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The Physics Department

Cornell University has always understood that the world does not apportion neatly into one discipline or another. That may be why Cornell, an Ivy League university where the pursuit of new knowledge is given free rein, has initiated many areas of multidisciplinary research. Yes, there are departments and faculties with familiar names at Cornell, but the walls between disciplines are so low that you can move easily in all directions.

If multidisciplinary collaboration is one attribute of Cornell’s graduate program in physics, the breadth of its curriculum and faculty is another. Of the nation’s best-regarded physics departments, Cornell is comfortably mid-sized. The faculty is comprised of more than 40 active professors, plus 20 emeritus professors (many of whom remain active in research), and half a dozen adjunct professors. Faculty members advise approximately 65 post-docs and research associates and 180 graduate students-with, on average, 30 new graduate students entering each year.

Given its stature, the physics department at Cornell surprises many people by its low-key congeniality. It is the sort of place where people talk to one another in the halls. Among graduate students, relationships are more cooperative than competitive. Graduate students play intramural sports together, go to ballroom dancing classes and form musical ensembles. As one prospective student recently said to his Cornell hosts, “You can’t be graduate students. You all seem far too happy.”

Superb Facilities
The strength of the Physics Department is complemented by major research facilities.  Graduate students who want to learn to make use of these facilities will find willing mentors among faculty members, research associates, technicians and other staff members. By expressing an interest, a graduate student can learn to take apart and rebuild a particle accelerator, produce highest-quality images on a tunneling electron microscope, or fabricate a silicon chip that will be a substrate for growing nerve cells.

The Ph.D. Program

To give you all the freedom you might need, the degree requirements of Cornell’s Graduate School and Field of Physics are minimal. There is no fixed curriculum or mandatory classes—with the exception of Physics 6510, the Advanced Lab. For students with exceptional preparation, the Physics 6510 experience can be customized. Beyond this one course, you and the members of your Special Committee design a program of study that suits your background, needs and interests. Most students admitted to graduate study are undergraduate physics majors who have completed courses in analytical mechanics, statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics and wave motion, electronics, and atomic physics. You are expected to know ordinary and partial differential equations, vector calculus, Fourier analysis, and linear algebra, and familiarity with computing and topics in mathematical physics is highly desirable. Some advanced laboratory work in physics is also expected. If needed, you may take Cornell undergraduate courses in your first year of study. If you received extraordinary preparation as an undergraduate you may skip courses altogether, with the exception of Physics 6510. Most graduate students take courses during their first two years at Cornell. A common sequence of first-year courses includes:

• Physics 6510 Advanced Laboratory (this course should be completed before the second year of graduate study)
• Physics 6561 Classical Electrodynamics (fall)
• Physics 6562 Statistical Physics (spring)
• Physics 6572 Quantum Mechanics I (fall)
• Physics 6574 Quantum Mechanics II (spring)Students with advanced backgrounds may replace parts of the 6572/ 6574 sequence with a more specialized course, such as Physics 7635 (Solid State Physics) or Physics 7651 Relativistic Quantum Field Theory I.

These courses are often followed in the second year by more specialized courses, such as:
• Physics 7635/7636 Solid-State Physics I and II
• Physics 7645/7646 High-Energy Particle Physics I and II
• Physics 7651/7652 Relativistic Quantum Field Theory I and II
• Math 6515/6516 Mathematical Methods in Physics
• Physics 7680 Computational Physics

With the consent of the members of your Special Committee, you may take any course in any department at Cornell. Many physics students take a course or courses in applied mathematics, applied and engineering physics, astronomy, biology, chemical engineering, chemistry, computer science, materials science and engineering. The graduate field of physics is flexible enough to accommodate students of widely differing backgrounds and preparation. Because only one course is mandatory for all students, you design a program, together with your Special Committee, that suits your needs and interests.

Ph.D. and M.S. Degrees 
Students admitted to graduate study in physics at Cornell are enrolled in the Doctoral program. There is no Master’s program in Physics. Most students are awarded a Master’s degree at the time of advancement to candidacy, as an in-progress degree. Occasionally, a terminal Master’s degree will be awarded, if a student, along with his or her Special Committee, decides that further study is not warranted. At Cornell, students take about five to six years to complete a doctorate.

Graduate Research Facilities

Click here for descriptions of research facilities available to physics graduate students.

Research Group Meetings

Click here for a schedule of research group meetings.

Director of Graduate Studies (DGS)

Professor Lawrence Gibbons
391 Physical Sciences Building
(607) 255-9931

Professor Gibbons can assist with policy questions, advice about interacting with faculty, difficulties in the program, help to resolve research group or committee issues, and graduate student stressors.

Graduate Field Assistant (GFA)

Kacey Acquilano
117 Clark Hall
(607) 255-7561

Kacey can assist with graduate program milestone requirements, scheduling exams, Graduate School forms, questions about committee changes, applying for a leave of absence or in absentia, fellowships awards, obtaining the DGS signature and making an appointment with the DGS.