I'm an MPhys student who almost finished his undergraduate. I'm doing a masters in theoretical physics next year, probably at Kings College London. I have been rejected by Imperial and Cambridge(Part III).

Keeping in mind that theoretical physics is one of the most competitive academic fields, is there any chance of being accepted in top universities(UK or US) with such a masters degree? How high should my grades be in order to have a fair chance of being accepted at top 10 universities?

I would really like to do my Phd in a top university so that I could maximise my chances of getting a good postdoc position. More than that, I really love theoretical physics and I'd be VERY happy if I could contribute in world leading theoretical research in fundamental physics.

Edit: Especially for people with similar past experience, I would really appreciate your input.

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  • if you think theoretical physics is one of the most competitve fields, then one could argue your disposition for savantism, prodigy, autistic "abilities" are more important than any grades you can work aout by strong discipline and effort. It's good to know what you want, but bad to work against your dispostion, you will not have a happy career/life, even if you get a fixed position at a top university, but don't match with your colleagues. Just work for it, have a life, and look where you end in the academic game. Just do theoretical physics as good as you can instead of "world leading" – user48953094 May 7 at 21:23
  • Thanks for your input. – fielder May 7 at 21:31
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    Possible duplicate academia.stackexchange.com/questions/38237/… – StrongBad May 7 at 21:44
  • Thanks, though this is a subject specific question. Also I would like to add that I got a 71% average(not great not bad I guess). – fielder May 7 at 22:44

We get this question a lot.

  1. I don't think elite Ph.D. programs look at master's programs as a positive, per se. For instance, if you aren't as sharp (or diligent or whatever the metric), I don't think they trade that off with your experience. IOW, they don't trade capability for experience. If anything on the experience level, they prefer "fresh meat".

  2. All that said, if you think you are of the caliber that you SHOULD have gotten in, but didn't (e.g. because of grades), than fine. There is a natural breakpoint with the masters. I have seen one good friend (sharp as heck, but was at a so so Canadian Ph.D. school move to JHU, doing theoretical physics).

    It ended up being a win win. JHU got someone who was towards the top of his grad school class. But note, this is very different from experience trumping skill. More like he really should have been at JHU all along and then things got corrected. So I would look at yourself and how you compare to the average person in the grad school classes at your target universities. It's probably not all about brains, but really...brains (particularly mathematical aptitude) is a big part of the equation for theoretical physics.


(1) I am trying to be truthful and analytical to help you. Versus telling you something that makes you feel good, but is not most insightful.

(2) In general, "elite" programs (Julliard, Harvard physics, Goldman, McKinsey, NFL) tend to value "horsepower" over experience. One can argue if this is rational or not for them (probably it is), but in any case, it is how they behave. Note that vast portions of the business world actually don't make the tradeoff as strongly or even make it the opposite. All that said, in academia, really you are better off going to the best brand (people will hate on me for saying it...but it's the dirty insight). School tends to be much more about head of the class, than the working world is.

(3) You might also think about other areas of science where your skills could have more relative advantage...not everyone needs to be a theoretical physicist.

(4) I checked on some of your physics questions. Very detailed questions and I want to give you an attaboy/gurl for the effort you took into making sense of tensors. Good drive.

  • Thanks a lot, for all your input! Just a small comment, would that mean that I'd need to be at least the top student of my class? It is really a matter of setting a certain type of goal for my next year. – fielder May 7 at 20:25
  • Wherever you study you need to be at the top of your peers in the faculty estimation. An old saying, translated to UK is "The scariest words in the English Language: A C student from Oxbridge." – Buffy May 7 at 20:28
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    Re: experience. Top programs do want you to have grad school-level experience, they just don't want it to be called grad school. – Elizabeth Henning May 7 at 20:36
  • Maybe physics is different, but in computer science, at least in top US PhD programs, applicants with MS degrees are definitely expected to have research experience, and they are compared on the strength of that experience. In this setting, experience does count more than "capability". Or more accurately, research experience provides more concrete evidence of research potential than grades and test scores. – JeffE May 8 at 9:53

If your goal is US or UK universities, doing a Master's isn't the most efficient path, because it's not required nor is it necessarily helpful provided your undergraduate studies have been appropriately successful.

Sounds like your undergrad didn't go that well, so you are trying to compensate with MS. That's fair, it works for a lot of people, but keep in mind that just the MS by itself will not improve your application much. Instead, think of the MS as a way of turning yourself around. Did you not publish in undergrad? MS is your chance to show you can publish good papers. Did you not have strong recommendations? Work on that in your MS. Was your GPA not high? Make sure to take relevant classes in MS and ace them. Even better if you can turn the coursework into papers (even review papers) somehow.

How high should my grades be in order to have a fair chance of being accepted at top 10 universities?

Well, if your MS GPA is not 4.00 or almost that I would say your odds are not great. It's easier to have high grades from graduate classes and admission committees know this, but if your MS GPA is very high it's still something. Whereas if your MS GPA is low (say <3.50) that's even worse than having a low undergrad GPA, it's a huge red flag and will basically sink your app.

However, I think you are being too concerned with prestige of university. Things that really help get a good postdoc are:

  • Good publications
  • Fellowships
  • Connections (of your supervisor, collaborators, you, etc.)

So you are better off finding a research group that is a great fit in an okay university, than a group that's an okay fit in a great university. Graduating from a fancy school won't save you if your publication record is terrible. Having great papers might even if your school is not so well regarded. Likewise, within universities there can be a broad range of faculty. The best ones may be working in areas unrelated to you, and so they will push the prestige of the program but won't do much good to you. You also want to look at who you would actually work with and how good they are. Not just in terms of their reputation, but for supporting and preparing you for your future career.

And if you are doing an MS anyway, you should look at European universities that require an MS. This way the time you spent getting an MS is used more efficiently.

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