Physics grad school: Should I apply now or next year?

Technically, I could graduate Spring 04, and start applying for physics graduate programs right now. The alternative is to delay a year to do undergraduate research in order to get really good letters of recommendation (and I was also thinking of retaking some courses in which I’ve gotten C’s). I hope doing this will increase my odds of getting accepted at a decent PhD program (decent being top 40). But will it?

Obviously I wouldn’t be in this conundrum if my grades were really good, or if I had done some good research earlier. I don’t know if age is a factor, but I’m 26 (physics BS is my second degree – I began this journey in Jan 2002). (I’ll be either 32 or 33 when I get the PhD – is that too old to BEGIN a career?).

I talked to two academic advisors, and got conflicting advice. One even tried to talk me into switching fields (to law school, of all things)… I might not be very good at it, but I like physics. I want physics, ok?

On the personal side, I don’t mind spending more money (I got a side job) or time (I disenganged my fiance-wannabe) if it means it will <i>significantly</i> improve my application. My question is, will an extra year make a <i>significant</i> difference?

I sat on a physics grad admissions committee at one of those “top 40” places you’re aiming for. The most important part of the application (and this probably applies to any field) is the recommendations. This goes double for you, since by your own admission your GRE score is unlikely to be high and your grades aren’t be the best. (I’m not trying to be insulting here, just extrapolating from your “I might not be very good at it” comment.)

So if you don’t already have someone who can write you a letter saying something more than “Skeptico took my sophomore physics class along with 200 other people and always turned in his homework on time”, then yes, doing the research will greatly increase the strength of your application.

Retaking your low courses would also help; certainly seeing a C and then a B+ on a transcript is preferable to seeing just a C (of course, the earlier grades will show up on your transcript.) Be aware, though, that it’s still worse than just seeing a B+.

As for the age thing, it doesn’t make that much of a difference. Many international applicants are significantly older than your average U.S. college senior, due to things like Master’s degrees and military service. The one place where it might make a difference is if you’re trying to get into theoretical rather than experimental physics, since there’s a perception that the radical breakthroughs necessary in theoretical physics are almost always found by people under the age of 30. Factor into this the fact that there’s almost always a larger number of students who want to get into theory than who can actually find an advisor and I would say that you’re going to have a lot more difficulty getting into theory than into experiment.

Out of curiosity, what did the other advisor say?

If spending money doesn’t bother you, than by all means, apply. I think I saw a thread of yours regarding GREs. If you’re planning on applying to grad school this year, take the GREs ASAP so you can take them a second time if necessary. Also consider the fact that some schools may require (or it may look good on the others) that you take the subject test.

I agree with MikeS re: age. It doesn’t sound like you’ll be one of those shit-hot theoretical physicists (no offense meant I assure you), but even if you turn out to be I don’t believe age has anything to do with it. Inspiration can hit anybody - a 50 year old can have more dedication and drive than a 25 year old. When you get to grad school you will probably have an edge over the 21-22 yr.-old fresh out of party time, both in maturity and time management skills, as well as sobriety. Vast generalizations, I know, sorry. But don’t let generalizations get you down, either.

Since it sounds like you’re pretty well established with a job and everything and you’re not on the “normal student timeline” anymore anyway, I would suggest staying an undergrad another semester or two. If those C courses were core physics/math, then definitely retake. Take more physics/math along with research. Keep in mind that undergrad research experience is invaluble. Concentrate on that as long as you’re taking the extra time. If you prove yourself in undergrad research you’ll have a good recommendation that counts for something. Look into doing an REU (research experience for undergrads, look it up, an NSF program) over the summer. I’m a chemistry Ph.D. student who did undergrad research and an REU and I feel they were very positive experiences.

Also, if you do some more time, do well, are ready to apply, and still are in good shape financially, consider this: Apply to many schools. In my experience, if they accept your application (for fees of $0-50ish) they will pay your travel to visit their school. They will show you around, try to entice you with research, send you for lunch and drinks with grad students, basically woo you. It’s fun. I visited 4 schools and realized I should have applied to 10 just for the free vacations. :slight_smile:

Skeptico, questions asking for advice and opinions belong in the IMHO forums.

Please read forum descriptions carefully before you post your next question.

I’ll move this to IMHO for you.

General Questions Moderator

p.s. Edited MikeS’s post to fix coding tags.

MikeS, thanks for input. You really took a load off my shoulders by removing the age factor in my decision. After some soul searching and thinking over people’s opinions, I think staying in school another year will be better for me. (I just hope
my family doesn’t get too upset! Sometimes I feel that my mom is embarassed that her son is still an undergrad…)

My other advisor was basically non-committal, but said that if I decided to stay another year, don’t bother with retaking a bunch of classes (maybe just a few), but concentrate on solid research instead for the year.

And you guys were right, I am going into experimental physics. I don’t know which field yet (artificial atoms, ‘mesophysics’, and quantum computers sound intriguing – do they fall under condensed matter?). I know I don’t want to do high-energy or astrophysics.

I think I’m going to follow Jake4 suggestion and apply to a BUNCH of schools next year. :slight_smile:

And xash, IMHO is the perfect forum for my question! I never even knew it existed! (seriously!)