Alumni – If we could start over?


15 Responses

  1. I would like to offer a quick word of advice to current students, particularly those in the teaching track. Because I was teaching track and also played a varsity sport at TCNJ, I essentially tried to take only the core physics requirements and fill out the rest of my requirements with general bio, chem, astronomy, geology, etc. I figured that these courses would be easier, and the earth science background would serve me well as a teacher. However, when I decided that I know longer wanted to teach, this turned out to be a bad idea.

    The disadvantage of the teaching track is that all of the education credits leave little room for addition science/math electives. If I had to do it again, I would:

    Make a better effort to take upper level physics and math courses.

    When I applied to grad school for physical oceanography, I found that I was deficient in courses like: linear algebra, ordinary differential equations, PDEs, etc. I also could have used a stronger computer programming foundation. Fortunately I was able to get caught up on these courses at Florida State and maintain a solid GPA. However, this wasn’t easy, and I had to work my butt off (but I guess that is to be expected in grad school). Anyway, I felt my experience may offer something to consider for all you future physics teachers.


  2. Yeah, Maybe I will have to sit by our lake and get inspired!

  3. Hey Marcus,

    Tough choice! I’m not an expert on the subject so you better read Ted Latham’s comment.
    As a neutral observer and in my humble opinion, the scientist in me says go with the physics first…it should get you a raise, you’ll learn more science…all great. If you want to stay teaching the next n years then sounds like an easy choice. On the other hand, considering you are a Disney fanatic and will probably want to take your future (or near future?) kids to Orlando as soon as they can say Mickey…or hug a Mickey or… and you’re willing to jump to administration where you can probably make a lot more than teaching… You have to think what will make you happier in the mid and long term future… on the other hand (wait, three hands…???) you could also do both as Ted suggests… depends on how patient you can be…wait I do remember you being patient enough to work at DIsney for a full year…but you are now less young and wiser…

    Thus, no easy solution… meditate …it’s tough choice!

  4. Marcus,

    I am not sure of the accuracy of your last comment. For example, at Rutgers potential teachers must major in a field for four years and then pursue teacher certification in a 5th year (sometimes more) masters in teachning program. I taught an educational technology methods program there and almost all of my students were “undergrads” at Rutgers. I have a bias for this program but I have an even stronger bias toward the masters program here at TCNJ. Of course I am an adjunct here so I will maintain the company line. I also was an undergraduate here and got an MEd here choosing this place for four nain reasons. (1) the territory was already familair and I didn’t have an adjustment period. (2) the TCNJ education undergrad and grad reptutation was (and is) well respected in the tristate area. (3) the classes were smaller, more intimate, and the professors were totally oriented toward their student’s success. (4) the admin services were very responsive and very cooperative, especially at that time (Vietnam era) the veterans office was the most proactive service provider making sure we got all of the benefits coming to us.

    I would also suggest that you earn a masters first in some scientific field to enhance your growing reputation as an educator/teacher and then if still interested in educator/administration take those courses (perhaps a second masters) that lead to supervisory or central administration state certifications. Certification in some admin positions require a masters in some ed field and just necessary courses after that masters toward certification.

    Normally Boards do signficantly reward teachers who pursue grad credits and even more so for single or multiple masters degrees. The rewards for PhD’s was low. In my district only about $800 more a year for a PhD. By that time my interests in education turned to my formation of an educational consulting business and that option brought me more financial and educational rewards that I valued. Your values will change through life. Many of my colleagues also sought their PhDs via the US mail or online and these degrees were also recognized by most boards for salary guide advancement.

    I would make your choice of a graduate program, or even to grad or not to grad, based on your current life circumstances such family commitments, fianancial resources, convenience to a nearby campus, and reputation of the graduate school whether you were an undergrad there or not. And, of course as your life’s circumstances change, so can you change your grad plans.

    The rate at which you can pursue a grad degree depends on your personal wealth and the grad benefits that your employing district contractually provides. It is different in all 612 NJ school districts. Unfortunately, the contracutal grad assistance is becoming more restrictive and in many cases just dryig up.

    Good luck – you have a lot of exciting choices to make!

  5. Questions advice:

    I was Phyt in class of 2004 and 05… I am now working at a high school and the pay grade change from furthering your education is very apparant and profitable… i think.

    I am considering looking into a Masters program and since I am around the corner from TCNJ, that may be my best bet for a Masters program. However I am unsure about the time involved if I do take the courses part time, and of what program to go into… I am teaching so should I just go with education? Would Administration major be a good way to go? Or, should I go with my scientific interests… Optics, and earth/space science?

    Is doing a masters program at your bachelor program school a bad idea? Not many people seem to take that route.

    Thanks for your responses..

  6. Yet another perspective. I can only speak from a string theorist’s perspective, but many issues generally apply.

    You won’t be spending 40 hours a week in a lab if you study theory. Instead, you’ll be spending 40 hours a week with paper and pencil.

    There are some things that are still hard, even if graduate quantum mechanics is easy. I say this not to discourage, but rather, to give perspective on a very important point, namely, you cannot hope to learn everything before you start your research. In fact, an important part of the research process is learning about some of the more advanced aspects of the subject while you do the research.

    A corollary to that is the importance of self-study. For example, there is no course on quantum field theory at TCNJ. Many institutions’ undergraduate programs do include such possibilities. If theoretical physics (or high-energy experimental) is what you want to do, take the initiative and learn it on your own.

    Fortunately, Thulsi has been known to occasionally teach general relativity. I would advise anyone interested in high-energy physics and is contemplating any sort of graduate education to take it. Otherwise you will arrive at a further disadvantage.

    A corollary to the corollary is that time is limited in graduate school. You do not have the time to take many extra classes to make up for a deficit in education.

    One insight that one might glean from many of the posts above is that the PhD. does not indicate that one possesses a mastery of the subject, but rather, the ability to suffer and persevere. Having said that, I don’t mean to cast the whole ordeal in a negative light, but honestly, what thing in this world that is worth doing is easy.

    Finally, experiences differ with universities and sub-fields, so take everything said here with a grain of salt, as it were.

  7. Concur on the Physics GRE feedback. I waited until finals were over, planning on spending a couple weeks hitting it hard. What a mistake. I did so horribly I blocked it out of my memory. Mercifully, for the University of Delaware reporting the Physics GRE was optional.
    Wow, Tim’s experience is similar to my own, but for me it took longer to find out. Going to grad school was a life changing experience for me. At TSC/TCNJ I did pretty well, arguably at the top of my Physics class there. At UD I was the stupidest person in my incoming class, by far. I say this not because it bruised my ego, but because I felt like I started at a point over my head and struggled to keep from drowning. I worked hard but perhaps not always smart. I found Arfken (the standard graduate Math Physics text) to be totally impenetrable, but I didn’t seek out other math physics books. In retrospect this is profoundly stupid, but at the time I was struggling to keep up. My math physics professor took a liking to a Bulgarian genuis in my Math Physics couse, and decided to teach at his level. Much later, my thesis advisor shared his philosophy that graduate students are really there to teach themselves, and the instructors are at most expected to provide minimal guidance. Although I agree self-study is a critical part of one’s graduate education, I had hoped for more help from the instructor. Some of them were quite good, some not. My quantum mechanics professor’s philosophy was that one learns quantum mechanics by doing problems, so he assigned us all of them. So between QM and E&M I spent many thousands of hours working in a group and on my own, solving problems. What I learned was how to solve QM and E&M problems. I did not learn QM and E&M. Sadly, there is no paradox there. You can solve the problems without really understanding what’s happening or what it means. That was the beginning of the end for me, once I lost sight of the physical significance of what I was solving. After my first semester I was already on probation. I worked very hard and recovered, but the damage was done. Absent a thorough basis in Math Physics, I felt like the fundamentals weren’t there.
    As for research, I found a professor who I got along with pretty well, and did some work for him. It took me some time, but I learned to hate it. I repeated measurements hundreds, thousands of times. I was learning little. It was science at its most obsure, advancing a niche area by a tiny amount. I felt like there was no escape. I suffered from depression. At the end I felt like I might suffer a nervous breakdown. During this time, I felt like I had already invested time and I couldn’t bring myself to leave without getting at least an MS, which ultimately I did. I did thoroughly enjoy working as a teaching assistant, however. If it wasn’t for that, I might have lost my mind.
    On the plus side, if I hadn’t hung in there, I would not have been able to get my first job, and from there, my current job.

    If I had it to do all over again I would have spent more time leveraging the faculty at TSC/TCNJ and picked their brains to help me understand the depths and nuances, not just solve the problems and take the tests. The professors were great, I didn’t take advantage of them, especially Dr. Ochoa.

    That said, I might have jumped from a Physics BS right to an MS program in Electrical Engineering. For me personally, it’s much more accessible, understandable. It doesn’t have the intrigue and mystery in the same way that Physics does, but it is practical on a different level.

    Wow, that was cathartic. Ray, you made the right decision (though you cheated me out of some good beach volleyball).

    • Rich, I only went one semester in my graduate studies, but every word you said about your experience, I know exactly how you felt. I’m not sure if you intended this response, but reading your blog brought tears to my eyes. I also wanted to understand what the equations were saying. The same way that famous people write books and can break all that complicated mathematics they do down into some thought example and have some cartoon artist draw it for us on the page. As teenagers we read those books and fell in love with physics. Then we dove into it in our undergraduate college years. and for the most part we thought we understood it. and then we entered graduate school and everything fell apart. I still hope that one day I’ll hit the lottery and finally be able to dedicate my life to physics and try again for that PhD damnit. I really want to understand what the heck some of those equations were saying. I’m gonna hire a team of top PhDs to explain every damned equation to me when I’m in graduate school. Then maybe I’ll even publish one of those FOR DUMMY yellow books to explain all that stuff. You said you got depressed in Graduate School. I was suffering from chronic anxiety disorder while I was an undergraduate, and when I went to graduate school my panic attacks got worse. So I dropped out. I guess it goes without saying you can NOT have a mental disorder and hope to succeed in graduate school. Although they made a movie about some math guy who was a schizophrenic who successfully finished his PhD. Unfortunately my mental disorder didn’t quite work that way.

  8. I’d also like to comment briefly on what Tim said. I think he provides a very important perspective: grad school is not for everyone. If you’re going on to grad school, it had better be because you really love whatever it is you’re about to spend years of your life studying. Make no mistake — your friends who get jobs right out of college will be “ahead in life.” Many of my friends with whom I graduated from TCNJ are married, well invested in their careers, have kids, have mortgages, etc. Having just received my Ph.D., I do feel somewhat behind on life. Even when I think about my friends from grad school who are married and have had kids while in grad school, most of them are married to other grad students.

    Don’t go to grad school because you think you’ll make more money. It’s just not true. get a M.S. after you already have a good job if money is all you care about. Get a Ph.D. if you love your field of study and want to do some original research.

    I would also like to point out that you can start in a Ph.D. program, get your M.S., and then leave if you decide grad school isn’t for you. You won’t have paid for your degree and at least you’ll have gotten something out of it. I know several people who did this and found that having the M.S. was of great help to them when they left grad school. Plus, if you can pass graduate-level quantum mechanics, everything else seems easy!

    Lastly, Tim mentioned faculty. I don’t agree that faculty don’t care about students at big research universities. I think that is too broad a generalization. In my graduate experience, I had a good relationship with some of my professors, and a very good relationship with my thesis adviser. Besides, if you don’t like your adviser, you can always change and work with someone else. I think the bigger difference in faculty between TCNJ and a big research university is in teaching ability.

    I feel that I owe every one of the physics faculty at TCNJ a very nice bottle of wine for each class they taught for me because they were all excellent. When I got to Michigan State, I was unprepared for the much poorer quality of teaching. Professors there may only teach one class per year, so they never really got any better at teaching. Their main focus was on research. That took me a long time to get used to. It also made me appreciate the education TCNJ gave me all the more.

  9. Kristi, did you have trouble getting loans or paying for NJIT? In other words do they support masters candidates? I am currently a senior at TNCJ and was considering going to graduate school for EE or CEE, actually at NJIT… how was your experience there? In your opinion is one better off getting a job and going for their masters part time or did you find it easier getting it straight out of TCNJ?

    Sorry for so many questions. I’d appreciate any kind of advice on your experiences at NJIT / advice on masters programs.

  10. I’d like to provide a bit of a different prospective on grad school. I ventured in a different direction, obtaining a Masters in Environmental Science. I attended NJIT, where the program did not focus strictly on research. In fact, I found my graduate school experience to be quite opposite from Tim’s. My coursework at NJIT was, for the most part, very similar to the degree of difficulty I saw at TCNJ. In fact, in some cases, I felt professors tended to expect a bit less of the students, since most were already working full-time jobs.

    I do wish that I had considered grad school earlier, and did a little more research on my options. I believe I was well into my senior year at TCNJ before I applied, and NJIT was one of the only schools whose application deadline didn’t pass. Because I decided at the very last minute that I would be applying to a graduate program, I didn’t prepare for the GREs (yet thankfully still did well), and was left with no options of schools if I wanted to attend in the Fall semester. If I were to do it again, I would have definately started researching graduate programs earlier than Senior year. It’s also really helpful to know where you will be headed in order to determine which elective courses to take. I would have taken Microbiology at TCNJ had I read into the program at NJIT a little, instead of taking (OK… in addition to taking) Outdoor Rec my Senior year. (Which I also HIGHLY recommend for anyone with an extra 3 credits to kill.)

  11. I wasn’t going to write this because I thought it was too negative and I am by no means an expert on grad school, but Dr. Ochoa asked for me to give another perspective. I don’t want to discourage anyone from going to grad school, this is just my experience.

    I did one year of graduate school after TCNJ and decided it wasn’t for me. One thing that I think is important to keep in mind is that it’s a long journey. For a master’s you will be spending at least two years and for a PhD probably 5 or more years (including summers). It’s a big commitment. PhD programs do provide you with a stipend and free tuition, so you will not get into any more debt. But a master’s program you will have to pay for. And keep in mind that the culmination of your years of study is a 100 (master’s) or 300 (PhD) page paper, your thesis. The thesis becomes the most central aspect of your studies, and if you want to graduate on time (definitely not guaranteed), it will be on your mind 24 hours a day, even if you’re not working on it.

    Grad school is very different from undergrad. It’s much more research based than class based. You’ll take a couple classes, but you’ll spend up to, or perhaps more than, 40 hours a week in the lab working on your research. For me at least, I never gained any interest in my research. The first week was new and exciting, but after that it was the same routine experiment and data collection day in day out. Perhaps one of the main reasons I never developed an interest was that I didn’t see any direct translation into the real world. I wanted to do research helping to cure cancer (I went for a degree in the biology field) or discovering the cause of a disease. Of course these are rather unrealistic dreams, but I wanted to do something that at least made a difference in the world. To me, the research I was doing was insignificant, I failed to see how it would impact the world, other than getting me a degree. Eventually I realized that I didn’t want to get a job in research, and so getting this degree didn’t help my job prospects, rather it was just taking up time and money.

    I left grad school and I’m getting a job now. To me it’s a much better option, I’m married, and we really need some income and to settle down. I am a bit jealous of my friends who got jobs right after graduation, as they’re already making good salaries, paying down their student loans, and have the money to be able to eat out at restaurants and live in nice apartments. Life as a grad student is a continuation of your life as an undergrad student, you will be on a fixed budget.

    Finally, the last point I want to mention is that the faculty are very different in grad school. This was the case for me at my school, and for a couple people I know from other schools, so I can’t guarantee what I’m about to say, but… Your adviser and the other faculty members don’t really care about you. They do to an extent, but their main focus is their own research. You will work in a professor’s lab and you will work FOR that professor. They will expect a lot from you and not give a lot back in return. You are on your own a lot. Professors act differently when they teach a class and when you work for them. Your adviser will be your boss, not so much the mentor I had hoped for. Again, this depends on the person, and I can only go by my own experience. So ask yourself before you begin, what your career prospects are, ask yourself if you really need this graduate degree.

    Right now I got hired at the nuclear plant in Forked River, it’s owned by the exelon corporation: As I haven’t started work yet, I can’t comment on this, but if you’re looking for a good paying job right out of college with a degree in physics, take a look here.

    Finally, I’ll leave you with the web comic that summarizes the grad school experience better than I ever could. Give them all a read and then you’ll really know what you’re getting into. Good luck, and I hope I haven’t been too discouraging, I just want to be honest.

  12. I agree about 75% with Rich’s comment on the Physics GRE. As a grad student, I spent three years on the physics department’s recruitment committee at Michigan State. Part of that position was reading all the incoming applications. I even had a vote when it came to deciding who to invite for a visit and then who to accept into the program. I also talked with the recruitment committees at dozens of other schools around the country to find out what they were looking for in prospective grad students.

    The attitude toward the Physics GRE is greatly mixed from school to school. At MSU, they were often most interested in the raw score, but not the percentile. At MIT, they hardly looked at the Physics GRE score at all. At U. Washington St. Louis, the percentile was everything. I write this in the past tense because it’s also important to remember that every few years, there is almost complete turnover of the people making these decisions at major research universities, though the attitude has been set in place at MIT for many years now.

    Even at schools where they care somewhat about the score, they really only expect domestic students to score between the 20th and 40th percentiles. Under that and they might ask questions. Above that and they’ll be quite impressed. In no case is it a deal-breaker. They all care more about your grades in physics and math classes as well as your research experience (an increasingly important factor in admissions decisions to physics programs).

    Domestic students generally do poorly on the Physics GRE. The average scores I saw from domestic students were usually between the 20th and 40th percentiles. This is true for many reasons, but I completely agree with Rich in that preparation will yield high scores. If you study for it and prepare, then you can ace it. If you’re a domestic student with an absurdly high score on the physics GRE, you’ve (almost) written yourself a ticket to any grad school you want. I also agree with Rich on how to prepare for it. As Thulsi recommended to me so many years ago, do all the problems in Halliday, Resnick, and Walker; and then get to work on the problems in Beiser (your Modern Physics book). Don’t skimp on the conceptual problems either. I will lastly reiterate Rich’s comment that you should start preparing for the Physics GRE a very long way ahead of time. It will help you in your advanced classes as well.

  13. Yeah, what Rich said about preparing for the GREs.

    On a different note, here are a few suggestions on how to figure out where to apply to grad school (or what you want to do there). Assuming you want to go to grad school and not head into the non-academic world.

    If there’s a topic that you’re interested in, ask one of the professors what would be a good review article to get more information on it. Reviews are chock full of references so you can find a few other papers to read and see if the topic is something you’d want to do for a few years (don’t worry if you don’t understand everything in every paper).

    Once you find a couple of papers that you found really interesting, hunt down some of the authors and see what they’re doing now. This way you can see if what the field is working on now is still interesting to you.

    When you want to apply to grad school, make sure that you apply to places that have at least one faculty member working on something you want to work on. If you e-mail some of them during the application process to find out if they’ll be accepting new students when you’re starting there, that can’t hurt.

  14. Depending where you want to go to graduate school, the GRE Physics test can matter – A LOT. Your percentile rank on that test matters more than the raw score, and the people you are competing with at other schools are being prepared. Many of the private colleges physics’s departments have GRE prep materials and guidance, but at tcnj, the responsibility of preparation is yours. The materials exist, and are available, and your professors would be thrilled for you to ask for help.
    Additionally, I found that the same gaps in my knowledge that hurt me on the GRE Physics also came back to haunt me in graduate school. If I could start over, I would concentrate on fundamentals, making sure that I was very comfortable with General Physics 1 & 2, Modern Physics, Calculus (1-3), Differential Equations, and Math Physics. The concepts introduced in General Physics 1 & 2 and Modern Physics, combined with the tools taught in those math classes are the basis for almost everything you will see in E&M, Quantum, Thermodynamics, Statistical Mechanics, and about half of General Relativity. Without a strong grasp in those foundation classes, I was able to make it through the higher courses, but it was more a matter of memorizing formulas than of really understanding. That made it impossible for me to progress any further without constantly having to revisit some fundamental point, which is both frustrating and impractical.
    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the way to get that comfort level with the basics and those important math skills: Work problems! When the book shows you an example for a specific case, try to find another example of the same concept for a different specific case, or a more general case – Find problems and work on them, and ask the professors for help if you get stuck. Do this all four years at school, and it will not take a lot of extra time in your daily life. If you leave it until the end when you are cramming for GRE’s, don’t even bother.

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