Reed, two models exist for choosing a thesis topic, with one
or the other model dominant depending on the nature of the
discipline and the philosophy of the department. In one model,
typical in the Chemistry and Biology, theses tend to be picked
from among the interests and ongoing research of faculty.
In the second model, dominant in the Physics Department, students
are encouraged to pick topics based on their own interests. "Its worth noting that the students who have been
nominated for the Apker Awards typically did theses of their
own devising," points out Mary James.
this Department, experimentalists who have ongoing work are
more likely to draw students into an aspect of their work
than theorists, who are more likely in practice to involve
themselves in the work of their students than the reverse," says Nicholas
proposals are reviewed by the entire physics faculty and assigned
to a professor, a process that is also different from most
departments at Reed. Most but not all students are assigned
the advisor of their choice, but this method does ensure a
fair distribution of labor and talent among the faculty.
department supplies office/lab space and underwrites the cost
of essential equipment and materials.
is not as physical exploration but as a journey in self-exploration
that the thesis derives its central importance in our curriculum,"
says Nicholas Wheeler. "Students with poor grades often
distinguish themselves with their theses, and often theses
result in publication." He citesChristopher Barnes,
92, an avid fly fisherman, who wrote a thesis
on the dynamics of a cast fly line, for which he received
the Apker Award, which the American Physical Society awards
annually for best undergraduate research in the country.
interesting that of those students who come here intending
to skip the thesis and avail themselves of the 3/2 engineering
program, half end up staying to do a thesis," says Robert
Reynolds. "They dont want to miss the opportunity.
Its something they can get their teeth into. It gives
them a sense of ownership, and a definite product."
students learn a lot about just how science works, its infrastructure,
and the personal attitudes necessary," adds Johnny Powell.
"Students particularly learn from their relationship
to their theses advisors, and they learn what kind of people
they work with most successfully."
thesis experience defines Reed," says John Essick. "Many
students come explicitly for that reason. It gives them the
attitude that they have to learn whats out there in
the field, and gets them thinking that they can do something
he adds, "it forces the faculty to stay current. Some
professors at liberal arts colleges without theses have been
out to pasture for 20 years, but we cant afford to be
James puts it a little differently. "If your goal is
to help students get the best scores on their Graduate Record
Exams and into graduate schools, we should abolish the thesis,
and let students take more courses," she says. "In
general, theyre not doing publishable-level research
anyway. You could argue that the more courses students can
take sooner, the quicker they get to do real research."
James sees other kinds of value in the experience. "For
the first time, students become aware of the importance of
asking the right question and of the need to circumscribe
it well. This year, I had a talented student who started with
a poor problem and had to switch mid-stream. You could say
it was a disaster, or you could say it was fruitful. I think
the latter. And," points out James, "if students
were only plugging into ongoing research by faculty, they
wouldnt have the opportunity to experience that. "Its
also a coming-of-age ritual," James adds, "and it
gives students a goal and a common bond. But is it crucial?
I dont know. For the weaker students, probably not."
Griffiths admits that when he first arrived at Reed, he was
skeptical about the value of a compulsory undergraduate thesis. "Im sold now," he says. "True, its
not great for all students, but the surprisesin both
directionsare very interesting. Ive had good students
who had trouble thinking on their own, and, more commonly,
less good students who flower when working on their own project."
"Sometimes we agonize about their choice of a topic,"
Griffiths continues. "We prefer it if they think it up
on their own. If they are desperate, we may feed them some
ideas, and, in general, those theses have worked better,
though the students are less committed to them. But figuring
out the topic is really a key part of the learning process."
evaluation of the role of the thesis at Reed would not be
complete without hearing from those who have survived the
experience. What follows are the comments of some of the admittedly
more successful graduates:
(Wheeler) and David (Griffiths) provide a good balance in
the department. Nicks thesis students tend to work
on simple, every-day systems like fly lines or flutes, and
you put ingenuity into the approach. David is more receptive
to finding problems deeply embedded in physics and using
simple tools to approach them. I did my thesis (under David)
on general relativity. It was a hard problem; I was actually
surprised he let me do it. But I really appreciate that
I was allowed to go out in the deep end. None of the other
colleges that have undergraduate theses allow that."
Scott Caveny 95 (Caveny is taking time off from the
PhD program at the University of Texas at Austin to work
as a risk analyst).
thesis experience was incredible. I learned a great deal
of physics and how to attack a difficult problem. I was
also extremely lucky and discovered an important result
which resulted in both a publication in Physical Review
and qualified me as a finalist for the Apker Award, which
led to a National Science Foundation Fellowship
not seen anything like the energy David Griffiths put into
making that research experience a good one at the graduate
level." Darrell Frank Schroeter, 95 (Schroeter
is currently working on a PhD in theoretical condensed matter
physics at Stanford).
Crandall, my thesis advisor, and I published a paper together
partially based on its results. Having published a paper
as an undergraduate didnt hurt at all when it came
to getting into graduate school." Mary Hall Reno 80
(Tenured professor at the University of Iowa).
research Johnny Powell was doing was really interesting,
really cutting-edge, and there were lots of opportunities
for me related to it for my thesis. As a result of my work
with him, I gave a talk at the American Physical Society
annual meeting, and presented a poster at the Biophysical
Society Annual Meetingvery good opportunities for
me!" Katherine Reeves. (Reeves was awarded the Howard
Hughes Medical Institute award in 1996, and the NSF Graduate
Research Award in 1997, and now works at the Harvard and
Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.)
did an experimental thesis, which convinced me that I shouldnt
follow that path, an important career discovery. The thesis
is particularly appropriate to the sciences, where you can
do meaningful work as an undergraduate." Gale Dick
50 (a Rhodes scholar, who received a PhD from Cornell
and taught physics at the University of Utah for 40 years).
might have been better to have been part of a larger collaborative
project. Also it might have helped me to have slightly more
coaching and facilitating to keep more momentum (not the
Reed model at the time). The battle to gather equipment
significantly reduced what I was able to accomplish."
Fred Hartline 67 (currently an education technical
specialist at the high school level).
first two years in graduate school, I found the course work
a struggle. But when it came time to do research, I had
no problem getting started. The thesis was an enormous advantage.
I saw people who hadnt had that experience needing
constant guidance, which is rarely possible. I finished
much faster because Id already had independent research
experience." Paul Bloom 90. (After obtaining
a PhD from UC Davis, Bloom did a post-doc at McGill University,
and now works at SLAC.)
Reed Jr Qual and thesis process helped immensely when I
went through quals, dissertation, and defense at Stanford.
The thesis, in particular, trained me to think independently
rather than as did many of my cohort at Stanford, simply
wait for someone to hand me predigested homework."
Craig DeForest 89. (With his PhD from Stanford, DeForest
worked at NASA and now at the Southwest Research Institute
Reed Physics Department
Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1897
Structure and Issues
Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching
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