I am a Physics senior, and will be graduating with a BS in May 2018. Couple weeks back when I really got into the application process, I realized that I don't stand any chance of getting into a good physics PhD program.

I have a good GPA in my major and average GRE scores but my application falls short when it comes to research experience. I tried to get involved in research at my undergrad institution, but none of the faculty members were doing research. I only have one summer research experience (at a renowned institute in Germany) but the work was mainly computational and doesn't directly relate to the research programs that I am applying for. For my senior project, I did a little bit of research in physics, but the results were not exciting at all (basically just imaging some quantum dots and finding the size distribution).

It was when I was writing my personal statement that I realized that my application will not be competitive at all. Should I still apply to PhD programs at less-selective schools? I am personally inclined to do a Masters first, not only to get some research experience, but to also figure out which field of physics excites me the most. The only thing that worries me is that most Masters are not funded (although I have found a few in Europe that have scholarships). I really want to do my PhD from a good program and I feel that I am just not ready for it.

I am losing hope and any career advice at this point will be highly appreciated.

  • You might be interested in this question: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/464/…
    – Allure
    Jan 15 '18 at 6:45
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    Is there a reason you can't do both? Why not apply to some PhD programs and also some Masters programs?
    – Darren Ong
    Jan 15 '18 at 7:02
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    In which country do you plan to do a PhD? Because in some countries (like Germany) you must complete a Masters program first.
    – Roland
    Jan 15 '18 at 8:50
  • The Master is a good starting point to understand how to study, write and read. During the undergraduate course we think we learn how to do those things, but the requirements for performing research are a little harder than that learned during the undergraduate. Some people even give up on the PhD during the Master.
    – prmottajr
    Jan 15 '18 at 13:30
  • @DarrenOng I am applying to both PhD and Masters programs. I have some "dream" schools from where I would like to get my PhD but don't find my current application competitive enough to get me into those programs. Also, if I get into my "safety" PhD programs, should I still opt for Masters so that I will have another chance to apply to the "dream" programs?
    – pattyg
    Jan 15 '18 at 19:23

I am a PhD in the US and in my field Master's is completely useless, basically, a waste of time. You will still need to take classes in PhD, do TAship and many other things that are basically mandatory distractions and a Master's do not waive any of them.

I would recommend skipping Master's and go with a slightly less demanding university/group for a PhD. In a Master's degree you more often than not don't get a chance to do research. However, Master's also sets the bar higher, so simply doing any research in Master's won't substantially increase your chances of getting into PhD. You can still consider a Master's degree if you can find a research program, not a taught one.

In addition to the previous point, a high-ranked university does not increase your chances of being a successful PhD. PhD is more about your qualities and habits than the rank of your university. What a high-ranked university does, though, is imposing additional stress and competition, often putting you in a situation where you struggle to even be average.


My understanding is that only exceptional people can start with a PhD at a highly-ranked university right after the BSc. If you are that good, you would have probably known that by now. So, "good" grades are not sufficient. "Average" scores are a no-go. For normal people like me, and, probably, you, my advice would be to do MSc first. As @Roland said, it is sometimes even a formal requirement.

  • 1
    "only exceptional people can start with a PhD right after the BSc" This depends on the country, and for example this is not true in the U.S. Indeed, I was accepted into two physics Ph.D. programs with only a math undergraduate degree and a few physics courses (all upper level and beginning graduate, however), along with a rather low overall GPA (well under 3.0), although these were not highly ranked universities. Jan 15 '18 at 12:23
  • @DaveLRenfro I guess I should have stated "for highly-ranked univ...". Improved.
    – Hexal
    Jan 15 '18 at 12:28
  • @Hexal I am finishing my undergraduate degree from US. Here it is more common for students to apply directly for PhD programs. Although my current profile is not competitive enough to get me into my "dream" programs, I am applying to some "safety" PhD programs in addition to the Masters programs. If I get into my "safety" PhD programs, should I still opt for the Masters so that I will have another chance (at the end of my Masters) to apply to the "dream" PhD programs?
    – pattyg
    Jan 15 '18 at 19:28
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    @Hexal This is still wrong. Universities in the UK do not require a Master's degree before starting a PhD. Even the "highly ranked" ones.
    – MJeffryes
    Feb 14 '18 at 13:31

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