Grad Courses Variations

  • As many already know, studying for the physics GRE and getting accepted into a graduate program is not the final hurdle in your physics career.
  • There are many issues current physics graduate students face such as studying for their qualifier, deciding upon a field of research, choosing an advisor, being an effective teaching assistant, trying to have a social life, navigating department politics, dealing with stress, utilizing financial aid, etc.

JimmyThyJoker
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Joined: Fri May 05, 2017 8:58 am

Grad Courses Variations

Postby JimmyThyJoker » Tue Oct 17, 2017 8:34 am

How different are the graduate courses among institutions? My grad E&M right now jumps b/w topics while grad QM stays close to the textbooks. If you were a senior in undergrad, what would you do in order to test out of the grad courses?

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Grad Courses Variations

Postby TakeruK » Wed Oct 18, 2017 1:11 pm

Highly variant. In my experience, for any particular grad course, there are probably 3 times as many major topics that could be covered than there is time. So, each instructor will pick their own set of topics to cover. Then, since grad courses go into topics in depth, there are 2-3 ways to teach each topic too (e.g. different applications, examples, approaches).

Of course, for some "core" courses there are some key skills that are going to be consistent across all grad classes. But the way it is taught will vary depending on each instructor (i.e. a grad class taught at School X by Prof A will be different from the same class taught 3 years later by Prof B).

Some examples. I took some undergrad/grad cross-level classes in undergrad, took grad classes in my Masters and took grad classes in my PhD (3 different schools).

- I took a grad-level astronomical instrumentation class three times. The first one was taught by a radio astronomer and we learned a lot about measurements with examples to radio telescopes. The second class was taught by 4 different professors covering 4 different regions of the EM field. Since each region only had 2-3 weeks of coverage, it was very much like a survey class---we only learned a little bit about each type of detector. The third class specifically covered optical and infrared detectors. We learned a lot about the fine details of how these detectors actually worked. There was also a field trip to an observatory. And we spent quite a bit of time learning about future detectors and what's state of the art, not just want is already deployed.

- I took a Bayesian statistics class twice (Masters and PhD). The first time was very mathematically/theory focussed. We learned probability theory and derived the main principles of Bayesian statistics. When we learned about Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods, we went through proofs of theorems to show that it worked. The second time was very applications focussed. The class was taught as a toolbox of statistical tools. We didn't really go into detail on proving why each tool worked. Instead, we were taught to familiarize ourselves with each tool, learned what principles drive each tool and we learned when we can use it and when we cannot (i.e. its limitations). When we learned MCMC, the prof showed us examples of MCMC results to show that it worked (we did talk about the theory afterwards, but to a lesser extent). The homework were all coding related and writing algorithms instead of proofs.

Just two examples.

If I was a senior in undergrad, I would not worry at all about trying to test out of grad classes. Unless you already know the school you want to go to will allow it, most grad schools do not allow you to skip their classes. (Full disclosure: when I was a senior undergrad, I was thinking the same way as you and asked my advisor/grad class instructors about this. They told me what I just told you.) After going through grad school myself and experiencing the differences, I agree with school policies to not allow students to test out. It's worth seeing some of the material again and you learn new things every time. For that Bayesian class I mentioned above, I TA'ed that class two more times (so I saw the material 4 times) and each time I learned something new or gained a new perspective.

Instead, my advice would be to take grad classes in the areas you're interested in, if you can. This will expose you to more people/research in the area and give you a better idea of what's going on in your intended area of research. Maybe you'll find it less interesting or find something really cool in that specific subfield that you want to do your dissertation on. Then later, when you take a similar course in your graduate program, having this background knowledge will help you absorb material at a deeper level, further improving your foundation in your intended area of work.

JimmyThyJoker
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Joined: Fri May 05, 2017 8:58 am

Re: Grad Courses Variations

Postby JimmyThyJoker » Wed Oct 18, 2017 8:04 pm

TakeruK wrote:Instead, my advice would be to take grad classes in the areas you're interested in, if you can. This will expose you to more people/research in the area and give you a better idea of what's going on in your intended area of research. Maybe you'll find it less interesting or find something really cool in that specific subfield that you want to do your dissertation on. Then later, when you take a similar course in your graduate program, having this background knowledge will help you absorb material at a deeper level, further improving your foundation in your intended area of work.


Thanks very helpful. I want to test out of EM and QM, esp. QM, because I want to take QFT and then HEP. Usually QM and QFT are the same semester, so if I take QM instead of QFT my first semester. I will be behind by a year.

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Grad Courses Variations

Postby TakeruK » Wed Oct 18, 2017 10:41 pm

JimmyThyJoker wrote:Thanks very helpful. I want to test out of EM and QM, esp. QM, because I want to take QFT and then HEP. Usually QM and QFT are the same semester, so if I take QM instead of QFT my first semester. I will be behind by a year.


Sorry, I might be misunderstanding something. If you are entering a program that offers QM and QFT in the same semester, then how would you be behind by a year since everyone else who wants to take QFT will also have to wait a year to take QM first. Note that if QFT is extremely critical to your research work, the department might waive the QM pre-req and let you take the two courses as co-reqs instead.

Again, maybe I am misunderstanding....I have been assuming that you are a senior undergrad applying to graduate programs this year (i.e. you don't know where you will go yet). From this perspective, it seems like you are trying to make very concrete plans based on very little assurances. If this is the case, then I would not worry very much about trying to test out of courses because as far as I know, most grad programs do not let you do this. And how do you even know that your future grad program will have the grad QM/QFT conflict?

In addition, many grad programs have quals or candidacy exams that depend on material specifically covered in their version of the courses, so you will either have to take their version or have to do a lot of extra self-study to prepare yourself.

But if I am wrong about my assumptions---maybe you already have an offer and/or you already know the policies at your future grad program. In that case, the best people to answer your questions on how to best prepare yourself to test out of a course is the professors running that grad program! Every program is different so getting general advice here won't be as useful as speaking with the program directly.

JimmyThyJoker
Posts: 8
Joined: Fri May 05, 2017 8:58 am

Re: Grad Courses Variations

Postby JimmyThyJoker » Wed Oct 18, 2017 11:30 pm

TakeruK wrote:I have been assuming that you are a senior undergrad applying to graduate programs this year (i.e. you don't know where you will go yet). From this perspective, it seems like you are trying to make very concrete plans based on very little assurances.


i am and i am. I have next semester off so I plan to work on the grad em and grad qm i am taking and various special topics including intro to particle phys, solid state, gr...

I know many first-year grad would skip grad em or qm or other courses but still be able to past the Q-exam... I believe there's not really any set-in-stone requirements for courses, except for maybe one experimental course required.

My main goal is to be well prepared for grad school and competitive once am in, esp. if i go to the top 10 schools, so I want to tailor my semester off better for such preparation.

TakeruK
Posts: 894
Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: Grad Courses Variations

Postby TakeruK » Thu Oct 19, 2017 4:49 pm

I think it's great that you are planning to optimize your "extra" semester to prepare yourself for grad school! I guess my advice would be to optimize your time towards preparing yourself in skills/knowledge that will be helpful to you in terms of succeeding at research, instead of trying to optimize to "skip" courses. Because the course and test-out requirements can vary a lot from place to place, it would be fairly tough to do it in a way that works for all the schools you're interested in.

I think that if you just plan to not be able to skip anything and learn what you want/need to learn then no matter what happens, you got something useful out of the semester off. If you get to skip some courses, then it's bonus! But if you make skipping courses your goal then you might end up not learning the things you wanted to learn and since it's not a sure thing to skip courses, you might not get that either.

That said, if you are set on trying to get a head start on course requirements, you can start learning the core materials in these courses first and by March-ish (April at the latest) you should know where you're going. Then you can specific tailor the rest of your preparation for that particular program's set of requirements (e.g. find old qual exams, talk to students, faculty etc.)




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