As the topic suggests, it's been a hard time for me these days-particularly due to anxiety of the incoming application cycle for physics graduate schools.
Currently I'm a senior undergraduate student with a physics major at Stony Brook University (no minor declared, very likely graduate with honors; senior year is from Aug. 24, 2015 till the August of 2016). I've been doing significantly well in the past three years, according to my previous "standards". And here the real problem comes. I got literally all As with only exception due to excessive course loads (22 credits with six upper level math and physics courses for one semester) with a 3.96 cumulative GPA. (I'm pretty sure I will get all As for the rest of my undergraduate period so this number will be much closer to 4.0, although it doesn't much different) The downside is, as a physics major, I knew one of the (maybe most) important components of undergraduate life as a prospective graduate student in physics is to participate in research only by the middle of my junior year (roughly around this February). The reason is, I was so self-conceit and did things only if I thought worthy to do. I was in my own enclosed universe and manually repel anything from outside that I thought either unreasonable or unnecessary.
Nonetheless, with such a stellar GPA, it's not hard for me to made it into a programming based summer project this year within one of the shining AMO groups in my school. It's mainly about writing codes that could emulate some crucial functions of the program that the group's been using. By now, I've made significant progress towards the goal, although it's still lacking usability at some circumstances. That's it. I planned to get involved in the real lab environment within this fall, yet if anyone asks me what's undergraduate research like, that's all I could say for now.
The real horrifying fact is, after checking the database of annually admitted prospective graduate students at some sites (including this one), I found my lack of research experience is just pain in the ass and could be fatal in my graduate school application, if I'm still aiming the top tiers. It's just like many of applicants would say: Tom did research on X for 2 years and Y for one year with several nth author publications with very promising letters from well-known professors.
My research on annually Applicant Profiles and Admission Results of this site confirmed that idea and further impaired my confidence. Even though I will be doing a supervised graduate level reading on Lee Group with a very venerable professor who was my instructor on classical mechanics as well as lab research on ultrafast spectroscopy with the group for my summer project, I find it's still a shot on the moon for applying some of my dreamy schools like Caltech and Stanford.
So here is the choice I have to make: (the sooner the better) which path should I choose? After days of researches, I end up with following options:
# 1 (lower aim): Continue going on my current path, but aiming at lower-tier schools. I may almost certainly get a better chance on this route, but I may not always happy about my chosen path for 4-6 years in future, especially when I realized I could definitely have done everything (except my GPA) much better and get into some program I really want to among the top schools.
# 2 (cost more time): Stay around my home school and try to find a paid position in my interested group or at some national labs (if applicable). It should makeup my major drawback of lacking research experience-I'm very confident that I will make some achievements with publications if I have one year in there (as long as I really have interest in the topic). Besides, if I decide to graduate in 5 years, finanical problem will soon arise, and by choosing this path I can safely bypass it. However, it may cost me one more year towards my ultimate goal of getting my PhD since I will gain no access on graduate courses.
# 3 (cost more money): Apply for a MS or post-bacc. It would be beneficial since it could save time towards a PhD than path number 2. Likely, it may cost my family tuition of one more year (especially for a Master program), and I really don't want to give any more pressure to my parents. (They've been devoting most of their savings of recent 20 years to afford my 4-year regular undergraduate study)
That's it. Thanks for everyone who spent his/her time on reading this "harangue". If anyone could give me some advices, no matter it eventually works or not, it will be very appreciated.
PS: Some supplemental details about me:
Most interested in theoretical works, hoping to get into a program for string theory or supersymmetry.
International male. Arrived at the U.S. by the middle of 2012.
Excel in almost all kinds of video games with in depth research on my related acpects of it. More than 18 years of playing that..
alright it may not be advantageous.
thank you all! and best luck with you applications!