Academic Advising in the Department of Physics and Astronomy


The Department of Physics and Astronomy has always placed strong emphasis on advising its graduate students. The Department's advising system has evolved over time and now includes all mandatory procedures and almost all other aspects that are outlined in the document "Elements of Good Academic Advising" issued by the Office of the Provost. This document describes our practices in detail.

Advising Prior To Enrollment

The Admissions Committee provides all prospective graduate students with our Graduate Brochure, a description of available Financial Aid, and an online copy of the document "Requirements for the M.S. and Ph.D. Degrees" which details our degree requirements. The Admissions Committee and the Graduate Administrator also make available other information that any applicant may request.

Advising of New Students

Upon entering the Department each new graduate student is assigned to one of the faculty members who serve as academic advisors. They are provided with the application files of their assigned students, including copies of all correspondence that occurred before enrollment. During the orientation week the academic advisors meet with each new student individually for about one hour to explain our requirements, advise them on courses, review results of their pretest and answer any other questions that the students may have. The assigned academic advisor remains the new graduate student's principal faculty advisor until the student has completed the core course requirements and begins to work with a research advisor. Once the Research Agreement has been executed, the research advisor takes over as the student's principal faculty advisor through the completion of the doctoral dissertation. As an optional extra advisor, the Director of Graduate Studies remains available for consultation.

The Department has an experienced Graduate Administrator who provides all graduate students with information and helps them resolve any administrative or other problems they encounter.

Since the majority of the entering graduate students are supported by teaching assistantships during their first year, and all must teach for two terms at some point, all incoming students are required to take a one-credit course (PHYS 2997) on "Teaching of Physics and Astronomy" during the Fall semester of their first year. This course tells them about their responsibilities as Teaching Assistants, introduces them to effective teaching methods, and incorporates extensive teaching practice sessions. The faculty members who teach the lecture and/or laboratory courses in which the graduate students assist also provide guidance to them with regard to teaching issues.  In addition to the physics exposure in PHYS 2997, first-year students take PHYS 2999, which requires students to attend departmental colloquia to further expose beginning graduate students to current physics research. No formal class time is needed.

In order to inform the first-year students about the wide range of research opportunities available to them in the Department, PHYS 2997 also includes a series of informal talks by faculty members about their research programs. These talks of ten continue on Fridays throughout the Spring term.

In addition to the faculty advisors, advanced graduate students act as mentors of new students. These graduate students hold the title of Arts and Sciences TA Mentor for the department. Their perspective on teaching and choosing a research advisor can be invaluable to beginning students.

Students with fellowships the first year are strongly encouraged to try out a research group or to take more than the 3 core courses.

Preliminary Evaluation and Comprehensive Examination

By the end of their first year, graduate students must pass a Preliminary Evaluation. The end of their second year is marked by a Comprehensive Examination. Both of these requirements can be met by the end of the first year by students who successfully complete the following graduate core courses during their first two semesters:

Fall Semester:

PHYS 2373 - Mathematical Methods
PHYS 2513 - Dynamical Systems
PHYS 2565 - Non-relativistic Quantum Mechanics I

Spring Semester:

PHYS 2541 - Statistical Mechanics & Thermodynamics
PHYS 2555 - Classical Electricity and Magnetism I
PHYS 2566 - Non-relativistic Quantum Mechancis II

In order to assess the students' mastery of the undergraduate prerequisites for these courses, the Department requires that during the orientation week the course instructors for PHYS 2513, PHYS 2541, PHYS 2555, and PHYS 2565 administer pretests to the incoming students. Students who do not perform adequately on a pretest may be advised and/or required by the instructor, in consultation with the student's academic advisor, to enroll in an advanced undergraduate course on the subject in question as a preliminary to its graduate-level course. The relevant advanced undergraduate courses, which may be used to satisfy the Preliminary Evaluation, are the following:

PHYS 1331 - Mechanics prior to
PHYS 2513 - Dynamical Systems
PHYS 1341 - Thermodynamics & Stat. Mechanics prior to PHYS 2541 - Stat. Mechanics & Thermodynamics
PHYS 1372 - Electromagnetic Theory prior to PHYS 2555 - Classical Electricity & Magnetism
PHYS 1370 - Introduction to Quantum Mechanics 1 prior to PHYS 2565 - Non-relativistic Quantum Mechanics IPHYS 1371 - Introduction to Quantum Mechanics 2 prior to PHYS 2565 - Non-relativistic Quantum Mechanics I

If a student provides documentation from a previous U.S. institution that he/she has passed a course covering the equivalent material for any of the graduate core courses, he/she may attempt to test out of the course at the beginning of the semester using that course's final exam. This documentation may also include a Master's degree in Physics from a recognized insitution.

Advising of Continuing Students

Within six months after passing the comprehensive examination students are expected to find a faculty member who is willing to serve as their research advisor and is able to support them. From that time on, the research advisor is responsible for advising the student on his/her dissertation project. The advising now focuses mainly on technical and scientific questions related to the research project, but in practice it also includes the development of oral and written communication skills, an introduction of the student to the scientific community through participation in national and international conferences, and ultimately career counseling.

Requirements after the core courses include four 3000-level classes. See the "Requirements for the M.S. and Ph.D. Degrees" document.

  1. Within eight months after passing the comprehensive examination students are expected to have selected and obtained the Department Chair's approval for the five members of their dissertation committee which is chaired by their research advisor. The members of a dissertation committee have two principal responsibilities: they serve as a broadly knowledgeable review and advisory board for the purpose of assisting the dissertation research project to progress at a reasonable pace from its beginning stage all the way through to its completion;
  2. they help maintain departmental quality standards in the level of dissertation research. The first meeting of the dissertation committee must be held within twelve months after the student has passed the comprehensive examination, and it must meet at least once a year after that. The dissertation committee must approve the final submitted dissertation.

Problems between research advisors and research students occasionally arise and sometimes a student may decide to terminate his/her association with a faculty member. The Graduate Director will assume the role of mediator in the case of conflicts that require such intervention.

The process of finding an appropriate first post-graduate position generally begins about a year before completion of the dissertation. The research advisor and other faculty members with related research interests usually play an important role in this process. The "apprentice system" that is traditional in the sciences provides a student with far more help and advice than could be offered by alternative formal means. The placement services maintained by scientific societies, e.g. the American Physical Society and the American Astronomical Society, can often provide valuable "leads" for job opportunities.

Problem Resolution and Grievance Procedures

Problems between students and faculty members, as well as other grievances that may arise, are generally handled by the Graduate Director of the Department who acts as mediator and attempts to resolve the problem. In difficult cases, the Graduate Director will consult with the Department Chair. In cases that may have serious consequences for the student or the University, the Graduate Director will convene the Graduate Committee to discuss the situation and decide on a course of action. Experience has shown that most problems can be resolved at the Departmental level in this manner. The Graduate Administrator is responsible for keeping internal documentation on all such cases on file. If a resolution cannot be worked out within the Department, the student will be informed of his/her right of appeal to the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Research.