APS Bridge Program

What Students Need to Know Prior to Arrival

The more information that can be provided to students prior to their arrival, the better. However, we have found that there is critical information that students have prior to arrival. We discuss elements of that essential information below.

Housing Information

Appropriate housing is probably one of the most important things for students to choose wisely prior to matriculation. Housing issues have been at the root of problems we have seen with a number of bridge students. Thus, it is important to provide specific guidance prior to students making housing decisions. Some bridge sites now require students to receive approval from the program prior to making a decision as a condition for their acceptance.

Housing must be appropriate in terms of distance. It is imperative that students have housing close to campus if your institution does not offer on-campus housing for students. If your institution offers on-campus housing apartments for graduate students, students should be encouraged to take advantage of this. If it is not offered or if it does not fit the student’s circumstances, they should be encouraged to find suitable housing near campus. This allows them to easily spend time as needed for study groups, working in the lab, and meeting with professors. Students who have lived far from campus often had difficulty integrating into the physics community because commuting time did not allow them to participate in many activities on campus. This was especially true for students relying on public transportation that included lengthy commutes to get to campus. Current graduate students can be extremely helpful with this task. Depending on their circumstances, they may be able to help by identifying communities in which they, their peers, or their friends may live that supports academic engagement.

Housing must also be affordable. For students living away from home for the first time, finding affordable housing is an important part of their financial management. If student housing is outside of the student’s price range, they may find themselves stressed over their finances and some have even taken on a second job to the detriment of their progress toward the PhD. Again, it will be helpful if current graduate students can identify a variety of communities that will provide appropriate housing for incoming students and share this information with students prior to their arrival.

We encourage program leaders to check-in with students prior to their arrival and inquire about their housing arrangements. It is okay to ask students where they have found housing or even to ask students to check-in with you prior to signing a lease or moving into housing. Of course, some students may be bringing families or have other circumstances that require accommodations that are not typical, limiting housing options.

Managing Finances

The financial situation for incoming students will vary. For students of limited financial means, it may be useful to offer an advance to cover moving or housing costs. Your institution may be able to use funds from a development account to initially cover this cost and then reimburse the account from the graduate student stipend, spread over several months. Your institution’s development and alumni relations offices may also be willing to support raising funds for this case.

We also encourage you to inform students about opportunities to earn extra income on campus in positions that will not require extensive time and will be beneficial to them, such as tutoring undergraduate students. Such tutoring can be beneficial for students who need to review this material. Encourage students to reach out to you in a financial crisis so that you all may discuss options that will not impede academic progress prior to students taking on additional employment or debt load.

Arrival and preparation for starting classes

It is important to give students a deadline for arrival. If an induction meeting is scheduled or if they are expected to participate in activities over the summer, it should be made clear to students through direct communication, when they are expected to arrive. Some students may be working prior to matriculation and may decide that it’s best to work in a different location until they absolutely have to be on campus to take classes. This should be strongly discouraged. Encourage students to arrive early and become acclimated with the neighborhood and the campus.

It may also be necessary to encourage students to purchase textbooks prior to the start of classes. If there are other things that the students should complete prior to matriculation, such as campus orientations/inductions for incoming graduate students, or programs that your department is offering over the summer, it is best to explicitly state your expectations in this regard.

Expectations and milestones

Matriculating into a physics Ph.D. program can be quite intimidating. Giving students an outline of what is expected and milestones that they should expect to reach in the program will go a long way in easing their fears. If students are accepted into a master’s program with conditional entry into the Ph.D., information on the process for acceptance will be especially important. Milestones might include timelines for when they should join a research group, when they will have to take the qualifying exam (if required), or when they are expected to complete critical coursework. This may vary by student, but the idea is to let them know how successful progress in the program should look. Thinking about 5-7 years in a Ph.D. program can be daunting; so the more you can break-up that time to show successful progress in the program the better. If students are required to meet regularly with a mentor during the first semester — which we think is essential — this should be shared with students prior to arrival.

You should be clear that the purpose of these meetings is to ensure their needs are being met and to quickly address any issues that might arise. If such mentoring can not be offered to all students, it is important to communicate that this is not a result of lowered expectations for them, but a commitment by the department to ensure success for all students. If there are other expectations that you have for them during their first year, you may want to include this in information sent to them prior to arrival as well. This is especially important if your department is not engaging in induction activities for students (See Developing Induction Activities).

Information Packet

Current graduate students may volunteer (or be asked if they have formed a physics graduate student organization) to provide an information packet to be sent to incoming students prior to their arrival. One of the things that graduate students have included was a list of things that they wish they knew during their first year. Bridge students have found this extremely helpful. Advanced graduate students are obviously more in touch with the needs of first year graduate students and often provided beneficial information that faculty did not consider.