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Acadeic Structure and Issues- Senior Thesis

At 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. "It’s worth noting that the students who have been nominated for the Apker Awards typically did theses of their own devising," points out Mary James.


"In 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 Wheeler.

Thesis 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.

The department supplies office/lab space and underwrites the cost of essential equipment and materials.

"It 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.

"It’s 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 don’t want to miss the opportunity. It’s something they can get their teeth into. It gives them a sense of ownership, and a definite product."

"Thesis 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."

"The thesis experience defines Reed," says John Essick. "Many students come explicitly for that reason. It gives them the attitude that they have to learn what’s out there in the field, and gets them thinking that they can do something themselves."

"Also," 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 can’t afford to be here."

Mary 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, they’re 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."

However 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 wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience that. "It’s also a coming-of-age ritual," James adds, "and it gives students a goal and a common bond. But is it crucial? I don’t know. For the weaker students, probably not."

David Griffiths admits that when he first arrived at Reed, he was skeptical about the value of a compulsory undergraduate thesis. "I’m sold now," he says. "True, it’s not great for all students, but the surprises–in both directions–are very interesting. I’ve 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."

An 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:

  • "Nick (Wheeler) and David (Griffiths) provide a good balance in the department. Nick’s 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).

  • "My 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…I have 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).

  • "Richard Crandall, my thesis advisor, and I published a paper together partially based on its results. Having published a paper as an undergraduate didn’t hurt at all when it came to getting into graduate school." Mary Hall Reno ’80 (Tenured professor at the University of Iowa).

  • "The 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 Meeting–very 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.)

  • "I did an experimental thesis, which convinced me that I shouldn’t 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).

  • "It 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).

  • "The 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 hadn’t had that experience needing constant guidance, which is rarely possible. I finished much faster because I’d 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.)

  • "The 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 in Boulder.)

The Reed Physics Department
The Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
The Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1897
Achieving Balance: 1987-Present
Academic Structure and Issues
Junior Qual
Senior Thesis
The Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching
The Curriculum
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Teaching Style
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