Advising is a core component of the undergraduate program in Physics. All physics majors, whether their resident department is Physics or not, hold several meetings with their advisor early in their career and create an Academic Plan. The idea behind the requirement for this Plan reflects our goal that the students take responsibility for developing a comprehensive map of their own academic goals, thus linking all their curricular and other intellectual and artistic interests. Thereby, the Plan reflects their Major, Minor, and other goals and dreams. This does not always come easy to the student, and we provide whatever assistance is needed until everybody – student and advisor – is satisfied. In subsequent semesters, the Academic Plan is regularly revisited and modified as necessary.
There are several tangible benefits of this requirement: Students know well before graduation exactly which courses are required, thus preventing unpleasant surprises in their Senior year. If they seek double Majors or a double degree, we help the students to include their additional Major carefully into their Plan – so they are quite prepared when going to the other department.
We know from students who followed this scheme – starting with the Class of 2004 – that this model not only works but is indeed giving them a true sense of ownership and responsibility for their academic and extra-curricular development.
For students that may face some difficulty in pursuing their intended curriculum, a Sustained and Intensive Advising Program (SIAP) has been established. All students – first year and beyond – that fall under SIAP are even more frequently advised than under the conventional Academic Plan system, and their progress is regularly monitored. In SIAP, we typically focus on issues that students may face who come from diverse backgrounds and may have some difficulties adjusting from highschool – where they may have been bored – to college life: Time management; style of study; seeking help from instructors or TAs and of support structures such as the Physics Upper Class Course Center (PUCCC); peer tutoring, etc.
For a few students, discussions may reveal that they are held back by emotional issues. If this is the case, we work with the CMU Student Health Center to identify problems and find solutions. In extreme cases, students may be advised to seek help from a psychiatrist, but most cases can be solved in more gentle ways. For example, a student may like physics romantically but does not realistically judge what it takes to be successful (long hours, love for math, grinding on a hard problems even when it's not clear why they are relevant at this moment, etc.). In such cases, we advise the student on other careers or majors; they are sent to the CMU Career Center to take an interest inventory test and may be referred to other departments.
Whatever the student's problem: We care!
The benefits of our approach to advising and mentoring are also tangible: Our program is broadly recognized as a model by peer institutions, and it is growing. Our graduation rates are among the strongest in the nation. A few years ago in a 3-year survey of graduation rates, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) placed CMU Physics at #5 among Ph.D.-granting programs, when normalized to the small size of Carnegie Mellon as an institution. At that time, we had a 3-year average of 31 graduates. At present, our class size has stabilized in the 40s, and our strong placement record provides another metric of success.
Our attitude of being challenging but at the same time supportive and encouraging, paired with creating a strong sense of community, has been broadly applauded by our graduates since its introduction in 2001. We believe that college should be a place where freshmen grow into a mature, independent, responsible and confident individuals.
And indeed, at Carnegie Mellon Physics, they are!