Graduate Program


Learning Objectives

The purpose of the Physics graduate program is to equip students with advanced fundamentals, advanced training, and expert-level knowledge of specific areas of physics via coursework and research activities, thus preparing them for careers in government, academia, or industry, as well as for entry into a subsequent graduate program, for teaching at all levels, and for any careers utilizing pure and applied scientific research. Physics graduate students become proficient in scientific communication by written and oral dissemination of physics knowledge and research, particularly in their own area of specialization.

To accomplish these goals all the programs begin with a required curriculum of advanced coursework, followed by a period of 1-4 years of intensive research and self-education, culminating in the MS thesis or PhD dissertation.

The physics MS has two options: Plan A produces a research thesis, Plan B produces a report. The PhD is a general physics PhD, with specialization occurring in the usual way via the research topic. The detailed procedures and requirements for each of the degrees can be found here: Physics MS Handbook, Physics PhD Handbook.

The MS and PhD degrees both lead to professional level expertise and involve a student contributing new knowledge in the field via the thesis or dissertation. The distinction between the degrees is principally the level of professional proficiency obtained and the significance of the new knowledge created.

The learning objectives for the program are as follows.

Foundational Skills

Each student will achieve a mastery of physics theory and phenomenology at a level required for their chosen profession. Students build foundations and gain breadth by taking courses both required and elective. Courses that contribute to this outcome are to be found in the Physics MS Handbook, Physics PhD Handbook. The most important outcome here is that students will be prepared to acquire from the literature and/or teach themselves physics as needed in subsequent self-education and professional activities.

Research Skills and Creation of New Knowledge

Each student will pursue research in the chosen field of specialization. In so doing the student acquires professional-level knowledge and expertise in his/her chosen area of specialization. The appropriate area of research and the appropriate level of accomplishment here is determined in collaboration with a faculty mentor who is an acknowledged expert in the area of specialization. A research supervisory committee, chaired by the faculty mentor provides additional support in setting goals and assessing outcomes.

Communication and Professional Preparation

Each student will become an expert in scientific exposition. This is accomplished via documentation and dissemination of the results of his/her research via a written thesis/dissertation which is prepared according to the professional standards of his/her area of specialization. The research results are also presented orally in one or more venues, particularly the thesis or dissertation defenses.

Assessment Plan

Assessment of the efficacy for our graduate program is based upon 4 types of data.  (1) Candidacy exam results (PhD only); (2) Thesis/dissertation defense results; (3) time to degree completion; (4) satisfactory post-graduate employment.  These measure the efficacy of the program in meeting the student learning objectives as described below.

The assessment data are evaluated by the faculty as a whole during the annual Faculty Retreat; action items are created as appropriate.

Assessment Tools

  1. Candidacy Exam:

    The candidacy exam takes place shortly after the student has completed the required coursework. It is designed to measure whether the coursework part of the program (along with any faculty mentoring) has provided an adequate foundation in the learning objectives to begin a detailed research project for the thesis/dissertation. The exam has a written and an oral component. The exam is administered and evaluated by the faculty as a whole. The evaluation process has each faculty member using a standard rubric to evaluate progress toward attainment of learning objectives.  The results of this evaluation are collected by the assessment team.

  2. Thesis/dissertation defense:

    This is the capstone experience for the degree.  It involves a written document containing new results in physics obtained by the student. It involves an oral presentation and examination pertaining to these results.  The student's advisory committee administers the defense.  They use a standard rubric to to evaluate attainment of learning objectives. The results of this evaluation are collected by the assessment team.

  3. Time to Completion:

    This is the time needed to complete the degree.  If this is significantly longer than the national average (currently 2.5 years for MS and 6.5 years for PhD) then action should be taken to streamline the program.

  4. Post–graduate employment:

    This data can be difficult to collect, but insofar as possible the department will track the initial career trajectory of its graduates to see if satisfactory employment was obtained.

Outcomes Data

Candidacy Exam


Thesis Defense


Dissertation Defense



As far as possible we have tracked MS and PhD degree recipients to see where they ended up after leaving USU. "Satisfactory employment" indicates a professional level science-related job or entry into graduate school.

Period of time: 2010-2016

Total number of students tracked: 34

Fraction of MS students with satisfactory employment: 13/15

Fraction of PhD students with satisfactory employment: 18/19

Time to Completion

PhD (2012-2015, 11 degrees): 6.4 years (consistent with national average as given by American Institute of Physics)

Data-based Decisions

In 2012 the Physics Department performed a comprehensive self-study of its graduate program (MS and PhD). This self-study concluded with creation of a five year plan for maintenance and improvement of the graduate program. This road map includes a sequence of goals and actions to be taken toward those goals, along with several assessment metrics which could be used to measure progress toward those goals. In 2015 actions taken thus far toward these goals were identified and analyzed, and the assessment metrics were evaluated. The data and conclusions are presented in a mid-term report.

Self-Study (2012)

Five Year Plan (2012)

Mid-term Report (2015)

A number of action items have resulted from the recent external review.