THE EDUCATION OF GRADUATE STUDENTS
The general topic of graduate education is receiving attention from
all quarters. APS has announced interest in a conference on graduate
physics education, the National Academy of Sciences is concluding a
year-long study of the state of graduate science education, and Science
magazine will devote an upcoming issue to the topic. Interest in the
training of graduate students is heightened by the growing realization
of the need to address the un/underemployment of recent graduates.
Although there is a growing body of research in physics education
at the undergraduate and pre-college levels, there is a surprising
lack of similar work at the graduate level. This is a significant discrepancy,
as the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences states in their
report "Graduate Education in Transition", "without reform in graduate
education no lasting change in school or undergraduate education is
likely...the attitudes and skills of school teachers are, in the long
run, molded in colleges and universities, where these teachers are
instructed by the products of our graduate schools. One does not have
to subscribe to a domino theory to see that all parts of our education
system are interdependent."1
In an informal poll of scientists from industry and government labs,
I asked what skills physicists looking for jobs most often lacked.
Two responses dominated the answers. The first was the perception of
a narrow focus in both attitude toward what constitutes interesting
research and in the breadth of techniques known by applicants. The
employers felt some new employees had difficulty adapting to the different
requirements of industry or government labs compared to academic research
environments. The second comment was regarding a lack of oral and written
communication skills. This issue features programs designed to address
The need for emphasis on management and communication skills is emphasized
in an article by a physicist-turned-management consultant. (Mark
Paul) This article details the evaluation of a graduate science
program using techniques traditionally applied in the business world.
The results show that development of management skills, written and
oral communication skills and problem-solving abilities are essential
to success beyond graduate school and argues that schools providing
their students with these skills will be rewarded with increased interest
in their programs.
While graduate coursework in experimental techniques may seem like
an oxymoron, the lab training of experimentalists is often hit-or-miss.
A graduate-level course in the theory of
experimental techniques can both broaden the students' range of knowledge
and ensure a strong understanding of the fundamentals. Although the
program featured here is for Condensed Matter Physics, elements of
this program can be translated to other fields.
Due to the impact on undergraduate courses, the area of graduate
education that has received the most formal attention is the training
of graduate teaching assistants. TA training has
dual purposes: improving the quality of graduate student supervised
laboratories and recitation sections and also improving the ability
of the graduate students not only to teach, but to present their ideas
orally. This skill spplies not only to their assignments as Teaching
Assistants, but also to their eventual performance as physics
professors. This issue contains an overview, discussing the rationale
for increased attention to TA training, and reports on two programs
designed to assist incoming graduate students with their duties.
The American Association of Physics Teachers' Committee
on Graduate Education is working toward answering many of these
concerns. Their activities and plans for the future, as well as areas
where AAPT/APS collaboration could be increased, are detailed in
Finally, the database for registration of summer research opportunities
for undergraduates is ready for registration. `Comments
from the Chair' explains the rationale behind establishing the
database and how you can register your opportunities.
Like many physics departments, we at the University of Nebraska are
examining our graduate program and starting to address these issues
by providing, for example, seminars on professional development topics
(such as how to give a technical talk or write a vita). I hope this
issue gives you some ideas about your role in the education of graduate
In addition to the article authors and interviewees, I'd like to
thank Jack Hehn and Frank Peterson for their assistance with this issue.
1) "Graduate Education in Transition", Notices of the American Mathematical
Society, 39, 398 (1992)