Long term forcast

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“Well folks, it’s time for the acad-vision three month forecast. We use a complex combination of long term climate models–utilizing the Syllabus algorithm–short term observations, and a pair of dice to give you a chance to prepare for events in the not-so-far-but-not-so-close future.

The coming weeks will be dominated by mostly fair weather with clouds increasing later in the month. A work-load ridge will slowly build-up, dominated by a Jackson system which will create some electric instability in the air. What out for lightning folks!  The wild card is the position of the jet stream, which may direct more work our way if a research front drops from the north. Based on activities last month in Europe, we give this an 80% chance of happening before the end of October due to a proceedings and paper trough developing in the North Pacific.

A respite will come at the end of the month when a series of birthday fronts will lighten up the skies. However, furious weather arrives immediately after that thanks to a midterm arriving out of the northwest. We are confident that this will be associated by a Jackson front, however a Pathria front may also be thrown into the mix. Behind all this activity will be small contributions from a subtropical Stellar system, which will feed moisture into the system and strengthen any storms which may develop.

Once the midterm passes, weather will only clear up slightly. Models show increasing cloud cover with winds shifting from the north due to a stationary homework system which will deepen in the weeks to follow. A respite may come in late November, but models are not clear. Immediately following that we see a ‘one-two’ punch in the form of an exam system–likely a Jackson front–and then a triple exam system. This latter system may be a real doozy. Be prepared for high winds, sleet, and cool temperatures for upwards of a week. Currently we don’t predict any snow, but just messy, disgusting weather. Once this system passes however, there is pleasant, seasonal weather for the rest of the year, perhaps with some  weather more akin to the southern Great Lakes for a week or so around Christmas.”

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On Being a Good Student/Being a Good Professor

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FemaleScienceProfessor has a thoughtful course-evaluations-time post about student evaluations of professors who are teaching their first course. It’s worth a read, most especially because it presents the question, “What can be done to prepare new professors to teach?” The comment section offers further insight into the issue. This is a topic about which I have some great concern as a graduate student who ultimately hopes to go into teaching (as well as research), but on which I shall not comment much at this moment. Instead I just have some general observations:

As an undergrad I had some absolutely excellent professors and some fairly dismal ones as well. What seemed to distinguish the good from the bad was a combination of method and attitude. Interestingly, I think that professors and students expect the same things from each other:

1) Attention

2)Honsty

3)Organization

4)Neatness and Clarity

5)Passion

6)Effort

7)Flexibility

8)Creativity

9)Respect

The list is not in any order, other than that respect is obviously the most important attribute for both students and professors. The moment one party loses respect for the other, it is inevitable that the other loses respect  and that mutual respect  be extremely difficult to restore. The key question for either is to ask: “What if I were a student/the professor?”

One commenter for FSP’s post noted that he used mid-course evaluations for the courses he taught. I had a physics professor in my second year of undergrad who did this and  happened to be an excellent professor for a number of other reasons.  I never had another course in which a mid-course evaluation took place, but the impact of that incident remains. As a student I was impressed with the professor’s concern that he teach us as best as he can and his humility in voluntarily accepting our feedback (as opposed  to the evaluations at the end of the semester which are obligatory).  I don’t remember if there were changes in his style of teaching or in the course afterward but I think that it probably increased the students’ respect for the professor and as a result improved the learning atmosphere.

Tradition

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For my  graduate courses I am using what  are  considered the some  of the  “classic”  graduate textbooks for each subject (or so I’m told).  For  classical mechanics, I am using Goldstein, Poole, and Safko. For  quantum I  am using Sakurai. When I  take E&M, it  will invariably be Jackson which I use. These books are well known, and some of  them have  a reputation for being the standard for  graduate textbooks in physics.

Professors have confessed to  disliking the textbooks used in their courses several times. They concede that the books are riddled with  mistakes or that they aren’t especially clear. They even suggest other books  which would be better for a specific topic. But each year, the particular textbooks are used by  the professors who also criticize  them…The reason: tradition.

I’ll admit that I’m not in a particular position to critique these textbooks as a student, partly because I haven’t had exposure to many others, and partly because I am still learning the material.  However,  I  am curious  about the extent and origin of the tradition of using specific books. I’ll be the last person to criticize tradition, I think that tradition in general is a very good thing,  one form of transmitting wisdom from one generation to the next and also of establishing cultural connections. So perhaps the use of these books is part of the culture of physics education and perhaps they also include  a degree of wisdom (or at least knowledge of physics). But  I wonder what  is lost at the expense of adhering to a status quo in textbook use.

Anyone else come across this?

The Process: Part 1-The Exams

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A year ago, I was in the heart of the graduate school application process. I look back fondly on the college search: ceaseless mail from universities around the country, weekend college visits with my dad, our late night drives fueled by cassettes from his high school and college days, the feeling that the greatest adventure of my life was about to begin. To this day, Ohio University (which I very nearly choose to attend for undergraduate) reminds me of Billy Joel and late night highways of Devo and the Knack.  However, the graduate school search, I do not recall with such warmth.

This is Physics GRE time. I remember traveling down to Ann Arbor with my roommate and another friend since the test was not offered at MSU when I signed up (I do fondly remember wandering around Ann Arbor after the test on a beautiful fall afternoon).

My (obvious) Advice:

  1. -Study. It’s astounding how much one forgets over the years.
  2. -Take the test twice if you don’t mind the expense. I only took the Physics exam once, but I did take the general exam twice. My score, which wasn’t bad, went up almost 200 points the second time, There is something to be said for the mental soundness which comes from knowing what to expect. I would suggest taking the physics in the spring and then again in the fall. Spend the summer studying the topics with which you had trouble the first time.
  3. -If you do poorly, don’t loose hope. I did terribly…only five percent of those physics students who took the exam I took who might also happen to read this post did worse than me. I did not get into most of the programs to which I applied, but I did get into two with good research opportunities and nice, smaller departments. The best advice is to apply smartly if you do poorly.  Do apply to the schools you would like to attend, but also seek out a couple schools with smaller departments or which might not require the physics GRE (there are some). You might find a hidden treasure.

At my undergrad, you could sign up to the computerized general GRE on pretty much any day. As I said, I took it twice.

  1. -Use the practice CD they give you, Take a couple of the practice exams they give you under testing conditions on a night or weekend  when your homework load is lighter
  2. -Most likely, the verbal section will be the most difficult portion for a physics or astronomy major. It has some pretty bizarre words. Studying flashcards might help. I found a website with a list of words, undoubtedly also found on flashcards which can be purchased, and focused on the words I didn’t recognize. You can’t be prepared for every word so try to practice reasoning to narrow the choices and make good guesses.
  3. -The writing portion may be tricky because of the time constraint. The first time I took it I didn’t quite finish one of the essays. Really do the practice tests they give you on the CD under timed conditions. You might be surprised how you spend your time on an essay.
  4. -The math section has some math you might not have seen in a couple years. Geometry for example. I did a quick review of the topics EST says the math section covers. It did come in handy.
  5. -Don’t be afraid to take it again. If you prepare well your score might go up…or it might not. It’s worth a try though, right?
  6. -Don’t brush off the general exam. Obviously a physics department might not put as much baring on the test as other parts of the application, and might especially give less weight to the verbal section. However, universities might care about the GRE. I received a nice tuition scholarship from the college which houses my graduate department, partly because my GRE scores, the second time around, qualified me. This freed up other money in my department so that I didn’t have to rely on a TA stipend for support this year (not that TAing is bad…but it’s one less thing to worry about during the first year of grad school). I was very lucky, but no matter what, doing well on the exam can’t hurt you, even if it might not help you as much.

I’ll be updating this post after midterms to include more specific information about the tests and how to prepare and recover from them.

One Point Five Months In

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I’m already forgetting that I’ve been in graduate school for only a month and a half. It seems much longer.

I’m hoping to move this blog away from purely reporting on science news toward something which might be more useful-thoughts about being a graduate student in physics, advice to undergraduates, issues related to the life of a developing graduate student.  However,I don’t intend this to become a diary.

So here goes the first try (on the next post), I’m sure I’ll have space to improve.