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You can feel completely adrift when just starting the search.

You can feel completely adrift when just starting the search.

Probably the most daunting task of applying to graduate school is the first step. Once that is made it becomes relatively easy to parcel out the rest into reasonable steps. Thinking about it takes a surprisingly long time.

Most of what I say will apply to Physics graduate school but it could be easily applied to other academic graduate school programs. I say academic because I know that medical and law schools are structured differently and I have no idea about MBA programs.

The first step is to decide on what you want to do. It helps to know at least one thing you want out of graduate school, be it a degree type, field of study, region of the country or even a particular state. Something to help narrow down the schools. For my initial searching I used Gradschool Shopper which searches schools that offer programs in physics and related fields.

I really sort of chose schools at random. I knew where I did not want to go and started from there. I went through the schools of particular states and looked at their Physics (or related) departmental website and found their research section. If I was not interested in anything I was reading I threw it out and moved on. Every school that had a research topic that even slightly interested me I bookmarked into a folder. I then let it sit a day so I did not become overwhelmed and apathetic.

From this list I looked at each school in more depth but not too deep at this point. I checked out if the research still interested me, if they had other departments I did not see (like Earth and Space Science or Engineering Physics) and how the website felt. At this point I was looking for reasons to throw out schools since my list was probably about twenty or thirty schools. When I narrowed it down to say five I moved on.

I started again with another topic or another criteria, say the first time was West Coast schools now I searched for Space Physics or Condensed Matter. I probably spent a week or two during the summer doing this. The goal is to get a list of potential schools but most importantly help you decide what you are really interested in researching. I started with a rough idea and I was eventually pulled towards a more specialized area. With this I could narrow down even more start looking through schools again.

With a semi-final list of ten to twenty I created a spreadsheet. Here I used the information provided by Gradschool Shopper to list information about each school to compare them. In the end I found these the most useful:

  • Location
  • City Type
  • Acceptance Rate
  • GRE Scores (Average or Minimum)
  • Application Deadline

The acceptance rate and average GRE score helped me cut out schools that would simply be beyond my range. While it possible that I could have made it into a top school I felt it was not worth the time investment. I was also being realistic about my prospects (and as a side note oftentimes their research was not that interesting).

I used two other methods for finding graduate school programs that fit me. One was that I read (or skimmed) physics articles from sites like Space.com, PhysOrg and Scientific American for interesting articles. From these I found out where the researcher in the article was located and looked at their department. The second way was a complete mistake. I was interested in (but did not apply to) Washington State University, at a lab computer I googled the university and was really interested in their research. I then noticed that I was at the University of Washington’s site instead. Luckily I made that mistake as they have some really cool research.

By doing this I found enough schools to have a good range to look into further. I did not apply to the sixteen schools I found this way as I cut ten of them out after some time passed or when I started contacting the schools.

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