Financial support provided through a department for graduate study in physics may be in the form of a teaching assistantship, a research assistantship, a fellowship, or a combination. Most commonly, students apply for all of these types of financial aid at the same time and often on the same form.
In addition, the National Science Foundation, Department of Defense, and other government agencies, professional societies, and private foundations award fellowships on the basis of national competitions. Some fellowships are limited to U.S. citizens or underrepresented groups. Almost all such awards include tuition allowances and a modest stipend to defray the cost of living. We advise you to apply for such fellowship awards if you are qualified, even though your choice of graduate school is not definite when the fellowship application is made. Browse the websites of the sponsoring organizations for current information, and talk to your departmental advisor about your likely competitiveness. On some campuses there is a coordinated nomination and selection process for the most prestigious awards, such as the Rhodes Scholarship. In addition to those organizations listed at the beginning of this brochure, we call your attention to the following for their fellowship programs:
Incoming physics graduate students are usually awarded teaching assistantships, fellowships, or (much less frequently) research assistantships. If you have accepted a teaching assistantship from a department and later learn that you have also been awarded a fellowship, usually you can choose which one to accept without prejudicing your admission to the department. Graduate schools differ greatly on the waiving of tuition and fees for students receiving assistantships or other financial support. Some schools offer full waivers of both tuition and fees, while others charge for either one, both, or some fraction. A relatively high assistantship or fellowship stipend can be substantially offset by the lack of such waivers or reductions.
Students should also find out whether their assistantship includes any medical benefits, such as health or major medical insurance. Such benefits are becoming common, and they can represent relief from a potential financial hardship.
Teaching assistantships provide an opportunity for working with students, for exercising a knowledge and understanding of physics, and for associating with experienced teachers as well as other graduate students who are also in the process of learning. Initial teaching assistantship experience usually involves teaching and supervising students in laboratory sections in general physics as well as individual non-laboratory and non-classroom instruction. In subsequent years (and sometimes in the first year), it may involve teaching students in recitation and problem-solving sections. The benefits are so definite and valuable that we recommend a period of service as a teaching assistant for all graduate students. Many departments require those who win fellowship support also to serve for a time as teaching assistants.
The teaching assistant (T.A.) is expected to take his or her responsibilities seriously and to discharge them conscientiously. For many, this is the first step in the transition from pupil to teacher. For those who plan on an academic career at colleges where undergraduate education is the primary focus, successful experience as a T.A. will be particularly important. The experience is valuable even if you will not be a teacher. For example, many graduate departments require all new graduate students to take a written examination covering undergraduate physics early in their residence. Many students find that their T.A. experience helps them master concepts that appear on these exams.
Practices with respect to research assistantships are not uniform among the various academic departments. In many physics departments, only teaching assistantship (or fellowship) appointments are made to first-year students; research assistantships are reserved for subsequent years. In contrast, in engineering departments, teaching assistantships play a relatively minor role for first-year students and those on M.S.-degree tracks, and research assistantships support most students. In general, graduates with a physics major have not had undergraduate courses in engineering or other sciences that would be the normal teaching assignment for a beginning teaching assistant in those departments. Common exceptions to this statement include such courses as circuits and electronics, some parts of mechanics, mathematical methods, electromagnetic theory, statistical physics, and computers. Students with such special skills or lab-assistant experience should emphasize them on their applications, and they should be supported in faculty letters of reference.
The stipend for a research assistantship usually comes from funds available to a particular faculty member under a research contract or grant. All departments recognize that it is important that financial considerations do not compromise a graduate student's choice for his or her research problem and sponsor. Departments adopt different measures to ensure this.