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Exploring the Universe: A Complete Guide to Earning a Ph.D. in Physics


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Why Study Physics?

Physics is the study of space, time, energy, and matter. Physicists try to ask and answer, in a verifiable and reproducible way, the deepest questions about the origin, nature, and fate of the universe. The study of physics encompasses the study of the universe from the largest galaxies to the smallest subatomic particles. In this sense, it is the broadest and most fundamental science.

Physicists working at SMU ask and try to answer questions like:

  • What is the origin of the universe?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing?
  • What are the building blocks of the universe?
  • What are the forces that hold together those building blocks?

Learning to ask and answer those questions in a rigorous, data-driven way is at the heart of physics. Physics teaches us how to solve new and difficult problems, and the problem solving skills developed by physicists can be used across many disciplines and types of inquiry.

In this guide, you will get a chance to dive deeper into what it means to study physics, what types of careers are available to physicists, and how Southern Methodist University is preparing their physics graduate students for meaningful careers in the academic, private, and public sectors.

A Look at the Latest Research in Fundamental Physics

The deepest questions about reality and our cosmos remain as great as ever, and that opens a tremendous opportunity for graduate students to engage in the cutting-edge, meaningful research.

High profile research of today is exploring questions about dark matter, dark energy, gravity, origin of the observed matter, the nature of time, the paucity of antimatter in the universe, and many-many more.

SMU and Cutting-Edge Research Activity

SMU physicists are active in studying the origin of mass, mapping the properties of elusive and mysterious neutrinos, looking for the source of dark matter, studying the origin and expansion of the universe, and crafting a powerful and consistent theoretical framework to explain the fundamental laws of the universe.

The work taking place at SMU can be divided into two general categories.

1. High Energy Physics (HEP) 

The SMU High Energy Particle Physics group studies the properties of the most fundamental constituents of matter and the laws governing their behavior. Some of the most important questions today concern the origin of elementary particle masses and the difference between matter and anti-matter in the universe. Several large accelerator-based experiments address these questions. SMU scientists played the key role in the groundbreaking discovery of the Higgs boson, the fundamental particle that explains existence of stable atoms. This renowned discovery received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013.

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SMU physicists work on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland (pictured left) and on the D0 and NOνA experiments based at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois (pictured right). All of these areas touch on leading questions that challenge modern physics.

2. Cosmology and Astrophysics 

The SMU Cosmology and Astrophysics group is involved in searching for answers to some of the biggest puzzles in physics today: What is the nature of dark matter? What is driving the accelerated expansion of the universe? What happened in the earliest moments of the universe?

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SMU physicists work deep underground in SNOLAB in Sudbury, Canada looking for evidence of dark matter particles (pictured left), or on top of mountains at McDonald Observatory (pictured middle) and Kitt Peak National Observatory, observing the universe's expansion (pictured right). They also carry out theoretical calculations to study what the cosmic microwave background radiation (the "afterglow of the big bang") can teach us about the contents, history, and evolution of the universe.

Advanced methods for data analysis and machine learning

SMU physicists in both experimental and theoretical groups also work with various aspects of large-scale data analysis, including multivariate statistics and machine learning. The SMU experimentalists use advanced methods for statistical analysis and pattern recognition to look for production of rare particles, such as pairs of Higgs bosons. The key objective of the theoretical effort at SMU is to construct detailed models of the inner structure of protons and nuclei using diverse data from world experiments. Working with high-performance computers at SMU and CERN, among other places, allows the SMU physicists to extract relevant information from the complicated multi-parameter data they receive.

 

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Pursuing a Career in Physics: A World of Opportunities

Studying physics at the graduate level opens the door to career success both in and out of the field of physics. This is primarily because physicists are problem-solvers: studying physics requires people to develop creative imagination, analytical thinking, and experimental perseverance.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that employment projections for physicists are quite strong: employment opportunities are expected to grow by 14% in the next 10 years, much faster than the average for all occupations. In 2017, the median annual wage for physicists was over $118,000.

Here are just a few of the industries you can enter with a graduate degree in physics:

  • Physics
  • Engineering
  • Computer Science
  • Secondary and Post-Secondary Education
  • Finance
  • Business
  • Medicine

The American Institute of Physics has collected detailed data listing the employers, job titles, and types of industries that Physics Ph.D. recipients are pursuing after graduation.

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Our alumni have an outstanding record of success in finding jobs after earning their degrees. Because SMU has an established history of training excellent students, our recent Ph.D. graduates took prestigious postdoc positions with Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California (pictured upper-left), Caltech (pictured upper-right), the Fermi National Laboratory (pictured bottom-left) and University of Barcelona in Spain (pictured bottom-right).

Our graduates go on to work in a variety of industries and positions. Here is a quick glance at where SMU Physics Ph.D. graduates from 2000 onward have gone for post-doctoral work and beyond.

Chart of Alumni and current positions

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Learn About SMU’s Ph.D. Program in Physics

As we described, the globally recognized Ph.D. program at SMU offers a focus on particle physics, including collider and neutrino physics, as well as astrophysics. Our physicists work at SMU and across the globe, making national and international impact with their work and helping to train and prepare the next generation of creative, innovative, and generative scientists.

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Students in the Ph.D. program benefit from small classes, accessible faculty and research staff, and multi-faceted opportunities for experimental and theoretical research. Our department provides an intellectually stimulating research environment where our graduate students can participate in and make substantive contributions to frontier research projects.

Here’s what one of our current graduate students had to say about their time in the Physics program:

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Many students begin research projects during their first year. All students in good standing receive teaching or research stipends during the academic year, along with tuition waivers. Summer support is also available. Students typically receive support for work as teaching assistants during their first two years. After they successfully complete the Ph.D. core proficiency exam, many students receive research support until completion of their thesis and degree.

The majority of our faculty members receive federal support for their research. This support enables us to fund Research Assistant positions and allow students to travel to topical conferences and workshops.

WHAT PHYSICS RESEARCH LOOKS LIKE

Our talented group of faculty and graduate students are producing innovative research in the areas of theoretical and experimental physics.

Check out these samples of faculty and graduate student research to get a sense of the type of work you could do as a graduate student in physics.

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Spotlight on SMU Founder and Physicist: Robert Stewart Hyer

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Source: APS Physics

Robert Stewart Hyer helped to found SMU and led the university as its first president from 1911-1920. Hyer was a highly-regarded physicist, known for his work on x-rays and wireless communication. He was the first American ever known to have transmitted a signal wirelessly over a distance of about 1 mile, and he did this within a year of Heinrich Hertz's discovery of electromagnetic waves. These experiments set the stage for the modern wireless communication revolution.

Hyer was truly a universal scientist – in addition to his work in physics, he had diverse interests in the humanities as well. This broad perspective made him an excellent university administrator.

Hyer’s legacy lives on today in many aspects of the university. He established the beloved school colors, Yale Blue and Harvard Crimson, he chose the composition of the brick used in the campus architecture, and was involved with the design of Dallas Hall. Hyer continued to teach in the Department of Physics at SMU until he passed away in 1929.

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Dr. Joel Meyers, Assistant Professor of Physics at SMU

My research focuses on theoretical cosmology.  I study the history, evolution, contents, and fate of the Universe at large.  My interest in cosmology is two-fold: cosmology is the ultimate origin story of our existence, and the conditions of the early universe left observable imprints in the sky which allow a unique window into the fundamental laws that govern the world around us.

My recent research focus has been on studying the cosmic microwave background, radiation left over from the hot, dense plasma that filled the Universe more than 13 billion years ago.  I am a member of two collaborations which aim to survey the cosmic microwave background at unprecedented precision in the coming decade, Simons Observatory and CMB-S4.

Physics ultimately underlies all of existence.  Studying physics is aimed at uncovering the laws that lie at the foundation of the natural world.  Physics research pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and informs research in other disciplines. At a more practical level, the skills, techniques, and tools that are developed in the study of physics are extremely useful and versatile.

I became interested in physics quite young, and by around high school, I was seriously considering a career in the field.  I had always been interested in mathematics, but was drawn to physics when I came to understand that the beauty and structure of mathematics were actually realized in nature.  The desire to discover the underlying laws of the world around us has kept me enthralled ever since.

Science progresses not just with each discovery that is made, but also by the passing along of knowledge that is gained in the pursuit.  Graduate education is a key component to disseminating the knowledge from the front lines of research. Graduate students represent the next generation of physicists and will carry forward what they have learned to their future careers whether in academia or in industry.  In short, graduate education is what allows research to have a lasting and broad impact.

It is extremely rare that a Ph.D. in physics goes to waste.  That is not to say that every Ph.D. becomes a physicist in industry or academia, however, a Ph.D. in physics is extremely marketable.  The training physics graduate students receive makes them especially good at problem solving and at learning new skills. A Ph.D. program is a large commitment, so one should be devoted to pursuing physics as a career when beginning the program, but the degree will open many doors outside of physics as well.

Meet the SMU Physics Thought Leaders

At SMU, we have over 20 world-class faculty working across many areas of physics. 

Meet our Faculty

Experimental

Faculty in the SMU physics department work together with Ph.D. students on diverse areas of experimental research. Jodi Cooley's group prepares for a new round of highly sensitive measurements aiming to detect dark matter in the underground SNOLAB laboratory. Thomas Coan's group participates in the NOvA experiment that explores the origin of neutrino masses and looks for explanations of matter-antimatter symmetry. The SMU group on the ATLAS experiment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (Allison McCarn Deiana, Robert Kehoe, Stephen Sekula, Ryszard Stroynowski, and Jingbo Ye) leads multi-prong efforts at the energy frontier of particle physics. Our ATLAS group participated in the spectacular discovery of the Higgs particle and at present uses heavy-quark flavors (bottom and charm) to probe the nature of the Higgs boson. Concurrently, Kehoe participates in large-scale surveys of distant galaxies using the Mid-Range Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) in order to understand the fundamental source driving the expansion of the universe. Ye leads a laboratory at SMU that develops advanced optoelectronics hardware for robust high-volume data transfer in the radiation-affected environment existing inside the LHC detectors. 

Theoretical

Joel Meyers is a theoretical astrophysicist who studies a variety of pressing topics, including phenomena in the early universe and observations of the cosmic microwave background. The expertise of Pavel Nadolsky and Fredrick Olness resides in theory of quantum chromodynamics (QCD).  They carry out theoretical computations to predict scattering of elementary particles at modern colliders, including interactions of massive quarks and all-order summation of perturbative series in quantum field theory. Their other effort focuses on the multivariate statistical analysis by CTEQ collaboration of diverse experimental data with the goal to understand the internal structure of protons, neutrons, and atomic nuclei. Roberto Vega, our resident expert in formal aspects of particle phenomenology, develops theoretical models of electroweak symmetry breaking, examines strategies to look for Higgs-like particles, and studies effective Lagrangians for extensions of the Standard Model. 

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Christopher Milke, SMU Ph.D. student, currently working at CERN

I was born and raised primarily in California. My parents raised me while going through college, and my mom was the first person in our family to get a masters degree (in nursing). I will be the first in our family to get a PhD.
The focus of my research has been experimental research for the ATLAS collaboration. Specifically, most of my involvement has been in working with the ATLAS B-Jet Trigger system. More recently though, I have started working at SLAC on two separate (though semi-related) projects: hardware work on a prototype hardware upgrade for ATLAS; and software analysis targeted towards ATLAS data.
Hesitations? Nope! I had been intending to get a PhD since middle school, so when I finished my undergraduate degree I dove into a graduate program without any reservations.
One of the scientists I worked for during my undergraduate work had graduated from SMU and highly recommended it as another option I should apply for.
I'm still working that part out. I would like to continue doing physics work to some degree wherever I go. I don't think I want to pursue a tenure track route, so more likely I will be looking for work at national labs or private industry.

Meet more of the Physics Graduate Students at SMU

As you move your cursor over the faces of our former students, you will learn more about the depth and type of research real people are investigating into here at SMU. From founding their own companies to teaching and researching, SMU physics graduates continue to make valuable contributions to the field.

Connect with Us Today

If you are interested in studying physics at the graduate level or in graduate school at SMU more generally, reach out to us today! We are always ready and willing to provide more information, offer career and degree advice, and help you explore the next steps in your graduate education journey.

Here are some easy ways to stay connected to the research and happenings at SMU’s Office of Graduate Studies:


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