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Applying abroad for a PhD in Physics

Surendra Padamata

Surendra Padamata

I am a graduate student at Penn State University. Previously, I pursued research in gravity and astrophysics. But now-a-days, my interests and curiosities surround soft matter systems, rheology, memories in colloidals and suspensions, Janus particles & computational physics. I also look at Intersections of critical theory of soft matter with neuroscience and astrophysics.


Hi! My name is Surendra Padamata, a recent B.E. Mechanical and Physics minor undergraduate from BITS Pilani K.K. Birla Goa Campus, India.

I am currently working at ICTS-TIFR and IGC, Penn state on topics in computational and theoretical astrophysics using numerical relativity and microphysics to understand and simulate compact objects like binary black holes, neutron stars, supernovae, accretion disks and their associated astrophysical phenomenon and observational signatures like gravitational waves, EM, neutrinos. I also do a bit of gravitational wave data analysis on the side.

Since I have recently applied and got admitted to a PhD in physics at Penn State university, I thought why not share my experience going through my final year of undergraduate, application process, writing to profs, selecting universities, on various requirements, potential drawbacks of having a 4 year engineering degree instead of a MSc in physics(especially European universities) and lot more. Hope you would find this article informative and useful. Please do forgive me if something is not clear, I did try doing my best. Let’s start!

NOTE: Here is a link to a recent recorded video talk or find it at the bottom of this article, I gave to my fellow BITS Goa physics juniors, it has more and different points, Q&A with the participants and their specific concerns/questions, apart from the ones covered in this article, please feel free to check it out in case you prefer watching a video or as a supplement to this article!

Disclaimer: Please kindly note, this is my point of view that I formed, after my recent experiences and journey going from B.E Mechanical and minor in physics to PhD in physics.

A step back:

I understand many of you all are in their final year, pre-final year or recent pass outs, but I believe what I am going to say is also a part of the application and making a career in physics.

First of all, I assume that you know of and have given the necessary exams like GRE General, GRE Physics and TOEFL/IELTS

If you are a recent pass out: 

Do try to take a year out, make sure your fundamentals are strong and have a working knowledge of the potential field you are interested in. In the gap year, do write to professors through email, seeking an opportunity to work and collaborate with them. If the professor says no, then you can suggest the professor that first you can start off doing work from home without any pay and make the professor believe that you are really interested and can conduct good research. After a while, request the professor, if you can visit institute and work with them closely and after a year you would have research experience, a great letter of recommendation, potential first/second author paper.

If you are in your final year/pre-final year: 

Make sure you collaborate with professors on campus and gain research experience and skills, potentially leading to papers and journal articles. Try doing a thesis in your field of interest, this will boost your profile a lot.


Choosing universities: 

Always make a list containing ambitious, moderate and safe universities.

Firstly, list out your interests in physics be it gravitational physics, condensed matter, QI etc.

Next, unfortunately  there is no single source or way to know all the great schools, programs and their universities. You should rather be or have been collecting this through talking to your seniors, fellow person who recently applied, attending physics talks and seminars, noting down the names of the professors and their associated universities from the research papers you read and lot of other ways, Another way, I recently found is following the professors twitter accounts, if they have one, where they actually post research openings in their labs, departments and other universities, especially, European and Canadian professors.  One great website I came across where open positions associated anything with gravity is Hyperspace

Factors on shortlisting universities:

Know your interests at least to some extent, if you have specialized skills or experience in that field, your application will be valued a lot more. The general factors, in descending are, Professor, their current interests, lab, funding, other students currently working, department, university. Note that any university with a decent QS ranking around 800 is a good university, so don’t go by the rankings for a PhD.

On your end based on your profile, you can sort these universities into safe, moderate and ambitious. If your cgpa is low but have a great research experience, 2-3 published papers, stellar recommendations, mostly any school is safe except may be for few universities like Stanford, Princeton, Caltech, UC Berkeley etc (one may need to have a stellar academic profile too or know the professor at those universities through recent collaborations or meetings). Remember, having a stellar gpa does increase your chances but it’s mainly the research profile which makes the difference so work towards that and don’t shy away from applying to universities which are below 150 QS ranking.

Emailing the professors:

Next step would be, writing an email to the professors asking for open/available PhD positions, telling them your research experience so far, how you can contribute to their research and attach your CV(please refer to this template on a good CV, this is only for a reference, I believe each CV should be unique). Please refer to this template I made (again this is only for a reference, I believe every email should be unique)

In the email you could also ask the professor for a skype/online call/interview. So prepare yourself by going through the fundamentals again, the research projects and papers you mentioned in your CV and first email to the professor. During the interview/chat with the professor, ask him/her questions on their group, current interests, flexibility and collaborations on research at their university and explain your projects clearly and well.

When it’s at least 2 months to November first week, usually when applications open, do start writing your Statement of Purpose, Personal statement, do 3-4 revisions, updates, share it with your seniors and peers for review. Let it be unique, please don’t copy off from internet. Ask around only for a format of it but not for the content of it, that’s why I personally don’t share templates on SOP or PS

Letter of recommendations:

LORs/reference letters are very very important, I can’t stress enough, so try to build good relationships with your current research advisors and do share your CV and SOP you write for your applications to these universities with your professors so that everything across CV, email to professors, and reference letters are coherent.

Make sure all the scores, transcripts, reference letters are in order.

After doing this and based on the match you get between your profile and the professor’s research as I described above, make the final list of universities and apply for at least 3 ambitious, 4 moderate and 2-3 safe schools, may be more if you can afford it. Start applying in November, because few US and many European and Japan usually don’t require GRE Phy score and they close their applications as soon as the positions are filled or have early general deadlines for their program.

In US universities the usual minimum requirements are a 4 year degree, GRE and TOEFL scores. Coming to European and Canadian universities, in these countries, PhD is treated as a job, so you should keep a lookout about new openings, query by writing to professors and usually in Europe and UK, many universities require an MSc physics degree so you will have very few choices. By the way, Australia and Japan too have some great universities.

In Conclusion:

I hope you found this brief article useful, I know I didn’t talk about few things in more detail like for example, doing research in physics, economical viability, opportunities after PhD in academia and industry, choosing the right field and need for being flexible in research, SOP/PS, some of these topics have been covered in the recorded talk I attached above but if you have more questions, can always ping me on my email which can be found on my website . Should you have any more specific questions or something is not clear, please refer to the FAQ  page and other articles on the physics after engineering blog and if you don’t find an answer, please feel free to email me!

I am always happy to talk to physics enthusiasts, help clear questions/concerns you may have and also open to talk and discuss about physics in general, philosophy, anime and my research area gravity and specifically computational and theoretical astrophysics more.


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