Honors work in physics at Kenyon involves directed research on a topic of contemporary importance in some subfield of physics, through which the honors candidate pursues intensive, individual, potentially publishable research, learning to conduct research and communicate the results at a professional level.
Each student working toward honors in physics is mentored by an on-campus faculty research advisor. Typically, this is a member of the physics faculty, although in some cases the on-campus research mentor may be a member of a closely related department. In either case, the candidate’s topic of study is closely related to the research mentor’s professional interests and expertise.
To assure adequate time for the proposed research, honors candidates enroll in the one-unit, year-long course sequence PHYS 497-498 – Senior Honors. In order to enroll in PHYS 497-498, students must have the strong support of their proposed research mentor and they must meet or exceed the collegiate minimum cumulative GPA for pursuing honors (or the department must successfully petition on behalf of the student for an exception to that minimum cumulative GPA). Honors students must also complete the senior capstone experience in physics; however, certain aspects of the senior capstone are modified or subsumed within the requirements for honors, as outlined below.
Requirements of the Honors Program in Physics
- Present a 50-minute talk (the "honors proposal") at a departmental colloquium within the first five weeks of the semester and complete an oral interview with physics faculty within a few days of that talk. Part of this talk stands as the capstone talk for the major. The talk should allow for a few minutes of questions from the audience.
- Complete all four gateway exams for the senior capstone in physics by the end of the fall semester.
- Conduct a supervised research project on a topic of contemporary importance in physics.
- Submit a written thesis detailing the research project by mid-April of the spring semester.
- Complete an oral examination by an outside examiner who is a specialist in the area of research covered by the project.
The Honors Proposal
This 50-minute talk serves to introduce the proposed topic of research and describe the specific project to be undertaken. The first half of the talk should be dedicated to a pedagogical introduction to the research area. This portion of the talk and associated oral exam will satisfy the talk and interview requirement for the senior capstone in physics and will be assessed using the same standards as those capstone talks. In preparing this part of their talks, honors candidates may find the advice on the senior capstone page of the department website helpful.
The remainder of the talk should build toward and outline the proposed honors research. Based on this portion of the talk and interview, department faculty will evaluate whether the proposed research is consistent with the goals of the honors program, including being of appropriate scope for a one-unit, year-long course at the senior level, having the potential to contribute to a publishable research result, being within the capability of the candidate to complete successfully, and having the support of a research mentor with the resources of time and expertise to guide the project.
Note that the early date for this honors proposal talk means that students should begin preparing for honors work in the spring of their junior year, collaborating with a potential research mentor to identify a project. Typically, honors candidates will work within a faculty mentor's research program during the summer prior to their senior year.
Completing all four gateway exams by the end of the fall semester provides time in the spring semester for the honors candidate to focus on completing their research project and communicating their results in a well-written honors thesis. If a candidate does not complete all four gateways by the end of the fall semester, they will have a last-chance opportunity to complete all remaining gateways during the first week of the spring semester. A student who does not complete the gateways by that time may elect to continue their research project through registration in PHYS 390 – Research in Physics.
The Anatomy of a Thesis
A thesis authored by the honors candidate is required to achieve honors in physics. Writing the thesis allows the honors candidate to (1) introduce and describe the foundations of the field of study, (2) demonstrate knowledge of the tools and methods used to conduct the research, and (3) synthesize and report the results of the project. Therefore, the thesis should be organized into three sections (each of which may contain any number of chapters):
- Section 1: The introductory section should include the motivation for the project as well as the foundational information needed to put the research project in context. This section should be readable, and comprehensible, by any faculty member of the department.
- Section 2: The tools and methods section should describe the research methods being used by the candidate to conduct the research project. This section should be accessible to faculty in the department who, regardless of subfield, use similar methods in their work (e.g. computational methods, experimental methods, or theoretical methods).
- Section 3: The results section of the thesis is reserved for the technical aspects and outcomes of the project and therefore may necessarily be written in such a way that it is accessible only to a limited number of members of the department and the external examiner.
All faculty in the department will be given the opportunity to read each honors thesis. While most members of the department will focus their feedback on the first (and possibly second) sections of the thesis, the research mentor, the external examiner, and one other designated member of the department (the "internal examiner") will be responsible for reading the entirety of the thesis in preparation for the oral exam.
Early in the outside examiner’s visit, the candidate will have a one-on-one conversation with the examiner, during which the candidate will give the examiner a “tour” of the honors research project — apparatus, code, graphs, and other results, as appropriate — to acquaint the examiner with the candidate’s perspective on and command of the project details. The conversation will typically last about 30 to 40 minutes; it should not last longer than 60 minutes. Following that conversation, the candidate will stand for an oral examination conducted by the external examiner. All department faculty will be invited to the oral examination; at minimum, the research mentor and the internal examiner must attend.
The candidate will be instructed to bring a laptop on which they can display the pdf version of their honors thesis, in case any questions relate to graphs, code, or other figures from the thesis. The first question addressed to the candidate will be “Explain the main result of your work.” While the external examiner is responsible for leading the oral examination, any faculty member present is welcome to participate by posing or following up on questions during the exam. The oral will typically last about 60 minutes; it may not last longer than 90 minutes.
Level of Honors
Following the oral examination, the level of honors will be determined by the external examiner, based on their assessment of the three major elements of the honors process — the candidate’s work on the research itself, the written thesis describing that work, and the candidate’s oral communication of ideas during the external examiner’s visit, focusing particularly on their ability to reason through questions during the oral examination. To earn highest honors, the candidate must distinguish themselves on all three elements of the process, while high honors or honors will be earned by those who distinguish themselves on two or one of those elements, respectively. While department faculty may offer context and advice, determination of the level of honors is, in the end, the purview of the external examiner.
Titles of recent honors theses include:
- "Approximate cloning of quantum entanglement"
- “Learning from Star Shadows: Investigating an Activity Cycle on Eclipsing Binary Star FL Lyr”
- “Numerical Simulations of Nonlinear Physics in the Universe”
- “Coherent Control of Processes That Break the Dipole Blockade”
- “PAC-MANN: A PulsAr Classifier — Machine-learning Algorithm with Neural Networks”
- “Simulating the high-energy Universe, from the Big Bang to black holes”