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I'm about to embark on improving my PGRE score for the fall test (didn't do so hot the first time) and I'm wondering if it will even be worth the year-long effort. Also, I'm taking a couple years off to get research experience/pay off my student debts.

I come from a small/medium school with no physics graduate program (wasn't interested in physics when I started, so I went with the place that gave me the most money), so I didn't have the chance to take any grad classes. I've also only had one semester of junior/senior level E&M, QM, and mechanics (all that was offered).

I've been reading different GRE forums and it always seems like the people who apply to (condensed matter) theory at elite schools like UChicago and get rejected still have a >90% PGRE and a number of graduate classes that they did well in.

I got all A's in the classes I did have and there is a decent chance I'll have 3 publications (one or two as first author) from national labs, but frankly, after reading about others' failures, I think there is a serious possibility that all of this effort will be in vain.

  • This seems to be in the US. Correct? – Buffy Feb 15 at 15:24
  • Not an answer, but I think you should start grad school next year whether you're in a "top" program or not. I suspect you could already get in to a well-regarded program, and there are serious downsides to postponing your career. – cag51 Feb 15 at 18:32
  • I wrote an answer to your question, but on a separate note, adding to cag51's comment, I don't think you have to rush into a PhD, but you should keep in mind. for physics, being fresh (i.e. no educational gap) could matter more than a few months of extra research. If you want to give yourself some time for improvement before PhD, perhaps it's not bad to consider the option of doing a master's in Europe too (although often practically tuition-free, it's not necessarily affordable, but some people can afford it, and you may be able to get a scholarship if you invest in searching for it). – nra Feb 16 at 1:31
  • But, also keep in mind that in the US, some professors on admission committees are likely to have mixed feelings about a master's for a person with an American undergrad degree strong enough to get them into a decent PhD program (that's also what a grad admissions vet told me). That being said, probably no one is going to punish you for doing a really strong master's degree where you learn a lot of useful things and do a strong thesis. They also understand not everyone is 100% sure they're actually ready and want to do a PhD right after undergrad (many of them have been there themselves). – nra Feb 16 at 1:37
  • Buffy: Yes, it is the US. nra: I'll look into European schools. As for the few months of research, I started researching at a national lab right after graduating and I've been at another since the end of last summer. My papers will be a result of this non-stop research. Hopefully this will make up for the educational gap, and I hope to start a review process of my junior/senior level material soon. – roshoka Feb 16 at 2:29
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Yes. Graduate admissions committees at good universities are looking to recruit students who will publish a lot of high quality papers. The best predictor of future publications is past publications. By comparison, coursework is less important. The Physics GRE is a very poor predictor of your ability to write good research papers.

You should still pursue a good physics GRE score because it is a good measure of the student's ability to plan ahead.

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    I’m sorry but you’re mistaken. Most students accepted in top schools have very few if any papers. There is a reason why top schools require a minimum GRE/PGRE score, but do not require x number of publications. – ZeroTheHero Feb 16 at 0:41
  • @ZeroTheHero In this case I am not mistaken because the asker says they will have publications. Certainly publications are not required. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 16 at 1:04
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    Let me rephrase. I have not met or heard of a successful applicant that did poorly on the PGRE, and I know some people with papers who did so-and-so in the PGRE and did not get in despite publications. The contribution of a student on a paper is too variable for this to be an indicator of anything. – ZeroTheHero Feb 16 at 1:20
  • "The contribution of a student on a paper is too variable for this to be an indicator of anything." I didn't think I needed to state that there must be a letter of recommendation which explains how the student earned authorship of the publication, or that simply counting publications is insufficient. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 16 at 1:30
  • Nobody here is suggesting the asker shouldn't get the best physics GRE score possible. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 16 at 1:32
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First of all, keep in mind that graduate admissions is really trickier than matching acceptance/rejections with GPA and GRE results. That doesn't mean they're not important. With an all A transcript and a decent general GRE, your profile will almost certainly get looked at, and that's already great. Physics GRE is also important for Physics PhD application, but GRE subjects in general don't matter much if they're not extra ordinary or terribly bad. So, if you want to retake the GRE to score 820 instead of 800, then don't; it'd be just a waste of time, but if you scored really low on PGRE (I don't know how low is too low for Physics), then retake it. If you want to retake it just to score over 900 and you're confident you can, maybe it's worth it, maybe not (I can't comment on that).

On your main question: Grad school courses certainly do matter a whole lot for US grad school admissions, especially for Math and Physics. Once, a grad admissions chair at one of the top schools told me they almost never accept a person without substantial grad-level courses. BUT, you have publications, and this changes the story quite a bit. In areas like math and theoretical physics, not having publications is not a deal breaker as long as there is a strong transcript and LoR (letters of reference/recommendation). On the other hand, grad course (unofficial and unwritten) requirement for getting into top programs is not really a part of educational "prerequisite" for being qualified, and rather an indicator of potential for success and for being able to handle tough courses under pressure. Having publications while maintaining an excellent GPA also indicates such potentials, and it also shows you're already familiar with research and its challenges.

So, I can't tell you whether you'll get into a top grad program or not, and even the chair of the admissions of the program you're applying to might not be able to tell you that. What I can tell you is that based on the information you've provided here, if you've taken the courses that are expected as prereqs to physics grad courses, your excellent GPA and your publications combined with excellent LoR could tell the admission committee what they want to learn from grad courses on an applicant's transcript, and they probably won't punish you for having a slightly less common way of showing those expected potentials. But still, keep in mind that your SoP and LoR can go a long way, and at the end of the day, grad admission process is really complicated and not a nicely-behaved linear function; rather a chaotic one!

  • Thanks for the thought out reply. How intense is the pressure on graduate students regarding juggling grades and research? All of my publications will be the result of post-graduation work at National Labs (although I did do a few small projects as an undergrad). – roshoka Feb 16 at 2:41
  • @roshoka Most grad programs don't suddenly throw you into a wild jungle of research + teaching + coursework. Many start with little to no research expectations. They help you build the discipline you need for coping with all that work gradually and at the end of the day, no one wants their students to fail. But what they expect to see in your application is evidence that you can cope with advanced intensive coursework and that you don't expect it to be easy (and grad courses are only one (common) way to show that, but publication at national labs could be an alternative proxy). – nra Feb 16 at 11:44
  • @roshoka If you're really concerned and want to get an estimate of your suitability for top grad programs, perhaps the best way is to contact professors in those departments, express (in a meaningful manner) interest in their work, and ask if they think you can work with them as their PhD student. Just make sure you sound confident (but not over confident) and considerate of their busy schedule. It's ok not to be certain about whether you're good fit for their dept before the application season, and many profs are nice enough to help you figure that out. But expect a very low rate of replies. – nra Feb 16 at 11:51
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The results of the PGRE - which do not require any graduate level courses - are a reasonable predictor of success. Another important point is the research potential of the applicant, which will typically be harder to demonstrate for someone from a smaller program with fewer research opportunities for undergraduates.

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I don't think the couple years off to get research experience will help you. Really they are looking for raw brains. How were your SATs? Or your math grades?

Theoretical physics has huge numerical odds against you in terms of jobs just based on numbers. Going into the field when you are below average is an especially bad idea.

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    The OP is asking about physics grad school. What does SAT have anything to do with the question? – scaaahu Feb 15 at 14:42
  • See the second sentence of my answer. – guest Feb 15 at 15:10
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    @guest I'm not American but isn't SAT the equivalent of a high school diploma or something? I would venture that there is an enormous gap between being above average in terms of SAT scores and being above average in an elite, graduate physics program. At least in my country, it is not really possible to truly gauge talent using high school diploma grades. Many people with perfect grades (to the point that they get an entry in magazines!) don't even reach the best schools. I mean, if OP scored badly this is definitely a stern warning to take heed of, but otherwise it is essentially meaningless. – Evariste Feb 15 at 16:30
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    Yeah, since the OP is mentioning grad school, wouldn't they mean the GRE instead? From what I've heard it's not so much different from the SAT, which is taken for undergraduate admissions at least 3-4 years before. Plus isn't this type of thing only used more or less as a filter? – Daveguy Feb 15 at 17:57
  • If I'm understanding correctly, guest's point is that if OP's high school SAT scores are bad, then they probably don't have the "raw brains" needed for admission. (For the record, I disagree with the first paragraph of this answer). – cag51 Feb 15 at 18:24

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