Planning for Graduate Studies in Physics and Related Fields
Making Your Decision
Some graduate departments will begin mailing out offers to top candidates in January, with a "first round" completed in mid-March. Just as students apply to more than one graduate school, departments generally make more offers than they have openings. Thus, offers of admission and financial support depend on a sequence of decisions by several parties. Most universities have an April 15 deadline for students to accept or decline appointments. Such a deadline is necessary and should be respected so that departments can meet their teaching obligations and so other qualified candidates may receive offers. A student who accepts an offer of a graduate appointment at an early date may resign without prejudice before April 15.
One cannot overstate the importance of visiting those institutions that you are considering seriously. You may be spending five or more years at one of them. Thus, there is no substitute for a tour of the facilities and, more importantly, interviews with faculty and graduate students. Informal conversations with graduate students during your visit can provide valuable information on their perceptions of the department, as well as insights into the workings of different research groups. Spring break is a common time for seniors to visit prospective schools, particularly those from which they have received or expect to receive offers. Visits earlier in the year can be even more useful if they are part of a systematic information-gathering process.
Some graduate departments offer open houses or otherwise arrange visits for groups or individuals. Some will even contribute toward travel expenses or arrange for overnight housing. Students should feel free to inquire about such support, but should be prepared to make visits at their own expense. Before making your travel plans, speak with a member of the graduate faculty or senior department assistant who can assure that you will have a productive visit. You should mention at that time any specific faculty or research groups you would like to meet during your visit.
Ideally, you should have received two or more offers by the prescribed deadline and be in a position to make an informed decision. If you are not satisfied at that point with your choices, there are often still many graduate appointments that become available as candidates turn down multiple offers, and offers continue to be made through the spring. Here, again, you can benefit from discussing any questions with your principal undergraduate adviser. He or she can sometimes help you determine the likelihood that you will receive an offer from a particular school late in the application season.
At the decision stage, the size of the financial aid offer should play little or no role in your choice. Keep in mind that graduate study is a preparation for a creative, productive, adaptable, and enjoyable professional life. What you hope to accomplish in this phase of your education, rather than the temporary financial advantage of one offer over another, should govern your choice.