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For New Students

The goal of the graduate program is to prepare you to be a physicist. It is primarily an apprenticeship system in which you learn from those with more experience and teach those with less experience. This intense system of instruction relies on the community of physicists to which you are linked. In this regard, the graduate program is much different from your previous undergraduate experience. Your success in graduate school depends on your active interaction with others in the community. The emphasis is as much on asking the right questions and engaging in enlightening discussion as it is on finding the answers. Besides a solid knowledge of physics, you will need to adopt approaches that are considerably different from those required to solve problem sets from a textbook.

The first year acts as a transition period between the undergraduate and graduate experience. You should expect to take two or three courses per semester, each of which will have weekly problem sets plus examinations. In addition, you will take the Graduate Research Seminar to introduce you to the research being done in this School and the people doing it. If you are a TA, you will take the course Best Practices in Physics Teaching. This course explores techniques designed to make your teaching more efficient and successful. In addition to all of this, you will be studying for the Graduate Written Examination (GWE). You should spend about three months preparing for this exam. Possible ways to prepare include (i) review undergraduate textbooks on classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and statistical/thermal physics, (ii) work past exams (copies are available), (iii) form study groups.

In later years, you will take advanced courses in your field of research, and you will increasingly focus on your research. Research is the most important part of the Ph.D. program. It is easy to forget that during the first year, when you will be very busy taking courses, preparing for the written exam, and probably being a TA. Do not lose sight of your priorities and make sure you do not neglect important research related activities such as attending the Colloquium and group seminars, and getting informed and involved with the research activities of the School.

Before classes begin at the University, you will have an extensive formal orientation period. This time is to give you the opportunity to become familiar with your new environment, colleagues, and duties before you enter the daily routine of studying, going to classes, attending colloquia and seminars, and teaching. During this period, you will take care of the bureaucratic requirements of filling out necessary forms, getting your office space and keys, getting your picture taken, and arranging for your computer account. We will make clear what the School expects of you and what you should expect of the School. Classes, credit requirements, exams, and research opportunities will be discussed so please bring any questions you have. You will be assigned a faculty adviser who will help you plan an initial course schedule. In addition to formal orientation sessions, there will be informal opportunities to meet members of the faculty and experienced graduate students to help you become more familiar with the School.

The Teaching Assistant portion of the orientation is designed to give you the background necessary to be an effective and efficient instructor. It is officially a course that you are required to pass if you have a Teaching Assistant appointment or think that you might like one anytime during the year. During the TA orientation, you will be introduced to the techniques of instruction that you will use to teach your classes. You will get practice teaching laboratories and recitation sections and evaluating students' written work to determine their learning difficulties. The orientation will also address typical student learning difficulties in physics, classroom management techniques, and how to handle difficult situations such as those involving discrimination or dishonesty. You will also be introduced to the experimental and theoretical basis for the teaching techniques used. The entire orientation program occurs during the two weeks prior to the beginning of classes for about 6-8 hours per day. Teaching assignments will be made during this time.

Teaching Assistants whose native language is not English are required to take an additional three-week University Orientation earlier in the summer. This program provides intensive instruction in communication skills and basic teaching strategies geared to American students. To be qualified to teach you must pass a communications test given during that time. If you do not pass the test at a sufficiently high level, you will be required to take a communications skills course during your first term. At the end of that course you will again take the communication test. If you again do not pass the communication test, you must re-take the course. The School will pay your tuition for the course the first time you take it. For any additional term the tuition will be your responsibility.


The course numbering system at the University of Minnesota is as follows: 1xxx, 2xxx and 3xxx courses are undergraduate courses that are not open for graduate credit. Courses numbered 4xxx and 5xxx are open for both undergraduate and graduate credit. 4xxx courses are primarily for undergraduates, while 5xxx courses are primarily intended for graduate students. 8xxx courses are advanced graduate courses. You and your adviser will plan your coursework for the first year during the orientation period.

Generally, incoming graduate students will take three courses: quantum mechanics, classical physics, and thermal/statistical physics.

Most students take the quantum mechanics sequence 5001/2. It presumes that you have had a one or two semester junior/senior level course in quantum mechanics. Students who have already taken a one-year graduate level course on quantum mechanics can instead take the more advanced quantum mechanics course Physics 8001.

The second course sequence that most students take is 5011/2 Classical Physics. This sequence covers classical mechanics and classical electromagnetism.

Most students take the required thermal/statistical physics course 5201 in their first year, while some others take it in their second year.

Additional courses can be selected from a range of choices. You should carefully read the section below about the written examination before making your choice. Some common selections are listed in the table below. You should consider both the major and minor requirements for your degree (see Chapters 4 or 5) in planning your coursework. In satisfying the minor requirements, you may wish to take courses in other departments such as astronomy, mathematics, electrical engineering, materials science, computer science or chemistry.

A possible additional course is 5041/2 (Analytical and Numerical Methods). Students may take a one-semester course in a specialty area, such as 4211 (Intro. to Solid State), 4511 (Intro. to Nuclear and Particle Physics), 4611 (Intro. to Space Physics), 4621 (Intro. to Plasma Physics), or 5081 (Intro. to Biopolymer Physics).

Table 2.1: Typical First Year Courses

Fall Spring
5001: Quantum I (4 cr.) 5002: Quantum II (4 cr.)
5011: Classical I (4 cr.) 5012: Classical II (4 cr.)
5201:Statistical/Thermal Physics (3 cr.) 4xxx Intro to…
4041: Computational Methods (4 cr.) 5041: Mathematical Methods (4 cr.)
5072: Teaching College Physics I (1 cr.) 5072: Teaching College Physics II (2 cr.)
5980: Intro to Research Seminar (1 cr.) 5980: Intro to Research Seminar (1 cr.)

Transferring credits: If you have taken graduate courses at another graduate institution, you may be able to transfer the credits. The official transfer of credits takes place when you submit your degree program form (see below). Credits from another institution can be transferred as long as they are taken after you have received a bachelor's degree. If you have attended college outside of the U.S., you can generally transfer credits earned after 4 years of post-secondary education. For example, some countries have a 5-year baccalaureate program. Generally, only courses from the 5th year of such a program can be transferred.

Table 2.2: Some Elective Courses Taken By First Year Students

Course number Course name
Physics 4051/2 Methods of Experimental Physics
Physics 4211* Introduction to Solid State Physics
Physics 4303 Waves, Optics, and Relativity
Physics 4511* Introduction to Nuclear and Particle Physics
Physics 4611* Introduction to Space Physics
Physics 4621* Introduction to Plasma Physics
Physics 5022 * Relativity, Cosmology, and the Universe

* Survey courses useful in deciding research specialties

The Graduate Written Examination

The Graduate Written Exam, or GWE, is currently given twice each year, at the beginning of each semester. All graduate students pursuing a Ph.D. degree are expected to pass the written exam by the fall semester of their second academic year of enrollment. Students who do not pass the GWE by the fall of their second year may be granted an additional attempt at the exam by the Director of Graduate Studies if they have made arrangements with a research adviser to complete an M.S. degree by the end of the second year. Incoming students are not required to take the GWE in their first fall semester. However, not taking the examination in subsequent opportunities is equivalent to a non-pass, unless advance permission from the Graduate Education Committee is granted (see Chapter 6). M.S. candidates are required to take the examination once, but they need not achieve the passing score.

The purpose of the examination is to test knowledge of 'undergraduate 'physics but at a sophistication appropriate to graduate school. While the exam does not cover graduate material, it does demand a high degree of mastery of the undergraduate material. The GWE is drafted by a special faculty committee and graded without knowing the names of the examinees, with one person grading a particular problem for all of the students. The passing grade is set by the faculty. It varies from year to year depending on the estimated difficulty of the examination. In the past, the passing grade has generally been about half of the total possible points.

The examination is given in two 4-hour sessions on two successive days. One session consists of ten short problems, whereas the other consists of five long problems. The examination covers the major areas of physics including classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and thermal and statistical physics. The grades on both parts are combined; there is no minimum requirement on each part in order to pass.

Preparing for the examination is very important for first year students. Previous versions of the examination are available on the physics website. Students often work in groups in order to review the relevant subject material. The specific strategy for exam preparation depends on academic background.

It is recommended that students pass the GWE as early as possible, so that they can concentrate on becoming involved in research. Although students should find a tentative research advisor even if they do not pass the examination during their first year, faculty members will be more likely to offer a full Research Assistantship to students who have passed the exam.

Getting Started in Research

All students should look seriously for research opportunities before the end of their first year. There are several factors to consider. One is theoretical vs experimental research. This choice often depends on skills and temperament. Theoretical research is more abstract and requires very good mathematical skills. Experimental research is more concrete, requiring the visualization of how a theoretical idea can be tested using measurements. It requires very good skills at system design. Modern experimental work requires the use of electronics and computer programming and sometimes the skills in machining, plumbing and other hands-on subjects. If in doubt as to whether their interests lie in experiment or theory, the students should talk to faculty members and more senior graduate students in both areas in order to help decide.

A second factor is the choice of a specialty area within physics. The specialty areas represented at the University of Minnesota include condensed matter physics, elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, space physics, nuclear and particle astrophysics, cosmology, biophysics, and physics education. A better idea of the interests of each faculty member can be found by browsing the physics Web site at http://www.physics.umn.edu.

A third factor to consider is the personal characteristics of individual faculty members. Graduate education is very individualized. It is important to have a good student-adviser relationship. The best method of gathering information is to talk with faculty members and other graduate students, particularly with the more advanced students who have had experience in thesis research.

A fourth factor to consider is the social characteristics of different fields. Many experimental groups, and sometimes theoretical groups as well, imply working in large teams and collaborations. Maintaining good relations with team members and maintaining effective exchange of information with them are very important aspects of doing research in such groups. As above, the best method of gathering information is to talk with faculty members and with the more advanced students involved in such groups.

After narrowing their choices, students should make appointments to talk with several faculty members about doing thesis research with them. It is best to begin these discussions as soon as the research interests have been identified. It is very advantageous to start research during the summer after the first year. Faculty members who are potentially interested will usually ask questions about the student's background both to the student and to other faculty members. A student's desirability as a Research Assistant is considerably increased by good course grades and, particularly, by having passed the written examination.

Usually, the decision to proceed with thesis research is preceeded by a trial period. This could include an initial project not necessarily related to the eventual thesis. Sometime in the second year, if the initial project has proceeded well, the student should expect to make and receive a definite commitment as a thesis student. Otherwise, the student may seek a different adviser. If this is necessary, it is best to do it as soon as possible. The effects of changing adviser are much more serious later in the graduate career.

The department tries to encourage early research connections by providing summer research fellowships to many of the first year students. After the trial period, the student may or may not be immediately appointed as Research Assistant by the adviser. With time, the student's financial support will be either an RA or some combination of RA and TA.

graduate_handbook/for_new_students.txt · Last modified: 2017/06/06 23:28 by kapusta