So You Heard Back. Now What?

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So You Heard Back. Now What?


Matthew J. Wright, Associate Physics Professor and Chair, Adelphi University

I remember the anticipation I felt every time I checked my mailbox, waiting to hear if I had been accepted to graduate school (that was before email). I checked the mail three to four times a day. A friend informed me that the mail was only delivered once a day, but I still checked it multiple times. There was a lot of anticipation.

Today, students usually start to hear back from schools by email in February. It can be an exciting or excruciating time, depending on the news. There are typically three scenarios: you’re accepted, you don’t hear anything, or you’re not accepted. Let’s go through each possibility.

Scenario 1: You’re accepted

If you are accepted into a grad program, you’ll typically receive an offer letter by email that indicates how much funding you’ll receive during your first year and what you need to do for that funding (e.g., be a teaching assistant or research assistant). Typically, you have until April 15 (Tax Day) to decide whether you will accept an offer, so students accepted into multiple programs will need to do a careful analysis of their options in early April.

PhD programs often invite accepted students to visit campus for a weekend in March. If you’re accepted by multiple programs, you may be invited to visit all of them—making for a busy month. The schools usually, but not always, pay for your travel. There will be campus and lab tours and opportunities to meet with professors and graduate students. This is an excellent time to dive in, do some research, and network. Chat with the professors, and ask yourself if you would be interested in working for them. It’s been 24 years since I started working with my PhD advisor, and he is still an active part of my life.

During your visits, talk to graduate students—especially after the official events are over for the day and you’re hanging out at a bar or another informal setting. Ask questions like: What is it like working at the university? What is it like to work with this advisor? Are the graduate students happy? Are they bitter? Are there graduate students in their tenth year? (Note: The national average is 6.5 years.) Is this an environment in which you can grow and be successful?

Most graduate programs in physics, astronomy, and related fields require students to pass an exam or a series of exams before getting too far along in the program. Qualifying exams can be scary, and it’s a good idea to ask whether there is a qualifier, what it’s like, how it’s used, and what the pass rate is during a visit weekend. A difficult qualifying exam doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. Some departments offer prep classes or give students multiple tries to pass. Looking back, I relish studying for my qualifying exams and all of the physics I learned over a short period of time. I complained very loudly at the time, but I see now that it benefited my career.

If a school doesn’t have a visit weekend or if you can’t attend, I still highly recommend visiting the campus before deciding whether to attend. Selecting a graduate program can be tough for students and their families. It is a personal decision that takes time and effort.

Pro tip: If you are in a serious relationship and your partner would likely be moving with you, bring them along on these visits—especially if they aren’t familiar with the location.

Scenario 2: You don’t hear back in February or March

The process of selecting graduate students is complicated. Typically, there are two evaluation processes for each university, one by the graduate school admissions office and one by the specific program.

If you don’t hear back from a program in February or March, this could mean that you are on the waiting list. After accepted students let programs know whether they will attend (by that April 15 deadline), graduate programs evaluate whether they can accept additional students. If so, they’ll go down their wait list, sending out additional acceptance letters. Schools handle this differently, and there are no rules for how the process goes. There’s not much you can do other than wait and check in with the program coordinator periodically.

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Scenario 3: You’re not accepted

Not being accepted can make you feel like you don’t have what it takes to get the degree, but take heart. It’s hard to get into grad school. The program may not have had a spot available in the kind of research you want to do, it may have received so many applications that very little separated accepted and rejected applicants, or your application package may not have accurately conveyed your likelihood of success.

If you are rejected by all the programs you applied to, take a step back and talk with your mentors and professors. How can you strengthen your applications for the next cycle, if you try again? Should you revise your program choices? What are your options for the coming year? Many people work for a year or more before going to graduate school.

If you were applying to PhD programs, you might consider applying to bridge programs. Bridge programs provide amazing opportunities for students to prepare for PhD programs. Students take courses to strengthen their academic preparation, develop research skills, and receive mentoring. By the end of the one- or two-year program, graduates have a master’s degree and a stronger PhD program application. Many bridge programs have late application deadlines so that they can accept students who didn’t get into PhD programs. Similar terminal master’s programs can be a great launching point into a PhD program or career as well.

If you’re not up for reapplying, turn your attention to other opportunities. There are plenty! Talk to your network, visit the career center on campus, find out which companies hire physics bachelors through AIP’s “Who Hires Physics Bachelors?” resource, and check out the Careers Toolbox to see what else is out there. Your value is not tied to whether you get into graduate school!

The unfortunate reality is that not everyone who wants to go to graduate school will be accepted. While rejection may be difficult to handle, know that physicists are in high demand in the job market. For example, there is a shortage of high school physics teachers and high-tech professionals. Gaining experience outside of academia can strengthen your application for graduate school in the future, or lead to an amazing career you hadn’t considered before.

Whatever you hear, take a deep breath

As your college years wind down, figuring out your next step can be exciting and stressful. There are so many career options available, and everything looks wonderful at 50,000 feet. Give yourself time to carefully evaluate each option, talk to as many people as possible, and have confidence that you will make the right decision for yourself. And if you don’t? That’s okay—you can always retool and try something else. Physicists work on different and exciting projects all over the place!


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