The Road Ahead

We imagine that you, the reader, are contemplating entering college or have only recently begun college classes, and we have structured this site with that in mind. Of course this does not apply to every visitor, and indeed, we expect that even beginning students will return here many times before they graduate. So skim the contents to get oriented and use the resources as they fit you best.

For the beginning student, the paragraphs below offer advice about how to get the most from a college program that is focused on a physics career. Obviously this is not everything you need to know. For the rest you should make use of your instructors and advisers.

Starting out: Steps Along the Way.

Outside Reading
Outside reading provides a context for the ideas that will be developed in your courses. Reading about physics is important since you will form questions as you read. When you take a class that answers these questions, your interest will already be developed so the concepts will come easier and you will retain them longer. The most important thing to know about outside reading is to follow your interests.

Classes and Advising
Obviously you will want to do well in your course work. This is where the main content of your education lies. But you are not alone, and are not expected to do this alone. For your classes, visit your instructors, form study groups (see below), and make use of the resources available at BC. For help selecting courses and planning your schedule seek advice (from a person!) about the courses you should take. Taking classes only when you are ready for them is a fundamental secret for success. An example of a four year curriculum can be found at University of Washington Physics. Obviously you will have to modify this to account for your classes here at BC.

Transferring to a Four Year College or University
If you are interested in physics you will want to transferring to a four year college or university after you have finished at BC. The physics transfer page contains information for students who plan to transfer, whether in-state or out-of-state. Running Start students should seek advice from their high school advisors and International Students should consult with International Student services here at BC. All students should consult with their instructors for additional information.

Professional Societies
Most disciplines have professional societies associated with them. Membership usually includes a subscription to the society journal. This is a vary good place to get a feel for what is happening in your field. For physics the main societies are the American Institute of Physics (AIP), American Physical Society (APS), The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). As a student you will be interested in the student section of the American Physical Society called the Society of Physics Students (SPS), and their associated honor society Sigma Pi Sigma. There is a chapter at the University of Washington (UWSPS) for students who expect to transfer there.

Internships are growing in importance for the career minded student. Here is a place to gain practical laboratory experience, to see how physics is done and to get paid for doing it! Resources for internship information can be found at the AIP internship site, at the University of Washington, and at a site maintained by Sonoma State University. Our science advisor at BC maintains up to date internship information.

Study Groups
Research into the progress of students in science and Engineering shows that students who study in groups do significantly better than their peers who study alone. In addition to the students you meet through group activities in your courses, you can work with fellow students in Club Phys. You should find study partners for all your courses, for your whole academic career.

Know Yourself
What qualities make a good physicist? Do you have these qualities? The answers to these questions cover both your interests and your abilities. Both of these are developing so the answer may be changing as you go through school. Conversations with your instructors and self examination are your two main windows into this realm. There is a very good site at Cornell Career Services (Cornell University) that can help you begin this self examination. Some observations about qualities that presage success in physics are discussed below in the section “Is it for me” (graduate School). Finally, the National Academy of sciences has an excellent online book: Careers in Science and Engineering.

An important part of your education should happen outside of the classroom. Your contact with professors and others in your field is one of your main sources of information about the professional life you will lead. You need this information both to help you achieve your educational goals, and to know how to set the professional goals that will guide you afterward. Finding a mentor, one instructor who takes an interest in your developing career, is the best thing to do early on. However, you can be just as successful by utilizing many sources. The important part is to get to know these people, and gather information from them about the life and values they have.

Planning for the Job Market.
As you enter your senior year you want to begin developing your contacts for work after college. If you have been using these pages, you know where to go already. If not, start on the page Cracking The Job Market to begin your search.

What About Graduate School?
What is graduate physics like? what can I do with a graduate degree in physics? How should I pick a graduate school? and What field should I study? These questions are addressed below. What you need to know now is that it is already time to start getting answers to these questions. You will need to begin now and continue gathering information all the way up to your graduation and acceptance to the school of your choice.

Graduate School: Weighing the Choices and Getting Ready.

What Does a Graduate Degree Mean?
Graduate programs offer more than just additional classes in your discipline. In physics in the United States there are two principle alternatives, a Masters Degree (MS or MA) and the Doctorate of Philosophy (Ph.D.). A masters program will include course work that helps you to bridge the gap between your introductory course where the problems and systems are mostly idealized, to applications and techniques that account for more of the complexities of nature. You will extend your knowledge to include many more real world examples and be able to handle a much harder class of problems. Also your mathematical sophistication will rise to new levels. In addition you will be exposed to physics as it is practiced today. Most undergraduate programs can only provide a taste of physics more modern than 1935. In your graduate course work you will learn the details about the developments in the last half of this century. Finally you will learn how to search the literature (experiment and theory papers) so that you have the skills to continue your learning in any specialty area of physics. The student with a masters degree may have many qualities but is expected to be able to solve any solvable problem that has been clearly defined by whoever is asking the question. The Doctoral student has been prepared in much the same way as the Masters student, perhaps different course work or experiences but principally the same academic goals, although usually with slightly higher standards. In addition the Ph.D. holder is someone who has carried forth a research problem from formulating the question, to constructing the research methods (and devices if the student is an experimentalist), to evaluating the results and forming a conclusion that contributes to our body of knowledge. One way to express the difference between the masters and the Ph.D., is that the person with a Ph.D. can be given problems that are not clearly defined, that may not have a solution, and this person should be able to define the problem, determine if a solution is possible (and why) and finally provide an answer. Obviously individuals may have this quality or ability already. The Ph.D. holder has demonstrated this ability for at least one difficult problem to the satisfaction of the physics community.

Is It For Me?
This is not a question to answer all at once. You should begin by evaluating yourself and your interests as suggested above in the “Know Yourself” bullet. Compare the results of that examination to the description of qualities for successful graduate students presented here. Ask your instructors for an outside view. They have the experience, both in the field and with you, to help you develop a perspective. The two leading qualities of the physicist are curiosity and an analytical mind. Do you love to find out how things work? Are you an explorer, one who likes to see parts of nature that few others have seen? And do you naturally like to take things apart, to quibble about details? Do you have an easy time with evidence or logic and argumentation? These are good indicators for success in physics. Physics combines intuition about the physical world with mathematical descriptions of nature. Strength in both areas is the leading predictor of success. However you may still succeed if relative weakness in one of these qualities is compensated by strength in the other. Math has become the language of physics. your conversations with your peers will switch between math and English to the point where you will no longer notice the distinction. Students who are somewhat weaker in math have become good experimentalists if they are analytical and have exceptional physical intuition, but Michel Faraday (1791-1867) is perhaps the last great physicist to succeed on intuition alone. However your current performance in math may not be a good indicator of your likely success. You may not have enough experience to base a sound judgment upon. Wait until you are through differential equations and then talk to your physics instructor about that experience before you decide. Physical intuition covers a wide set of poorly defined abilities. Perhaps the leading quality is physical modeling, the ability to form a mental picture or mental structure that behaves the same way as the physical system under study. Also people with strong physical intuition are often those who have been looking at the objects around them since their earliest years and wondering how they worked. As tinkerers, these people are generally very good with their hands.Physicists are generally sociable people, but the work will often require long hours in isolation, building devices or making calculations (often on the computer). If you do not like to work alone for long periods without human contact you will want to find ways to compensate or make this a key question as you inquire about particular research areas.

Is Graduate School the Right Strategic Choice?
Deciding to go to graduate school involves factors outside of academic ability and your desire to pursue knowledge. These factors comprise economic issues and strategies for designing your career. A student that becomes employed at the end of four years has about a seven year head start on the Ph.D. student in establishing his or her career. So you would want to compare starting Ph.D. salaries to those enjoyed by a bachelors student with seven years experience (plus the net earnings in between). Then too, the job market fluctuates. Employment rises and falls. Sometimes the masters degree is very difficult to market (you cost too much but cannot do enough) and at other times it is an easy sell. You will want to gather information about how graduates are faring in the job market. Visit the statistics pages at AIP. This is a good topic to raise both with your instructors and with the science advisor. At best you will all be gazing into the crystal ball since you need to predict the situation that exists when you graduate.

Where Should I Go?
Selecting a graduate program is a different question for each student. It first depends on your field of interest, so you will want to learn as much about the direction of physics research as possible before your senior year. Then you must evaluate the graduate programs available. You can find a ranking of graduate schools at US News and World Reports and a clever searchable one at Physlink (Old data, 1994.). But this will not tell the whole story. You also need to research several schools in more depth. Ask your instructors, read program brochures, and visit the campuses. It is especially important to get personal observations from several physicists and graduate students before you decide.

How Do I Prepare Myself?
Here we refer you to a very nice summary at Careers in Science and Engineering

Last Updated February 11, 2018