Guest Post: Engineering Grad School from Physics

So You Want To Join the Dark Side by Lee

Hello readers of Rob’s blog! I was so happy when Rob asked me to write a guest blog about my experience applying for an engineering PhD program. I hope that reading this will help any of you thinking of switching over to the dark side (that’s what everyone calls it, but really it’s a lot of fun!) A little bit about me: I double majored in physics and environmental policy in undergrad and I am now at USC pursuing a PhD in materials science engineering.

My story is a little long, but I think my ultimate decision to apply to a PhD program in Materials Science Engineering only makes sense if I start from the beginning. So bear with me! I’ll try to keep it as concise as possible. I’ll also include some tips and important things to consider during the application process.


  • LOVED physics in high school – decided to apply to Boston University as a declared physics major

Freshman Year

  • Took the introductory physics courses
  • Became very interested in environmental issues, and thought the best way to attack the problem was through policy so I picked up an environmental policy major

Sophomore Year

  • Fall of sophomore year is when I started doing research… I joined the research group of my academic advisor which was in collaboration with some materials scientists from the engineering school
  • LOVED working with engineers on a project that was directly applicable to current real world environmental problems
  • Researched a material used as the cathode of solid oxide fuel cells, and I continued this research throughout the rest of my time at BU

Junior Year

  • Loved my environmental policy classes, and I wondered if I should choose a career path on the research and development side of environmental issues or on the policy side
  • Decided to do the “abroad” program in Washington, DC through BU and spent 8 months doing two different internships – one on the energy team at a progressive think tank and the other at a lobbying group advocating for fuel cells
  • By the end of my time in DC, I realized the DC culture was way too far removed from the science, and I missed doing math!
  • Decision made: I’d be applying to graduate school. Because I loved my time with materials scientists at BU, I decided a PhD program in materials science would be the best fit for me.
  • Spent the rest of the summer before senior year studying for the GRE


Ok, so here’s where I’ll get into the details of applying to a materials science engineering graduate program. There are three things that are wonderful about the switch from physics to materials science:

  1. Materials science is (I believe) the only sect of engineering that you can go straight from physics undergrad to engineering grad without taking extra courses. I think if you apply to mechanical engineering or any other engineering program, it will be required that you take extra courses to catch up on the material.
  2. Materials science is, in my opinion, the perfect fit for those interested in physics, chemistry, and engineering. So far in my first year, I have had experiences in all three separately and combined! It’s great!
  3.  No specialized GRE!! All that’s required is the general GRE.

Studying for the GRE

Engineering grad schools do not care about the English section. Just focus on getting as close to a perfect score as possible on the math section. USC, BU and similar schools expect at least a 750/800 on the math section. More prestigious schools like Stanford, etc. will expect 800/800.

*Note: You can find charts online that will translate your score on the new scale to what it would be on the 800 scale to compare

Application Process

  • Personal Statement/Previous Research – start EARLY! Even if the application isn’t online yet and you don’t know the exact prompt, write out a mock personal statement highlighting who you are, why you are applying to this engineering program, what your previous research experience is, etc. You will have to adjust the essay once the actual prompt is released online but it will make the fall of your senior year MUCH less stressful if you start early.
  • Contact Professors – My experience showed me that a school’s decision to admit you is heavily influenced by professors showing interest in working with you. Many schools will not admit you if they don’t have the funding for you, and this funding comes from a specific professor. Email professors at each school that you are interested in working with. I started in early October of senior year. Keep following up with them and make sure they know that you want to work with them.
  • Visit Schools – If you have the time and money to do so, visit each school you are interested in (or at least your top few choices) and meet with professors in person. This will show even more that you are 100% interested and committed to working with them, and they will be more likely to offer you admission to the school. Don’t stress if you can’t make these visits in the fall. It is absolutely not required, but it can only help you if you do have the opportunity to do so.

Masters vs. PhD?

If you are considering Masters vs. PhD, there are a few major pros and cons of each. If you are planning to go into the industry and not academia after the graduate program, a master’s program might seem more appealing. But it’s important to know that many PhD students have no intent to go into academia (and their advisors know this), so it is not taboo to go into a PhD program with the intent of getting a job afterwards. Another major thing to consider is time vs. money. Masters programs are 2 years, while PhD programs are 4-6 years. BUT you will be required to pay for a master’s program, while with PhD programs, tuition is covered AND you get paid on top of it – typically about $25,000-$30,000 per year. Not a bad deal to have no student loans at the end of it and the title of a PhD while being paid a totally livable stipend (even in Los Angeles!). If you just want to spend a couple more years in school after undergrad, though, and do not want to do 4-6 years of research, maybe a master’s program is the best choice. It’s up to you!

I hope this helped! I’ll try to check back on this post, and if you guys have any questions just post in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them! Good luck!