Department Contact Information

Physics Department

Location: 180-204
Phone: (805) 619-5106
Fax: (805) 756-2435
Chair: Karl Saunders

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Graduate School

Going to Graduate School?

A graduate program in physics is the track that your professors have all taken.  It is well worth your while to talk to them about the process and tap their expertise.  Eventually you will need to find about 3 professors to write letters of recommendation for you.  Think about who you might like to ask for letters of support and then see what their advice is for you.

Questions to ask before deciding on a graduate school

  • What do you want to accomplish in your career?  (short- and long-term professional goals)
  • Is graduate school beneficial to achieving those goals?
  • Are you interested in specializing in an area of study?
  • Do you have the interest and ability to be successful in graduate school?
  • Are you willing to invest the time for another academic program?  (2 years for a master’s degree or 5 -7 years for a PhD?)
  • Are you simply delaying career decision making?  (Not a good reason.)

Explores the Options

  • Physics PhD programs are divided into two general categories: Experiment and Theory.  Most students choose the experimental path.  The theory path is much more exclusive and is best for students who excel in their upper division Classical Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, and Quantum Mechanics courses.  As a general rule you should have a GPA above 3.0, and for the theory track your GPA should be higher. For both experimental and theoretical pursuits, it is recommended that you take the elective quarters of the theory courses:  Classical II, E&M II, and Quantum II.  PhD programs almost always include a stipend which covers your living expenses and tuition.  The stipend pays you to be a graduate teaching assistant and/or a graduate research assistant.

  • Bridge Programs have been established to improve diversity in PhD programs.  Students should have the desire and commitment for a PhD program, but need the bridge to establish themselves.  Please contact the physics department chair with questions.

The CalBridge program starts early, and targets students in their sophomore and junior years.  This program is a bridge to the UC graduate programs and other partner institutions.

  • Masters programs in Education: (Teaching Credential Programs)

A teaching credential is generally required to teach anything from kindergarten to high school.  High school teachers need a Single Subject Credential and elementary school teachers need a Multiple Subject Credential.  For more information about pursuing a teaching career, please see the Resources for Physics Teachers. 

  • Masters programs in Physics are often the right choice for students who want to bridge their education into a specific career path.  Applied programs may have internships in industry that provide you with a network of potential employers.  It can also be a bridge for students with the desire and commitment for a PhD program who need more education to get accepted into a PhD program.  In this case, a master’s degree can be the springboard into the PhD program.
  • Masters programs in Engineering are also a desirable option for students who want to transition into the work force with a strong resume.  The Cal Poly engineering programs in Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Aeronautical Engineering are popular choices.  These programs are 2-year programs that lead to employment opportunities.  To build the specialized knowledge for these fields we recommend taking courses in the engineering department prior to graduating with your bachelor’s degree.  They can count toward your free electives.  To take advantage of the 4+1 year options in the Cal Poly engineering departments you will need to double major.

When to go?

There are no absolute rules about when to go.  Some students go right into a program and others do something else and then go.  For a master’s program, having some time in the workforce to solidify your career goals can be a benefit.  For a PhD program the graduate schools are looking to see that you have demonstrated a personal commitment to a technical career and a good way to show that is to dive right in after college.  A gap year where you had a technical job also shows that commitment, but a gap year without a technical job may hurt your application.  If you want to take a gap year, it is best to apply to graduate schools during your senior year and then defer your start date by a year.

Where to Apply?

Explanation of the application process.

Get information about the schools and their programs.  Numbers of applicants, research areas, size of program, etc.

Timeline for applying

Junior Year:

  • Research programs and discuss specific programs with faculty.
  • Register for appropriate admissions tests.  (GRE)
  • Check on application deadlines and admissions policies.

Senior Year, Fall Term:

  • Ask for letters of recommendation.
  • Order official transcripts.
  • Complete applications.
  • Write, edit, refine personal statement.
  • Apply for Student Aid

Taking the Graduate Record Exams (GRE)

Much like ACT or SAT requirements for college admissions, many graduate physics departments require GRE exams.  There is a General Test and a Physics Test which are both usually required. We recommend that you prepare for the Physics Test well in advance of the exam.


Some graduate schools are not using the GRE as much as they used to.  However, the preparation for beginning graduate school is still very helpful.

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