The APS/AAPT Conference on Graduate Education in Physics

Janet Tate

The Directors of Graduate Studies (DGS) from 70 of the nation's PhD-granting institutions met for a day and a half at the American Center for Physics in College Park, MD in February 2008 to discuss trends and practices in graduate education in physics. Also represented at the conference were several of the professional societies (AAPT, APS, AIP, and the European Physical Society), the NSF, industry, and the Sloan Foundation. Three graduate students from the APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs also participated to supply the student perspective.

Motivation for such a meeting came from the AAPT/APS Task Force on Graduate Education, whose 2006 report indicated that the physics graduate curriculum has been static for many years, and from the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report in 2005, which sounded alarms about the state of science education in general and the implications for US competitiveness. A survey of Physics DGS indicated that two-thirds of the responding departments are considering or are implementing significant changes to their graduate programs, and that all were very interested in finding out about what works and what doesn't in other departments.

In her remarks during a panel session, APS Executive Director Judy Franz noted that opportunities for graduate study in physics in Europe and Asia are far more exciting and attractive than in the past, which means that the US faces much stronger competition than before. She encouraged departments to be conscious of the diverse careers that physics PhD graduates ultimately pursue, and also to take steps to increase the diversity of students and faculty.

Past AAPT president Ken Heller encouraged participants to "discuss our questions, qualms, and insights," and many of those were aired. One topic of discussion was broadening the core courses to encourage the interdisciplinary research aspirations of students and faculty. Biological physics, as an example, is an exciting field that attracts talented students who are disappointed to find that the traditional physics core delays or even precludes the biology courses they need to pursue their research. Will physics accommodate them, or will they find their homes in a biology-oriented department? Will physics cede "Energy" to environmental sciences? Randy Kamien of the University of Pennsylvania described a remodeled physics program that allows biological physics to flourish.

Question: What do we really teach in those courses with 50-year old names and texts whose first editions are also approaching retirement age? Has the content evolved and is it relevant to modern research? Is the content taught using modern tools and strategies? Regular examination of course content and delivery by departments is essential, and on a national level, a follow-up to this conference would be useful.

Qualm: Do physics graduate programs subtly or even overtly dismiss non-academic career choices as second class? The graduate students thought so, and many faculty wanted to improve the mentoring of students with aspirations outside of academia. Departments can enhance contact with broader physics interests, including encouraging entrepreneurship, fostering student/industry contacts, and inviting non-academic scientists to speak in the department.

Insight: Mentoring and tracking of students, explicit attention to the departmental climate, and providing opportunities for students to develop the communication, interpersonal and teamwork skills that will be essential in any career, are key elements in successful programs. There are many examples of exemplary practices that are being gathered into the final conference report.

Vincent Rodgers of the University of Iowa, noting the abysmal lack of representation of ethnic minorities in the population of physics PhDs, described a program in which highly talented students are brought together for a summer to solve cool physics problems under the dedicated tutelage of physicists like himself. The recipe is simple: challenge students, keep expectations high, provide a supportive and collaborative environment. Good things happen, and step by step, a few new recruits are found. Keivan Stassun described the successful Fisk-Vanderbilt bridge program where students study for the MS degree in a carefully structured collaborative environment at Fisk and are groomed for transition to the PhD program at Vanderbilt. Margaret Murnane of the University of Colorado/JILA reiterated the recommendations of the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics to create a climate that is welcoming to women, and stressed that the flexibility and awareness that is necessary achieve this improves the climate for all. She also encouraged broadening the curriculum and throwing out unnecessary hurdles to research progress.

As expected, an important outcome of the conference was the opportunity to connect with peers and exchange ideas and receive that added spur to keep pushing to improve graduate education locally and nationally. The need for regular exchanges among DGS was evident, with participants suggesting a national listserv and convening the Graduate Education in Physics conference every 3-5 years.

The presentations of the slate of speakers and summaries of the discussions are available at the conference website, where you will also find resources relating to TA training, ethics courses, diversity issues, and a compilation of comprehensive exam procedures. A formal report will be posted this summer. The conference was partially supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Janet Tate is a Professor in the Department of Physics, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331-6507. She can be reached at