Many students are first exposed to full-time research in the summer following their first academic year. This experience provides an opportunity for students to evaluate a specific area for potential dissertation research. Students typically have embarked on full-time research by the summer after their second academic year. However, students with suitable interests and preparation may begin research sooner.
The department is strong in both theoretical and experimental physics. Properly qualified students can find guidance in most of the subjects of contemporary theoretical physics, such as quantum fields, elementary particles, cosmology, astrophysics, nuclear physics, resonances, and condensed matter. The theoretical group has constructed a high-speed parallel processor for the study of lattice quantum chromodynamics.
Topics of contemporary experimental research include investigations of cosmic sources over a wide energy spectrum, using both terrestrial and space observatories; research in high- and low- temperature superconductivity, low dimensional systems; and studies of fundamental phenomena using lasers. Columbia faculty and students carry our experiments in nuclear and elementary-particle physics at laboratories in the United States and around the world. (For more information, please see the sections on Research Groups and Facilities and Members of the Faculty).
The process of finding a sponsor for thesis research is, in most cases. an informal one. Faculty members give lectures on their research in the graduate seminar as well as in departmental colloquia and seminars and welcome the opportunity to discuss research possibilities with students.
Students interested in experimental theses ask a specific faculty member to sponsor their research. Upon acceptance, the student begins research. The theoretical physics faculty meets once each year to decide on new thesis candidates. It is even possible to carry out research under the supervision of members of other University departments or scientists at industrial laboratories.
In this seminar series faculty, postdocs, and students discuss the ongoing research in the various groups in the department. This is an important way for you to learn what is going on in the department, and to find out which groups are actively looking for students, as well as the type of research you might be involved in.
It is usual for graduate students in their first summer to work with a research group. This is important for a number of reasons: it allows you to get your first taste of real research; it allows both you and the research group to see if you are compatible (don't forget you will be spending a lot of time working closely in such a group); and it allows you to explore research options if you are unsure of the type of research you would ultimately like to do. Don't be bashful. Talk to the faculty and students about their work, and if you think you would like to carry out research with that group, then go talk to the faculty involved in that work and see what the prospects are. Once again, the process is informal; much of the burden is on the student to go and see what is available.
If you attend the large number of seminars and colloquia, you may find areas of research that you had not realized were available (either within the department or even in other departments). Again, you should feel free to go talk to those researchers and ask them about their work. Another good way to get started is to look at the web pages of the various research groups and faculty.