Careers in Physics and Astronomy

Beyond the Undergraduate Degree


Hello, Physics and Astronomy Majors.

Hopefully, you have begun to think about what comes beyond graduation. A major in physics or astronomy is excellent preparation for a career in science and technology, and for investigation, critical thinking, and problem solving --- important qualities for a wide range of activities beyond the scientific domain. The goal of this web page is to collect information and dispense wisdom aimed at preparing you for life beyond Wilder Laboratory.

To begin, here are some extremely useful online resources for up-and-coming physicists and astronomers:

  • American Institute of Physics. The AIP is an umbrella organization for US physicists and astronomers, and maintains most of the pages listed below.

  • American Physical Society. A member society of the AIP dedicated specifically to physics with an undergraduate and careers-specific page.

  • American Astronomical Society. A member society of the AIP dedicated specifically to astronomy, also with its own pages on higher education and careers.

  • Society of Physics Students. A society sponsored by the AIP, invested entirely in guiding students of the physical sciences through higher education and into professional work, and which maintains a top-notch Career Resources page. You are strongly encouraged to visit this site --- I'm sure that you will be surprised by the diversity of fields and activities which draw upon physics.

Finally, the AIP publishes Physics Today, a monthly magazine which keeps all of us physicists up-to-date with the physics world, and maintains the fantastic site Physics Central, probably the best place to start if you want to find out what's new in the physical sciences.  

For a different kind of post-graduate experience, you might consider the Peace Corps or Teach for America, a national corps of individuals who commit for at least two years to teach in under-resourced urban and rural public schools (like a domestic Peace Corps).

If you are interested in pursuing physics or astronomy beyond graduation, most likely this will involve graduate school. The rest of the web page will be devoted to grad school (the path chosen by this author).

Graduate School in Physics & Astronomy

Where to start? Ask yourself "What do I really like about physics? And what kinds of physics do I really like?" Look down the road several years, and consider "Where do I want to go after graduate school -- Academe? Industry? Business?'' The answers will help to guide you. For a more pragmatic starting point, consult the publication Careers in Science and Engineering: A Student Planning Guide to Grad School and Beyond. There is another resource nearby, in the form of graduate students and faculty, all of whom have dealt with these questions, some more recently than others. You should take advantage of this resource, and ask a friendly TA or advisor for suggestions.

In a nutshell, grad school in physics is an odyssey that will push you far beyond your undergraduate education, to the edge of human knowledge. Seriously, it takes between 4 and 7 years to complete a PhD, of which the first two years are usually occupied by coursework and the final 2-5 years are an apprenticeship in research. The culmination is a PhD thesis, in which you formally present your original research work to the scientific community.  Physics grad school is different from many other graduate programs because you are paid for your training. In exchange for teaching or grading duties, your tuition is covered, and you are given a stipend (roughly $16-22K, depending on the school and the local cost of living). In some ways it is a job, with duties and responsibilities. But it can be very agreeable, in that you set your own hours and work on something you (ideally) enjoy --- physics. You may find more useful tips at And for the lighter side of all this, see the comic-strip PhD.

Selecting Grad Schools

Where to go to graduate school? US News & World Report publishes an annual ranking of  the top schools in physics.  The National Research Council has also compiled a ranking of physics and astronomy PhD programs. These lists can be used as a guide, to let you know which are the better grad schools, in the eyes of other physicists. However, it is much more important that you identify a set of graduate schools that concentrate in your area of interest, or are broad enough to allow you to find a specialty. This site has an interactive program that allows you to select schools based on your interests, as well as a lot of other useful information. Ultimately, one's success is not simply determined by where you went to school, but what you do and who you work with. (A recent article "On the Importance of PhD Institution in Establishing a Long-Term Career in Astronomy" backs up this statement.)

Three of the best resources for finding a graduate school are:

1) Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy, and Related Fields, published annually by the AIP and available in the Physics & Astronomy Department office;

2) GradSchoolShopper.Com, a web site operated by the AIP;

3) Peterson's Guide to Grad Schools.

Each of these will allow you to identify schools or programs by specialty or strength, give web links to the schools, and list important application information (deadlines, requirements, etc).  Pick out a couple dozen schools that interest you and research them thoroughly.

Next comes the process of applying to schools. It is reasonable to apply to somewhere between 6-10 schools. It is good to set your goals high, but it is also wise to set achievable goals (hence the safety school). While the details vary, most schools require: official college transcripts, a list of all physics courses with textbooks used, three letters of recommendation from professors, a statement of interests, and official copies of your scores on the general and physics subject GRE tests. The application deadlines for schools range from the beginning of December to the end of January.

The GRE Tests

Practically all graduate schools require that you take the GRE general test (three parts: verbal, analytical, and quantitative) as well as the physics subject test. Check the Education Testing Service or Graduate Record Exam web pages for testing dates and locations. What's important here? From experience, you won't need to spend a substantial amount of time preparing for the general test. These are very much like the SATs, and after three years of college you're that much smarter. Still, it helps to look over some practice tests, and to get a good night's sleep beforehand. A good score --- or more specifically, a high percentile --- improves your chances. How do grad schools use the scores on the general test? No school has a minimum score requirement, but this is not to say that they aren't important. The score is typically used as a further check of the student's aptitude, beyond grades.

Which brings us to the GRE physics subject test. To quote the GRE site, "the test consists of approximately 100 questions, most of which relate to the first three years of undergraduate physics. Topics include classical mechanics (20%), fundamentals of electromagnetism  (18%), atomic physics (10%), physical optics and wave phenomena (9%), quantum mechanics (12%), thermodynamics and statistical mechanics (10%), special relativity (6%), and laboratory methods (6%). The remaining 9% of the test covers advanced topics such as nuclear and particle physics, condensed matter physics, and astrophysics." There is no astronomy GRE test --- many astronomy or astrophysics programs do not require a subject test. This has everything to do with the historical evolution of astronomy programs as a separate entity from physics departments, and nothing to do with the importance of physics in astronomy.

It is in your best interest to study for the physics GRE. While the subject test will not make or break your career, it can have a strong impact on where you get in to school.  See PhysicsGRE for useful tips. Essentially, one can benefit by studying first- and second-year physics in the months preceding the exam (including the summer between junior and senior year) . Since there are very few practice tests available (see GRE: Practicing to Take the GRE Physics Test, available from the ETS and Amazon), it is wise to ration them throughout your preparation.

A good score on the physics GRE will certainly improve your chances at the school of your choice. Again, no school has a minimum score requirement. A score above the 60th percentile is generally regarded as good, but you may need to score above the 80th percentile to compete with other students applying to the top rated grad schools.

Finally, one really shouldn't hear this before taking the exam, but here goes. As important as the physics GRE is, there is no correlation between a high score and grad school success. Its weakness lies in that it can only really test quick calculation, as opposed to deep reflection or creative, physical insight. These problems with the subject GRE are described in an article in Science, Nov. 1 1996 issue, vol. 274, pp.710-712. You can take some comfort in knowing that graduate committees realize the limitations of the test scores, and look for other evidence of scholarly aptitude and research potential in the rest of your application material.

Rounding Out the Application

Your application is supported by three letters of reference. For physics grad school, it's best to have physics professors write on your behalf. You should choose your references wisely, have at least one professor write for you who knows you outside the classroom (this includes in the lab or after class in office hours). The letter will assess your physics aptitude, based on classroom or lab experience, and may compare you to your fellow students. Make sure to ask them if they would feel comfortable in writing you a strong letter.

Finally, an important piece of supporting material is your statement of interest. This is a 1-2 page essay in which you may describe your physics interests. This is your chance to explain why you are applying to the physics program at the University of  ___ (fill in the blank).  If you have a specific interest, this is the place to state it. The grad committee is on the lookout not only for smart students, but smart students to fill slots in their research programs, so they want to know if you are interested in experiment or theory, biophysics or cosmology, and why. If you have research experience, this is the place to mention it (and if the research has lead to a publication, be sure to say so!). And avoid the over-dramatic essay ("Ever since I was a child of 5, when I discovered the law of light refraction of while playing with bubbles in my bath, I have longed to pursue a career in physics at Dartmouth...'').

Overall, your chances for getting into the graduate school of your choice are best if all your application materials indicate that you are a student with a strong aptitude for physics and who shows excellent promise for future study and research. If you don't get into the school of your choice --- well, the system is not perfect. If you do get into any grad school, even if it's somewhere further down your list, then congratulations. Remember, it's what you make of your chances that counts.