Go to the U of M home page
School of Physics & Astronomy
School of Physics and Astronomy Wiki

User Tools


Survival Guide To Graduate School

Classes / 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 Technology).
  • 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 another class?
  • 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 advisor

  • 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 its direction.)
  • 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 market.
  • 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 the lab.

Work / 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 permission.
  • Connect with a community of people outside the university. That hobby/activity mentioned above is a good way to do this.
  • 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 this.

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.
    • Conferences are a good way to do this. Ask your advisor to introduce you to people he/she knows in or near your field. Go out to dinner with other research groups.
    • Another good way to network is to go to seminars offered to other departments at the U of M that interest you. If graduate students give the seminars volunteer to give a talk about your work.
    • Other graduate students (from the U of M or other schools) can be great resources for finding out about post-doctoral advisors.
  • 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 post-doctoral positions.
  • 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.
groups/wipa/home/survival_guide.txt · Last modified: 2014/02/06 17:10 by bao