Planning for Graduate Studies in Physics and Related Fields
Why Graduate School?
The first question for you to consider before investigating graduate schools is, "Why do I want to do graduate work in physics or a related field?" If you have not formulated a direct answer to that question, consider it carefully before proceeding. If you do not find the intellectual encounter with a scientific problem and the accompanying hard work satisfying and rewarding, it may be that graduate study is not for you. The goal of a professional degree that leads directly to particular employment and an envisioned career is a powerful motivator. However, given the high probability that you will have a succession of careers, or distinct changes in responsibility and emphasis over your working lifetime, you should view graduate education, in some sense, as part of your general education.
What about the degrees themselves? The Ph.D. degree is primarily a research degree. It may lead to research work in industry, universities, public or private nonprofit laboratories, government agencies, or to a teaching position at the college or university level. It may also lead to jobs in management and administration in all areas. For some individuals, completion of the doctorate in a basic or applied science allows that person to later develop a new specialization or switch fields altogether.
The master's degree is less often the terminal objective of graduate studies in physics than is the case in engineering and interdisciplinary fields of study. Indeed, the M.S. in all the engineering fields, and in other fields such as architecture, is rapidly becoming the expected professional or practitioner's degree. In what follows, we shall be concerned mainly with questions that arise in planning for work toward the Ph.D. degree, with some suggestions for students with other graduate objectives. This is in no way to minimize the importance and value of other degree options, many of which rely on the same preparation and application steps.
The Ph.D. is generally awarded for original research during graduate studies. Such research is carried out under the supervision of the research advisor or major professor, and it will often be part of a group collaboration. There is no similar uniformity about the meaning of the master's degree. Some departments of graduate study require completion of a research or project thesis for the M.S. degree. Others require a library thesis, and still others require only that the candidate do satisfactory work in a number of graduate courses and on written and/or oral examinations. The M.S. degree is not usually a prerequisite for the Ph.D. degree, and many students find it feasible to pursue the Ph.D. degree directly, without fulfilling the requirements for a master's degree. Indeed, within physics a distinction is often made between master's degrees that are earned in the course of Ph.D. studies and those that are "terminal" at that institution. Some graduate departments will not admit students in anything but the Ph.D. track. Nevertheless, the M.S. degree in physics has a place in the overall picture of graduate education and will be sought by some graduate students not training specifically for college-level teaching or basic research. In particular, for individuals teaching at the secondary or community-college level, the M.S. in physics is often the preferred degree. A number of strong master's degree programs exist at universities where that is the highest degree offered. There are an increasing number of professional master's degree programs, many of which integrate physics with other fields. As previously mentioned, in engineering or professions with specialized certification or registration requirements, the M.S. is often the professional degree of choice. In many fields, students may wish to pursue the M.S. degree first to determine better their interest in and aptitude for research before committing themselves to a Ph.D. program.