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By Abigail Dove
The APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA) empowers and provides support to graduate students in the physics community. This support spans from the professional—including networking opportunities, career advice, and funding for conference travel—to the practical, including advocacy around research funding as well as issues of travel and immigration for international students, who make up about 45% of all physics students in the US.
Established in 2001 as a platform for physics graduate students to get more involved with APS and the wider physics community, FGSA now boasts nearly 5,000 members, making it one of the largest forums at APS. This underscores the appetite for this kind of networking and support among graduate students embarking on the next phase of their professional lives.
FGSA is led entirely by graduate students and recent graduates, all of whom were graduate students when they joined the executive committee. The current chair is Delilah Gates, a recent PhD graduate of Harvard University. This spring she defended her thesis on spinning black holes and gravity—specifically the analytic characterization of observational signatures of Kerr black holes using the presence of critical null geodesics and the emergent conformal symmetry of the near horizon region of near extremal black holes.
“In general, graduate students’ biggest needs relate to resources for professional development. A major aspect of this is the ability to attend conferences and meetings where you can network, meet colleagues and potential collaborators, and get exposure to new ideas,” Gates explained.
To this end, FGSA offers several travel awards to facilitate conference attendance among FGSA members. The FGSA Travel Award for Excellence in Graduate Research recognizes graduate students who have made “noteworthy progress” in their academic careers, providing funds to pay for conference registration fees. (In the COVID-19 era this award is specifically reserved for students attending the March and April Meetings.) Additionally, the newer FGSA Underrepresented Minority Student Award covers the full conference registration fee for 10 students attending the March Meeting and 10 students attending the April Meeting who are members of groups typically underrepresented in the physics community compared to the population at large.
Beyond facilitating students’ ability to attend the annual March and April Meetings, FGSA plays an active role in developing the programming at these events, typically hosting at least one session per meeting. This year’s lineup included a career development-focused session on the post-doc experience at the March Meeting and a session on data analysis in astrophysics at the April Meeting. FGSA also regularly hosts networking sessions—including virtual ones during the COVID-19 pandemic—to facilitate interactions between graduate students and provide an opportunity for them to learn more about FGSA, its resources, and opportunities to get involved in its governance.
In addition to professional development in the context of conferences and scientific meetings, FGSA is also very invested in supporting graduate students as they transition onto the next phase of their careers. “We work closely with and levy the resources of APS Careers in order to make our members aware of different job opportunities,” Gates explained. Importantly, FGSA’s support extends not only to graduate students pursuing a traditional trajectory in academia, but also the increasing number interested in joining industry and the private sector.
Beyond the emphasis on career development and network building, FGSA is sharply focused on advocating for the interests of graduate students. “In partnership with APS Government Affairs (APS GA) we levy our collective voice for policies that will be beneficial to graduate students at large,” noted Gates. Such efforts have included pushing back against Trump-era executive actions against travel and immigration that have negatively impacted international students in the physics community, as well as advocacy to ensure that physics graduate students could receive financial relief, get US visas processed, and find employment opportunities in the aftermath of COVID-related closures of universities and research facilities (see APS News July/August 2020).
Perhaps most notably, APS GA and FGSA spearheaded a grassroots campaign last year to ensure that graduate students, post-docs, and visiting researchers could continue to receive financial support from federal grants during the COVID-19 pandemic. FGSA members sent hundreds of letters to Congress underscoring the importance of these grants and within just days three of the largest funders of physics research—the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense—confirmed that they would extend grant support during the pandemic.
Looking forward, the FGSA executive committee’s biggest aspiration for the forum is to foster an even greater degree of engagement among FGSA members, from establishing volunteer opportunities within the forum to encouraging members to take a leadership role in the unit’s subcommittees.
Overall, FGSA stands out as an important entry point into APS for many young scientists and a unit that occupies an important niche for physics graduate students in all their diversity. More information can be found at the FGSA website.
The author is a freelance writer in Stockholm, Sweden
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