Guide to Obtaining a PhD in Physics

Posted date: June 28, 2017

This guide explains the preparation needed to obtain a PhD in physics, starting at undergraduate level and pursing a suitable curriculum right through to defending a thesis. The process involves a great many steps, but it is a process that often takes eight years or more to complete. 

Option or Method No 1

Are you sure a PhD in physics is right for you? 

  1. The first question to ask is this: “is a PhD in physics right for you?” Is it possible that something interests you so much you are happy to work in this field for the next fifty years of your life? Do you want to study physics because the discipline interests you or for the “glory” factor? Some people who choose physics because they like the idea of becoming a modern-day Einstein or Feynman often become disappointed. It is possible to carve out a successful and lucrative career in this field if you find physics enjoyable and compelling.
  2. There is only one practical reason for studying physics - to become a physicist. Although getting there is tough, it can be highly rewarding. You will have the rare experience of using your unique mind to make a living. It is likely you will work with and associate with people in all parts of the world. Time goes quickly when you enjoy what you are doing. Moreover, you will get to mature and age with like-minded people and mostly you should find that physicists are creative and quirky people who possess a great sense of humor.   

Option or Method No 2

Begin by getting a degree at undergraduate level 

  1. Studying for an undergraduate degree: As an undergraduate you should, of course, take any courses that are needed to obtain a physics degree. Whatever side courses you select are not that important, although a double major or minor in math will do no harm. It is fine to choose courses in any other area that interests you because it is the GPA that really matters when applying for a graduate program. You should, however, make sure the coursework you do shows the highest possible level of study in electromagnetism and in quantum mechanics. Another thing that can be very useful is statistical mechanics.
  2. Performance at undergraduate level: Applications are evaluated according to four key criteria, which are a) GRE score(s), b) grades obtained, c) your academic institution (the best option is a physics program that is internationally recognized, and d) the research experience you get as an undergraduate. The priority level given to each of these criteria differs from school to school. It is prudent to attach equal importance to each item.
  3. Experience at undergraduate level: It is important to get research experience as part of your physics program. You can do this by obtaining work on a research project or program or by working alongside a member of your faculty. Usually, such work does not earn course credit. It serves three primary purposes, which are a) to get you experience working in a laboratory i.e. to give you some idea about what lies ahead of you, b) to help you build a close working relationship with a member of your faculty who can later write a good recommendation for you, c) so that you can show evidence of your ability to work in a physics environment. Luckily, most jobs of this type come with pay i.e. you may work long hours during the summer and on a part-time basis during the academic year. You can never get started too early.
  4. When choosing a research project, consult your program advisor to find out about available opportunities in your faculty/department

Make a habit of always speaking to more senior students so that you can avoid poor-quality programs. The Internet is also a good way of identifying summer opportunities beyond the bounds of your school/college. A great benefit of an external program is that these are typically offered by highly reputable organizations or institutions, and you will need one recommendation from outside your own academic institution.

Option or Method No 3 

Selecting and applying to a graduate school 

  1. Preparing your Graduate Record Exam (GRE): The GRE score you obtain in your physics studies is a huge influence in an application to graduate school. Try and find some practice exam papers and various preparatory guides. There is no such thing as being “overly-ready.” It can even help to take the exam more than once to increase your chances of the highest possible score (but find out first if this will be advantageous to you).
  2. GRE questions are primarily based on the principles covered in your undergraduate studies.

The topics in these tests are wide-ranging. It would be a mistake to assume the questions will relate only to the courses you have done. Most likely, the test will contain questions related to courses you have yet to complete. 

  1. You need not worry so much about the general question sections. The higher the score you get the better of course. However, it is likely you are already good at analytical and quantitative problems while the verbal questions section is not quite so important. However, it is definitely advisable to look at some practice test papers to understand what areas might be problematic and to know how best to prepare.
  2. Make sure your exam results will arrive in time for you to incorporate these in your applications to graduate schools.
  3. Selecting the right graduate school: It can be difficult to know in advance if you will like and enjoy any given school. Therefore, you should speak to people at the faculty you know best to see if they have any strong feelings about one graduate school or another. This should put you in a better position to select a school that matches your particular interests and, most importantly, it will help you form a bond with a member of the faculty, which should increase your chances of getting accepted. 

Option or Method No 4 

Coursework at graduate school 

  1. When you have been accepted to graduate school and have started your studies: Whether you believe this or you do not believe it, your grades from your graduate studies are nowhere near as vital as how you do in qualifying examinations and how you perform at research tasks. This exam is a huge obstacle and can determine if you will be in a position to commence research towards your PhD. Therefore, it is imperative you sit and pass the qualifying exam as quickly as possible – passing quickly means you will have a choice of thesis or dissertation advisers. PhD programs usually vary from one to another, but the qualifying exam is generally one to two-and-a-half days long; it covers all types of topics, and you should pass it by the time you end your primary-level coursework. 
  2. How to prepare for your qualifying exam: This exam is similar to an advance GRE in physics and you can never be sufficiently prepared. Ask any student who has succeeded this process for advice on how you too can succeed. 

Option or Method No 5

Research for your thesis 

  1. How to find or choose a thesis adviser: Generally speaking, you should aim to choose a thesis advisor as early as you possibly can. Working as a teacher’s assistant is excellent experience, but you have to focus on your eventual graduation. It is important to select a thesis topic and an adviser you will enjoy working with! It is not possible to emphasize this enough. In the event you select a topic and/or adviser for some reason other than this, you might not find the work enjoyable, and your academic performance may not be as good. Moreover, a lot of students who select a course that is more difficult than is necessary can come to dislike physics and abandon it altogether. Do not forget that you will be working in this field for several decades.
  2. The oral examination: Once your thesis adviser feels you are ready, you should attempt the oral examination. This exam is usually a lot easier than the written version. The purpose of the oral exam is to see if you are ready to begin work on your thesis. The questions will be based on your chosen research topic and you may also be expected to answer some general physics-related questions. Try at all times to answer questions. Maybe you will not know the solution to a problem, but you should demonstrate you understand the underpinning physics. Most students do not manage to answer all questions correctly or completely. Sometimes, examination committees make the questions deliberately difficult so that they are beyond your capability as a way of assessing your performance. It can help to reason aloud to yourself as practice and continue working on a problem because this is better than pleading ignorance.
  3. Activities involved in research: Read plenty journal articles and papers related to your field. This can at first be difficult (you might not understand any of it) but it becomes easier with time. It is important you master your research topic.
  4. Try and get some written work published: This counts for a great deal when you are looking for a position after graduate school. Try also to present some papers at various conferences. This will give you some exposure and it is an excellent (but occasionally stressful) way of finding out how your research topic fits into its field. 

Option or Method No 6

How to survive the thesis writing stage

  1. Starting to write your physics thesis: This part is painful and it is hated by almost everyone. It is likely you are happy with your topic, but the prospect of writing countless pages (even hundreds) on it is undoubtedly daunting. You should certainly use any publications you have to fill up certain chapters. Then add general commentary, but figures and descriptions can save you laborious work and should definitely appear in a thesis in any case.
  2. Becoming distracted by some aspect you are writing about at any given time is a significant problem: It is most likely you will want to look at some areas in more detail or you will remember something that occurred to you earlier. In addition, it is likely you will try to find other things to consider.
  3. Begin by writing your paper’s outline: Usually, you will complete the verbiage part last. Work out what needs to be included, divide this into sections or chapters, and then work on any figures you will use in a supporting capacity. Your paper will require a lot of tables and figures to back up your work’s conclusion(s). Furthermore, members of your committee might not want to read every single word, but they normally scan all figures and their associated captions to understand your gist.  
  4. The most difficult part is usually completing the verbiage: Saying something aloud can often help. Explain various aspects as though you were talking to an audience about the subject. Record what you say. This will ensure everything is covered and reads sensibly. It just needs to be translated into a passive voice or tense.
  5. When writing, focus only on writing: Schedule a timeframe where you do nothing but write. At times, it can be helpful to write in an office, library, coffee shop, or somewhere similar with a fellow student who is also writing their thesis provided you can both help each other stay on track. Take regular breaks so that you can both take your minds off the task for a while. 

Option or Method No 7

Completing your thesis and getting your degree

  1. Defending your thesis: Undoubtedly, this is the easiest part by far. Unless you have a truly sadistic thesis adviser, you will not be required to defend your thesis until it is almost certain you will pass. This will mean giving a talk on your topic, whereby you should stick strictly to the key points of your thesis. Remember that this should be delivered in a similar manner to a conference talk rather than at an exam. Most questions will not require quantitative problem solving, particularly when the topic is currently of interest. Defending a thesis is not a trial. Rather, it is the easiest step in this entire process since it is more akin to celebrating the end of a thesis project.
  2. All this is left to enjoy your achievement and future career!