There are several requirements when applying for a graduate school offering physics. The typical ones are your GPA, undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and statement of purpose, also known as a personal statement. The latter addresses why you want a master’s in physics, why this school, what are your academic and professional goals, your qualities, what sets you apart, accomplishments, and more.
Schools considered in the Top category, either by reputation (Harvard), ranking (U.S. News), exclusivity (very selective), and cost, will be more challenging to be accepted than many others. For example, the Wharton School ranks as the third-best Executive MBA program by U.S. News and World Report in 2020. In 2017, the acceptance rate was 19.8%. Columbia University’s medical school had an acceptance rate of 4.0% in 2017 – it ranked third among national universities in 2020.
Stanford University ranked first with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2018 by U.S. News for its physics graduate program. The school will accept applications from students who did not major in physics; however, they may have to take courses to meet the Master of Science in Applied Physics requirements. Other degrees considered are electrical, mechanical, or chemical engineering, mathematics, biophysics, and materials science.
Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia University, Dartmouth University, and Princeton will have a lower acceptance rate for all programs. For the 2018-19 academic year, Princeton received 32,804 undergraduate applications and admitted 5.8% of them. Compare the statistic to Florida International University for the same years. The school had 18,492 applicants and accepted 58%. In Easton, Massachusetts, Stonehill College, a Catholic liberal arts school, received 6,961 applications and admitted 68% undergraduates.
The examples above do not refer directly to physics programs, but they are representative of how admission rates vary considerably from prestigious schools to smaller lesser-known institutions.
Not having an undergraduate degree in physics might reduce your chances at certain schools. The University of California-Berkeley ranks third, tied with Princeton, Harvard, and the California Institute of Technology by U.S. News. Applicants to their graduate physics program must submit a course and textbook list of all third and fourth-year physics, astrophysics, and mathematics classes. Each fall, Berkeley accepts only 45 students into the physics doctoral program.
Texas A&M’s Physics and Astronomy Department in College Station, Texas, states that the most successful applicants have a bachelor’s degree in physics or a similar discipline and classes in classical and quantum mechanics, electricity, and magnetism. This institution does not have cut-off points but evaluates each application on its merits compared to other candidates.
Another consideration when assessing potential master’s programs is the availability and qualifications to become a Teaching Assistant. At A&M, for example, T.A.s receive $2,000 a month. A Graduate or Teaching Assistantship is a way to have all or most of your tuition paid by the school while earning a master’s degree. You may have to commit twenty hours a week to this work, but the cost savings warrant the effort. When researching graduate schools, check to see if they offer assistantships. Online job sites and the school’s employment listings are also places to look for information.
At Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, the Department of Physics and Astronomy may reward students with a bachelor’s degree in physics, a Graduate Assistantship. During the twenty hours a week, you grade lab reports and assignments, participate in research projects, and tutor students. Candidates need a 2.75 GPA or higher and three letters of recommendation to be eligible for a stipend of up to $14,000 per academic year. One example where a baccalaureate in physics could pay dividends!
In addition to majoring in physics, students might enhance their graduate application by participating in an undergraduate research program. The University of Colorado-Boulder outlines Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) for students enrolled in their B.A. in Physics or B.S. in Engineering Physics. Don’t be deterred because this is an “arts” program as it is loaded with physics courses. Examples are quantum mechanics, plasma physics, nuclear physics, optics, mathematical physics, gravitational theory, and more. Interested individuals can find further details and application process on the Research Experience for Undergraduates at this link.
The Society of Physics Students at Washington University in St. Louis publishes this advice: your research experience is the most crucial factor determining your acceptance into a graduate physics program. Research experience during your undergraduate years might compensate for other weaknesses in your application. This component can demonstrate your ability to work with a group while conferring with colleagues and professors. It may also provide networking opportunities. All of which are vital to boosting your chances of graduate school acceptance.