So You Want To Be A Physicist - Part 6
We are still discussing the final year of your undergraduate program where you are in the midst of applying to graduate schools. In Part 5, I mentioned the word "assistantship" several times, and it is important you understand what this is, and why you should apply for it. So this part of the series will focus solely on the issue of assistantship. Take note that the kind of assistantship that I will be discussing applies only to US universities. However, ALL incoming graduate students, irregardless of whether they are US citizens or not, qualify for these assistantships. So a qualified student from another country can certainly apply for one of these.
There are two forms of assistantships: (i) teaching assistantships (TA) and (ii) research assistantships (RA). No matter which form of assistantships that is being offered, typically what is involved is a complete tuition/fees waver, and a stipend. What this means is that your schooling tuition and fees are being paid for by your department, and you will also receive a paycheck (stipend) for your services. The amount of your stipend depends entirely on your school. So this award is certainly significant especially since top tier schools can have outrageously high tuition and fees. So now, what are the differences between the two types of assistantships?
In practically all physics departments, and especially so at large schools, they need the manpower from the physics graduate students to either conduct tutorial/discussion sections, run physics laboratories, and/or do homework/exam grading of lower-level physics courses. Therefore, they award a number of TA each year or semester. So you become part of the department's manpower to help the various faculty members in various physics courses.
As an incoming physics students, TA'ship is the one you most likely have a chance to get. However, your chances of getting one depends on the number applying for it. Each school tends to already reserve TA'ships for they graduate students who have already earned one the previous year. So whatever is left to fulfill their needs/budget is the one being offered to the new incoming pool of applicants. So certainly, competition for this award can be intense. Take note also that in many schools, especially the ones that care about the quality of their instructions, you may need to prove your ability to communicate clearly in English, both written and verbal. Since you will be dealing, often directly, with undergraduate students taking those various physics classes, it is important that you are able to communicate with them. So if you are from a non-English speaking background, you will need a good TOEFL scores, and other supporting evidence, to bolster your chances.
The RA'ship, on the other hand, isn't usually available for new, incoming graduate students. An RA is a research position, and it is awarded by individual faculty members based on the research grant that he/she has obtained. Most faculty members do not award RA'ships to a graduate student until he/she has at least passed the department's qualifying exam (more on what this exam is in a future installment of this series). For most graduate students, the RA'ship is a way to do one's doctoral research work while being paid for it. So your RA work also becomes your doctoral dessertation, meaning that you'd better be working in the area of physics that you want to specialize in.
Depending on what field of physics you want to go into, and whether it is theoretical or experimental, you may end up receiving a TA'ship throughout your graduate career, especially if your supervisor has no research grants to hire you. Experimentalists tend to have higher chances of getting an RA'ship, simply due to the nature of the work.
The point that I'm trying to get across is that depending on your ability and your GPA, graduate school may not cost you an arm and a leg. It's true that many US universities are extremly costly. However, a physics graduate student has a lot more options in finding ways to reduce such cost. Schools such as Stanford, for instance, automatically assumes that you will require some form of assistantship when you apply to the physics graduate program. In fact, practically all of their graduate students are on some form of assistantships/scholarships. However, due to intense competition for the limited funds, you need to do all you can to make yourself stand out. Hopefully, you have done that during your undergraduate program, and have sent in your applications early.