The First Year in the Graduate Program at Duke Physics

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What do first-year graduate students like about Duke Physics? “It’s a strong department—strong in many different areas,” says Meg Shea, who earned her BS at Yale. “Here there are lots of options.” Shea likes the structured way in which the department introduces new graduate students to all the options. In a series of seminars over the course of the year, professors from each research group give talks about their work. The seminars include dinner, and the casual atmosphere allows students to get to know members of the faculty and their research. Shea appreciates the fact that incoming students don’t have to commit to a specialty and an advisor right away, as students at some universities do. She’s considering working with the high-energy experimental group this summer. “My goal is to figure out if the day-to-day life of a high-energy experimentalist will suit me,” she says. The students say most of them will probably end up choosing an advisor from the group they work with this summer, although even then it’s not too late to switch to another group. Jonah Bernhard, from Swarthmore College, says he was attracted to the interdisciplinary opportunities at Duke. He’s interested in applied physics—fabricating materials or devices. “If the professor you want to work with is in chemistry or engineering you can do that,” he says. Timm von Puttkamer, who graduated from Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, also likes the interdisciplinary nature of Duke Physics. He wants to study mathematical physics and string theory. “At my home university, math and physics were in completely different places in the city,” he says. “Here they are across the hall.” Although the students say the work load is heavy, and they are expected to be more self-directed than in college, they have found the department to be supportive. Kristen Collar of Florida State University says, “Some of the other programs I looked at had a competitive atmosphere among the students. I wanted a department where they wanted me to be here and wanted me to make it.”

The students say the department is flexible and responsive in meeting their needs. “Our director of graduate students is really approachable,” Shea says. “He really wants to make sure we’re happy and on the right track.” The student attend classes, study and work 50-60 hours a week, but they also find time for fun. Collar, Von Puttkamer, and eight other physics graduate students participated in the basketball ticket camp-out this fall. They camped out in a U-Haul outside Cameron Indoor Stadium for a weekend to earn the right to be in a lottery to win season tickets. Seven of the ten of them did win season tickets, which they then divvied up among the other graduate students in the department. Collar says the camp-out was a great way to meet graduate students from other departments at Duke. Meeting other graduate students in the physics department requires no effort at all. The offices of the first-years are all in one location and most of the students are taking the same classes. “When you get stuck, you have instant support or feedback or discussion,” says Collar. Getting to know older graduate students and faculty happens in a variety of formal and informal settings, including classes, labs, colloquia, graduate student presentations, and a weekly departmental tea. Shea says, “I find it a very friendly department. If you want, there’s plenty of opportunity to interact with people in the department. People often eat lunch together and socialize together.” The first-years feel well-supported financially and say that as long as they are working hard and making progress, they will continued to be supported throughout their stay here. The department doesn’t “over admit,” so there’s not a forced, financially based weeding-out process. Most students earn stipends by serving as teaching and/or research assistants, and professors keep students informed about available scholarships and encourage them to apply. Living in Durham on a graduate student budget is a bit easier than in larger cities in the northeast or west coast. Shea says, “The cost of living is so much lower in Durham than many of the places I was looking. I’m paying less for a two-bedroom apartment that’s just for me than my friend in Boston who is sharing a place with four people.” All told, these first-year graduate students are happy with the strength, breadth, flexibility, supportiveness, and interdisciplinary nature of Duke Physics.

Photo, l-r: Bernhard, Shea, Collar, von Puttkamer