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FAQs for Concentrators
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- When are Howard Georgi's and David Morin's office hours?
- How do
I sign up to be a Physics or Chem/Phys concentrator?
The deadline for choosing a concentration is early December of sophomore year. However, you can sign up in the spring of your freshman year if you wish. There is nothing stopping you from declaring "early." If you're fairly certain that you want to be a Physics or Chem/Phys concentrator, we encourage you to sign up in your freshman year. It's easy to switch to another concentration later if you wish.
In April, David Morin will have a signup sheet for 15-minute and half-hour time blocks posted on the door of Lyman 238. These can be used either to officially sign up, or to have an "advising conversation" if you simply want to learn about Physics and/or Chem/Phys but not sign up. The College requires you to have a "conversation" with at least one department. But the more the merrier, of course, if you're thinking about various concentrations. David Morin will send an email in March to the SPS list with more details.
During the fall semester, David Morin will have another period of half-hour time blocks for sophomores to sign up. The signup process consists of going over the plan of study, choosing an advisor, filling out some minor paperwork, and discussing other concentration issues. You can fill out this form beforehand, if you want. Try to think of three possible advisors before the meeting.
Upperclass students: If you want to change your concentration to Physics or Chem/Phys, just email David Morin to set up a meeting time (outside office hours, ideally, because those can get hectic).
- Who are
my fellow concentrators?
See the facebook of Harvard Students (you will need to enter your pin). Or, you can take a look at the concentrator photoboard in the Physics Dept office on the 3rd floor of Jefferson. This board gets updated in early January, when the new sophomores replace the graduated seniors.
- How does
the Physics Dept advising system work?
All Physics and Chem/Phys concentrators automatically have Prof. Georgi (Head Tutor) and David Morin (Assistant Head Tutor) as advisors. You can talk with them about anything at any time, ranging from course selection, to future plans, to lab work, to concentration requirements.
In addition, all concentrators are given another faculty advisor (who may be Prof. Georgi). The purpose of the faculty advisor is to act as a mentor, and to help you down the physics or chem/phys path. However, questions about concentration requirements should be addressed to Prof. Georgi and David Morin. In short, when talking with your faculty advisor, you can pretend that there are no course numbers or requirements to worry about. Just get some real physics advice about what subjects are good to know, what lab experience is good to have, etc.
More information on the advising system can be found here.
- Who signs
my study card?
Your faculty advisor signs your study card. Please take this opportunity to talk with your advisor about classes, future plans, any research you've been doing, and anything else you want to discuss. You should email your advisor a few days before the first day of classes (or before) to set up a meeting time.
Note: Prof. Georgi and David Morin very much enjoy meeting with students at the beginning of the semester. However, past experience has led to this rule: To encourage students to meet with their individual advisors, Prof. Georgi and David Morin will sign study cards only if the student has already met with his/her individual advisor. So students should stop by their offices (either to discuss things or to just get a signature) in addition to seeing their individual advisor.
- How is
the level of honors calculated for graduating seniors?
Information on how the Physics and Chem/Phys departmental honors recommendations are calculated can be found here. Note that these departmental recommendations (which are given in English: honors, high honors, highest honors) are not necessarily the same as the overall college honors degrees (which are given in Latin: cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude). Everything you could ever possibly want to know about honors degrees can be found here.
- Can I take
Astro 191r instead of Physics 191r?
Astro 191r can be substituted for Physics 191r for the Honors Physics concentration if (1) you are a joint Physics and Astro concentrator, and/or (2) you have demonstrated a strong interest in Astro. "Strong" here means that you have taken two Astro classes, or have taken one Astro class and done some research in the field.
cross-listed courses count for concentration credit?
Not necessarily. The cross-listed designation in the course catalog is fairly meaningless, so it's best to ignore it. The official list of courses that count as "Physics" or "Related" is in the Physics section of the Handbook.
can I tell if a course counts for concentration credit?
Check the "Physics" and "Related" lists in the Physics section of the Handbook. If you think a course should count but it's not listed there, just run it by Howard Georgi or David Morin.
fields offer secondaries?
The main page for secondaries is here.
does a secondary field affect my honors calculation?
For the Physics and Chem/Phys concentrations, it doesn't affect the calculation at all. We will still follow the rule that any course that can count (as listed in the Handbook) does count. For example, if you designate four CS courses for a CS secondary (and thus remove the "conc" label from three of these on your student record, because at most one course can be double counted for a concentration and a secondary), then we will still include all four CS courses in your Physics or Chem/Phys honors calculation.
do I remove the "1C" label from a course?
Because you can double count only one course for your concentration and secondary, if overlapping courses have been marked "1C", you will need to remove this label (except on at most one course that is double counted). To remove it, just print out a copy of your transcript and bring it to David Morin's office, and let him know what should be un-"1C"-ed.
- How do
I declare Advanced Standing?
Eligible students who decide to use Advanced Standing to graduate after only six or seven terms in the College or to apply to one of the specified master's degree programs must apply for Advanced Standing by the appropriate deadline during the third term before they intend to graduate or enter the master's program. This deadline, ordinarily on the same date as that for seniors filing degree applications or changing concentrations, will be published yearly in the "Academic Calendar" in the Handbook for Students. Forms for applying for Advanced Standing will be available from the Registrar's Office at 20 Garden Street and from the offices of the Allston Burr Senior Tutors in the houses. Everything you ever wanted to know about Advanced Standing can be found here.
- How does
the AB/AM program work?
Candidates for the AB/AM degree in physics must meet both the academic and course requirements for the honors AB degree in physics and the AM degree. A given course can be counted for only one of the two degrees, i.e., one course cannot meet the requirement for the AB degree and then be counted again for the AM degree. Any undergraduate who wishes to apply for this degree must file an application for the graduate program in physics just as any other student files for graduate work at Harvard (which translates to submitting the application in December of the 3rd year). This application should include two letters of recommendation. The GRE is not required. Only students with advanced standing are eligible to apply for this four-year program. Undergraduates taking graduate courses in their third year may bracket those which they wish to apply on their graduate degree. General information on Advanced Standing and the AB/AM program can be found here. Further information on the Physics Master's requirements can be found near the bottom of this page.
The Physics Master's program is quite demanding. Only one or two students do it each year. Similarly, the number of physics concentrators who use Advanced Standing to graduate in six or seven semesters averages less than one per year.
- How do
I bracket a course?
Any courses which Advanced Standing students take for graduate credit must be "bracketed," which means they will not count toward the bachelor's degree. Most students earn all their AM credits in their fourth year at the College, but third-year students are also permitted to bracket courses in anticipation of the AM degree. Students who bracket courses before they are admitted to a graduate program should understand that they cannot "unbracket" if they do not enter an AM program. In exceptional cases, students may begin bracketing courses for the AM even earlier in their academic programs; this requires the approval of the department chairman or other person overseeing graduate study in the department.
Students must submit bracketing petitions in each term in which they are taking a bracketed course. Petitions are available in the Office for Undergraduate Education, University Hall 1st Floor North, and must be returned to this office by the fifth Monday of the term.
There are three important aspects of bracketing to keep in mind:
1) Bracketing is irreversible after the fifth Monday of the term.
2) Under no circumstances may any bracketed course be considered both for undergraduate and graduate credit.
3) Bracketed courses in no way affect your undergraduate record. They will not be included in your A.B. degree credit, grade point average or departmental honors.
- How do
I find a lab to work in?
The procedure is simple and informal: Look through the faculty webpage to see what professors are doing things you might be interested in, and then send out one or two emails and/or knock on doors. If this doesn't yield a positive response, then send out another one or two emails, etc. (and a repeat email to the first couple prefessors is always a reasonable thing to do). It usually doesn't take long to find something. Be sure to let the professors know what your background is (classes, research if any, and whatever else you think is relevant).
Some people have asked about a centralized list of available projects, but we purposely don't have such a list because: (1) We've tried it, and it's impossible to keep up to date. Jobs get created and taken far too often. (2) Sometimes professors think up projects on the spot (or they just realize that they do in fact have a job for one more undergrad) when a student contacts them. If a professor isn't on the list, this might give you the false impression that there isn't anything available, when in fact he/she might think of something when contacted. So a list might actually have negative value.
- How do I
sign up for Phys 90r or 91r?
Stop by Lyman 233 to pick up a 90r/91r form from David Morin, or you can print one out here. Your lab supervisor signs this form, and David Morin signs your study card. The completed form is due by study card day. You are expected to spend about as much time in the lab as you would in a regular course, but talk with your supervisor to see exactly what he/she expects. For more info, see the 90r/91r webpage.
I get paid for doing research during the academic year?
Yes, and there are various ways to get paid. The money can come directly from the lab you're working in if funds happen to be available. Or, the money can come from the Student Employment Office, via the Harvard College Research Program, the Faculty Aide Program, or Federal Work Study. Other possibilities are also listed on the SEO's website. Note that you cannot be paid and receive 90r credit at the same time.
do apply for summer research jobs?
There are lots and lots of summer research opportunities out there. See this page for details.
- How do
I go about writing a thesis?
First, note that a thesis is not required for the Physics or Chem/Phys concentrations. About ten Physics and Chem/Phys students write a thesis each year. If you choose to write one, stop by Lyman 238 at the beginning of the spring semester to pick up forms with all the details. The theses are due roughly at the end of April. A thesis can be based on Phys 90r work or on summer research. Students normally write the thesis as part of a 90r in the spring, and the thesis grade is the 90r grade. Continual feedback from your advisor is strongly encouraged on the thesis, so it is important that you take the initiative to ensure that this happens. You should view your thesis as an opportunity to improve your scientific writing.
- How can I
study for the Physics GRE?
Although a few students take the Physics GRE in the spring of their junior year, most take it in September or October in their senior year. Take one of the practice exams early, so you can see what topics are covered and what the problems look like. Save at least one exam for a few days before the actual test, so you can get your mind in test-taking mode. The bulk of your studying will need to be done during the summer before your senior year, because no matter how good your intentions are, you're not going to get much studying done once the fall semester starts. And even if you do, your classes will suffer for it.
If you look at the scoring on the available practice exams, you will see that you can miss quite a few problems and still get a very good score. While there may be a few zingers on the exam, most of the problems are straightforward, and it's just a matter of whether or not you remember the things you learned in your classes, and whether you can work quickly enough. If you remembered everything, then there would still be a few obscure problems you'd miss, but you would do extremely well. Similarly, if you knew everything in a book on the level of Giancoli or Halliday-Resnick or Young-Freedman, then there would be a few harder problems you'd miss, but you would still do extremely well. You may want to look at such a book to learn about some topics that we tend to skip at Harvard, such as nuclear physics.
One last note: Don't forget to sign up by the registration deadline!
fellowships are available for grad school?
If you are applying to grad school, the main fellowships you should consider are:
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships
The National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program
Office of Science Graduate Fellowship
The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program
Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship
Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowships
American Association of University Women
The earliest of the deadlines is late October, which tends to creep up quickly as the semester gets rolling, so be sure to get started in time.
graduate schools want me to have research experience?
Yes! There are three main reasons: First, if you have some experience in a lab, schools will know that you're more prepared and ready to make a contribution in grad school. Second, they will know that your general assertion of "I like doing physics" is actually based on concrete experience. And third, they will be able gain a great deal of information about you from the rec letter(s) written by your supervisor(s).
"But what if I'm a theorist?" you ask. Well, since it's a fact of nature that there are far fewer theory than experimental opportunities for undergraduates, you have two options: You can either try to find a theory job (possible, but by no means a given as with an experimental job), or you can work in a lab. This second route is the one students generally take. There is so much learning to be done to get up to speed in a lab, you'll inevitably be using your brain to do lots of theory anyway.
should I ask to write my rec letters?
At least one should be from a research supervisor. If you've done two different projects, then use both letters. If you worked mainly with a grad student or postdoc, then you can ask them to write a tag-team letter with the professor. Three letters (or sometimes four for some fellowships) are required, so the remainder should come from professors you've gotten to know well in classes. The key point here is that you should get to know at least a few professors very well! Even if you got an A+ in a class, if you didn't get to know the professor well, there's not much that he/she will be able to write in the letter except simply restating your grade.
If you are certain that you have four extremely strong letters, but only three are required, it's generally fine to submit all four. But you can trim it down to three if two of the writers are from the same lab (say, professor and postdoc) by using the trick of a tag-team letter. The prof can simply insert a long block quote from the postdoc, so you essentially get two letters in one.
many schools should I apply to? Where should I apply?
As far as the number goes, somewhere between 6 and 10 is reasonable. It's risky to apply to fewer than 6, because there's always a bit of randomness involved. If it will make you sleep better at night, then by all means apply to 12 or so. It's better to spend a little more money if it gives you peace of mind. But peace of mind can (and should) also be obtained by applying to schools of various levels. Always apply to a few schools that you're fairly certain you'll get into.
As far as the choice of places goes, it is critical that you ask professors here at Harvard their opinion on what schools you should apply to, given the subfield(s) you're interested in. These professors know all the ins and outs of who is at which school and what their research is, so it would be a very poor choice to not take advantage of this information!
- Do I
have to know exactly what subfield I want to pursue?
If you do know, then that's ideal. But otherwise try to narrow it down to two possibilities. Grad schools know that you can't have your whole life figured out yet. Most schools will allow you to switch advisors in the early stages (subject to openings in a lab, of course). But a few won't, so be sure to check with the specific school.
A potential difficulty arises if you honestly can't make the decision between experiment and theory; the schools do like to know at least this much. If this is the case, come talk with Prof. Georgi or David Morin, and we'll see what we can figure out. Admissions issues aside, it's usually very hard to switch from experiment to theory once you're at a place. But switching from theory to experiment is generally doable.
should I write about in my "personal statement"?
If you pretend you're a professor on an admissions committee who is trying to select students for his/her lab, what qualities would you be looking for? There are three basic things. You'd want students to be: (1) smart, experienced, and capable of learning new things (so they have the ability to get things done); (2) enthusiastic and hard working (so they actually do get things done); and (3) nice, personable, and able to work well with others (so they don't screw up the rest of the lab in the process).
Your personal statement should somehow convince the admissions committee that you have these qualities. You should talk about your research project(s) and any inspiring classes, and about what accomplishments you made and what challenges you overcame. You should talk about why physics excites you and why you want to keep doing it. And you should do all this in a way that convinces the committee that you're someone they'd like to have around. This last piece is the hard part to convey in writing, so be prepared to spend some time on it! Be sure to run your statement by your advisor or another professor.
do grad schools base their admissions on?
They don't have many things to go on. The two main ones are course grades (along with course choice/difficulty) and recommendation letters. This is why rec letters are so important; they're roughly 50% of the info the schools have on you. A third item is GRE scores (both the Physics and the General), but different schools use these to varying degrees, and not nearly as much as grades and rec letters.
is more important, the overall quality of a school, or
the specific professor you end up working for?
Good question. If you're aiming to stay in academia afterward, then it's the work you do and the recommendation that your advisor gives you that determine where you end up. So that would suggest that it's the specific professor that matters more. However, the overall quality and enthusiasm of your fellow students will most certainly impact what you accomplish. If you're inspired and challenged by everyone around you, then there's no doubt that you'll get more done (and also be happier doing it). So the overall quality of the school definitely comes into play too. So in the end, it's some vague combination of the two, and your best strategy is to base your decision on a similarly vague combination of your gut instinct and the advice you seek out from professors here.
If you're planning on leaving academia, then the farther away from it you end up, the more the name of the school matters. Up to a point, of course.
- How important
is it to visit schools that I'm admitted to?
Very important. Schools generally pay for all or part of your travel costs, so it's mostly a matter of time. Senior spring is busy, but it's far better to spend some time traveling even if you don't have much to spare, than it is to end up spending half a dozen years in a place you don't like. Although there's no guarantee that a visit will answer all your questions and yield a certainty of making the right choice, it will definitely increase the odds.
- Can I
take year off before grad school?
Yes, most schools make it easy for you to defer a year or two. There are a few schools that make you jump through some hoops, but it's generally still quite doable. In any case, check with each school for their specific rules. If you're a little burned out after four years here, a year off could be the best thing for you. And there's definitely no need to do something physics related during this year, unless of course you really want to. If you do take a year off, it's generally simpler to apply during your senior year, because it's easier to collect rec letters and such while you're on campus. But applying during your year off is doable too.
- Are there
grading positions available for undergrads?
There are usually at least a few homework grading jobs available. Send an email to David Morin if you are interested, with a list of the classes you feel qualified to grade. Which courses need graders usually isn't determined until enrollments are finalized after study card day.
there TA positions available for undergrads?
There are occasionally TA positions available for undergraduates, depending on the number of graduate students who will be teaching in a given term. The final data usually isn't known until a about a week before classes start (and sometimes not until after they start), but if you are interested, send an email to David Morin at least a month in advance. Any available spots are usually in the introductory courses.
do I get paid?
Students receiving pay from the Physics Department (whether for grading, being a TA, working in a lab, or anything else) MUST complete four forms and also fill out weekly time sheets. Links to these documents are:
You can also pick up the forms from Carol Davis, Jefferson Lab, 241 (across from the Undergrad Study).
The one exception is that if you have already filled out W-4, M-4, and I-9 forms within the last 12 months for the Physics Department or another department at Harvard, then this information is still on record, so you can ignore these three forms. But in any case you must fill out the Appointment Form for each new job.
Time sheets must be filled out to get paid. Do these WEEKLY - do not wait until the end of the semester. There are occasionally wrinkles in the central payroll system, so you should make sure you hand in your first time sheet early, so that any wrinkles can be ironed out quickly.
The only exception to filling out time sheets occurs with certain types of pay for summer research. But students doing summer research will be given further detailed instructions (of which filling out the above four forms is a subset) in May.
- How does
study abroad work?
Physics and Chem/Phys concentrators are more than welcome to take a semester or an entire year abroad. General information on study abroad can be found here, but you should see Howard Georgi or David Morin to discuss issues specific to the concentration. Most students choose a few of their courses to be ones that satisfy concentration credit, but other students arrange to complete all of their concentration requirements at Harvard and just take humanities courses during their time abroad.
If you are looking to be funded during your time abroad (for example, during the summer), you can search the Funding Database for International Experience for available funds.
do I go about obtaining letters of recommendation?
See here for some guidelines.
- How do
I sign up for the Society of Physics Students mailing list?
The SPS list provides a forum for announcements of interest to the Harvard undergraduate physics community. The list is moderated, but anyone may subscribe or unsubscribe freely. There is also a more informal SPS-open list. You can sign up for both lists via the "Mailing Lists" link at the top of the SPS webpage.
Concentration emails are sent to the SPS list (instead of the smaller "concentrators" list) if the content is relevant to the wider SPS group, which it invariably is. Therefore, it is critical that all Physics and Chem/Phys concentrators sign up for the SPS list. Additionally, the SPS-open list is strongly recommended.
- How do
I cross register at MIT?
There are loads of courses offered at Harvard, but if you can't find what you're looking for, and if you don't mind the commute to MIT, then by all means look into cross registering for a course there. Instructions on how to do this can be found at here.
As far as the concentration honors grade calculation goes, we don't average in the grades of courses taken elsewhere (MIT, abroad, etc.). It's essentially just like you took the courses pass/fail here. (But this doesn't count against your two pass/fail concentration courses taken here. You can still take those, if you wish.)
- Where can I get a Physics Dept bumper sticker?
We hope that you find these FAQs helpful. But if you would
like some more personal advice, don't hesitate to email us
or stop by our office hours:
(Head Tutor) Howard Georgi: email, office hours
(Assistant Head Tutor) David Morin: email, office hours
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