Planning for Graduate Studies in Physics and Related Fields
Preparation for Graduate School
Studies show that most people who become scientists or engineers begin their college careers with this goal already firmly in mind. Certainly, there are some who first become interested in a career in the physical sciences during their undergraduate days. Students beginning their college physics studies should be aware that graduate education will be necessary for them to advance as physicists. Students earning a bachelor's degree in physics generally are not employed as physicists, whereas a student with a bachelor's degree in engineering can be employed as an engineer.
One of the greatest benefits of studying physics, mathematics, and chemistry at the undergraduate level is that they all prepare students to pursue advanced physics or engineering degrees, as well as contribute to their general liberal education. While the option to pursue graduate studies in physics can be closed off early by failure to take the necessary courses, the final decision to pursue physics or some other field of graduate study can be postponed right up to graduation. Indeed, one of the strengths of the core component of physics graduate study is that the graduate courses in classical mechanics, electrodynamics, statistical and thermal physics, quantum mechanics, and mathematical methods are common preparation for both the M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental, computational, or theoretical physics. Thus, the specialization decision can be left open even into graduate studies.
There is no better path to prepare yourself for graduate studies than a firm foundation in physics as an undergraduate, through courses required for the physics major and electives recommended by the faculty. If an interdisciplinary area, such as medical physics, becomes a goal, you will have to prepare yourself more broadly in chemistry and biology, although typically only at the introductory level.
Many undergraduate science departments include a research experience, perhaps as part of an honors track, senior thesis, or requirement for the major. The Council on Undergraduate Research has long championed this component of the undergraduate experience and publishes the CUR Quarterly. Many physics departments offer research opportunities throughout the academic year, while others do so primarily during the summer, such as through the National Science Foundation's REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program. Taking part in undergraduate research has merit even for students who are unsure of their postbaccalaureate plans. Students considering graduate work should make the most of local research opportunities, as well as summer programs at other universities, national laboratories, and in industry. Spon sored summer research appointments typically carry a worthwhile stipend, and often include allowances for room, meals, and travel. Such experiences can be very helpful in informing your decisions about graduate studies, fields of possible specialization, and careers. Students interested in learning more about summer research opportunities should make use of the posting system at their own department, and search the NSF-REU, Department of Education, and national laboratory websites. Application deadlines vary, but usually are concentrated in early February of each year.
Part of your preparation for graduate work must come from your own reading, beyond classroom assignments and projects. In graduate work and during your subsequent career, you will find it necessary to keep abreast of some fraction of the current scientific or technical literature. During your senior year, if not earlier, begin to acquaint yourself with the major physics or related journals and websites. Also, begin to build your personal scientific library and folders of electronic bookmarks. Watch for reviews of new books in your field of interest, and become acquainted with classic textbooks, monographs, and collections of physics problem solutions. You should already know how to search online resources and library indexes, but you should extend these skills.
Attending departmental colloquia, guest lectures, Society of Physics Students activities, and regional and national meetings of the American Physical Society, American Association of Physics Teachers, American Astronomical Society, and other professional societies is also an important way of broadening your education and graduate school preparation. Calendars of events are often posted on websites, and students may request to be added to e-mail lists. The Statistical Research Center of the American Institute of Physics publishes annual reports on physics enrollments at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, degrees awarded, initial employment, and other data from each year's physics graduates. Many of these reports are sent automatically to physics department chairs on a scheduled basis. There is no better source of information on physics demographics, and every student should become familiar with these facts and trends. Here is an example from AIP's 1998 Graduate Student Report: "First-year student enrollments have declined 26% since the early 1990's. This drop has been especially pronounced among U.S. citizens. As a result, foreign students comprised half of all students entering physics and astronomy departments in 1997-98. Subsequently, the number of U.S. students enrolling in physics and astronomy departments is the lowest it has been since the Institute started collecting data on citizenship about three decades ago."