Senior thesis for Physics Undergrads

During the first term of senior year you need to develop a thesis proposal: a statement about what experiments you will undertake. The Undergraduate Research, Innovation, Scholarship & Creativity (URISC) proposal is an ideal format for writing this proposal. By completing a URISC proposal you also support the lab by applying for research funding.

Look at a well-received senior thesis from a previous year. This will give you an idea about the writing style, the length, the background information that you need to master and the number of references you will need to read.

  • Nick Kuhta's thesis: “Electrodynamics of the planar negative index lens” (Advisor: Viktor Podolskiy)

Almost all scientific writing is done in a back-and-forth process. Colleagues read drafts and give comments, then the author synthesizes the comments and improves the manuscript. When you are ready for comments, print a hard copy of your thesis draft. Use double spacing so there will be room for comments. You must get your manuscript to the “final draft” stage well before any external deadline. Expect at least one week of back-and-forth editing. The back-and-forth editing process is an essential part of writing a senior thesis.

Applying to grad school

Graduate students in Physics are supported as either Research Assistants (RAs) or Teaching Assistants (TA). Throughout a PhD you will have financial support from these sources, covering all living expenses plus some extra. RA positions are not usually confirmed until graduate students spend some time in a research group. At OSU Dept. of Physics it is typical to spend one year as a TA while you explore research options, then secure an RA position in the second year. RA support can depend on the availability of research funding. If research funding is limited, RA positions become more competitive.

Identify good physics programs

The following website will give you a ranked list of physics grad programs based on what you consider most important (for example, faculty citations, faculty funding etc). OSU typically ranks in the 70s. There are a lot of schools to consider: If you want to narrow down the search by location (region, state or size of town) and/or your GRE scores (e.g. quantitative 600+) then try:

Spend time researching the programs. Every application you make will cost significant effort and money (the average application fee is $50).

Time line for applications

You should meet with your research advisor as you complete each of these steps:

  • Oct Make a short list of your favorite programs. For examples, 4 schools that you are confident will accept you and 4 top schools who you might accept you. Determine the application process and application requirement for each of these schools.
  • Nov Complete your applications and contact professors in the programs you will apply. You must also choose 3 or 4 people to write letters of recommendation.
  • Dec Mail your applications (this is a lot of paper work!)
  • Mar The schools which have accepted you will invite you to visit. Often they will pay your travel expenses.

Statement of purpose

As part of the application process you have to write a “statement of purpose” which outlines your personal research interests and your personal experience with physics. You cannot produce a sincere reserch statement without studying the websites of faculty in the department where you are applying. Your statement must mention which professors you would like to work with and why.

A good statement of purpose convinces the committee that you have a passion for physics - that you will raise the morale and the enthusiasm of the department. An admissions committee wants to see passion derived from experience, not a passing fancy that could quickly fade. Evidence of passion derived from experience is best shown by discussing your previous engagements with physics.

You can improve your statement significantly by asking an OSU professor to proof read for you.

Personal contact with professors

You should identify research groups with projects that interest you. In your statement of purpose it is critical to discuss specific projects that interest you. It shows that you've thought about what it involved in doing research.

To make sure that you do come up with a realistic plan, and to put your name on the radar, contact the professor directly to see if he/she is still funding projects in your area of interest:

“Dear Prof, I'm am planning to apply to… I am particularly interested in your research, especially… I have experience doing… I attach my resume… ”

If you're having trouble contacting someone, or just want to learn more about a school, you should ask the professors in the OSU physics department. For example, Ethan has contacts at

  • Cornell
  • MIT
  • Stanford
  • Harvard
  • Columbia University, New York City
  • Cal Tech
  • Penn State
  • University of Maryland
  • Brown
  • Colorado State
  • UC Merced
  • UC Davis
  • University of Arizona
  • Cal State Northridge
  • University Washington
  • University of Oregon

Applying to Oregon State University

Here is a typical response to an inquiry by prospective grad student:

“Your CV looks strong. I think you have a good chance of admission to the Physics Graduate Program at Oregon State University. I encourage you to apply.

Dear X, Thank you for your interest in the Physics Graduate Program at Oregon State University. We are excited receive applications from enthusiastic young physicists (more information about the application process: Our department aims to recruit new graduate students who are interested in multiple research groups (we do not admit students directly to a particular group). New graduate students complete classes during the first year and often work as teaching assistants (full financial support). During this first year, new graduate student learn more about specific research groups, and find the research group that best matches their interests and abilities.

Best wishes for search for graduate schools, I hope we will receive an application from you.

Applying for jobs

Any personal contacts you make at conferences or visiting industry labs are very valuable. When applying for an industry position or a postdoc, it makes a huge difference if somebody already knows who are, or is familiar with a paper you have published. Group contacts with industry.

Resume writing

A good resume is short, sweet, and to the point. Sell yourself and do it quickly (assume your reader has already read 100 resumes, with 100 to go and is tired, cranky, and wants to go home). Here is an example (Landon's resume)

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