Physics GRE refund programs

Rumors abound about the existence of programs aimed at giving graduation gifts to high-achieving students, especially at departments without a graduate program. I wanted to implement such a plan (despite the existence of a graduate program), thinking that it would amount to implementing one of the recommendations made by external inspectors, for little cost, since physics GRE sittings cost $US150 a pop, and that 2-3 students could receive that gift from the department’s part. Here’s the recommendation in question (translation is mine):

Recommendation 7b): Inform second- and third-year undergraduates of the TOEFL and GRE tests for those who desire to pursue graduate study abroad. Idem for the NSERC grants.

Now, if you wanted to implement some sort of conditional refund program, you would want the conditions to be stringent enough to say that the recipients deserved to be funded, but just stringent enough to fit the budget allocated to this purpose. That said, I would say that such programs would make sense from the standpoint of a typical American physics or astronomy department without a graduate program (e.g. liberal arts colleges), or perhaps even those with graduate programs, especially since Carlos Silva, a condensed matter prof at my undergrad, said that many physics PhD programs in the US had trouble recruiting students domestically (with collaborators at schools like the University of Houston, I’d be willing to give some credence to that claim, if only second-hand). That would be true, based on 2007-2009 data, unless things have changed in the past five years: 44% of new physics PhD students in that period (on average 2,000 yearly) were internationals. (source: AIP).

In the context of my undergrad, though, I learned nothing that could have been of use in physics GRE in graduate coursework, so I could safely say that even an undergraduate that is above average, but not NSERC or FRQNT-caliber, can score a 75th percentile, despite the near-complete absence of multiple-choice items in homework and exams. Or even an average student can get a 50-60th percentile through the material of the first two years. Even so, I feel that a 75th percentile can be achieved with a summer’s worth of study, for most students with a 3.3 and up from my undergrad. So I would have fixed the threshold for an award at the 75th percentile at my school; I would have received an award had that program existed back then.

The same Prof. Silva said that, if such a scheme existed anywhere, the scheme would likely be borne out of endowment funds. So please inquire if such a scheme exists where you study; perhaps you will have taken the test for free, pending a minimum score.


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