Grad School – Is it that difficult? How do I prepare?


34 Responses

  1. Figured I’d leave an extra piece of insight here: Make sure you really take the time to think about graduate school and why you want to go there. That motivation is going to be very important to keep you going through the difficulties and such. Whether you have a specific job or path in mind that requires that degree or simply that the degree has great meaning to you, you just need to have a reason or goal in mind. The last thing that you want is to finally start asking those questions and figuring out your direction in life while you are already in the middle of graduate school and preparing for prelims! Grad school really is a very difficult time (long hours, difficult work, etc.), but it can be very rewarding as well (my wife is still working hard for her PhD, but still enjoying it because she knows what she wants, where she is going, and how this is helping her). I still do encourage those that are interested to go to graduate school and I think it is a great place to grow, learn more, and further your career, and I hope to make it back in the future as well (I still want that PhD). Just put the time in now to think about things, or take a little time off before grad school to work things out, and I believe that graduate school will be a much more positive experience from the very beginning!!

  2. Hey guys, I started grad school at Temple University this fall, 2011. I crossed over to the dark side and now study mech engineering. After reading the blogs above, I agree with everybody on what they had to say. I think its very important to love what you do, especially in gradschool. After earning a degree in physics from TCNJ, I find that I am equipped to be successful in both research and in academia. My only regret was not taking more higher level physics classes at TCNJ. Dr. Ochoa urged me to do this, but I resisted. The best preparation for grad school is to continue to work extremely hard and be fully aware of all your options.

  3. The Rutgers qualifying procedure is in a state of transition, and has been since my first year here (2009-2010). We were told over and over again that the procedure would not be the classic grilling, but would instead involve passing classes and a small research project¬. However, the graduate director at the time was a bit misleading primarily due to confusion among the faculty. It seemed that no one but the grad students really got the memo about changing the qualifier.

    While the change wasn’t as dramatic as the director promised, it was significantly different. The old system was like most others; take your classes, pass the written qualifier for each core topic, and pass an oral examination pertaining to the graduate level topics. Starting my year, if you earned a B or higher in a given class, you were exempt from taking the written qualifier for that particular class. If you earned less than a B you could take a “challenge exam” (written qualifier), and if you did not pass that you could retake the course the next time around. If you don’t pass the course after all those tries, you’re not going to advance to PhD candidacy and would need to change you plans and perhaps just work toward the masters degree.

    A specific research project was put in place of the old oral exam. The idea here is that you join a lab by the end of your 2nd semester (at the latest) and work through the summer and following fall semester on a particular research project. Come November of your 3rd semester, you should have a completed 10-12 page (text only) paper with figures and references of publishable quality. Accompanying the paper is a 20 minute presentation in front of your 4 person committee (Advisor, 2 people in the field, 1 person out of the field) followed by an hour or so of questioning. The question and answer session must remain in the realm of the basic physics that could apply to your topic. For instance, I did dye-sensitized solar cells, and mentioned Si solar cells in my paper. The committee asked me primarily about solid state physics, specifically the p-n junction, and also basic concepts like charge carrier densities, density of states, and photoelectric effect. However, the topics could have been anything chosen at random out of any given solid state or modern physics textbook, since most of those would be relevant to the research topic.

    To give undergrads an idea of what to expect, I did almost no review of the basic physics before my first try at the qualifier. I spent most of my time perfecting the paper and presentation, and as a result I neglected the question and answer session and did not pass that part. In the defense of myself and other classmates who failed the first time around, no one (not even our advisors) had any idea of what was going to happen for the Q&A sessions. I heard later on that the faculty didn’t reach a consensus on how to handle the “reformed” Q&A session, so most defaulted back to the old ways without letting us students know. Anyway, the evaluation was based on three aspects: paper, presentation, and Q&A session. My first time around, the paper and presentation passed, but I failed the Q&A miserably (I may have answered only 1 question correctly). So the following semester from February through April, alongside my lab-mate (who also failed his first try), I worked through Eisberg and Resnick’s Quantum Mechanics, Griffiths’ E and M, and some other textbooks, giving two presentations a week (each presentation followed by Q&A) to my advisor. All of that work paid off, and I passed the oral exam and will be continuing my work on these dye-sensitized cells.

    In short, if you pass all three of the oral exam requirements, and if you pass your core classes (B or higher in QM 1 and 2, EM 1 and 2, Classical and Statistical mechanics), then you’re set for PhD candidacy.

  4. We are taking a look at the textbooks we use in th upper level physics courses and comparing them with what is expected by grad schools in physics. As such, I am also seeking your input on what textbooks you think are best for our undergraduate classes. Please share your input, including support for what we use or other texts not in the list.
    The following list was compiled from 2011 Graduate Programs published by AIP. Only 125 universities listed the expected level of knowledge. The list has the percentage of schools expecting the level of the text book, Astrix indicates the text we use.

    Modern Physics [46 schools provide info on expected texts]
    Eisberg 32.6%
    Tipler 21.7% *
    Serway 13%
    Others 32.6%

    Quantum Mechanics [106]
    Griffiths 32.1%
    Liboff 18.9 % *
    Gasiorowicz 15.1%
    Eisberg 14.2%
    Others 19.8%

    Classical Mechanics [119]
    Marion/Thornton 39.5%
    Symon 28.6%
    Fowles & Cassiday 14.3% *
    Taylor 8.4%
    Others 9.2%

    Math Physics [18]
    Boas 61.1% *
    Arfken 33.3%
    Others 5.6%

    Electromagnetism [122]
    Griffiths 50.8%
    Reitz 17.2%
    Lorrain Corson 13.9%
    Wangsness 9.0% *
    Marion 6.6%
    Others 2.5%

    Thermodynamics [53]
    Kittel 43.4%
    Zemansky 20.8%
    Sears 17.0%
    Others 18.9%

    Statistical Mechanics & Thermodynamics [35]
    Reif 82.9%
    Others 17.1%

    Optics [23]
    Hecht 47.8% *
    Jenkins 26.1%
    Pedrotti 17.4%
    Others 8.7%
    Modern Physics

    • I definitely like Griffiths for quantum mechanics. Having never taken quantum at TCNJ, I had to teach myself the material for the written qualifying exam. I used Griffiths and ended up doing better on the modern portion of the exam than the classical portion.

      Don’t know much about any other classical mechanics text than Fowles & Cassiday, but I did use that one a lot as a reference during graduate classical mechanics as the examples and explanations were very clear.

      Keep Boas. I much preferred this book to the graduate level book we used for my math physics class at Drexel, which would’ve had more use as a doorstop (Arfken & Weber for those who are interested). I still go back to Boas as a reference sometimes.

      I also like Griffiths for electromagnetism. Both of Griffiths’ books are fairly conversational, so reading them doesn’t make me fall asleep and I feel like I actually understand what is going on.

    • I would strongly suggest changing the quantum text, and I would lean toward changing the text for classical mechanics as well.

      For quantum, I recall being disappointed that Liboff seemed to shy away from very fundamental concepts regarding the mathematical framework of quantum mechanics. For instance, I believe he avoided discussion of Fourier transforms, and only hinted at their use in rather vague terms. I don’t have the text here, and I took the course a couple years ago, so I could definitely be misremembering a bit. One text I used a lot in undergrad instead of Liboff is Zettili.

      It is organized more logically (see the table of contents in the link above), and generally it is a better written and more useful text. I also think Sakurai is an excellent text, and it is more of a standard for quantum. I haven’t used Griffiths, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a negative review of a Griffiths text. I suspect his text is pedagogically excellent.

      For classical, I found Fowles & Cassiday to be largely a remake of Marion/Thornton, but with downgrades rather than improvements. Marion/Thornton has more thorough mathematical exposition, and it is a more complete text. Might as well go with the original (which is also the standard for the subject). For any grad students reading this (or extremely ambitious undergrads), I recently picked up a copy of Arnold and so far I would say it is among the best physics texts I have ever read. But as many grad schools seemed to be scared of Arnold’s elegant and general mathematical approaches to the subject, I’d say a class of undergrads could become a torch wielding mob if Arnold was used.

    • (* Mike sent me his opinion via e-mail*)
      For thermo – ditch Sears & Salinger. I think Dr. Pfeiffer chose that book because he was comfortable with it. I really liked Moran & Shapiro much more.

      For my qualifying exams in modern and nuclear physics, Krane/Tipler & LLewellyn/Halliday&Resnick&Walker were dead on. I couldn’t imagine passing w/o those books.

      As for EM books…I really liked Wangsness. I picked up a Griffiths while I was out here, and skimmed through a Jackson but I didn’t think they were as good. Maybe I’m biased. The only counter to this though – if specific problems in the future are cherry picked from any of the more mainstream books, the TCNJ folk may be out of luck. At least for my qualifying exam some of the EM problems were lifted straight from Griffiths.

      -Hope this helps, and if you need me to clarify anything please let me know.

    • Eisberg Modern physics is a great book. I recently worked through it in prep for my qualifier and found most of the chapters to be very well written. If you understand most of that book, you’re in good shape.

      For Quantum, the level expected at Rutgers is Griffiths. I haven’t read through it though. I did really like the way Liboff was constructed, because he gives the reader basic questions after each section that help make sense of the material, in addition to problems at the end of the chapter.

      For classical mechanics, Taylor would be my choice out of the list. I referred to it a few times during the graduate level class and found it to be very clear. Although, the current text TCNJ uses has some great examples done out in detail which helped as an undergrad. Rutgers undergrads use Taylor.

      For math physics, Boas is the greatest. I’ve referred a few grads to it in my year and they loved it as well.

      For Emag, I recently worked through Griffiths and found it to be more approachable in diction than Wangsness. Both books are good, but I think I would’ve preferred Griffiths since it seems a bit less intimidating than Wangsness was. Griffiths helps the reader get a sense of the evolution of EM theory and the roles that all the key physicists had in its development, in addition to providing clear and concise explanations of EM principles. Rutgers uses Griffiths for their undergrads.

      • I’ll echo the comment to definitely keep Boas for math methods.

        Of all the books in the other courses, I think Sears and Salinger’s thermo / statistical mechanics book is the one that should be most up for replacement (but I don’t have any suggestions right now on what to use instead).

        I like using Liboff’s quantum book as a reference when I need too, but from what I’ve seen of Griffiths’ quantum book, I think I prefer that one.

        I think the mechanics course using Fowles and Cassiday and E&M using Wagsness prepared me fine.

    • I agree with Tim in many ways. First off, I think the texts for both quantum and classical mechanics should change. I have found that throughout the course of studying for my preliminary exams in physics, that Marion and Thornton’s book on mechanics was superb. The book starts from the basics and has many illuminating worked out examples (especially helpful in the chapter on Lagrangian mechanics). Furthermore, for the more advanced/curious students, Marion and Thornton’s book provides a glimpse at the very technical details involved in the rigorous formulation of ideas like functional derivatives, virtual work, etc. that require a bit more care. I also agree with Tim on the fact that Arnold’s book is marvelous for anyone wishing to do some nontrivial mathematics and physics (but certainly not suited for the TCNJ mechanics class). Another superb book is Spivak’s “Physics for Mathematicians: Mechanics I”. The “for Mathematicians” part should not scare away readers as the goal is to develop the basics from Newtonians Laws in a very concrete and clear way.

      For E&M I think Griffiths is great. The kinds of problems offered by Griffiths book as compared to Wangsness are exactly the same, but the exposition in the Griffiths is far superior. If the students are actually going to read the text then I recommend Griffiths, but if it is just going to be used to see what the weekly problems are then perhaps a change from Wangsness isn’t needed.

      For quantum I would also recommend changing to Griffiths (with the same reasons and caveats as above). For students interested in reading material beyond the class I would recommend the book by Townshend, and also the book by Shankar. Townshend is great for advanced topics, and the first chapter of Shankar is really top notch for anyone wishing to understand the basic mathematics of quantum mechanics (linear algebra, bra-ket notation, Fourier transforms).

      For math physics I think Boas is completely fine as an undergraduate text, though my recommendation would be to get rid of the class and simply make people take Calc C, ODE’s and linear algebra. Hopefully after taking these courses people will be inspired to take abstract algebra, complex analysis, topology, and the other superb classes offered in the department just one floor above the physics department.

      For thermo, I personally liked Sears&Salinger, and used it quite a lot in my preparation for prelims. It is not the most detailed or mathematically complex book, however its coverage of the basics is pretty good.


    • Modern: I had no problem with Tipler’s Modern Physics text. I have not read Eisberg, but I see no reason to deviate from Tipler.

      Quantum: Griffiths all the way. I absolutely love his texts. His writing style, as mentioned before, is conversational and lucid, which is a refreshing break from line after line of derivations found in most other texts. Shankar was used in my grad class but I know many undergrad places which use it. I can say it is better at providing a mathematical justification for QM, which was nice to see and appreciate.

      Classical: I have never seen a classical mechanics book I liked. My graduate course used Goldstein and also referred heavily to Landau. Both are pretty clear, but the level of mathematics is probably too high for undergrad. Fowles and Cassiday is probably ok to stay with.

      Math: Boas is excellent, of course. I have heard good things about Arfken as well, but I don’t see anything to make me turn away from Boas.

      E&M: Again, I have to recommend Griffiths. I very much disliked Wangsness, and I found more success with Griffiths, due to his conversational dialogue. Jackson will be used at the grad level, I guarantee, and it’s just not appropriate mathematically for undergrads.

      Stat Phys/Thermo: I have no real opinion. Sears and Salinger was fine, it seemed.

      Optics: I haven’t done anything with optics in grad school, so i can’t speak for how well Hecht prepared me. Hecht seems to be the standard expected though, so I say stick with it.

      I took 3 undergrad courses my first year at Rutgers because I wasn’t prepared for the full 1st-year courses. Those courses (QM 2 and E&M 1 and 2) used Griffiths texts, and they brought me up to speed quickly so that I was able to succeed in my grad courses. I recommend them highly.

    • I think the only changes I would recommend are to use the Griffiths book for Quantum (I’ve heard others highly recommend but have not used it myself), and I would recommend the Griffiths book for E&M as well (I wasn’t a fan of the Wangsness book personally). It would useful to have a book for Thermo as well. I don’t really know much about the other books, as I’m in grad school for Astronomy and have not taken any more Physics courses since TCNJ 🙂

    • Well, I couldn’t find a textbook thread, so here are my thoughts.
      Sorry for the delay:
      1. Quantum – Everyone and their brother seems to use Griffiths. I
      even saw it mentioned on Sesame Street last week. Actually, what was
      frustrating was that in my particular graduate quantum class, the
      assumption was that everyone had used Griffiths (True except for me),
      and he kept referring to things from that book, even though we were
      using a different, more advanced book for the graduate class. I
      remember trying to look up things in Liboff, and finally finding that
      they were even called by completely different names (I don’t recall
      what specifically). I can’t say if one is better than the other, but
      in Lehigh’s grad program, not being familiar with griffiths was a
      hindrance. Liboff was essentially useless as a simpler reference
      material, and I found myself borrowing Griffiths if I wanted to
      understand the intro to a concept.
      2. I found myself referring to our Math Physics book a lot. It was a
      useful reference. At Lehigh, we used Arfken, which I seem to recall
      containing just about everything our Math Physics book did, but also
      all the grad stuff. It might be nice to keep a copy of that in the
      conference room for students to use as a reference.
      3. I think the Thermodynamics class could use some modernizing with
      some introduction to the principles of Statistical Mechanics. I don’t
      know of a good book to recommend for it, though, and a class without a
      real textbook can be a real nightmare. I just remember getting to my
      stat mech class in grad school and finding that the early stuff made a
      lot of sense, and that it also helped me to understand thermodynamics
      better in retrospect, by giving me a better feel for the underlying
      None of the other books stand out in my mind as particularly bad or
      good. I used the Stewart Calculus and Halliday Resnick General
      Physics books a fair bit for reference.
      I hope this helps, and that you are doing well.

  5. Over the past few days several students have asked me about the how difficult it would be to switch to an engineering career at the undergraduate or at the graduate level. Since several of you have taken the path of going to graduate school in engineering and some have taken engineering courses at undergraduate level you are the better suited to respond. Please contribute using REPLY so that your answers are tied to the question in a sequential way. Thanks.

    • After I finished my Physics MS, I got a job doing what would be considered electrical engineering (signal processing). I learned much of what I needed on my own, but not everything. My next job was another facet of EE, communications engineering. Link budgets, modulation and coding, network simulations. At that point I embarked on a non-thesis MSEE. My program was via distance education, but I think in principle this is what you’d face: bridging courses. I had to take something like 9 credits of courses they considered to be fundamental. Digital signal processing, digital and analog communications, and computer networking (I think). You probably won’t be permitted to start grad classes until you pass these first. I might have co-registered for the last one with my first EE classes. Consider taking 500/600 level courses first, if they will count towards your degree. Depending on your desired work area, and if you don’t already have a thesis MS behind you, consider an engineering thesis program. But apart from the EE’s using j for sqrt(-1) my physics background has been useful. For example, In Stat Mech you will learn many of the same probability mathematics that you’ll use for measuring bit errors in digital communications. I am happy to answer questions, for anyone interested.
      Rich Piccola (TSC Physics class of 93)

      • Hi Guys,

        First and foremost if you have any question about the applications/admissions process or any general questions for engineering graduate school please feel free to email me ( . I know I had no idea one year ago what this process would be like and I have learned a great deal from it.

        PS: This post is pretty long, slightly boring, its truly a distraction from more pressing work. If you want to know anything about Rutgers, the grad program here, or transitioning from physics to engineering, just drop me an email. The department at TCNJ although very good, has a tendency to push/steer physics majors towards physics phds. This doesn’t have to be the case, physics is an extraordinary base to build whether it is in finance, engineering, law or medical school.

        Secondly, I haven’t had to take any bridge courses here at Rutgers. I kind of just went in sink or swim. They may or may not make you take bridge courses, it depends strongly on your GRE scores, background (transcripts), and work experience. I was a pure PHYA track physics major, and took engineering math as a substitute for diff eq. That was my only undergrad engineering course, :O … The transition to ECE has been pretty smooth though. The biggest difference I am finding is that I do a lot less calculus related work and more statistical, graph theory work in my courses. I highly recommend taking a few computer science courses or graph theory as an undergraduate student. It is also imperative that you know the basic concepts of programming. I have had to write a program in three different languages (C++, Python, and MATLAB) this semester alone. The professors just expect you know the syntax and intricacies of the programming language. They have the expectation that you will be able to concentrate on problem solving not on coding.

        Another aspect of grad level engineering that differs greatly from undergrad physics at least IMO is that publications are intense, time consuming, and highly highly competitive. There are only a select few major competitive journals for ECE: IEEE, InfoCom, ComCom, and JPDC. The respective acceptance rates for these journals are typically ~10-20%. Then you throw on top of that a thesis advisor who wants to publish and well you get the picture. Lots of work :), publish or perish is alive and well here, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

        So how long does it take to get your MS for ECE?
        30 credits ~2 years
        Well it depends I should be done in December this year. I graduated May 2009. So that is a year and a half as a full time grad student. It typically takes two years for a full time grad student to attain the MS. A full time grad student takes 9 credits a semester, which is 3 classes. You do not want to take more than 3 classes and the department won’t let you register for more than that without special permission.
        If you need bridge courses an MS could take anywhere from 2.5-3 years full time.

        How long does a phd in engineering take?
        Well my research assistant is on his fourth year and doesn’t intend to defend his dissertation until at least next year so ~5-6 years. He works long hours, typically 10am-10pm, no joke. :o. This could just be the ECE department here at RU but I do routinely see other phd students in the lab till 9pm at night. Just be prepared to be dedicated to your research thats all, day and night.

        Why do it?
        Marketability. I went for the MS in ECE because I felt that it really separated me from the rest of the job hunting crowd. Why hire someone without an engineer’s bachelors to do an engineers job? lol. Simple you get into grad school for engineering and successfully complete a grad degree. Now you have a beachelors in a related field (physics) and a masters in your primary field (engineering), it makes you a much better and well rounded candidate IMO.
        To be honest so far the MS has worked pretty well. I have a prestigious internship this summer with much of the credit due to the MS I am pursuing. The employer liked the broad background, and said the MS separated me from much of the crowd for the position.

        Anyways I have rambled for too long. Any questions feel free to contact me. Last year I felt like no one was doing what I was doing, it felt like no one from the department had ever gone from BS physics to grad school engineering. I felt like I had no peers or alumni to ask questions to about the process, which is probably why this post is massive. Everyone was going for their physics phds or getting jobs as teachers. I felt like I was in a unique position.



  6. If you plan on going to graduate school for electrical/computer engineering, computer science, or computational physics.
    You learn some basic probability math in quantum and thermo at tcnj, but it is by no means comprehensive.

    I highly recommend using some electives on anyone of these courses:
    graph theory
    discrete mathematics
    real analysis
    number theory

  7. One more thing, TAing is quite fun. I now know what it is like to stand up infront of a class and tell them, “This is stuff you should have learned in kindergarten” 🙂 Its a very strange feeling when students ask you questions and look at you like you know everything in the field. Its pretty cool… except wheny ou dont know the answer…

  8. So, I have officially been through the first exam period here at Drexel, and I feel I can now tell you about the change from undergrad to grad school. I don’t know about everyone else, but it seemed to me that there was a lot of talk about how we were not really that prepared to go to grad school. I’m not going to lie, it is a big difference. I’ve spent more than a few nights at school until 1,2,3,4am doing work. However, I don’t feel that I was ever that under-prepared compared to other first year grad students.

    I do think that I should have had a double major in Math. The only real math course I had at TCNJ was Calc 2 and Math Phys, and a course in Complex Analysis and Linear Algebra would have been very useful. While talking about math, the most useful course, when it comes to just understanding what some teachers are talking about, was definitely quantum. I feel that I probably wouldn’t have understood half of the stuff that we discussed in class(not that I really understood most of it at the time heheh) if I hadn’t taken quantum. It was a very useful class.

    I’ve seen a few people using LaTeX but not a lot, and no one has really mentioned learning it, so I don’t know how big of a deal it is.

    One thing I do suggest knowing is some amount of programming. My first week here was a crash course in Linux and Python programming. It was all pretty easy to me, but Ive had a few years of programming before it. Most other people really struggled with it. At Drexel there is a lot of simulation and programming that goes on so it is definitely something you want to have at least some kind of basic understanding of.

    I still have Boas for Math Phys here. We use some other book that does a horrible job at explaining just about everything, and everyone agrees that Boas is very useful.

  9. Be sure to keep Mary L Boas “Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences”. If there’s any book you shouldn’t sell back, it’s this one, especially for those in desperate need of a math review like myself. I refer to this text about once a week for each class and it has helped me immensely. I hope the Math Physics course still uses this book, as it is quite a good one to have.

  10. Hey,

    I know I haven’t updated in a while, and will try to get a full account up soon, but I want to reply to a few things above.

    I am sure that some things are different in my program because it is astronomy, but will still do physics all the time and my experiences are not in much agreement. I agree that LaTex is useful and looks nice, but I haven’t seen anyone using it here yet. Other than the occasional format for a paper to be submitted, I don’t see it at all and I am one of the few that can use it. So, while it is nice to be able to use, I’m not sure I agree that it should be a requirement in the curriculum (which, by necessity, means eliminating something else which it will replace in time).

    I haven’t seen anything with Green’s Theorem at all, but what keeps jumping out are the Virial Theorem, angular momentum, and solving differential equations. These functions/ideas being focused on are likely a result of the department, but more generally I am frequently finding myself surprised by what is assumed to be general knowledge.

    Will – That is crazy about the non-US citizens. My department is 95% US citizens, so that is hard to imagine.

    As for my current status: Taking three courses, doing research involving galactic simulations with supercomputers (more on that later…?), and preparing to TA next semester. Working hard, but honestly I’m not finding it overly difficult (yet). Definitely prepared from TCNJ and on an even level with all of the other students.

    Finally, to any with a passing interest in astronomy, particularly with thoughts of going to Grad School with it, I strongly encourage you to e-mail me to talk about it ( The requirements and knowledge base for this field are a little different than going straight physics, and there area few things I would definitely point out focusing on and looking at before Grad school, just to make sure that you aren’t playing catch up in your first semester!

  11. I agree with Will! Almost everyone in my graduate program had some sort of LaTeX experience as an undergrad (usually in some experimental physics course).

    I would guess that all (worthwhile) Physics journals require article submissions to be in LaTeX or something similar. Am I right? I would suspect that most Physics journals can’t be bothered with Microsoft Word Clip Art and etc.

  12. I highly recommend learning LaTeX. Many of the professors and professionals I encounter solely produce pulished papers using the LaTeX markup language. It would be very beneficial to learn this language as an undergrad. Try to incorporate it during the Experimental and Analytical Capstone class.

  13. I agree with Westy on that one, Green’s Functions are really useful and very powerful. There’s a nice section in our Math physics book (Boas, Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences, 3E) about them I believe. Couldn’t hurt to incorporate it more in the math physics course

  14. At my graduate school (University of California, Davis) they give all incoming graduate students a zeroth chance on the prelims (a written exam covering classical mechanics, math physics, quantum mechanics, and modern physics that students have to pass in order to advance to PhD candidacy).

    One thing I’ve learned is that Green’s Functions are difficult to understand, bat are EXTREMELY USEFUL! Learn these as soon as you can. In fact, they should most likely be taught in the Math Physics course.

  15. Just an update on things so I registered for classes today with my advisor at Rutgers University. The grad program is in Electrical and Computer Engineering, just to give the undergrads some semblance as to what to expect in fields like physics/engineering. The director gave me a stat sheet of the incoming graduate class, I am one of only 5 US students admitted into the grad program, there are about 85 foreigners in the incoming class. So US students comprising only ~5% are the minority at least when it comes the EE department. Just a heads up, I know that in most science/engineering fields this is not a surprise, it still shocked me that only ~5% of the students are US citizens though.

    Registered for classes, for anyone interested I didn’t have to take any make up undergrad courses or anything the switch from undergrad physics to grad EE and CE has been pretty seemless thus far. I encourage you guys to apply to RU if interested the program is a top of the line program.

  16. I’m studying for Rutger’s placement exams which are required to gain entry to the graduate level courses, and it’s evident that TCNJ’s coverage of quantum mechanics topics is very limited. Just to give a bit of perspective, the topic sheet that they provided for me to study with is delineated into “Basic”, “Intermediate”, and “Advanced” topics. As incoming grad students we’re expected to know the basics well, know most of the intermediate topics and be able to work reasonable problems, and have been exposed to the advanced topics somewhat. Modern physics covered the basics quite well. However, the Quantum Mechanics course only covered 5 of the 17 intermediate topics listed on this sheet. Luckily a large amount of those topics are in the textbook for the course that we had (Intro. Quantum Mechanics, 4th Ed., R.L. Liboff), however I think it would’ve been beneficial to have been educated in more topics since some of them are a bit difficult to learn by oneself. Good luck in the new year everyone

  17. I wasn’t sure which section to put this under — I also posted in Announcement/News — but hopefully people will see this. I am from the Class of ’07, and currently in graduate school in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Florida. In terms of surviving grad school, one needs to consider funding (among many other things). It can be difficult to TA for the entire time, since that takes time away from your research. That’s why applying for fellowships is a good idea, even though it may take a few weeks. So, I wanted to spread the news that I have received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which provides funding for three years. The funding includes a healthy stipend and the cost of tuition and fees. You also get a one-time international travel grant, and access to some supercomputer time. This is an excellent fellowship, not just for the perks but for the prestige that comes with being named an NSF Fellow. I urge everyone that is either a current senior or a first or second year graduate student to apply! And please feel free to contact me ( if you have any questions about the application process, and especially if you would like to see my essays, rating sheets, etc. for reference. This was my second time applying, so I have my “non-winning” essays and rating sheets as well. Good luck and take care!

  18. Hey, so I’m not in graduate school yet, but I have a few things I want to add to this, as well as perhaps give a different perspective on things.

    First of all, while I agree about aiming for graduate school while still young and without kids, I will be entering graduate school married. What is nice in my case is that both my soon-to-be-wife and I are both accepted for PhD programs at University of Michigan (Chemistry and Astronomy/Astrophysics respectively). With our combined income, we will be making ~$50k a year, in addition to full tuition, fees, and medical insurance, which is a pretty decent amount to live on. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this in the future, but as of now it looks to be shaping up nicely.

    Next, I want to make a few other notes, particularly about University of Michigan, as I know they do a few things differently than normal. Personally, I like most of the changes, and would encourage those of you thinking about graduate school to ask about some of these things of the schools you are thinking of applying to.

    – U.Mich allows students to start research immediately, with the first two semesters marking one project, next to semesters on another topic, and finally in the third year you begin your thesis work.

    – At U.Mich, the application was ‘to the department,’ which is there way of saying that you don’t have to pick an advisor right away. In fact, they encourage all students to take the two years of research with different professors, and talk/work with even more, and you don’t pick your thesis advisor until the very end of your second year.

    – In addition to stipends, look at benefits: Medical Insurance is a good thing to have.

    – is only done for two semesters, the second and third, at U.Mich. Further, if you receive a fellowship through the school, which they select you for and you do not need to apply for this, you never need to TA, but still will get paid in full.

    – Qualifiers at U.Mich are not designed to knock people out of the department. Every professor and grad student I spoke to assured me that no one had failed Quals and been kicked out of the school in many, many years. They are focused on graduating every student they take toward receiving their PhD. That being said, it is still a serious matter and difficult test, but the professors work with the students to insure they are fully prepared.

    Again, this is from the perspective of one that is not quite yet in graduate school, and who applied to astronomy/astrophysics programs. Nonetheless, I just want to note that there are differences out there in policies and ideas from school to school, and you should definitely ask schools you are applying to what they do/think, and decide what you are looking for.

    Other than that, I can either echo Jason Moscatello (above my comment; definitely take the time to read through it) or am not yet able to really comment or contribute.

    I also encourage people to read PhD Comics if they are seriously considering graduate school.

  19. I personally have attended two graduate programs and have known people in a few more, so I think I have a decent view of the spectrum of experience at different schools/with different advisors. I will try to present my thoughts in a coherent way. Bear in mind, I am talking about PhDs here. Masters are often different, namely shorter and a little easier.

    (1) Make sure you really know your core classes, this means Classical Mechanics, E&M, Modern, Math Physics and Quantum (and they may expect two semesters worth so know them well). They will also be the basis of your qualifying exams.

    (2) When studying for the GRE you can use it for preparing/refreshing your core classes as above.

    (3) If there is a particular school you really want to get in, make sure that in addition to applying you personally contact them and make a visit if possible. If you are a promising candidate, they will often pay for the trip and it makes a good impression, showing you are invested in the school.

    (4) Make sure you look at the professors and their work at your potential schools. It is best if you know what you want to do your research on and that you set it up before you get to the school. If not, you can end up with research options that do not interest you (this happened to me at William & Mary, all the things I was interested in were filled before I even got there).

    (5) When looking at stipends, do not just look at the monetary amount, you MUST consider the cost of living for the area. Sometimes less stipend is more money and vice versa.

    Life at Graduate School
    (1) You are going to have to give up a lot of things for graduate school. IN GENERAL, it takes a lot of time and you won’t have as much free time for social activities, sports, travel, etc. This isn’t to say you can’t do those things, but you will be much more limited. This is in addition to making very little money for many years. Just be aware of this. If you stay on the academic track, you won’t make college graduate money until your first post-doc, and even that is a little low.

    (2) I hear the second semester is generally the hardest, but it is really the whole first year. You will be adjusting to grad school, teaching or grading for your assistantship, taking classes and studying for your qualifiers. It can be a lot of pressure and sometimes, even when you are doing well if feels like you are doing poorly (my quantum field theory class, 50% was often a good grade). The pressure and constant deadlines can be a lot to deal with.

    (3) Until you pass the qualifying exams you are on borrowed time and people ARE weeded out by the them. The format is different by school (and some don’t have them, but generally have harder classes to compensate), but as long as you put the time in you should be able to pass them within however many tries they give you. More senior students probably have copies available of previous tests and you may be able to get a list of which texts they draw their questions from. Give yourself AT LEAST six weeks before the quals and do problems every day. Have a schedule and stick to it. Don’t skimp on this since you MUST pass this test in order to stay in the program.

    (4) Group work is often expected and is a huge help. This isn’t sharing answers, this is having people to talk to when you get stuck in your problem. For my quantum class, the homeworks took about 20 hrs a week and we worked in groups, bouncing ideas off one another until we all understood each aspect of the problem. It is important to understand since, like everything else in physics, the new lessons build on the previous ones. But get to know people and put homework sessions together.

    (5) Start research early, but not too early. This is a judgment call since you will be juggling so many things, but the average length of a Physics PhD is 6 years now (I think), so any time you can shave off is great. Generally computationalists and theorists graduate earlier than experimentalists.

    (6) Fun. Make sure you have some in order to blow off steam. At William & Mary we would play Halo every so often in the large lecture halls on the projection monitors after hours, we had barbecues/parties, took trips to the beach and Jillian’s, and had men’s and mixed intramural floor hockey teams. These are important for getting to know your fellow students (on whom you will depend) and for staying sane.

    I am sure I forgot some things but these are what came to mind. Grad school can be incredibly difficult and trying, but some of my best experiences and friends come from my time there. You will be with the smartest people and using amazing equipment. It might be right for you, but have some idea what it is you are getting into and it will be better for you.

    I hope this helps.

  20. Grad school is a lot of work, but can be a lot of fun if you pick a topic/field you enjoy and get an adviser who is motivated. A Physics BS gives you a foundation to pursue a grad degree in a number of diverse fields. I got married and had a kid during grad school. It worked out fine for me. I think the best thing I did was go directly to grad school out of undergrad for the Ph.D. Once you start working, it’s very difficult to go back for a Ph.D. primarily because it is hard to walk away from the paycheck. With that said, getting a Masters is relatively easy to do part time.

  21. Do it while you’re young. You might not have the stamina later.

  22. Do it before you get married.

  23. Do it before you have kids.

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