Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Undergrad Experience at the APS April Meeting

Students from our chapter of SPS attended the 2016 American Physical Society April Meeting in Salt Lake City, UT. This is the second largest annual meeting of professional physicists in the country, and featured international research ranging from particle astrophysics to experimental general relativity. There were seven awards presented to undergraduate researchers at the conference, and our chapter took home two of them (Matthew Longo, Mitch Matheny, & Jasmine Knudsen - Development of a Cryostat to Characterize Nano-scale Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices and Rosa Wallace - Thermal Stabilization in a High Vacuum Cryogenic Optical System). There were a lot of takeaways from the conference that can help all of us as we move forward into our careers in physics, so here are some perspectives from the students that attended. Read on for some great tips on getting into grad school or moving into industry!

From Andy T.:
"The April Meeting in Salt Lake City had presentations from speakers mainly focused on Gravitational Waves as they were only confirmed recently, trends in astrophysics, as well as poster presentations, and talks given by undergraduates. The keynote speaker the first night was Lisa Randall from Harvard University who gave a talk on her new book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs building a case which was accessible to both physicists and non-physicists for the existence of dark matter which was suggested by the rotation curves of galaxies being far faster than the baryonic ordinary matter would permit. Another talk by Stephan Schlamminger discussed how current measurements of the gravitational constant are inconsistent and new methods are needed to find agreement, a majority of the experiments use the original torsion pendulum developed by Henry Cavendish in the 18th century, a technique which worked well for the civil engineering at the time, but poorly characterized masses leading to uneven densities, and other systematic error such as variances in the tension of the wire mean that the gravitational constant has not been consistent to within 1 part in 1000. Dr. Schlamminger encouraged anyone with ideas on how to resolve G with a new apparatus to submit a proposal via NIST’s website.

There were also several panels of current industry professionals and graduate students, both would appeal to Physics majors and others in competitive fields. During the industry panel speakers discussed many of the challenges that Physics students face, especially when demonstrating how important analytical, mathematical, and programming skills will translate from Physics to the workplace. One avenue suggested by the panel was to email potential employers for an informational interview, a process far less formal than an official job interview which might include a prospective candidate touring a potential workplace and asking questions, another avenue was using the APS website which had resume builders that can help translate physical science skills to those needed in industry. A common deficiency identified by the panel was soft skills such as communicating technical work to non-technical decision makers, and ability to communicate in group settings, getting involved in outreach was identified as a way to make your resume stand out, as well as highlighting hobbies and other interests that make a more unique and a more well-rounded candidate.

APS has made the lecture slides available from most talks given at the April meeting on their webpage at, and there are career tools to show salary information, and other resources to help physics with internships, employeement, and graduate school. There is also a tool which allows you to view specific graduate school profiles including GRE minimums, Acceptance Rate’s, and many useful variables that my influence graduate school decisions."

From Mitch M.
"The topics [of the meeting] were based around astrophysics and particle physics, which are the two areas I hope to pursue someday. When I first got to the conference the atmosphere felt very welcoming and relaxing. Everyone was very friendly and willing to assist me with any questions I might have had.

The first talk I went to was about "chameleons," which are theoretical particles thought to be the reason we cannot detect dark energy. I went into the talk prepared not to understand anything, but came out relieved that I wasn’t completely lost. This feeling continued throughout the conference. Even though the topics were advanced, it felt like the presenters were trying to keep it as simple as they could, which I am sure was pretty difficult considering the scope of this conference.

A few important things I learned at this conference were how crucial it is to not set your eyes on one goal, and how important networking is. I say not to focus on one goal because in physics the majority of students have their mind set on becoming a research professor. As I found out in a few talks, the percentage of graduates that go into academia is quite low. This means you have to be open to the idea of finding jobs in industry or the private sector. This is where networking becomes important, since it will give you job opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

I am very thankful that I was able to attend this conference. I believe that it's very important for undergraduates to attend as many conferences as possible. It not only lets you become familiar with the research being done, but also gives you the chance to make connections with people who might have a job for you someday."

From Rosa W.
"Going to my first professional physics conference was an awesome experience! There were multiple sessions going on at once throughout the entire four days, so there was never a time when there wasn't at least one talk I wanted to go to (usually 3 or 4). It was very exciting to hear about where the 'edges' of physics research are right now, since most of what we study as an undergraduate doesn't get us to that point, and it has definitely opened my eyes to the different types of projects I'd like to work on (and NOT work on) in graduate school. I met several researchers at other universities that are looking for graduate students with the skills associated with my research, so perhaps those connections will open a few doors as I apply for graduate school next year.

The biggest lessons I learned at the conference are that the people around you matter, that social skills and networking can make a career, and that setting yourself apart can make all the difference. There are a lot of personality types in physics, and when you're committing six years of your life (or so) to a Ph.D. program, you want to be with people that are nice to be around and that want to help you grow as a scientist. Choosing a program that is a good match for your priorities and personality could make the going much smoother, even though grad school is very tough. That being said, anyone you come into contact with (at this stage) could be a future advisor, mentor, or colleague, so it's worth taking the time to get to know people that take an interest in your work, or are doing work that you want to know more about. It's also worth it to be someone that others want to be around!

Lastly, skills or hobbies that don't seem to pertain to physics shouldn't necessarily be left off of your personal statements and resumes- they might be what sets you apart. One of the members of the graduate student panel we attended got into her research group because her future advisor saw that the student was a jazz musician, and the advisor used to be a jazz DJ. The advice we got, from both industry professionals and graduate students, was that anything positive that sets you apart from the crowd is a good thing to include. More importantly, people that see those extracurriculars as a sign that you're not a "real" physicist probably aren't the people you want to spend most of your waking hours working with! As someone who wants to do good work and do it with great people, I feel a lot more comfortable going forward knowing that I want to work with people who want to work with me."

The CU Denver chapter of the Society of Physics Students would like to acknowledge the support of the CU Denver Student Government Association Finance & Funding Committee and the Office of Student Life in making this trip possible. We couldn't have done it without you!

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