This page will be by far the most helpful for physics majors, but others majoring in the hard sciences or engineering can benefit from this advice. I myself am a physics major, so this advice is based on my experience as an undergraduate and what I observed about the experiences of others.
A disclaimer-like Introduction
I want to start this page off by saying that I will be essentially providing do’s and do not’s to help you be successful while obtaining your degree – the goal is to help you score a job or a position in graduate school upon graduation. However, this academic goal is likely not the most important goal of your life and I advise you to always keep your aspirations in perspective.
For example, while I have a friend that spent the summer after our Freshman year researching (abroad!) and has reaped the benefits of this – professional connections, publications, conference presentations. I spent the same summer doing minimal career-building work and instead traveling and spending time with my family. Looking back, while I might have missed out on some opportunities, I do not regret spending this time doing something that was more valuable to me.
This means that the goal of this advice is to inform you, presenting an overview of different potential opportunities – even if you choose to do none of the following, I am happy to know that you chose this informed of all your options.
Plenty of Things to Do
Below you can view a chart that I made for a presentation given to incoming students in my department. In just a few casual words it presents what you can do in addition to a standard program of studies (120 credit hours, 8 semesters), and when these opportunities present themselves.
I will then talk about some of these options in detail below – the highlighted options are ones that I highly recommend. I do not have experience will all of these, so I will be using second-hand experience to talk about the others as well, although I will be clear about where I have personal experience and where I do not.
Studying for the GRE
If you are a freshman or sophomore, there is really no need to worry about this one, but read ahead if you are interested in what’s to come.
What is the GRE?
The (General) GRE is a standardized test used to assess readiness for graduate school. It can be compared to higher-level ACT/SAT. I say higher-level, but not more difficult, as I think the difficulty is comparable – after all, you should know more than your high-school self four years down the road. In short this means that if you were good at standardized tests in high school, you should perform similarly well, and if you struggled with them in high school, more preparation will be necessary for you.
The GRE tests „analytical writing“ (you’ll write two short essays on topics given to you), „quantitative reasoning“ (you’ll solve some math problems that include geometry, statistics, algebra, probability), and „verbal reasoning“ (largely fill-in-the-blank questions that will test you on vocabulary and grammar).
Where can you take it and when?
The GRE is largely offered online (like I took it), which provides you with the benefit (or dread, if you think negatively) of knowing your score on the latter two portions immediately, at test centers across the nation (with some exceptions, there is likely a test center near your college campus – you can look up test centers and dates here).
You can take the GRE multiple times, and your first attempt should probably be during the second semester of your junior year – or the first semester of your final year at the very latest. The same rules as for the ACT/SAT apply, as you should try earlier if you are expecting to need multiple attempts.
Tip: Once you register for the GRE, you will be allowed access to a free practice exam that looks exactly like the actual GRE – I would do this immediately to gauge the level you will need to practice to do well.
Attention: While the General GRE is offered almost every weekend, and even during the week, Subject GREs (see below) are offered far less often (the Physics GRE is offered on three dates a year)
Is this the only test I have to take?
You should know that the company that offers the GRE, ETS, also offers other GRE exams – called Subject GREs as opposed to the General GRE. Depending on your graduate plans, you might be required to take one of the following Subject GREs: Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Psychology. To find out if you need to take an exam like this, consult the websites of graduate programs you are interested in or speak with a professor in your field.
Subject GREs are significantly harder than the General GRE and require lots of preparation to do well. This is because, while the General GRE tests you on mathematical and language skills that all college students should know (not what an English or math major might know), the Subject GRE is tailored to your field and you need to have taken almost all courses in your major to have reached the understanding necessary to answer the questions. The second reason is the time constraint.
In physics, for example, the Physics GRE is recommended in addition to the General GRE, but the trend is diminishing as several studies have found that success on the Physics GRE does not correlate with graduate school success – put more simply, just because someone is a good physics test taker, does not mean that they are good physics researcher. As a result, many schools list the Physics GRE as optional for their graduate programs.
Finally, if you are looking to go to law school or medical school, you’ll have to take the LSAT and MCAT, respectively. These are other standardized tests, but I have no first-hand knowledge of them. You are better off consulting a different website for more information about these.
I took the General GRE in the winter of my junior year – it was a Saturday at a test center in my college town (but not on campus). I did not practice outside of taking the free practice exam I received upon registration, as I did well during this exam. The actual test did not go as well as the practice for me, but I still did very well in all categories. I have generally been a good standardized test taker, doing well in high school, so I did not want to waste my time preparing for something I could do well without putting in lots of time.
I was registered to take the Physics GRE in April of my junior year (it is offered in April, September, and October), but the test was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. I wanted to register for the September or October date but I found that, due to the pandemic, no test centers were offering the exam in Europe, even though it was available at test centers in the U.S. As I was studying abroad, I had no choice but to skip the exam – due to the pandemic and changing standards, the Physics GRE is optional for all the graduate programs I am applying to (Fall 2020 application), although I will give an explanation as to why I do not have a score to submit.
My performances on several practice Physics GREs cannot be compared to my performance on the General GRE. I initially scored horrendously low, and improvement was slow. I cannot describe more than this as I stopped practicing for the GRE to focus on other projects once I found out it would be impossible for me to take the test. Nevertheless, if you are on the fence, it can be worth it to practice for and take the exam, as you will be required to know the foundations to succeed in graduate school courses and qualifying exams anyway.
I am linking here Alex Lang’s Physics GRE website, a classic among physics undergraduates – it contains all the important information you need as well as plenty of practice tips. Alex, we will be eternally grateful!
Undergraduate research can come in many forms, and it is part of many other items on this list (McNair Scholars, REUs, SULI, etc.), so I recommend consulting those sections for more information.
This section will be dedicated to undergraduate research at your home university that is done under a faculty member and not within the context of a special program.
If you are already in college at this point, you might realize that undergraduate research is an essential part of an undergraduate career, even if it is not necessary. If you went on several college tours like I did, you’ll find that pretty much all universities in the U.S. advertise opportunities for undergraduate research – you probably even had a tour guide that told you „how easy it was to get started with research“. This might still be true of many universities, but the reality is slightly more complex and unique to each person.
I discuss various situations and what you can do below, but here are some quick pieces of advice for those who only have a moment:
- Start looking early. By talking with professors and exploring options initially, you will be able to discover opportunities before the deadline passes. Also, an individual research project can sometimes take a semester to set up – deciding on a plan and/or gathering materials can take a while.
- Talk to people. Your dream project isn’t going to land on your doorstep without you making some inquiries first. Research professors online and ask them if they have an opening in their group. Find out what the graduate students or other undergraduates you know are doing.
- Examine your priorities and what you are willing to give. Conducting research is time-consuming so figure out how much of your week you are willing to give. Realize that often students work 10-20 hours on research a week. Do you have that time? What things would you be willing to sacrifice to make time for research? Maybe it won’t work this semester, but you can arrange a better schedule for next semester – mention this to the person with whom you want to work.
- Attend group meetings. Group meetings are the best way to get to know a group’s dynamic and research better from afar. Find out when the groups in your department meet and see if you can make it – you don’t just have to attend one! In fact, you’ll probably find people from other groups that want to get a better idea of the research of another group as well.
- See if your school or department offers ways to get started with research. It may be an introductory class, an annual event, or weekly meetings, but many universities, departments, and student organizations use these methods as a way of getting students connected with their research groups. So if you are too shy to randomly strike up a conversation or send an email (which I still recommend), this could be a great opportunity for you.
Not all projects are made equal.
Some projects require you to have some grasp of background information (especially theoretical projects – that’s me!) or are looking for students with a particular skill, like programming. If you get turned down because of a reason like this, don’t give up – search for a project you are qualified for, it’s out there, or if you are really interested in this project, find out how you can be brought up to speed. A professor or graduate student might be willing to help you learn a coding language or recommend a textbook where you can learn more. Also, ask if you can attend group meetings – you’ll probably understand very little to start with, but with time, you’ll learn more.
Also, some projects might require you to clear a certain amount of time in your schedule while others are more non-committal. The former will allow you to make lots of progress, and you might get paid, while the latter can be a great start for someone with a lot of classes on their plate, or who is still exploring interests.
Not all professors/“PI“s/advisors are made equal.
Let’s be honest – some people are just tough to work with. It might not be that they are a bad person, but maybe the teaching or leadership style or an advisor just does not work for you. If you are considering a particular research group, find out about the group dynamic by talking to its members.
Meeting one-on-one with the professor and asking some questions about the research will also give you insight into his or her personality and teaching style.