Jessica's Declassified UC Davis Survival Guide
We’ve all been there; missing out on a great opportunity because you only found out about it after it was too late, being lost in the sea of what to do after you graduate, having absolutely no idea what to expect when taking tests such as the GRE and PGRE, and more. Well this page is here to help with that!
Below you will find helpful resources (with short descriptions) and tips on navigating the plethora of confusing logistics that come with being a physics major. This website is meant to be comprehensive, but we can only include knowledge about our experiences and thus the content will be inherently limited to start with. If you find a helpful resource, or have tips to add or changes to content you think is not quite right, please contact the website manager with your concern.
Help us to make this page as helpful to everyone as possible!
A good first rule of thumb if you have questions is to seek help from staff and faculty advisors. Contact info for Jason Sison (Undergraduate Academic Advisor) and Lori Lubin (Vice Chair of Administration and Undergraduate Affairs) can be found at the bottom of this page.
To make appointments with an advisor at any level (major, college, etc.), you can make an appointment here with a UCD Kerberos ID.
One thing people tend to not realize about UC Davis (and universities in general) is that they are primarily concerned with research and not necessarily teaching. So, if you do not participate in undergraduate research for at least part of your stay here, you aren’t getting your money’s worth.
Approaching a Professor
Getting started in research can be daunting. Professors are generally very busy people, but, in most cases, they welcome undergraduates doing research with them. While approaching a professor about doing research with him/her may be scary, they won’t bite! So don’t be afraid to approach them. That said, you should prepare before you do in order to not waste your time or his/hers.
If you know of a professor you want to work with, do a little internet searching to see what his/her research is. Most professors have a description of his/her research that is geared towards the public, but even so, don’t get deterred if you see words or terms you don’t understand. If you can spare the time, do a little more internet searching on the terms you don’t know (Wikipedia for science topics is usually pretty decent). If not, don’t worry too much, even if you just read the description, you now have buzz words you can ask him/her about. This shows that you not only have an interest in research, but specifically in his/her research.
For actually talking to them, send him/her an email about your interest in research, and ask if you could meet with him/her to discuss it further (if you are taking a class with him/her ask after class or during office hours). Understand that professors get a lot of emails, so if you don’t get a response right away (or at all) don’t fret. Send a gentle reminder email, and stop by his/her office (mention that you sent an email about your interest in research).
What Skills You Might Need
What you will do in undergraduate research varies wildly from professor to professor. For some most of the work you will do is very hands on (building the electronics for an experiment), some will be entirely on the computer (making simulations, or analyzing data from a collaborative source), and some will be a mix of both (building/working on a small experiment and analyzing the data taken on a computer). Some professors require you to take certain classes, or have certain experience with computer programming before they will take you on for research. However, this is not always the case. The main thing a professor looks for is a student's willingness to learn by getting thrown into the deep end (not implying that you have to do this well, just that you’re not afraid to try). So don’t be afraid to ask the question of, “What skills should I have before starting work with you?” but don’t be surprised by either answer.
Even if you are told that you need to take a few extra classes or brush up on some things before starting on your own project, keep in touch with the professor until you meet the necessary requirements. Ask for literature (there will always be plenty) that you could read to familiarize yourself with common terms and concepts in that research area. Nearly all research groups have group meetings. Group meetings, where the graduate students and professors talk about their projects and the progress they are making, are usually held weekly. It’s excellent, immersive exposure into the jargon they use, and will make you a familiar face once you do start a project. If you keep in touch with the professor, he/she is also more likely to be thinking of projects in the back of his/her mind that you could do.
So while tangible skills like course knowledge and programming certainly don’t hurt, they do not, by any means, prevent your involvement in group meetings, or your ability to start learning about the subject on your own.
What to Expect while Doing Research
Just like the required skill set, what you actually do during your research is very varied. In any physics research there is a very good chance that you will be handling technology (particularly computers). In experimental physics there is also the possibility for working in a lab. Lab work can be anything from working with electronics on a certain detector or working with chemicals in an actual lab. If you’re working on a project related to a large scale collaboration (as is the case with high energy particle and relativistic heavy-ion physics) nearly all of your work will be on the computer. Depending on the project, you could be analyzing actual data or producing simulations to, eventually, compare to data.
While there are many research opportunities in the physics department don’t feel limited to doing research solely with physics professors. If you take an interesting class in biology, chemistry, engineering, even sociology, feel free to pursue research in that department, too. The idea behind research is that you learn how to pursue a problem where the solution is unknown. All research has similar techniques (the statistics of data analysis for example) but realize that the further you stray from the natural sciences, the harder it will be to persuade graduate schools and future employers that you have skills relevant to the job.
REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates)
The worst case is that you can’t find research at Davis. This is very rare, but even if you do research at Davis, it is advantageous to try to do research with another professor or, better yet, also at another university. The NSF (National Science Foundation) created the REU program primarily for undergraduate students that don’t have access to research through their home university. Unfortunately, this automatically puts students from Davis at a low priority, since we are a research university. However, it is possible, and there are all kinds of natural science research areas offered.
The program runs over the summer, you are housed and fed, and given a stipend through an NSF grant. All that is required of you is to do really interesting research, present to your peers at the end, and write a paper summarizing the work you did. Not only can you say you took a project to completion, but you have a paper to prove it. In addition, the networking you will do while there is invaluable (particularly if that is the school where you eventually want to go to graduate school).
Here is the link to the NSF (National Science Foundation) REU page. You can search for REU opportunities by research area and learn more general information about the program.
List of Research Professors
Here is a link to a page with a list of professors by research category at UC Davis. Each name is a link to that professor’s profile.
The McNair scholarship is an opportunity for undergraduates. For more information, follow this link.
Provost Undergraduate Fellowship
Money is an unfortunate necessity for research. This is especially true if you work in a lab with disposable supplies. Part of your professor’s job is to bring money to support the group’s research efforts. But more money can’t hurt, and might give you the opportunity to do more exciting research. As an undergraduate you can apply for the Provost Undergraduate Fellowship to fund a certain research project. For details, visit their website.
This is a very underused resource supported by the URC (Undergraduate Research Center) whose office is located at the SCC (Student Community Center). If you travel to a conference for your research, you can apply to be reimbursed (with a nearly 100% success rate). Stop by the SCC and ask for more information or visit this page.
Undergraduate Research Conference at UC Davis
Finding conferences at which to present, as an undergraduate, can be difficult, but the benefits gained from doing so are tremendous. The Undergraduate Research Conference at UC Davis is a two-day research conference open to any undergraduate student doing research. There is the option to either present a poster or give a talk. You must apply to be a part of the conference, but it’s pretty likely that you will get in. This gives you the opportunity to present your research to a laymen audience, and will count as having presented and attended a conference (this looks extremely good on your resumé). For more info, check out their website.
CUWiP (Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics)
Attending this conference is an opportunity for women to attend a conference and present (either a poster or a talk) about research they have done. It’s a great networking tool, it’s fun, and it also counts as going to a conference (again, this looks good on your resumé, especially if you presented).
Here’s the link for this year’s website.
... That's it? No way! More coming very soon.
What to Do After Graduation
For the next several categories, I cannot emphasize enough how helpful this book is:
Most everything listed below, and more, is discussed in great depth, I highly recommend you check it out.
Pursuing a PhD in Physics, or another natural science, has the perk that it is funded either internally (by the University) or externally (by a fellowship). So it will not be continuing the trend of paying for your education out-of-pocket. The amount is usually enough for a modest living, most likely with roommates.
Choosing to go to graduate school shouldn’t be done with thinking akin to, “I’m not exactly sure what I want to do, so I guess I’ll go to graduate school.” While you won’t be paying (per say) for your education, the hours will be long and stressful and the expectation of the university is that you will be there until you complete your degree. The current average duration of PhD graduate school in physics is 6 years. So make sure that graduate school is what you would like to do.
Graduate school usually consists of 2 years of foundational (harder versions of Classical and Quantum Mechanics, E&M, Statistical Mechanics, and Math Methods) and specialty (courses specific to your intended area of research) classes. During this time, if you are not supported by a fellowship, you will most likely be a TA (Teaching Assistant) for lower division physics courses in exchange for the university waiving your graduate school tuition and giving you a stipend for living expenses. If you are supported by a fellowship or as an RA (Research Assistant), your TA duties are replaced by research under one of the professors at the university. Everyone usually TA’s his/her first and second years, but usually gets supported by other means for the rest of his/her stay.
During your stay, you will most likely take a written preliminary examination covering the fundamental physics topics; this must be passed in order to continue on in the program. It is typically taken after your first year, but you have the option to take it upon entering. This is considered a no-risk shot, so it doesn’t matter if you pass or fail and can sometimes get you out of certain graduate courses. In addition to this freebee shot, you have two chances to pass this exam.
The next hurdle is deciding and investigating a research topic. Depending on the school you will either have a “research proposal defense” (happens around your 3rd year) or a “thesis defense” (happens after you have already done the research). In the former case, this is the last hurdle before you become a “tenured” graduate student. After you pass, you perform your research and summarize your work in a thesis. Once you submit your thesis and file paperwork, you now officially have a PhD.
While in graduate school you are paid a reasonable living, if you pursue certain avenues in industry you can start out with a more than decent wage. Physics majors (even just with a bachelor’s degree) are able to get jobs at places such as Intel, Google, and other technologically oriented companies. But more than that, physics majors are also popular in start-up companies, finance, or even science-related policy endeavors. The opportunities are varied, interesting, and lucrative. And there is always the option to go back to graduate school, if you decide industry isn’t for you.
Some cons might be freedom in the choice of the projects you pursue. And most likely the work you will be doing won’t be in pure-science (although it can be!). Mostly you will be fixing specific problems, instead of doing cutting edge research. This can either be a pro or a con depending on your personality. If you are not sure if graduate school is for you, it might be worth taking time off to work in industry for a while to see what it’s like.
Also, know that, in the majority of cases, after completing your PhD you will end up in industry. But you are more likely to have more autonomy and be doing more pure research than if you are entering with only a bachelor’s degree.
Taking a Year "Off"
Let’s face it, college was a stressful 4+ years. As you reach the end, you might be feeling the burn-out setting in. Many people say that this is the time to take a year off to do something that is not school, and that they regret that they never did, or don’t regret it if they did. On the other hand, going from daily homework to no homework is easy. The other way around? Not so much.
So there are two schools of thought as to what is the best option, and it really depends on your situation. If you do plan to take a year off, you could either avoid the stress of applications during the fall of your last year of undergrad or you can apply and then ask the institution to which you get in if they will let you defer your enrolment for a year (they will usually do this, especially if you have a valid pursuit you will be doing with that time off).
Here are some common pursuits that people do with their year off.
Work in a Lab
If you find a position as a research assistant at a national lab or some other similar institution, you can choose to do research full-time with your year off. This helps with networking and can give you a taste of something other than academic research.
This is a worthy pursuit, but one that is harder to spin to graduate schools as a legitimate reason to defer. This is widely considered the best time to travel the world before life responsibilities start to tie you down. So consider taking a year off to relax and recharge in foreign locations.
Peace Corps or other Humanitarian Pursuits
Very worthy cause, however (especially with the Peace Corps) the duration of these pursuits can often last more than a year. Graduate schools will often allow a one-year deferment, but more than that might not be feasible, so take this into account when planning.
If your pursuit has you teaching science in any way, you will likely get it if you apply since people qualified for these jobs are scarce. This is especially true since you will have a bachelor’s degree in physics. However, the majority of these applications for these programs are often geared towards more tangible skills. That being said, don’t be deterred if on the application they ask for a list of instances of your experience in construction. If you have a bachelors in physics, you’re almost guaranteed to get a math or science teaching position.
Finding a Graduate School Program
So the good and bad news of applying to graduate school is that the rank of the institution matters. This is good because it makes the searching for a school a matter of going down the list of ranked physics schools. The bad news is that you must play your cards right to get into a good program. Fortunately, there are many, many resources to help with framing your application in the best light possible, to maximize your chances of being accepted.
Before we continue, here is a link to a current physics graduate student's blog about Graduate School. It's full of useful information.
The Rough Search
The best approach is to have an idea of what area of research you want to pursue (you don’t have to have it nailed down completely, if you can’t decide between several that’s fine, just make sure that the school at which you’re looking has them all), and go down the list of schools with those areas.
At this stage, don’t worry about what schools you think you can get into. Look at the schools’ websites and see which ones strike your fancy. Read descriptions about their research areas and try to get a feel for the school’s personality. Remember if you’re going to go there you’ll have to navigate their websites frequently, if they are difficult to navigate or the information is unhelpful it might be foreshadowing of things to come. Not always, but usually if the information for perspective students is helpful and well put together, then so will the experience once you are actually accepted. Using this rough-cut information make a long list of schools to consider. Keep notes of information on research pursuits and overall impressions of the school.
Narrowing Your Search
Next look into the programs in more detail, starting with the one’s you liked. If, after closer inspection, none of the professors are working on things that interest you, cross it off the list. Do this until your list is significantly shorter.
Next, ask around about the different schools. Get recommendations from the professors for which you’re doing research. Asking other people in the department, peers, or the graduate students at your undergraduate institution can be enlightening. Just try to gather as much advice as you can.
Finally, pick out specific professors at each graduate school with which you would like to do research.
Now, the length of your final list depends on some factors, but in general it should be around 6: 2 “reach” schools, 2 “good” schools, 2 “safety” schools. This casts a pretty wide net, without causing your reference letter writers to become too annoyed at all the writing.
What Schools Count as a "Reach" for Me?
Schools are split into tiers based on their rankings. Tier 1 schools are the top 10 (as listed on US News and World Report – Best Physics Grad Schools). Tier 2 are schools 11 - 30. Tier 3 are schools 31 - 50. Tier 4 are schools 51 - 100. And Tier 5 are schools are unranked programs.
Whatever tier you fall under is what tier would be considered your “good” choice graduate schools. In general, schools falling below that tier would go into safety, and above into reach. Determining what category of school you fall under relies on several factors: your GPA, research experience, and standardized test scores.
For students attending a US university, and particularly one with a good physics program and access to research (like UC Davis; we’re Tier 2!). Research experience is extremely important! The other factors listed in falling order of importance are GPA and standardized test scores. These two are very close in importance, so doing well in one could excuse a lapse in the other. Standardized tests (particularly the Physics GRE) count more if you are planning to do theory.
The typical GPA breakdowns by tier are:
Tier 1: 3.75*
Tier 2: 3.75
Tier 3: 3.50
Tier 4: 3.25
Tier 5: 2.50
*The reason why Tier 1 is the same as Tier 2, is that Tier 1 schools don’t necessarily look for fantastic numbers any more than Tier 2, more they look for “a good fit” of the applicant with the school. So don’t be deterred from trying to apply because you don’t have a 4.0 GPA.
Note for Transfers: The cumulative GPA with which you will apply to graduate schools will be the combination of the GPA at all of the institutions you’ve attended.
Schools typically list the average standardized test scores of their entering classes, so look there to gauge yourself on that front.
Note for Women and Minorities: Some of these tests have been statistically proven to be biased against minorities and women. Therefore, they will not be weighted as heavily in your application.
What if I have mixed levels?
If you are uneven (e.g. a great GPA but a terrible PGRE score, or fantastic research, but not so stellar scores), it would behoove you to cast a wider net in the schools to which you apply, because different admissions boards will have widely different reactions. In that case, random fluctuations may count you out if you only apply to a few schools.
Remember, these should be used as guidelines and NOT hard and fast rules. But they will give you an idea of into which category you fall.
How to Get Information About Schools
For gaining information, it is best to get information directly from the university’s website. However, APS does have a website GradSchoolShopper.com, where you can search for US graduate schools based on research area, location, etc. It condenses information for each school like admissions statistics and requirements, research areas and professors, and logistics like application fee amounts and deadlines.
Because of its convenience, it may be tempting to use this as your sole source of information. But during researching graduate schools for myself I found erroneous information contained therein (particularly with regard to application deadlines). So if you do choose to use this site, double-check the information with the official school site.
Surviving the Graduate School Application Process
Filling out many different applications seems daunting, but there is a tacit agreement between schools that they all ask for the same basic information. While not all schools will ask for these documents specifically, if you prepare them all you will be able to easily complete any application that is thrown your way:
- Personal Statement
- CV (Curriculum Vitae)
- Personal History Statement
Other things, typically included, that are more formalities and don’t require much work on your part are:
- Short online application
- Three letters of recommendation
- Standardized Test Scores
The Standardized Tests
These tests are not required by all schools but are typically listed as highly recommended (a.k.a. it really is required, unless youT have a really good, like a well documented financial or medical, reason to not take them).
GRE (Graduate Record Examination)
The GRE covers analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. It’s designed to test your general education skills. It is typically only given on a computer, and is timed (both of these make actually taking the test a pretty grueling experience). There is no penalty for guessing.
There are two essays: an issue essay and an argument essay.
The former is the standard timed response essay you’ve been doing since high school. Here is an issue, make a stance, and support it. The argument essay is basically this; you are given a stance and the reasoning behind it, your job is to rip the argument to shreds. (e.g. What questions must be answered for this stance to be believable?)
The analytical writing session always comes before the others, and the issue essay is always first.
For each essay, you are given 30 minutes to read the prompt, plan your essay, and write it. There is no break between the essays.
These consist of fill in the blanks in a sentence with the appropriate word(s) and reading comprehension.
This section is entirely multiple-choice.
The best way to study is finding a GRE vocabulary list and making flash cards.
You have 30 minutes to answer 20 questions of mixed type. There are two such sections.
The content of this test does not pass a level of mid-high school level mathematics. However, time is usually an issue just due to the fact that you are taking it on a computer.
You are provided with scratch paper and an on-screen calculator (not helpful and will slow you down more than it helps). Just by virtue of the fact that you are a physics major, you will not find the problems of this section difficult, although the time-crunch may get you, especially if the fatigue from taking the test sets in by the time you reach that section.
The best way to study for this is doing many problems as quickly as you can, to get used to the question format and the time constraint. You have 35 minutes to complete 20 questions of mixed type. There are two such sections.
- 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems by Manhattan Prep
- https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/prepare/ (Specifically the PowerPrep II Software)
- Free Galvanize Test Prep smartphone/computer app
- Free Magoosh GRE Prep/Magoosh GRE Flashcards smartphone/computer app
The Physics GRE is 100 physics questions in 170 minutes (no break) that mainly covers lower-division level physics (with some junior level and specialty questions interspersed). If you know everything in your lower-division text-book cold, you’re basically set. But that’s pretty unrealistic in general, so some amount of studying is necessary.
More than studying, it’s important to practice techniques that will let you answer questions extremely quickly (dimensional analysis, limiting cases, and order of magnitude calculations). Because of this, it’s good to take past, released exams under timed conditions and also find a book/resource that gives tips on what to study and how to “game” the test. Also, be careful, there is a ¼ point penalty for wrong answers (just like the SAT).
- Physics GRE Bootcamp: A free two-day event, hosted by a UC institution every year. You are fed and housed and, during your time there, take practice tests, and attend workshops run by graduate students.
- Conquering the Physics GRE by Yoni Kahn and Adam Anderson
Your personal statement is the place to explain your story, focusing on your exploits in college, particularly on the specifics of any research you did. This is where you enumerate your activities outside of physics (clubs or outreach), any hardships that hindered your performance, and explain what research you want to pursue and why whatever school is a good fit for you, and you for it.
When writing the personal statement, remember the review committee is reading tens to hundreds of these. Be original but also be concise. They don’t care how you have always loved science since you were five, they care about what that love has led you to do during your stay at your undergraduate institution(s). As a rule of thumb, go no further back than the start of your college career. Try to include only the important things and don’t be verbose.
Letters of Recommendation
These are, without a doubt, the most important piece of your application, because, presumably, the professors you did research with are writing them. Research, as stated above, is looked at closely by the graduate schools to which you are applying. This makes sense because after taking some requisite classes you will be doing research, so if you’re already good at that, it bodes well for your application.
Most schools require 3 letters of recommendation. For most people, finding 3 professors you did research with could be tough. So, usually, one or two of these will be from professors who you did very well in their classes and got to know a little bit during office hours.
When asking for letters of recommendation GIVE PLENTY OF NOTICE. Like, take what you’re thinking is plenty of notice and double it. But seriously, ask a few months in advance if you can. Professors are busy people, if you give them plenty of time to write your letter, they can fit it into their schedule when it suits them (automatically placing them in a happier mood). But being busy people, they are also likely to forget when things are due. So send gentle reminders via email two weeks before, and then about a week before the deadline and stop by in person if you can. Ask them to send a confirmation email once they have submitted it as well. This will cause you to not have to worry about if the letter got in on time.
It’s wise to coordinate with your letter writers about what they will say or just discuss your academics/research in general; if they know your history more completely they will be able to write a more personable letter. This will automatically cause the letter to have more weight with the review committee.
CV (Curriculum Vitae)
It literally means “the classes of my life.” It’s like a resumé but more academically focused. It will include a list of your undergraduate classes, major and any prior majors or minors, cumulative and major GPA, brief description of research endeavors, any awards or recognitions, extra-curricular activities, etc.
It’s usually not asked for, but a lot of the time the information contained in there will be, so it’s a good idea to put one together.
Personal History Statement
This one is pretty rarely required. It’s basically the opportunity to take the section of your personal statement about why you got into science and hardships you encountered and turn it into a full statement instead of including it as part of the personal statement. In this case your personal statement should only really talk about your research, outreach, future goals, and why you’re going to graduate school.
Funding for Graduate School
Graduate school is like school, but it’s also like a job. You’re more hired than accepted. This makes getting into a program a bit of a wild card (because it depends on the department’s needs at the time), but has the perk of you getting paid. That’s right, paid to go to school! What? Well it’s true.
Now it’s not free, you have to be working for the university in some fashion. Either you are performing TA duties or doing research. But your tuition is paid for, and you are provided with a reasonable stipend for living expenses (rent, food, and entertainment).
Where does all this money come from? One of two sources, the University at which you are attending graduate school or an external source (a fellowship). The University either supports you because you are a TA, there is an internal fellowship for which you are qualified, or the professor for which you’re doing research has grant money that they can use (this last one isn’t technically the University supporting you, but close enough). The external sources come from national fellowships. They pay quite handsomely in some cases, and support for several years. This allows you to start research right away, and, if you manage to get one as an entering graduate student, it can open doors to certain graduate schools that you might not have gotten into. Think about it, the admissions committee might have liked your application but they couldn’t afford to fund you on a TA salary, but if you come with a fellowship attached, you’re like free labor to them, so why not give you a shot?
By far, one of the most well-known and competitive fellowships.
For this you need: Transcript(s), 3 letters of recommendation, Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement, and a Graduate Research Plan Statement. For the description, check out this link.
For tips on applying, and past successful applications, see here.
You can apply for this fellowship as an entering, first, and second year graduate student. If you are not accepted, you receive reviewer feedback. Statistically, those who reapply year after year have a higher chance of acceptance.
The fellowship lasts 3 years. Award amount varies.
National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship
The Department of Defense, in order to increase the number of U.S citizens trained in science and engineering, offers this fellowship.
For general information see: http://ndseg.asee.org/
For the application components see: http://ndseg.asee.org/application_instructions
For award amount information see: http://ndseg.asee.org/about_ndseg/stipends_and_allowances
NOTE: No military service obligation is incurred by accepting this fellowship.
These are offered on a University level basis. They are attached with that institution, and application requirements vary. Some schools automatically apply for you when you submit your graduate school application. For others it’s a more lengthy process.