AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

Planning for Graduate Studies in Physics and Related Fields

Choice of Graduate School

It may first appear that the process of choosing a graduate program is very similar to picking the right college after high school. While there are certainly similarities, they can be deceptive. You would be the first to acknowledge that you are a more mature, informed, and skilled person than when you planned that first transition. However, a successful outcome requires a close match between your interests and goals and the qualities of a particular university program offering specialized fields of advanced study. To use a physics analogy, one might say that the postbaccalaureate resonance is inherently much narrower.

The way in which the objectives of graduate training are achieved is not the same in any two departments. It may even differ widely for two graduate students in the same subfield in the same department. The core of all training is the graduate student's association with the person or persons directing the thesis work. In studying a scientific problem of mutual interest, this association will be important in shaping points of view and developing insight and skills. The experience should provide inspiration and stimulation for both student and teacher. Beyond this special role of the research supervisor/major professor, the entire department contributes to the education of graduate students in formal courses, seminars, apprentice teaching, and in consultations and discussions with individual staff members, postdoctoral research associates, and other students. The department plays an important role in the intellectual growth of graduate students by helping them appreciate and understand the significance of work outside their own subfield of interest and by helping them grow from a practitioner of specialized skills into a scientist. Points of view gained through general contacts not relating to a student's immediate research area can have a profound influence on shaping careers. Thus, you should consider both how well your particular subfield of interest is represented in the research taking place and the vitality and intellectual climate of the department as a whole.

In recent years, pressures to minimize the graduate curriculum and speed students into research and getting their Ph.D.s have created more variation among departments in the graduate courses students are expected to take. There is also considerable variation in the backgrounds of physics graduate students entering from the international pool that is characteristic of U.S. universities. Prospective students, particularly those still undecided about their field of specialization and those considering careers in academic physics, should look for graduate programs that support a strong core curriculum. Ideally, the department's course offerings should permit flexible entry points for students of different backgrounds and previous course experience.

Resources for Students

The annual American Institute of Physics (AIP)book, Graduate Programs in Physics, Astronomy, and Related Fields, gives detailed information on most Ph.D.-granting physics departments and many master's-degree-only physics departments in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. In the fall of 2001, this was joined by a new electronic venture of AIP, GradschoolShopper.com. "The site provides both a graduate recruitment forum for graduate schools and a one-stop graduate-school shopping place for graduate-school-bound students. Supplementary content involves such features as:

  • Resources for students: general advice on exams, admission process, tips on how to survive and prosper in graduate school, funding, graduate research resources, jobs and career information, etc.
  • Resources for academics: recruitment tools, funding, jobs, education and employment data, latest trends, etc."

The resources cited above will allow you to judge the current research interests and areas of specialization of individual faculty members at each institution. They also show the numbers of degrees granted in the various areas in recent years. A copy of AIP's Graduate Programs is sent to the chairperson of every department offering at least a B.S. or B.A. degree in physics. It is probably available in the library or departmental office of your school. It lists institutions by state and alphabetically within each state. Programs at the schools that in aggregate award 99% of the Ph.D.s and 95% of the master's degrees in physics are described in detail. Tables in the appendix give subfields for all graduate programs in physics as well as in astronomy and some related fields. Peterson's online Grad Channelcan be helpful in locating graduate programs in engineering and interdisciplinary fields.

Other Factors

Most well-qualified students are supported financially during their graduate study in physics. The extent of financial support should not greatly influence your decision about where to apply, since the actual financial support is roughly the same at institutions of similar quality and living costs. Financial aid in the form of teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and fellowships is aimed at helping you attain your professional goals. This aid is not intended as income beyond the actual necessities of room, board, tuition, and required books. The taxable status of this aid varies by type and state, but the impact of taxes is generally small given the amount of aid.

If you have well-developed interests in a particular subfield of physics, you will have less difficulty in narrowing down the choice of graduate schools at which to apply. A careful study of Graduate Programs and GradschoolShopper.com will help you identify the institutions that are active in your subfield. From the current scientific journals and from your professors, you can also learn who is active in your subfield of interest. Your professors can supply valuable information from their own experience and that of previous students at particular schools. All of this information can be used in weighing one institution against another.

If your interests are not well developed by the time you decide to go to graduate school, you may wish to rely on the advice of teachers or friends. First, seriously study Graduate Programs and GradschoolShopper.com to find some basis for limiting the possibilities and then consult with your teachers and friends. It is not unusual for students to begin with only geographic preferences and perhaps a preference for the size of university or city.

The level of activity of the department as a whole and the strength of the individual specialties can be partly measured by the numbers of recent degrees granted. The publication records of the research groups and individual staff members are also a matter of interest. For instance: Is the research work of the students published within a reasonable time after completion? How many recent papers have been published by faculty in your subfield of interest?

Many students enter graduate school with the intention of eventually teaching physics at the college level. Some departments, in addition to their research programs, offer courses and programs to prepare students for teaching careers. The definitive review of the issues, programs, and resources in this area is E. Leonard Jossem's "Resource Letter EPGA-1: The education of physics graduate assistants," published in the June 2000 issue of the American Journal of Physics. Students considering teaching physics in any capacity should become familiar with this Resource Letter and some of the many references it cites.

You may be attracted to a department by the work of a particular person or research group, but you must also realize that your plans to study with this individual or group may not materialize. The faculty member may find it impossible to take on an additional student during your research phase. External funding may fluctuate, facilities may be closed, and key people may move on or retire. Or, as often happens, you may change your interests as your training advances. Thus, do not limit your attention to one professor or his or her immediate group. Investigate the research activities of other members of the department. Also, assess the department as a whole as to breadth and depth of interests, flexibility of formal requirements, the freedom to move between different research groups, opportunity for interdisciplinary research, and general productivity. Women and minority students may want to gain additional information on the composition of the graduate student population and the faculty, as well as general perceptions about the intellectual and social climate in the department.

Information about such practical but important matters as the availability of specialized equipment and services sometimes can be gleaned by reading a cross section of the papers published by the department. A specific request for information directed to the department will usually result in data on special facilities and equipment, cooperative programs, and new faculty appointments. Such factors as the reputation of the university as a whole and of certain departments in which you may be particularly interested, the job experience of graduates of the department, and the university's location will inevitably enter into your decision. Married students and those with other relationships will want to investigate opportunities for their partners. A number of the questions just raised can only be satisfactorily explored by visiting the department, before or especially after an offer has been received. We will emphasize the importance of campus visits in the section on making your decision (p. 21).

If the institution where you are doing your undergraduate work also offers the M.S. and/or Ph.D. degree, you may wonder whether to continue there or to go elsewhere for graduate study. Students sometimes feel that because they are familiar with an undergraduate department it will be easier and less time-consuming to continue in the same institution. Such a course of action defeats, to some extent, the purpose of graduate study. In going to a graduate school, you have an ideal opportunity to enter a new environment and benefit from the stimulation of new points of view. In deciding whether or not to do graduate work at your undergraduate school, consider these factors seriously and weigh them against the possible advantages of continuity—particularly for students who have done substantial graduate-level work as undergraduates. Also, often a department will discourage all but the best of its own four-year graduates from continuing their graduate studies at the same school, at least in the same department.

You may minimize the number of applications you need to make if you have the proper qualifications for graduate work and if you can match your talents to the challenges particular departments seem to provide. However, in compiling your final list of schools, it is often wise to adopt a two- or even three-tier strategy. Your list should include:

  • some schools that represent your top choices but are highly selective and competitive;
  • a majority of schools that you and your advisers have identified as very good matches based on all the available information; and
  • one or two less-competitive schools with solid programs, from which you would readily expect a graduate appointment.
 
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