Graduate Program Profile: Physics

The Milky Way galaxy.

From Newton to Einstein to Hawking, humanity’s pursuit of knowledge and study of the natural world has never been closer to complete; conversely, humanity has never so fully understood how far from a complete knowledge of the universe we really are. Physics, from the Greek physis, or “nature,” encompasses a marvelous spectrum of ideas and studies, but is, above all else, an endeavor to better understand the behavior of the universe.

Encompassing everything from classical mechanics to quantum mechanics, to relativity and the study of electromagnetism, physics is comprised of many disciplines and subdisciplines. As a potential graduate student, a background in physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, or some other natural science is absolutely fundamental to success at an advanced academic level.

Neil de Grasse Tyson

“Where ignorance lurks, so too do the frontiers of discovery and imagination” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist/author

Before we turn our attention to the most reputable and highly ranked Physics graduate programs, let’s take a look at some of the employment and wage statistics associated with the field of Physics.

According to the US Bureau of Labor, physicists make, on average, over $100,000 a year, and have a median hourly pay of over $50/hour. Given the difficulty of obtaining a doctorate in physics, it should come as no surprise that there are approximately only 20,000 professional physicists in the country (note: this number is an approximation from employment surveys conducted in 2010; the “Job Outlook” for physicists and astronomers is expected to grow at a rate of about 14%). It should also come as no surprise that the most highly paid physicists work in the private sector and not in a classroom. Another note for Ph. D hopefuls is that most physicists do not start out in the private sector, instead they typically spend 2-3 years in a “temporary postdoctoral research position.”

Now that you are aware of the more important generalities associated with a professional career as a physicist, we can begin our examination of the best physics graduate programs.

#1) California Institute of Technology

Between breaking information transfer records and winning Nobel Prizes, Caltech has certainly earned its reputation as the number one graduate school for physics. According to their website, to be prepared for the Caltech Physics Ph. D. you must be familiar with, “Mechanics at about the level of Goldstein’s Classical Mechanics; electromagnetism at the level of Reitz and Milford’s Foundations of Electromagnetic Theory; atomic and nuclear physics at the level of R.B. Leighton’s Modern Physics; introductory quantum mechanics at the level of Dicke and Wittke’s Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, and advanced calculus at the level of T.M. Apostol’s Mathematical Analysis.You can learn about their policies regarding GPA, GRE, and TOEFL here. 

#1) Harvard University

It is no surprise that Harvard is, once again, at the top of our list of graduate schools. Among the many benefits of attending this Ivy League institution is the emphasis they place on interdisciplinary studies, the post-graduate employment help they offer, and the financial support they offer to graduate students. Like most graduate schools, students will not be automatically disqualified from consideration or admitted based on their GRE scores, although you should probably have a perfect or near perfect score. You can learn everything you need to know about the admission process to Harvard through this FAQ.

MIT prof webceleb

MIT physics professor Walter Lewin has become a web celebrity, making his lessons available for free on the internet and dazzling millions with his experiments and lectures.

#1) Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Aside from being one of the overall best universities in the world, one impressive feature about MIT’s physics graduate program is their hands-on, inclusive approach; “Learning takes place in both formal and informal settings with a broad spectrum of colleagues, including faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, research scientists, and graduate student peers.” You can learn more about the admission process for the MIT physics graduate program here.

#1) Stanford University

Stanford University describes its admission process as “holistic”; of the 500+ applicants who apply each year to the Stanford Graduate Physics program, only about 60 are accepted. Admission decisions are based on “the student’s academic record, the letters of recommendation, the scores on both the General GRE and the GRE Subject test in Physics, the statement of purpose, personal qualities and characteristics, as well as past accomplishments.” You can learn about life as a Stanford graduate student here and you can begin your application here.

#5) Princeton University

The Princeton Department of Physics Ph. D. program stands out as having one of the best faculty to student ratios; with a ration of about one to two, you can be sure that all of their Ph. D. candidates receive the attention they need to successfully develop and defend a thesis. Princeton also does an excellent job of preparing their students to be exemplary research scientists; the main philosophy of the Physics Department at Princeton is that the Ph. D. is essentially a research degree that is developed primarily through a general background in physics and then more fully through the completion of a thesis.

Well-known institutions like the ones listed above consistently rank at the top of every program they offer. The fact of the matter, however, is you do not have to attend one of these schools in order to get a great education out of a Masters or Ph.D. program. At “It’s Not GREek!” we want our readers to be aware of not only the important generalities of the field they are considering, but the multitude of options they have when it comes to picking a graduate school. These are some schools you may not be aware of, but that experts in your field of study certainly are.

Honorable Mention:

Rice#26) Rice University

Rice is notable for several reasons – though not quite as prestigious as an East Coast Ivy League school, Rice is widely considered one of the best schools in the country. Rice offers both an M.S. and Ph. D. program, both of which culminate in a defense of your thesis; topics by subdiscipline include Astronomy and Astrophysics, Atomic and Molecular, Biophysics, Condensed matter, Nuclear and Particle, and Space Physics.  You can learn more about Rice admission requirements and procedure here.

#30) Brown University

Brown University is known as the premiere liberal arts university in the country, but given it’s Ivy League status it should be no surprise that it’s Department of Physics is so well regarded. With an acceptance rate of 8.9%, Brown is one of the most selective schools in the world.

#40) Texas A&M University – College Station

The Texas A&M University Physics and Astronomy Department welcomes all prospective graduate students with an official “Howdy.” Research in the department focuses on astronomy, atomic, quantum optics, condensed matter, nuclear (in association with the Cyclotron Institute), and high energy physics. A&M has developed a culture built on trust and mutual respect, and endeavors for that culture to feature as prominently in its academic community as its residential one. You can learn more about the application process to Texas A&M University here.  

#52) University of Rochester

Located in Rochester, New York, the University of Rochester, is one of the smallest (in terms of University of Rochester logostudent body) leading research institutions in the nation. With a Ph. D. degree path that takes most students between four to six years to complete, the University of Rochester prides itself on turning each student into “a professional scientist: an independent and critical thinker, capable both of conceiving and conducting innovative research programs that advance the frontiers of physics or astronomy, and of disseminating the resulting knowledge widely and effectively.” It might impress you prospective graduate students to know that the University of Rochester physics faculty played a key role in the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle.

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