Graduate Education in Physics Report: Recommendations

The Status and Future of Graduate Education in Physics

Conference Report

graduate education report cover

Reporting the status and future of graduate physics education. (PDF document - 1MB)

Gray arrow  Graduate Education Conference Report
Gray arrow  Executive Summary

Several important themes, relating to the curriculum and to the wider graduate experience, emerged from the conference. The recommendations, if adopted, should lead to an improved, more flexible, and more relevant graduate experience for all students.

The Perception that a Ph.D. is Only for an Academic Career

Most graduate students receiving a Ph.D. in physics do not enter a career in academia, and it should never be assumed that academia is the only goal. Physics departments should prepare students for other career options. The expectations for careers in academia and industry are very similar: a broad physics background, the proven ability for indepen­dent research, and effective communication skills. Thus the programs themselves do not have to be changed, but rather the perception that careers in areas other than academia are less desirable. In addition, career guidance is lacking.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Take pride in and support graduate students who aspire to non-academic professions.
  • Provide career guidance for graduate students that helps them prepare for a wide range of possible vocational options.

APS Should:

  • Adopt a statement that articulates the goals and purpose of the doctoral degree to emphasize to students, departments, and potential employers that the Ph.D. represents a sound preparation for diverse careers

A Static Curriculum

The core curriculum and the exam structure have been the topic of many recent meetings and discussions. The Joint AAPT-APS Task Force on Graduate Education in Physics summarized the present status of the core courses but did not investigate in detail the content taught in these courses. Anecdotal evidence points to static content and traditional texts that do not reflect the current state and practice of physics. The emergence of many interdisciplinary subfields requires new courses that may conflict with the traditional curriculum.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Consider broadening (not increasing) the core to encourage the interdisciplinary aspirations of students and faculty; and
  • Regularly examine the currency and relevance of topics taught within the core and in the wider curriculum.

Professional Societies Should:

  • Follow up on the AAPT-APS task force findings by gathering information about the content of the core courses.

Exam Structure

There is currently no common exam structure followed by departments. Many institutions experiment with various combinations of written, oral, preliminary or comprehen­sive exams as well as final exams in the core courses. This topic is intensely debated among faculty. Do exams really assess readiness for a research degree?

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Critically assess the desirability and efficacy of their comprehensive exams.

Professional Societies Should:

  • Gather information about comprehensive and preliminary exams and make common practices known.

Need for Guidance, Mentoring, and Professional Development of Graduate Students

Graduate students are our young colleagues. Departments and individual advisors have the joint responsibility to guide and mentor the students to develop professionally during their graduate careers and to make a timely transi­tion to the workforce.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Make mentoring and guidance of graduate students a priority that is appropriately rewarded.
  • Institute methodical tracking of graduate students and their progress towards the degree.
  • Adopt policies that reduce the time-to-Ph.D. (currently averaging 6.3 years4) with particular emphasis on reducing the number of students that take longer than 6 years to graduate.
  • Encourage graduate students to participate in professional organizations to help them learn networking and other professional skills.
  • Encourage, though not require, student involvement in outreach activities as a positive aspect of the graduate experience. Professors should lead by example and encourage their students to participate.

Training for Teaching Assistants (TA)

All Ph.D.-granting departments rely heavily on graduate students to assist in the delivery of undergraduate courses. Graduate students should be properly trained in pedagogy, content, and class management to enable them to effec­tively carry out this important role. Departments are also the training grounds for future faculty and must therefore model innovation and excellence in teaching, just as they do in research.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Develop effective TA training programs that pay attention to pedagogy and professional development.
  • Continue TA training and mentoring throughout the graduate teaching experience.
  • Provide “shadowing” teaching opportunities for students who aspire to faculty positions.

Ethics training

Departments have a responsibility to teach and uphold the strongest ethical standards. We must respect and acknow-ledge students’ intellectual contributions and ensure that they are treated fairly, as colleagues. Ethical issues include honesty in the conduct and reporting of research, integrity in the setting and taking of exams and assignments, and in matters relating to fair treatment of our co-workers.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Offer ethics training for students. More than one experience is needed to ensure that students revisit the topic as more mature researchers. Advisors should continue to model the highest ethical standards.
  • Ensure that ethics training addresses human and social issues like treatment of colleagues, stewardship of natural resources, integrity of funding sources, as well as the obvious issues of cheating, plagiarism, etc.
  • Develop a graduate student handbook that specifiesthe rights and responsibilities of students and faculty members. Professional Societies should:
  • Conduct ethics workshops at national meetings and the AAPT/APS/AAS New Faculty Workshop.

Developing communication skills

Skills beyond technical expertise are increasingly impor­tant. Departments have a responsibility to teach students how to communicate effectively at all levels, and to develop the writing, speaking, presentation, and negotiating skills that will serve them in a complex work environment. Critical thinking and critical analysis of scientific informa­tion have long been the hallmark of the physicist, and the cultivation of these complementary skills must permeate all aspects of the graduate experience.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Require students to present their research orally win a public forum and provide opportunities to help them prepare and also provide them with feedback on their performance.
  • Require students to submit a written paper describing their research for peer review in an appropriate journal.
  • Encourage students to present their research at conferences, and provide financial assistance where possible.

Encouraging diversity and a supportive climate

Women and, to an even greater extent, minorities con­tinue to be underrepresented in physics, particularly at the Ph.D. level. It is essential for departments to focus on creating a climate that attracts and retains women and minorities in physics both as students and as faculty. Such a climate improves the environment for all students.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Implement the best practices5 developed by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics.
  • Consider bridge programs to help under-prepared students achieve success in graduate programs.
  • Develop written departmental plans for addressing issues of climate, image, recruiting, and retention of underrepresented groups.

Recruiting and retention of students

Many departments felt the need to improve recruiting. They cited poor statistics, particularly for women and minority recruitment, increasing competition from programs abroad, and competition from other disciplines.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Project an exciting, welcoming environment on their websites. The Director of Graduate Studies should be visible on the departmental website.
  • Network and recruit at special events for undergraduates at professional society meetings and other venues.
  • Work with administrators on campus to expand and improve recruitment.

Professional Societies should:

  • Explore the possibility of becoming or organizing a national clearinghouse for electronic graduate application materials.
  • Continue to provide events for undergraduates at its national and regional meetings where they can learn about the advantages of graduate programs in physics and meet with departmental representatives.

Funding agencies should:

  • Provide more fellowship support for graduate education in physics
  • Funding agencies were also urged to consider instituting programs that provide support for individual faculty members or teams of faculty members who develop and evaluate new curricula for graduate students.

Next steps

The efforts of physics departments to improve graduate education will benefit greatly from a forum for continued discussions. Professional societies and funding agencies can provide support for such efforts.

Recommendations

Departments Should:

  • Enhance the status of, and rewards for, faculty and staff who devote time and effort to improving the grad-uate experience.
  • Communicate their best practices to other departments and adapt the best practices of others to fit the local environment.

Professional Societies should:

  • Sponsor a conference for DGS every 3-5 years.
  • Implement a listserv for DGS.
  • Strengthen the relationship of physics departments with industry by organizing a high-level meeting to promote physics graduate students among industries.
  • Appoint a task force that examines and reports best practices in successful graduate programs. Such a task force would help disseminate practices presented in this document.

Funding agencies should:

  • Continue to support conferences, studies, and curriculum development and evaluation programs that enhance graduate education.