Graduate School in the US

  1. What do you need?
  2. Rough timeline
  3. Thinking ahead? (For people still more than a year out from applications…)
  4. Picking schools
  5. Statement of purpose
  6. Letters of recommendation
  7. CV
  8. Transcripts
  9. GRE (general and subject)
  10. Personal and/or diversity statement
  11. Finances

What do you need?

  • A four year bachelor’s degree or a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in physics or a related field
  • Statement of purpose
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • CV
  • Undergraduate and master’s transcript
  • General GRE (not always!)
  • Subject GRE (not always!)
  • A personal statement or diversity statement (not always!)

Rough timeline

  • Early college/university: do the best you can in your classes, seek out opportunities to do research
  • A year or two before applying: start thinking about who will write your letters of recommendation
  • Summer before application: make a list of programs you want to apply to, ask your letter writers for letters, start working on your essays
  • August/September: when applications open, sign up on the university website and start filling out the forms for biographical information etc.
  • December/January: submit your applications!
  • August/September: start your PhD!

Thinking ahead? (For people still more than a year out from applications…)

If you want to start your program in the fall (August/September) of a certain year, you will have to complete your applications by December/January. The summer before that is a good time to start working on your applications. If you are farther out than that, all you can do to prepare yourself for your PhD is try to learn as much as you can in your classes, and seek out opportunities to do research. If your home institution is a teaching only institution, many places have summer research programs (IISERs, IITs, IISc in India, and many places abroad). You can also email professors individually, writing a little bit about yourself and why you are interested in their group, and see if they would be willing to take you on as a summer student. Click here for some guidelines on how to get research experience.

Picking schools

What universities will you apply to? It’s tough to decide! If you have a well-defined academic interest in a subfield of physics, let that guide you, and try to find the research groups doing research in that field, and apply to the universities these groups are at. If you are undecided, try to filter for schools in other ways such as location, size, etc. I would say around ten is a good number of schools to apply to. While putting together your first application is the most work, and you can just modify it for the other applications, you still don’t want to stretch yourself too thin. 

A common rule of thumb is the 1-2-2 rule: apply to 1 “reach” school, somewhere you really want to go, but it may be hard to get into this program,  2 “safety” schools, schools you think you exceed the admissions criteria for and you will definitely get into, and  2 “match” schools, which seem like a good match for your credentials. You can check a school’s typical accepted candidate’s profile on websites like (do not spend too much time worrying about and checking this website though, although this is easier said than done!).

A great resource for looking for physics grad schools in the US is:

Don’t forget to look at departments in related fields such as astronomy, materials science,  applied mathematics, quantum science and engineering, etc., depending on your interests.

Opinion is divided on whether to reach out to prospective advisers before applying to their program: if you have a personal or professional connection (e.g. your current supervisor knows them, or you love their recent paper), it can’t hurt to send a note saying you are interested in working for them and will be applying to their program. Professors get lots of emails, so they may not reply. Don’t read too much into it.

Statement of purpose

While your grades in your classes, relationships with professors, and research experiences are pre-determined by the time you actually start your application, the statement of purpose is the part at which you have to work the hardest while you are applying. 

Usually, in physics, we write about our academic interests and experiences, and some description of the types of research we are interested in doing for our PhD. As a physics PhD student, you are not expected to lead a completely independent research program or project, instead you are supposed to fit into and contribute to your professor’s (often called Principal Investigator or PI) research program. So tailor it to the research programs of those you want to work for. It doesn’t make sense if you say your dream for your PhD is to work on exoplanets, and the department you are applying to does not have an exoplanet expert.

In the US, unlike in Europe, you apply to a department, not to a particular professor, so mention three-four professors you would be interested in working for in the department. This isn’t a set in stone commitment, but shows them that you know their department and your research interests fit more than one professor’s. So for instance, if professor A isn’t taking students the year you apply, the department will not reject you right away, because you said you would also be interested in professors B and C. Of course, don’t make this up, apply to departments where you can actually see yourself being happy in multiple research groups. Mention any special facilities the university has (maybe a synchrotron, or a telescope) that would help you in doing your research.

If you have had enough research experience to write the whole statement of purpose about your previous research, with a paragraph or two about the future research directions you are interested in, great, do that. However, if you haven’t had the chance to do much research before your PhD, write about the experiences you have had that would make you a good researcher. Did you run a student organization? That gives you project management skills. Did you work for a machine shop? That shows you are good at learning experimental skills. Were you a teaching assistant or tutor? Shows that you understand and can communicate physics concepts. Did you program something for a final project in a class? Shows you have programming skills. Try to show that you have done the most you could with the resources you had.

If you have any special circumstances or experiences that you believe affected your career so far, you can mention it succinctly (e.g. gaps on your CV, a semester of bad grades, etc). 

Stick to the word/page limit!

Letters of recommendation

You usually need three letters of recommendation for admission to a PhD in physics or a related field. Here are some guidelines to asking for and getting recommendation letters.


A CV (short for curriculum vitae) is a document summarizing your skills and experiences, and for a CV for admission to a graduate program, you want to highlight the skills and experiences that show your promise as a graduate student. Here are some tips on preparing an effective CV for graduate school applications in STEM.


Make sure to send your attested transcripts to the department you are applying to before the deadline. Many Indian universities will not do digitally attested ones, so make sure to get your attested transcripts, as many copies as you need, well ahead of time.

GRE (general and subject)

The GRE is an expensive test conducted by a private company for profit, has no known correlation with future research success, and is known to have disparity in scores along racial and gender lines.  In light of these facts, and due to the additional urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic, many programs in physics and astronomy have dropped their testing requirements. However, many still ask for the general GRE and physics GRE scores.

The best way to prepare for the general GRE is to do some free GRE practice tests. 

The GRE physics subject test is offered in April, September and October and might require some preparation. Conquering the Physics GRE is a pretty good book covering everything on this test. Again, a test just tests how well you do at timed test-taking. Do not worry too much about your score, do the best you can. 

Note: please check the accepted forms of ID at your local GRE test center, and remember to bring the right kind. In India, you may need your Adhar card or passport, but don’t take our word for it, check the rules on the ETS website.

Finances: you can email the university and ask if you can send your free unofficial score, and send the official score only if you get accepted to. Many places will be okay with this, and that way, you only pay the fee for the one university you will attend, rather than the ten you applied to.

Personal and/or diversity statement

In your personal statement, you can write about your other relevant interests and experiences that will make you a good candidate for graduate school, such as teaching, volunteer experience, scientific outreach, etc. In a diversity statement, you can write about how you will foster an equitable and inclusive environment in your department, and how your own background qualifies you to do that. As a marginalized student, it can be hard to know how much of your personal story to disclose. It’s your story, tell as much of it as you are comfortable telling. Don’t feel like you are obliged to share traumatic experiences with the reader, but if you want to talk about barriers and hardships you have faced in becoming a scientist, by all means, do so. 

This statement usually does not affect your chances of admission, but may get you considered for special fellowships aimed at increasing diversity of the student body at the institution you are applying to.


Application expenses

Paying for the GRE is an unavoidable pain. 

Applying to grad schools is expensive (upwards of INR 7000 per school)! Reach out to the Director of Graduate Studies or the admissions email of the program you are applying to, explain that you are a low-income student and the application fee poses a barrier to you applying to their program, and ask for a fee waiver. Technically, there aren’t any waivers for international students, but it cannot hurt to ask. 

PhD expenses

PhDs in science and engineering are almost always fully funded in the US. That means, you should be able to study for free, and the university should pay you a livable stipend to pay your rent, buy food, buy plane tickets to go home, etc. You may get this support in the form of a teaching assistantship, where you assist in the teaching of undergraduates, or research assistantship, where you are paid for your research, or other type of fellowship. You should also get health insurance, and may get some other benefits (including, but not limited to, relocation expenses). If you have multiple offers, consider living expenses vs. stipend in the area the university is located in before making a decision.