APS News

Report on Graduate Education Released

By Deanna Ratnikova

Conference Report

Graduate Education in Physics: The Path Ahead

Gray arrow Read the Report

Most physics graduate students will end up employed outside of academia, yet few physics graduate programs have adapted in recent years to accommodate more interdisciplinary research and interests.  A call to better prepare students for diverse careers, the increasing diversity within the field, and recommendations on how to move forward were outlined at the 2nd Graduate Education in Physics Conference. Organized jointly by APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), this conference took place January 31-February 2, 2013 at the American Center for Physics in College Park, Maryland, with 107 participants from 74 different institutions.

Released this month, the conference report–prepared by Renee Diehl (Penn State), Theodore Hodapp (APS), Chandralekha Singh (University of Pittsburgh), Michael Thoennessen (Michigan State), and Lawrence Woolf (General Atomics) — emphasized the need for physics departments to define their overall goals in order to develop a coherent program that builds on their specific strengths, rather than seeking a one-size-fits-all solution.  The authors recognize that not all of the recommendations in the report may be appropriate for every department, but they can enrich physics graduate programs if implemented in a way that aligns with departmental goals and strengths.

The report highlighted efforts such as developing a department identity, adding flexibility to the curriculum, teaching students professional skills, and engaging alumni working outside of academia as ways to improve the professional training of students in physics graduate programs. Flexibility in the graduate program and its curriculum is also key to ensuring the success of a diverse group of graduate students, and several talks at the conference focused on the need to engage more students from underrepresented minority groups.

Meg Urry of Yale provided the keynote address on the future of physics graduate education and the diversity challenge facing the field.  She stressed that physics PhD programs must expand to include more diverse participants if they want to maintain the highest level of quality. According to Urry, “Graduate education [in physics] must diversify not just because of fairness or equal opportunity — although that certainly ought to concern us — but because it’s vital for physics.”

With significant input and feedback from graduate students and representatives from industry and national labs, the report from the 2013 conference builds upon the recommendations of the 2006 APS-AAPT Task Force on graduate education in physics and of the 2008 APS Graduate Education in Physics Conference. For example, this latest report recommends additional changes in the student advising process and student career preparation. It also recommends collecting data related to these changes, so APS and the AAPT can analyze and evaluate the progress made toward addressing the challenges of physics graduate education.

This conference, a follow-up to the 2008 Graduate Education in Physics Conference, was held to generate discussions on topics such as preparing graduate students for non-academic careers, enhancing advising, improving diversity, and debating graduate school admissions policies, including use of the GRE. Planning for the event began in 2010 under the leadership of Chandralekha Singh, a member of the APS Committee on Education (COE) and chair of the COE Graduate Education Subcommittee. The National Science Foundation provided support for the conference in late 2012.

The final report will be sent to all physics departments throughout the United States and made available free of charge on the APS website.

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