Graduate Admissions FAQs

General Information
 

The Department of Physics at Harvard University welcomes all applicants to its graduate degree program.

If you are interested in applying to our program, please examine the physics department areas of research. You may also find it useful to examine the corresponding page for our School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).

If you decide to apply to our graduate program, we urge you to review the GSAS information page for prospective students, especially the detailed application instructions and requirements, as well as the specific requirements of the physics program of study. You can find a full list of course offerings in the physics department here, and course offerings from other departments at courses.my.harvard.edu. You may also find useful information at our department's web site. For specific questions for the physics department, please contact us as gradinfo@physics.harvard.edu.

For more general inquiries about the admissions process at Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), please visit the contact page for the GSAS Office of Admissions.


Admissions Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
 

APPLICATION QUESTIONS
SUBJECT AREAS
ACCEPTANCE QUESTIONS
ENROLLMENT/FUNDING QUESTIONS
ACADEMIC REQUIREMENTS
ACADEMIC RECORD and TRANSCRIPT QUESTIONS
GRE SCORES
TOEFL QUESTIONS
RECOMMENDATION LETTERS
DEGREE REQUIREMENTS
FACULTY REQUESTS
TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES

 

Answers to APPLICATION QUESTIONS
  • Does the physics department accept applications for a master’s (AM) degree?
    The Harvard physics program does not permit students to apply for a master's (AM) degree -- the program only accepts applications for a PhD, although many physics PhD students receive an AM degree along the way to completing their doctorate. However, the applied physics program at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) offers a master of science degree -- you can examine their areas of research at http://www.physics.harvard.edu/research/facresearch.html.
  • On the online application form, I found a place to upload a "writing sample." Are writing samples required by the physics department?
    Certain degree programs belonging to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) require a writing sample, but the physics department does not. For information on the required materials for the application to the physics program, please see http://www.gsas.harvard.edu/prospective_students/physics.php?Itemid=159.
  • Are there separate deadlines for online and paper materials?
    To ensure consideration of your application, please ensure that all your application materials meet the physics graduate program's deadline.

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Answers to SUBJECT AREAS
  • Can I apply both to physics and another program at the same time?
    Prospective students are indeed permitted to apply simultaneously to two separate programs at Harvard. For example, students are free to apply both to the Department of Physics and SEAS. (By contrast, students may not apply to multiple departments within any single program, so you cannot apply to two different departments that are both contained within SEAS.)

    From the official application instructions: "Consideration by More than One Program — [...] The Graduate School does not recommend submission of more than one application. However, if you choose to submit multiple applications (up to a limit of two), the applications may not share any item. Each application must have its own transcripts, recommendations, financial data, test scores, [application fee], etc. All supplemental materials must be scanned, uploaded, and attached to your online application. It is Graduate School policy that an individual may submit only one application per program. It is Graduate School policy that an individual may submit no more than three applications during the course of his or her academic career."
  • Will my application be harmed if I apply to two separate programs?

    Your application will not be negatively affected.
  • My undergraduate background is in engineering, and most of my technical courses are in applied math, applied chemistry, and applied physics. Is Harvard’s physics department the right program for me?
    The physics department has had many students with an undergraduate engineering degree. Given your undergraduate major in mechanical engineering, and your previous courses in applied math, applied chemistry, and applied physics, you might also be interested in applying to one of the programs in Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) -- you may find it useful to examine their areas of research.
  • I’m hoping to do observational astronomy/astrophysics at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA). Should I be applying to the department of physics?
    Astrophysics is offered by both the Department of Astronomy and of Physics. If deemed appropriate, applications for Astrophysics may be transferred by the Physics committee to the Department of Astronomy for review.

    If you're interested in doing observational astronomy/astrophysics at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), you might consider applying to Harvard’s Department of Astronomy instead of or in addition to the physics department. For more information about the astronomy department, please see http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/ast/.
  • I’m concerned about which department I should apply to.
    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) permits candidates to apply to up to two programs at the same time, and up to three over a student's entire career. Furthermore, admissions committees sometimes share applications when they believe certain candidates have interests that suit other programs.
  • I know that applicants are allowed to apply to two departments simultaneously. I don’t see an "add second department" option -- do I need to open a second application?
    Students who are applying to two programs must submit two applications.

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Answers to ACCEPTANCE QUESTIONS
  • Given my academic background, what are my odds of acceptance?

    The physics department's admissions committee reviews each candidate's entire application, including statement of purpose, transcript, experience, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation -- the statement of purpose and letters of recommendation being especially important. Beyond that, the department cannot determine in advance the likelihood of success in any particular case.

Answers to ENROLLMENT/FUNDING QUESTIONS
  • Do I need to submit financial information with my application?

    Financial information is not required for applications to the physics department.
  • How much funding do physics graduate students receive?

    All Harvard physics graduate students are guaranteed funding, which fully covers tuition and fees, the student's health insurance (family members can join the student's plan, but must fully pay their own share), and an annual salary of approximately $25k, or $30k if the student secures summer funding as well or if the student wins an outside fellowship (the NSF GRFP, for example).
  • How do graduate students without external fellowships secure summer funding at Harvard’s physics program?

    Students can obtain summer funding by obtaining a research appointment (RA) with a faculty member’s research group. Students who are unable to obtain a summer RA can instead secure funding by assistant-teaching summer classes, or by working in the library or machine shop.
  • Are international PhD students guaranteed funding at Harvard’s physics department?

    Many international students apply to and are accepted to our physics program; in past years, up to 40% of our students have been international. And all PhD students -- including international students -- are guaranteed funding. Please see our "Admissions and Financial Aid" page (in particular, the section under "Financial Aid") for detailed information about our program's funding structure for graduate students.
  • Does the physics department permit part-time enrollment?

    The department does not permit part-time enrollment. Full-time enrollment is considered to be 40 hours per week, although in practice most graduate students often work much longer hours -- the work consists mainly of research, but certain semesters also include assistant-teaching.

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Answers to ACADEMIC REQUIREMENTS
  • What courses are required for candidacy to the program?

    There are no specific, mandatory course requirements for candidacy. However, prospective students should be well-versed in intermediate physics and mathematics. Typically, applicants will have devoted between 50 and 60 credit hours -- approximately half of their undergraduate work -- to physics, mathematics, and chemistry. It is desirable for every applicant to have completed at least one year of introductory quantum mechanics classes.
  • My undergraduate major is in a subject different from physics, and I did not take key physics classes like statistical physics and quantum mechanics, but I have strengths in other areas, such as high GRE scores. Am I precluded from applying?

    Everyone is entitled to apply to the physics program. Weaker course background can sometimes be balanced out by stronger areas on a prospective student's application for admission, such as GRE scores, but the department cannot determine in advance the likelihood of success in any particular case.
  • Can I still apply for the PhD program if I plan on graduating from my undergraduate institution during the summer before the first fall semester?

    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires only that incoming students have graduated by their intended date of matriculation, so graduating during the summer before the first fall semester is generally acceptable.
  • What are the course requirements for obtaining a PhD?

    Course requirements for physics PhD students consist of:
    • 2 semesters of graduate-level quantum mechanics (at the level of Merzbacher or Gottfried/Yan),
    • 1 semester of graduate-level statistical mechanics (at the level of Pathria),
    • 1 semester of graduate-level electromagnetism (at the level of Jackson),
    • 4 semesters of elective courses at the graduate level, with no more than 2 in any single subject area
    • 1 semester of the graduate-level experimental laboratory course (for theorists)

    Some of these requirements may be waived if the student has taken equivalent courses previously, depending on the discretion of the physics department's Committee on Higher Degrees. For more details, please see our official page on course requirements, as well as our page on petitioning the Committee on Higher Degrees for course credit.

    You can find a full list of course offerings in the physics department here and course offerings from other departments by visiting courses.my.harvard.edu.

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Answers to ACADEMIC RECORD and TRANSCRIPT QUESTIONS

  • The application asks for a list of relevant courses taken at my undergraduate institution. Do I still have to complete that part of the application if the courses are already listed on my uploaded official transcript?
        or:
    I attended a university in another country, and the course names and textbook names are all in a foreign language. Do I still need to fill out the list of undergraduate courses on the application form?

    To ensure that your application is processed correctly and considered by the admissions committee, please fill out all forms completely, even if you believe some of the information is already on your academic transcript or are uncertain that the information will be useful and necessary.
     
  • The physics department specifically requires that candidates submit additional documentation of their most advanced courses and textbooks used. Where do I submit that list?

    In addition to filling out the course abstract in the main application, you should submit your list of advanced courses and textbooks used in the Additional Academic information/materials section of the online application.
     
  • The application instructions ask students applying to the physics program to list the four most advanced physics/astronomy courses and the two most advanced math courses they have taken so far. May I list more than six total courses?

    Yes -- applicants are permitted to list additional advanced courses in relevant subjects if they wish.
     
  • As an undergraduate, I’ve taken several advanced theoretical courses that can’t easily be classified as either pure physics or pure math. In my list of advanced courses, should I classify these courses as physics or math?

    In filling out your list of advanced coursework, the admissions committee asks that you please use your best judgment in deciding how to classify your courses.
     
  • Do I need my undergraduate institution to mail in my transcripts for me, or can I mail them myself?

    Candidates do not need to ask their undergraduate institutions to mail in student transcripts.

    The Graduate School requires that you upload a copy of your transcript from each college/university attended with your online application. Foreign transcripts---records of all courses, seminars, and examinations, including grades, scores, grading scales, and conferrals of degrees---must be in English. If records are not available in English, original records must be uploaded with certified English translations. All translations must be literal and complete versions of the original records. The University reserves the right to request additional academic documents.
     
  • If I spent a semester at another university under a study-abroad program, but all my grades are reported on my home institution’s transcript, do I need to send a redundant transcript from the study-abroad institution?

    As long as grades for all your courses are reported on your home institution's transcript, there is no need to submit a redundant transcript from your study-abroad institution.
     
  • I spent a few semesters at one undergraduate institution before transferring to another. Do I need to provide transcripts from both institutions?

    The department requires that transfer students submit official transcripts from all undergraduate institutions that they have attended -- every undergraduate class taken by a student at any institution should appear on an official transcript.
     
  • I am attending a one-year graduate program, and I do not yet have official grades or a transcript that I can include with my undergraduate transcript. Can I submit the graduate program’s transcript after the official application deadline?

    If your current institution does not yet have a transcript or official grades available for you, then the Harvard physics department will accept your application without that information. You can mention your graduate work in your statement of purpose, and, if you'd like, mail a hard-copy of your transcript to GSAS admissions once it becomes available -- the mailing address is the same as for your undergraduate transcript.
     
  • My university does not have an official policy of providing GPAs. Should I leave the GPA field blank on the application?

    Please compute a GPA as best you can from your course grades, and enter it into the application form.
     
  • I am an international student, and my undergraduate institution uses a numerical grading  system different from the standard American system. Should I enter my numerical grade values in the application form? Should I calculate a GPA?

    The members of our admissions committee have a good understanding of a wide variety of international grading systems, so there's no need to convert your grades. Please just use the numerical values you have, and compute a GPA from them as best you can.
     
  • My transcript is in another language. Do I still need to submit it?

    The departments requires all students to submit a transcript or equivalent official academic record with a student’s undergraduate grades. If the transcript is in another language, then the candidate should also submit a certified translation.
     
  • My university does not provide transcripts, but does provide an official form with a list of my courses and grades. What should I upload in place of a transcript?

    The admissions committee recognizes that some institutions do not produce transcripts, but instead provide other official records of undergraduate work and grades received. In that case, please submit those official records in place of a transcript.
     
  • My university does not produce official paper transcripts -- my university asks students to provide their academic records department with an  email address for sending out a secure link. Can applicants to Harvard’s physics program use this system rather than uploading an official transcript?

    Unfortunately, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) does not accept transcripts electronically except through their official online application. Please ask your university to send you the transcript, and then upload it manually through the GSAS online application.
     
  • I submitted my online application without attaching the required list of my six most advanced physics and math courses. How can I get the information to the admissions committee?

    Please include a hard-copy of the list of advanced courses when you mail your original transcript to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) admissions office.

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Answers to GRE SCORES

  • What is the official code for reporting GRE scores?

    When requesting official score reports, please indicate the receiving institution as Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Code 3451.
     
  • I have taken the GREs, but my scores have expired. Do I need to retake the tests?

    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) officially requires non-expired GRE scores as part of a complete application. Full exemptions are granted only under extreme circumstances -- to make an inquiry, please visit the contact page for the GSAS Office of Admissions.
     
  • I am unable to take the GREs early enough for my scores to arrive by the official December application deadline. Will my application still be considered?

    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) officially requires GRE scores as part of a complete application. However, the physics department is willing to receive scores late if a candidate cannot ensure that the scores will arrive by the deadline. In the meantime, please indicate the dates that you took the GRE tests on the application form and fill in all the scores you have now, leaving the remaining fields blank.
     
  • I have taken the Physics GRE multiple times. Which score will be reviewed, the most recent one or the best one?

    You can fill in whichever set of scores you'd prefer on the online application -- the Educational Testing Service will send the admissions committee the scores from all your tests as well.
     
  • Is there a lowest limit on acceptable GRE scores?

    There are no minimum or lowest-limit scores on the GRE -- lower GRE scores can be balanced out by stronger areas on a prospective student's application for admission. No applications are ever dismissed out of hand, and certainly not based on a single component.

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Answers to TOEFL QUESTIONS

  • What is the official code for reporting TOEFL scores?

    When requesting official score reports, please indicate the receiving institution as Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Code 3451.
     
  • Do I have to take (or retake) the TOEFL? My circumstances make it inconvenient or difficult to do so, and my English is pretty good.

    The department apologizes for any inconvenience, but Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires TOEFL scores for all applicants who have not received a BA from an English-speaking undergraduate institution, with exemptions granted only in extreme circumstances -- if you believe that your case may qualify, please visit the contact page for the GSAS Office of Admissions.
     
  • My undergraduate university was not primarily English-speaking, but I later attended a master’s program at an English-speaking university. Do I still need to submit TOEFL scores?

    Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires TOEFL scores for all applicants who have not received a BA from an English-speaking undergraduate institution, with exemptions granted only in extreme circumstances -- if you believe that your case may qualify, please visit the contact page for the GSAS Office of Admissions.
     
  • My undergraduate institution is in a non-English-speaking country, but English was the only language of instruction. Do I need to submit TOEFL scores, and, if not, how do I prove that I did my undergraduate work in English?

    The members of the physics department's admissions committee are familiar with most undergraduate institutions around the world, so there's no need to provide specific proof on your application that your institution is English-speaking -- please just check the appropriate box on the online application form. Later on, if any concerns arise during the course of your application process, you will be contacted with further instructions.
     
  • I have a professor of English Literature who is willing to write me a certificate regarding my English skills -- do I still need to take the TOEFL?

    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requires TOEFL scores of all non-native-English students who have not attended an English-speaking undergraduate institution. GSAS does not accept alternative forms of verification, such as a letter from a faculty member at a student’s undergraduate institution.

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Answers to RECOMMENDATION LETTERS

  • The application for admission permits more than three letters of recommendation, and I have four faculty members who are willing to submit recommendation letters for me. Would the admissions committee welcome a fourth letter?

    The admissions committee asks for three letters of recommendation for each candidate, but is willing to look at additional letters of recommendation if they are provided.
     
  • The online application for admission permits registering only up to four letters of recommendation. If I have more than four, how can I submit additional letters?

    The physics department asks that additional letter-writers submit their sealed letters by mail to the admissions office:
    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
    Harvard University
    Office of Admissions
    P.O. Box 9129

    Cambridge, MA 02238-9129

    Courier or express mail service should be addressed to:
    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
    Harvard University
    Office of Admissions
    Holyoke Center, 3rd Floor
    1350 Massachusetts Avenue
    Cambridge, MA 02138

Answers to DEGREE REQUIREMENTS
  • Does the Harvard physics program have a written qualifying exam? If I have extensive academic preparation, can I take it at the beginning of my first year?

    Harvard's physics program does not have written qualifying examinations, but instead has a variety of course requirements and an oral examination.

    The oral examination is intended to demonstrate a graduate student’s command of his or her subject area, formalize the student’s relationship with a research advisor, and provide the department with a snapshot of the student's academic and research progress. As such, students often take the oral exam toward the end of their second year, and are usually required by the department to take it by the end of their third year.

    For more information about the oral exam, please see the relevant section of the physics degree programs.

Answers to FACULTY REQUESTS
  • There is a professor on your faculty whose research area lines up with my my interests and abilities. Can I do anything when I apply to ensure that I’ll be able to work with this faculty member if I am accepted?

    Everyone is welcome to apply to the physics program at Harvard, but the department cannot guarantee in advance that any accepted student will be able to work with a particular faculty member.
Answers to TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES
  • I am having difficulty getting my scanned transcript under the 2MB upload limit. What should I do?

    The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) recommends trying to save the scanned transcript as a PDF, since that usually leads to reduced file sizes compared to raw image formats. As a last resort, you can try saving the first and second halves of your transcript and uploading them separately, provided you clearly note on the uploaded document that there are multiple parts.
     
  • I have made a serious error in my submitted application. Whom can I contact for help?

    Please contact the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) admissions information office. You can reach the office by phone at 617-496-6100 (2:00pm - 5:00pm EST) or by email at admiss@fas.harvard.edu.

    If you choose to contact the admissions information office by email, please send your message from the same email address you used to register your online application, and put the words ADMISSIONS QUESTION (all capital letters) in your email subject.

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