Typical Course of Study

The Making of a Physicist
Cornell does not ask you to declare an interest from the outset—not even whether you lean toward theory or experiment. The faculty would rather you immerse yourself in what you can learn from as many of the fields within physics as you can handle. This is the best insurance against becoming overly specialized too soon. Before you decide on a school for its reputation in a single area, you want to consider the whole picture, and ask yourself where you will get the best training. You want to be able to explore your interests and the connections between ideas, because that is what has always driven scientific innovation.

Learning Goals
As part of your education, we want to ensure that first and foremost you know how to “think like a physicist”. This implies that you can synthesize knowledge from different areas, make educated guesses and take your hard-earned course-based knowledge to the next level, where you will apply it and knowledge that you acquire independently or with your mentors and peers to solve problems of interest. That is why we prefer a broad education and course base, and our education will prepare you for a career not just in the specific area that is your dissertation topic but our Ph. D. should prepare you for a career as a professional scientist, with all the flexibility that that implies.

Physicists must also learn how to communicate using written, spoken and presentation skills. You will acquire these skills as part of our course work (for example in Physics 6510, our Advanced Laboratory course has formal materials on how to carry out “Back of the envelope calculations” and a requirement to write lab reports in standard journal (Physical Review Letters) format as well as make a presentation to faculty and peers in a timed format. These formative skills are essential for the practicing Physicist.

Assessment of Learning Outcomes
Exams and assessment are part of the learning process. Formal learning in a classroom environment is assessed in exams that are a part of course work, and could be either take-home, timed in-class exams or term-papers combined with presentation of materials. The Q exam (see the section on exams) will assess your knowledge of Physics, ability to express yourself and communicate as well as your ability to analyze a problem, break it down into “bite sized components” and work through to obtain an acceptable solution. All of these will help faculty assess your success in transitioning from a “knowledge-acquirer” to a practicing physicist who can synthesize and attack complex problems as well create new knowledge by carrying out original research.

The Route to the Ph.D.
To give you all the freedom you might need, the degree requirements of Cornell’s Graduate School and Field of Physics are minimal. There is no fixed curriculum or mandatory classes—with the exception of Physics 6510, the Advanced Lab. For students with exceptional preparation, the Physics 6510 experience can be customized. Beyond this one course, you and the members of your Special Committee design a program of study that suits your background, needs and interests. Most students admitted to graduate study are undergraduate physics majors who have completed courses in analytical mechanics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics and wave motion, electronics, and atomic physics. You are expected to know ordinary and partial differential equations, vector calculus, Fourier analysis, and linear algebra, and familiarity with computing and topics in mathematical physics is highly desirable. Some advanced laboratory work in physics is also expected. If needed, you may take Cornell undergraduate courses in your first year of study. If you received extraordinary preparation as an undergraduate you may skip courses altogether, with the exception of Physics 6510. Most graduate students take courses during their first two years at Cornell. A common sequence of first-year courses includes:
• Physics 6510 Advanced Laboratory (this course should be completed before the second year of graduate study)
• Physics 6561 Classical Electrodynamics (fall)
• Physics 6562 Statistical Physics (spring)
• Physics 6572 Quantum Mechanics I (fall)
• Physics 6574 Quantum Mechanics II (spring)Students with advanced backgrounds may replace parts of the 6572/ 6574 sequence with a more specialized course, such as Physics 7635 (Solid State Physics) or Physics 7651 Relativistic Quantum Field Theory I.

These courses are often followed in the second year by more specialized courses, such as:
• Physics 7635/7636 Solid-State Physics I and II
• Physics 7645/7646 High-Energy Particle Physics I and II
• Physics 7651/7652 Relativistic Quantum Field Theory I and II
• Math 6515/6516 Mathematical Methods in Physics
• Physics 7680 Computational Physics

With the consent of the members of your Special Committee, you may take any course in any department at Cornell. Many physics students take a course or courses in applied mathematics, applied and engineering physics, astronomy, biology, chemical engineering, chemistry, computer science, materials science and engineering. The graduate field of physics is flexible enough to accommodate students of widely differing backgrounds and preparation. Because only one course is mandatory for all students, you design a program, together with your Special Committee, that suits your needs and interests.

Ph.D. and M.S. Degrees
Students admitted to graduate study in physics at Cornell are enrolled in the Doctoral program. There is no Master’s program in Physics. Most students are awarded a Master’s degree at the time of advancement to candidacy, as an in-progress degree. Occasionally, a terminal Master’s degree will be awarded, if a student, along with his or her Special Committee, decides that further study is not warranted. At Cornell, students take about five to six years to complete a doctorate.

Cornell’s Special Committee System
Initially, you will be assigned three faculty members who will act as your temporary Special Committee. Together they represent different disciplines within physics. As your research interests become more focused, and after you pass a qualifying examination (usually in your second year), you will invite faculty members to comprise your permanent Special Committee. Usually, you select three faculty members whose research interests you share. These professors will guide you both in designing a curriculum and in demonstrating proficiency through the required examinations. They alone will judge your progress toward a degree.

Your Special Committee will be chaired by a member of the graduate field of physics and include two other Cornell faculty members, only one of whom is required to be a member of the field. If, for example, you choose to complete a minor in applied mathematics or biology or chemistry, you may invite a professor from one of those fields to join your committee as the third member.

Three Required Examinations
As a graduate student you are expected to pass three examinations on the way to earning a Ph.D. These exams will be given by the members of your Special Committee. The exams will be individualized and reflect the particular emphasis and direction of your program.

The first is a qualifying examination, an oral examination that serves as a check on your progress and as a diagnostic of possible weaknesses that need attention. It is administered by your temporary Special Committee, during your third semester of study. You may have heard that at some schools the qualifying examination is used to pare down class size, to weed out students. This is never the case at Cornell. Each year, the physics department admits the number of graduate students that it anticipates being able to support throughout the length of their stay in the doctoral program. When you come to Cornell, you are secure in the knowledge that the department and your professors have made a valuable investment in your training. The faculty and staff are committed to helping you succeed.

The second examination is the Admission to Candidacy Examination (ACE), a comprehensive exam that gauges your knowledge of the field and readiness for independent research. This, too, is an oral examination, but it is administered by the members of your permanent Special Committee. Normally the ‘A’ exam, as it is called, is preceded by one or more written assignments. After passing this exam, usually sometime in your third year, you begin research in earnest.

Your third and final exam is the defense of your thesis. It is an oral exam that you take after you complete your Ph.D. thesis research and present it to the members of your committee. The exam covers your thesis and related matters.

Feedback – How the results of assessment are used to alter / improve programs
Your initial “special committee” also receives a “charge” from the DGS to provide feedback on the results of Q exams. The DGS also meets informally with the incoming class twice in the academic year to assess their perceptions and obtain their input. This information is then communicated to instructors to help improve outcomes.

Program success and metrics
We compile statistics on the success of our students. We also continually strive to assess whether our effort to attract women and minorities is successful, and whether we are successful in guiding our students through to a Ph.D.

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Physics Courses of Study

  • Brian Koopman crop Brian Koopman is a physics graduate student and NASA Space Technology Research Fellow working with Professor Michael Niemack on the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT). ACT is a 6m telescope located at 5190m above sea level in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Initially built in 2007, ACT has recently undergone an upgrade to become ACTPol, the ACT Polarimeter. ACTPol measures the temperature and polarization fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) -- remnant light from the big bang. This light is detected using thousands of Transition Edge Sensor (TES) bolometers cooled to 0.1 Kelvin. These CMB measurements provide new probes of the physics of the early universe. More...