Physics and Astronomy Department Plan For Senior Year

Senior Physics and Astronomy majors should begin planning their senior year by referring to the Senior Calendar and making a note of important dates and deadlines.

The Pomona College Department of Physics and Astronomy requires all majors to take the GRE Physics exam in the fall of their senior year. The GRE Physics exam costs money, and the department has agreed to find resources to pay for each students first attempt on this exam which should be in November. Since we will be paying for the exam, we will also receive the scores. These scores will become part of your record in the department, and will be considered along with GPA, research, and Oral exams in determining departmental honors, as well as supporting data for the letters of recommendation generated by faculty for students. A larger discussion of the GRE follows in the next section of this document.

The Oral comprehensive exam is offered to students by departmental invitation. Students with a minimum departmental GPA will be invited to take the Oral exam in October, with the understanding that preparing for the Oral and the GRE should be equivalent. There is potential that additional students may be invited to take an oral at a later date if the department is suitably impressed by their performance during the senior year. The Oral exam is a valuable experience similar to a competitive fellowship interview, a PhD candidacy exam, or even highly competitive job interviews.

Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The GRE is the first event you will have to think about if you have to think about it at all. Virtually every graduate department in any field will require the Aptitude Test, which is kind of like the SAT. It contains both verbal and math sections, and also a logic section. The Career Development Office (CDO) has a brochure put out by ETS and also application forms. There is also a GRE website, which has information and registration options that may be helpful if you are not in Claremont. The Aptitude test is given several times a year. The brochure will give the format, sample questions, and dates of administration. This test is not worth spending hours and hours studying for, but some preparation (e.g. taking sample tests, getting a good night’s sleep) is worthwhile. (This was the advice for the old paper-test. The Computerized Test, which is replacing the paper-test, may need additional preparation since the test-taking strategies will be different.) One reason to do well on this is that once in graduate school, your scores provide one of the few numerical ways of comparing you with graduate students in other disciplines, e.g. for the purposes of university-wide fellowships, etc.

Most physics departments require that you take the Subject Test in physics, which is typically the exam most people find traumatic. The information for this should be included in the general brochure. You should also invest in the sample test that is also available from ETS, which is the Subject Test given in a previous year. More practice tests can also be purchased in books on the Subject Test. After studying the practice questions in the descriptive brochure, and some general review (including–or especially–working problems), you should sit down and take this practice test under conditions as close as possible to the actual testing conditions. This way, you’ll know roughly what to expect, and you’ll identify areas you ought to study more. Unlike many standardized tests, the subject test can be studied for. You should be warned, however, that several earlier physics majors have told us that they found the actual subject test more difficult than the practice test.

If you are applying to very selective programs, you will need a high score on the subject test. The definition of “high” seems to be somewhat flexible, though. In general, students from small liberal arts colleges tend to score lower on the GRE physics test than students from large universities, but nevertheless have the background to do well in graduate school. At least one reason for this is that the questions come primarily from faculty at large research universities. The experience of some earlier classes suggests that at least some very selective graduate schools understand this difference and take it into account. Even so, scoring in the 30th percentile is not going to do you much good if you goal is to get into one of the best programs. One strategy that seems to help enormously in getting a high score on the subject test is this: look at every question you missed on the practice test, and figure out why the ETS answer is the correct one. The second step is the important one. Doing this will remind you of physics which may be hazy or unfamiliar, and also give you a sense of the thought processes of the test authors.

Since you probably have two exams to take, the Aptitude Test and the Subject Test, you should separate the times you take them. The subject test is substantially more demanding than the aptitude test, and you should be alert and fresh when you take it. Since most graduate schools want scores by January or February, you should take the subject test no later than December of your senior year unless you plan to postpose graduate school for a year. That means you should take the aptitude test in October. Some graduate schools, Cornell for sure, want you to take the subject test by November.

Another strategy, which is even more attractive in some respects, is to take the aptitude test in the summer and the subject test in November. If you’ve followed the department’s recommended schedule for completing the major, you’ll have taken all the fundamental courses by the end of your junior year. By taking the subject test in November, you get it out of the way before your class work has started to pile up, and if you decide you’ve done poorly, you have another shot at the exam in time for graduate school applications. The disadvantage of the November subject test is you have to take the aptitude test earlier.

Senior Thesis

The senior thesis is often the part of the “senior exercise” students face with the greatest trepidation, but virtually everyone finds the experience worthwhile and even enjoyable. First, of course, you have to pick a topic, and the need to find one is probably the biggest source of stress. You have lots of ways to find this topic, though. First, think about the courses you’ve taken or outside reading you’ve done. Did you find something particularly interesting? Did the course skip topics in the text that sounded intriguing? You can also talk to the current (or last, possibly via email) year’s seniors about their topics. It’s not unusual for one thesis to pick up where another left off. (This is particularly true in experimental theses in which the first person got the equipment working just in time to write the thesis and didn’t have time to make any actual measurements with it.) The department keeps copies of theses going back to the mid-60’s at least; an afternoon browsing among them can be very productive (Natalie can show you where they’re kept.). Or a really bizarre thought you might get an idea from some member of the faculty. One early session of Senior Lab or Physics Lunch will be devoted to presentations by the faculty on their research interests and expertise. You could also just ask one (or more) of us for suggestions; most of us have projects in mind for such emergencies.

Choosing a thesis topic is closely connected to choosing a thesis advisor. Your thesis advisor should be some body who knows a reasonable amount about either the topic you wish to study or the experimental techniques you would need to use, is somebody you would find comfortable to work with, and isn’t advising three other seniors as well. (This last is also an argument for finding a topic early in the game.) Since these properties are not necessarily represented in equal amounts in all faculty for all the possible thesis topics, you may have to trade off one property for another. You can also have one or more “secondary” advisors, who can supply expertise or moral support in one or more subtopics of your thesis. Your last senior lab “report” in the fall will be a proposed thesis topic for the spring. This should be an outline of the project with a bibliography of at least two or three references and, for experimental projects, a description of the equipment you will need. An approximate timetable for completing the work, while not required, makes for a much better proposal. You turn it in to your proposed thesis advisor and to the faculty member in charge of Senior Lab. It’s a good idea, however, to start thinking about possible topics considerably earlier, even during the spring of your junior year, especially if you are pretty sure you want to do an experimental or computational thesis. You may have gathered from the above that seniors often complete a piece of equipment and then don’t have time to make any measurements with it, which is frustrating. You can (try to) avoid this frustration by doing an independent study project in the fall, constructing the apparatus or writing the programs you will use in the spring for your thesis. If you have the equivalent of even a half-course to spare in the fall you are strongly encouraged to do such an independent study.

You should also know about some admissions details. For example, what’s the difference between a half-course thesis and a full-course thesis? A half-course thesis is essentially a review of the literature on some topic and involves no original work of your own; for this reason such theses are often called “library” theses. A full-course thesis does involve original work of your own, usually experimental. You don’t necessarily have to do groundbreaking science for a full- course; you can, for example, try to repeat a standard experiment for which you have to design your own experimental setup.

And, apropos of equipment, what kind of support can you expect? You have access to the student woodshop and metal shop. This is another good idea for something to try and fit in the fall. Glenn is also available for some machining of complex parts. Similarly, Tony Grigsby can help you with electronics. It should be noted, however, that Glenn and Tony are not responsible for your project! If you need their services, you should plan to talk to them early on, so that they can work your requests into their schedules, which may not be the same as yours. The department and faculty are typically willing to lend equipment they have and are not using, but you must check both of these points. Your proposed advisor should know if the equipment you need is available in the department already. You, however, are responsible for negotiating for its use. The availability of equipment is a consideration in your advisor’s assessment of your project’s feasibility, which will be a factor in your grade for your proposal. If the department does not already own some small piece of equipment necessary for your project, we may be willing to purchase it, particularly if the item is of general utility or your project looks like a good candidate for conversion into a senior lab. “Small” here means a few hundred dollars.

Students also often want to know how much advice their thesis advisor should be expected to supply. That depends on the student, the project, and the advisor, but generally you’re expected to work on your own most of the time. Your advisor is there primarily to suggest initial directions, help you when you get stuck, and make sure you’ve covered all the bases before you turn in the final product. He or she will probably be most helpful at the beginning of the project, getting you off the ground, and at about the point you start writing. You should also plan on getting a rough draft to your advisor about three weeks before final thesis drafts are due, so that you will have time to follow up on any suggestions.

Applying to Graduate School

Applying to graduate school in physics has become less popular in recent years, both nationally and here at Pomona. This is in large part due to the difficulty recent Ph.D.s have had getting jobs, especially academic ones, in physics. However, there is evidence that at least the overall job market is improving, and that you may very well not have to become a Wall Street analyst when you graduate with your shiny, new physics Ph.D. 4-6 years after starting graduate school. Of course, it is impossible to see with clarity 4-6 years into the future, but the current trends appear to be encouraging. A Ph.D. is not the only way to go. While a Masters degree in physics is not common (or particularly marketable), there are related fields (such as Engineering, Education and Business) where a Masters can be very useful. The most attractive aspect of the Masters degree is that you can usually get one in 1-2 years! One disadvantage of the Masters programs is that they tend to cost you money in contrast to Ph.D. programs which usually arrange for you to earn your keep with some combination of fellowships, teaching, and research positions.

Independent of the job market, if you want to consider graduate school you have to ask yourself three questions:

  • Do I have the grades to get into a reasonable graduate school?
  • What subfield of physics am I interested in, and what does this tell me about grad schools I should look at?
  • Do I have the motivation to go to and stay in graduate school?

We can help you with the first two questions, but the third you have to answer for yourself. Coming from a small college with no Nobel laureates to write you letters of recommendation means that to get into the very top programs you will need both very good grades and a very good score on the GRE subject test. The “very top” programs are places like UC Berkeley, Stanford, CalTech, and Princeton. If your physics GPA isn’t a steady string of A’s and A-‘s, though, that doesn’t mean that you should start thinking about taking the LSAT. Many good graduate programs exist at schools other than the top ten; the “very top” programs have that ranking partly because they have excellent programs in essentially all subfields of physics. Especially if you have a pretty good idea of the subfield you might want to enter, you should look around at less well-known schools for strong programs in your particular area.

The department has a copy of the AIP guide to graduate programs in physics, which includes related areas such as astronomy, which you should consult for information about possible graduate programs. You should also talk to faculty members; while we don’t know everything about all graduate programs, most of us know something about the programs in our subfield, or at least know somebody who does know. In addition, the bulletin board by MDSL 210 has lots of fliers for graduate programs particularly for non-traditional programs and less well-known institutions.

As mentioned above, most graduate programs in physics require the GRE Aptitude and Subject tests, and their applications deadlines are typically in January or February. That means that you should start writing to grad schools for information in October or so, because you have the usual application to fill out. The application usually includes an essay on, in effect, why you want to go to graduate school. It’s helpful in the essay to discuss the area of physics in which you might want to specialize; a grad school won’t hold you to this, but such a discussion lets them know that you’ve thought enough about physics to have identified an interesting area, and aren’t just applying to graduate school to avoid the “Real World”.

Grad school applications also involve two or three letters of recommendation. These should come from people who know your work in physics, and the more contexts in which we have seen you work (e.g. as research, teaching, and lab assistants), the stronger our letters can be. Physics faculty are obvious sources of letters, but you should not forget other people who have supervised you in technical employment, whether in the summer or during the academic year. Summer research jobs are especially good; one thing grad schools look for is previous research experience of some sort. Graduate schools tend to take letters from advisors as very reliable indicators of the likelihood you will succeed in graduate school, which is determined more by your research prowess than your ability to solve homework problems. If you’re applying in theoretical physics, one of your letters could very reasonably come from someone in the math department from whom you’ve taken an upper-division math course. You should not hesitate to ask us to write letters to several different schools; each of us essentially drafts one letter and then fine-tunes it for different institutions, so writing five letters of recommendation is not that much more work than writing one.

A related question is applying for NSF Fellowships. In the past our success rate on the NSF’s was quite low, and so we had not pressed people to apply. We recently found that such advice may be self-defeating; the number of NSF fellowships awarded in a given field of science (biology, physics, etc.) is determined partially by the number of applications they receive in that field. For the last few years, we have encouraged people to apply, and have had winners in two of the last three years. The NSF fellowship application is quite similar to grad school applications, so you’re not adding that much work by applying for one, and in doing so you improve the chances that physicists in general, and Pomona physicists in particular, will get them. The only drawback to the NSF fellowship competition is that its deadline is rather early, in early December, which is an inconvenient time. Professor Mawhorter is currently in charge of science graduate fellowships like the NSF, so please see him for more information in this area, especially if you are a woman or minority, for whom more targeted fellowships exist.

Now let’s look at that question of motivation. It’s an important question to ask, because grad school, especially that first year, is very intense. Some people find that intensity exhilarating; others find it appalling. The first year is the toughest, largely because you have to establish yourself as a person in a new group of people. And while most departments aren’t actively trying to weed people out, the first year is a lot of work, period. Students from small colleges are, in a way, at a disadvantage in the first year, because you typically haven’t had access to graduate courses and because you aren’t used to being regarded with indifference by the faculty. Once you get past the required courses and are started on research, though, the independent experience of the thesis tends to work in your favor, and grad school becomes bearable and even pretty interesting.

Choosing which grad school to go to after you’ve been selected to more than one is another question entirely. If you can, go visit; grad schools will sometimes put up part of the cost of your air fare for such a visit. Talk to faculty in the department, and see how interested they are in their work and in training you. Talk to current grad students in the department, and find out the “success rate,” the fraction of all entering grad students that eventually leave with a degree. The average time for the degree, and the timing and nature of preliminary and qualifying exams, are also useful. If you belong to some underrepresented group, find out the successful rate that group, and if it’s low, find out why. Remember that you are most likely committing to live where you attend grad school for more years than you attended Pomona. Make sure you pick a place where you will be able to enjoy your life outside of your studies. Talk to the Pomona faculty; we have some insider information on some departments.


Sometime after you leave Pomona College you will desire to get a job which provides you with both intellectual satisfaction and monetary compensation to support yourself. The balance between these two issues can be difficult to achieve, and some folks actually change jobs just to shift this balance. It is a good idea to talk with the various career placement offices before the week of graduation if you want to take advantage of their many services. The department has a Video and CD on Careers in Physics put out by the American Institute of Physics which may be helpful in giving you ideas. An advantage of a physics degree is that you acquire a good set of math, logic, computing, mechanical, electronics, and problem solving skills. This last one is probably the most important, and can help you in almost any career. A disadvantage of a physics degree is the lack of clear career tracks if you do not continue in grad school. One thing you can do is look at what the various physics alumni are doing. You will find that there is a huge diversity of careers. Some are fairly obvious, working with engineering, computers, or teaching, while others are not so clearly connected, finance, law, entertainment, politics, etc. Sometimes the best advice when looking for jobs is simply to keep your eyes and ears open. When you come to the stage of applying and interviewing for positions, make sure to put your best foot forward. It is unlikely that any job will come that will want exactly the skills you currently have. The trick is to be honest about what you can do, and to display confidence that you are capable of learning the new things you will need to get the job done. After all, if you can learn all the things we ask you to do for the physics major, you can probably learn anything that your employer is likely to ask you to know! Good Luck!