University of 
Minnesota - Duluth


Physics Graduate Student Handbook


Last revised August 2007


Welcome to the UMD Physics Department! The Department's Master of Science program offers a curriculum that combines a grounding in the fundamentals through coursework with essential research experience through thesis and project work. The Physics Department has faculty actively engaged in several areas of research, both theoretical and experimental, who provide students with opportunities to participate in doing physics, not just studying it. You should explore the options available to you and seek out these opportunities. Participation by students in the research program benefits everyone involved and provides close interaction with the faculty. We expect that your time here will pass quickly. We hope that you will gain much from your stay with the department and wish you success in your program.




Other Sources of Information

This handbook is intended to provide information specific to the graduate program in the Physics Department. Official details of general University of Minnesota Graduate School policies and procedures can be found in several sources. These include the UMD Catalog, which includes a section on the Graduate School and course descriptions, the University of Minnesota Duluth Graduate Student Handbook, provided by UMD's Graduate School Office, and the University of Minnesota Handbook for Graduate Assistants, which contains University policies for graduate students holding teaching or research assistantships. The UMD Graduate School Office is in 431 Darland Administration Building (431 DAdB).  Other offices that may be of interest at various times during your career are the International Student Advisers Office (in 237 Kirby Student Center) and the Career Services Office (21 Campus Center). Within the department, answers to questions can often be found from the Director of Graduate Studies, the Department Head, or the Department's secretary in MWAH 371, the Department Office.

[UMD Physics Home Page]  [UMD Graduate School Office]  [UMD Career and Placement Services]  [UMD Catalog]
[UMD Home Page]  [U of MN Graduate School Home Page (Twin Cities)]

Important Tasks for New Students

Upon arriving in Duluth several administrative matters need to be attended to promptly. Taking care of these items will help get your graduate career at UMD off to a smooth start. Students holding Teaching Assistantships must process a number of documents to ensure their paychecks begin arriving on schedule. Delays in processing the paperwork will cause delays in the arrival of the first paycheck. (Such a delay will not reduce your total earnings!) Delayed processing can also slow the processing of tuition waiver benefits for TAs. A check-off list of forms and tasks is at the end of this handbook.

  1. Apply for a Social Security Number (New International Students)
    Social Security Administration Office, 130 W. Superior Street, Duluth. Several documents cannot be processed completely until you have a Social Security Number.
  2. Check-in with the Director of Graduate Studies (All Students)
    Prof. Maps is the DGS for the 2007-8 academic year.
  3. Visit the Physics Department Office. (All students)
    Many forms need to be filled out and the Department Secretary can get you started. If you have a teaching assistantship (TA), you will need to provide proof of employability to meet federal requirements. This usually requires two forms of identification. U.S. citizens can provide a U.S. Passport (sufficient alone) or a driver's license with photo and a U.S. Social Security Card. International students should provide their Passport, I-9, and Social Security Card when received. (See item 1 above!). A daunting number of other forms must also be completed. You will also be issued keys for your office and teaching labs and be assigned a mailbox in the Department office. You should also give the secretary your local address and telephone number as soon as you have found an apartment or house in Duluth.
  4. Attend Orientation Sessions for New Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTA’s)
    There are two sets of orientation sessions. A session for international students precedes a general orientation session for all TA’s. Details of the schedules for these sessions are provided by the Graduate School Office.  There is also a mandatory health insurance meeting for all graduate assistants during orientation.
  5. Course Selection & Registration Advisement (All Students)
    Pick up registration packet from the Graduate School Office, 431 Darland Administration Building (DAdB) (International students – others should receive this by mail).  Meet with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) to discuss course selection. This is an opportunity to identify courses appropriate for your intended program and background.     Registration is done through an on-line system.  You can begin at .  Please be aware that a late-registration fee will be assessed to you if you register after classes have started. Once you have determined your class schedule, you should provide a copy of your schedule to Professor Maps for the purposes of assigning and scheduling TA duties before classes begin. This schedule will be filled out when you discuss your course selections with the DGS. You will need to discuss any changes in your schedule after this point with the faculty member coordinating labs and the DGS before making them.

Teaching Assistant Procedures and Duties

The usual TA appointments run for nine months, roughly late August through late May. Teaching assistants are assigned duties at the start of each semester that will require twenty hours per week on average for 50%-time appointments. Decisions regarding re-appointment for a second year are made in the spring of each year. These decisions are based upon satisfactory performance in both assigned TA duties and program coursework. Offers of support for a second year are made typically in early April. A formal binding commitment is required by April 15th in most cases. The department believes that under most circumstances all necessary work for the program can be completed in two years with TA support, therefore re-appointments beyond the second year are usually not made.  Exceptions to this policy may be made in situations where students have made substantial progress in research and can significantly enhance their achievements in this work by support beyond the second year, or where a third year is warranted by special circumstances.

All Graduate Assistants (teaching and research) must register each semester to be eligible for the assistantship. Furthermore, federal rules for exemption from certain payroll taxes require enrollment for at least six credits. International students must meet immigration rules for full-time status. Therefore the Department requires all students holding assistantships to register for at least 6 credits each semester to meet these requirements.

Teaching Assistants usually have a mixture of duties. These include supervising and grading laboratory sections for introductory physics courses, grading homework and tests, and leading problem-solving help sessions for students in introductory physics. The assignments are made by the faculty supervisor for the labs of the various introductory courses. TA’s should provide a copy of their class schedule for the upcoming semester to the lab supervisor before the end of each semester to simplify scheduling lab and help sections.

Lab grades assigned by TA’s should be carefully maintained. Standardized record sheets for this purpose are from the TA coordinator. You should make two photocopies of grades. Give one copy to the instructor in charge of each course by the beginning of final exam week. Check with the instructor to find out what kind of net or final result (total points, average score, etc.) should be included with individual grades in the record book. The second copy should be submitted to the secretary in department office.  Give the original gradesheet to the TA coordinator.   Each sheet should be labeled with the appropriate course and section numbers, term and year, and your name. These records are important, since students who repeat the introductory courses may be exempt from re-taking the laboratory portion if they have successfully completed the lab work in a previous attempt. These grades are the only official records of their performance for that purpose and must be clear and complete. Questions on lab grading should be directed to the TA coordinator. Individual instructors may give you specific lab grading guidelines.

For test grading, careful grading is more important than fast grading.  In general, unless otherwise directed, each problem starts with zero and points add up according to how far a student got on a problem. One exception to this would be a situation in which a problem is correct except for some minor detail worth a point or two. Simply mark that error and write down the appropriate sum for the problem. Exercise judgment!  Look for any hints of understanding - correct methods or reasoning - for partial credit. Write down each assignment of partial credit near where that work is done. Then sum and write the total for the problem somewhere near the end of the problem and inside the front cover of the bluebook, if used.  Please use a red pen and write legibly - both the instructor and the student must understand what points you have assigned. Write short helpful hints or comments to indicate errors as time permits. Usually solutions are discussed in class or posted so such notes don't need to be elaborate. (On final exams, comments are unnecessary; speed in completing the grading - carefully - is most important.) Keep in mind that the score on a particular problem should realistically reflect the knowledge of physics demonstrated by the student in working the problem.  Don't assign half-points unless directed to do so.

Grading of a test is usually a shared responsibility. Tests should not be taken out of the department – do the grading in your office and keep the test papers easily available for other graders to work on. The process works fastest for all involved if you turn the test paper to the next ungraded problem for the next grader and pass on each pile of papers as soon as you are done. The last person to grade a test should total the scores of all the problems and write the result.   Return the grading guide or "key" to the instructor when done.  If there appears to be a problem on a particular paper, attach a note to the test for the instructor to see. Questions on grading of homework or exams should be directed to the instructor in charge of the course.

Grades are private information.  As such, security is an important consideration.  Grade records may not be maintained on a portable device such as a laptop computer.  Use the paper gradesheet to record lab grades and keep this secure in your office desk.  Return of graded material must be done in a fashion to maintain the privacy of the information – usually by handing it back directly to the student.  Total grades or other comparable information on tests, homework, or other multiple page items should be written on an inside page, not on the top page where it can be easily seen by others.  You may be notified by e-mail that you are to complete training in proper handling of data through on-line courses.   You are expected to complete this training promptly once notified.   

Tuition benefit:  Teaching and Research Assistants receive a tuition benefit valued at twice the percentage of their appointment.  For the usual 50% appointment, this means a full tuition waiver - up to 14 credits per semester - is granted. If you register for more than 14 credits in a semester, you will need to pay the difference in tuition beyond 14 credits. Health insurance benefits are also provided for a modest premium. A complete description of tuition and health insurance benefits can be found in the University's Graduate Assistant Handbook. There is a mandatory insurance meeting for all graduate assistants during the week before classes in the fall.  You must still pay several other fees. Please note that holding an assistantship during the regular academic year does not provide tuition benefits for Summer Session courses. Health insurance benefits do extend over the summer months under most circumstances; see the Graduate Assistant Handbook for detailed discussions of benefits. If you wish to take courses during the summer, you should consult with the DGS.

TA’s are paid every two weeks. New TAs should process the necessary paperwork as soon as possible after arrival. Under ideal conditions the first paycheck will arrive in late September. Unfortunately, due to deadlines and possible delays in processing paperwork, it is not uncommon for the first paycheck to be delayed until early October, covering the first two pay periods. Paychecks are distributed to mailboxes in the department office. You can arrange for direct deposit of paychecks into your bank account. A form for initiating this is available on-line.

Each year the department selects an Outstanding Teaching Assistant for the year. The selection is based upon sustained superior performance of TA duties. This award is presented each spring as part of an event sponsored by the College of Science and Engineering to recognize the contributions of the graduate teaching assistants to the teaching mission of the University. The winner receives a certificate, and in recent years the American Association of Physics Teachers has provided a year's membership in AAPT, including subscriptions to Physics Today and either AAPT's Physics Teacher or American Journal of Physics.

Degree Requirements

The department offers two routes to the M.S. degree, referred to as Plan A and Plan B. Plan A includes the completion of a Master's thesis based upon original research carried out under the direction of a faculty member. Plan B involves the completion of a project that may consist of participation in ongoing faculty research and preparation of a report on that work, or the preparation of three papers in connection with course work under faculty supervision. The information below is intended as a guide for planning programs. Official Graduate School requirements are detailed in the UMD Catalog. The M.S. degree requires 30 graduate credits. Students may elect to complete a Master's thesis (Plan A) or additional coursework and one or more projects (Plan B). All students take 11 credits in a common core of courses (including Phys 5501, 5511, 5521 and 2 credits in 5090), 3 credits in one of our "Methods Courses" (Phys 5052 or 5053 or 5061) and 6 credits in a minor or related fields. Plan A requires 10 thesis credits; Plan B requires one or more projects requiring a total of 120 hours of work, preparation of a written report for each project, and 10 additional course credits in physics. These courses may include 4xxx courses, if appropriate and if approved for graduate credit; for distinctly interdisciplinary programs, the courses may be outside physics. In all cases, the overall plan of study and selection of elective courses must form a coherent program and be approved by the director of graduate studies.

  • Plan A and B common requirements:
    • 11 credits physics core
    • Methods course
      • Phys 5052 Computational Methods in Physics (3 cr)
      • Phys 5053 Data Analysis Methods in Physics (3 cr)
      • Phys 5061 Experimental Methods (3 cr)
    • 6 credits in courses eligible for graduate credit in related fields, or a minor in a related field
    • Final oral exam that includes a presentation of thesis/project work at a departmental colloquium, followed by examination by the committee selected for the student.
  • Plan A additional requirements:
  • Plan B additional requirements:
    • 10 credits of additional physics graduate course work. The courses used to meet the additional 10 credit requirement may include 4000-level courses if appropriate and approved for graduate credit. For distinctly interdisciplinary programs, some of these courses may be drawn from related fields outside physics. In all cases, the overall plan of study and selection of specific elective courses must form a coherent program and must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies.
    • One or more Plan B projects requiring a minimum of 120 hours of total effort, and preparation of a written report for each project.

Note: The information presented here is as accurate as possible. However, the UMD Catalog should be reviewed before finalizing a degree program in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies in Physics and the research project or thesis advisor.



The department believes participation in research is a crucial part of graduate education in physics for all students, since research is where new physics is done. Research is both demanding and rewarding. Research participation takes you beyond the finite framework of homework assignments and textbook presentations to the investigation of open-ended problems.  This involves exploring the current physics literature and working on problems, experimental and theoretical, whose solutions may now require days or weeks (or more!) of sustained effort, instead of hours. One goal is to develop the ability and confidence to apply your hard-won knowledge and techniques of coursework to new situations and to contemporary problems.  Research also provides an opportunity to learn and even invent new techniques. All of this cultivates the skills to solve real-world problems in a variety of contexts and with a variety of analytical tools later in your career. Research also permits a narrow topic to be explored in greater depth, allowing a deeper understanding and mastery of the subject - an essential part of the graduate program experience.

The two tracks to the M.S. degree offer different exposures to research. Plan A programs involve a heavier involvement in research. Plan A students should expect to devote much of their second year to thesis research and writing. Plan B students also participate intensively in faculty research efforts. The problems involved are, however, more likely to be smaller pieces of larger ongoing research efforts, requiring the same intensity of effort as thesis work, but usually not making the same demands on time throughout the second year. The Plan B program replaces the extended research involvement of thesis work with additional coursework. In both Plans the research effort is directed by a faculty member, and the results of the work must be presented in written form as a thesis or project report.

Summer support: Because of the importance it attaches to participation in research as an integral part of the graduate program, the department strives to provide financial support in the form of stipends to students for the summer following their first year. This support is intended to permit you to remain on campus during the summer months and get started in your research work with a faculty member.  Summer months are an ideal time to plunge into research, since there are usually no other obligations (homework to do, labs to teach, papers to grade, etc.) to interfere with concentration on the research project. While much can be accomplished during the summer, it is usually the case for Plan B programs that some additional work will be necessary during the second year to complete and write up research results. For Plan A programs the summer represents just the start of thesis research.  

Funding for summer research support may come directly from a faculty research grant or from departmental resources.  To be considered for departmental summer support, you will be asked to prepare a brief proposal in the spring semester describing the research project, including goals, methods and a timeline for progress on the project. These proposals are developed after discussions with faculty and an advisor and suitable research topic have been identified. The faculty member who will supervise the project must initial the proposal before you submit it to the Director of Graduate Studies. These proposals are typically due in April of each year. While the department tries to support all worthy proposals, in situations of limited funding the process is competitive. Decisions are made by the DGS in consultation with other faculty. Support for less than a full summer (nominally 10 weeks of  effort) may be arranged by mutual agreement of the faculty advisor, student, and DGS. Support for a second summer is rarer and contingent upon availability of funding and a compelling reason for continued support. The summer support provided by the department in this form carries no tuition waiver benefits for Summer Session courses.

The department usually offers a part-time TA position to assist in any Summer Session courses it offers. This TA position can be used as partial summer support or combined with other support as the situation permits.

Graduation Procedures

Degree program form:  Before registering for fall semester of the second year (or after 15-18 credits have been completed), you must file a degree program form with the UMD Graduate School Office. You will not be allowed to register until this is done. This form is available from that office and details all courses you plan to use to satisfy degree requirements, whether the degree will be Plan A or Plan B, and any declared minor. It also lists the recommendations for the three members of the final examination committee. You must visit each faculty member to be listed in advance and obtain their agreement to serve on the committee. The program listed on this form must be approved by the faculty advisor and the DGS before filing with the Graduate School Office. Students declaring an official minor must also obtain the approval of the minor field DGS. Changes to the program can only be made by petition to the Graduate School Office. See the UMD Graduate Student Handbook for details.

Thesis/Project Presentation and Final oral examination: Before graduation, all students must pass a final oral examination. This exam is conducted by a committee of at least three faculty, including the advisor and one member from outside the department. The exam consists of two parts. The first is a public presentation of the project or thesis work at a departmental colloquium. The second part is a closed examination by the committee.

The Graduate School confers degrees monthly (see the UMD Graduate Student Handbook or UMD General Bulletin) and you must file an Application for Degree Form (obtained from the UMD Graduate School Office) by the first working day of the month you intend to graduate.

Before the final exam is scheduled, the advisor should provide initial approval to distribute the thesis or project paper to the committee members. In the case of Plan A programs, the committee members review the thesis and certify that it is ready to be defended before an exam can be scheduled. You will need to negotiate a date and time acceptable to all committee members that also satisfies Graduate School requirements. The Graduate School requires that Plan A students file the title of the thesis at least two weeks before the examination.

Once a mutually acceptable date has been determined, the UMD Graduate School Office should be informed of the exact exam date so that necessary forms can be prepared. The UMD Graduate School Office requires at least one week's notice in scheduling the final exam.

Questions asked during the exam can span all areas of physics. Often the thesis or project report provides a starting point for examiners' questions. Outside committee members often pursue questions related to courses students have taken with them. Faculty advisors, as committee chairs, can usually provide some advice on how to prepare for the exam. The committee frequently requires modifications to the thesis or project paper before its final acceptance.

Commencement exercises occur each year at UMD in May. Graduate students who wish to participate in these ceremonies may do so, provided they meet the requirements detailed in the UMD Graduate Student Handbook. Please note the early deadlines that must be met for participation contained in that handbook.

Before you leave UMD:  All students should complete an exit survey obtained from the DGS, leave a new mailing address, and return all keys before departing from UMD.

Miscellaneous Department Information and Policies

Colloquia & seminars: The department holds occasional seminars or colloquia featuring visiting physicists or in-house speakers making presentations on recent and ongoing work in physics and related fields. These talks provide valuable exposure to a range of topics beyond each student's course and research work. You should make every effort to attend these talks. Students who carry out research during the summer are often expected to present a seminar describing their work during their second year.

Department office equipment: The equipment in the department office, in particular the printer, fax, and photocopy machine, is for official department business use only.  Computer printing services for course-related work are available through Information Services' central computing facilities. Photocopying of gradebooks, etc. by TA’s at the end of the semester, etc. is appropriate use of the photocopier. Personal photocopying in small amounts (a page or two) may be done at a charge of 10 cents per page, with permission of the department secretary.  Large amounts of photocopying should be taken to the copy center on campus. Photocopying of entire books is not permitted and is illegal under U.S. copyright law.

Mailboxes: You should check your mailbox in the department office regularly. This is a primary way of distributing University and department information. While it may be convenient as a temporary forwarding address when first coming to Duluth, the department address should not be used for personal mail. Please arrange for personal mail (including bills, magazines, etc.) to be mailed to your residence as soon as you have settled in. Please keep the department office informed of changes in your local address and phone number. Incorrect or outdated addresses can cause important information to be mis-directed.

Building security and the common welfare:  All graduate students should take responsibility for seeing that their offices as well as the department's various lab rooms are kept secure and locked, especially outside normal weekday work hours. Think twice about leaving your office unlocked and unattended, even during the day. Many labs contain expensive equipment that is important to both the instructional and research work done in the department. Consequently, you should have a strong interest in taking an active part in preventing theft or vandalism of equipment you may need. Graduate students are issued keys to allow access to many of these resources. Please use your keys and keep department offices and labs locked after normal working hours and at all times on weekends, even if you're in the room working. Cultivate the habit of checking not only that your own office door is locked when you leave for the day, but also that rooms you use frequently are also locked.  If you open hallway windows, remember to close them before you leave - don't rely on someone else to do it.  During summer, the building is often coolest when the windows are kept shut.  In the same spirit, please take care to keep public and shared areas that you use clean and neat.  No one enjoys working around the clutter or messes left behind by another.  Also keep in mind that others may be working nearby - keep sound and noise to reasonable levels.

E-mail: All students receive electronic mail (e-mail) accounts on the campus's central computer. This is an official means for distributing information. You should get in the habit of checking your e-mail at least as regularly as you check your office mailbox. Network access is available through public access terminals maintained by Information Services, wide-spread wireless access points to the campus network,  as well as computers in the computational physics room, MWAH 397.  Information Services maintains guidelines on appropriate use of computer accounts on-line.

Other computing resources: In addition to central computing facilities and individual research labs, the department maintains some of its own computing resources. Among these are:

  • The computational physics lab (397 MWAH) equipped with several PCs running Linux and Windows (dual boot) and a printer. This lab provides access to the internet.
  • The instrumentation/experimental methods lab (379 MWAH), equipped with 4 PCs and software for programming, graphing, data acquisition and analysis. A shared printer is attached to these machines; these have wireless access to the campus network.
  • A departmental web server ( provides information and materials for many courses and provides services to the computational physics lab.
  • An instructional lab server and wireless network serves computers in introductory physics labs on the second floor of MWAH; this is not connected to the campus network.  

Thesis preparation:  The department does not provide secretarial support for preparation of theses or project reports. Word-processing programs are available on department computers for student use. The department will help pay the costs of producing final photocopies of theses, up to $40. The next $25 of costs (if any) beyond this are paid by the student. The department will pick up costs beyond this. The department does not pay for thesis binding. The Graduate School maintains standards for the format of theses, including necessary signature pages, requirements on providing bound copies, etc., a copy of which is available from the Graduate School Office. You should be sure to study these requirements before producing the final version of your thesis. In producing final copies for submission to the Graduate School, you should be sure to make one for yourself and provide one to your advisor.


Physics Faculty and Staff Office, Phone and E-mail Directory is available on-line from the Physics Department homepage (

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Things To Do and Forms to Fill Out Check-list

(ALL)=All Students
(GTA)=All Graduate Teaching Assistants
(INTL)=International Students

  • ___Apply for Social Security Number  (INTL)
  • ___I-9 Eligibility for Employment (INTL)
  • ___Academic Personnel Information Form  GTA)
  • ___IRS W-4 Tax Withholding  (GTA)
  • ___UofM Child Support Obligations  (GTA)
  • ___Tuition Benefit Form  (GTA)
  • ___Social Security # for Payroll Purposes  (GTA)
  • ___Alien Information Request (U of M) (INTL)
  • ___Direct Deposit Option  (GTA)
  • ___IRS 8233 Withholding Exemption  (INTL)
  • ___Tax Treaty Affidavit  (INTL)
  • ___Human Resources Information Form  (GTA)
  • ___Pick-up Registration Materials  (ALL)
  • ___International Orientation (INTL)
  • ___Orientation  (GTA)
  • ___Pick-up Office/Lab Keys  (GTA)
  • ___Inform Office of Local Address/Phone (ALL)
  • ___Pick up registration packet from Grad School Office 431 DAdB (IGTA)
  • ___Course Advisement, DGS  (ALL)
  • ___Registration (ALL)
  • ___Copy of Class Schedule to TA coordinator (GTA)