Your First Year in Physics Grad School

Teacher Writes on Blackboard: “The Method of Guessing”

Student: “What! There’s a method???????”

Teacher: “Yeah, there’s even a proof!” -overheard in a physics grad school

As a physics professor, one of the challenges I face is how to advise young students nearing the end of their undergraduate career on how to succeed in graduate school in physics.

The best I can do is tell them about what I’ve done myself that’s worked for me, and what pitfalls I’ve seen others fall victim to.

As an undergraduate, my grades were all over the place. I’d take an advanced astrophysics course I was really interested in, and get an A, no problem. I’d take an advanced mechanics or circuits course, and I’d be lucky to get out of it with a B-. (And I wasn’t always lucky.)

But I did what many undergrads — in many disciplines, not just physics — do. I’d:

  • go to class, having not looked at the book or my previous notes,
  • take notes and try to pay attention,
  • and then open up the book, my notes, and the homework assignment the afternoon before it was due, and try to crank the whole thing out.

And there was, of course, always an extensive amount of cramming the night before a test.

And then I graduated, went out into the real world as a teacher, and decided that I not only didn’t love my job, but that I really wanted to be in graduate school, learning theoretical cosmology, and getting my Ph.D. in physics.

Image credit: Matthias Bartelmann.

But unless you go to a very unorthodox school, every first year graduate student faces some version of a “core curriculum”, involving introductory graduate courses in classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and/or statistical mechanics/thermodynamics.

And these courses are legendary for their difficulty, rigor, and for preparing students with the underpinnings of physics necessary for the experimental and theoretical challenges that lie ahead in graduate school.

But practically, about a third of all students that enter physics graduate schools are gone — having either flunked out or given up — by the end of their second year. And I was worried I was going to be one of them if I didn’t work hard enough. The material was harder than anything I’d encountered before, and I knew that my old study habits weren’t going to cut it. Especially because I wanted to do theory.

So I did something that wound up working for me, and that I suppose I would recommend to any student that was serious about succeeding during their first year in graduate school in physics.

For each class, my study habits actually became outstanding, although they required more time than I’d ever put in before. I would:

  • Skim over the sections in the textbook that we were going to be covering in lecture that day.
  • I’d go to class, write down everything the instructor wrote down, take the best notes I could, and ask whatever questions I could to make sure I understood the material. And then…
  • I’d go through the relevant section in the book, that we just covered in lecture, along with my lecture notes. This time, unlike before class, I’d actually be able to work through it and figure out what the author was talking about. And this step was immensely helpful to me.
  • Because when it came time to do the homework, unlike when I was an undergrad, I had an idea of what we were talking about. I knew where to look in the book and my notes for guidance, and I was actually prepared for the next class.

It was really amazing to see that every student that put that kind of work in did just fine in those courses, and every student that failed those classes didn’t put that kind of work in.

It isn’t, of course, the only way to do it, but it was tremendously useful for me, and it helped me turn myself from a student that came in with a deficient background in the upper division undergrad courses, who’d been away from academics for a year, to one ready to take on the most difficult theory courses — general relativity and quantum field theory — with great success in the next year.

So if you’re headed to graduate school in physics, that’s my advice for your first year. Put the work into those core courses, because whatever you want to do after that, that’s work that will pay off. I realize this doesn’t apply to many of you, but I’d also imagine that something very much like this would help in most fields of academic study. Thoughts?


  1. #1 Andy
    February 4, 2011

    Definitely applicable to other fields. . .I got my Ph.D. in an anatomical sciences program (with a paleontology emphasis), and the first course we took as grad students was human gross anatomy (alongside the first-year medical students). Generally, students who were willing to put in the time outside of classes and just take the whole business seriously did fine. The students who treated grad school as a class time-only, cram-for-the-exam, party on the weekends and evenings extension of undergrad, were gone in a year, or two at most.

  2. #2 Coturnix
    February 4, 2011

    Applies to all disciplines. I changed my studying habits in exactly the same way between undergrad and grad school and I am glad I did so: 2-semester General Physiology is a killer, and Biochemistry, Comparative Endocrinology, Biological Clocks, and Statistics were not much easier either. But I learned a lot by studying this way.

  3. #3 Ian
    February 4, 2011

    I’m passing this on to my freshman daughter. I started reading your blog when she thought she wanted to be a theoretical physicist and cosmologist. She’s now in love with ancient Greek and archaeology and plans to do the graduate work and teach. Her first quarter sounds a lot like your undergrad experience. This term is going better but I can see where this would be a great help. Thanks.

  4. #4 Ryan
    February 4, 2011

    I really enjoy your blog even though I have no science background and some of the things you mention go straight over my head. I did find this blog entry rather funny though, coming as it did after your previous entry – getting something for nothing… Mmmm are you saying that you actually have to work to pass a grad course – you can’t actually get a degree for nothing…

  5. #5 Joffemannen
    February 4, 2011

    Slightly off topic, I found a quite contrary motivational effect in university: the first two years had a fixed curriculum and that’s of course tough, but after that, with courses I had picked myself, I found it very frustrating to take any course that I for some reason didn’t like. And noone to blame but myself. Then it was really hard to put the effort in.

  6. #6 Jeff J
    February 4, 2011

    Ah, Jackson. We meet again.

    I could have used this advice 15 years ago. Unfortunately, the me from 15 years ago would have thanked you then promptly ignored it.

    I wasn’t mature enough for grad school. I’m still not.

  7. #7 John D Stackpole
    February 4, 2011

    Another variant (applicable more to undergraduate life, perhaps): have the good fortune of having an English major for a roommate who is also in the (mandatory) basic physics course with you. Then explain to him what all those lectures were about.

  8. #8 JM Shep
    February 4, 2011

    That’s really helpful! I noticed my high school study habits (basically nonexistent) didn’t quite cut it in undergrad, and I had to make some changes. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but they’ll need some revamping again when I go to grad school. I will definitely keep this in mind when I get there.

  9. #9 D. C. Sessions
    February 4, 2011

    I’ll escalate one notch on your first step: read the book (the whole book) before the first day of class. No, of course you won’t get it all, just like skimming won’t give you the whole picture before class. However, it lays a framework that makes later repetition much, much more valuable.

    If you have the bandwidth, it’s also good to do the homework both before class and afterwards. Putting at least a day in the gap helps.

    Many years after my own classroom time, one of the children took a class in cognitive psychology and — hooda thunkit? — it turns out that my “read early, read often” scheme was the subject of actual research and works better than other approaches.

    Take it for what it’s worth.

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    February 4, 2011

    A similar technique served me well when I was taking Spanish in junior high and high school. It’s not as effective as full immersion, but if you can’t be somewhere where the language you want to learn is the dominant language, it’s probably the best available method.

    Lots of people don’t learn good study habits in high school because high school coursework is often too easy for them. I was lucky enough to live somewhere that the high school could offer more advanced (honors/AP) coursework, but lots of people, especially those from non-wealthy or rural areas, do not have that opportunity, and many of them pay the price in college.

  11. #11 Ursula
    February 4, 2011

    I really do think that this is good advice, especially for Physics students.

    I know that while doing my undergraduate physics degree, I had the exact same study habits as you described – no prep before class, and barely any prep before homework. The problem is that most physics students can get away with this scott free in the first two or three years of their undergrad degree. I noticed that a lot of my classmates (myself included ) had really terrible study habits, mostly because we never really needed to develop them before in order to do well in Highschool or the first year or two of university. Even those of us coming out of AP/IB courses still didn’t have the kind of good study habits we needed.

    Of course, every student has to hit the wall at some point. Me and my classmates tended to hit it somewhere at the 2 and 1/2 year mark (The exact semester we all took an undergraduate GR course, as it happened.)

    But I think it’s really hard to convince someone to develop good study habits in advance of the point when they need them to get really good grades.

  12. #12 lynn
    February 4, 2011

    i learned to buckle down and study in undergrad, which served well during my phd work at a huge state research university. the schedule for studying you describe for your gradate work was about what i did in undergrad. in fact, my gpa went up by a full point my first year in grad school.

    i guess my only comment is that this may not apply to a lab-based science. i had to choose an adviser within the first semester of my graduate career (i’m a chemist), and start my research, TA, and take classes the second semester. the class part wound up being mostly review for me, so for the first time i could get away with not studying.

    what really mattered was the research. you may only have time to get a B+ in a class you could get an A in, but if you can get your project off the ground early your actual chances of graduating increase for lab-based phds. your thesis committee cares far more about the number of papers you have than your gpa, so long as it’s above a B average (unless your adviser is teaching the course, heh).

    of course, this is a physics blog. i had a few friends that were math grads in the same year as me, and they still had years of classes to take before they could start on anything approaching research. meanwhile, i was done with classes, on a research grant, and had a paper under review. of course, math has been around for thousands of years. These guys (and gals) had a lot more material to learn than i did, seeing as physical chemistry only really got going in the past century.

  13. #13 Doug
    February 4, 2011

    Very good advice.

    As an engineering student, I ate, slept and drank the subject matter 24/7. I consciously thought about “studying” as much as a fish thinks about swimming. It was always the *other* subjects that, as an undergrad, I had to put the extra effort into, like chemistry and language, etc.

  14. #14 Omega Centauri
    February 4, 2011

    Yes, its great advice. I hope you don’t mind that I copied it (plagerism -but I did cite you) in an email to my freshmen undregrad sons.

    I think my study habits worked in reverse. I remember doing that as a first year undergrad, I jumped a year ahead in the curriculuum, and dived in without pre-requistes, and that was how I prevailed. I think my grad study habits were more like your undergrad ones [and I ended up with an AllButDoctorate to boot]. I wonder how it would have gone if I’d taken a year or two off to work/mature between undergrad & grad……

  15. #15 Tony P
    February 4, 2011

    Interesting bookshelf! Heavy on the electronics books too! I’d be digging that. If you look at my bookshelf it’s littered with programming books. I really should have gotten an EE but I enjoy computers a little to much.

  16. #16 islami chat
    February 4, 2011

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  17. #17 SimonG
    February 4, 2011

    I never made it through university, dropping out of a Biochemistry degree after a couple of years. A big factor for me was that I found school (mostly) easy and wasn’t well prepared for something that was actually hard. (I didn’t get brilliant results at school, but I didn’t do a lot of work, either.)
    Many years later, I find that one of the most effective tools is to take notes and then be sure to transcribe them fairly soon afterwards. I find that the act of transcribing them makes them much more memorable. It’s also an opportunity to make sure I really did understand whatever it was, and means I don’t find some months later that I can’t read my own handwriting.
    I’d also say that reading outside the course material is valuable. A different perspective can sometimes make things clearer to you. It looks good in exams, too, if you include stuff that wasn’t explicitly taught.

  18. #18 Constant Writer
    February 5, 2011

    Those are pretty thorough study habits. But sometimes, students don’t have the time. If you’re not getting an assistantship or a fellowship or something that’s paying your way through school, so many grad students have jobs on top of school. And with work, school, homework, and making sure to feed yourself and sleep once in a while, study habits like that are pretty hard to adhere to.
    So far, my method for surviving grad school is comprised of doing all the reading and homework over the weekend that I know I won’t have time for during the week with my schedule.
    I’ve gotten to be a pretty good highlighter, picking out which parts are important and which aren’t–years of practice is all I can say for that one. And I am gifted with a good memory for stuff like this.
    Even if everyone can’t follow your process, I think it’s still a good one to share. It probably will help some of them anyway.

  19. #19 Freakyphysicsguy
    February 5, 2011

    I am a second year undergrad Physics major, and this semester I jumped from 1 Physics, 1 Math, and 2 “other” classes per semester to 2 Physics and 2 Math, all upper-division, and it has been a kick in the pants. My study habits aren’t great, and I’m finding myself behind on work despite putting in way more hours than is typical (for me) this early in the semester. I’ll try out your plan, it seems reasonable and should work.

  20. #20 Estraven
    February 5, 2011

    You should have a warning and a cut before posting a picture of Jackson. Evil spirits (=my school’s rules) forced me, an innocent would-be mathematician, to take courses with the physics majors. I remember one full academic year of torture where the book you pictured was the sharpest instrument. I understood nothing for nine solid months. I thought I had forgotten… and you brought it out, to fill my nightmares, a quarter of a century later.

    I always studied very, very seriously from day one. I was on a scholarship as an undergraduate and flunking would have meant going home, end of the dreams. It was a big change from high school.

  21. #21 David
    February 5, 2011

    One thing I’ve always found that helps me is instead of eagerly writing down everything the professor says and trying to memorize it, I’ve always thought of it as a conversation between us. Almost like we’re two friends talking. I don’t know if that would work for everyone but I just earned my associates degree with a 3.97 GPA and took very few notes. Usually my notes consisted of keywords to help jog my memory or remind me of something rather than writing everything down verbatim.

  22. #22 Rob Knop
    February 5, 2011

    You rock, dude.

  23. #23 Benjamin
    February 6, 2011

    You’ve got a great point, and that was a very good way to put it.

    Thank you for writing this, I’ll try to apply it to my current studies.

  24. #24 Sili
    February 6, 2011

    Pretty obvious where I went wrong.

    Ah well.

  25. #25 Tihomir
    February 26, 2011

    Great advice – reminds me of my own methods. I’ve sent it to my kids, so they can see it’s not only me “preaching” this. Thanks! Keep the good job you’re doing!

  26. #26 Ajani Emmanuel
    August 10, 2011

    pls send a school d is full physics instrument.

  27. #27 uniquefabo
    May 18, 2013

    Yes, it’s a great advice. This remind me of the great method I applied during my undergraduate physics major. I don’t know if that would work for everyone but this earned me a GPA of 4.59 and I usually took very few notes consisting of keywords and shortwords to help me remember easily.

  28. #28 George John
    November 24, 2013

    It’s easy to look back on your graduate experience and say “If only I had prepared for class, I would have a nice time.” But I am currently in physics grad school, almost done with my second year, and I know how it really is. I pass all of my classes and I work hard, but the psychological stress is immense. I am working on some research as well, and I definitely feel that most of my core course work does not apply AT ALL to my research. Core classes drain my energy and leave me a nervous wreck. If I try to read the textbook before class (Goldstein Mechanics this semester) it is total nonsense. I’m already published on one paper, and a second coming, so I know I have what it takes, but there’s no way around it: the core classes are terrible.