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Graduate

Admissions Frequently Asked Questions

Application

Students will receive financial support (tuition and stipend), through fellowships, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships, for the duration of the degree, contingent on satisfactory progress toward their degree.

The department of physics at Penn State takes a holistic approach in reviewing applications considering an ensemble of information related to the academic preparation and future growth potential of a prospective physics Ph. D. We are mindful of the benefits and limitations of individual metrics and the systemic bias present in many of them such as standardized test scores and reference letters. We admit students who we believe will grow into accomplished physicists at Penn State, with the support of our program.

The Physics Department at Penn State is committed to fostering the success of every student we admit. We recognize the many challenges associated with the transition from college to an autonomous, intellectually demanding journey that is simultaneously exciting, gratifying and sometimes scary, especially in the first years of the program. We are here to support you through:

  • "First year success team": a team of dedicated faculty members who help students with their transitioning, core courses, and the qualification exam in the first year of the program.
  • Continuous Mentoring: Incoming students will have faculty mentors and peer mentors as soon as they start their Ph.D. As they transition to a group, research advisors and their group members join the mentoring team.
  • Physics and Astronomy for Women: a student-run network of support, outreach activities and social events

We work to improve the climate, equity, diversity and inclusion of the department at all levels to provide a supportive environment for the growth of underrepresented students and for all our students. A few highlights are below. Please visit our website to learn more about our effort.

  • Penn State is part of the APS-IDEA network, which seeks to empower physics departments around the country to identify and enact strategies for improving EDI.
  • Penn State is a partner of the Cal-Bridge Program, which works to increase the number of historically underrepresented groups in PhD programs. We are working to become a partner in the APS Bridge Program.
  • Graduate students are members of many departmental committees and their contributions are recognized by an annual award.

The ongoing pandemic continues to pose challenges for test taking in many parts of the country and the world. GRE general and GRE physics are not required. You are encouraged to submit them if they are available. GRE scores are one of many sources of information in our consideration of applications.

The GPA is based on a 4.00 scale. The application asks for the GPA of classes during junior and senior level, but listing your overall GPA is acceptable. The conversion from an international grade system is not uniform. You may prorate your score appropriately and we will assess. There is no minimum GPA for admission. We consider an applicant using all the information available in your application package.

Start from Physics Research at Penn State and explore! You are welcome to directly contact any members of our faculty to discuss research interest. Still have questions? Contact our Graduate Admissions chairperson.

We welcome students from all corners of the world. The student body of the Physics Department is very diverse with roughly half of our students originating from more than a dozen countries other than the United States.

A fee-waiver program exists for US citizens and residents for whom financial hardship would prevent their application to our graduate program. To be considered for a fee waiver, please contact us.

We recommend starting your applications early even if some information is missing. The online application allows you to self-report your unofficial test scores as soon as you know them. We will receive your official scores directly if you have listed Penn State's institution code (2660) at the testing services.

Unfortunately, no. You need to reapply.

The application is mostly similar to a student who’s not currently enrolled in a graduate program. If you are comfortable in sharing, we’d like to know what motivated your transfer. It is also important that you have letters of recommendation from your present school as well as from your undergraduate school.

A request to be exempted from a particular course can be made to the Director of Graduate Studies. This request should be accompanied by a transcript showing that you have successfully completed the course, together with indicators of the level of the course such as a syllabus and/or the textbook used. The outcome of any qualifying exam or the equivalent you have taken is not transferrable. Passing the Penn State qualifying exam is a necessary requirement of the doctoral degree.

As soon as you submit your application, we have received it. You can check the status of your application on the Graduate School website.

When you fill out the fields for your recommendation letter writers in your online application, an email will be automatically sent to them with instructions on how to submit their letter.

At the application stage, we ask you to upload copies of official transcripts. Please note: documents should not contain Social Security numbers or any other individually identifying number. If we make you an offer and you accept, you will be sent instructions on how to submit official transcripts.

These are your most advanced physics/math courses during your undergraduate study, typically taken in the 3rd and 4th year of a 4-year program.

Concurrent application to more than one department is not allowed by Penn State rules.

We consider all applicants independent of the discipline of their degrees. With that said, a solid preparation in core physics knowledge is needed to pursue a Ph.D in physics, Such knowledge is typically conveyed in junior/senior level courses of a physics program (e.g. classical mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum physics and statistical physics). But they can certainly be acquired through means other than a formal course. In cases like this, the use of a standardized test such as the physics GRE to demonstrate your mastery of knowledge can be really helpful.

Yes, we ask that you submit transcripts from the original institutions where you took your courses even if the credit has been transferred to another university. The Graduate Admissions Committee would like to see the legend on the back of the transcript.

The Graduate Admissions Committee will begin reviewing applications in January. We start making preliminary offers in February and this process continues into March and in some occasions April. Successful applicants will be notified by e-mail with a formal offer letter to follow by regular mail. Unsuccessful applicants will be notified by e-mail.

Some of our applicants contact faculty of their research interest on their own via email or telephone/zoom to discuss opportunities. However, the admission committee does not conduct phone/zoom interviews as part of the admission process.

The Department of Physics does not formally admit students for a terminal M.S. degree. All our incoming graduate students aim to obtain a Ph. D. in physics.

A baccalaureate degree from a regionally accredited institution earned under residence and credit conditions substantially equivalent to those required by Penn State is required for admission to a graduate program at Penn State. International applicants must hold the equivalent of an American four-year baccalaureate degree. This degree need not be from a physics department. See Q. 18.

There is no separate application for financial support. Every student admitted to our department is offered financial support, usually in the form of a teaching assistantship at first, evolving after a couple of years into a research assistantship as you work with a research advisor. Please indicate if you are planning to support yourself; otherwise, we automatically assume that you are requesting to be considered for assistantship support.

The Institution code is 2660.

All international applicants must take and submit scores for the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) or the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) with exceptions described below since most new graduate students spend at least two years as teaching assistants and must be successful at communicating in English to do so. The minimum acceptable score for the paper-based TOEFL test is 550, 213 for the computer-based test, and for the Internet-based test (iBT) a total score of 80 is required, preferably with a 19 on the speaking section. As for the IELTS, the minimum composite score is 6.5. A preferred score for the paper version of the IELTS would be more than 600, more than 250 for the computer-based test or 100 for the Internet-based test (iBT), although this is variable.

Exceptions: International applicants are typically exempt from taking the TOEFL/IELTS if they have received a degree from a college/university/institution in any of the following countries: Australia, Belize, British Caribbean and British West Indies, Canada (except Quebec), England, Guyana, Republic of Ireland, Liberia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the United States, and Wales. Having taken classes in English alone does not exempt an applicant from the TOEFL/IELTS requirement.

Photocopies are acceptable but official score reports are preferred. An official score report should be sent electronically to Penn State using the institution code 2660 if an offer of admission is made and accepted.

We review applications with pending TOEFL scores. Please send them as soon as you are able. By Penn State rules, we are unable to accept students who are required to submit TOEFL/IELTS scores without them.

What happens if I forget my password?

Please check carefully to make sure you did not make a spelling error in your user name or password. Then, if you are applying from outside Penn State, follow the directions available on the Friends of Penn State website. If you are applying from within Penn State and need your university password reset, you will have to contact the ITS Help Desk.

Can I visit the Department of Physics?

We hold an open house for students who are currently in the country and who have been offered admission. This event typically happens in March. Students who are invited to the open house usually receive financial support for travel costs. Students who are interested in visiting faculty of their interest should arrange the visits on their own. Many of our faculty will be delighted to talk to applicants in person or through phone/email. If there are questions we can help answer regarding Penn State and the town of State College, PA, please contact us.