FAQs for Prospective Graduate Students

General questions about UMBC:

Graduate Degree ProgramsQ. Where is UMBC located?

A. UMBC has a unique location and academic environment. It is situated on a spacious 480-acre suburban campus with easy access to Baltimore (20 min) and Washington, DC (40 min).

Q. How large is UMBC?

A. UMBC has roughly 11,000 undergraduate and 3,000 graduate students. The University has 24 different PhD programs.  UMBC has a reputation as a top mid-sized research university that combines the advantages of a larger research university with the intimate atmosphere of a liberal arts college.

Q. Is UMBC a “good” university?

A. We are an R1! This means that UMBC is among the top ~150 universities in the US with the highest research activity.

The Department of Physics at UMBC:

Q. How large is the Physics Department at UMBC?

A. The department is composed of ~25 professors. There are approximately 150 undergraduate physics majors and 50 graduate students in the Physics and Atmospheric Physics PhD programs. The Department of Physics is also closely connected to two large multi-institutional research centers.

Q. Can I visit the campus before applying?

A. Absolutely!  Contact the Chair of the  Graduate Admissions Committee to set up an appointment. You can meet professors, current students, tour some labs and visit a lecture.

Q. Does the Department of Physics offer a MS program?

A. All students enrolled in the PhD programs can earn a non-terminal MS degree en-route to the PhD. We do not admit students directly into a terminal MS program.

Applying for the graduate programs:

Q. What is the deadline for applications ?

A. The application deadline for Fall admission is January 7. Spring admissions are rare and are limited to exceptional cases.

Q. I have just noticed that I missed the deadline for application. Can I still apply?

A. Of course, however, your chances are much better if you follow the official deadlines.  Our objective is to admit the most talented group of students possible, and we may find a way to support you even if you apply late. Not every student accepts our admission offer and, spots may free up any time, so do not give up.  Ask the Chair of the Graduate Admissions Committee to learn about the current state of matters.

Q. Is it possible to have the application fee waived?

A. A limited number of application-fee waivers are available for well-qualified students with demonstrated financial need, including lower-income international students. Please contact the Graduate Admissions Committee Chair if you would like to inquire about a fee waiver.

Q. Do I need to provide official transcripts and test scores with my application? If my degree is from an international institution, do the transcript and certification of graduation need to be in English?

A. Unofficial transcripts and test scores can be used for the initial application. If your unofficial transcripts are not in English, it is up to the Graduate Admissions Committee to determine whether they can understand the information provided. If we decide to make you an offer of admission, official transcripts and test scores will need to be submitted before the offer can be finalized. Proof of graduation will be required before you can begin your Ph.D. studies at UMBC. If your official transcript or certification of graduation are not in English, it is recommended that you provide an official translation. If a translation is not provided, it is up to the Graduate School to determine whether they can understand the information provided.

Q. Is there a minimum required score on the TOEFL or IETLS test for admission of international students?

A. Yes. According to the rules of the Graduate School, any applicant with a TOEFL score below 80 or an IETLS score below 6.5 is automatically rejected. Although the department does not have a strict limit of its own, our experience shows that a student should have a TOEFL score above or very close to 95, or an IETLS score above or very close to 7.0, to function effectively in her/his courses and as a teaching assistant. For Fall 2023 applications, UMBC will also be accepting DuoLingo scores; the minimum required score is 105, and the recommended score for admission to the department is 120. We will also be accepting TOEFL Essentials scores; the minimum required score is 8.5, and the recommended score is 10.

Q. Are GRE scores required or recommended for application?

A. The UMBC Department of Physics DOES NOT require or request GRE test scores for applications. Even if you report scores, we will not take them into account in your application evaluation.

Q. Is it helpful to include additional material in my application?

A. International students may submit an explanation of the grading scheme at their undergraduate institution and / or information on converting their grades to the U.S. GPA system. Otherwise, we will not consider materials beyond those requested in the application, in order to treat all applicants equally. Please do not submit a CV, GRE scores, publications, certifications, etc. All of your relevant accomplishments should be briefly summarized in your Statement of Purpose. Any materials that are not required as part of the application will be discarded and will not be taken into consideration when evaluating your application.

Q. What should I include in the Personal Statement for my application? How long should it be?

A. The Personal Statement should explain why you want to pursue a Ph.D. degree in physics at UMBC and why you’re qualified for the Ph.D. program. There is no set length requirement, but most effective Personal Statements are 1 – 3 pages long. A successful Personal Statement will include your motivation for pursuing a physics Ph.D.; a description of the type of research you’re interested in pursuing and why you want to pursue it in the UMBC Department of Physics; an explanation of relevant research experience or other preparation to conduct research; and demonstration of your resilience, adaptability, perseverance.

Q. What is a “statement on commitment to inclusive excellence”?

A. UMBC, a public institution, is committed to supporting the diversity of the graduate student body and promoting equal opportunity in higher education. This commitment furthers the educational mission to serve the increasingly diverse population and educational needs of Maryland and the nation. Our graduate students contribute to the global pool of future scholars and academic leaders, thus high value is placed on achieving a diverse graduate student body to support UMBC’s academic excellence. We invite you to include in this statement how you may contribute to the diversification of graduate education and the UMBC community.

The purpose of this essay is to get to know you as an individual and potential graduate student. Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. You may include any educational, familial, cultural, economic, or social experiences, challenges, community service, outreach activities, residency and citizenship, first-generation college status, or opportunities relevant to your academic journey; how your life experiences contribute to the social, intellectual, or cultural diversity within a campus community and your chosen field; or how you might serve educationally underrepresented and underserved segments of society with your graduate education.

This essay should complement but not duplicate the content in the Personal Statement.

Q. Who should I ask to write my letters of recommendation?

A. The letters should come from somebody who knows you well and can speak to your academic and / or research skills and to your potential to succeed in a Ph.D. program. Personal references or character references are not appropriate.

Q. When will I know whether I have been admitted to UMBC?

A. Admissions decisions are typically made in early February.  You’ll receive a letter indicating that you have been admitted, or placed on a “waitlist”, or rejected. If you have been placed on the “waitlist”, it means that we have positively evaluated your applications, but simply do not have enough open spots in the cohort.  Students placed on the “waitlist” may be offered admissions at a later date as spots open up.

Academic preparation:

Q. Is there a minimum GPA for admission?

A. A low GPA does not automatically exclude you from the program, as long as it is explained and compensated by positive factors, such as strong letters of recommendation, relevant research experience, etc.  According to the rules of the Graduate School, you can only be admitted conditionally, if your GPA is below 3.0. The usual condition is that you pass all your courses during the first year with an A or B. Otherwise, you are dismissed from the program.

Q. Do you admit students who plan to return to school several years after getting the B.S. degree?

A. Yes; we have had a number of successful returning students. However, these situations are always unique. The Graduate Admissions Committee Chair and Graduate Program Directors can help you decide how to get up to speed before starting the program or how to design a transitional semester or year. In some cases, it may be advisable to take graduate or upper division undergraduate courses as a special student before entering the graduate program.

Q. Do you admit students with a major other than physics?

A. Yes. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds. For example, we have had graduate students whose undergraduate education was in optical engineering, materials science, meteorology, or atmospheric science. These students may be missing one or more fundamental undergraduate physics courses and we may ask them to take those courses at UMBC before attempting the corresponding graduate courses.

Q. How important is research experience for admission?

A. Research experience is beneficial, but not necessary for admission.  We will consider your research experience as an important part of your background, especially if you made substantial contributions as documented by a publication or in some other way.

Q. Do I need to know what research area of physics I want to pursue to apply?

A. No, you do not need to be sure of your research interests at the start of the program, although you should have a general interest in one of the areas of research of the faculty in the Department.  During the first year of study, you will have adequate time to examine the research areas and find an advisor and topic area.

Q. Do I need a MS degree to enter the PhD program?

A. No, you may enter the PhD program with a Bachelor’s degree.

Q. If I already hold a MS degree in physics, do I need to retake all the core courses?

A. There is no transfer of credits at the graduate level. However, if you can demonstrate mastery of a subject at the graduate level, we may waive required courses and permit you to take advance electives instead.

Once admitted, what do I need to know?

Q. When will I choose a research advisor?

A. Typically in your second year, but it depends on whether you have a clear research interest when arriving at UMBC or whether you are undecided and need to look longer to find your field of interest.  The first year is mostly spent on general coursework, but there are research rotations to make you aware of the different research areas available in the department.  Most students start working with a professor during or at the end of their second year.

Q. If admitted will I receive financial support from the department?

A. Typically, yes, unless you are supported in some other way. Most first year students receive a teaching assistantship that carries a stipend, tuition and health benefits. During subsequent years, students who are making good progress towards their degree will receive a teaching assistantship or research assistantship.

Q. Is it possible to receive a research assistantship?

A. Yes, most probably you will be a research assistant after the first one or two years. Our research programs are well supported by NASA, NSF, DOD, industry, etc. (UMBC is the second largest recipients of NASA funding.) Most students become research assistants when they choose an advisor and the advisor begins to support them from his/her grant.

Q. Are graduate students used to teach undergraduate lecture courses?

A. No. The only use our department makes of graduate teaching assistants is to run discussion sections in introductory courses, assist in laboratory courses, and grade student assignments.

Q. How long is the PhD program?

A. Students average 5 – 6 years to complete a PhD in our programs.  The first year or two of the program is mainly course work, with the subsequent years spent performing research and preparing the PhD dissertation.

Q. Will I have time off during the summer for vacations while in graduate school?

A. Graduate students in our programs are typically supported by a 12-month stipend during their graduate study.  Therefore, a full year’s commitment to the Graduate Program is expected.  Two weeks of paid vacation are available, as well as time off during the holiday break at the end of the calendar year, and over spring break.

Q. Will I get health benefits as a graduate student?

A. Yes.  Student health benefits are included in all Teaching and Research Assistantships.  Typically, there is some choice in health plans and routine health services are available on campus.  For international students, it is advised that you have an official translation of your immunization documentation.

Other questions:

Q. Who do I contact if I have other questions?

A. For answers to admissions questions you should contact the Chair of the Graduate Admissions Committee and for other questions about the PhD program you can contact the Graduate Program Director of the appropriate program (Physics or Atmospheric Physics).