I went to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where I got a BA in Philosophy and graduated with a 3.4 GPA. During my senior year, I discovered an incessant love of physics. However, I’ve had to start over practically from the beginning, such as learning pre-calc.

I am now attending UT Knox for an undergrad physics degree. UT Knox is a public school ranked #83 in physics. My question is, how well do I need to do to come from a school like UT Knox, at my age, to be accepted into a top 10 graduate school? I know the odds are stacked against me, but I plan on overcoming them.

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    School rankings are really not that important. Go Vols! – Austin Henley Aug 16 '18 at 0:35
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    Check the list of Notable Alumni from UTK's own site. While there are a few that have attended graduate schools of some repute, more haven't and have made an impact on society, culture, the arts, business, government and many other spheres. – St. Inkbug Aug 16 '18 at 1:09
  • I’ve substantially rewritten the question because I had a really hard time understanding it. Please check that there isn’t anything particularly important I left out / anything I misrepresented. – Stella Biderman Aug 16 '18 at 1:24
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    In case anyone else is wondering, Texas A&M College Station is ranked 39th in math and 19th in analysis by USNWR and San Antonio is unranked. Obvious disclaimers apply, but it’s vaguely useful to me as someone who knew zero about the university. – Stella Biderman Aug 16 '18 at 2:20
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    I've lived in Houston for most of my life, and TIL there is a TAMU-SA. Its website says it was founded in 2008; for comparison, the flagship TAMU campus in College Station was founded in the 1870s. – shoover Aug 16 '18 at 16:35

I think you are asking the wrong question. For the specific question, your chances of acceptance at a top ten graduate school are near zero. That has nothing to do with you or where you go to school. It is just numbers. The fraction of accepted candidates at such a small set of schools is minuscule.

A better question, that I think will leave you more satisfied, is what you need to do to get into a really good school that will help you meet your overall life goals. It would be sad if at the end of your life the only thing one could say about you is "he went to a top ten grad school."

The way to success to to work hard, learn a lot, read, write, emulate those you want to be like, be bold when necessary, ask for help, learn to work cooperatively, don't burn out, be flexible, practice, ....

You can do all of that anywhere. You can even do it while being a bit of a goofball.

For the record, lots of people are late starters. I never had a positive educational experience until the second or third year of HS. My HS doesn't even exist anymore. But I learned how to be better and wound up with a doctorate and a successful academic career.

But when it does come time to apply for grad school, apply to one or two top schools along with some others. There are a lot of good schools that will help you build a great career and life.

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    "It would be sad if at the end of your life the only thing one could say about you is "he went to a top ten grad school."" That is one of the most bracingly correct things I have ever read on this site. Big ups, Buffy. – Pete L. Clark Aug 16 '18 at 0:13
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    Agree with Pete, this is an excellent answer. The point you made in the first paragraph is also very pertinent. – Dan Romik Aug 16 '18 at 3:07
  • " For the specific question, your chances of acceptance at a top ten graduate school are near zero". Not really. Grad schools are not like undergrad institutions. The raw acceptance rate is more like 10%: check MIT's admission statistics from last year (gradschoolshopper.com/gradschool/sclisting.jsp?rec=122), for example. – wcc Aug 16 '18 at 7:06
  • @IamAStudent, don't neglect the self selection effect. If you aren't pretty sure you would be accepted, you probably don't apply. And yet 90% of those who go to the time and expense of applying still don't make the cut. The numbers are very small. Too small to "count on it" in any way. They are even smaller if you consider only a single field. – Buffy Aug 16 '18 at 13:11

I went to a small southern university for my Bachelors in physics, and a different, medium sized southern university for my Masters in physics (both in the United States). And although I didn't, a few of my fellow classmates did end up at highly ranked physics programs such as Berkley, Chicago, and Cornell. These programs don't discriminate against applicants from 'low ranked' universities. It is just a fact that the criteria for acceptance into is much harder to acquire from a mid-tier program. Those requirements are:

  1. A 3.8-4.0 GPA in your physics courses
  2. A physics GRE score greater than 800
  3. Research with an accompanying publication in a peer-reviewed journal

It is typically item-3 that is the largest handicap to students from smaller schools; the opportunities for undergraduates to assist in real research goes down dramatically with the size of the program. The best option for most physics undergraduates to get tangible research experience is to apply to an REU (Research for Undergraduates). These are high speed research sessions that are conducted over the summer semesters. If there was one thing I could go back and tell myself, it is to never, ever pass up a research opportunity, paid or unpaid. Doing research is by definition the thing most physicists (and all graduates) do, but is the last thing students think about for admission to graduate programs.

Lastly, as others have noted, going to a high-ranked school isn't necessary to have a successful career in physics; many university physics departments specialize in the research they publish. It is more important to have a field of physics (optics, plasma, solid state, etc) picked out and then apply to those programs that specialize in those areas of physics. Overall rankings may have nothing to do with that.

  • +1 to the last comment-- MIT might be "top ranked", but not have a meaningful research program in your area of interest – user66592 Aug 16 '18 at 3:36

Top schools do not just look at the schools you graduated from and your GPA. They pride themselves in finding the diamond in the rough. They look for true ingenuity.


If you do outstanding things outside of school that relate to physics, these can carry a lot of weight. Example - if you demonstrate ingenuity by setting up a DIY atom smasher in your garage and sharing it on youtube and get lots of views then you can graduate from knox, get a 2.0 GPA, but probably still get into MIT. Demonstrate your passion with real world activities. Don't depend on an institution to lend you credibility, stand on your own two feet and just do it - then regardless of whether you get into a top school you will have the skills to make it in the real world.


Look at where your professors went to graduate school. They’re qualified to compare their students to their grad school peers. So an absolute best case scenario is that some of them are impressed enough to compare you to their grad school peers, which (if it’s backed up with the grades and GRE scores you’d expect with that comparison) has a good shot at getting someone into that caliber of school (or perhaps a little lower). It’s not going to happen often, but it can happen. Getting into anywhere better than where your profs went is implausible since they can’t credibly say whether you’d be successful there.

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    This doesn't make any sense at all. One of my profs went to Novosibirsk State Technical University - does that mean me not going to a Soviet-era technical university is implausible? – Fomite Aug 16 '18 at 0:16
  • +1 GRE ... If you are going to a lesser school, then getting top GRE scores is what you need to aim for. – GEdgar Aug 16 '18 at 0:21
  • I don’t understand, Soviet era Novosibirsk was a very strong university! My point wasn’t a negative one, it was a positive one: you’re likely to have faculty who went to strong schools and so if you do well enough they can credibly write you letters that can get you into a much stronger school than your current one. – Noah Snyder Aug 16 '18 at 1:35
  • I like the attempt at a mechanistic explanation, but the logic doesn't quite make sense to me. For example, say that a student's undergrad-advisor attended school that's #15 in some ranking system; what would prevent them from plausibly arguing that the student's performance significantly exceeds what they'd have expected of their graduate peers at the Rank-15 school, such that they're likely qualified to attend a Rank-5 school? – Nat Aug 16 '18 at 5:36
  • @NoahSnyder The point was to illustrate that, even if it's a good school, how would that professor "Compare me to their grad school peers"? Their peers were, literally, soviet-era rocket scientists. I'm an epidemiologist. – Fomite Aug 16 '18 at 19:59

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