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Which universities have great physics graduate programs?

I'm looking to get my PhD in physics, optical engineering, particle physics, or a related field. Since it's the end of my 3rd year as an undergraduate, it's time for me to start thinking about applications!

PhD physics grad-school optics optical-engineering particle-physics research

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Subject: Career question for you


4 answers

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Christopher’s Answer

I'm in astronomy but it's clear that my suggestions will be helpful because you're just getting started. Rather than simply providing you with lists, you have to make a decision for yourself based on numerous factors. What's most important, or more completely, what combination of factors are most important to you? These can include varying degrees of priority on:

--general research influence (NOT THE SAME AS PRESTIGE!!),
--research area strengths (again, not the same as prestige!),
--location (wanna stay in the state? wanna stay in the country??),
--area/surrounding area (what's the city/town like? what's nearby? how big is the population? average age? things to do?),
--size of department (small, medium, large all have pros and cons),
--department culture (as graduate students interact within the dept. much more than most undergrads, this is super important imo),
--professor's leadership/mentorship style,
--longevity of research topic,
and lots of others.

My suggestion for a first step is to speak with professors closest to you about your wants, needs, abilities, and the types of schools you should be aiming for. Your professors will generally know better than a list because lists measure and weigh things many students probably don't care about. So you could be applying to the Ivy League or Stanford while not knowing New Mexico State University has a great program.

Once you speak to your profs and ponder for yourself your priorities, where you should apply will become much clearer to you. Applying to all 10 of the top 10 schools from US News is a huge mistake. So is applying to the bottom 10. Think deeply about what you want. :)
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Jackson’s Answer

Abby: According to the US News 2018 report, the following are the best physics schools in the U.S.
1. MIT
2. Stanford University
3. Cal Tech
4. Harvard University
5. Princeton University
I'm sure your college physics professors can also point you in the right direction. I assume you will ask some of them to write you a letter of recommendation for graduate school.
Good luck,

Jackson recommends the following next steps:

Check out the US News report.
Talk to your collge physics professors for recommendations.
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Asim’s Answer

Hi Jackson, the first thing that came to mind after reading your post is to really advise you to try and shoot for opening your own company with some disruption to the technologies you have listed in your areas of interest. I think it is very important to have the entrepreneurial mind set in these years when you are solidifying the area you want to pursue for your doctorate.

I hope this helps your thought process.
All the best!
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Joseph’s Answer

I never went as far as PhD myself, finishing with academia at MSc level. However, I did look into options, and to me, at least here in the UK, the thing I'd put most weight on, rather than the university per se, is choosing a PhD project that sounds interesting and enjoyable enough to spend the next few years working on, and that you've got a good understanding of the basics surrounding the topic from your undergrad studies. I'd try to narrow down the fields you're interested in first; in your question, you've listed the whole of "physics" as one of your areas of interest; by the time I finished undergrad, I certainly knew there were many subfields I wasn't interested in at all, but a few that I could have gone into in more depth.

There's sites like that list research projects (although that one is mainly UK specific), try browsing through topics in fields you think you might enjoy and see if any particular projects catch your eye.

Joseph recommends the following next steps:

Have a look through sites like or a US equivalent