First, some introductions are in order. My name is Yvan Ung, a particle cosmologist (or so I would call myself since I am doing a thesis masters in particle cosmology). Because the entire blog will be written from the perspective of a foreign student applying for physics PhD programs in the US, dreaming about particle cosmology. Why particle cosmology? one might ask. I learned very quickly that cosmology was, especially in the (very?) early universe, intertwined with particle physics, and not simply through QFT.
There are multiple undergraduate mistakes I made, the most fatal of which was the complete lack of research experience. I knew, back as an undergraduate, that any hope of success for this escape was almost dead because I was unlucky. But there also was the complete lack of teaching assistantship experience; while not as helpful as research experience, it could tip the scales in my favor. Back then, I dubbed the entire program a “direct-PhD”, whose label of direct has been dropped because I would be applying with a MSc in hand. So I simply chose to stay at my undergraduate institution for my masters so I could have a chance at fixing my undergraduate mistakes.
A common piece of advice given to grad school hopefuls is “Do not earn all your degrees at one university” and, from a level to another (i.e. from bachelors to masters, or masters to doctorate), change universities if possible. Personally I would say that it is less problematic to stay at one’s undergraduate institution for a masters if one doesn’t have any research experience than if one had research experience in undergrad because the reason behind that quote has something to do with exposure to different research ideas and, therefore, experience.
Because, in order to take the physics GRE, I needed my parents’ cooperation for transportation, my parents became aware of my plan and my intentions to pull the trigger on leaving Canada (curse you, NSERC, and, to a lesser extent, FQRNT) after I earned a MSc on top of a joint-honors BSc in physics and mathematics. They may have accused me of wasting $CAD700 (after exchange rates and travel expenses have been applied) on three tests, but I came to the bleak realisation that the PGS-D NSERC doctoral grant or the B2 doctoral FQRNT grant would be hard to gain, therefore I knew that I have to turn to the US to make the rest of the dream a reality. So, while the general GRE (thereafter referred to as the GGRE; $US185), the physics GRE (thereafter referred to as the PGRE; $US150) and the TOEFL ($US240) were three necessary evils I knew what I had to do.