Preparing Undergraduates for Graduate School (Blogging from the AAPT)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 27, 2009

This session is about how we prepare our undergraduates for graduate school — what to consider, and how we’re doing.

One thing to consider, in thinking about the goals of our undergraduate majors, is that we actually don’t want to prepare all of our undergraduates for graduate school.  Physics is a liberal arts degree, allowing students a broad education that is relevant for many careers.  Many employers need students who are good problem-solvers, for a wide variety of jobs.

If they do want t go on to graduate school, however, they should be aware that graduate work is a loooong apprenticeship, with an emphasis on research.  About half of graduate students finish their PhD within 6 years.  To boot,  they’re not likely to get academic jobs — the odds are long.  About 60% of physics jobs (for PhDs) are in the private sector, and only about 30% in academia.  And it’s tough to stick with it – some schols have a 80% attrition rate!  So, should we send all our students to graduate school when there is such a high rate of “failure”?

But, if a student does want to get a PhD, they should know that to be successful in graduate school you need to really love physics, and be persisent.  And be able to do the work (do the math, have scientific creativity), and be able to deal with frustration.  The AAPT has a nice guide for students considering a PhD in physics.

Ken Heller spoke at more length about what a student needs to do to be successful in graduate school:

  1. Move away from a student mentality to a more professional attitude (responsibility, working in groups, good communication skills, as well as independent work).
  2. Problem solving skills — Such as being able to work from first principles or know when that’s not possible, not expecting problems to have unique solutions, making decisions instead of just knowing how to do it, carry out complex solutions in a logical matter, document the steps towards the solution and evaluate the final answer.  A lot of graduate students are traumatized when they’re asked to do something they don’t know how to do!  Of course, success in this area requires that students have some idea about how they learn and what they don’t know… which we know they’re not very good at.
  3. Know your physics, of course.  Common principles and techniques in multiple physics topics and the interconnectedness between those topics.  Why do we use the representations and techniques that we do?

I think that a lot of these aspects of graduate student training are, indeed, addressed by our own work at the University of Colorado to transform our upper division classes to more explicitly teach some of the concepts and skills by using interactive techniques where students need to communicate their ideas to each other.  If you want more information on that work, you can visit this site. I’ll be uploading our new paper and my AAPT talk there shortly.

Another thing that helps students develop these skills, once they’re in graduate school, are teaching experiences (eg., TA-ship) and apprentice-ships.  Undergraduates can also get such teaching experience (see for example the learning assistant program at CU), which is invaluable in helping them learn the material as well as understanding how people learn effectively.  Explicit problem-solving instruction, said Dr. Heller, is also very important.  Students don’t pick this up naturally, rather the logical appraoch to solving new problems needs to be taught directly.  (However, I know that there has been some doubt cast on the usefulness of the whole plan-implement-evaluate problem solving cycle.  That’s not really how experts solve problems, that’s how we solve exercises… though I asked that question of Dr. Heller and he claims that this expert-like problem solving method is not controversial — his colleagues say that they solve problems that way.)

What about research experiences? This was the subject of Dr. Yennello’s talk. Students get technical and problem solving skills from doing research as undergraduates, but even more important, they learn many aspects of working on big problems — many of the items mentioned by previous speakers, such as dealing with frustration, time management, communication, collaboration, as well as leadership and self-confidence.

A study by SRI did a long term study of undergraduates involved in research. Dr. Yennello claimed this study had a lot of good messages — students involved in undergraduate research learned a lot of good skills.  I don’t disagree totally, however, I notice that almost all the survey answers got positive responses from students… they agreed that they learned good things (“I understod the nature of a job of a researcher”) and disagreed with negative statements (like, “I learned that research is not for me.”)  I wonder how many students were trying to say good things about an experience where they felt others were doing something to help them. Plus, these were all self-reports — these are things that the undergraduates felt that they were gaining.  What did they actually gain?  Interesting, more students indicated they thought they would go for the PhD after this experience than beforehand.

However, in order to create a good experience for undergraduates, it takes a committment of time and energy to mentor these students.  I’m thinking of my own REU experience, where I was supervised by a graduate student.  She was supportive at first, but then became frustrated with what she perceived as a lack of effort on my part to answer my own questions.  I think there was a lot that I didn’t know, and also I hadn’t been taught how to solve new problems.  I was one of those “A” students who followed the rules and did well.  She snapped at me towards the end, when I asked how to go about a particular analysis, “I think you know how to do that.”  I didn’t, and stared at the screen in tears while she worked in angry silence next to me, ignoring my sniffles.  She didn’t help me figure out how to solve my problem, and admonished me for not knowing.  That’s a terrible way to encourage anyone in science, especially women.  I definitely didn’t come out of that experience feeling any sort of confidence in my abilities as a scientist or researcher.  Too bad.  🙁

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