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What happens in graduate school?

by QuantumDefect
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QuantumDefect
#1
May28-04, 10:15 PM
P: 62
In three years im going to graduate school to get my phD in physics . However im confused in what goes on there. If you guys could tell me what it is/was like while answering these questions it would be much appreciated...

1)Do you specialize in a certain field of physics?
2) How long does it take to graduate?
3) How many courses do you generally take in a semester?
4) and can you take other courses like math beyond what is required? (I would love to take more math courses)
5)What tests do you have to go through besides finals?
6)At the end of your last year what do you have to do to get your phD?
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Njorl
#2
May29-04, 12:19 AM
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Quote Quote by QuantumDefect
In three years im going to graduate school to get my phD in physics . However im confused in what goes on there. If you guys could tell me what it is/was like while answering these questions it would be much appreciated...

1)Do you specialize in a certain field of physics?
2) How long does it take to graduate?
3) How many courses do you generally take in a semester?
4) and can you take other courses like math beyond what is required? (I would love to take more math courses)
5)What tests do you have to go through besides finals?
6)At the end of your last year what do you have to do to get your phD?
1) Not much, and not right away. You will be required to learn a broad range of subjects. You will specialize more when you start doing your thesis.

2) Very, very variable. I have heard rare cases where it is done in 3 years.

3) 9-12 credit hours early on. Less when your thesis advisor begins using you as slave labor in his lab.

4) Physics departments offer math courses. If you are going into theoretical physics, there will be much math to learn.

5)Most places have "comps" - comprehensive exams. After completing the core courses, (classical, quantum, stat mech, E&M, and math physics where I went),there are special exams. Over a 1-3 day period, you are given tests in each of the basic subjects. You must pass them to continue on.

6) Write your thesis, and defend it. Defense is a presentation to a panel of experts who criticize your work. If it is acceptable, you're in the club. It is extremely rare for a thesis to be shot down at defense. You r advisor should know whether your work has reached a defensible state.

There is other stuff that goes on. You are expected to either teach classes, or work in a lab. Whichever you prefer, you will be asked to do a little of the other. Lab work is generally preferable, and harder to get. Working in the lab gets you a few publications before you get your degree. This makes getting a job or a post-doc position much easier.

Njorl
QuantumDefect
#3
May29-04, 12:33 AM
P: 62
I guess i should state that i want to go into theoretical physics and one other question that i have is: does anyone know of the top universities that specialize in theoretical physics?

franznietzsche
#4
May29-04, 12:39 AM
P: 1,783
What happens in graduate school?

Princeton is my hope.
baffledMatt
#5
May29-04, 02:00 AM
P: 175
Quote Quote by QuantumDefect
In three years im going to graduate school to get my phD in physics . However im confused in what goes on there. If you guys could tell me what it is/was like while answering these questions it would be much appreciated...

1)Do you specialize in a certain field of physics?
2) How long does it take to graduate?
3) How many courses do you generally take in a semester?
4) and can you take other courses like math beyond what is required? (I would love to take more math courses)
5)What tests do you have to go through besides finals?
6)At the end of your last year what do you have to do to get your phD?
If anyone is interested, in the UK the answers look like:

1) Yes, straight away.
2) average is 3 years (this is when they cut your funding!)
3) you often don't have to take any, but generally you will take a few.
4) Yes.
5) None, just a thesis and a viva on that thesis.
6) Hand in a thesis and survive a viva (which is a sort of interview) where you have to talk about and defend it for a couple of hours.

Matt
The_Brain
#6
May30-04, 02:39 PM
P: 43
Quote Quote by QuantumDefect
I guess i should state that i want to go into theoretical physics and one other question that i have is: does anyone know of the top universities that specialize in theoretical physics?
Caltech and Prinecton both are the very best for theoretical work.
ZapperZ
#7
Jun1-04, 09:46 AM
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Quote Quote by QuantumDefect
In three years im going to graduate school to get my phD in physics . However im confused in what goes on there. If you guys could tell me what it is/was like while answering these questions it would be much appreciated...

1)Do you specialize in a certain field of physics?
2) How long does it take to graduate?
3) How many courses do you generally take in a semester?
4) and can you take other courses like math beyond what is required? (I would love to take more math courses)
5)What tests do you have to go through besides finals?
6)At the end of your last year what do you have to do to get your phD?
I think there are certain .... er... "misconception" in this string, especially in terms of what school is "best" for so-and-so. Therefore, I'll start at the beginning and address your questions first.

I will have to make the assumption that you are refering to a graduate school in a US institution (since most parts of the world hardly refer to a "graduate school"), since you did not clarify where you intend to go.

1) You HAVE to specialize in a field of physics when you are in graduate school. The whole point of being in a graduate school in physics is to be VERY good at a particular area of physics in such a way that you become an expert of that area by the time you graduate. It doesn't mean, however, that you are ignorant of other areas since you never know how they are interconnected or relevant to the field you are looking at.

2) The statistics from the AIP indicates that the average length of time for a physics Ph.D in the US is 5 1/2 years. Keep in mind that this is the time period for an incoming physics graduate students with a B.Sc. I took 6 years to obtain my Ph.D. In general, I think experimentalists (of which I am one) tend to take longer than theorists.

3) The number of courses one takes can vary greatly from year to year, ranging from 3 to ZERO. The first couple of years you have a set of required courses. Then (assuming you pass the qualifier), you take courses that are relevant to the area you intend to specialize in. You will also register for a course in something like an independent study or "thesis research", or something similar to that. This is with approval of your academic advisor who will be your thesis committee chairman/woman. In general, you seldom take more than 2 classes per semester in the beginning. This is because in many graduate school, you have to get AT LEAST a grade of "B" or better in your courses. Anything less may be considered as a failure and won't count towards your graduation credits.

By the time you have completed all your classes, you will probably only register for your thesis research as an "official" course (in many schools, you can register for this class repeatedly each semester). That's why I said that you can have zero course depending on which year you are in.

4) What you take outside the dept. depends on what you are specializing in. If no one is paying for your education (i.e. you're not getting some form of assistantship), then you can take whatever extra classes that you want since you're paying for it. Whether it will count as part of the requirement for graduation depends entirely on the departmental policy and your academic advisor.

5) You will have to pass the qualifier. ALL US physics institutions have that. Some schools even have an added oral exams at some point along the way. This may be simply an oral version of the qualifier, or as a form of thesis proposal, i.e. you propose the area of study that you want to go into to your potential thesis committee. Then will test you on whether you have the necessary basic knowledge to be able to complete it, or they will evaluate if the area you're going into is "legitimate".

6) Final year: (i) write thesis (ii) make a gazillion modifications based on your advisor's recommendations (iii) make another zillion modifications based on your thesis committee's recommendations (iv) defend your thesis (v) make more modification if necessary based on the committee's recommendations after your defense (vi) submit thesis to graduate school (vii) make modifications, if necessary, based on the thesis style of your school.

You really need to pay attention to ALL the requirements for each individual school that you are considering. The good thing about the web is that most of these are available online, rather than having to ask for a catalog from each school. These requirements can vary greatly. For example, there are many schools/physics depts. that REQUIRE that you have at least one published paper in a peer-reviewed journal by the time you submit your thesis for consideration. This is one indication that use to judge that you are doing an original work. Sometime this is the requirement of your academic advisor. I know my advisor made sure I had 3 by the time I faced the thesis committee. A good academic advisor will make sure you have at least established your name in that field of study by the time you graduate by publishing your work, and by presenting it at various conferences. These are the recognition you need if you want to go on for prominent postdoctoral fellowships and faculty appointments.

Regarding what school is best for "theoretical physics", this is VERY vague and rather meaningless. "Theoretical physics" is flavorless. One needs to specify the area of study FIRST, then decide if one is going to be an experimentalist or a theorist. Practically all areas of physics, except for string (and maybe computational physics via technicality), have the dichotomy of having a theoretical part and an experimental part. If I ask you "what is the BEST school for condensed matter theory", I can tell you off hand that maybe Princeton and MIT and Caltech may not be the "best" places to go. UIUC, Stanford, and UC-Santa Barbara have consistently ranked higher than those three in terms of condensed matter physics in general. This means that these schools consistenly have a strong program in both theoretical and experimental condensed matter. As a theorists, you will gain a tremendous amount of insight into your work if you have experimental results at your fingertips. The same advantage goes the other way - an experimentalist has a huge upper hand if there are theorists who can either provide a novel interpretation of the experimental observation, or suggest a particular measurement.

The moral of the story is that do not be deceived by "name" schools. Figures out what area of study you want to go into, and THEN decide where is the best opportunity. You'd be surprised that some of the smaller, less well-known schools can offer a lot more than the big ones, especially if the big ones are crowded and your advisor has dozens of students to supervise.

Zz.
QuantumDefect
#8
Jun1-04, 03:35 PM
P: 62
Thanks so much for the replies! And Zapper thanks for the thorough reply, I know it must have taken awhile to write that, and I appreciate it greatly. Im sorry that I didnt state what concentration of physics I want to go into and probably should now. I want to go into theoretical particle physics and I want a thorough understanding of Quantum Field Theory(electrodynamics,chromo, ect.) and General Relativity and the math required for each. I also want to get into string/M theory. So if you guys know of any excellent schools for that, I would appreciate it! I am looking at University of Michigan now, as it has courses in the above as well as in string and M theory. Thanks again!
robphy
#9
Jun1-04, 04:30 PM
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For theoretical General Relativity, I'd suggest The University of Chicago and CalTech.
QuantumDefect
#10
Jun1-04, 07:10 PM
P: 62
Zapper, I just read your posts in the employment thread and like you said, its a real eye opener. Ill talk to my undergrad professors and see what they think. Again thank you for your advice.
ZapperZ
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Jun1-04, 08:15 PM
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Quote Quote by QuantumDefect
Zapper, I just read your posts in the employment thread and like you said, its a real eye opener. Ill talk to my undergrad professors and see what they think. Again thank you for your advice.
You're very welcome. And please don't hesitate to ask if you do have specific questions. There are many people on here who have gone through the whole process and can give their perspectives also. I truly believe that a lot of physics programs don't clearly reveal the "intangibles" that are involved in pursuing a Ph.D in physics, making one employable, and the whole process involved in being a practicing physicist.

Zz.
QuantumDefect
#12
Jun1-04, 08:19 PM
P: 62
Zapper, is your site up and running with the "So You Want To Be A Physicist" articles on it yet?
ZapperZ
#13
Jun1-04, 08:44 PM
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Quote Quote by QuantumDefect
Zapper, is your site up and running with the "So You Want To Be A Physicist" articles on it yet?
It feels rather tacky to advertize one own's website (even though that's what I'm doing here) :). If you browse my profile, there's a link to it. It isn't archived very well, so you will need to look up Message #851 for the list of message numbers where they appear.

I haven't followed up the series with subsequent essays. I started out the series while I was a postdoc, and it stopped when I started my current job. I probably need a good kick on the rear end to continue the series.

I should also point out one additional thing on that site. We have several physicists, and physics students on there. A few of them have written essays loosely titled "My Physics Experience", in which they wrote their journey and what they went through towards becoming a physicist (yours truly included). I have been rather lazy in archiving the messages that contain these essays, but you can do a search on the title and it should display all of them. So these essays are another series that you may want to read.

Zz.
Alem2000
#14
Jun5-04, 04:55 PM
P: 125
In the threads labeled "jobs for physics graduates" ppl say that job oultlooks arnt that good for phys grads. If I were to get my phd what specialty is the hightest paid in theoretical and experimental. Or do all phds get good money?
Dr Transport
#15
Jun6-04, 08:07 AM
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Zapper Z has it correct.

The school you go to has to specialize in the area you want to work in. If there is another place you want to go because of the faculty, i.e. say some theorist who works in a very specific interesting topic, you might consider there even though it isn't a top school.

If you want to work in a government lab after graduation, I'd suggest taking up experimental work. If you want to be a professor someplace, look at being very poor and working for a very long time as a post-doc until you find a reasonable position in academia. You will then be very poor, until you get tenure, then you'll start making reasonably decent money.

If you decide to work in industry, the degree is the important thing, it took 5 years of experience before I finally got back into doing work that I went to school for, and involved moving twice within a major aerospace corporation before landing the position. I worked in 2 different areas of physics and engineering since I graduated, so be prepared to reinvent yourself and learn a new area. One of my friends, who has a PhD from RPI in nuclear physics told me to reinvcent myself every 5-7 years and learn a new topic, if not, you'll be unemployed. The is the best advice I can give.

As for salary, industrial physicists make more than faculty or govt lab guys (chime in here Zapper Z), my advisor is a research faculty member with over 25 years experience, I make almost as much as he does. I've only got 8 years experience. Salary does not depend on the specialty, I can say, work in semiconductors and then go to work in Silicon Valley, you'll make better than most. But for the most part, physics isn't like engineering, we get paid for the degree, not the specialty.
JohnDubYa
#16
Jun6-04, 08:54 PM
P: 1,322
1)Do you specialize in a certain field of physics?"

Yes, but you normally don't want to make your scope too narrow before entering graduate school. You should probably settle on a research specialty by the end of your second year in graduate school.

2) How long does it take to graduate?

As said above, the APS said the average is a little over five years. That appears to be too short, in my opinion. I don't know where they get their information, but nearly everyone I knew took at least that long. I spent ten years in theoretical physics, but I raised two kids during that time.

3) How many courses do you generally take in a semester?

In graduate school, two or three.

4) and can you take other courses like math beyond what is required? (I would love to take more math courses)

That is up to your academic committee (not necessarily the same group as your thesis committee). They will usually approve of most advanced courses unless they are especially esoteric.

5)What tests do you have to go through besides finals?

Most schools have a written and an oral exam. The written exams usually last three or four days and they are usually considered to be fairly tough. However, most schools allow you to attempt them two or three times before throwing you out on your ear.

6)At the end of your last year what do you have to do to get your phD?

Defend your dissertation. At most schools this is not the most stressful part, since the decision to pass you has (for the most part) been made, since few dissertation committees will let you defend unless they think you are ready. The written and oral comprehensives are the true tests.
Cod
#17
Jun6-04, 11:40 PM
P: 308
Is a "thesis" the same thing as a "dissertation"? Because all the graduate students I have spoken with stated that their final project before receiving their PhD was to write a dissertation of their research.

Also, they said that your first year of grad school will consist of some teaching as well as researching.
JohnDubYa
#18
Jun7-04, 03:21 AM
P: 1,322
The term thesis usually applies to the masters degree, not the Ph.D.

In essence, you receive the Ph.D. for the work you did on your dissertation. The coursework and qualifier exams are used to elevate you to Ph.D. candidacy, but it's the dissertation that earns the Ph.D.

Yes, you will probably be teaching during your first year, if the school has sufficient money. Most likely you will be teaching labs. In my opinion, no school that values education will have you teach actual courses until you are deep in your graduate career (except for summer courses, which universities typically give a squat less about). Some do, but they shouldn't.

By the way, the departmental tutor has the easiest job on campus. See if you can wrangle that position for yourself.


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