Physics Department

Senior Thesis

All Reed physics seniors complete an independent project, which culminates in a written document and is defended in an oral examination conducted by faculty from within the Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences as well as from outside that division. Almost all physics theses are two-semester projects but, in rare cases, a student may petition for a one-semester thesis.

While publishable research is not a goal of a Reed physics thesis (although it is achieved in a select number of cases), most physics theses do involve some original work that is theoretical, computational, or experimental in nature. Ideally, a thesis will include a combination of theory, numerical modeling, and experiment. The thesis is supposed to be a substantial body of work, but it is not intended to be all consuming. Students must take a course load of at least 6 units in their senior year, two unit of which are thesis, a college-level rule designed to place reasonable limits on the amount of time students dedicates to their thesis projects.

In a typical year, the physics thesis process begins with a thesis start-up meeting, during which each physics faculty member provides a brief presentation of their research interests and potential thesis topics that would be related to that research. Students then have a week to meet with individual faculty members to discuss potential projects in more detail. Ideas for potential projects may be directly related a faculty member’s research program or may be student-generated, but in either case, discussion between the faculty and the student is required to mold the initial idea into a doable thesis project. At the thesis proposal deadline, each student submits proposals for two possible projects. The faculty then meet as a group to approve one thesis project for each student and assign an appropriate faculty adviser to each project. When assigning advisers the faculty seek to distribute the workload roughly equally (in recent years, that has meant three or four thesis students per faculty member.

At the end of the first semester, each student has a mini-oral exam, where the thesis adviser and one other physics faculty member are present. In this informal setting, the student describes the progress that they have made on their project over the course of that semester and also presents a proposed schedule of work for upcoming semester. The faculty members ask questions and provide suggestions about issues that the student may want to concentrate their efforts on in the second semester.

Toward the end of the second semester, each student makes a presentation of their thesis research to the department during our weekly seminar time. Thesis documents are due on the last day of classes, and students defend their theses at a ninety-minute oral exam during reading week. Present at the exam are the thesis adviser and at least one other member of the Physics Department. Also present, and chosen by the student, are one other faculty member from the Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, and one faculty member from outside the MNS Division.

Thesis grades are assigned by the entire department during a department meeting following reading week. The thesis grade is assigned based on the faculty’s judgement of the quality of the research work, thesis document, mini-oral exam, oral defense exam, and seminar presentation.

Importantly, the thesis process develops a student’s technical communication skills: from reading literature to identifying a project, to giving multiple oral presentations, and ultimately to writing one’s thesis document. These skills are essential for any practicing professional, be it a physicist or otherwise.

Finally, Reed physics students in the dual degree (3/2) program do not spend a senior year at Reed, and so they do not write a Reed thesis. This feature is a potential drawback for a student considering the 3/2 program; frequently a student who had intended to pursue the 3/2 route elects instead to remain at Reed for the senior year in order to enjoy the thesis experience.