Williams physics students go on to do a variety of things after they graduate. Some go to graduate school in physics, astronomy, or engineering. No matter what you want to study, the graduate school application process can be time-consuming and stressful. Below, we’ve compiled advice from students who have gone through the graduate school application process. This is by no means an exhaustive resource, so before you begin, you should reach out to professors, fellow students, alumni, the career center, and other mentors to talk with them about your plans. If you’re sure that you want to go to grad school immediately, you can apply during your senior year at Williams. If you’re not sure that graduate school is the right thing for you, or you just want to take a break from school, you can wait and apply later.
There are many helpful resources online compiled by other departments and past grad students. Alex Lang’s website is a great place to start.
Choosing Where to Apply
Degree and Program
The first thing to consider is what you actually want to study. What are your career goals? Do you want to go to school for physics, astronomy, engineering, or something else? Will you need a Masters degree or a Ph.D.? A Ph.D. is a research degree. You will probably do some coursework in the beginning, but the point of a Ph.D. is to demonstrate that you can do original research. Masters degrees, on the other hand, may or may not require that you do research as part of the degree. Note that almost all Ph.D.’s in science, engineering, and math fields are funded. This means that if you pursue a Ph.D., you receive a tuition waiver and a stipend the school determines is reasonable to live in the area (approximately $20,000 to $30,000 per year), and usually other benefits like health insurance. Ph.D.’s take about 5-6 years to complete, on average. Ph.D. students usually serve as teaching assistants or research assistants in order to earn their stipends. Masters degrees, on the other hand, are not generally funded by the university. It is possible, however, to receive fellowships or scholarships to cover the cost of pursuing a Masters degree. Also note that international institutions (including those in Canada and Europe) in general require that students complete a Masters degree before they enter a Ph.D. program. It’s normal to go right from Williams into a Ph.D. program in the US, however.
Once you’ve chosen a degree program, ask yourself what field you might be interested in. First of all, are you interested experimental, theoretical, observational, or computational work? Then think about which subfield(s) of your subject you find interesting. For example, if you’re applying to physics Ph.D. programs, you will come across research in fields like condensed matter, high energy, astrophysics, nuclear physics, quantum information, and many more. Keep in mind that a lot of research crosses fields and even disciplines. Having a good idea of which subfield you want to study can help guide your search for a school that’s a good fit for you. In physics and astronomy, it’s ok if you haven’t found one field that particularly interests you yet, but do try to get a feel for what your options are and what appeals to you.
If you’re interested in engineering, you should decide whether you would like to pursue mechanical, electrical, software, aeronautical, or some other engineering discipline. Since Williams doesn’t offer engineering courses, you might feel like you’re at a disadvantage when it comes to engineering graduate school. If you are intentional enough as you go about the application process, though, you can be just as successful as students with engineering backgrounds. The first thing you want to do is think about how your own research experience could extend into engineering. For example, if you have enjoyed research involving lasers or electronics then you might want to consider electrical engineering (EE). Another hot topic in EE is bioelectronic devices, which might be something to look into if you have a bio background in addition to physics. If you have some experience in fluids research, then mechanical engineering (ME) could be a good option. If you enjoy control theory or playing with robots, then you could think about either EE or ME. If you’re interested in applied math, then think about how you can leverage courses and research experience in biology, geosciences, or computer science (and of course physics!).
Now that you have a general idea of what kind of academic program you’re looking for, you should research specific universities. If you’ve done research with or know a professor/mentor in the particular subfield you want to study, ask them to help you craft a list of schools. You can also reach out to alumni or ask your department advisor, or search this website by the American Institute of Physics to find schools that might work for you. There are many other websites, like U.S. News and Word Report, that publish ranked lists of graduate schools by field of study. Take these lists with a grain of salt–as with applying to college, they are subjective rankings that don’t necessarily reflect how well a school would fit you.
Consider how many schools you want to apply to and what type of school you should consider given your academic record and research experience. For physics Ph.D. programs, 10 schools is probably too many, and three might be too few. It’s a good idea to balance of a couple reach schools with some reasonable schools. Unfortunately, there aren’t really “safety” schools in the graduate school process. The next-best thing is a school that is strong in your particular subfield (for example, a physics department with a great condensed matter group) but not as well-known as a department. Once you have some schools in mind, check out each department’s website for info on the programs they offer, for things like:
- Academic Curriculum: Examine what would be required of you over the course of your graduate study. What course requirements exist? Ph.D. programs usually have landmark elements like a comprehensive (or qualifying) exam to move from the mostly-coursework part to the mostly-research part, an oral presentation to demonstrate your research progress, and then a final defense of your research in order to graduate. Some schools don’t require you to take comprehensive exams (in physics, check out Ph.D. programs at UC Santa Barbara, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Duke, the University of Washington, and the University of Pennsylvania, for example).
- Research Opportunities: All schools have professors who do research. However, some schools excel in specific areas, are affiliated with particular experiments or collaborations, or have special processes for picking a thesis advisor. All of these factors will be important; some say that picking your thesis advisor well is more important than picking your spouse well. Jokingly. But still…make sure there are several professors at each school you apply to who are doing research that interests you. It can be risky if you apply to a school with only one professor doing research you want to contribute to, since it’s not guaranteed that you would be able to do research with them.
- Culture: Each department has its own culture. Some schools have a more laid-back academic environment, while other schools are more competitive. Usually professors and graduate students can give you a good idea of whether the school’s environment would be a good fit for you. If there are Williams alumni who have gone to a school you’re interested in, contact them to find out how the environment compares to Williams.
- Location: Try not to be too location-biased initially, since this could really limit your choices. However, if you’re 100% sure that there’s a region of the U.S. or the globe that you don’t want to live in, you should factor that in as well. If you’re applying to Ph.D. programs, you’ll be spending at least 5 years in the place you choose to go.
Should you visit before you apply? There seems to be pretty good agreement that it is not necessary to visit a department before you apply to their graduate program. If you are in the area, you can arrange to visit if you’d like. Contact the department administrator to set up a visit, and email any professors you’re hoping to meet with while you’re on campus.
Once you have a set of schools you’re interested in applying to, you may want to contact professors at the schools. Because the admissions committee that will review your application consists of mostly professors (along with graduate students and department administrators, depending on the school), some believe that contacting professors can help build connections and potentially increase your chances of acceptance. On the other hand, some believe that its not protocol to contact professors. One suggestion is to only contact professors that you can meet with in person. That way professors know that you are making a time commitment to them, rather than just sending them a form email. Another suggestion is to scan websites for schools/professors that seem very open to contact, i.e. something on the website along the lines of “If you are interested in working with me, feel free to send me an email or drop by my office” or schools that encourage you to contact professors with questions about their research.
When contacting professors, begin by explaining who you are and why you’re contacting them. For example, you might start with something like “My name is Sarah Eph and I am a senior at Williams College interested in applying to ABC University’s Ph.D. program in physics.” If you’re emailing them to learn more about their research, make sure that you’ve read up on their research and try to include specifics in your email, i.e. “I’m interested in your research on searches for the Higgs Boson as part of the CMS collaboration,” rather than “I’m interested in your research in high energy physics.” If their website isn’t up-to-date (as many aren’t!), try searching paper databases such as the arxiv to figure out what they are working on. You should also include a paragraph that briefly describes any research or internship experience you have that makes you attractive to that professor as a potential student, and attach your CV (see example here [tex version]). Keep your email short, pay attention to opening sentences, closing sentences, and the email subject as those may be the words that the professor reads most carefully. Lastly, always double check that you’re sending the email to the right person at the right school.
Asking for Recommendation Letters
See the Undergraduate Physics Life section for advice. Also, the physics department hands out a helpful letter at the beginning of senior fall that explains how to ask for letters and what information your recommenders need once they’ve agreed to writing letters for you. For grad school applications, your recommenders should be professors or research advisors who know you well. If you’ve done research outside Williams, don’t forget to consider asking your supervisor or mentor to serve as a recommender. You should have at least one professor as a recommender, though. If you are writing a thesis in physics at Williams, you should definitely ask your advisor for a recommendation. Schools want to see that you have the potential to excel in the classroom and in research. Most grad schools ask for three letters of recommendation, and some will accept four. It’s a good idea to have four recommenders lined up if that’s possible. That way, if one of them isn’t able to get something in on time, your application will still be complete.
Taking the General GREs
Most graduate programs require students to take the GRE Revised General Test. The general GREs are a lot like a graduate school version of the SATs. There are three sections: verbal, math, and writing. There are a ton of prep books out there that contain review material and practice tests, both of which can be extremely helpful. ETS offers two tests (paper based and computer based) in almost any location in the US and sometimes internationally as well. Their website is fairly comprehensive, and allows you to sign up and learn about everything from studying to taking the test to interpreting and sending your scores.
Some students find the general GREs pretty easy, while others may find that they need more preparation. It’s a good idea to start by taking a practice test under realistic conditions at least a month before you take the test. From there, you can gauge how much preparation you’ll need in order to do well on the real thing. Make sure you’re familiar with the question and section formats, especially if you’re taking the computer-based test. In general, as long as your quantitative reasoning score is good and writing and verbal reasoning scores are decent, few graduate schools will spend much time looking at these scores. Some schools publish the average or minimum GRE scores on their websites.
- Make sure you save your registration number for the general test, since it will be different from your registration number for the Physics GRE. The ETS website only lists your registration number from your most recent test, so you may have a hard time finding your original number if you don’t keep track of it.
- You get four free score reports with each test. If you take both the general GRE and Physics Subject test, make sure you send those four reports to the same schools. That way, you don’t have to pay extra to send scores to a school that already has your results of one test.
Taking the Physics GREs
Most (but not all!) graduate programs in physics require that you take the GRE Subject Test in Physics. See the Physics GRE section of the site for advice on taking these.
Many national fellowship programs exist to fund students working on graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) fields. Although a Ph.D. program in a STEM field should pay you enough to live on, support from a national fellowship can be helpful. Many fellowships even offer more money than individual departments. Though department stipends often require students to serve as teaching assistants, national fellowships allow you the flexibility to decide how to balance coursework, research, and teaching. National fellowships can also help bolster your career and resume, and offer access to a community of fellows who will be your future colleagues.
Most national fellowships require that you write a research proposal describing the work you will carry out as part of the fellowship. If you’re applying during your senior year, at the same time as you are applying to graduate school, a research proposal can seem like a daunting task. The fellowships understand that you can’t be certain what school you will be attending or what professor you will be able to work with. They won’t hold you to performing the exact research you write about. Your best bet is to choose one school, advisor/group, and research topic, and stick to that for the purposes of the proposal. There’s no need to explore all the possible permutations of your grad school application process. The important thing is that you can explain your work clearly and accurately. Usually, you can make the most compelling case for a research topic that builds on something you already have experience with. Proposals are often reviewed by scientists/engineers in your field, so it will be obvious to them if you don’t fully understand the topic. Have your advisor or another mentor proofread your proposal, in addition to a classmate outside your field (to ensure that you have explained things clearly and completely). Each fellowship asks for something slightly different, but here is an example successful proposal for the NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship.
While it’s great if you receive a fellowship, you can still benefit from the application process itself. Work done for fellowship applications is often useful when completing the university application process. Fellowship applications usually require that you reflect on your strengths, future plans, and previous research, which can boost your confidence and help you realize how much you’ve grown in your time at Williams. Even if you don’t get the fellowship, some programs will send you feedback on your application, which can improve your chances if you choose to apply again in the future. Professors often ask their graduate students to apply for fellowships, so having a solid idea of how the process works can make your life easier if you don’t wind up getting a fellowship on your first try.
Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, you can find information about fellowships below. Make sure to check eligibility criteria before you begin an application, since several programs target underrepresented groups or students studying particular fields within STEM.
Applying to Your Graduate Schools of Choice
With all the effort you’ve put into choosing your schools, taking tests, and asking for letters of recommendation, it’s finally time to actually apply to your programs of choice. Below, we outline the major steps in the application process. Particularly if you’re applying to a lot of schools and fellowships, organization is key. You might want to create a spreadsheet or notebook to keep track of your application details for each school. Supplementary material such as scores, transcripts, and letters may not always be due on the same date as the application itself.
1. Online application: Unfortunately, there’s no common application for graduate schools. Each school or department will have its own application system and requirements. You’ll need to search each department’s website to find the online application system. Create an account to begin the application. Keep track of your login information. For each school, comb through the website and online application and make a list of the required elements of the application, along with due dates. If there are any inconsistencies or you have any immediate questions, email the department administrative assistant. Go through and fill in the easy personal information first (name, date of birth, etc.). This can take longer than you expect. Then, upload supporting documentation like your CV or unofficial transcript.
2. Statement of Purpose: Each school will have a slightly different prompt (and name) for the statement of purpose. If you applied for fellowships, you may be able to adapt some of the material from those essays for statements of purpose or personal statements. Maintain a professional, scientific tone (i.e. childhood stories are rarely applicable). Use clear, concise, positive language to highlight aspects of your undergraduate experience that display your talents. Discuss potential career goals and research interests–no one will hold you to them but the schools want to see that you can write about them. If there’s no page/character/word limit, try to keep it under two pages single-spaced or about 2000 words. Some schools ask for several essays…make sure you respond to the given prompt in each case. You can find examples statements of purpose here and here (from successful applicants!).
3. Request letters of recommendation: Most schools have a section of the online application where you enter your recommenders’ contact information and the application system sends them an email with instructions on how to upload letters. Ask your recommenders if they want reminders from you and make sure you keep them informed about relevant due dates.
4. Send GRE score reports: ETS sends your scores for you. Once again make sure that you send your four free score reports to the same schools for both the General and Physics GRE (unless you change your mind about applying to a school). Beyond that, you can log in to your account on the GRE website and choose to send additional score reports (they’re $25 each). Check to make sure you’re sending them to the right place, since the engineering school, business school, law school, and graduate school of arts and science can all have different codes even though they’re all at the same university.
5. Request transcripts: The Registrar sends your transcripts free of charge for you. Just head to the Registrar’s office and fill out a slip. Depending on what the application requires, you can send a paper copy, an email copy (schools rarely want this), or upload a scanned version of your official or unofficial transcripts. The uploaded transcript is no longer “official” because you broke the seal of the envelope, but many schools only require this unofficial copy of the official document and then ask you to send your official transcript once you’ve been accepted. Williams doesn’t report grades from study abroad, so you usually have to ask the institution you studied abroad with to send your grades separately if you want those included.
6. Pay application fee: Applications are expensive. Fees are on average about $80 per application. If you’ve participated in an undergraduate research program that’s designed to increase the number of underrepresented students in your field (i.e. Mellon Mays), you may be eligible for a fee waiver. If you’re applying to the GEM fellowship, most member universities offer fee waivers. Some schools also offer fee waivers for financial hardship.
7. Check & Submit: Check over the entire application. Are all the elements in place? Did you upload the correct personal statement? Make sure that your name is on everything you upload, and check for any typos or errors you may have missed along the way. When you’re sure your application is ready, hit the submit button.
Choosing Your Graduate School
As spring semester begins, grad schools start sending out decision notifications. It’s very important to know that each school has a unique admissions process–different people find out from the same school at different times, and different schools notify at different times. Although it’s difficult advice to take, try not to stress too much if others have heard back and you haven’t. If you’re curious to see what’s going on outside of the Williams community, check out the Gradcafe website (beware…it can get addicting!).
Grad School Visits
In most cases, departments host visit days for accepted students. These days usually consist of meetings with professors and current grad students, as well as tours of the department and information sessions on student life. The department will usually pay for your transportation, lodging, and food during the visit. Visiting a school takes a lot of time and energy, so plan to visit only the schools you’re genuinely considering. If you can’t make the school’s organized visit day, visiting at a different time is still very helpful, and may actually give you a better idea of what things are really like at that school.
Try to speak to the professors that you would be interested in working with–ask them about things like available funding, current and future research topics, and whether they’re looking for students. Talk to the graduate students–find out how long it takes people to graduate, how happy students are, whether they’re paid enough, how long grad students usually TA, where they live, what they do for fun (do they have fun?). It is helpful to get at least one student’s name and email to keep for later, as you may want to ask them questions later on in the decision making process. Remember that the ball is in your court now. These schools want you to come, and you should take advantage of professors’ and students’ willingness to answer your questions.
Things to consider
When it comes down to the final decision, there a lot of factors to weigh. The most important factor should be research/advisors–is the school doing good research in your field? is there more than one professor you can see yourself working with? if you’re not sure of which subfield you want to go into, will you have options? Other factors are the financial package (department fellowship, RA, TA), location, the current graduate students (did you like them? can you see yourself being friends with some of them? are they happy? are they graduating on time?), other people (significant others? proximity to family?), curriculum (do they have quals/comps? how many required classes are there?), and prospects of summer research after senior year. Try to steer clear of things like NRC/US News rankings – they don’t actually mean that much. There is no one right answer on making the decision. The choice may be very clear, or you may waiver up until the morning of April 15. Get advice from professors, students in graduate school (especially at the schools you’re considering). You may end up having to effectively flip a coin; there’s no wrong decision, believe it or not. See this TED talk on synthesized happiness if you need extra convincing.
Applying to graduate school takes a long time. This outline is meant to serve as a guide; there are, of course, many ways to go about the process.
Over a year before you’d begin graduate school: Gain research experience and take classes in your discipline first and foremost. Some students opt to take the Physics GRE in the April of their junior year (or the year before they apply). Because fewer students take it then, you might wind up doing slightly better percentage-wise. At the very least, it’s smart to have a list of schools and programs that you’re interested in and have the General GRE out of the way by the end of the summer before you begin the application process. It’s a good idea to take the GREs while you’re still in college, since the tests are valid for 5 years.
Fall of the year preceding graduate school: This is when everything happens. A solid list of graduate schools and committed recommenders is helpful to have by late September/early October. The Physics GREs are offered on one Saturday each in October and November. Fellowship application deadlines will hit around November, while graduate school applications hit around December and January. Be mindful of the close spacing of late November/early December deadlines with fall semester finals.
Spring of the year you’ll begin graduate school: Almost all applications are due by Feb 1 at the latest. You’ll hear back from schools between mid-January and late March. Decision day for admitted students is April 15.