I'm an undergraduate student entering the final year of my program and preparing to apply to Ph.D. programs in physics. I'm currently trying to narrow my options down to 8 or 10 schools that I'll actually end up applying to, from a list of about 20 that I've identified as having faculty members pursuing research in the particular subfield I'm interested in (and about half of which I've confirmed plan to take students in the next admissions cycle). In doing so, I'm finding it much more difficult to develop a sense of what schools I'm reasonably likely, less likely, and unlikely to get into than when I applied to undergraduate programs 4 years ago, in part due to the near complete lack of such quantitative metrics as admissions statistics at the graduate level.

While I know that it is impossible to predict one's odds of being accepted to any particular school (or even "class" of schools), that graduate admissions is more nuanced and necessarily involves many more factors than undergraduate admissions, and that the variance in program "quality" across institutions at the graduate level is typically small relative to the undergraduate level, I would like to have some sense of what a reasonable set and quantity of programs looks like, and how to develop one.

So, my question is not what are my odds of getting into X,Y or Z school or "tier" of schools, but how can I determine both how many programs I should be applying to, and whether the list of programs I plan to apply to is sufficiently diversified so as to yield reasonable odds of getting into at least one or a few programs.

  • Asking us to comment on a particular list of programs turns this into a shopping question. Sep 2, 2023 at 3:30

2 Answers 2


In some senses, PhD admissions is dramatically different from MD admissions (thankfully), where people feel pressured to apply to 20+ schools that each have their own insane processes.

You have done the first steps, but to recapitulate them here:

  1. Identify departments that have faculty that you want to work with.
  2. Identify whether those faculty are taking students (or, if admissions are centralized, and you don't pick and advisor for a year or two).

Then, you need to remove the schools for which:

  1. You would not move to that city. Graduate study is very different from undergrad. Not only is it longer, you will be in a different life stage, where a small college town might not be as attractive as it was to you for undergrad (for example). This includes places where the stipend is unlivable.

And then, finally, you need to consider your career after graduate school. I presume physics has more industry options than other areas, but it is a truth that your options for continued work in the academy will be affected by where you go to school, so

  1. Do not apply to "low tier" programs just to get a PhD. The job market is not worth it. (Unless your field is different).

With regards to numbers, 8-10 is a good number, and roughly what I have heard most people apply to. Too many more is probably stretching your interests too far.

whether the list of programs I plan to apply to is sufficiently diversified so as to yield reasonable odds of getting into at least one or a few programs.

I think this is the wrong way of thinking of it. I do not think it is wise to have "safety schools" when apply for graduate school. You should have a list of schools you think you can get into (and then maybe a couple stretch schools).


1. Write down your motivation(s) in seeking a PhD degree, e.g.

  • Fascination with research topics, X, Y, Z, .. . .

  • Like physics in general, like experiments or theorizing or applying math to physics

  • Want to invent something and cash in on it later

  • Like the social milieu of academia

  • Like teaching/interacting with young minds at a higher education level

2. Prioritize the forementioned goals.

3. Depending on your priorities, you will do a cull of graduate schools of physics.

For example, if you are dead nuts on superconductor ceramics, you must select all good research groups for that topic. Research councils publish annual reports listing the graduate schools for a given research field. Also do checks on major physics journals to see from which graduate schools the major papers on that field come.

List 10 - 20 resulting grad schools of physics.

Read all published material like brochures, posters, website, Wikipedia pages, etc on each school and its faculty. Try to get a feel for each school prior to going there.

There remains the matter of selecting your own preferences among these schools. To do this refer to your other priorities and their relative importance to you.

Now overhaul your resumé w.r.t. each grad school's ethos and do a hand draft of your application letter before you type it up.

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