Getting Into Graduate School

Q: How important are the GRE's? Is there a minimum I need to have on the subject test?

A: The GREs are required for your application including, most importantly, the subject test in Physics. To find out more about the GREs and when they are given, go to their website: http://www.ets.org/. We do not have a fixed minimum for acceptance since we weigh your GRE scores, your undergraduate grades, and your letters of recommendation in making our decisions, but the typical distribution of GRE scores for admitted applicants over the past few years is given in this graph - it should give you some guidance about the typical scores of successful applicants.

Q: Do I need to take the GRE subject test?

A: Yes. The Admissions Committee will not be able to review applications effectively without the GRE subject score.

Q: I took the GREs some time ago. Are they still valid for my application?

A: Yes. The Graduate School for Arts and Sciences accepts GRE scores that are up to five years old.

Q: Do I need to have taken graduate courses to improve my chances to be accepted at Columbia?

A: Not really. What we are looking for is a solid background in undergraduate Physics. It is better to have an excellent undergraduate physics record than a poor one with graduate courses. Of course if you have an excellent undergraduate background and have done well in graduate physics courses, that probably indicates that you are a very strong candidate! In addition, you may be able to place out of the graduate courses in Quantum Mechanics and E&M.

Q: I have a non-traditional physics background. Can I still be accepted by Columbia?

A: Sure, we consider every application individually. If we find that there is a good reason why you have a non-traditional background (e.g. you started late, your school didn't have a traditional physics major, etc.), and we feel that you have shown the potential to undertake graduate physics studies at Columbia, then you have every chance of being admitted. We may, however, as part of your admission ask you to make up some of the deficiencies in your background by, for example, taking the appropriate advanced undergraduate courses at Columbia.

Q: How do I get an application?

A: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences no longer accepts paper applications. All applications and materials can be submitted online.   

The Graduate Physics Program

Q: What are the requirements for a PhD in Physics?

A: Here is some text where the answer will go.

Q: How hard are the PhD qualifying exams, and when do I have to take them?

A: The written qualifying exam is a test of undergraduate physics. First-year graduate students take a written qualifying exam in January followed by an oral exam the following week. The three half-day exams cover classical mechanics and E&M (first day), quantum mechanics and modern physics (second day), and general physics (third day). Most students pass this examination on the first attempt (~85%); a smaller number retake and pass the examination the following year. Interested in seeing the level of difficulty? Here is a copy of the 1998 exams, Classical, Modern, General

Q: What is the teaching load I will have as a Teaching Assistant?

A: As a Faculty Fellow, you will be expected to:

  1. Teach an average of 10 regular 3-hour laboratory sections during each semester. This includes preparation and grading of laboratory reports. There are up to 13 students in each section. In addition, you may be asked to teach one or two make-up laboratory sections per semester.
  2. Participate in the grading of 2 to 3 mid-term exams and a final exam each semester.
  3. Hold regularly scheduled "office hours" for 1 hour per week in the Help Room.
  4. Occasionally (once or twice per semester) help proctor an examination.
  5. Attend regular meetings of teaching assistants with faculty members of the course in which you are teaching.

You can expect to spend a total of about 10 hours per week to fulfill these responsibilities (of which 4 are actual "contact" hours, including working in the help room).

Q: Can I start as a Research Associate rather than a Teaching Assistant?

A: It is possible, but rare that incoming students are given a Research Assistantship in their first year. Most students are supported by teaching Fellowships for 1-2 years.

Q: What is the typical length of time for a Ph.D.?

A: Most students graduate in their 6th year.

Q: How big is the typical incoming class?

A: It varies from about 15-20 students for any one class. The total number of students in the program is about 92 at present.

Q: What is the make-up of the graduate students in Physics?

A: There are a total of 92 graduate students in all classes (this is a snapshot in '98). Of those, 10 are women, 29 are US citizens, and the others come from 11 countries spread over 4 continents.

Q: What are the fields of Physics research available to me at Columbia? And how do I get involved in research?

A: The Columbia Physics Department has a very broad range of on-going research, both theoretical and experimental. The principal areas of research are High Energy Physics, Nuclear Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, Atomic Physics, Laser Physics, Astrophysics, Particle Astrophysics, and Theoretical Physics. For more details, you should check our web pages and the pages of individual faculty members. The usual route for becoming involved in research is to use the summer after your first year to explore research opportunities during that summer, with thesis research usually beginning during the summer of the  second year. However, students with suitable interests and preparation may begin research sooner. The advanced students in the department are active in all these fields (for example, a snapshot of the Department in summer 98 shows 12 Theory students, 11 in cross-department research, 11 in High Energy Physics,  9 in Astrophysics, 6 in Nuclear Physics, 2 in Condensed Matter, and 2 in Laser/Atomic Physics).

Q: Can I carry out my thesis research in another Department?

A:  Certainly. Although your thesis adviser may be in a different department or at a national or industrial lab, your degree will be conferred by the Physics Department of the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. A number of students have availed themselves of this possibility by conducting research in the Departments of Applied Physics, Astronomy, Biophysics, Chemical Physics, Electrical Engineering, Geophysics, Mathematics and at Lucent Industries, IBM labs and national labs such as Fermilab (where Accelerator Physics is also offered) and Brookhaven.

Q: What kind of positions do Columbia Physics Ph.D.'s get after getting their degrees?

A: Here is a small table that lists the first positions after the PhD for a recent sample of 57 Columbia graduates. The American Institute of Physics also provides statistics of salaries for physics PhD's.