The principal goal of graduate study is to train the student to conduct original research. Therefore, physics and astronomy graduate students at Johns Hopkins are involved in research starting in their first semester in the program.
In the beginning of every fall semester, the department organizes a series of events (graduate orientation, various seminars and presentations) to provide an in-depth overview of research activities in the department. During a two-day research jamboree, students discuss possible research projects with multiple faculty members either in individual meetings or in a group setting. These events help familiarize the student with the department, with the faculty and with the expectations of the graduate program.
To help guide students through the first two years of the program, all entering graduate students are assigned an academic adviser who works closely with them during their first year. This first-year adviser meets regularly with the student to determine courses of study, familiarize them with the department, and help them find research opportunities. The first-year adviser works with the student until a thesis adviser has been appointed. During the orientation, the first-year adviser reviews the undergraduate record with the student. If there are any gaps in the physics background, the first-year adviser may recommend additional coursework or independent reading.
Getting Started with Research
By the end of September, the student chooses their first research adviser among the professorial faculty and starts working on the first-semester research project. The first-semester project continues through intersession in January. The spring-semester research project continues until the end of the spring semester. The summer semester lasts from June through August. Students may continue with one adviser through the entire first year, or they may choose to cycle through several different research advisers from one semester to the next.
This system of semester projects continues during the first two years of the program, when students also complete required coursework. The nature of these first- and second-year research projects varies from student to student, from adviser to adviser and from one sub-field of physics to another. Some may be self-contained research projects that lead to published scientific papers and may or may not be related to the thesis research in later years. Here is a list of recent publications by our graduate students. Others may comprise reading or independent-study projects to develop background for subsequent research. In other cases, they may be first steps in a longer-term research project.
This system accommodates both the students who have chosen the direction of their thesis work before graduate school and those who would like to try a few different things before committing to a long-term project. As students get more familiar with the department and the research opportunities, they zero in on their thesis topic and find a thesis adviser. This may happen any time during the first two years, and students are required to find a thesis adviser by the beginning of the third year.
At the end of every semester, students provide a written research summary of their progress, which can be a draft of their subsequent scientific publication.
Second Year Research Presentation
Furthermore, at the beginning of the second year, each student takes an oral research exam that consists of a 15-minute presentation to a committee of three faculty members about the research they have carried out in their first year and questions from the committee about the research and related scientific background.
Finding Thesis Advisor
Securing a mutual agreement with a thesis advisor is one of the most important milestones of our graduate program. Students must find a thesis advisor and submit the thesis advisor form before the first day of their 3rd year. The form represents a long-term commitment and serious efforts in planning and communication between the student and the advisor. If the proposed thesis advisor is not a full-time tenure-track or research faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the form must be co-signed by a PHA faculty member who will serve as the departmental advisor of record.
Students should start their thesis planning no later than the beginning of the summer after the second year. By this time in the program, many students have identified projects and advisors of interest during their research rotations in the 1st and 2nd years. In these cases, students should discuss with their prospective advisors their mutual expectations for the scope and the timeline of the thesis and when an agreement is reached, submit the thesis advisor form. If by the summer after their 2nd year, the student does not have a clear idea of who they want to work with for their thesis, they should reach out to different faculty of interest, to 1st / 2nd year academic advisors, and/or to the Chair of the graduate program committee (Director of graduate studies). In these cases the student’s goal for the summer is to identify a thesis advisor and to reach an agreement regarding a thesis topic. In all cases, the thesis advisor form must be submitted before the 1st day of the 3rd year.
Graduate Board Oral Exam
After the student chooses a thesis adviser, together they define the scope of the thesis, and the student presents the thesis proposal at the Graduate Board Oral Examination (GBO). The GBO should be taken in the fall of the third year of the program. The committee consists of internal and external examiners from our department and from other departments and includes the thesis adviser. A week before the examination, the student submits a written thesis proposal to the committee (typically 4-5 pages in journal format). The examination starts with a 20-minute presentation of the research proposal by the student, and then the committee members take turns asking questions which are usually (but not always) related to the proposal.
By this point in the program, the students have had many opportunities to practice their presentation skills and answering questions, including the research exam in the beginning of the second year and the graduate-student journal club.
Upon passing the GBO, the student forms his/her thesis committee consisting of three faculty members in the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy (PHA). At least two should be tenure track faculty with primary appointments in PHA. An external advisor may be added as the fourth member of the committee. These committees function as extended advisory bodies, so that students have the opportunity to discuss their progress and problems with several faculty. They also conduct a formal annual review of each student’s progress.
The thesis committee is an excellent avenue for students to get input from the faculty on their advance toward their degrees, to get broader access to faculty, and to resolve any difficulties that may arise during the completion of the thesis research.
The Annual Review
The annual review takes place during the second part of February. Students present a written report (1–3 pages long) to all three members of their thesis committee. The report succinctly describes the accomplishments and difficulties of the last 12 months and plans for the following academic year. The report incorporates future milestones and the estimated time to accomplish them including expected date of thesis defense. Major changes in the scope or direction of the project should also be detailed.
During the next two weeks, students meet with their thesis committees to discuss the report. After the meeting, the thesis committee provides written feedback to help the student on his/her progress toward a degree.
The Dissertation and Thesis Defense
At the conclusion of thesis research, the student submits the complete written dissertation to the University and defends the dissertation before a faculty committee. Thesis defense typically lasts two hours and consists of a 40-minute presentation by the student, followed by questions from the committee on the thesis research and related scientific background.
More details on all aspects of the program and examples of graduate research can be found on the webpage of the Johns Hopkins Physics and Astronomy Graduate Students (PAGS) Association.