AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

Planning for Graduate Studies in Physics and Related Fields

What to Expect

What to Expect Once you have chosen a graduate school, you will need to consider such practical matters as:

What is the academic calendar?
What advance arrangements can be made about housing?
What are the health insurance options for graduate students and families?
Does the department give placement examinations prior to registration?
What specific duties go with my assistantship or other appointment?
Who will be my academic advisor during my first year?

Many common questions will be answered in mailings for incoming students sent by the department and university. While you may have gathered some information during campus visits before your decision, it is wise to start fresh and confirm what you may have learned then. Older graduate students can be very helpful in explaining requirements and recommending courses and instructors, but you should keep an open mind. Degree requirements and course offerings change, and important information of this sort is still best verified through official channels. In many departments, there are key staff people whose duties include helping incoming graduate students learn the ropes of a new department, institution, and city. It will be in your best interest to find out early who they are and to introduce yourself.


Most departments conduct a series of orientation events before the start of classes in the fall. These typically include social mixers, training sessions for new teaching assistants, interviews with faculty advisors, and "nuts-and-bolts" talks and tours covering offices, mail, paychecks, computers, keys, shops, and the like. The faculty who serve as departmental officers (i.e., head/chair, the associate and assistant head or chair, and graduate studies advisors) will have specific responsibilities for incoming graduate students. These faculty will highlight the department's schedule of events that new graduate students should put on their calendars. These events often include presentations by various research groups, department colloquia and seminars, and required written examinations. The department officers will tell students how they should move through course work and develop relationships with a particular research group and professor.


Choosing Courses


One of your most important early decisions will be the selection of first-semester (or first-quarter) courses. While certain courses and combinations are common for first-year students, the specific choices will depend primarily on the strength of the student's undergraduate preparation and, to a lesser extent, possible field of specialization. At many schools, a schedule of three courses is considered a full load for a graduate student with a half-time teaching assistantship. Students with fellowships or other appointments without specific time commitments usually will take an additional course.

First-year students may be automatically enrolled in small fractional courses or seminars that are part of the orientation or teaching-assistant preparation outlined above.


If you have a strong preparation in undergraduate mechanics, electromagnetic theory, mathematical methods, quantum mechanics, and statistical and thermal physics, then you may be advised to sign up for the "standard" graduate core in these areas. However, in some departments there has been a contraction in the number of graduate courses expected of students before they begin research, sometimes down to a single year of courses. In such departments, where a significant number of entering students come in with the equivalent of the U.S. master's degree of coursework, the expectations for the graduate theory courses may be very high. Looking at the required textbook may help answer the question of course level, but since graduate faculty often draw only loosely on textbooks (mainly as references and sources of problems), impressions may be misleading. Students should critically explore with their graduate advisor, and with older students from similar institutions, whether they should begin with a mix of senior undergraduate/first-year graduate courses and upper-level courses in a specific field. It is to be expected that there will be a degree of overlap in content between strong upper-level undergraduate courses and an appropriate set of beginning graduate courses. However, students may confuse textbook familiarity with the kind of solid understanding that comes with multiple exposures at different levels. It is to no one's benefit for students to enroll in courses for which they have inadequate preparation. At the other extreme, it makes little sense for students to take intermediate courses that do not significantly advance their expertise and knowledge. Students should use every advising resource to help them determine where they are relative to the expectations of the available courses.


Graduate school years can be a time for making a lasting investment in yourself and in preparing yourself for a satisfying and enjoyable career progression. They coincide with a period of new freedoms and choices for recent college graduates. It has been the goal of this publication to help you prepare to make the most of this investment.

 
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