/ Physics Written Exam / Oral Exam
Try to take all of your classes within your first three
years and plan ahead if you are interested in the Preparing Future
Faculty (PFF) program or a formal minor (e.g. Studies in Science and
Discuss with your advisor in your second year his/her
view on thesis credits. Do you have to start taking them the semester
after passing orals or can you push them off one semester to pick up
Develop a plan for studying for the written exam (GWE)
and stick to it. Pass the GWE as soon as possible. If you are
interested in theory, passing with the minimum score is not enough. A
typical schedule is bout 3-4 hours per week in the semester leading up
to the exam and 8 hours per day during the 2 weeks prior to the exam.
Know your oral exam committee. Choose faculty who will be
advocates for you. Learn what questions your committee members like to
ask and what their philosophies are regarding what the oral exam is
supposed to test. This information can be found out by asking other
graduate students, particularly those in your group and sub-field.
Finding a research group and
Talk with students in group: Are they happy? Do they like
what they do? What is the environment? How do they describe their
advisor and how he/she interacts with graduate students?
You’re going to be spending quite a bit of time with your
labmates so make sure these are people you can work with.
Don’t wait too long to join a group (second year is a
good time)—if it doesn’t work out, you can switch.
Learn how various projects within the lab fit together.
If you join the lab will you work on a single big project or several
small ones? And are those projects risky or likely to be successful? Is
there flexibility in terms of changing projects? Are certain projects a
“favorite” of the advisor? (This can mean you get a lot of attention,
it can also mean you’ll be under more pressure and have less say about
Take a long term view of the research—how do the skills
you will develop fit with your career goals (e.g. instrumentation,
programming, fabrication experience)?
Recognize where your advisor is in his/her career.
Tenured professors tend to be less hands-on then untenured professors.
But the latter has less experience (if any) advising graduate students
than the former. There are several older professors in the department
that are close to retirement or already retired; this brings it’s own
set of benefits and drawbacks.
Dealing with advisors
Let your advisor know what you want out of grad school
especially if your career goals are non-traditional.
Bargain with your advisor (e.g. I’ll do this small side
project you want done if you’ll ____.) Know your selling points
when bargaining (e.g. you’re the only one in the group working on
project X or with expertise Y). Remember that your research advances
his/her career as well.
If personality/communication styles conflict, counseling
can help you learn how to change your behavior to deal with those
conflicts in a constructive manner. You cannot change your advisor’s
behavior, but you can change how you react to it. This can mitigate the
adverse effects of his/her behavior.
Thesis projects vary from lab to lab and within a lab so
you should discuss with your advisor what constitutes a completed
thesis project. Also discuss what is required if the project doesn’t
work. As you near completion you will most likely need to have these
discussions more often, not less. They will just be much more specific.
Write papers for publication as you go. This will make
writing the thesis a lot easier and increases your value on the job
Set smaller goals for writing your thesis (e.g. I’ll have
chapter one finished by the end of May) and start writing the
background/introductory chapters as soon as possible (after your oral
exam for example).
Theses are typically written to serve as a reference to
/ Life balance
Decide on a hobby/activity that you will do no matter
what else comes up.
Don’t give physics all of your best hours. Schedule in
non-physics activities into your day/week/month. If your advisor wants
to know where you’re at, just say you can’t be at the lab on day X. You
don’t need to explain why you won’t be there –it’s too much like asking
Connect with a community of people outside the
university. That hobby/activity mentioned above is a good way to do
If you have non-physics interests that might be relevant
to alternative career paths, develop those. Volunteering for an
organization or interning for a business is a good way to accomplish
Looking beyond grad school
Within the first year or two, know what you want to do
with your Ph.D. Otherwise get your masters degree. A Ph.D. may price
you out of certain job markets.
Choose several people to serve as your references and
keep in touch with them regularly. You’ll want to have 2-3 research
references, 2 teaching references and 1 general character reference.
Network and develop contacts beyond the department.
Whatever career you decide to pursue, you are on your own
for finding positions when you are done. Advisors are of typically of
little use in finding a position after graduate school, even
Seek out opportunities that will “pad” your CV or resume
for your chosen career path (e.g. teaching a course at a nearby college
if you want to teach when you are finished). Do these even if your
advisor isn’t supportive.