Different research groups in the department go about their activities in very different ways. Some of these differences result from the types of research being done. The dichotomies of theory vs. experiment, in-house research vs. research done at international facilities, laboratory research vs. field research, and highly independent work vs. collaborative work are just four that are present in our Department. As well, the personalities of the supervisor and the graduate students inevitably help set the pattern for how research is done. Constraints that follow from the research funding a group receives also play a role. So it is impossible to identify any set of “universal policies” that describe how all the research groups in the Department function. Nonetheless, there are certain common practices that many, if not all, research groups follow. While in any given case there may be deviations from these with good reason, students can at least take them as a starting point for what they can expect during their time in the Department.
A crucial part of a physicist’s professional life is the presentation of research results. Attendance at conferences is important not only for students to have a chance to discuss their research results with the larger physics community, but also for them to have the opportunity to meet other researchers in their field and hear first-hand about the latest developments. Patterns vary across the Department, but most graduate students find themselves attending conferences during the course of their Ph.D. work, with their travel, housing, and registration costs covered by their supervisor’s research grant. Some supervisors follow a general rule that their students can attend such a conference at least once a year if they have results to present. Travel grants are available from the Department as well as from the School of Graduate Studies (See Section IV). Publications in the scientific literature are also important for both the promulgation of research results and the career development of the student. Often students publish results as their work progresses; these papers form the basis for the student’s Ph.D. thesis. In some case the thesis is completed first and manuscripts are constructed from the thesis shortly after the student passes the Departmental exam.
Monitoring the pace of work and ensuring that the research is progressing at a reasonable rate are important responsibilities of the supervisor. (See below for more about choosing supervisors) While by definition the outcome of any research project is unknown, short-term goals, and even mid-term milestones, can be set. Students have the responsibility to try and meet these, as supervisors have the responsibility to return drafts of manuscripts and other written material in a timely manner with comments and suggestions for changes. Professors who supervise more than a couple of students often have group meetings once a week where administrative matters can be discussed, and students can present recent progress or problems for informal discussion within the group, or present an overview of an interesting recent publication. These group meetings are also a good opportunity for students to make appointments to see their supervisor one-on-one to talk about recent results or research difficulties. In the kind of collaborative work between student and supervisor that is common in the Department, weekly or biweekly one-on-one meetings between students and supervisors are common.
The Ph.D. program of any student is necessarily a mix of intense research on a particular project and the continuation of a general education in a subfield of physics and, indeed, in physics as a whole. The balance of these components is often one of the most difficult issues that students and supervisors must confront. A student and supervisor can hold quite different views on what this balance should be and, although they may be meeting regularly to talk about research progress, these and other differences can remain hidden until the student and supervisor find themselves at loggerheads. To avoid this, some supervisors set up particular opportunities for addressing possible areas of disagreement, such as a lunch meeting with each student once a year specifically to discuss the general progress of the Ph.D. program. As the student moves towards the completion of the degree, such a meeting also gives the supervisor and student the opportunity to talk about the student’s career plans and prospects. The yearly meeting of a student’s supervisory Ph.D. committee, involving two faculty members in addition to the supervisor, provides another opportunity to review research progress, and to consider general concerns involving the direction of the thesis, the nature of the research and the research program, and the student’s career plans. (See below for more about the Guidelines for the supervisory committee meeting.) Sometimes differences between student and supervisor can arise in the expectations of what is required for the Ph.D. These expectations should be made clear in the written report of the annual supervisory committee meeting, especially towards the end of the program. A student may choose to exceed what is required for an acceptable Ph.D., especially if they intend to pursue an academic career. However, that choice rests with the student, not the supervisor.
For more information, see the School of Graduate Studies page on Supervision Guidelines.
Choosing Your Research Supervisor
Eligible graduate research supervisors are Tenure-Stream Faculty and Cross-Appointed Faculty , whose complement can be found at People -> Member Types on the Physics web site. More detailed information about anyone in the Department can be found by searching by name. If you are searching by research area, a good place to start is by browsing theresearch clusters.
No single decision you make in your graduate studies is as important as your choice of research supervisor. Not only will this choice affect what you do and who you work with over the next several years, but it will also have a profound impact on the direction of your career. The right choice can make your graduate studies an enjoyable and very rewarding experience, but a poor choice can be devastating. It is the intent of this section to give you guidance in making this crucial decision by relaying some of the knowledge (and mistakes) of older students. It is particularly relevant to incoming M.Sc. and direct-entry Ph.D. students who are about to begin the selection process for their supervisor.
The School of Graduate Studies has some suggested guidelines on how to choose a research supervisor. Perhaps the most important advice, which almost every graduate student at Toronto agrees with, is that you should not rush into making such an important decision as this one. If you feel you have been ‘pushed’ to choose a supervisor before you arrive, you have been misled. Many students do, but there is no benefit to doing so. All the preliminary things that you do before and when you arrive (register, get a computer account, etc.) can be done completely through the department. This is not to say that you should not come to Toronto before September and talk to all the professors you wish. Just remember that most students here believe that you should not rush into a decision before you arrive at school.
So what should you do before you arrive? Make a list of the professors whose research sounds even remotely interesting. If you wish to study in a specific field, this list may be quite short. Many new students, however, are not sure what field they wish to work in, and this list may seem very long. Don't worry! It's better to start with a large number of choices and narrow it down than to start narrow and not find what you want. Next, you should go online and look up selected publications of the professors on your list. Read them over, but don't get bogged down in the details (and don't be surprised if you don't understand much of them). Try to get an idea of what they are doing and whether or not it appeals to you. At this point, you may wish to strike some names from your list or mark some as being 'particularly interesting', but try not to use their publications to cut down the list too much; in many cases the professor's current research is very different. The idea of reading is to have some background for when you interview prospective supervisors.
Interviewing should be your next step. You can come to the department before September if you wish, but there will be plenty of time when you arrive to talk to all the professors you would like (and they are much more likely to be around in September once classes have started). Make an appointment to talk to every professor on your list, even if there are a lot of them. Professors enjoy talking to prospective students about their research, and this process is an excellent opportunity to meet the faculty and to discover their current research interests. Before you talk to each one, read their selected publications again and think of the questions you would like to ask them. Some important questions you should ask everyone you interview are:
- Is the faculty member taking on new students?
- Would I work on my own project, or join a project already in progress?
- How many students are currently working for this advisor?
- How many PhD students have graduated from this group in the last five years? Where are they now?
- How many students left before graduation? Why did they leave? Where are they now?
- What are the typical working hours in the group? Are students expected to work on the weekend?
- How long does it typically take for a PhD student to graduate under the professor's supervision? What is the funding policy in the group, after the five-year funding guarantee?
- What conferences would I have the opportunity to attend? Which of your students have recently attended conferences?
- Is there a required number of publications before graduating?
- What is the source of the professor's funding? How stable is it?
- Is the professor retiring soon, going on sabbatical, or travelling for an extended period?
- How many weeks of vacation per year is standard for students in this group?
- How often are there one-on-one meetings between the supervisor and graduate students? What is the normal way to communicate, outside of these meetings?
Remember, at this stage you are interviewing the professor, and not the other way around. Find out everything you want to know, and don't be embarrassed to ask probing questions.
Along with interviewing the professors on your list, you should also talk to their graduate students. It is from these students that you will find out what it is really like to work for this person. While the professors will likely talk about the research, the students will talk about what it is like to do the research. Take their opinions seriously, but also with a grain of salt. Not every graduate student has the same interests and goals as you do, so don't be swayed too much by a single glowing recommendation or bitter comment. However, if all the students in a group agree on a certain opinion, they are likely to be correct. Another good idea might be to talk to students in other groups about your potential supervisor's group as they might be able to provide more impartial insight. As always in physics, you can never ask too many questions!
You should try and do all of your interviews in September, before your course work gets hectic. After you have completed this process, think for a while about all that you have heard. If you have been wise and spent a lot of time researching and interviewing, don't jump to a decision. It is likely that one or two professors have stood out as being particularly interesting. Talk to them again if you wish; you cannot have too much information. After a month or so of being in the department, most entering students are confident enough to select a supervisor. If you are still unsure after all your interviewing, talk to the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies about your difficulties.
Once again, it should be stressed how important choosing the right supervisor is. Do not rush into it; take your time to be confident of your decision. Remember, those of you in the 3-course option may be too busy with courses for the first eight months to begin a research project in earnest. The other important observation is that your first-year supervisor need not be the same as your ultimate PhD supervisor. All of you should use your first year to learn about the department and the faculty, so that when you do make your final decision about your PhD supervisor, it is done with confidence and enthusiasm.
Guidelines for Annual PhD Supervisory Committee Meetings
The Ph.D. supervisory committee must meet with the student at least once a year to assess the student’s progress in the program, and to provide advice on future work. At least one week prior to the meeting, the student should distribute a written report, typically about 5 pages long, which gives an update on their thesis problem, the progress made to date, and future plans. At the meeting the student will present a 20-minute overview of the status of their research, with an emphasis on where the major problems and challenges lie. The committee will then help the student assess the nature of the problems encountered and suggest ways ahead. It will also assess the overall appropriateness of the research scope of the thesis. The committee submits a report detailing its observations of the student’s progress and its recommendations (See Appendix for the form); the student may append a response if desired. If any member of the committee is unsatisfied with the situation, then the consensus view should reflect this. In the case of unsatisfactory progress, details must be provided and another supervisory meeting scheduled. Copies of the report are given to the student and filed with the Department.
Questions that should be addressed by the supervisory committee include:
- Is there a viable thesis topic and research plan?
- What is the timeline for the thesis?
- Are the necessary resources available?
- What concrete progress has been made in the last year?
- What is the research plan for the coming year?
- Are there any known risks or impediments to the completion of this plan?
- Is the candidate making satisfactory progress towards a Ph.D.?
- Has the candidate done enough research to begin writing up?
Meetings of the supervisory committee once the student is outside the funded cohort (after 4 years for regular students, after 5 years for direct-entry students) are generally held more frequently, and can be convened by the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies or a member of the Standards and Evaluations Committee. For these meetings the student is typically asked to prepare a statement explaining the reasons for the delay in completion and the extra time required, in addition to the usual report.
"End Game" - The Process for Approval of a PhD Thesis
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The External Appraiser should be a recognized expert on the subject of the thesis and should be external to the University and to its affiliated research institutes. Such an individual must be an Associate or Full Professor at his/her institution or, if he/she comes from outside of the academic sector, must possess the qualifications to be appointed to an academic position at this level. (A CV of the External Examiner will be necessary for review by the School of Graduate Studies.) The External Appraiser should not be a close collaborator of either the candidate or the supervisor and should not have more than an academic interest in the result of the examination. If there is some ambiguity in this area, please consult the Associate Chair, Graduate Studies, as soon as possible. The External Examiner must attend the FOE in person or virtually.
Expenses of the External Appraiser
The School of Graduate Studies pays an honorarium to an External Appraiser and provides up to $500 for the associated travel expenses. The remaining costs of the visit should be covered by the supervisor.
The external appraisal is the comments of the external examiner on the thesis. It will hopefully be constructive and will recommend acceptance, perhaps with some conditions and will almost certainly have some quite specific questions and comments about the thesis. It may say that some of these queries need to be answered before the thesis is acceptable. These questions and comments will certainly provide part of the discussion at the FOE. You and all members of the FOE should receive a copy of the external appraisal two weeks before the FOE to ensure that you have time to respond to the comments and queries at the FOE.
It is an SGS regulation that the contents of the External Appraisal cannot be discussed with the External Examiner prior to the FOE.
Membership of the FOE Committee
- Two members of the supervisory committee of the candidate (typically the Supervisor and one of the other committee members)
- Two other members from the Physics or related Department at the University of Toronto, who are not members of the PhD Supervisory Committee
- The External Examiner
- The Chair, who is not a member of the Physics Department, but is usually from the sciences and is appointed by the School of Graduate Studies. The chair is not a voting member of the committee.
A quorum for the SGS examination is four voting members, at least two of whom are not members of the original PhD supervisory committee. The above membership list contains five voting members to ensure that the examination can proceed.
Conduct of Examination
The conduct of the FOE is broadly the same as all other oral examinations: After a short recess for the committee to examine the file and organize itself, the candidate is invited to give a 20-minute summary of the main results of the thesis after which he/she is examined on the thesis and the oral presentation. There are usually several rounds of questions and the questions may vary from particular questions about points in the thesis to general questions about the context of the research, the subject area and the research area in general. Both the thesis and the oral defense must be judged acceptable in order for the candidate to pass the examination. It is our general observation that candidates are very well informed about their research, but less forthcoming about the more general areas of questioning. You have been warned!
As of January 2016 the Physics Department has adopted the option for a public presentation of the thesis work to be given before the remainder of the FOE. This presentation is open to any member of the department as well as friends/family invited by the Candidate. The presentation will last for about 45-minutes and should include the ‘expert summary’ that is normally given in the first 20-minutes of the FOE. All members of the examination committee (including the External Examiner but not, necessarily the SGS chair) are expected to attend the public presentation as this will not be repeated. The committee will refrain from asking questions in public. Instead the candidate and committee members will move to a smaller room, where they will be joined by the SGS chair to complete the FOE with the questioning and conclude with a deliberation on the result of the FOE. The Candidate will be asked if they want to pursue the public presentation option with the FOE is being scheduled and the Graduate Office will make the arrangements for the rooms and inform the committee members at that time.
Results of the Examination
There are broadly four results that can come out of the examination:
- Pass as is
- Minor corrections – corrections of typographical and similar errors. Before the thesis is acceptable, the supervisor writes a letter to the School of Graduate Studies with a copy to the Graduate Office, that the corrections have been made
- Minor modifications – larger corrections. These have to be examined and regulated by a committee chosen (usually) from the FOE committee and reported back when the corrections have been made
In the event of minor corrections or minor modifications, it is the responsibility of the candidate to “get a move on” with getting the corrections done!
Further details on all of these can be found in the School of Graduate Studies Graduate Calendar and if that is not enough, then come to the Graduate Office and we will try and answer any other questions you might have.
See also Theses, Examinations, and Graduation.