What is graduate school?
Graduate school is what comes after undergrad (B.A. or B.S. degree) for those who wish to obtain an advanced or graduate degree (M.S. or PhD). As opposed to undergrad where you apply to join the school with no specific intentions about what you will major in or what you will do there, for graduate school you apply to the program. For physics, you will be applying directly to the physics departments of various schools in order to join their graduate program with specific intentions about joining the program and a vision of the type of work you will pursue while in the program.
Undergrad is intentially broad to give you a good foundational education, but graduate school provides you with specific training in a certain subdicipline of physics. In undergrad you might take a bunch of random classes and pick up 1 - 2 majors along the way, getting a shallow experience of a lot of different topics, but in graduate school you will become the world expert on one specific topic within a subdicipline of physics. Undergrad is also shorter, taking (at least at UVA) only 4 years to complete. In a graduate program, the first 2 years are usually devoted to taking more advanced coursework and getting more heavily involved with research, culminating with a Masters degree (M.S.). After the initial 2 years, students spend an indefinite amount of time working towards a PhD thesis, which is a culmination of your work as a graduate student. If you’re quick, and usually if you’re working in physics theory (where you don’t have to wait around for experimental data), you can finish up your PhD in around 3 years, taking 5 years in total. However, the average amount of time sits somewhere above 4 years, taking 6+ years in total to complete your PhD.
I know, it sounds like a lot of time and work, but if your dream is to one day become a physicist and do physics for a living, getting a PhD by attending a graduate school is pretty much essential. Some take the option to leave the program after only 2 years with their Masters. This usually happens if a student gets to their program and then realizes their personal goals do no align with staying in the program, or they are unable to pass their qualifying exams (which is pretty rare).
However, there is one bright side to all of this. Instead of paying to go to school, you get paid to go to graduate school. All repudable physics PhD programs will pay for your tuition (and usually medical and dental insurance) while in the program and will provide you with an additional stipend to cover your living expenses. The stipend varies based on where the school actually is to compensate for varying cost of living. You can expect a stipend in the range of $25,000 - $38,000 for the year. Low-end would be living cheaply in the Mid-West, and high-end would be living in an expensive city on the coasts (San Francisco, LA, or Boston).
What are my alternatives?
Attending a graduate school in physics is a common path taken among physics majors, especially those pursuing the Physics B.S. major. However, succesfully getting your PhD requires a lot of time and is really hard (also, it really does not pay that much), so if you’re uncertain about what path you want to take, then take a moment to reflect on whether you really want to go to graduate school. The decision to apply for and attend a graduate program is a deeply personal decision, and it’s absolutely fine if you decide to not take the standard route and choose instead to move into the workforce after school or do something entirely different from physics.
There are plenty of opportunities available to you outside of attending graduate school. One of the bonuses of getting a degree in physics is that people outside of academia will generally assume you are smart and capable, which you should leverage to you advantage! You will find yourself qualified for many positions because physics teaches you how to approach new problems and solve them elegantly (or so they tell us), which makes you qualified for a lot of good jobs. Physics knowledge itself isn’t really all that useful though in a job setting. If graduate school doesn’t sound like the path for you (and even if it does), spend time in college gaining other skills that might be more applicable and employable. For example, Computer Science is one of the most employable majors right now. If you learn how to code well and make a programming project or two in your spare time, you should find yourself at an advantage over your peers applying for jobs. To get more information about what your other options are, make sure to visit SPS’s Careers Toolbox page and APS’s Job Search page.
How do I get into a graduate program?
For the rest of you who are interested in a graduate program, we have assembled advice and wisdom on applying for graduate programs here. You’ll find information on how to pick schools to apply to, what to expect in the application process, and how to make your application competitive. We have also assembled information on a specific part of the application process: the GRE. The GRE is the SAT for graduate school. Here you will find tips for success on the exam along with other information such as how much you can expect to spend on the exam.
Help! All this talk about what comes after undergrad is making me scared
Don’t worry, it has made everyone in the history of every university scared. The only advice we have is for you to get more advice and experience. Talk to people! Ask 4th years what their plans are. Find graduate students (your TAs) and ask them for their honest opinions about graduate school and what their career goals are. Try to get an internship in a physics professor’s lab to feel out what physics research is like and to clarify whether you want to spend 6+ years in an experience like that.
I want to go to graduate school, but I don’t want to make the wrong choices in getting there
Don’t be paralyzed by fear when evaluating what choices and opportunities you should take while in school. For example, you might fear that taking a bunch of non-physics classes to pursue other interests won’t allow you to stand out in your graduate school application. Or perhaps you have an opporuntity to intern in a biology lab for a summer and you don’t know if that will lock you out of physics internships down the road.
Just pick a path and go for it! There are no wrong answers. Any experience is better than no experience, and you’d be surprised by how much your experience and efficacy in physics can be expanded by pursuing interests and experiences outside of physics. Taking time away from physics also helps clarify your personal intentions in pursuing the physics major and potentially pursuing a physics PhD, allowing you to make choices that better reflect your personal motivations down the road.