Application Review Criteria
Our aim is to admit the students most likely to thrive in our graduate program, not just those lucky enough to have been given good advice about how to prepare their application. Below, we lay out how your application materials will be evaluated and what specific information we’re looking for in the applications of prospective students. Because we use a holistic approach, we do not share details such as the average TOEFL score for the prior year, nor do we provide a preliminary evaluation of applications. If you meet the published requirements and submit by the deadline, your application will be evaluated for admissibility. We hope that the application fee waiver code will eliminate concerns about whether you should apply!
Applicants will be reviewed in three stages:
- Meeting a minimum bar for academic preparation.
- Holistic evaluation based on the criteria outlined below.
- Zoom interviews with the top ranked candidates from Stage 2.
In Stage 1, we will use your transcripts and list of prerequisite coursework to determine whether you are prepared to take the first semester core courses, Electrodynamics I and Quantum Physics I. We expect to see courses like intermediate level Mechanics, Electricity & Magnetism, Statistical Mechanics, and Quantum Mechanics. Grades in these courses, as well as subject and overall GPA, will be considered but are less important at this stage; as long as the expected prerequisite coursework is present, applications will move on to Stage 2 where academic performance will be evaluated in more detail in conjunction with the other information in the application.
In Stage 2, multiple reviewers will evaluate your entire application in a holistic manner following a preset rubric covering the areas outlined under Holistic Review Criteria below. Scores in each category will be weighted and combined to create a total score used to rank all applicants. This ranking will be used in conjunction with research group needs and potentially additional review to form a list of candidates to interview.
In Stage 3, candidates will be invited to short Zoom interviews over the course of about 2 weeks. Interview questions or topics will be provided with the invitation email. The purpose of this final stage is to further evaluate criteria considered in the holistic evaluation, especially that which is more difficult to judge in written form. Shortly after interviews are complete, informal offer letters will be sent out along with invitations to our open house for domestic students. We expect offers to be out before the end of February, an open house in March, with student decisions no later than April 15th. Official admittance into the graduate school will not be issued until all required documentation is received.
Holistic Review Criteria
The most detailed review of applicants occurs during the holistic review. Applications will be evaluated on 5 primary dimensions:
- Academic performance
- Research potential
- Engagement outside coursework
- Communication skills
The Ph.D. program is meant to not only provide you with a mastery of topics in physics or astronomy, but to learn how to conduct original research, collaborate with colleagues, and write up and disseminate the results of your research. Regardless of whether your career continues in academia or the private sector, these are crucial skills that a Ph.D. in physics delivers, and our goal is to try to identify individuals with the highest potential to develop these skills. These dimensions are meant to reflect that potential. In the following, we describe what each dimension means and the kind of evidence we’re looking for to demonstrate it.
After we have determined that your coursework meets our minimum standards, we will further rate your overall academic performance based on grades, statements by letter writers, and other factors. Applicants should have a grade point average equivalent to 3 or better on a 4-point scale in their Bachelor or Master degree courses. Subject area course grades above 3.5 and/or a trend of increasing GPA are considered positive indicators. If extenuating circumstances resulted in lower grades than you are capable of, it is a good idea to mention that in your personal statement or, even better, to have a letter writer discuss your situation (if you are comfortable asking them to do so). Your course background and performance should also be consistent with your field of interest; for example, students interested in theory are generally expected to have excelled in related courses.
Since the majority of your time as a graduate student is spent undertaking research, we want our incoming students to have demonstrated research-related skills such as independent and creative problem solving as well as technical skills appropriate to the field of interest. Previous research experience is the most common way to evaluate this dimension, but it is not strictly required; demonstrated creative problem solving in coursework or extracurricular activities is also informative. Such experiences should be described in your personal statement and in reference letter(s), whether or not they were formal research projects.
Pursuing a Ph.D. is challenging and requires strong motivation, persistence, and commitment to overcoming challenges and obstacles that come up in coursework, research, and even teaching. In your personal statement, describe any experiences that demonstrate your motivation, such as specific challenges you have faced and overcome on your way to preparing yourself for graduate study or otherwise. We also want our students to have a vision for what they plan on doing after they successfully defend their dissertation; it is often the case that students who enter graduate school with the sole goal of getting a Ph.D. struggle to finish. Students do not need to know exactly what they want to do after graduation, but having a practical goal, or at least proper understanding of what you sacrifice to obtain a Ph.D. and why that’s worth it to you, tends to improve students’ success in graduate programs. Statements along all of these lines in recommendation letters are particularly valuable.
Engagement outside coursework
We expect our students to be active members of our community and to contribute beyond their official roles. This includes attending colloquia and seminars, participating in governance and journal clubs, helping out with outreach activities, and eventually mentoring other students. Students that have engaged in similar ways as undergraduates, or in other forums, are more likely to continue that activity in graduate school. Your CV, personal statement, and letters should describe your engagement outside of coursework, such as with an organization like the Society for Physics Students or any other activity that demonstrates your interest in physics beyond the classroom. However, we recognize that not all students have the time or ability to participate in these activities; if this is the case for you, do your best to demonstrate a commitment to active community engagement and how your circumstances factor in. For example, perhaps you had to work your way through college: Were you able to engage in similar ways at your work?
An important, if not the most important, aspect of a Ph.D. (and science generally) is the ability to communicate effectively. Whether you are writing solutions to a problem set, explaining a concept as a TA, writing a research article, or presenting your research at a conference, clear and concise communication is crucial. A strong application will contain all of the information we ask for and are looking for in a well organized and clearly expressed format. This dimension also includes demonstrated professionalism, such as reliability (actually undertaking promised tasks and/or communicating about delays, missing deadlines or meetings, etc.). Discussions about candidates’ communication skills in reference letters are important corroborating evidence.
Advice for Creating a Strong Application
If you are applying for graduate school, you have almost certainly accomplished a lot over the years; now the challenge is to organize all of those experiences around a compelling argument for why you will succeed as a graduate student. We, and many other graduate programs, are looking for students who have demonstrated competence on the dimensions described above. List experiences and achievements that speak to these criteria and note how it can be included in your CV and personal statement especially. Also note who of your recommendation letter writers can speak about each topic; this exercise may also help you identify potential letter writers.
There is no page limit for CVs; you have the freedom to include all activities, large or small, that speak to the evaluation criteria. You should also feel free to describe activities in more detail here that may only be briefly mentioned in your personal statement. Stick to Physics & Astronomy CV conventions as much as possible to make information easy to find. Although CVs have no page limit, overly long CVs are less likely to be read, so you still want to be as concise and clear as possible, which is partly how the communication dimension will be judged.
There is also no hard limit to the length of the personal statement, but it should not vary significantly from what’s recommended: The word limit should be more than sufficient for a clearly and concisely written statement. In addition to responding directly to the two prompts, you should try to speak directly to all of the holistic review criteria. Consider highlighting in some way places that speak to specific categories. For example, in a paragraph that illustrates how you’re motivated to pursue a Ph.D., you could bold or underline a word or phrase to indicate to a reader that that’s what this paragraph is about. A reviewer may be unsure how to score a specific area after a first pass through your application, and such highlighting will allow them to quickly locate the information they need to revisit.
Finally, we suggest providing your recommendation letter writers with a list of the things you’d like them to discuss, along with specific details. For example, if you took two courses from a professor, you could list those courses, when you took them, the grade you received, and anything else exceptional you may have accomplished such as a project or presentation. The professor should remember or have records of this information, but some things may slip their mind or may be annoying for them to look up, so having a list of items to mention in the letter makes it easier to write, which they will appreciate. Also, you may choose letter writers who will be better at discussing specific topics: One recommender may have more insight into your academic performance, while the second only interacted with you on a research project and can best speak to your aptitude in research, and the third was an advisor or supervisor for an extracurricular or outreach group. In this case, you can tell each letter writer the specific topics to focus on such that the 3 letters together cover all the review criteria. It is also useful to point them to this webpage, so they can see what information we want as well and can tailor their letter accordingly. Note that, while this advice will do no harm, you ultimately have no control over what a recommender chooses to write about, and they may ignore the information you’ve prepared. Even so, the exercise of writing out these lists will help you plan your personal statement and CV.
Be sure to review the information provided on all webpages; most questions about the program and the application process are answered here. If you can’t find the information you’re looking for, feel free to contact the Graduate Coordinator at email@example.com. Note that applications are due immediately after the winter holiday break, so questions should be sent no later than mid December to ensure a timely response. Good luck preparing your application; we look forward to reviewing it!