Postgraduate physics: Entry requirements explained

There are a few little details you ought to know before applying for a postgraduate physics course.
James Davis
James Davis
Team PostgradAustralia
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Physics is as good at capturing any scientist’s imagination as it is useful. It can explain the interactions and properties of time, space and their constituents. Getting into a postgraduate course to learn about all this can be a little tricky at times, however. In this article, we’ll go over all the postgraduate degree options and what it takes to get in.

If you’re not sure about what any of these programs are and want to learn more about postgraduate physics first, you can read our article on the subject here.

Graduate certificates

These six-month full time or one-year part time programs often allow applicants to enter without having a prior bachelor’s degree in physics, so long as they have a bachelor’s degree in something. This can be quite a trap for those new to the discipline, as physics entails a great deal of mathematics. Let’s use the Graduate Certificate in Physics from the University of Adelaide as an example. It and courses like it tend to contain fundamental units just labelled ‘physics’ made up of brief glances at the interactions between space-time and matter-energy in the presence of fundamental forces like gravity. Despite the rudimentary nature of courses like these, they require a reasonable grasp of differential equations, calculus, probability, statistics and more.

So, if you’re coming from a totally unrelated discipline involving little or no quantitative methods, we highly recommend you brush up on these skills before you consider applying for these courses. Graduate certificates are still a great way into the field, but you’ll struggle immensely without some prior study and practice. Many universities offer basic mathematics courses to help students in your position catch up, which are a great way of doing it. Another option is to go online and take either free or paid courses.

If you already hold a physics degree and are looking at postgraduate study, you won’t have any trouble entering these programs. However, they’ll probably be fairly basic for you. We’d recommend you look at a Master of Physics or PhD program instead, but there are some circumstances in which you might want to consider these programs we’ll get into later.

Graduate diplomas

These are very similar to graduate certificates, the only difference being a broader choice of electives in most cases spurred by the longer study time (one year full time or two years part). Our advice for graduate certificates in physics can also be applied to graduate diplomas.

Master’s degrees

These tend to be divided up into two categories: master’s by research and master’s by coursework. You’ll find the latter to be most common, requiring students to at the very least hold a bachelor’s degree in physics or cognate discipline. What a ‘cognate discipline’ is can vary between institutions, but generally experience in any other science (social sciences excluded) or mathematics can work heavily in your favour. These include:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Engineering
  • Genetics
  • Marine science
  • Medical science
  • Statistics

This is due to these employing similar skills and methods of thought to physics, which can come in handy. If you’re in any of these disciplines, a master’s degree in physics might not be far away.

Another thing to be wary of are GPA requirements. A common benchmark to aim for is roughly a credit, which translates to 5/7, 2/4, or 65%. This seems to be the standard minimum GPA for just about every postgraduate course, so if you have achieved this throughout undergraduate study, you’ll probably be fine when you apply for these. If you’ve got a science degree but only attained a passing GPA, don’t worry! There’s still a way in. Completing a graduate certificate or diploma in physics is a great way of circumventing the GPA requirement because having one, regardless of GPA, is an alternative entry pathway for many institutions. Be careful though: Some courses like the University of Melbourne’s Master of Science (Physics) can be fairly stringent and not accept this method of entry. In their case particularly, you not only must have a bachelor’s degree in cognate discipline like engineering, statistics, mathematics or physics, but that degree must have contained units in quantum mechanics at both second and third-year level.

If you’re planning on doing a master’s by research, you may encounter a unique entry requirement in addition to all these. Namely, being able to demonstrate research skills or provide relevant work. If you didn’t do any substantial research during undergrad, enrolling in a graduate diploma and taking research electives can be a great way to build a little portfolio of work to meet this requirement. You could also do an honours project and spend another year in undergrad. Outside of these, you could attempt extracurricular independent research to show your mettle. If none of this appeals to you however, you can attempt to meet this requirement by presenting some of your regular third-year assignments that arguably had a reasonable research component. Bear in mind: when university selection committees ask to see evidence of your ability to conduct research, they’re looking for a lengthy paper of some kind. Bonus points if it’s published in a peer-reviewed journal!

Doctorates

You’ll find entry requirements for doctorates to be quite similar to those of master’s degrees by research. Namely, you’ll want some way to prove you’ve got the gumption to do extensive research. After all, that’s the whole premise behind a doctorate. Fortunately, you should already have some research behind you after achieving the second entry requirement: an honours degree or master’s degree (preferably by research) in physics. If your goal is a PhD in physics, we’d definitely recommend doing that honours year as a way to prove you’re capable of extensive research because it’s more time efficient than a master’s degree (one year full time as opposed to two). If that’s not an option though, a master’s degree is a great way to go.

Hopefully this article has given you some useful information on meeting entry requirements in physics. It’s a highly fulfilling line of study that can also lead to great things. Best of luck!