Graduate Education in Physics: Which Way Forward?—A Graduate
|Amber Stuver, California Institute of Technology/LIGO Livingston Observatory (Center), is flanked by Arlene Ford and Tracey Wellington, Texas A&M University.
From January 31 to February 2, 2008, the American Physical Society (APS) hosted a meeting of leaders in the physics community at the American Center for Physics entitled, "Graduate Education in Physics: Which Way Forward? A Conference to Discuss the Status and Future of Graduate Education in Physics." Attending the meeting, and reporting for SPS, were Amber Stuver from Cal Tech, and Tracey Wellington and Arlene Ford from Texas A&M University. They filed the following summary of the meeting as a way of letting others know about the events that transpired.
In early September, 2007, the organizers of the conference 'Graduate Education in Physics: Which Way Forward?' contacted the APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs to request graduate student representation at their conference. In the end, we agreed to attend the conference which was held at the American Center for Physics in Greenbelt, MD on 31 January to 2 February 2008. Initially, it seemed that it would be an intimidating experience: two graduate students and a postdoc sharing the graduate student's perspective of the current state of the graduate physics program with over 70 different graduate physics department faculty and APS representatives. But we survived, and we have outlined below some of our thoughts on a few questions raised at the conference.
The concept of what constitutes traditional core courses vary across universities - from no course work being required (with advancement in the program determined by qualifying examinations only), to a combination of course work and exams (or not even the exam). These differences lend us to question: what is the depth of knowledge required for a physics student at the end of their graduate career, and is this requirement fulfilled by completing all the traditional core courses or is this knowledge gained through their research? The core courses could be more beneficial to one's research project if they include the most current and cutting edge topics to supplement the more traditional subject areas.
Recruiting minority students has been an age old problem in the sciences, especially physics. In order to recruit minority students, schools could set up outreach programs at the high school level and actively push their physics graduate students and faculty to participate in these programs. For this to be successful, the departments should make these programs a priority because this is an investment in the future of physics.
Concerns were raised about whether or not the physics Ph.D. is suitable for a career in industry, or are the skills gained more useful for an academic setting? An applied physics program would be beneficial for students interested in an industrial career which requires a moderate knowledge of a wide range of physics subfields. This kind of applied physics program should not be viewed as "watered down" by focusing on breadth rather than depth (versus the depth of the traditional physics program), but recognized as a distinct curriculum from which it is apparent that it serves the interests of interdisciplinary research.
While great strides were made in sharing ideas and practices between diverse physics programs, some of our most memorable moments came outside of the conference room. During breaks and meals, we were actively sought out by faculty members. We discussed wide ranges of topics like the admissions experience from the students' point of view versus the experience of the faculty on the admissions committee; it is quite a daunting experience on both sides of the coin. We were also intrigued by the reasons different faculty members entered the physics field. Sometimes it is hard to think of faculty members ever being students themselves. Even during the conference, our questions and comments were not only welcomed but actively encouraged. We were not invited as token graduate students but as valued contributors.
Amber Stuver also presented a poster documenting what many physics students expect from their graduate education experience. It is available for viewing on the conference web page.
In conclusion, the Graduate Education in Physics conference was an enlightening experience and it was refreshing to see that physics faculties were actively reevaluating the graduate curriculum and asking many similar questions as their students. It was a great privilege to be able to share in this discourse and we hope that the insights we gave from a graduate student's perspective will help in the future development of the graduate physics program in the United States. We also hope that you will consider joining the APS (the first year for students is free and offered at a very reduced rate after that) and their Forum on Graduate Student Affairs so that you can help us make graduate students' voices' heard and respected.