Frequently Asked Questions
What undergraduate background is expected of applicants to the graduate program?
Our graduate program invites applications from interested persons who have undergraduate degrees and course backgrounds that emphasize physics. Clearly additional undergraduate course experiences in astronomy, mathematics, computational programming techniques, engineering, and electronics may also provide useful preparation.
For admission to Physics and Astronomy’s graduate program, a B.S. or B.A. degree with a minimum GPA of 3.0 is usually required, ideally with a major in physics or astronomy (or strong physics coursework in a related major). Applicants will be evaluated based on their likelihood of success in our graduate program. As such, students having strong letters of recommendation, a record of research experience and productivity, good grades, and good test scores will generally be competitive for admission; however, we place no minimum threshold upon test scores, and will consider all aspects of each applicant’s file for admission.
Are applicants with non-traditional academic or career backgrounds ever considered?
Candidates whose backgrounds may be somewhat weak in physics, but who show strong academic promise for graduate study with us, are encouraged to inquire. We are particularly interested in such persons who, through post-undergraduate experience, have gained a strong interest in physics- or astronomy-related fields. However, our normal admission requirements are not usually waived in these cases.
Is ‘provisional acceptance’ ever offered for graduate study to students of promise whose prior physics training is weak?
Provisional acceptance is not possible. It may be possible for such students to gain sufficient physics training to allow them to be successful in our graduate program by further enrollment in pre-graduate level physics courses. This can, for example, be arranged through UNC’s Continuing Studies program. Information about registering as a part-time student in selected pre-graduate courses prior to graduate work can be found at the Friday Center website.
Occasionally a student may lack just one or two advanced undergraduate courses that are prerequisites to our graduate courses. If such a student is otherwise very well prepared academically, we may consider admission with the expectation that the student will take the missing courses in the first year as part of a custom study plan. This option is only possible for 400+ level prerequisites.
How long will it take me to obtain a graduate degree in the program?
The typical duration of studies for well-prepared, conscientious students to achieve a doctoral degree is about 5-6 years. Students entering with a master’s degree from another physics program may require less time if they can pass our doctoral written exams quickly. Students may optionally choose to receive a Master’s degree en route to the PhD, which typically takes two years. All students proceed most quickly toward a degree when they affiliate themselves early with one of the departmental research programs to begin to learn about research. Toward that end, some admitted students may be able to arrange an opportunity for research with us in the summer prior to their initial fall enrollment.
Can I obtain just a Master’s degree?
We do not offer a terminal master’s program, and only consider applications from students intent upon a Ph.D. However, we do offer a Master’s degree en route to the Ph.D. that is purely optional; students may wish to do the extra work to obtain an M.S. typically within the first 2 years of their studies.
How many offers of admission to the Physics and Astronomy graduate program are made each year?
In recent years Physics & Astronomy has sought to enroll 12 to 16 incoming graduate students in each fall semester. Because of the fluctuating number of admitted students enrolling in our program each year, the number of students offered admission varies slightly from year to year.
Are your admission offers ever restricted in number by field of specialization?
We strive each fall to recruit an incoming class with a breadth of interests, and we certainly look for and encourage applicants whose interests match those of our faculty. We do not follow strict guidelines about the number of admissions offered in each of the Department’s research fields.
When is the application deadline for your program?
We recommend strongly that all applications be completed by the December deadline for initial fall semester enrollment in that year. In practice, this means we begin reviewing all completed applications in mid-December. For full consideration for admission, applications are required to be completed (including all required application materials) no later than January 9, 2018, unless special permission is granted by the Director of Graduate Admissions. The principal loss to strong applicants whose files are incomplete by the December deadline is that they risk not being considered for nomination for lucrative, highly competitive, Graduate School fellowships. Our internal deadlines in this campus-wide competition require that any nominee’s file must be complete and be fully evaluated by our departmental admissions committee by mid-January.
We recognize that official GRE scores are often reported after these deadlines, and applications containing unofficial GRE scores will be considered for admission if they are otherwise complete; however, admission will not be offered until official GRE scores are received. We also recognize that the submission of recommendation letters are outside of the applicants’ control; students are strongly encouraged to verify that the required 3 recommendation letters have been received by the application deadline. Applications that do not contain all required materials will not be considered for admission.
What is your schedule for notifying applicants of acceptance or rejection?
We usually begin to send offers of admission in February, and continue to admit students until we believe sufficient offers have been made to fill our class for the coming yea. Most of our offers for fall admission with financial aid are made by early March, although a select number of very favorably reviewed students may be considered for late admission, to be tendered offers if space is available. Rejection notices are usually sent between mid March and April 15.
Must all my application materials arrive before the application deadline?
Applicants are recommended to submit all application materials by December 12, 2017 for early consideration for graduate school fellowships. For full consideration for admission, applications are required to be completed (including all required application materials) no later than January 9, 2018, unless special permission is granted by the Director of Graduate Admissions. The earlier a file is complete, the earlier a formal decision can be made concerning admission. We recognize that official GRE scores are often reported after these deadlines, and applications containing unofficial GRE scores will be considered for admission if they are otherwise complete; however, admission will not be offered until official GRE scores are received. We also recognize that the submission of recommendation letters are outside of the applicants’ control; students are strongly encouraged to verify that the required 3 recommendation letters have been received by the application deadline. Applications that do not contain all required materials will not be considered for admission.
Students who have completed their application, and subsequently receive news of a highly significant event that they believe may affect our admissions decision (such as acceptance of a first-authored manuscript for publication, or receipt of an award) may contact the Director of Graduate Admissions with the supplementary information.
Will my application be accepted if I am unable to pay the application fee?
An applicant’s file is incomplete until the application fee is paid, and no deferred fee payment is allowed. However, applicants may request a fee waiver from the Graduate College if they fall within one of several eligibility categories listed here, including CAP REU alumni who may contact Director Sheila Kannappan regarding the possibility of a fee waiver. Applications that are incomplete because of unpaid or unwaived fees are not evaluated by the Department. Our Graduate School accepts no departmental recommendation for applicant admission until the fee is paid.
The Department is interested in assessing the effect of this fee from the Graduate School in preventing otherwise qualified applicants from applying to our program. If you would otherwise apply but find the fee prohibitive, yet do not formally qualify as having financial need according to UNC’s criteria, please give us your contact information here. We will use this information to ask for a review of our policies for reduced/eliminated fees. This is unlikely to change policies in the current year, but may help future students who find the current fee structure prohibitive. Some foreign applicants for whom application fee payment is a financial hardship occasionally find a friend in the US who can pay the fee for them. In these cases, a check or money order made payable to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill should be sent with a cover letter to:
The Graduate School
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
200 Bynum Hall
Chapel Hill, NC 27599 USA.
The cover letter must make it very clear for whom this application fee is being paid.
Will my chance of admission or financial aid be less if my materials do not arrive before the application deadline?
Generally, yes. The early deadline of December 12th will allow your application to be assessed for all available fellowship opportunities. That said, all applications received by our final deadline of January 9th will still be considered within the normal pool of student admissions, including teaching assistantship support.
Are all students who are offered admission also provided financial support?
Generally, yes. In recent years, most students admitted have received financial support in the form of nine-month teaching assistantships. In some cases, research assistantships have instead been provided to first-year students. Such stipends ($1,990.00 monthly for the 2016-2017 academic year) require a total of 15 to 20 hours a week of teaching or research service. In addition, funds are made available to cover tuition ($4,821.50 per semester in 2016-2017 for in-State residents; $13,427.00 per semester for out-of-State residents) and student health insurance ($3,082.56 per year), provided both academic eligibility and steady academic progress toward degree are maintained. Additional summer support, at the same monthly rate, is usually available to all graduate students through our research and/or teaching programs.
However, TA support is withdrawn after the first semester for students who prove unable because of insufficient English communication skills to fulfill their TA duties.
Will the opportunity for financial support depend on the field of research I chose?
Most entering graduate students are supported during the first academic year with teaching assistantship (TA) funds, which require them to assist for 15 to 20 hours per week as an instructor or grader in one of our lower level undergraduate courses or laboratories. Many students continue to receive similar TA support in their second academic year, while others begin to receive some research assistantship (RA) support. By the end of the second year, most of our graduate students receive some RA support, which allows them time to concentrate on their thesis research.
Almost all departmental research programs enjoy substantial external research funding, so most graduate students can expect significant RA support during their careers. Students whose research programs cannot provide RA funding, and who continue to make steady progress toward a degree, continue to receive TA support during their later years. This can continue after their graduate coursework is complete while they are concentrating on thesis research. So, the actual level of financial support usually does not depend significantly on the research field chosen; sometimes the type of financial support does. Students deemed slow in finishing their doctoral work risk a reduction or loss of such support in later years.
Will your financial support offer cover all my expenses?
It is our experience that students receiving our financial support packages described above live reasonably comfortably in Chapel Hill.
Can I provide my GRE scores to the Department or must they come to you directly from the Educational Testing Service?
We invite students to send us early ‘unofficial’ copies of their GRE and TOEFL test scores. These can be used for internal departmental evaluation for admission. However, our Graduate School requires that ‘official’ results reach us from the testing agency before any admission offer can be extended.
What minimum GRE and TOEFL scores are usual for students you admit?
We do not employ GRE cutoffs. For reference, recently enrolled students have had GRE scores in the following percentile ranges: Verbal 41%-99%, Quantitative 71%-98%, and Physics 14%-91%. The TOEFL exam is required for non-native English speakers and the minimum acceptable score is 95 on the internet-based test. Alternatively, a IELTS score of 7 or above may be substituted for the TOEFL.
Although we have no strict minimum test scores, a very low score would require us to appeal to the graduate school on your behalf. Such an appeal will be considered only if every other element of your application is exceptionally strong.
How recently must I have taken the GRE/GMAT or TOEFL exams?
Our Graduate School requires recent, official score reports. GRE/GMAT scores more than 5 years old and TOEFL scores more than 2 years old are not acceptable.
Do you ever waive the requirements that applicants take the GRE exams?
No. Our Graduate School requires that all applicants take the verbal and quantitative GRE exams. Physics & Astronomy requires that applicants also take the Physics subject test.
I’ve missed the last physics GRE date this fall. Can I take the test next April?
Unfortunately, no. We don’t evaluate applications without physics GRE scores, and an application first reviewed in April has no realistic chance of admission.
Do you ever waive the requirements that applicants take the TOEFL exam?
The only chance for TOEFL waiver is for applicants claiming exemption from the requirement based upon receipt of a previous degree from an institution in an English speaking country. In these cases, an official transcript or diploma showing the degree award date must be submitted to the Graduate School to receive the waiver.
Why does Physics & Astronomy usually require a higher TOEFL score than the Graduate School?
The principal departmental goal in requiring the higher TOEFL score is assurance that accepted students can communicate well in English and serve effectively as teaching assistants in an undergraduate laboratory or recitation section. The Department requires demonstration of such proficiency as a condition for obtaining an MS or Ph.D. degree. In rare cases, when departmental faculty know applicants personally and can vouch for an applicant’s English language proficiency, a lower TOEFL score may be allowed.
For up-to-date information about taking the GRE, visit ETS’s GRE web site.
By when must I tell you if I accept your admission offer?
The deadline for acceptance of our offer of fall semester admission is April 15. We greatly appreciate earlier notification if at all possible. Since the number of places in our program is limited, and since we keep a file of applicants who are deemed worthy of admission if space becomes available, we would like to know as quickly as possible whether admitted students will be able to accept our offer. Declined offers open spaces for others.
Is an acceptance by email sufficient to hold my place in your program?
Notifying us by email of your acceptance is strongly encouraged. Official acceptance through the graduate school is also required.
How do I officially accept the offer of admission with the Graduate School?
Included in your official offer letter from the Graduate School are instructions regarding the formal acceptance of admission as well as the required enrollment deposit and Student Health Forms.
What happens once I have accepted your offer?
Within ten days of receiving your enrollment deposit and acceptance form the Graduate School will mail materials needed to complete your fall semester enrollment. By late May, the International Center will mail materials to admitted foreign students to allow them to apply for a US entry visa.
A final transcript showing your grades for the current semester and proving that you have completed all requirements for the degree program in which you currently are enrolled is required by the Graduate School before you are eligible to register for classes. This proof of your qualifications to enroll here as a graduate student is mandatory and cannot be waived under any circumstances.
The Graduate School will also request payment of a non-refundable enrollment deposit to hold your place in our program until you actually enroll.
Finally, you will be sent a Student Medical History form which must be completed and returned to the Student Health Services office. All students are urged to complete this form and return it as quickly as possible. You will not be allowed to enroll here until it is completed.
Can I wait until arrival on campus to submit my completed Medical History form?
International students coming here in the past have not all returned the health forms by the requested May 1 deadline date. A few have brought the forms with them only when they arrived on campus. However, you should realize that the Graduate School will cancel your permission to enroll here if this form is not correctly filled out and submitted here to the Student Health Service before the fall semester begins in August. Thus, it would be wisest if this form were completed and returned here long before the date of your expected arrival in Chapel Hill. Then, if there is any problem, or if any information is lacking, there would be time for you to obtain the missing information before departing for Chapel Hill.
I am an international student and need the form to apply for a US entry visa. When can I expect it to arrive?
Each year our admitted international students quickly become worried that this form will not arrive in time for them to obtain the necessary passport and visa. These forms are mailed out by our International Center after the Graduate School has mailed all admitted candidates a formal acceptance letter. Usually all International Center forms needed for fall semester enrollment are mailed in the month of June.
We cannot recall a recent case when any of these materials have been lost in the mail, though sometimes 3 to 4 weeks were required before actual delivery abroad. Two weeks is typical, but longer delivery times can and do occur. Our International Center will not consider mailing any duplicate forms until six weeks have passed. So, please be patient and keep us informed about their arrival. If after six weeks you still are waiting, we certainly will try again to help you obtain the needed forms quickly.