Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Departmental Identity

The Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) Department at the University of Colorado is an interesting creature that I've been meaning to post on for some time now. As the name suggests, our department has a somewhat divided nature. We have people who would call themselves physicists that work on things like plasmas, fluid dynamics, and general relativity. We have people who consider themselves astronomers that do everything from solar observations to observational/numerical cosmology. We have people who associate mostly with geologists that study everything from the surfaces of Mars and Io to the composition of asteroids and comets. The APS department really defies identification with a single academic discipline. We are something like an astronomy department that accreted pieces of what are traditionally physics and geology departments.

This, of course, is a mixed blessing. When we talk about classes, there are invariably disputes between the astronomers, physicists, and geologists over what needs to be included in the "core" courses. Physicist want to see the grad students take courses with the physics department like E&M, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics. Astronomers want to take some of that, but also include classes on radiative transfer and data analysis. Meanwhile, the geologists in our midst feel that topics like fluid dynamics, geochemistry, and planetary surfaces are indispensable. And so we go around and around this topic every time somebody brings it up and invariably some group feels disenfranchised. Currently in the APS department, the physicists and astronomers have metaphorically ganged up on the geologists and so I take classes on quantum mechanics and radiative transfer, but not planetary surfaces.

On the other hand, when I visited the University of Illinois, I found the opposite case (Bill, be sure to correct me if I'm wrong). Illinois has a lot of good research areas, but there is no question that condensed matter is king in that department. While this solves the lack of identity problem we have at CU, it does have it's own weaknesses as well. As an incoming grad student, I wasn't positive what I wanted to do my research on. At CU, I could have gone in literally a couple dozen different directions. While Illinois has other research options beyond condensed matter, the breadth of options certainly isn't anywhere near what it is in Colorado.

My obviously biased opinion is that departments shouldn't be too intent on defining themselves as "the condensed matter department" or "the cosmology department". Although there are issues with being a broad department, I think the hassle pays dividends as various sub-fields wax and wane in popularity. However, I am interested to hear your thoughts. Is your department broad or focused and is that a good thing?


  1. Here at UNC I have a somewhat unique experience because while we have a "broad" range of research done here, we also have a few points of extreme specialization. The point is at UNC there is a feeling that we have to cover all the bases just enough to say that we are a physics and astronomy department and then we can specialize in what ever we want. Like here they have strong material science (solid state physics) and a strong observational astronomy group. If there is something left out or if one group doesn't feel fulfilled, that's OK because they can just go down the road to Duke and they probably have a group that specializes in that. For example one of the new grad students commented that he wanted to do string theory and he was told "We don't have a string group here at UNC but if you want to work with a professor at Duke you can do that."

    So what we have here is if one particular research group feels marginalized (at either Duke or UNC) then they just have to go down the road to "the other school" where they can be accepted. There is so much interchange between the two schools that professors, grad students and even some undergrads switch back and forth. For example, one of my classes this semester is being taught by a professor from Duke.

    If that isn't enough then students and professors can travel to NC State in Raleigh just a few miles away and work with them (but I wouldn't recommend it, their grad program is a, shall we say.) And if that isn't enough in the middle of it all (literally in the middle of all three schools) there is the Research Triangle Park, which has the research bases of companies like IBM, Bayer, DuPont, Cisco, Sony, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (yup, it really exists) and about a hundred other companies and organizations, so we have something for everyone here.

    So I guess to answer your question, we don't really have an identity crisis here, because if someone feels that their research or field of study is being underrepresented or repressed they can just go somewhere else and find people of like mind. Though I have to say that the only tension comes from the qualifier (not the usual stuff the grad students feel) but from how much astronomy do they need to include versus how much standard physics. They do have two separate qualifiers but some professors in solid state physics like to suggest that a question from their particular field of research be put on the qualifier "Because I think all good physicists should know this!" (even though no one else in the department understands it). So I hope this rather lengthy reply gives you some insight into the different culture that I have here.

  2. "...[S]ome professors... like to suggest that a question from their particular field of research be put on the qualifier "Because I think all good physicists should know this!" (even though no one else in the department understands it)."

    I know exactly what you mean by that statement. We fight this battle every year when the comprehensive exam rolls around. The committee that makes the exam invariably has one professor that thinks his or her area of specialization is essential to all of astrophysical and planetary sciences and should be included. This means that generally, the scores on that question will be very low for all but one or two people who happen to be in that field of research - which is exactly what the comprehensive exam is supposed to avoid.

    But such are the woes of a broad department...


To add a link to text:
<a href="URL">Text</a>