applications at the same time, or do they send your application to separate committees for the research subfield(s) you indicate on the application form?
  • Why are you going to graduate school and/or what do you want to do afterwards? How will your five to seven year experience doing a PhD at a certain place prepare you for that path?

Even if you definitely know what you want to do or even if you’re completely sure you need to explore a few areas of physics, you need to write this section of your essay to cater towards each school. This involves a few hours of research on each school’s website, looking up the research fields in which the department focuses and learning about the specialization of each professor.

Here’s a good way of compiling your first draft of this section:

  • I [am interested in/want to] work on [one or two research fields you might be interested in]. Specific professors whom I would want to work for are [three to four professors].
  • My life experiences that led me to pick these choices are [something].
  • I am especially excited about [university name]’s [resource/opportunity] in [something to do with physics].

6. Compiling your final essay

By now, you should have written (most of) the disjoint individual pieces of the puzzle. You might be under the expected word count, you might be over the expected word count, or you might be right on track. You can forget about all that for now — it’s more important to get something together, and we’ll fix all those details later.

Because you’re probably submitting about a dozen distinct essays, let’s ignore the “Future plans” piece of the essay and try to just get one main body of the essay put together with the other paragraphs. For each school, you’ll tack the “future plans” part of the essay either onto the end of the essay or in some spot you’ve chosen in the middle that helps everything flow. For now, ignore word count and just get words on the page. You can go back through and slice out sections of the main essay to meet smaller word counts for certain schools.

Look at the pieces of your life. How do they logically fit together? Is your story best told chronologically, with one research experience or activity falling logically after the other? Or is there something that makes you so unique and special that it belongs right at the very beginning of the essay? Sort the pieces so that they assemble in a good order.

Next, we need to check on the size of these pieces. At the very least, discussion of research activities/STEM work experience and your future goals in research should make up 75-80% of your essay. If you wrote many long, elaborate paragraphs about your time in your fraternity or on the women’s tennis team, now is the time to scale that back to only a sentence. Remember that the admissions committees truly only care about your potential to succeed in the future as a physicist. If you couldn’t give a clear explanation to your major advisor about how a tangential experience shows your potential to succeed in physics, you shouldn’t include it. (Note that “I got straight A’s in graduate courses while also involved in [major time commitment]”  is   an acceptable reason to include something and is beneficial to state.)

Did you talk about anything that happened in your childhood? (“I was interested in physics since in the womb”) Get rid of it. The only things that happened before college that are appropriate to mention are: (1)  some significant aspect of your personal background that your application would be incomplete without, or (2)  major college-level achievements: research leading to a publication, getting a medal in the International Physics/Math Olympiad, or dual-enrollment programs. However, mention items from (2) sparingly. You want to show that you’ve made major strides in the past four years; do not focus on your glory days in the past.

Do your paragraphs transition neatly from one to the next, or does your essay still feel off-kilter? A simple one sentence transition between paragraphs – either at the end of one or at the start of the next – can do wonders for your essay. Make sure it would make sense to someone who doesn’t know your background as well as you. Use the transition sentences to make your essay more interesting. Tell a story.

Congratulations. Now you have your first real draft of facts. Before you joyously run to your computer to submit your graduate application or run to your professor to give it a look over, go to one of your friends first.

The biggest danger with a graduate admissions essay is that you come off as really self-centered or boring. Nobody wants to read a thousand essays that merely list every single fact about a person’s life; they want to read a story. We helped you put together the bare bones of a graduate admissions essay, but did you tell a story? Did your personality shine through?

It’s a lot easier to go back and do an overhaul of an essay if you have something down on the piece of paper. Your friends might be able to help point out places that you can make your essay flow better or seem more interesting. They can tell you where to add more pizzazz in an otherwise boring research statement (“I worked on computational models of astrophysics during the month of July.” versus “I was so stoked when I found out I’d be modeling exploding stars that summer! That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a physicist.”). Take a day off, walk around, and then go back to your draft ready to show the world how excited you are to be a physicist and what an exciting physicist you are.

Our next section gives general tips for editing your personal statement, no matter whether you took our advice on how to start writing.  Go through these steps very carefully to make sure you have an essay you’re proud of to send off to the admissions committee. 

By the end of this process, you should have an impressive, interesting, factual draft of your qualifications that you’re ready to show a couple of trusted professors. You’ve worked super hard, and you’ve done a good job, we’re sure. However, professors are always critical, so don’t be upset if they tell you quite a few things to change. A young student reads an essay a lot differently than the older professors who are on the admissions committee, so it’s really important to get their perspective. Listen to what they say and truly consider making those changes. Edit once more, and repeat as many times as you need to.

At some point, you’ll finally be done with this long, difficult process and can proudly press “submit!”

General Tips for Editing

First things first: a step-by-step method for proofing your essay:.

Here’s what to do step-by-step once  you’ve followed our advice and have created a full first draft .

  • Read your essay aloud to yourself.  Is it interesting? Would everything make sense to someone who doesn’t know you? Probably not…  See our advice below for making your draft better . You’ll probably need to repeat step 1 many times before you get to something you think has pretty good content and is pretty interesting.
  • Check your grammar, spelling, and style. We have a guide to doing that at the very bottom of this page.  Also, pay attention to your word processor: if there are any bright red or bright green underlines, that should be your first warning sign!
  • Have a trusted friend (or two)   in the sciences  read the essay  for style and voice. Do you have a good opening hook? Are there any passages that make you come off as arrogant, whining, or annoying? (You absolutely have to brag about yourself, but don’t say it in a way that makes you come off as a jerk — scroll down for advice on that.) Have them proof your rewrite for any final errors.
  • Once you’ve gone through steps 1-3 and are completely certain that this is a nearly-perfect draft,  have a PHYSICS PROFESSOR or two read your nearly-final essay.  (D on’t send them an incomplete draft; they’ll get peeved. They’ll probably also only look over it once, so use your one shot wisely. They have a lot of students, you know. ) A graduate admissions essay is very different from a college essay. The physicists reading your application aren’t looking for the student with the most well-rounded course choices, the head of the most clubs, or the person who can write the most creative statement. They’re looking for evidence of the specific attributes that show you have the capability of being a future physicist. This is why you need to ask a  professor  in the field of  physics . Not just a biology professor, not just a physicist in industry; make sure you ask a  physics professor . Have we made this clear?
  • Listen to what you’re proofreaders say and amend your essay, but you don’t have to follow every last bit of advice. If your gut tells you to ignore one or two of their suggested changes, that’s okay. That is,  it’s fine to make sure your essay sounds like you and says everything you want it to say. 
  • Rinse and repeat. (redo steps 2-5)
  • At some point, you’ll either get right up close to the deadline or have a draft you think is final. READ IT ALOUD before you press submit.

General Content Advice

You’re applying to a physics program!

Don’t forget this! The people reading your application care most about your background in, preparation for, and involvement in activities related to physics research. You should be spending almost all of your essay demonstrating your interests and ability to do physics.

It’s okay to mention substantial time commitments and achievements outside physics; however, pay attention to how you do so.  Your capacity and potential to perform scientific research are what you are mainly being judged on,  so description of physics-related research, coursework, and goals should make up most of your main essay (you should aim for 75%+). If an application allows you to write separate research and personal statements, then the former statement needs to be 100% focused on physics, and the latter should frame your physics experiences/goals within the context of your personal life.

  • Absolutely mention  teaching and outreach experiences  if you have any. Grad schools  really do care  about these! It’s great too if some of your teaching experience is in a STEM field.
  • Also, don’t be shy about mentioning participation in  activism , particularly related to  diversity and inclusion  in STEM or higher education.  These are generally not seen as minuses on a physics application, and there are fellowships/ programs related to diversity at some graduate schools.
  • Mention of activities tangential/irrelevant to the sciences should only make up a small portion of your essay, and you should mainly highlight your biggest achievements/time commitments. For example, you shouldn’t make a long list of every one of the dozen intramural sports teams you participated on in college. However, it would be great to mention that you captained the club soccer team or that your volleyball team won a local championship.
  • You need to make sure it doesn’t seem like you would prefer to pursue one of these activities as a full-time career instead of physics research. Remember, you’re applying to a  physics  program! (Perhaps you could frame non-physics activities as demonstrating good aspects of your character: you’re hardworking, a leader, work well on a team, can balance multiple commitments, etc.)

Your essay isn’t meant to be a restatement of your CV. 

The essay illuminates the how and why of what’s on your CV, and connects the dots between experiences.

  • You need to describe your research experiences in depth. What did each of the labs you worked in generally do, and what were your specific contributions? What did you learn about physics in each lab or what new physics did you observe/discover/create? What skills did you develop that will be useful in graduate studies? What did you learn about your own interests and talents in each lab? Did you write any reports or publish any papers? Did you present the work anywhere? Were you listed as an author on someone else’s presentation? Do you have any papers in preparation for publication, or do you plan to in the near future?
  • Second of all, the essay should connect the dots. How did you choose to do what you did in college? How did you choose the research experiences in which you participated? What do you want to do in your graduate studies and further in the future? Why?

Make sure you’ve included information specific to the graduate school you’re writing about. 

Why are you applying to this specific program? What general research area are you leaning towards, and are there any specific professors you would be interested in?  This isn’t a binding commitment. But don’t make yourself seem too narrow: if you say you only would want to go to a certain school if you could work for one or two people, that will severely hurt your chances of getting in.

Have you addressed your shortcomings adequately?

Are there any major shortcomings in your application package? You need to address these, but do so INDIRECTLY. If you point your own flaws out to the committee directly, you are setting yourself up for failure. However, it is possible to leave pointed explanations for them in plain sight in your essay. For example, if you have a GPA that might seem low by normal graduate school standards, you could explain the significant amount of time you devoted to other major activities (with the implication that you did so while still maintaining a respectable GPA and completing your degree)…

Have you fully explained your personal background?

…but even if your raw scores are perfect and your research excellent, you need to make your application stand out by letting the reader know who you are as a person. More specifically, you need to give some indication of how you will contribute to the diversity in background, experience, perspective, talents, and interests of students in the program.

Your essay should contain the highlights of your college career: your experiences, your activities, your awards. But an essay shouldn’t be just a two-page-long list: a good essay conveys a sense of who you are as a person, your personality, and why you are unique or a unique fit for the program.

The application essay is your chance to explain any aspect of your background that is not reflected elsewhere, but that your application would be incomplete without. This is up to you: only you can fully explain your own story.

Along the same line, graduate school admissions committees don’t just admit the set of 22-year-olds who attended the top high schools, then the top-ranked colleges, where they got the top GPA in the toughest classes and were SPS president. Admissions committees consider all criteria in light of where each individual student started out and any circumstances he/she faced along the way.

Students who followed nontraditional paths, came from disadvantaged backgrounds, or faced other extenuating circumstances during college might wish to either mention these in their essay or ask a trusted advisor to write about it in their letter. Some topics you may wish to address are:

  • Factors from before WashU.  Normally, you’re supposed to mention your pre-college experiences only sparingly (or not at all) in an admissions essay. However, there are circumstances in which it may be beneficial. Do you come from an under-resourced background, and you started out college in pre-calculus, which set back your study of physics to sophomore year? Were you hyper-accelerated in math or science, which makes your transcript look very strange and uneven? Did you transfer from a community college? From another college? Does a high school research experience relate to your future interests? Are you graduating early, and why? Anything else? If it’s important, mention it and explain how it affected you!
  • You’re not 22!  Did you take a few gap years to find yourself, work off loans, get married and have kids, or serve in the military? Are you super young? What exactly is your background? What would you want the committee to know to help them evaluate if you’re a good candidate for graduate school? What life experiences have you had that made you want to go to – and that will help you succeed in – graduate school? It would be  abnormal  if  everyone entering a PhD program were 22! If you came from a nontraditional background, explain it, and don’t take our advice too seriously. A different essay style/structure may be more suitable.
  • Personal circumstances.  A parent lost their job mid-college, which impacted your enrollment. You or a family member faced a major health problem. Your hometown suffered a natural disaster. You worked a full-time job while still in school. Another major event in your life. Tips we’ve seen online? You only need to mention the pertinent details, don’t make it the focus of your essay, and be positive — phrase it as what you were able to accomplish in light of a circumstance (instead of describing it in a way that might come off as a complaint).   Another option is to ask a close professor to mention the situation in their reference letter instead. 
  • You made a mistake.  You had trouble adjusting your freshman year of college, but things went up from there. You made bad choices on what to spend your time on a couple semesters. You faced university disciplinary action or committed a non-traffic crime. Talk to your four-year advisor, major advisor, or a trusted professor about what appears on your record, what you have to report on your application, and how to mitigate its negative effects on your future to the greatest extent possible through your personal statement and other minor essays on the application. Always be honest, but always be positive: show how you’ve moved forward and grown since then.
  • Anything else.  The list above was by no means comprehensive! If there is something an admissions committee needs to know in order to understand how great of a fit you are for their program, then mention it. If you have any questions about your essay and it’s contents, please ask a trusted professor.

Make your essay interesting!

The science graduate school application essay may not seem nearly as freeform or fun as your undergraduate CommonApp essay, the paper your roommate’s submitting to an MFA program, or a law school essay. However, the physics professors spending hours reading literally hundreds of essays will appreciate if you make yours more interesting than a list of your achievements. Make your essay stand out as one they’ll remember.

Showcase your personality.  Once you’ve gotten all the necessary facts together in your essay in some sort of coherent order, it’s time to make sure the essay is actually interesting to read. Read it aloud, and have a friend read it aloud. Does the essay convey who you really are, or does it sound like you’re reading some really dry, boring report? Most likely it’s the latter at this point.

Pull out another piece of paper or a new window on your computer screen, and start writing a new version of each paragraph that sounds a bit more interesting, enthusiastic about physics, and fun. It’ll take time, but you can do this without going over the word count. See how different these two sentences sound, even though they’re about the same length and convey the same content:

  • Boring phrasing:  In my sophomore spring, I worked in the theoretical kinematics laboratory of Sir Isaac Newton at Cambridge. We studied the manner in which balls roll down hills.
  • Better phrasing:  Sophomore spring, I enjoyed the opportunity to study the fascinating theoretical nature of how balls roll down hills with Sir Isaac Newton at Cambridge.

Both students convey the necessary facts the graduate committees are looking for: (1) the student worked abroad in a famous person’s lab, (2) the student did theoretical research, and (3) the specific project regarded how balls roll down hills. The first example sounds like a true but boring listing of facts. The second example not only tells what the student did, but also shows the student’s appreciation for the opportunity, as well as that the enthusiastic student found that they enjoyed work of a theoretical nature in this specific subject area.  Instead of directly writing “I love and care about physics,” show it through the way you phrase your essay. 

Don’t come off as unlikable

By now, you have probably been advised a thousand times about what not to write in an application like this one – insults, complaints, or bigoted remarks; opinions on polarized topics distant from physics; any trouble you got into in college that you wouldn’t want your parents to know about; etc.

But sometimes we still say things in personal statements that are meant with entirely good intentions but that other people read the completely wrong way. Your friends and professors should be able to pick some of these out in your essay, but here’s a simple guide to help yourself too.

(1) Don’t name-drop unless it has to do directly with your accomplishments in physics.  Look out for areas of your personal statement that may turn off a reader because you come off as arrogant, spoiled, or out of touch with reality. Also remember that life is not a complete meritocracy. It is much easier to get ahead if you have lots of connections that help you along the way — but despite this, you should not overtly use your personal statement to pull connections that are not directly physics-related.

Here are some exaggerated examples:

Bad:  The summer after junior year, my best friend’s father, Albert Einstein, hooked me up with an internship at Princeton with Eugene Wigner. Better:  The summer after junior year, I took a research internship at Princeton with Eugene Wigner. You don’t have to tell someone you got the internship because you happened to have a great connection (nobody will care that you’re friends with a famous person). It’s better to just say that you did the internship. They will, however, care about the name of the famous person you worked for.

Bad:  I did not do as well on the GRE as I hoped because I crashed my Lamborghini on the way to the test. Better:  I did not do as well on the GRE as I hoped because I got into a car accident on the way to the test. It might be easier to have a friend read for subtle (or not-so-subtle) phrasing and word choices that might read the wrong way to a reader. Here, the mention of the luxury car brand makes it look like the student is trying to show off (and probably doesn’t realize that the car costs more than they’ll earn from graduate school all five years total). 

Bad:  Your university’s biggest donor is a family friend, and five generations of my family have attended your physics graduate program. Better:  When I visited my physics PhD brother at your campus, I enjoyed seeing X, Y, and Z facilities, which I think will be greatly beneficial to my physics education. Also good:  I spent a summer in the laboratory of Professor — at your university, and I would love to continue working for her in graduate school. If you have a connection to the university, don’t just state it. Find a way to phrase it to make you seem more like a better fit for their graduate program.

(2) Please remember that the admissions committee does not owe you anything for any reason.  So, please don’t claim that you deserve admission, honor and recognition, or anything else from them. Do not even make the mistake of phrasing something badly so that it seems like you think that way. It will only make them dislike your application.

Bad:  Given the fact that I won a Fields Medal, a Wolf Prize in Physics, and the Nobel Peace Prize, I am clearly the best applicant out there. Better:  Some of the highlights of my college experience include a Fields Medal, the Nobel Peace Prize, and a Wolf Prize in Physics.

Bad:  I worked so hard in college that I clearly deserve the opportunity to attend your university. Better:  I found the time and effort I put into physics very worthwhile and fun, and I hope to keep working in this field in the future.

Bad:  I am a great fit for your program. Better:  Your program would be a great fit for me.

(3) You got where you are because of hard work, not just raw intelligence.  Or at least, frame it this way. Nobody wants to hear how naturally intelligent you think you are — instead, your personal statement should demonstrate the achievements that your intelligence has earned you. Leave it to your reference writers to provide an external evaluation of your mental capabilities. Just trust us on this one.  Using the same reasoning, don’t tell everyone about qualities of your character. Show them.  Graduate admissions committees are smart. They can infer these things.

Bad:  Because of my natural intelligence and talent for physics, I won the “Best Physicist” prize. Better:  Because of my research efforts, I won the “Best Physicist” prize.

Bad:  I am a super nice person because I help people with physics all the time with volunteer stuff. Better:  Every weekend for two hours, I enjoy showing small children the wonders of physics at the Volunteer Science Thing.

Bad:  I am super smart because I have published three papers. Better:  I have published three papers.

(4) Claim credit for your accomplishments, but give credit to others too where it’s due.  We’re sure you did a ton of hard work in college, and that’s great. However, you need to recognize that it wasn’t just you. Your research advisers, graduate student mentors, classroom professors, and many others helped you get where you are today.  Acknowledge your own successes, but give credit where it is due.

Bad:  Last summer I built the first-ever time travel machine. Better:  Last summer I worked at a secret government agency with a team of twenty scientists under the guidance of Aristotle to build the 21st century’s first-ever time machine.

Bad:  I wrote and published a particle physics paper myself, even though there are three authors. Better:  Professor — guided me through the process of writing and publishing my first-author particle physics paper.

(5)  Don’t be overly negative  or critical of any of your physics experiences.  That is, be yourself, and don’t give opinions that are completely untrue.   If you didn’t like doing theory research, then you don’t have to say you did. But it’s not a good idea to express extreme distaste for any area of physics in your essay — try to find something good about every experience and phrase it in a positive light. Here’s an example of a fib, the way you might be tempted to fix it, and an even better way of doing so:

  • Your original attempt to seem happy:  I worked on computational and analytical aspects of string theory at the Institute of Advanced Study. It was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life and I could see myself doing the exact same thing in graduate school at your great string theory program. I like experimental work too.
  • The way you actually feel about things:  I worked on a project about string theory at the Institute for Advanced Study. My research advisor had me split my time between computational work and pen-and-paper problems. I absolutely hated doing pen-and-paper math. It sucked!
  • A more positive way of phrasing the truth:  I loved the computational aspects of my string theory work at the Institute for Advanced Study. However, the next summer, I discovered that I more enjoyed applying my computational skills in a laboratory setting.

The mechanics of your writing: sentence and word choices

You can make a drastic difference in the quality of your essay just by checking on a few more mechanical aspects of your writing: sentence structures, phrasing, and even grammar. As you work on your drafts, continually try to improve these things. Here are a few of the many aspects to which you might want to pay attention…

Are all of your sentences good sentences?  Are all of your sentences complete? Do any of the sentences run on? Do all the sentences logically follow one another? Does your story make basic sense? Make sure that nothing you wrote sounds or seems awkward!

Make sure your sentence structures aren’t repetitive.  It’s very easy to get caught into the habit of writing, “I did this. I did that. I did the other thing.” Your essay is going to use the first-person pronouns “I” and “we” more than you’re probably used to, but that’s okay and not self-centered. You are writing about yourself, you know! However, there are ways to do it that seem less obnoxious or monotonous. Let’s look at a few examples of how we can rephrase or rearrange sentences so that we don’t get stuck in the same patterns too often.

  • I did research about nuclear reactors under the supervision of Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago last summer.
  • This past summer, I researched nuclear reactors with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.
  • Enrico Fermi taught me about building nuclear reactors last summer at the University of Chicago.
  • Nuclear reactors captivated me during my summer internship with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.
  • My first exposure to nuclear reactors was last summer, when I worked for Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago.
  • At the University of Chicago, I studied nuclear reactors with Enrico Fermi.
  • When I was at the University of Chicago last summer, I studied nuclear reactors with Enrico Fermi.
  • I want to study theoretical physics in graduate school.
  • At graduate school, I want to study theoretical physics.
  • My preferred area of graduate research would be theoretical physics.
  • My graduate research interests are in theoretical physics.
  • The theoretical physics research opportunities at [insert university here] excite me.
  • Theoretical research most attracts my interests for graduate studies.

As you can see, there are seemingly endless choices for rearranging the words in your sentences or finding ways you can rewrite them that carry across the same (or more!) information.

Make sure your word choices aren’t boring or repetitive.  You might find yourself using only commonplace adjectives over and over again (good, bad, happy, sad, etc.). Or perhaps you do the opposite — you have a plethora of repetitions of the same unusual adjective (like plethora) used multiple times in the same paragraph, one after the other.

Pull out a thesaurus and find some good synonyms! Or better yet, be more accurate about what you want to say. For example, consider word replacements in the overused phrases:

Professor Bender’s least favorite word: interesting. As in, “That research is/was/seems  interesting .”

  • intriguing, fascinating, inspiring, delightful
  • appealing, enticing, exciting, fun
  • novel, cutting-edge, exhilarating
  • challenging, thought-provoking, stimulating

The verb around which your essay is centered: research. “With Arthur Holly Compton, I  researched …”

  • worked on, studied, learned
  • examined, analyzed, investigated, probed, observed, experimented, tested
  • found [a result], discovered, came up with [an idea], unraveled, explained
  • calculated, computed, solved, answered, evaluated
  • formulated, designed, fabricated, planned, developed, created, invented, built, prepared

Be clear and concise.  Most graduate schools only give you two pages to tell your story, even if you think it would be easier to hand in a novel. If you find yourself sitting at your computer with an incredibly long draft, you’re going to need to take out some material.

Start with irrelevant details: you don’t need to tell us that last spring, you worked on a laptop with exactly 16 gigabytes of RAM, 2 terabytes of storage, manufactured by a small company from your homestate, that has exactly 6 bumper stickers decorating its case. Get rid of that paragraph!

Next, look at your research and activity descriptions. Only include the most relevant information. If you got second place in an international physics competition and fourth place in the local math contest, you can remove the latter from the main body of your essay. If you worked on four projects with your biophysics group, two of which led to a paper and two of which mainly consisted of cleaning your mentor’s Petri dishes, then it should be obvious which should deserve most (or all) of your essay’s attention. Don’t be afraid to be vicious with your red pen.

Once you’ve gotten rid of things that are very obviously unnecessary and have cut your essay down to a couple of paragraphs above the required word count, it’s time to start modifying the lengths of your sentences and paragraphs themselves. While it may seem like you’ve done everything right, and that every single thing in your essay is utterly necessary, think again! Remember the paragraph in which we discussed the many ways in which you could rewrite a sentence? (scroll up…) Time to use that same strategy to shorten sentences or combine two short sentences into one long, complex one. Also, if you’re trying to make your essay meet a page count, make sure that none of your paragraphs end with a single word on a line — try to fill up each line with as many characters as possible by changing word choices or phrasing. The best way to do this is to look at some examples.

Example 1 – using abbreviations

  • Old essay.  I worked in the Compton Group at Washington University my freshman summer…The next summer, I went to Fermilab to work on particle physics…In junior year, I worked in an optics laboratory at Washington University…As a senior, I worked on biophysics at Washington University.
  • New essay.   I worked in the Compton Group at Washington University (WU) my freshman summer…The next summer, I went to Fermilab to work on particle physics…In junior year, I worked in a WU optics lab..As a senior, I worked on biophysics at WU.

Example 2 – combining sentences

  • Old.  At graduate school, I would like to study particle physics. I am deeply interested in this topic because of my experience working in Professor Compton’s research group.
  • New.  My past work with Professor Compton has motivated me to study particle physics in graduate school.

Example 3 – choosing shorter words or phrases, even if you think they sound less fancy (scientists prefer clarity and conciseness over clunky phrasing)

  • Old.  My research provides incontrovertible evidence for this.
  • New.  My research proves this.
  • New.  My research demonstrates this.

Example 4 – condensing information that can be grouped together

  • Old.  Team experiences comprised a large and enjoyable part of my college years, both in the laboratory and outside.   My junior year, our math team was in the top ten in the Putnam competition. My senior year, my physics team got a gold medal in the University Physics Competition. I am also on the varsity underwater basket weaving team, which won the University Athletic Association title.
  • New.  During college I enjoyed working with teams both in and out of the lab. Some of my notable team achievements include a top-ten finish in the Putnam math contest, a gold medal in the University Physics Competition, and winning the division title in underwater basket weaving.

There are many other creative ways you can cut down on space in your essay. It may be difficult and time-consuming to cut down your composition to an appropriate length, so be sure to budget enough days before your essays are due!

Look out for silly mistakes!  Make sure you didn’t type something careless like “form” instead of “from.” Double-check that you didn’t confuse your/you’re or there/their/they’re. Are all your commas in the right places? Carefully and slowly read through your essay. If you accidentally had one mistake when you submitted, it probably won’t be a big deal. But if you have multiple careless errors in your essay, the admissions committees might get the wrong impression that you didn’t care enough to write your essay properly.

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SOP for PhD in Physics: Tips & Format

  • What is SOP
  • SOP Writing Tips
  • Statement of Purpose for Masters
  • SOP for MBA
  • Statement of Purpose for Phd

Updated on 08 February, 2024

Neha Uppal

Sr. Content editor

Neha Uppal

Studying a research-level course like PhD in Physics is a significant feat. Given the complexity of the curriculum and the need for in-depth research, only a few candidates are selected by top overseas universities. 

The most important aspect of the admissions process is the SOP for PhD in Physics. Just like any other level of study, PhD students must ensure their Statement of Purpose is unique, crisp, and appealing to the admissions committee. 

A well-drafted Physics PhD SOP can turn the tables in the applicant’s favor. It can convince the reviewers that the applicant is a suitable fit for their research program and downplay the applicant’s weaknesses. Students must remember that the admissions committee reads through 1000+ SOPs daily. Drafting a memorable SOP that strikes a chord with the reviewer is vital.

Table of Contents

  • Focusing on One’s Self
  • Avoiding Teaching as the Main Interest
  • Addressing Previous “Issues” Upfront
  • Not Focusing too Much on Work Experience
  • Circulating the SOP
  • SOP Format for PhD in Physics

Frequently Asked Questions

5 tips to write effective sop for biological sciences .

Generally, a sample SOP for Ph.D. Physics will be similar to any other course level. However, the following tips should be kept in mind – 

Focusing on One’s Self 

The SOP is a platform where applicants can showcase themselves to the Admissions Committee. Many students focus more on complimenting the university when the focus should be on themselves – 

  • What is their academic journey like?
  • Did they face any critical barriers to education? If yes, how did they overcome it?
  • Why have they chosen to study for a PhD in Physics?
  • Why is the student a good match for the chosen program?

Avoiding Teaching as the Main Interest 

A PhD program qualifies a student to become a university professor. But the SOP related to Ph.D.  Physics should not revolve around teaching as the primary interest for pursuing the program.

Reviewers want to know an applicant’s interest in research areas. 

Addressing Previous “Issues” Upfront 

A student can experience setbacks during their educational years. If yes, they should be addressed early on in the SOP. 

Applicants should briefly explain their setbacks and ways in which they have overcome them. 

Not Focusing too Much on Work Experience 

Even if an applicant has decades of work experience in the field, it is best not to highlight it too much in the SOP for PhD in Physics. 

If students wish to highlight their work experience, they should tie it to their motivation and the course’s research topics. 

Circulating the SOP 

Once the SOP is drafted, it is recommended that applicants share the same with recommendation writers, former professors, friends studying abroad, and family. 

This will help in gathering important tips and refining the SOP before submission. 

SOP Format for PhD in Physics 

A Statement of Purpose sample for Ph.D. in Physics will follow a basic format, as discussed below –

  • Introduction 

Applicants are recommended to keep the introduction concise and discuss their interest in the course, mentor, and university. 

  • First Paragraph 

This paragraph should talk about previous research and academic achievements. The aim is to let the reviewer know right off the bat that one can handle extensive research. 

  • Second Paragraph 

This paragraph must discuss the reason for pursuing the program and the applicant’s thoughts on choosing the specialization. One must also mention their short and long-term goals. 

  • Third Paragraph 

Applicants can use this paragraph to discuss previous projects or work experiences and their interest in the chosen country. 

  • Fourth Paragraph 

This paragraph can be utilized to talk about how the applicant considers themselves to be a good culture fit. They can write about their previous diversity experiences and how they have shaped the applicant’s current view of the course and life in general. 

  • Fifth Paragraph 

This paragraph should focus on plans in the future – the applicant’s vision of themselves in 10 to 15 years to showcase how they wish to integrate their knowledge into the real world. Applicants can also talk about future study topics and how they might influence the community. 

  • SOP vs Personal Statement
  • SOP for internship

Conclusion 

A good SOP for PhD in Physics can be the deciding factor in a candidate’s enrollment. Applicants must draft one carefully and with the target audience in mind. 

Finally, it is important to maintain a formal tone throughout the SOP with slight deviations wherever relevant. Providing all information precisely and concisely will help an applicant stand out from the herd. 

How long should an SOP for PhD in Physics be?

A student should go through the University’s official guidelines for drafting an SOP. The maximum number of words may range from 500 to 1000 words.

What are some common mistakes to avoid in an SOP?

Some common mistakes to avoid while drafting a Physics Ph.D. SOP involve writing within the prescribed word limit, a dull introduction, drafting an SOP at the eleventh hour, and complimenting the university or faculty too much.

Neha Uppal is a passionate content creator and editor. She carries 7.5+ years of experience working with leading edutech companies where she worked as a Faculty, Community Manager, and Content Marketeer. At upGrad, she is helping out people keep informed about the scopes and opportunities of studying abroad via informational articles/blogs.

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physics phd statement of purpose

Past PhysGAAP Webinars

Please note that the two webinars below are from prior years and may contain outdated information about some topics, such as GRE requirements.

  • October 2022
  • December 2021
  • September 2021

Mentorship for Prospective Applicants

In addition to the materials available through this website, answers to emails sent to the department, or from our graduate student webinars, we also offer one-on-one mentoring for students who desire more in-depth individual assistance. Prospective applicants may apply to the PhysGAAP Mentoring program,, which pairs prospective graduate school applicants with current graduate students who can assist them through the application process, provide feedback on their application materials and insight into graduate school and the MIT Physics Department.

We welcome interest in the PhysGAAP Mentorship program and mentorship applications are open to any prospective applicant. However, our capacity is limited, so we will give preferential consideration to PhysGAAP Mentorship applicants who would most benefit from the program and can demonstrate that they are a good fit.

PhysGAAP Mentoring may a good fit for you if you

  • feel like you lack other resources to help you navigate the graduate school application process,
  • find the other forms of assistance (online webinars, email at [email protected] ) insufficient to address your needs, and
  • think you could benefit from one-on-one application mentorship.

PhysGAAP Mentoring may not be a good fit for you if you

  • only have one or two questions that could be answered elsewhere (online webinars, email at [email protected] , or online FAQs), or
  • feel like you already have sufficient resources to complete your application (e.g., the PhysGAAP webinars, access to other mentoring services or workshops)

poster advertising PhysGAAP Mentoring

Please note that:

  • PhysGAAP Mentoring is only open to students who are planning to apply to graduate schools in Fall 2024 .
  • Participation in PhysGAAP is not considered during admissions review. It helps applicants put forward their strongest materials, but does not guarantee admission into our graduate program.
  • Any information you submit in the PhysGAAP Mentoring application will only be seen by the PhysGAAP team and your matched mentor.

Admissions/Application FAQs

Our Frequently Asked Questions provide further information about degree requirements, funding, educational background, application deadlines, English language proficiency, program duration, start dates and deferrals, and fee waiver requests.

The MOST Frequently Asked Question…

What is included in a strong graduate application for physics at mit.

Applications are assessed holistically and many variables are considered in the application review process. The following four main factors are required for a complete application.

  • the applicant’s statement of objectives or purpose,
  • transcripts of past grades,
  • score reports of any required standardized tests,
  • three letters of reference.

In addition, any past research experience, publications, awards, and honors are extremely helpful, particularly if they are in the area(s) of the applicant’s interest(s). Applicants may also include a personal statement in their application to provide context as the materials are assessed.

Applications are routed to admission committee members and other faculty readers using the “areas of interest” and any faculty names selected from the menu as well as based on the research interests included in the statement of objectives. Please select the areas of interest that best reflect your goals.

Instructions are available in the application itself , with further guidance on our Additional Guidance page. The Physics Admissions Office will respond to questions sent to [email protected] .

General Questions Regarding the PhD Program in Physics

Must i have a degree in physics in order to apply to this graduate program.

Our successful applicants generally hold a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics, or have taken many Physics classes if they have majored in another discipline. The most common other majors are astronomy, engineering, mathematics, and chemistry. Bachelor of Science degrees may be 3-year or 4-year degrees, depending on the education structure of the country in which they are earned.

What are the requirements to complete a PhD?

The requirements for a PhD in Physics at MIT are the doctoral examination, a few required subject classes, and a research-based thesis. The doctoral examination consists of a written and an oral examination. The written component may be satisfied either by passing the 4 subject exams or by passing designated classes related to each topic with a qualifying grade; the oral exam will be given in a student’s chosen research area. The Physics Department also requires that each student take two classes in the field of specialization and two physics-related courses in fields outside the specialty. Research for the thesis is conducted throughout the student’s time in the program, culminating in a thesis defense and submission of the final thesis.

Can I take courses at other schools nearby?

Yes. Cross-registration is available at Harvard University and Wellesley College.

How many years does it take to complete the PhD requirements?

From 3 to 7 years, averaging 5.6 years.

How will I pay for my studies?

Our students are fully supported financially throughout the duration of their program, provided that they make satisfactory progress. Funding is provided from Fellowships (internal and external) and/or Assistantships (research and teaching) and covers tuition, health insurance, and a living stipend. Read more about funding .

Note: For more detailed information regarding the cost of attendance, including specific costs for tuition and fees, books and supplies, housing and food as well as transportation, please visit the Student Financial Services (SFS) website .

How many applications are submitted each year? How many students are accepted?

Although the number varies each year, the Department of Physics usually welcomes approximately 45 incoming graduate students each year. Last year we received more than 1,700 applications and extended fewer than 90 offers of admission.

What are the minimum grades and exam scores for admitted applicants?

There are no minimum standards for overall grade point averages/GPAs. Grades from physics and other related classes will be carefully assessed. Under a special COVID-19 policy, MIT will accept transcripts with a variety of grading conventions, including any special grading given during the COVID-19 pandemic. GRE Tests are not required for graduate applications submitted in 2023. The Physics subject GRE (PGRE) will be optional in 2023 and our department does not require results from the General GRE test.

Our program is conducted in English and all applicants must demonstrate their English language proficiency. Non-native English speakers should review our policy carefully before waiving the TOEFL/IELTS requirements. We do not set a minimum requirement on TOEFL/IELTS scores; however, students who are admitted to our program typically score above the following values:

  • IELTS – 7
  • TOEFL (computer based) – 200
  • TOEFL (iBT) – 100
  • TOEFL (standard) – 600

The Application Process

When is the deadline for applying to the phd program in physics.

Applications for enrollment in the fall are due each year by 11:59pm EST on December 15 of the preceding year. There is no admission cycle for spring-term enrollment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for me to take tests in person. Can I still apply?

GRE Tests are not required for graduate applications submitted in 2023. The Physics subject GRE (PGRE) will be optional in 2023 and our department does not require results from the General GRE test.Non-native English speakers who are not eligible for a test waiver should include their results from either an in-person or online version of the TOEFL or IELTS test.

Does the Department of Physics provide waivers for the English language exam (TOEFL/IELTS)?

An English language exam (IELTS, TOEFL, TOEFL iBT, or the C2 Cambridge English Proficiency exam) is required of all applicants who are from a country in which English is not the primary language. Exceptions to this policy will be considered for candidates who, at the start of their graduate studies in 2022, will have been in the US or in a country whose official language is English for three years or longer and who will have received a degree from a college or university in a country where the language of education instruction is English. An interview via telephone, Zoom, or Skype may be arranged at the discretion of the Admissions Committee. More information on a possible English Language Waiver Decision (PDF).

Does the Department of Physics provide application fee waivers?

Although we do not want the MIT application fee to be a barrier to admission, we cannot provide application fee waivers to all who request one.  Under-resourced applicants, and applicants who have participated in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP), Converge, or another MIT program or an official MIT recruiting visit are eligible for a fee waiver from the MIT Office of Graduate Education (OGE). Please check MIT Graduate Diversity Programs for further details.  Departmentally, we have allotted a small number of waivers for applicants who have completed an application (including transcript uploads, and requests for letters of recommendation), but do not qualify for a waiver from the OGE. Fee waiver requests will be considered on a first-come-first-served basis, and not after December 1. Furthermore, applications lacking the paid fee or a fee waiver by 11:59pm EST on December 15 will not be reviewed or considered for admission. Please complete the  MIT Physics Departmental Fee Waiver Application Form  when you are ready to apply for a departmental waiver. Waivers are not awarded until the application is complete.

Can I arrange a visit to the Physics Department or a specific research area?

Update as of September 23, 2021: In an effort to keep our community safe and healthy, we are not currently hosting or meeting with outside visitors in person, nor are we facilitating visits to our classrooms. Current graduate students and prospective applicants should direct any questions by email to [email protected] .

Applicants are invited to send specific questions to the Physics Admissions Office and some questions may be forwarded to current students for further information.

Can I receive an update on the status of my application?

Candidates will receive email acknowledgments from the Physics Academic Programs Office informing them whether their application is complete, is missing materials, or if further information is needed. Due to the high volume of applications that are received, no additional emails or telephone inquiries can be answered. It is the applicant’s responsibility to ensure that all items are sent.

When will I be notified of a final decision?

Applicants will be notified via email of decisions by the end of February. If you have not heard from us by March 1, please send email to [email protected] .

We do not provide results by phone.

Can admitted students start in a term other than the next Fall semester?

Applications submitted between September 15 and December 15 by 11:59pm EST are assessed for the following Fall semester. We do not provide a separate admission review cycle for the Spring semester. Individual research supervisors may invite incoming students to start their research during the summer term a few months earlier than their studies would normally begin. All other incoming students start their studies in late August for the Fall term.

Once admitted, applicants may request a one-year deferral to attend a specific academic program or for another approved reason, with single semester deferrals for the following Spring term granted only rarely.

physics phd statement of purpose

Prospective Graduate Students

Program eligibility.

Bachelor Degree A Bachelor degree is required at the time of matriculation. Applicants can apply in the Fall of their senior year in college. A physics major is not required. International Students please refer to the International Degree Equivalences for eligibility.

Advanced Undergraduate Physics Coursework A Physics major is not required, however some of the advanced coursework we look for includes courses in analytical mechanics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics and wave motion, and some advanced laboratory work in physics. Familiarity with ordinary and partial differential equations, vector calculus, Fourier analysis, and linear algebra is also expected, while some experience with computing is highly desirable.

Undergraduate Research Experience Successful applicants typically have significant undergraduate research experience, and recommendation letters from research supervisors form an important part of the application package. Research experience may be in Physics or a related field like Chemistry or Mathematics, and does not need to be in the same area as the proposed area of specialization in grad school.

GPA There is no GPA cutoff and all applications will be considered.  The typical GPA of applicants is >3.5 with A's in most Physics courses.

TOEFL/IELTS All international applicants must demonstrate proficiency in the English language. The minimum IBT TOEFL scores required for consideration are: Writing: 20, Listening: 15, Reading: 20, Speaking: 23.  For the IELTS, an overall band score of 7.0 with a minimum speaking subscore of 7.0.

Applicants may be exempt from submitting TOEFL/IELTS scores if they meet one of the following standing exemptions outlined here . However, if offered admission, all international students will be expected to meet the oral proficiency outlines from ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) at the “Intermediate High” level. This test is administered at Cornell upon matriculation.

GRE Not required, but see details below.

Transfer Students A student who has begun a Ph.D. program at another university will only be admitted under unusual circumstances. Applicants who have completed or are finishing a terminal Master's degree program will be given full consideration.

Financial Support

The Physics Department admits only as many graduate students as it anticipates being able to support through the Ph.D.  Every effort is made to provide all graduate students in good academic standing full financial support for 6 years (or until they complete their advanced degree if earlier.) Continuation of financial support after each year is contingent upon satisfactory academic performance and satisfactory job performance in any teaching or research.

All yearly financial support packages provide :

  • A 9-month academic year stipend as well as a 3-month summer stipend to cover living expenses
  • Full cost of tuition
  • 12-month health insurance coverage

Support is provided through the following financial sources:

Fellowships  Some students enter the program with fellowship support from Cornell or fellowships from an outside agency. Fellowship recipients may be able to augment their fellowship stipends by teaching part-time. Most fellowship recipients receive a full tuition waiver and university health insurance coverage for the duration of the fellowship award. The  Cornell Graduate School  has information about both university-sponsored and external fellowships for prospective and continuing graduate students. The school’s  Graduate Fellowship Database  is a searchable database of more than 500 external fellowships.

Teaching Assistantships 

The experience of teaching is a valuable part of graduate education and most first-year and many second-year students serve as teaching assistants for undergraduate courses. It allows you to relearn and reinforce fundamental concepts. It also encourages development of organization, communication, and the kinds of interpersonal skills that are a prerequisite for success in both graduate school and subsequent careers. In fact, teaching is considered so important that even graduate students who come to the university with a fellowship and do not have to teach are strongly encouraged to do so at some time during their graduate studies.

The typical teaching assistantship (TA) assignment includes an average of 15 hours per week and no more than 20 hours in any given week. In addition to classroom time, this includes time to prepare lessons, grade assignments, and hold office hours. While serving as a teaching assistant, students may enroll in up to three courses (and be considered a full-time student). Teaching assistants receive a stipend, full tuition waiver and university health insurance coverage for the duration of their assistantship.

To help students prepare for their teaching duties, the department holds a two-day TA training workshop in August. Exceptional teachers, both experienced graduate students and faculty, will guide new students through a course designed to help them become comfortable with teaching classes and supervising labs. Throughout the time teaching at Cornell, many experienced teachers are available for advice and support.

Research Assistantships  In the second or third year of study students will usually  move from teaching to research and become a faculty member’s research assistant. The appointment is always in an area relevant to your thesis topic. Research assistants receive a stipend, full tuition waiver, and university health-insurance coverage for the duration of their assistantship.

Summer Support Students are generally supported by graduate research assistants appointments during the summer, and first-year students are expected to actively seek and secure these appointments during the Spring semester.  If necessary, backstop funding is available from the department for one summer to work on teaching activities. Advanced graduate students receive stipends during the summer as fellows or research assistants to pursue their thesis research without interruption.

Application Requirements

All required application materials and supporting documents must be submitted online and received by Cornell no later than December 15 . The Physics Department will not accept materials, changes, or updates to the application after the deadline has passed. Please do not submit a document more than once or send a copy in the mail after you have submitted it online.

Please refer to the How To Apply section below for detailed descriptions of the required and optional materials.

Required Materials:

  • Cornell Graduate School Application
  • Three Letters of Recommendation
  • Academic Statement of Purpose
  • Personal Statement
  • Transcripts
  • TOEFL/IELTS
  • Physics Course Supplement

Optional Materials:

  • GRE (see instructions below)
  • Writing Sample

   

How to Apply

Application Deadline The 2023 application will open on September 15, 2023 and all application materials must be received by Cornell no later than December 15. All supporting documents, including academic transcripts, test scores, and letters of recommendation, must be received by this date. The Physics Department will not accept changes or updates to the application after the deadline has passed. It is preferred that you submit all items online. Please do not submit a document more than once. If it has been submitted online, do not send another copy in the mail.

The following must be completed when applying:

Grad School Application Complete the Cornell Graduate School Application on-line ( Apply Here ). In the section on “Academic Information” indicate that your proposed field is “Physics.” For your major subject area/concentration, indicate either theory or experiment. Your choice is by no means binding. It merely gives some indication of the interests of prospective class members. As described in the Application Guidelines, the Graduate School also asks you to submit an Academic Statement of Purpose, a Personal Statement, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Follow the physics-specific instructions below for these application materials. The application fee is $105.

Financial Hardship: The Graduate Field of Physics is committed to creating opportunities for economically disadvantaged students.  In addition to offering generous funding to all admitted PhD students, we encourage applicants who are experiencing financial hardships to seek an application fee waiver if the cost of the application fee will be a barrier. 

Letters of Recommendation Select with care the three persons you ask to write letters of recommendation in support of your application. At least two must be professors of physics who are well acquainted with your preparation and fitness for graduate work. Recommendation letters discussing research experience carry more weight than letters regarding course performance. It is preferred that these letters are submitted online.

Academic Statement of Purpose Your statement should include a description of any previous research or teaching experience, indicating the nature of the work, the institution where the work was performed, and the name and title of the person directing it. Discuss both the overall physics research goals and your particular responsibilities. Also indicate any interest you have in particular areas of physics, specific research groups at Cornell and your professional aims after you receive your Ph.D.  If your academic record has areas of concern, please address them here.  Please do not discuss your early childhood. Your statement must not exceed 1,000 words.

Personal Statement Your Personal Statement should provide the admissions committee with a sense of you as a whole person, and you should use it to describe how your personal background and experiences influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Additionally, it should provide insights into your potential to contribute to Cornell University’s core value to provide a community of inclusion, belonging, and respect where scholars representing diverse backgrounds, perspectives, abilities, and experiences can learn and work productively and positively together.

Transcripts Please scan and upload one PDF file for each school into the online application. Your transcript(s) should be an official one issued to you by your university and then scanned to make a PDF. It must be legible and provide a course title eg “Phys 4310 Advanced Mechanics“. Please do not send screenshots from an online database. Please do not email fall grades received after the application deadline, unless specifically requested. If you accept an offer of admission, you will be required to submit an official paper transcript prior to matriculation.

GRE The general GRE and the physics GRE will not be considered for applicants with interests in experimental physics or physics education research. The physics GRE is recommended for applicants with interests in research in either theoretical elementary particle physics or theoretical condensed matter physics.

TOEFL/IELTS All international applicants must demonstrate proficiency in the English language. International students demonstrate proficiency by submitting official test scores from TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or IELTS (International English Language Testing System). TOEFL scores must be sent electronically (e-delivery) by the Educational Testing Service to the Cornell University Graduate Admissions, Caldwell Hall e-download account School (Institution Code #2098, Department Code #76). E-delivery may also be referred to as an e-TRF by your test center.   Scores must arrive by the December 15 deadline. Note: If your name on the exam does not match your name on the application, please notify us of the discrepancy. Please note that the minimum IBT TOEFL scores required for consideration are: Writing: 20 Listening: 15 Reading: 20 Speaking: 23

The Graduate School requires an overall band score of a 7.0 or higher on the IELTS.The Physics Department requires a minimum speaking subscore of 7.0. Please contact your test center and request that your scores be sent to the following IELTS e-download account: Cornell University Graduate Admissions, 143 Caldwell Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853. We will not accept paper IELTS test report forms unless a test center is unable to transmit your scores electronically.

An applicant will automatically be granted a TOEFL/IELTS exemption if he or she meets one of the graduate school's standing exemptions as outlined here.

In addition, international students offered admission will also be expected to meet the oral proficiency outlines from ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) at the “Intermediate High” level. This test will be administered at Cornell upon matriculation.

Physics Course Supplement Please list all of the college or university Physics and Mathematics courses you have taken to date, are now taking, and plan to take before graduation. Organize the courses by discipline and list in order taken from oldest to most recent. List each course individually. For “Primary Text”, list the author and title of the primary textbook used in each course. For “Semester Completed”, list the term and year (e.g. “Fall ’17”, “Winter ’19”, etc.) For “Grade”, enter your final grade in the course. If you audited the course without receiving a grade, enter “AUDIT”. All final grades provided here must ALSO be noted on your official transcript. If any of the requested information is not applicable in some situations (e.g. the grade for a course in progress, a course did not use a textbook, your university does not use course numbers, etc.), simply leave the corresponding box blank.

Please upload this completed form with your application. 

Writing Sample A writing sample is not required, though there is space for one in the application.

Admissions Decisions

What We Look For Successful applicants demonstrate the potential to master physics concepts at the graduate level, and show the creativity, initiative, attentiveness, and determination to succeed in research. Students with less preparation but demonstrated potential have the opportunity to fill knowledge gaps by taking one or more undergraduate level courses in their first year

Timeline All admissions decisions for applications for fall will be made by March. The majority of decisions will be made in February. We regret that due to the number of files received and reviewed by the Admissions Committee each year, we are unable to provide feedback on individual applications. All decisions of the Cornell Physics Admissions Committee are final.

Review Considering COVID-19 Disruptions In our review of applications for Fall 2023 admission, as well as future admissions cycles, we will respect decisions made by individual students and/or by their academic institutions with regard to the enrollment in or adoption of Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory, Pass/No Record, Credit/No Credit, Pass/Fail and other similar grading options during the pandemic disruptions.  Applicants are invited to describe their individual experiences during the pandemic to provide context to inform the application review process.  We strive to form future graduate student cohorts composed of intellectually strong, diverse, and resilient individuals who will make the most of their graduate education opportunities at Cornell University.

Questions about this statement may be directed to  [email protected] .

Recruiting & Admissions Events

We invite you to attend one of the following session where we will be available to discuss our Ph.D. program and help answer your questions:

Application Workshop Current graduate students will be hosting an application workshop on November 2nd and December 4th. The workshop will feature advice on the application process, tips for writing your statement of purpose, and the opportunity to be paired with a graduate student mentor to help review your application.

Sign-up for the November 2nd workshop here

Sign-up for the December 4th workshop here

Questions regarding our Ph.D. program and application process may be directed to [email protected]

Casey Neville , Graduate Program Coordinator Matthias Liepe,  Director of Graduate Studies

Program Information

Do you offer a Master Degree in Physics? We do not offer a Master’s program in Physics. All admitted students are enrolled in a doctoral program and most students are awarded a Master’s degree at the time of advancement to candidacy, as an in-progress degree.

What does a typical timeline for the PhD program look like? Please visit https://physics.cornell.edu/about-graduate-program#route-to-the-ph.d .

Do you offer scholarships or funding for the PhD program? Yes. We provide 6 years of full financial support for all graduate students in good academic standing. Please see https://physics.cornell.edu/prospective-graduate-students#financial-support for further details.

Program Qualifications

Can you tell me if my credentials are strong enough to apply to your program? We are unable to review prospective student’s qualifications prior to applying to the program. We do encourage those students who meet the program eligibility requirements to apply. An application fee waiver can be requested in the event of financial hardship or extenuating circumstances.

What is the average GPA of successful applicants? There is no GPA cutoff and all applications will be considered.  The typical GPA of applicants is >3.5 with A's in most Physics courses.

Is research experience required to apply to the program? Yes. Successful applicants typically have significant undergraduate research experience. Research experience may be in Physics or a related field like Chemistry or Mathematics, and does not need to be in the same area as the proposed area of specialization in grad school.

What level degree do I need to apply to the program? A Bachelor degree or an equivalent International Degree . A physics major is not required, although students should complete advanced-undergraduate level Physics coursework before entering the Ph.D. program.

Am I exempt from the language exam if English was the language of instruction in my school? Please see the Graduate School website for information on whether you qualify for an exemption.

Do you accept transfer students into your program? A student who has begun a Ph.D. program at another university will only be admitted under unusual circumstances. Applicants who have completed or are finishing a terminal Master's degree program will be given full consideration.

Applying to the Program

How do I apply? Apply online at https://gradschool.cornell.edu/admissions/apply/

When is the application deadline? All application materials must be received via the online application by December 15.

Can I apply to the Physics program and another program concurrently? No. In filling out your application you will need to select a first-choice program and have the option of indicating a second-choice program. Your application will be reviewed by the first choice program and if you are not offered admission you may contact one additional graduate field and ask to have your application reviewed. If the new field’s deadline has not passed and that field is willing to review your application, you can ask your original field to transfer your materials to the new field.

How do I request an application fee waiver? Please review the criteria and the request process on the Graduate School’s Application Fees page.

Can I send updated or revised versions of my application materials? We will not accept updated or revised application materials after the December 15 deadline.

What do you look for in applicants? Successful applicants demonstrate the potential to master physics concepts at the graduate level, and show the creativity, initiative, attentiveness, and determination to succeed in research. Students with less preparation but demonstrated potential have the opportunity to fill knowledge gaps by taking one or more undergraduate level courses in their first year.

What is your acceptance rate? Since there are many determining factors, we do not provide statistical information on admissions to the program. However, in a typical year we receive close to 600 applications which results in an incoming cohort of approximately 26 students.

When will I be notified if I was accepted into the program? All admissions decisions will be made no later than March 15th.

I wasn’t accepted into the program. Can you provide me feedback on my application? We regret that due to the number of files received and reviewed by the Admissions Committee each year, we are unable to provide feedback on individual applications. All decisions of the Cornell Physics Admissions Committee are final.

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PhD Program

A PhD degree in Physics is awarded in recognition of significant and novel research contributions, extending the boundaries of our knowledge of the physical universe. Selected applicants are admitted to the PhD program of the UW Department of Physics, not to a specific research group, and are encouraged to explore research opportunities throughout the Department.

Degree Requirements

Typical timeline, advising and mentoring, satisfactory progress, financial support, more information.

Applicants to the doctoral program are expected to have a strong undergraduate preparation in physics, including courses in electromagnetism, classical and quantum mechanics, statistical physics, optics, and mathematical methods of physics. Further study in condensed matter, atomic, and particle and nuclear physics is desirable. Limited deficiencies in core areas may be permissible, but may delay degree completion by as much as a year and are are expected to remedied during the first year of graduate study.

The Graduate Admissions Committee reviews all submitted applications and takes a holistic approach considering all aspects presented in the application materials. Application materials include:

  • Resume or curriculum vitae, describing your current position or activities, educational and professional experience, and any honors awarded, special skills, publications or research presentations.
  • Statement of purpose, one page describing your academic purpose and goals.
  • Personal history statement (optional, two pages max), describing how your personal experiences and background (including family, cultural, or economic aspects) have influenced your intellectual development and interests.
  • Three letters of recommendation: submit email addresses for your recommenders at least one month ahead of deadline to allow them sufficient time to respond.
  • Transcripts (unofficial), from all prior relevant undergraduate and graduate institutions attended. Admitted applicants must provide official transcripts.
  • English language proficiency is required for graduate study at the University of Washington. Applicants whose native language is not English must demonstrate English proficiency. The various options are specified at: https://grad.uw.edu/policies/3-2-graduate-school-english-language-proficiency-requirements/ Official test scores must be sent by ETS directly to the University of Washington (institution code 4854) and be received within two years of the test date.

For additional information see the UW Graduate School Home Page , Understanding the Application Process , and Memo 15 regarding teaching assistant eligibility for non-native English speakers.

The GRE Subject Test in Physics (P-GRE) is optional in our admissions process, and typically plays a relatively minor role.  Our admissions system is holistic, as we use all available information to evaluate each application. If you have taken the P-GRE and feel that providing your score will help address specific gaps or otherwise materially strengthen your application, you are welcome to submit your scores. We emphasize that every application will be given full consideration, regardless of whether or not scores are submitted.

Applications are accepted annually for autumn quarter admissions (only), and must be submitted online. Admission deadline: DECEMBER 15, 2024.

Department standards

Course requirements.

Students must plan a program of study in consultation with their faculty advisor (either first year advisor or later research advisor). To establish adequate breadth and depth of knowledge in the field, PhD students are required to pass a set of core courses, take appropriate advanced courses and special topics offerings related to their research area, attend relevant research seminars as well as the weekly department colloquium, and take at least two additional courses in Physics outside their area of speciality. Seeking broad knowledge in areas of physics outside your own research area is encouraged.

The required core courses are:

In addition, all students holding a teaching assistantship (TA) must complete Phys 501 / 502 / 503 , Tutorials in Teaching Physics.

Regularly offered courses which may, depending on research area and with the approval of the graduate program coordinator, be used to satisfy breadth requirements, include:

  • Phys 506 Numerical Methods
  • Phys 555 Cosmology & Particle Astrophysics
  • Phys 507 Group Theory
  • Phys 557 High Energy Physics
  • Phys 511 Topics in Contemporary Physics
  • Phys 560 Nuclear Theory
  • Phys 520 Quantum Information
  • Phys 564 General Relativity
  • Phys 550 Atomic Physics
  • Phys 567 Condensed Matter Physics
  • Phys 554 Nuclear Astrophysics
  • Phys 570 Quantum Field Theory

Graduate exams

Master's Review:   In addition to passing all core courses, adequate mastery of core material must be demonstrated by passing the Master's Review. This is composed of four Master's Review Exams (MREs) which serve as the final exams in Phys 524 (SM), Phys 514 (EM), Phys 518 (QM), and Phys 505 (CM). The standard for passing each MRE is demonstrated understanding and ability to solve multi-step problems; this judgment is independent of the overall course grade. Acceptable performance on each MRE is expected, but substantial engagement in research allows modestly sub-par performance on one exam to be waived. Students who pass the Master's Review are eligible to receive a Master's degree, provided the Graduate School course credit and grade point average requirements have also been satisfied.

General Exam:   Adequate mastery of material in one's area of research, together with demonstrated progress in research and a viable plan to complete a PhD dissertation, is assessed in the General Exam. This is taken after completing all course requirements, passing the Master's Review, and becoming well established in research. The General Exam consists of an oral presentation followed by an in-depth question period with one's dissertation committee.

Final Oral Exam:   Adequate completion of a PhD dissertation is assessed in the Final Oral, which is a public exam on one's completed dissertation research. The requirement of surmounting a final public oral exam is an ancient tradition for successful completion of a PhD degree.

Graduate school requirements

Common requirements for all doctoral degrees are given in the Graduate School Degree Requirements and Doctoral Degree Policies and Procedures pages. A summary of the key items, accurate as of late 2020, is as follows:

  • A minimum of 90 completed credits, of which at least 60 must be completed at the University of Washington. A Master's degree from the UW or another institution in physics, or approved related field of study, may substitute for 30 credits of enrollment.
  • At least 18 credits of UW course work at the 500 level completed prior to the General Examination.
  • At least 18 numerically graded UW credits of 500 level courses and approved 400 level courses, completed prior to the General Examination.
  • At least 60 credits completed prior to scheduling the General Examination. A Master's degree from the UW or another institution may substitute for 30 of these credits.
  • A minimum of 27 dissertation (or Physics 800) credits, spread out over a period of at least three quarters, must be completed. At least one of those three quarters must come after passing the General Exam. Except for summer quarters, students are limited to a maximum of 10 dissertation credits per quarter.
  • A minimum cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.00 must be maintained.
  • The General Examination must be successfully completed.
  • A thesis dissertation approved by the reading committee and submitted and accepted by the Graduate School.
  • The Final Examination must be successfully completed. At least four members of the supervisory committee, including chair and graduate school representative, must be present.
  • Registration as a full- or part-time graduate student at the University must be maintained, specifically including the quarter in which the examinations are completed and the quarter in which the degree is conferred. (Part-time means registered for at least 2 credits, but less than 10.)
  • All work for the doctoral degree must be completed within ten years. This includes any time spend on leave, as well as time devoted to a Master's degree from the UW or elsewhere (if used to substitute for credits of enrollment).
  • Pass the required core courses: Phys 513 , 517 , 524 & 528 autumn quarter, Phys 514 , 518 & 525 winter quarter, and Phys 515 , 519 & 505 spring quarter. When deemed appropriate, with approval of their faculty advisor and graduate program coordinator, students may elect to defer Phys 525 , 515 and/or 519 to the second year in order to take more credits of Phys 600 .
  • Sign up for and complete one credit of Phys 600 with a faculty member of choice during winter and spring quarters.
  • Pass the Master's Review by the end of spring quarter or, after demonstrating substantial research engagement, by the end of the summer.
  • Work to identify one's research area and faculty research advisor. This begins with learning about diverse research areas in Phys 528 in the autumn, followed by Phys 600 independent study with selected faculty members during winter, spring, and summer.
  • Pass the Master's Review (if not already done) by taking any deferred core courses or retaking MREs as needed. The Master's Review must be passed before the start of the third year.
  • Settle in and become fully established with one's research group and advisor, possibly after doing independent study with multiple faculty members. Switching research areas during the first two years is not uncommon.
  • Complete all required courses. Take breadth courses and more advanced graduate courses appropriate for one's area of research.
  • Perform research.
  • Establish a Supervisory Committee within one year after finding a compatible research advisor who agrees to supervise your dissertation work.
  • Take breadth and special topics courses as appropriate.
  • Take your General Exam in the third or fourth year of your graduate studies.
  • Register for Phys 800 (Doctoral Thesis Research) instead of Phys 600 in the quarters during and after your general exam.
  • Take special topics courses as appropriate.
  • Perform research. When completion of a substantial body of research is is sight, and with concurrence of your faculty advisor, start writing a thesis dissertation.
  • Establish a dissertation reading committee well in advance of scheduling the Final Examination.
  • Schedule your Final Examination and submit your PhD dissertation draft to your reading committee at least several weeks before your Final Exam.
  • Take your Final Oral Examination.
  • After passing your Final Exam, submit your PhD dissertation, as approved by your reading committee, to the Graduate School, normally before the end of the same quarter.

This typical timeline for competing the PhD applies to students entering the program with a solid undergraduate preparation, as described above under Admissions. Variant scenarios are possible with approval of the Graduate Program coordinator. Two such scenarios are the following:

  • Students entering with insufficient undergraduate preparation often require more time. It is important to identify this early, and not feel that this reflects on innate abilities or future success. Discussion with one's faculty advisor, during orientation or shortly thereafter, may lead to deferring one or more of the first year required courses and corresponding Master's Review Exams. It can also involve taking selected 300 or 400 level undergraduate physics courses before taking the first year graduate level courses. This must be approved by the Graduate Program coordinator, but should not delay efforts to find a suitable research advisor. The final Master's Review decision still takes place no later than the start of the 3rd year and research engagement is an important component in this decision.
  • Entering PhD students with advanced standing, for example with a prior Master's degree in Physics or transferring from another institution after completing one or more years in a Physics PhD program, may often graduate after 3 or 4 years in our program. After discussion with your faculty advisor and with approval of the Graduate Program coordinator, selected required classes may be waived (but typically not the corresponding Master's Review Exams), and credit from other institutions transferred.
  • Each entering PhD student is assigned a first year faculty advisor, with whom they meet regularly to discuss course selection, general progress, and advice on research opportunities. The role of a student's primary faculty advisor switches to their research advisor after they become well established in research. Once their doctoral supervisory committee is formed, the entire committee, including a designated faculty mentor (other than the research advisor) is available to provide advice and mentoring.
  • The department also has a peer mentoring program, in which first-year students are paired with more senior students who have volunteered as mentors. Peer mentors maintain contact with their first-year mentees throughout the year and aim to ease the transition to graduate study by sharing their experiences and providing support and advice. Quarterly "teas" are held to which all peer mentors and mentees are invited.
  • While academic advising is primarily concerned with activities and requirements necessary to make progress toward a degree, mentoring focuses on the human relationships, commitments, and resources that can help a student find success and fulfillment in academic and professional pursuits. While research advisors play an essential role in graduate study, the department considers it inportant for every student to also have available additional individuals who take on an explicit mentoring role.
  • Students are expected to meet regularly, at a minimum quarterly, with their faculty advisors (either first year advisor or research advisor).
  • Starting in the winter of their first year, students are expected to be enrolled in Phys 600 .
  • Every spring all students, together with their advisors, are required to complete an annual activities report.
  • The doctoral supervisory committee needs to be established at least by the end of the fourth year.
  • The General Exam is expected to take place during the third or fourth year.
  • Students and their advisors are expected to aim for not more than 6 years between entry into the Physics PhD program and completion of the PhD. In recent years the median time is close to 6 years.

Absence of satisfactory progress can lead to a hierarchy of actions, as detailed in the Graduate School Memo 16: Academic Performance and Progress , and may jeopardize funding as a teaching assistant.

The Department aims to provide financial support for all full-time PhD students making satisfactory progress, and has been successful in doing so for many years. Most students are supported via a mix teaching assistantships (TAs) and research assistantships (RAs), although there are also various scholarships, fellowships, and awards that provide financial support. Teaching and research assistanships provide a stipend, a tuition waiver, and health insurance benefits. TAs are employed by the University to assist faculty in their teaching activities. Students from non-English-speaking countries must pass English proficiency requirements . RAs are employed by the Department to assist faculty with specified research projects, and are funded through research grants held by faculty members.

Most first-year students are provided full TA support during their first academic year as part of their admission offer. Support beyond the second year is typically in the form of an RA or a TA/RA combination. It is the responsibility of the student to find a research advisor and secure RA support. Students accepting TA or RA positions are required to register as full-time graduate students (a minimum of 10 credits during the academic year, and 2 credits in summer quarter) and devote 20 hours per week to their assistantship duties. Both TAs and RAs are classified as Academic Student Employees (ASE) . These positions are governed by a contract between the UW and the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), and its Local Union 4121 (UAW).

Physics PhD students are paid at the "Assistant" level (Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant) upon entry to the program. Students receive a promotion to "Associate I" (Predoctoral Teaching Associate I or Predoctoral Research Associate I) after passing the Master's Review, and a further promotion to "Associate II" (Predoctoral Teaching Associate II or Predoctoral Research Associate II) after passing their General Examination. (Summer quarter courses, and summer quarter TA employment, runs one month shorter than during the academic year. To compendate, summer quarter TA salaries are increased proportionately.)

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Graduate Admissions

The selection of the Ph.D. students admitted to the Department of Physics is based on an individualized, holistic review of each application, including (but not limited to) the student's academic record, the letters of recommendation, the statement of purpose, past accomplishments, and talent for research in physics. Applicants should keep in mind that attributes such as persistence, enthusiasm, and intellectual creativity can play a significant role in the evaluation of the aptitude of a candidate to graduate school. 

For the 2024-25 application cycle, the General GRE or Physics GRE scores will be accepted but are not a required part of a complete application.  

Applications must be submitted by the middle of December to be considered for the following Autumn Quarter. In January and February of each year, the Physics Department Graduate Admission Committee reviews each application. All applicants will be notified of their admission status by March 1st.

The Physics Department recognizes that the Supreme Court issued a ruling in June 2023 about the consideration of certain types of demographic information as part of an admission review. All applications submitted during upcoming application cycles will be reviewed in conformance with that decision. The Department does not offer a separate program for the M.S. degree, but this degree may be awarded for a portion of the Ph.D. degree work with approval from the Department. Graduate students have opportunities for research in theoretical physics, AMO physics, ultra-fast lasers, particle and nuclear physics, condensed matter physics, quantum information and control, cosmology, astrophysics, and gravitation. Opportunities for research are also available with the faculty at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the areas of theoretical and experimental particle physics, cosmology and astrophysics, accelerator design, and photon science. In Applied Physics there are opportunities in the areas of theoretical and experimental condensed matter physics, materials research, quantum electronics, and novel imaging technology.

The application deadline for this academic year 2023-24 (2024-25 admissions cycle) is  11:59pm Pacific Standard Time, Friday, December 15, 2023 . The application submission deadline is a hard deadline and no late applications are accepted, no exceptions. We strongly suggest you do not wait until the last day to submit in case you encounter any difficulties.

  • Three letters of recommendation, preferably including at least one from a research group.
  • Upload one scanned version of your official transcript(s) in the online application (see File Upload Requirements ).   Official transcripts are preferred, however, if obtaining official transcripts is financially burdensome, we will accept unofficial transcripts at the time of application.  For those that are offered admission to our program, we will require submission of official transcripts for accepted students before matriculation.
  • The TOEFL exam is required for applicants whose first language is not English. It must be taken within the last two years. The TOEFL is waived for applicants who have recently completed or will complete a Bachelor's degree, or a 2-year Master's program, in the U.S. or in another English-speaking country.  See the  Graduate Admissions GRE/TOEFL FAQ  for detailed information.
  • The GRE General and Physics exam scores will be accepted but are not required in the 2024-25 application cycle (2023-24 academic year).

The Department of Physics welcomes graduate applications from individuals with a broad range of life experiences, perspectives, and backgrounds who would contribute to our community of scholars. Review of applications is holistic and individualized, considering each applicant’s academic record and accomplishments, letters of recommendation, and admissions essays in order to understand how an applicant’s life experiences have shaped their past and potential contributions to their field.

The department is interested in understanding and mitigating barriers to access to all of our programs, including barriers based on citizenship status, accessibility, or financial or logistical challenges.  If you are interested in our graduate program but there are barriers that limit your ability to apply given our current procedures, we would appreciate hearing from you.  Please fill out this brief form .  

Not all students have equal access to information on the graduate admission process. The department is interested in helping those who may need additional guidance in applying to graduate programs in Physics. If you are interested in attending a Q&A panel to hear from current graduate students about applying to graduate programs please fill out this form .

https://forms.gle/oY6y9L3dpHQe9XN47

ADDITIONAL QUESTIONS

Department of Physics and Astronomy

physics phd statement of purpose

Ph.D. in Physics Admissions

Our physics Ph.D. program trains students who want to push forward the boundaries of knowledge about the universe to become leaders in discovery. Our students build a strong foundation of technical expertise through coursework, hone their communication skills through professional development opportunities, and strengthen their critical thinking by conducting original research with one of our world-class research teams. These teams specialize in theoretical, computational, and experimental approaches to a wide range of topics: cosmology and general relativity; high-energy particle physics; relativistic heavy ion collisions and high-energy nuclear physics; nuclear structure and dynamics; biological physics; and the physics of materials, optics, and quantum systems. We offer a friendly, welcoming, and inclusive environment where students are treated as colleagues.

The physics Ph.D. program is ideally suited for students who would like to pursue a career in research and development–whether that is in academia, industry, national labs and government agencies, or among the ever-growing opportunities in tech startups. Most alumni first take on a postdoctoral research post after graduation; however, a wide range of career paths is possible, with recent graduates finding positions in investment banking, software engineering, business analytics, and consulting.

We are looking for motivated students who have a passion for original research and want to shape the future of physics. Graduate admissions are highly selective, but we are committed to attracting the widest possible range of talents.

Students receive:

  • A five-year package of support with a full tuition waiver
  • Health insurance coverage
  • Competitive stipends (currently $36,500 per year)
  • A paid-for visit to campus before accepting our offer (domestic students only). Vanderbilt is located in the midtown section of Nashville, Tennessee–one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. A visit is certainly the best way to experience Nashville’s vitality, our department’s welcoming spirit, and learn about our faculty’s state-of-the-art research programs

We hope you’ll consider joining us for the next step on your educational journey.

Applying to the Program

Applications for fall 2024 open on August 1, 2024 and must be submitted through the Graduate School Application Portal . The application deadline is January 15.

Strong applications to the physics Ph.D. program include:

  • The student’s academic record from prior institutions
  • A statement of purpose that details the student’s interests in graduate school and beyond
  • Three or more reference letters that provide insight into an applicant’s prior experience, motivation for graduate school, and aptitude for research.

GRE scores are not required. For questions about the Ph.D. program or the application process, please contact our Program Coordinator, Don Pickert .

Application checklist

  • Start your admissions application online .
  • Compose and submit a statement of purpose (1000-2000 words). We want to know about your motivations and your research interests.
  • Request three letters of recommendation. Do this early to give your recommenders plenty of time to send in their letters.
  • Order official transcripts of grades from all institutions that you have attended.
  • Do not submit GRE scores (General nor Subject). They are not required and will not be considered.
  • If you are an international student, submit your TOEFL score (Test of English as a Foreign Language), IELTS or Duolingo score. Note that Vanderbilt requires a minimum TOEFL score of 570 on the paper-based test or 88 on the computer-based test, 6.5 on IELTS or 120 on Duolingo. The TOEFL/IELTS/Duolingo requirement may be waived for those international applicants who have a degree from an English-speaking institution. If you’ve received an undergraduate degree from a college or university where English is the primary language of instruction, and if you’ve studied in residence at that institution for at least 3 years, you’re exempt from the English language test requirement and are not required to submit a language test score. You should provide us with a letter from your college or university stating that and add that to your application file.
  • If you meet the Graduate School’s eligibility criteria , apply for an application fee waiver*.
  • Finalize and submit your entire application by January 15, 2025.

*Note that a small number of additional waivers will be granted at the discretion of the department based on recruitment priorities and extenuating circumstances. You may request an application fee waiver directly from the department only after you have submitted your application and confirmed that a fee is due (i.e., that you are not eligible for a waiver from the Graduate School). To request a fee waiver, please email the Director of Graduate Studies for Physics, Alfredo Gurrola .

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DEPARTMENT OVERVIEW

The Department of Physics has a strong tradition of graduate study and research in astrophysics; atomic, molecular, and optical physics; condensed matter physics; high energy and particle physics; plasma physics; quantum computing; and string theory. There are many facilities for carrying out world-class  research . We have a large professional staff: 45 full-time  faculty  members, affiliated faculty members holding joint appointments with other departments, scientists, senior scientists, and postdocs. There are over 175 graduate students in the department who come from many countries around the world. More complete information on the graduate program, the faculty, and research groups is available at the  department website . 

Research specialties include:

THEORETICAL PHYSICS

Astrophysics; atomic, molecular, and optical physics; condensed matter physics; cosmology; elementary particle physics; nuclear physics; phenomenology; plasmas and fusion; quantum computing; statistical and thermal physics; string theory.

EXPERIMENTAL PHYSICS

Astrophysics; atomic, molecular, and optical physics; biophysics; condensed matter physics; cosmology; elementary particle physics; neutrino physics; experimental studies of superconductors; medical physics; nuclear physics; plasma physics; quantum computing; spectroscopy.

Ph.D. Degree Details

The Ph.D. degree requires successful completion of advanced course work in physics (required core coursework), completion of a minor, and passage of the qualifying and preliminary examinations. However, the Ph.D. is primarily a research degree, awarded only upon completion of substantial original research. This broad range of research opportunities makes the department especially attractive to beginning students who have not yet chosen a field of specialization. The program provides the background, experience, and credentials needed for employment as a professional physicist in research or education. All admitted Ph.D. students typically receive financial support in the form of teaching or research assistantships and fellowships. 

Please consult the table below for key information about this degree program’s admissions requirements. The program may have more detailed admissions requirements, which can be found below the table or on the program’s website.

Graduate admissions is a two-step process between academic programs and the Graduate School. Applicants must meet the minimum requirements of the Graduate School as well as the program(s). Once you have researched the graduate program(s) you are interested in, apply online .

*The Department of Physics does not require the subject GRE for admission.  However, if students submit the score, the admissions committee will review it as part of the application.   The general GRE will not be considered even if submitted. The subject GRE is recommended in these circumstances:

  • If your transcript does not accurately reflect your academic strengths
  • If including the score would significantly strengthen your application
  • If you are particularly interested in pursuing Physics Theory as a research focus

Admission is competitive. All applicants are reviewed and evaluated on the basis of previous academic record, three letters of recommendation, statement of purpose for graduate studies, and resume.  The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) subject scores will be considered if submitted.  All eligible applicants with complete files are considered for teaching or research assistantships and fellowships. To be considered for admission, students must submit all application materials via the Graduate School electronic application site by December 15.  

Graduate School Resources

Resources to help you afford graduate study might include assistantships, fellowships, traineeships, and financial aid.  Further funding information is available from the Graduate School. Be sure to check with your program for individual policies and restrictions related to funding.

Program Resources

Financial support for phd students in physics.

All admitted Ph.D. students are provided with a guarantee of financial support. Typically, a graduate student is first appointed as a teaching assistant. Teaching assistants assist faculty members in the introductory physics courses, generally by teaching discussion and laboratory sections. Later, as a research assistant, the student works with a major professor on a mutually agreed research program. Tuition is remitted for teaching assistant and research assistant appointments greater than one-third time or greater.  However, all students must still pay the segregated fees and any additional university fees each semester.

Teaching Assistantships

The typical first appointment for a beginning graduate student is a teaching assistantship (TA). A teaching assistantship is both a teaching position and a means of support for graduate study. It is normally advantageous for a graduate student to hold a TA position for at least a semester during graduate studies, since the teaching activity solidifies and deepens the teaching assistant's undergraduate education in physics and also helps prepare for a possible career in teaching.

Research Assistantships

Research assistantships are made available by individual professors to students who have decided on their field of research. Most departmental RA appointments are made for an annual (12 months) period. Students who wish to be considered for an RA appointment should contact the faculty directly.

Fellowships

Fellowships, including University Fellowships and Advanced Opportunity Fellowships, are awarded by the College of Letters & Science and the Graduate School upon recommendation of the Department of Physics. In addition, the department may have additional fellowships—funded by endowments from physics department alumni—available for first-year graduate students.

Minimum Graduate School Requirements

Major requirements.

Review the Graduate School minimum academic progress and degree requirements , in addition to the program requirements listed below.

MODE OF INSTRUCTION

Mode of instruction definitions.

Accelerated: Accelerated programs are offered at a fast pace that condenses the time to completion. Students typically take enough credits aimed at completing the program in a year or two.

Evening/Weekend: ​Courses meet on the UW–Madison campus only in evenings and/or on weekends to accommodate typical business schedules.  Students have the advantages of face-to-face courses with the flexibility to keep work and other life commitments.

Face-to-Face: Courses typically meet during weekdays on the UW-Madison Campus.

Hybrid: These programs combine face-to-face and online learning formats.  Contact the program for more specific information.

Online: These programs are offered 100% online.  Some programs may require an on-campus orientation or residency experience, but the courses will be facilitated in an online format.

CURRICULAR REQUIREMENTS

Required courses.

All graduate degree candidates are required to take five core courses:

Each core course must be repeated until a grade of at least a B is earned. 

All Physics courses meeting degree requirements must be numbered 500 and above.

Graduate School Policies

The  Graduate School’s Academic Policies and Procedures  provide essential information regarding general university policies. Program authority to set degree policies beyond the minimum required by the Graduate School lies with the degree program faculty. Policies set by the academic degree program can be found below.

Major-Specific Policies

Prior coursework, graduate work from other institutions.

This program follows the Graduate School's policy for Satisfying Requirements with Prior Graduate Coursework from Other Institutions.

UW–Madison Undergraduate

Up to 7 credits in courses numbered 500 or above may be used to satisfy minimum degree requirements.

UW–Madison University Special

With program approval, students are allowed to count no more than 15 credits of coursework numbered 500 or above taken as a UW-Madison University Special student.  Coursework earned five or more years prior to admission to a doctoral degree is not allowed to satisfy requirements.

This program follows the Graduate School's Probation policy.

ADVISOR / COMMITTEE

All incoming students are assigned a faculty mentoring committee upon matriculation. The responsibility to acquire (choose and be accepted by) a major professor (permanent advisor) is entirely with the student. Acceptance for Ph.D. research by a professor depends on the professor’s appraisal of the student’s potential for research and on the ability/willingness of the professor to accept a student at that time. Often the major professor will offer support in the form of a research assistantship, but this is not always possible, and students may need to work as a teaching assistants while performing thesis research.

Graduate students should begin research work as early as possible. Students are encouraged to acquire a major professor (advisor) and begin research by the end of the second semester. Summer is the ideal time to begin research unencumbered by coursework or teaching.

At the time of the preliminary examination, the major professor and at least two additional faculty members will form a committee that will evaluate and advise the student. 

At the time of the final oral defense, a the major professor and at least two additional faculty members will form a committee that will evaluate the student.  All Ph.D. Committee members will serve as readers of the student's thesis.

Credits Per Term Allowed

Time limits.

Doctoral degree students who have been absent for ten or more consecutive years lose all credits that they have earned before their absence. Individual programs may count the coursework students completed prior to their absence for meeting program requirements; that coursework may not count toward Graduate School credit requirements.

A candidate for a doctoral degree who fails to take the final oral examination and deposit the dissertation within five years after passing the preliminary examination may by require to take another preliminary examination and to be admitted to candidacy a second time.

grievances and appeals

These resources may be helpful in addressing your concerns:

  • Bias or Hate Reporting  
  • Graduate Assistantship Policies and Procedures
  • Office of the Provost for Faculty and Staff Affairs
  • Dean of Students Office (for all students to seek grievance assistance and support)
  • Employee Assistance (for personal counseling and workplace consultation around communication and conflict involving graduate assistants and other employees, post-doctoral students, faculty and staff)
  • Employee Disability Resource Office (for qualified employees or applicants with disabilities to have equal employment opportunities)
  • Graduate School (for informal advice at any level of review and for official appeals of program/departmental or school/college grievance decisions)
  • Office of Compliance (for class harassment and discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual violence)
  • Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards (for conflicts involving students)
  • Ombuds Office for Faculty and Staff (for employed graduate students and post-docs, as well as faculty and staff)
  • Title IX (for concerns about discrimination)

Students should contact the department chair or program director with questions about grievances. They may also contact the L&S Academic Divisional Associate Deans, the L&S Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning Administration, or the L&S Director of Human Resources.

Typical funding is through 50% assistantships. Typically all enrolled Ph.D. students are funded for the duration of their degree. All programs are full-time and require full-time student enrollment during fall and spring terms.

Take advantage of the Graduate School's  professional development resources to build skills, thrive academically, and launch your career. 

Students are encouraged to attend Graduate School sponsored Professional Development events and participate in Graduate School Professional Development resources, such as the Individual Development Plan (IDP).

In addition, Ph.D. students in Physics have multiple opportunities for professional development throughout their graduate careers. As an integral part of the research experience, students regularly work at places such as CERN, national laboratories (Argonne, FermiLab), and the IceCube Neutrino observatory at the South Pole to name a few.

Students are encouraged to travel to relevant conferences across the U.S. and around the world.  Students regularly attend the annual American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting and are encouraged to attend APS meetings in their sub-field throughout the year. Often students attend summer schools at various host institutions to expand their knowledge and to interact with fellow scientists in the field.    

  • Demonstrate mastery of the core physical concepts (Classical Mechanics, Electricity & Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics).
  • Evaluates or synthesizes information pertaining to questions or challenges in physics.
  • Engages appropriately and communicates clearly with other research professionals in physics.
  • Formulates and plans original research.
  • Creates research, scholarship, or performance that makes a substantive contribution to the field of physics.
  • Gains a broad awareness of the status of contemporary research beyond the student’s area of specialization.

More detail about each faculty member and the research areas can be found on the Physics website.

Yang Bai, Professor Baha Balantekin, Eugene P. Wigner Professor Vernon Barger, Van Vleck Professor and Vilas Research Professor Keith Bechtol, Associate Professor Kevin Black, Professor Stanislav Boldyrev, Professor Uwe Bergmann, Martin L. Pearl Professor in Ultrafast X-Ray Science Tulika Bose, Professor Victor Brar, Van Vleck Associate Professor Duncan Carlsmith, Professor Daniel Chung, Professor Susan Coppersmith, Emeriuts Robert E. Fassnacht Professor and Vilas Research Professor Kyle Cranmer, Professor & Data Science Institute Director Sridhara Dasu, Professor Jan Egedal, Professor Mark Eriksson, John Bardeen Professor and Department Chair Ilya Esterlis, Assistant Professor Lisa Everett, Professor Ke Fang, Assistant Professor Cary Forest, Prager Professor of Experimental Physics Pupa Gilbert, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Francis Halzen, Gregory Breit Professor, Hilldale Professor, & Vilas Research Professor Kael Hanson, Professor Aki Hashimoto, Professor Matthew Herndon, Professor Robert Joynt, Emeritus Professor Albrecht Karle, Professor Roman Kuzmin, Dunson Cheng Assistant Professor Alex Levchenko, Professor Lu Lyu (aka Lu Lu), Assistant Professor Dan McCammon, Professor Robert McDermott, Professor Moritz Muenchmeyer, Assistant Professor Yibin Pan, Associate Professor Brian Rebel, Professor Mark Rzchowski, Associate Chair and Professor Mark Saffman, Professor John Sarff, Professor Gary Shiu, Professor Paul Terry, Professor Peter Timbie, Professor Justin Vandenbroucke, Associate Professor Maxim Vavilov, Professor Thad Walker, Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor Sau Lan Wu, Enrico Fermi Professor, Hilldale Professor, and Vilas Research Professor Deniz Yavuz, Professor Ellen Zweibel, William L Kraushaar Professor of Astronomy & Physics

Affiliated Faculty

David Anderson, Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering Paul Campagnola, Professor, Biomedical Engineering Jennifer Choy, Assistant Professor, Engineering Physics Elena D'Onghia, Professor, Astronomy Chang-Beom Eom, Professor, Materials Science & Engineering Chris Hegna, Professor, Engineering Physics Sebastian Heinz, Professor, Astronomy Mikhail Kats, Associate Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering Jason Kawasaki, Associate Professor, Materials Science & Engineering Irena Knezevic, Professor, Electrical & Computer Engineering Alexandre Lazarian, Professor, Astronomy Daniel Rhodes, Assistant Professor, Materials Science & Engineering Oliver Schmitz, Professor, Engineering Physics Micheline Soley, Assistant Professor, Chemistry Carl Sovinec, Professor, Engineering Physics Richard Townsend, Professor, Astronomy Ying Wang, Assistant Professor, Materials Science & Engineering Jun Xiao, Assistant Professor, Materials Science & Engineering

  • Requirements
  • Professional Development
  • Learning Outcomes

Contact Information

Physics College of Letters & Science Physics, Ph.D. physics.wisc.edu

Sharon Kahn, Graduate Program Manager [email protected] 608-262-9678 2320F Chamberlin Hall, 1150 University Ave. Madison, WI 53706

Kevin Black, Associate Chair for Graduate Programs [email protected] 608-262-1232 4217 Chamberlin Hall, 1150 University Ave. Madison, WI 53706

Graduate Program Handbook View Here

Graduate School grad.wisc.edu

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Leslie takes a picture of herself in the mirror of a telescope

Grad student Leslie Taylor snaps quite the mirror selfie in the mirrors of a telescope she helped build in Arizona

a group of students standing in front of trees at an apple orchard

Students from the entering class of 2019 went apple picking together their first fall in Madison

PhD — Prospective Students

Useful links.

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Welcome to the PhD in Physics program at UW–Madison!

The first PhD in physics at UW–Madison was awarded in 1899, for research on “An Interferometer Study of Radiation in a Magnetic Field.” Over 1,500 individual PhD research projects have been completed since.

Our department has a strong tradition of graduate study and the research that is essential to the PhD Degree. There are many facilities for doing world-class research, and the PhD research program involves leading-edge activities in Madison and at research facilities around the world. Over 175 current graduate students conduct research in one of the Department of Physics faculty groups or with an affiliated faculty group  in departments such as Electrical and Computer Engineering or Astronomy.

If you have any questions about the program, please direct them to physgrad@physics.wisc.edu.

How to Apply

Fall 2024 Physics PhD Application Deadline: December 15, 2023

Fall 2024 prospective students should apply for admissions through the Graduate School. Applicants must s atisfy the Graduate School requirements for undergraduate grade-point average, bachelor’s degree, and English proficiency and submit:

This is an accordion element with a series of buttons that open and close related content panels.

3 Letters of Recommendation

A complete application requires 3 (no more than 4) letters of recommendation. The most impactful letters come from current or past research advisors, or other individuals who know you well and can speak to your strengths, prior experiences, and accomplishments and how they have prepared you to pursue a PhD in Physics.

Official Transcripts

No official transcripts are required as part of the application. The Graduate School will send an instructional email request after the program has recommended admission.  Please submit transcripts for all post-secondary coursework.

It’s helpful to submit a resume/CV that details your experiences that are relevant to your interests in Physics.

Statement of Purpose

Please describe your relevant experiences and future research interests and goals. Strong applicants will clearly communicate their motivations for pursuing a PhD in Physics, and how their research interests and experiences align with the strengths of the UW-Madison Physics PhD program.

This statement is also an opportunity to provide any other personal information you would like the admissions committee to know that is not clear from the other submitted materials.

The Department of Physics does not require the subject GRE for admission.  However, if students submit the score, the admissions committee will review it as part of the application.

The general GRE will not be considered even if submitted. The subject GRE is recommended in these circumstances:

  • Your transcript does not accurately reflect your academic strengths
  • If including the score would significantly strengthen your application
  • You are particularly interested in pursuing Physics Theory as a research focus

Application Fee Waivers

The UW-Madison Physics Ph.D. program has now distributed the limited number of application fee waivers available for the Fall 2024 application season.   The Department has no additional waivers to provide, but we encourage you to apply for a fee grant from the Graduate School if you qualify.

Admission is competitive. All eligible applicants with complete files are considered for teaching or research assistantships and fellowships. To be considered for admission, students must submit all application materials via the Graduate School  electronic application site  by December 15.

Contact us with questions!

All admitted PhD students are provided with a guarantee of five years of financial support. Typically, a graduate student is first appointed as a teaching assistant. Teaching assistants assist faculty members in the introductory physics courses, generally by teaching discussion and laboratory sections. Later, as a research assistant, the student works with a major professor on a mutually agreed research project.

Tuition is remitted for teaching assistant and research assistant appointments one-third time or greater.  Most graduate assistant appointments are also eligible for a comprehensive health insurance package.  All students are responsible for their own segregated fees, which are about $600 per semester for full-time students, and any additional university fees.  Further information about the various types of assistantships at UW-Madison can be found on the Graduate School website .

physics phd statement of purpose

Can I apply to more than one graduate program at UW-Madison?

Yes!  With one application to UW-Madison, you can apply to 3 different graduate programs.  Please keep in mind that you can only submit your application once and will need to submit by the earliest deadline for the 3 programs that you choose.  For example, the Physics Ph.D. program application deadline is December 15th.  If another program that you apply to has a January 1st deadline, you must submit your application by December 15th to ensure it is received by the earlier deadline.

What is the application deadline?

The Physics Ph.D. application deadline is December 15th.  All application materials must be received by this time to ensure consideration.  Test scores and letters of recommendation should be submitted by the deadline.

Where should I send my GRE & TOEFL scores?

The Physics Ph.D. program requires the official test scores (GRE and TOEFL) to be sent directly from ETS to UW-Madison.  The UW-Madison institution code is 1846.  Please be sure your test score report shows that your scores were sent directly to UW-Madison.  Test scores are loaded every few days during the peak admissions season by the UW-Madison Graduate School.  You can check your Graduate School application status to see if your test scores have been received.

When will admissions committee decisions be made?

All completed applications are made available to the Physics Ph.D. Admissions Committee after the December 15th deadline.  The program receives over 550 applications each year and all completed applications are fully reviewed by the Admissions Committee.   All applicants will be informed of the admissions decision by the end of January.  All applicants who are accepted will be invited to prospective student visit weekend to be held in February/March each year.

FAQs from Virtual Sessions (Dec 5-6, 2023)

You can find questions and answers that were discussed in virtual sessions on 5-6 December 2023 on this page .  Feel free to add questions through the admissions deadline on 15 December, but if you need immediate answers, please reach out to Physics Graduate Coordinator. .

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Graduate admissions faqs.

General Information Our Department welcomes all applicants to its graduate degree program. If you are interested in applying, please examine the physics department  areas of research . You may also find it useful to examine the corresponding page for our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). If you decide to apply to our graduate program, we urge you to review the GSAS information page for prospective students , especially the detailed application instructions and requirements , as well as the specific requirements of the physics program of study . Here is where you can find a full list of course offerings in the physics department , and course offerings from other departments at courses.my.harvard.edu . You may also find useful information at our department's web site . For specific questions for the physics department, please contact us at  [email protected] . For more general inquiries about the admissions process at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), please visit the GSAS admissions page .

APPLICATION QUESTIONS

  • Does the physics department accept applications for a master’s (AM) degree?
  • On the online application form, I found a place to upload a "writing sample." Are writing samples required by the physics department?
  • Are there separate deadlines for online and paper materials?
  • The application fee is a significant financial burden for me. Does Harvard offer a fee waiver?

SUBJECT AREAS

  • Can I apply both to physics and another program at the same time?
  • Will my application be harmed if I apply to two separate programs?
  • My undergraduate background is in engineering, and most of my technical courses are in applied math, applied chemistry, and applied physics. Is Harvard’s physics department the right program for me?
  • I’m hoping to do observational astronomy/astrophysics at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA). Should I be applying to the department of physics?
  • I’m concerned about which department I should apply to.
  • I know that applicants are allowed to apply to two departments simultaneously. I don’t see an "add second department" option -- do I need to open a second application?

ACCEPTANCE QUESTIONS

  • Given my academic background, what are my odds of acceptance?

ENROLLMENT/FUNDING QUESTIONS

  • Do I need to submit financial information with my application?
  • How much funding do physics graduate students receive?
  • How do graduate students without external fellowships secure summer funding at Harvard’s physics program?
  • Are international PhD students guaranteed funding at Harvard’s physics department?
  • Does the physics department permit part-time enrollment?

ACADEMIC REQUIREMENTS

  • What courses are required for candidacy to the program?
  • My undergraduate major is in a subject different from physics, and I did not take key physics classes like statistical physics and quantum mechanics, but I have strengths in other areas, such as high GRE scores. Am I precluded from applying?
  • Can I still apply for the PhD program if I plan on graduating from my undergraduate institution during the summer before the first fall semester?
  • What are the course requirements for obtaining a PhD?

ACADEMIC RECORD and TRANSCRIPT QUESTIONS

  • The application asks for a list of relevant courses taken at my undergraduate institution. Do I still have to complete that part of the application if the courses are already listed on my uploaded official transcript?     or : I attended a university in another country, and the course names and textbook names are all in a foreign language. Do I still need to fill out the list of undergraduate courses on the application form?
  • The physics department specifically requires that candidates submit additional documentation of their most advanced courses and textbooks used. Where do I submit that list?
  • The application instructions ask students applying to the physics program to list the four most advanced physics/astronomy courses and the two most advanced math courses they have taken so far. May I list more than six total courses?
  • As an undergraduate, I’ve taken several advanced theoretical courses that can’t easily be classified as either pure physics or pure math. In my list of advanced courses, should I classify these courses as physics or math?
  • Do I need my undergraduate institution to mail in my transcripts for me, or can I mail them myself?
  • If I spent a semester at another university under a study-abroad program, but all my grades are reported on my home institution’s transcript, do I need to send a redundant transcript from the study-abroad institution?
  • I spent a few semesters at one undergraduate institution before transferring to another. Do I need to provide transcripts from both institutions?
  • I am attending a one-year graduate program, and I do not yet have official grades or a transcript that I can include with my undergraduate transcript. Can I submit the graduate program’s transcript after the official application deadline?
  • My university does not have an official policy of providing GPAs. Should I leave the GPA field blank on the application?
  • I am an international student, and my undergraduate institution uses a numerical grading  system different from the standard American system. Should I enter my numerical grade values in the application form? Should I calculate a GPA?
  • My transcript is in another language. Do I still need to submit it?
  • My university does not provide transcripts, but does provide an official form with a list of my courses and grades. What should I upload in place of a transcript?
  • My university does not produce official paper transcripts -- my university asks students to provide their academic records department with an  email address for sending out a secure link. Can applicants to Harvard’s physics program use this system rather than uploading an official transcript?
  • I submitted my online application without attaching the required list of my six most advanced physics and math courses. How can I get the information to the admissions committee?

TOEFL/IELTS QUESTIONS

  • What is the official code for reporting TOEFL/IELTS scores?
  • Do I have to take (or retake) the TOEFL/IELTS? My circumstances make it inconvenient or difficult to do so, and my English is pretty good.
  • My undergraduate university was not primarily English-speaking, but I later attended a master’s program at an English-speaking university. Do I still need to submit TOEFL/IELTS scores?
  • My undergraduate institution is in a non-English-speaking country, but English was the only language of instruction. Do I need to submit TOEFL/IELTS scores, and, if not, how do I prove that I did my undergraduate work in English?
  • I have a professor of English Literature who is willing to write me a certificate regarding my English skills -- do I still need to take the TOEFL/IELTS?

DEGREE REQUIREMENTS

  • Does the Harvard physics program have a written qualifying exam? If I have extensive academic preparation, can I take it at the beginning of my first year?

FACULTY REQUESTS

  • There is a professor on your faculty whose research area lines up with my my interests and abilities. Can I do anything when I apply to ensure that I’ll be able to work with this faculty member if I am accepted?

TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

  • I am having difficulty getting my scanned transcript under the 2MB upload limit. What should I do?
  • I have made a serious error in my submitted application. Whom can I contact for help?

________________________________________________________________________________________  

Answers to APPLICATION QUESTIONS

  • Does the physics department accept applications for a master’s (AM) degree? The Harvard physics program does not permit students to apply for a master's (AM) degree -- the program only accepts applications for a PhD, although many physics PhD students receive an AM degree along the way to completing their doctorate. However, the applied physics program at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) offers a master of science degree -- you can examine their areas of research at http://www.physics.harvard.edu/research/facresearch.html .  
  • ts and Sciences (GSAS) require a writing sample, but the physics department does not. For information on the required materials for the application to the physics program, please see GSAS page for prospective physics students .
  • Are there separate deadlines for online and paper materials? To ensure consideration of your application, please ensure that all your application materials meet the physics graduate program's deadline.  
  • The application fee is a significant financial burden for me. Does Harvard offer a fee waiver? There is a fee waiver request embedded in the formal program application. While waivers are not guaranteed, Harvard University does its best to ensure applications are not cost-prohibitive to prospective students.  

Answers to SUBJECT AREAS

  • Can I apply both to physics and another program at the same time? Prospective students are indeed permitted to apply simultaneously to two separate programs at Harvard. For example, students are free to apply both to the Department of Physics and SEAS. (By contrast, students may not apply to multiple departments within any single program, so you cannot apply to two different departments that are both contained within SEAS.) From the official application instructions : "Consideration by More than One Program — [...] The Graduate School does not recommend submission of more than one application. However, if you choose to submit multiple applications (up to a limit of two), the applications may not share any item. Each application must have its own transcripts, recommendations, financial data, test scores, [application fee], etc. All supplemental materials must be scanned, uploaded, and attached to your online application. It is Graduate School policy that an individual may submit only one application per program. It is Graduate School policy that an individual may submit no more than three applications during the course of his or her academic career."  
  • Will my application be harmed if I apply to two separate programs? Your application will not be negatively affected.  
  • My undergraduate background is in engineering, and most of my technical courses are in applied math, applied chemistry, and applied physics. Is Harvard’s physics department the right program for me? The physics department has had many students with an undergraduate engineering degree. Given your undergraduate major in mechanical engineering, and your previous courses in applied math, applied chemistry, and applied physics, you might also be interested in applying to one of the programs in Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) -- you may find it useful to examine their areas of research .  
  • I’m hoping to do observational astronomy/astrophysics at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA). Should I be applying to the department of physics? Astrophysics is offered by both the Department of Astronomy and of Physics. If deemed appropriate, applications for Astrophysics may be transferred by the Physics committee to the Department of Astronomy for review. If you're interested in doing observational astronomy/astrophysics at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), you might consider applying to Harvard’s Department of Astronomy instead of or in addition to the physics department. For more information about the astronomy department, please see http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/ast/ .  
  • I’m concerned about which department I should apply to. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) permits candidates to apply to up to two programs at the same time, and up to three over a student's entire career. Furthermore, admissions committees sometimes share applications when they believe certain candidates have interests that suit other programs.  
  • I know that applicants are allowed to apply to two departments simultaneously. I don’t see an "add second department" option -- do I need to open a second application? Students who are applying to two programs must submit two applications.  

Answers to ACCEPTANCE QUESTIONS

  • Given my academic background, what are my odds of acceptance? The physics department's admissions committee reviews each candidate's entire application, including statement of purpose, transcript, experience, GRE scores if provided, and letters of recommendation -- the statement of purpose and letters of recommendation being especially important. Beyond that, the department cannot determine in advance the likelihood of success in any particular case.  

Answers to ENROLLMENT/FUNDING QUESTIONS

  • Do I need to submit financial information with my application? Financial information is not required for applications to the physics department.  
  • How much funding do physics graduate students receive? All Harvard physics graduate students are guaranteed funding providing they remain in good academic standing. The funding fully covers tuition and fees, the student's health insurance (family members can join the student's plan, but must fully pay their own share), and an annual salary of approximately $42k, a rate negotiated by the Harvard Graduate Student Union (HGSU-UAW).  
  • How do graduate students without external fellowships secure summer funding at Harvard’s physics program? Students can obtain summer funding by obtaining a research appointment (RA) with a faculty member’s research group. Students who are unable to obtain a summer RA can instead secure funding by assistant-teaching summer classes, or by working in the library or machine shop.  
  • Are international PhD students guaranteed funding at Harvard’s physics department? Many international students apply to and are accepted to our physics program; in past years, up to 40% of our students have been international. And all PhD students -- including international students -- are guaranteed funding. Please see our "Admissions and Financial Aid" page (in particular, the section under "Financial Aid") for detailed information about our program's funding structure for graduate students.  
  • Does the physics department permit part-time enrollment? The department does not permit part-time enrollment. Full-time enrollment is considered to be 40 hours per week, although in practice most graduate students often work much longer hours -- the work consists mainly of research, but certain semesters also include assistant-teaching.  

Answers to ACADEMIC REQUIREMENTS

  • What courses are required for candidacy to the program? There are no specific, mandatory course requirements for candidacy. However, prospective students should be well-versed in intermediate physics and mathematics. Typically, applicants will have devoted between 50 and 60 credit hours -- approximately half of their undergraduate work -- to physics, mathematics, and chemistry. It is desirable for every applicant to have completed at least one year of introductory quantum mechanics classes.  
  • My undergraduate major is in a subject different from physics, and I did not take key physics classes like statistical physics and quantum mechanics, but I have strengths in other areas, such as high GRE scores. Am I precluded from applying? Everyone is entitled to apply to the physics program. Weaker course background can sometimes be balanced out by stronger areas on a prospective student's application for admission, such as GRE scores, but the department cannot determine in advance the likelihood of success in any particular case.  
  • Can I still apply for the PhD program if I plan on graduating from my undergraduate institution during the summer before the first fall semester? The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires only that incoming students have graduated by their intended date of matriculation, so graduating during the summer before the first fall semester is generally acceptable.  
  • What are the course requirements for obtaining a PhD? Course requirements for physics PhD students consist of:    - 2 semesters of graduate-level quantum mechanics (at the level of Merzbacher or Gottfried/Yan),    - 1 semester of graduate-level statistical mechanics (at the level of Pathria),    - 1 semester of graduate-level electromagnetism (at the level of Jackson),    - 4 semesters of elective courses at the graduate level, with no more than 2 in any single subject area    - 1 semester of the graduate-level experimental laboratory course (for theorists) Some of these requirements may be waived if the student has taken equivalent courses previously, depending on the discretion of the physics department's Committee on Higher Degrees. For more details, please see our official page on course requirements, as well as our page on petitioning the Committee on Higher Degrees for course credit. You can find a full list of course offerings in the physics department here and course offerings from other departments by visiting courses.my.harvard.edu .  

Answers to ACADEMIC RECORD and TRANSCRIPT QUESTIONS

  • The application asks for a list of relevant courses taken at my undergraduate institution. Do I still have to complete that part of the application if the courses are already listed on my uploaded official transcript?     or : I attended a university in another country, and the course names and textbook names are all in a foreign language. Do I still need to fill out the list of undergraduate courses on the application form? To ensure that your application is processed correctly and considered by the admissions committee, please fill out all forms completely, even if you believe some of the information is already on your academic transcript or are uncertain that the information will be useful and necessary.   
  • The physics department specifically requires that candidates submit additional documentation of their most advanced courses and textbooks used. Where do I submit that list? In addition to filling out the course abstract in the main application, you should submit your list of advanced courses and textbooks used in the Additional Academic information/materials section of the online application.  
  • The application instructions ask students applying to the physics program to list the four most advanced physics/astronomy courses and the two most advanced math courses they have taken so far. May I list more than six total courses? Yes -- applicants are permitted to list additional advanced courses in relevant subjects if they wish.  
  • As an undergraduate, I’ve taken several advanced theoretical courses that can’t easily be classified as either pure physics or pure math. In my list of advanced courses, should I classify these courses as physics or math? In filling out your list of advanced coursework, the admissions committee asks that you please use your best judgment in deciding how to classify your courses.  
  • Do I need my undergraduate institution to mail in my transcripts for me, or can I mail them myself? Candidates do not need to ask their undergraduate institutions to mail in student transcripts. The Graduate School requires that you upload a copy of your transcript from each college/university attended with your online application. Foreign transcripts---records of all courses, seminars, and examinations, including grades, scores, grading scales, and conferrals of degrees---must be in English. If records are not available in English, original records must be uploaded with certified English translations. All translations must be literal and complete versions of the original records. The University reserves the right to request additional academic documents.   
  • If I spent a semester at another university under a study-abroad program, but all my grades are reported on my home institution’s transcript, do I need to send a redundant transcript from the study-abroad institution? As long as grades for all your courses are reported on your home institution's transcript, there is no need to submit a redundant transcript from your study-abroad institution.   
  • I spent a few semesters at one undergraduate institution before transferring to another. Do I need to provide transcripts from both institutions? The department requires that transfer students submit official transcripts from all undergraduate institutions that they have attended -- every undergraduate class taken by a student at any institution should appear on an official transcript.   
  • I am attending a one-year graduate program, and I do not yet have official grades or a transcript that I can include with my undergraduate transcript. Can I submit the graduate program’s transcript after the official application deadline? If your current institution does not yet have a transcript or official grades available for you, then the Harvard physics department will accept your application without that information. You can mention your graduate work in your statement of purpose, and, if you'd like, mail a hard-copy of your transcript to GSAS admissions once it becomes available -- the mailing address is the same as for your undergraduate transcript.  
  • My university does not have an official policy of providing GPAs. Should I leave the GPA field blank on the application? Please compute a GPA as best you can from your course grades, and enter it into the application form.   
  • I am an international student, and my undergraduate institution uses a numerical grading  system different from the standard American system. Should I enter my numerical grade values in the application form? Should I calculate a GPA? The members of our admissions committee have a good understanding of a wide variety of international grading systems, so there's no need to convert your grades. Please just use the numerical values you have, and compute a GPA from them as best you can.  
  • My transcript is in another language. Do I still need to submit it? The departments requires all students to submit a transcript or equivalent official academic record with a student’s undergraduate grades. If the transcript is in another language, then the candidate should also submit a certified translation.   
  • My university does not provide transcripts, but does provide an official form with a list of my courses and grades. What should I upload in place of a transcript? The admissions committee recognizes that some institutions do not produce transcripts, but instead provide other official records of undergraduate work and grades received. In that case, please submit those official records in place of a transcript.   
  • My university does not produce official paper transcripts -- my university asks students to provide their academic records department with an  email address for sending out a secure link. Can applicants to Harvard’s physics program use this system rather than uploading an official transcript? Unfortunately, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) does not accept transcripts electronically except through their official online application. Please ask your university to send you the transcript, and then upload it manually through the GSAS online application.  
  • I submitted my online application without attaching the required list of my six most advanced physics and math courses. How can I get the information to the admissions committee? Please include a hard-copy of the list of advanced courses when you mail your original transcript to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) admissions office.  

Answers to TOEFL/IELTS QUESTIONS

  • What is the official code for reporting TOEFL/IELTS scores? When requesting official TOEFL score reports, please indicate the receiving institution as Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Code 3451.  For sending IELTS scores, designate Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences as a recipient of your test results. The GSAS  address, for the record only, to identify us in the IELTS system, is 1350 Massachusetts Ave. Smith Campus Center 350, Cambridge, MA 02138. Paper test report forms will not be accepted at this address.  
  • Do I have to take (or retake) the TOEFL/IELTS? My circumstances make it inconvenient or difficult to do so, and my English is pretty good. The department apologizes for any inconvenience, but Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires TOEFL/IELTS scores for all applicants who have not received a BA from an English-speaking undergraduate institution, with exemptions granted only in extreme circumstances. If you believe that your case may qualify, please visit the contact page for the GSAS Office of Admissions .  
  • My undergraduate university was not primarily English-speaking, but I later attended a master’s program at an English-speaking university. Do I still need to submit TOEFL/IELTS scores? Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires TOEFL or IELTS scores for all applicants who have not received a BA from an English-speaking undergraduate institution, with exemptions granted only in extreme circumstances -- if you believe that your case may qualify, please visit the contact page for the  GSAS Office of Admissions .   
  • My undergraduate institution is in a non-English-speaking country, but English was the only language of instruction. Do I need to submit TOEFL/IELTS scores, and, if not, how do I prove that I did my undergraduate work in English? The members of the physics department's admissions committee are familiar with most undergraduate institutions around the world, so there's no need to provide specific proof on your application that your institution is English-speaking -- please just check the appropriate box on the online application form. Later on, if any concerns arise during the course of your application process, you will be contacted with further instructions.   
  • I have a professor of English Literature who is willing to write me a certificate regarding my English skills -- do I still need to take the TOEFL/IELTS? The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires TOEFL or IELTS scores of all non-native-English students who have not attended an English-speaking undergraduate institution. GSAS does not accept alternative forms of verification, such as a letter from a faculty member at a student’s undergraduate institution.  

Answers to DEGREE REQUIREMENTS

  • Does the Harvard physics program have a written qualifying exam? If I have extensive academic preparation, can I take it at the beginning of my first year? Harvard's physics program does not have written qualifying examinations, but instead has a variety of course requirements and an oral examination. The oral examination is intended to demonstrate a graduate student’s command of his or her subject area, formalize the student’s relationship with a research advisor, and provide the department with a snapshot of the student's academic and research progress. As such, students often take the oral exam toward the end of their second year, and are usually required by the department to take it by the end of their third year. For more information about the oral exam, please see the relevant section of the physics degree programs.  

Answers to FACULTY REQUESTS

  • There is a professor on your faculty whose research area lines up with my my interests and abilities. Can I do anything when I apply to ensure that I’ll be able to work with this faculty member if I am accepted? Everyone is welcome to apply to the physics program at Harvard, but the department cannot guarantee in advance that any accepted student will be able to work with a particular faculty member.  

Answers to TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

  • I am having difficulty getting my scanned transcript under the 2MB upload limit. What should I do? The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) recommends trying to save the scanned transcript as a PDF, since that usually leads to reduced file sizes compared to raw image formats. As a last resort, you can try saving the first and second halves of your transcript and uploading them separately, provided you clearly note on the uploaded document that there are multiple parts.  
  • I have made a serious error in my submitted application. Whom can I contact for help? Please contact the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) admissions information office. You can reach the office by phone at 617-496-6100 (2:00pm - 5:00pm EST) or by email at [email protected] . If you choose to contact the admissions information office by email, please send your message from the same email address you used to register your online application, and put the words ADMISSIONS QUESTION (all capital letters) in your email subject.
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The Physics Department offers a Doctor of Philosophy in Physics with specializations in different subfields that reflect the forefront research activities of the department, including biological physics, condensed matter physics, elementary particle physics, nanomedicine, nanophysics and network science.

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The program for the PhD degree consists of the required coursework, a qualifying examination, a preliminary research seminar, the completion of a dissertation based upon original research performed by the student, and a dissertation defense upon completion of the dissertation. Based on these measures, students are expected to obtain a graduate-level understanding of basic physics concepts and demonstrate the ability to formulate a research plan, orally communicate a research plan, and conduct and present independent research.

The PhD dissertation will be based on new and original research in one of the current theoretical or experimental research programs in the department, under direct supervision of an advisor from the Physics Department. Alternatively, the dissertation research can be in a recognized interdisciplinary field involving another research area of the University, under the direct supervision of a faculty member in that field. Another option is to work in an area of applied research in one of the industrial or high-technology laboratories associated with the department’s industrial PhD program. In that case, the direct supervisor is associated with the institution where the research is performed.

The Department of Physics offers a complete package of financial aid in the form of teaching assistantship positions, including a typical one-year stipend of as well as full tuition and health care coverage.

  • 90 percent of faculty in the physics PhD program have major grants to fund their research
  • The department publishes well over 100 papers annually
  • Approximately eighty graduate students are enrolled in the PhD degree program in physics
  • The Dept. of Physics offers a limited number of highly competitive fellowships to some physics PhD program applicants
  • Department institutes and centers include Electronic Materials Institute (eMRI), Center for Complex Network Research (CCNR) and Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Complex Systems (CIRCS). In addition, Physics faculty are an integral part of the Network Science Institute
  • The department is home to the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, a satellite location for the $13M Physics Frontier Center based at Rice University
  • Department faculty are leading members of the National Science Foundation’s newly established Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Fundamental Interactions that will be based at MIT

Our graduates pursue careers within academia and beyond.

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Priority deadline for completed applications: December 1 st

Rolling admissions until March 15th. Check with department to see if there is any availability.

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22 Surprising Facts About: Albert Einstein.

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Statements of Excellence for Admission to Graduate School in Physics

physics phd statement of purpose

I help as many people as I can in the area of Physics although I can make no claims to any special qualification in this area. I only had one Physics class, decades ago as an undergraduate students called "Physics for Poets." I do like to think, however, as a professional word smith, that I draft effective statements for applicants to graduate school in Physics because I help them to include and account for the "big picture" the relevance of physics of humanity. It is a specia privilege and honor to draft statements for people whose story excites me, people who I feel strongly are in a unique position to give something of importance to their respective professions. I only do my best, taking the time to reflect on your story as well, usually doing some internet research on your behalf.

I want to help you get admitted to graduate school in Physics.

Free  Document Evaluation. After you fill out my  Online Interview Form , I will ask you some specific questions by email if I need any further information. Please also send your resume/CV and or rough draft if you have one.

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You will also need a highly eloquent Statement that portrays you as someone with enormous potential to contribute to the advance of Physics over the long term.

Some additional tips for preparation for graduate school in Physics include:

  • Ask for recommendations now, while the professor remembers you well!
  • Talk to your professors about where you should apply, who might be good to work with, and what schools they think would be a good match for your interests!
  • Surf the web, what work/experiments interest you?
  • Contact professors who do interesting work and talk to them about it (email, phone)
  • If possible, attend colloquiums to get a feel for what’s out there.
  • Think about where you will be living as well (where you really want to live, city, state, etc.
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The Humanitarian Side of Physics

Along with his famous scientific accomplishments, Albert Einstein should be acknowledged for his humanitarian struggles to achieve peace and international cooperation.

Albert Einstein was one of the most influential scientists of all time! But he was also an inquisitive philosopher who had many inspiring thoughts about the meaning of life, the nature of free will and existence and our place in the cosmos. The Cosmic View of Albert Einstein (Sterling Publishing, 2013) by Walt Martin and Magda Ott compiles Einstein’s most inspirational cosmic utterances in one large volume. The following excerpt is from the foreword by Alice Calaprice, the former senior editor of the book´s publisher.

Albert Einstein, the supernova among physicists, is best known for his so-called genius, pacifism, and his humanitarian and political activism. His achievements are enough to make the most accomplished among us blush, but he was in fact a modest and humble human being, making his way through life like the rest of us, often making mistakes along the way.

He was, however, wise enough to change his mind as circumstances and the passage of time dictated, both in his physics and his worldview. In an appropriate juxtaposition of wisdom, intellect, technology, and art, the editors’ compilation of Einstein’s most memorable words and photographs offered by NASA, other observatories around the world, and amateur astronomers vividly captures the beauties of our expanding and dynamic Universe.

“The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle,” Einstein mused around 1936. These photos and the work of the scientists and technical experts behind them—artists all—are proof of humankind’s desire to comprehend the miraculously changing canvas we call the cosmos.

Einstein’s “Cosmic Religion”

The dominant effect of the photos in this book is to inspire wonder and awe: words Einstein used to define his faith in the power and laws of Nature. He called this his “cosmic religion”. Einstein most likely meant to convey that it is possible to be religious—that is, not an atheist—without believing in the “personal” God that most societies throughout the world see as God.

Einstein’s idea of religion, is based on a more constant theme—that of nature and her almost unwavering, harmonious laws. “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind,” said Einstein. Einstein unified science and religion in this way, and referred to himself as a “deeply religious nonbeliever.” Being open-minded and inclusive in his worldview, he also found Jesus, Buddha, and Moses equally compelling as prophets.

Einstein was in wonder and awe that “the Old One,” as he referred to God, had set an almost perfect system of order in motion since the earliest times of the big bang. This system has persevered through eons of physical changes. And, in the case of Earth at least, through biological transformations and evolution.

Through these laws of nature, the universe has been able to survive to the present day. In more recent times, humankind has been able to tamper with natural laws in the name of progress, often resulting in benefit to people but in harm to the planet. In today’s world, Einstein would surely speak out for a balance that, through some sacrifice on the part of overly zealous consumers in some parts of the world, is certainly possible.

Pacifism, Social Responsibility of the Scientist, and World Government

Einstein was a lifelong pacifist except during the World War II era, when Adolf Hitler forced him to compromise his beliefs. “My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of people is disgusting,” he wrote around 1929.

“My attitude is not derived from any intellectual theory, it´s based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.” He also often spoke of the responsibility of scientists and policy makers to make the best use of new discoveries for peaceful purposes rather than war. For the benefit of all humankind.

In August 1948, three years after the end of WW II, he released a message to fellow intellectuals: “We scientists, whose tragic destination has been to help in making the methods of annihilation more gruesome and more effective, must consider it our solemn and transcendent duty to do all in our power in preventing these weapons from being used for the brutal purpose for which they were invented. What task could possibly be more important for us?”

Einstein felt great remorse about the contribution of physics to the technology used to make bombs. He spent the last ten years of his life fighting for the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

He appended his last signature to a nonscientific statement that came to be called the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, one of the most important documents of the twentieth century which remains highly relevant to this day.

It was issued three months after his death by philosopher and peace activist Bertrand Russell. This document was a call to all nations “to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments”. It was signed by nine other prominent scientists.

Today, Einstein continues to be honored for his unwavering if unsuccessful humanitarian struggles to achieve peace and international cooperation, and for his passionate opposition to McCarthyism, racial segregation, ethnic discrimination, and his support of human rights throughout the world.

Humans are but a tiny note in the music of the spheres. We as scientists and people, should redouble their efforts to come together as one people on Earth: here to protect, preserve, and revere our physical space as well as our fellow creatures.

If you´d like to study physics or need documents to improve your chances of success when applying for jobs, educational programs or internships, please let us know! We support humanitarian physicists!

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Have grades become meaningless as A’s become the norm at University of Michigan and other schools?

  • Updated: May. 17, 2024, 8:39 a.m. |
  • Published: May. 16, 2024, 9:55 a.m.

University of Michigan Spring 2024 Commencement

Students sport decorated caps during the University of Michigan’s Spring 2024 Commencement Ceremony at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday, May 4, 2024. Jacob Hamilton | MLive.com

The majority of grades given to undergraduates at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2022 were A’s, more than 74% when you include A pluses and A minuses.

Grades at the lower end of the spectrum have become rare. Undergraduates at UM received more than 26,000 A pluses that fall and fewer than 16,000 grades that were anywhere below a B.

More in-depth coverage from MLive

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A better way to control shape-shifting soft robots

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Imagine a slime-like robot that can seamlessly change its shape to squeeze through narrow spaces, which could be deployed inside the human body to remove an unwanted item.

While such a robot does not yet exist outside a laboratory, researchers are working to develop reconfigurable soft robots for applications in health care, wearable devices, and industrial systems.

But how can one control a squishy robot that doesn’t have joints, limbs, or fingers that can be manipulated, and instead can drastically alter its entire shape at will? MIT researchers are working to answer that question.

They developed a control algorithm that can autonomously learn how to move, stretch, and shape a reconfigurable robot to complete a specific task, even when that task requires the robot to change its morphology multiple times. The team also built a simulator to test control algorithms for deformable soft robots on a series of challenging, shape-changing tasks.

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Their method completed each of the eight tasks they evaluated while outperforming other algorithms. The technique worked especially well on multifaceted tasks. For instance, in one test, the robot had to reduce its height while growing two tiny legs to squeeze through a narrow pipe, and then un-grow those legs and extend its torso to open the pipe’s lid.

While reconfigurable soft robots are still in their infancy, such a technique could someday enable general-purpose robots that can adapt their shapes to accomplish diverse tasks.

“When people think about soft robots, they tend to think about robots that are elastic, but return to their original shape. Our robot is like slime and can actually change its morphology. It is very striking that our method worked so well because we are dealing with something very new,” says Boyuan Chen, an electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) graduate student and co-author of a paper on this approach .

Chen’s co-authors include lead author Suning Huang, an undergraduate student at Tsinghua University in China who completed this work while a visiting student at MIT; Huazhe Xu, an assistant professor at Tsinghua University; and senior author Vincent Sitzmann, an assistant professor of EECS at MIT who leads the Scene Representation Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The research will be presented at the International Conference on Learning Representations.

Controlling dynamic motion

Scientists often teach robots to complete tasks using a machine-learning approach known as reinforcement learning, which is a trial-and-error process in which the robot is rewarded for actions that move it closer to a goal.

This can be effective when the robot’s moving parts are consistent and well-defined, like a gripper with three fingers. With a robotic gripper, a reinforcement learning algorithm might move one finger slightly, learning by trial and error whether that motion earns it a reward. Then it would move on to the next finger, and so on.

But shape-shifting robots, which are controlled by magnetic fields, can dynamically squish, bend, or elongate their entire bodies.

“Such a robot could have thousands of small pieces of muscle to control, so it is very hard to learn in a traditional way,” says Chen.

To solve this problem, he and his collaborators had to think about it differently. Rather than moving each tiny muscle individually, their reinforcement learning algorithm begins by learning to control groups of adjacent muscles that work together.

Then, after the algorithm has explored the space of possible actions by focusing on groups of muscles, it drills down into finer detail to optimize the policy, or action plan, it has learned. In this way, the control algorithm follows a coarse-to-fine methodology.

“Coarse-to-fine means that when you take a random action, that random action is likely to make a difference. The change in the outcome is likely very significant because you coarsely control several muscles at the same time,” Sitzmann says.

To enable this, the researchers treat a robot’s action space, or how it can move in a certain area, like an image.

Their machine-learning model uses images of the robot’s environment to generate a 2D action space, which includes the robot and the area around it. They simulate robot motion using what is known as the material-point-method, where the action space is covered by points, like image pixels, and overlayed with a grid.

The same way nearby pixels in an image are related (like the pixels that form a tree in a photo), they built their algorithm to understand that nearby action points have stronger correlations. Points around the robot’s “shoulder” will move similarly when it changes shape, while points on the robot’s “leg” will also move similarly, but in a different way than those on the “shoulder.”

In addition, the researchers use the same machine-learning model to look at the environment and predict the actions the robot should take, which makes it more efficient.

Building a simulator

After developing this approach, the researchers needed a way to test it, so they created a simulation environment called DittoGym.

DittoGym features eight tasks that evaluate a reconfigurable robot’s ability to dynamically change shape. In one, the robot must elongate and curve its body so it can weave around obstacles to reach a target point. In another, it must change its shape to mimic letters of the alphabet.

“Our task selection in DittoGym follows both generic reinforcement learning benchmark design principles and the specific needs of reconfigurable robots. Each task is designed to represent certain properties that we deem important, such as the capability to navigate through long-horizon explorations, the ability to analyze the environment, and interact with external objects,” Huang says. “We believe they together can give users a comprehensive understanding of the flexibility of reconfigurable robots and the effectiveness of our reinforcement learning scheme.”

Their algorithm outperformed baseline methods and was the only technique suitable for completing multistage tasks that required several shape changes.

“We have a stronger correlation between action points that are closer to each other, and I think that is key to making this work so well,” says Chen.

While it may be many years before shape-shifting robots are deployed in the real world, Chen and his collaborators hope their work inspires other scientists not only to study reconfigurable soft robots but also to think about leveraging 2D action spaces for other complex control problems.

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Quantum physics proposes a new way to study biology – and the results could revolutionize our understanding of how life works

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Quantum Biology Tech (QuBiT) Lab, Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of California, Los Angeles

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Imagine using your cellphone to control the activity of your own cells to treat injuries and disease. It sounds like something from the imagination of an overly optimistic science fiction writer. But this may one day be a possibility through the emerging field of quantum biology.

Over the past few decades, scientists have made incredible progress in understanding and manipulating biological systems at increasingly small scales, from protein folding to genetic engineering . And yet, the extent to which quantum effects influence living systems remains barely understood.

Quantum effects are phenomena that occur between atoms and molecules that can’t be explained by classical physics. It has been known for more than a century that the rules of classical mechanics, like Newton’s laws of motion, break down at atomic scales . Instead, tiny objects behave according to a different set of laws known as quantum mechanics .

For humans, who can only perceive the macroscopic world, or what’s visible to the naked eye, quantum mechanics can seem counterintuitive and somewhat magical. Things you might not expect happen in the quantum world, like electrons “tunneling” through tiny energy barriers and appearing on the other side unscathed, or being in two different places at the same time in a phenomenon called superposition .

I am trained as a quantum engineer . Research in quantum mechanics is usually geared toward technology. However, and somewhat surprisingly, there is increasing evidence that nature – an engineer with billions of years of practice – has learned how to use quantum mechanics to function optimally . If this is indeed true, it means that our understanding of biology is radically incomplete. It also means that we could possibly control physiological processes by using the quantum properties of biological matter.

Quantumness in biology is probably real

Researchers can manipulate quantum phenomena to build better technology. In fact, you already live in a quantum-powered world : from laser pointers to GPS, magnetic resonance imaging and the transistors in your computer – all these technologies rely on quantum effects.

In general, quantum effects only manifest at very small length and mass scales, or when temperatures approach absolute zero. This is because quantum objects like atoms and molecules lose their “quantumness” when they uncontrollably interact with each other and their environment. In other words, a macroscopic collection of quantum objects is better described by the laws of classical mechanics. Everything that starts quantum dies classical. For example, an electron can be manipulated to be in two places at the same time, but it will end up in only one place after a short while – exactly what would be expected classically.

In a complicated, noisy biological system, it is thus expected that most quantum effects will rapidly disappear, washed out in what the physicist Erwin Schrödinger called the “ warm, wet environment of the cell .” To most physicists, the fact that the living world operates at elevated temperatures and in complex environments implies that biology can be adequately and fully described by classical physics: no funky barrier crossing, no being in multiple locations simultaneously.

Chemists, however, have for a long time begged to differ. Research on basic chemical reactions at room temperature unambiguously shows that processes occurring within biomolecules like proteins and genetic material are the result of quantum effects. Importantly, such nanoscopic, short-lived quantum effects are consistent with driving some macroscopic physiological processes that biologists have measured in living cells and organisms. Research suggests that quantum effects influence biological functions, including regulating enzyme activity , sensing magnetic fields , cell metabolism and electron transport in biomolecules .

How to study quantum biology

The tantalizing possibility that subtle quantum effects can tweak biological processes presents both an exciting frontier and a challenge to scientists. Studying quantum mechanical effects in biology requires tools that can measure the short time scales, small length scales and subtle differences in quantum states that give rise to physiological changes – all integrated within a traditional wet lab environment.

In my work , I build instruments to study and control the quantum properties of small things like electrons. In the same way that electrons have mass and charge, they also have a quantum property called spin . Spin defines how the electrons interact with a magnetic field, in the same way that charge defines how electrons interact with an electric field. The quantum experiments I have been building since graduate school , and now in my own lab, aim to apply tailored magnetic fields to change the spins of particular electrons.

Research has demonstrated that many physiological processes are influenced by weak magnetic fields. These processes include stem cell development and maturation , cell proliferation rates , genetic material repair and countless others . These physiological responses to magnetic fields are consistent with chemical reactions that depend on the spin of particular electrons within molecules. Applying a weak magnetic field to change electron spins can thus effectively control a chemical reaction’s final products, with important physiological consequences.

Currently, a lack of understanding of how such processes work at the nanoscale level prevents researchers from determining exactly what strength and frequency of magnetic fields cause specific chemical reactions in cells. Current cellphone, wearable and miniaturization technologies are already sufficient to produce tailored, weak magnetic fields that change physiology , both for good and for bad. The missing piece of the puzzle is, hence, a “deterministic codebook” of how to map quantum causes to physiological outcomes.

In the future, fine-tuning nature’s quantum properties could enable researchers to develop therapeutic devices that are noninvasive, remotely controlled and accessible with a mobile phone. Electromagnetic treatments could potentially be used to prevent and treat disease, such as brain tumors , as well as in biomanufacturing, such as increasing lab-grown meat production .

A whole new way of doing science

Quantum biology is one of the most interdisciplinary fields to ever emerge. How do you build community and train scientists to work in this area?

Since the pandemic, my lab at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Surrey’s Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre have organized Big Quantum Biology meetings to provide an informal weekly forum for researchers to meet and share their expertise in fields like mainstream quantum physics, biophysics, medicine, chemistry and biology.

Research with potentially transformative implications for biology, medicine and the physical sciences will require working within an equally transformative model of collaboration. Working in one unified lab would allow scientists from disciplines that take very different approaches to research to conduct experiments that meet the breadth of quantum biology from the quantum to the molecular, the cellular and the organismal.

The existence of quantum biology as a discipline implies that traditional understanding of life processes is incomplete. Further research will lead to new insights into the age-old question of what life is, how it can be controlled and how to learn with nature to build better quantum technologies.

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  • Subatomic particles
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  • 12 May 2024

Is the Internet bad for you? Huge study reveals surprise effect on well-being

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A woman and a man sit in bed in a dark bedroom, distracted by a laptop computer and a smartphone respectively.

People who had access to the Internet scored higher on measures of life satisfaction in a global survey. Credit: Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty

A global, 16-year study 1 of 2.4 million people has found that Internet use might boost measures of well-being, such as life satisfaction and sense of purpose — challenging the commonly held idea that Internet use has negative effects on people’s welfare.

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US TikTok ban: how the looming restriction is affecting scientists on the app

“It’s an important piece of the puzzle on digital-media use and mental health,” says psychologist Markus Appel at the University of Würzburg in Germany. “If social media and Internet and mobile-phone use is really such a devastating force in our society, we should see it on this bird’s-eye view [study] — but we don’t.” Such concerns are typically related to behaviours linked to social-media use, such as cyberbullying, social-media addiction and body-image issues. But the best studies have so far shown small negative effects, if any 2 , 3 , of Internet use on well-being, says Appel.

The authors of the latest study, published on 13 May in Technology, Mind and Behaviour , sought to capture a more global picture of the Internet’s effects than did previous research. “While the Internet is global, the study of it is not,” said Andrew Przybylski, a researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, who studies how technology affects well-being, in a press briefing on 9 May. “More than 90% of data sets come from a handful of English-speaking countries” that are mostly in the global north, he said. Previous studies have also focused on young people, he added.

To address this research gap, Pryzbylski and his colleagues analysed data on how Internet access was related to eight measures of well-being from the Gallup World Poll , conducted by analytics company Gallup, based in Washington DC. The data were collected annually from 2006 to 2021 from 1,000 people, aged 15 and above, in 168 countries, through phone or in-person interviews. The researchers controlled for factors that might affect Internet use and welfare, including income level, employment status, education level and health problems.

Like a walk in nature

The team found that, on average, people who had access to the Internet scored 8% higher on measures of life satisfaction, positive experiences and contentment with their social life, compared with people who lacked web access. Online activities can help people to learn new things and make friends, and this could contribute to the beneficial effects, suggests Appel.

The positive effect is similar to the well-being benefit associated with taking a walk in nature, says Przybylski.

However, women aged 15–24 who reported having used the Internet in the past week were, on average, less happy with the place they live, compared with people who didn’t use the web. This could be because people who do not feel welcome in their community spend more time online, said Przybylski. Further studies are needed to determine whether links between Internet use and well-being are causal or merely associations, he added.

The study comes at a time of discussion around the regulation of Internet and social-media use , especially among young people. “The study cannot contribute to the recent debate on whether or not social-media use is harmful, or whether or not smartphones should be banned at schools,” because the study was not designed to answer these questions, says Tobias Dienlin, who studies how social media affects well-being at the University of Vienna. “Different channels and uses of the Internet have vastly different effects on well-being outcomes,” he says.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-024-01410-z

Vuorre, M. & Przybylski, A. K. Technol. Mind Behav . https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000127 (2024).

Article   Google Scholar  

Heffer, T. et al. Clin. Psychol. Sci. 7 , 462–470 (2018).

Coyne, S. M., Rogers, A. A., Zurcher, J. D., Stockdale, L. & Booth, M. Comput. Hum. Behav . 104 , 106160 (2020).

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  27. Quantum physics proposes a new way to study biology

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  28. Is the Internet bad for you? Huge study reveals surprise ...

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