Stanford University Physics Society (SUPS)
Welcome to SUPS!
We are the Stanford University Physics Society, a student organization dedicated to fostering community among students and faculty interested in physics. We organize events such as LN2 ice cream parties, lunch panels with faculty, movie nights, and group study sessions.
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Mailing list: https://mailman.stanford.edu/mailman/listinfo/sups-stanford
What does SUPS do?
SUPS creates social and educational opportunities geared toward students interested in physics, including but not limited to Physics and Engineering Physics majors. Every quarter we organize events such as LN2 ice cream parties, group study sessions, and informational talks with professors and grad students.
Do I have to be a Physics major to join SUPS?
Not at all! We welcome physics enthusiasts from all majors and levels of experience.
Upcoming SUPS Events
This quarter (Winter 2023) we are hosting study sessions Mondays in Thornton 110 from 8pm to midnight. They will be weekly starting week 2 continue throughout the quarter. We are also in the process of organizing a faculty lunch where students can eat lunch with a faculty before a brief talk to better get to know them and their research. More information will be sent to the SUPS mailing list when plans are finalized.
The Physics Major at Stanford
How many Physics majors and Physics faculty are there?
There are 60-70 undergrads in the physics major plus 20-ish in Engineering Physics. The physics faculty page lists exactly 50 faculty, but it feels like way more than that since each professor has multiple research interests within their subfield. However, not all professors teach undergraduates, so you should take that into consideration if you're trying to find an average class size. If you are concerned about getting research, though, our faculty is large and diverse enough that there is almost certainly a professor working on something you're interested in.
How do Honors and the Senior Thesis work?
At Stanford, generally speaking Departmental Honors involves doing a Senior Thesis, having a GPA above a certain threshold, and sometimes taking specific classes or having a minimum number of research units. You will need to satisfy a minimum GPA threshold in order to initiate the Senior Thesis process (a.k.a. apply for honors) with a professor during your junior year. More information look on Senior Thesis section on Majors Page
When undergrads do research, do they interact directly with the professor, or do they work under graduate students?
For an undergrad doing research, you'll generally talk to your professor at length at the start of your project, and then be paired with a grad student mentor for more frequent advising, with your professor checking in from time to time (e.g., at regular lab meetings). Of course this varies based on the size of the professor's group and individual advising styles. From what I've seen, you can generally expect to work closer with professors in theory groups than applied groups. This also depends to some extent on the subfield. Some subfields are more accessible to undergrads than others because of the background required; for the not-so-accessible ones, you're more likely to work with a grad student simply because you're less likely to be doing your own independent project. However, I've found that professors are good at assigning tasks and projects that are commensurate with your skill set; for example, coding is extremely common in undergrad research because it's a skill set that many undergrads possess.
Is funding ever an issue with undergraduate research?
Funding is definitely finite. I once talked to a professor who said I was one of 12 (!) students asking to do research with him when he could only procure funding for one or two spots. The way to mitigate this situation is to "shop around:" talk to many professors, don't get hung up on any one opportunity, and seek funding sources other than the physics department. The Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) has funds set aside for seniors doing thesis projects as well as some other undergrad research. In addition, if a professor has a joint appointment or is courtesy faculty in another department, you can sometimes apply for funding through that other department to do the same research you would have done with physics funds (I did this with the EE department). Finally, there are opportunities at Stanford and beyond with government funding; one of my high school friends came all the way from Louisiana one summer to do research at Stanford with Department of Energy funds. Bottom line: cast the widest net you can using the time you can devote to applications, and you will be rewarded.
Are some classes in the physics department taught by TAs?
No, TAs do not teach classes. TAs teach discussion sections (MIT calls this "recitation," we just call it "section"). All the classes I've taken at Stanford were taught by professors or lecturers, and all my physics classes have been taught by professors. (Lecturers are more common in the CS department, where there just aren't enough profs to teach all the classes they offer... however, some of my absolute best-taught classes were taught by lecturers.) The only exception is in student-initiated classes, which can be taught by undergrads or grad students... that's right, YOU can teach a class at Stanford! Any class with "SI" after the number is student-initiated. See, for example, PHYSICS 93SI and 94SI, which were taught by PUWMAS officers. Link to PUWMAS page
What is the class size of upper-level physics classes? How are the classes structured?
That varies widely. In general, the more upper-level the class is, the fewer people are in it and the more loosely it is organized. However, some upper level classes like GR are quite popular, so they require more TAs to grade everyone's papers. Organizationally, small classes look like students-->prof, large ones look like students-->TAs-->head TA-->prof, and the 500-1000 student classes in the CS department are like students-->section leaders and graders-->TAs-->head TA-->prof. Physics classes overall tend to be smaller than most other technical classes simply because we are a smaller major. HOWEVER, regardless of class size, I've never not been able to talk to the professor at office hours or after class if I have questions.
Do physics professors teach recitation?
Unless it is a tiny class, physics professors don't teach discussion section (although they do occasionally stick their heads in). In fact, a class without TAs is not likely to have a discussion section; the professor's office hours would fill that role for those who want extra help beyond lecture.
What does "active learning" mean?
Many of the Physics major's required classes (e.g. PHYSICS 110, 120, 130) are taught in an "active learning" style wherein the lecture is run like a discussion section. In a typical active learning lecture there might be approximately half-hour blocks of lecture alternating with 15-minute blocks of working on a worksheet in small groups, with TAs and the prof hovering around to provide help, after which the whole class reconvenes to go over the worksheet. It's nice if you like having immediate feedback and deriving results on your own (with a lot of guidance).
SUPS Officers 2022-2023
Senior, Physics Major
camwagn [at] stanford.edu
Junior, Double Major in Physics and Mathematics
vijaynj [at] stanford.edu
Junior, Physics Major
ethanr [at] stanford.edu
We would love to help you put on events, answer your questions, share our student perspectives, and generally help you navigate through physics at Stanford. Please do not hesitate to contact us.