Your First Year in Physics Grad School

> Teacher Writes on Blackboard: “The Method of Guessing” Student: “What! There’s a method???????” Teacher: “Yeah, there’s even a proof!” -overheard in a physics grad school

As a physics professor, one of the challenges I face is how to advise young students nearing the end of their undergraduate career on how to succeed in graduate school in physics.

The best I can do is tell them about what I’ve done myself that’s worked for me, and what pitfalls I’ve seen others fall victim to.

As an undergraduate, my grades were all over the place. I’d take an advanced astrophysics course I was really interested in, and get an A, no problem. I’d take an advanced mechanics or circuits course, and I’d be lucky to get out of it with a B-. (And I wasn’t always lucky.)

But I did what many undergrads — in many disciplines, not just physics — do. I’d:

* go to class, having not looked at the book or my previous notes, * take notes and try to pay attention, * and then open up the book, my notes, and the homework assignment the afternoon before it was due, and try to crank the whole thing out.

And there was, of course, always an extensive amount of cramming the night before a test.

And then I graduated, went out into the real world as a teacher, and decided that I not only didn’t love my job, but that I really wanted to be in graduate school, learning theoretical cosmology, and getting my Ph.D. in physics.

(Image credit: Matthias Bartelmann.)

But unless you go to a very unorthodox school, every first year graduate student faces some version of a “core curriculum”, involving introductory graduate courses in classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and/or statistical mechanics/thermodynamics.

And these courses are legendary for their difficulty, rigor, and for preparing students with the underpinnings of physics necessary for the experimental and theoretical challenges that lie ahead in graduate school.

But practically, about a third of all students that enter physics graduate schools are gone — having either flunked out or given up — by the end of their second year. And I was worried I was going to be one of them if I didn’t work hard enough. The material was harder than anything I’d encountered before, and I knew that my old study habits weren’t going to cut it. Especially because I wanted to do theory.

So I did something that wound up working for me, and that I suppose I would recommend to any student that was serious about succeeding during their first year in graduate school in physics.

For each class, my study habits actually became outstanding, although they required more time than I’d ever put in before. I would:

* Skim over the sections in the textbook that we were going to be covering in lecture that day. * I’d go to class, write down everything the instructor wrote down, take the best notes I could, and ask whatever questions I could to make sure I understood the material. And then… * I’d go through the relevant section in the book, that we just covered in lecture, along with my lecture notes. This time, unlike before class, I’d actually be able to work through it and figure out what the author was talking about. And this step was immensely helpful to me. * Because when it came time to do the homework, unlike when I was an undergrad, I had an idea of what we were talking about. I knew where to look in the book and my notes for guidance, and I was actually prepared for the next class.

It was really amazing to see that every student that put that kind of work in did just fine in those courses, and every student that failed those classes didn’t put that kind of work in.

It isn’t, of course, the only way to do it, but it was tremendously useful for me, and it helped me turn myself from a student that came in with a deficient background in the upper division undergrad courses, who’d been away from academics for a year, to one ready to take on the most difficult theory courses — general relativity and quantum field theory — with great success in the next year.

So if you’re headed to graduate school in physics, that’s my advice for your first year. Put the work into those core courses, because whatever you want to do after that, that’s work that will pay off. I realize this doesn’t apply to many of you, but I’d also imagine that something very much like this would help in most fields of academic study. Thoughts?

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