APS News

Conference Takes a Critical Look at Graduate Education

Graduate physics education in US universities has not changed much in several decades. To address this issue, over 100 physics educators and researchers from physics departments across the country recently participated in a conference designed to reassess the graduate curriculum and share experiences and ideas about how to prepare today’s physicists.

Discussions at the meeting covered a wide variety of topics in graduate education, including the graduate curriculum, preparation for non-academic careers, mentoring, TA training, ethics, comprehensive exam, departmental climate, and recruitment of underrepresented groups.

The conference, titled “Graduate Education in Physics: Which Way Forward,” was held January 31-February 2, at the American Center for Physics in College Park, MD. It was sponsored jointly by APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers.

The conference was inspired in part by a 2005 report assembled by the APS and AAPT Task Force on Graduate Education. In a keynote address, Renee Diehl, a professor at Penn State University and a co-author of the report, summarized some of the Task Force’s findings. “In physics we’re teaching the same things we taught 50 years ago,” she said. Other disciplines such as biology and chemistry have updated their graduate curricula, she pointed out.

Diehl pointed to a survey conducted by the AIP statistical research center in 2004 that found that most physics departments still require students to take the same traditional core courses, including Classical Electrodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, Classical Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. These courses haven’t changed much in 50 years. Conference participants discussed whether these traditional core courses should be maintained. 

The average time to degree has been slowly increasing over the past several decades. In part to reduce the time to degree, some departments have tried various changes, including reducing the number of required courses, giving the comprehensive exam earlier, tracking students’ progress closely, and involving students in research earlier. “The student who is in a research group has a home,” said Thomas Greytak of MIT. “They couple into the excitement from the very beginning.”

Preparing students for careers in industry and other nonacademic careers was another topic of discussion at the conference. Bijoy Chatterjee of National Semiconductor said physics graduates are valuable to industry because “physics is at the heart of everything.” Industry needs people who can solve problems, work well in a team, and figure out how things work, he said.  

Shirley Chiang, a professor at UC Davis who previously worked at IBM, suggested that departments should pay attention to the need to train students for industry, but shouldn’t radically change the graduate physics program. “We don’t want to water down the PhD,” she said. “It’s got to be original research; otherwise it’s not a PhD.”

In surveys, students say they want more advice about nonacademic careers, but faculty often don’t know enough about such careers to advise their students, and many professors consider industrial jobs to be second rate. One suggestion, which the University of Texas at Austin has successfully instituted, is a weekly seminar that brings physicists in nontraditional careers to talk to the students.

A few conference attendees felt that physics departments do not need to change their programs to train students for industrial careers, pointing to the low unemployment rate of physics PhDs no matter what sector they go into. “It seems to me we’re doing a pretty good job without doing anything,” one conference attendee said. Others at the conference pointed out that a PhD is unnecessary for many industrial jobs.  Professional masters degree programs, which are offered by a small but growing number of institutions, may be a good alternative for some students.

Many departments said their biggest challenge was recruiting talented students, especially minorities and women. One suggestion that came out of the discussions was to set up a single centralized application processing system, similar to the system through which students apply to medical schools. Students could then submit one common application rather than submitting separate applications to multiple institutions. Such a system might help smaller institutions increase their applicant pools, some conference participants suggested.

Other topics of discussion at the conference included climate and diversity, communication skills, interdisciplinary courses, TA training, and ethics awareness.

Conference participants said they found it valuable to exchange ideas. The conference “provided a unique forum for directors of graduate studies to discuss the graduate experience in physics with their counterparts from other institutions,” said conference organizer Janet Tate of Oregon State University. “I don’t think this opportunity has arisen before.”

“The very fact that so many people came to the conference is evidence that departments want to continue to improve the graduate experience,” said Tate.  

Most of the presentations are already available on the conference website. A list of best practices is being compiled.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff