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Student Perspectives

Comments from graduates on what they gained from their experience in the Physics Professional MS program:
Benjamin Fisher, Jr., 2015 Graduate
As an undergraduate student, Benjamin Fisher Jr. took a class about lasers that sparked his interest in the subject. After graduating he landed a job in the field, but realized he needed further education to take his career to the next level. Here Benjamin tells us how the UW Master of Science in Physics program helped him gain the knowledge and skills necessary to increase his professional opportunities.
Can you tell us a bit about your current job?
I’m a research engineer at Synrad, a company that creates carbon dioxide lasers. A recent project I worked on, which I used as my final master’s project, was developing a carbon monoxide (CO) laser for Synrad.
The CO laser was a completely new product that used a different gas mixture, and that meant it was going to have a different set of optics, different characteristics and output for when we do run the laser. The laser’s particular use is in the field of glass processing. For example, it’s a more efficient tool for cutting and processing the glass that’s used on mobile phones.
Why did you decide to get your master’s in physics?
To further my career path. The next position up at my work is laser scientist. One of the prequalifiers for that is having a master’s or doctorate in physics or optics.
People who have gotten an undergraduate degree in physics, mathematics or even some of the engineering fields often run into a roadblock after the first several years of working in the industry. They’re expected to have a master’s or a doctorate to move on to the higher-ranking positions in companies. I see getting my master’s as a very predictable step to advance in the field that I'm in.
What appealed to you about the UW program in particular?
I really valued the reputation of the program. At Synrad, I was the fifth person to have gone through the program. My boss and the head of the research and development department thought highly of these other employees and remembered how much the program helped their careers. They were very supportive of my earning this master’s because of the good reputation that UW had with them.
The evening program also allowed me to continue to gain experience working at my current position while getting the education to be able move on to the next position.
How has your experience in the program helped with your current position?
This master’s program focused a lot of the coursework on problem solving and on different techniques I hadn't learned when I was an undergraduate. It expanded my tool case for what I'm able to do now and how I'm able to approach problems at work.
What did you learn that will allow you to move up the career ladder?
The most applicable classes in my circumstance were professor Larry Sorensen’s class on laser physics, professor Jeffrey Wilkes’ class on contemporary optics and professor Boris Blinov’s class on computer programming. All of those classes, as well as the core classes on electromagnetism, apply in a very hands-on way to the position of laser scientist. In that position you're doing predictive modeling – trying to create models to predict how the plasma and the different optics inside of the laser interact once you actually build the product.
Was it challenging to earn your master’s while working full time?
It's a lot of work, but it's definitely worth it. Even after a full day's work, it didn't feel like a chore going to class. The program worked very well with my schedule and ended up being a very good match for me.
The professors were aware that their students were working and many had families or had to travel for work. A lot of the lectures were recorded or put online. The whole program is focused toward making sure students are able to succeed.

Max Schlereth, 2014 Graduate
Max Schlereth completed the Professional Master of Science in Physics program at the University of Washington in 2014. He works as a design engineer at Williamson & Associates, a geophysical consulting firm. In this interview, Max shares how the advanced skills and knowledge he gained during the program have helped him grow professionally.
Can you tell us a bit about your educational and professional background?
I have a bachelor's in physics, and I have years of software development experience. I went back to the university for the physics master’s program.
What is your current career?
My job title is design engineer. I do primarily software, communications, electronics and embedded design for oceanographic equipment.
What prompted you to earn your master’s in physics?
I wanted to get more into embedded design, specifically working with oceanographic equipment.
Did the evening classes help you complete the degree?
Yes, the evening aspect of the program is very nice. I finished in three years, and it allowed me to work while I completed my degree.
Do you think having your master’s helped you get your current job?
It was pretty much a direct consequence of my going to school at the UW.
Are you using skills you learned in the master's program in your day-to-day work?
Definitely. For example, right now we’re working on a project that involves interpreting geophysical data using fast Fourier transforms to take data to and from the time domain and the frequency domain. I learned about how to do that directly in the UW program.
Were there any classes that stood out to you as particularly interesting or valuable?
Numerical Analysis was probably my favorite. You learn a lot of very useful math tools, and it's a really a good way to exercise your software development skills.
This program offers students the option to take a specialized course of study. Did you take a specialized track?
Yes. I focused my thesis on development of off-shore technology. That was for the capstone of the program, and I did that work while working here at my current job in partnership with the university. It was great.
I developed a telemetry system for a submersible vehicle, and I installed it and operated it in the North Sea for several months. I'm still doing that now, actually.
Was it important to you that your professors had knowledge in this area?
Absolutely. That and connection to industry. That was something I was specifically interested in from the get-go.
The instructors brought years and years of knowledge to the program, as well as expertise, good advice and perspective.
Did you have guest speakers? Did you make useful professional connections during the program?
The guest speakers were great – they put the meat and bones on the class content. I made professional connections through my instructors. Those were critical in landing my job.
What did you value most about the program?
I valued the applied approach – taking the approach to physics as it applies to our world, to engineering and to industry.
Is there any advice you’d give to people considering this master’s program?
When I first started the program, I was a little unsure how helpful it would be for career advancement. I would just assure someone thinking that way that it can certainly work like that very well. There are lots of internships and opportunities, such as partnering with the Department of Energy and organizations like that. It’s a great opportunity for someone looking for practical applications.

Nikhil Joshi, 2006 Graduate

Nikhil Joshi graduated from the Professional Master of Science in Physics program at the University of Washington in 2006. Before entering the program, he spent almost a decade at Microsoft as a program manager; he now teaches science and math at Raisbeck Aviation High School in the Highline Public School District. In this interview, Nikhil describes how the master’s program helped him start a new career teaching in areas he’d long been fascinated by.

Can you tell us a bit about your educational and professional background?

I've always been interested in astronomy and physics. My undergraduate degree was in astronomy from Caltech. I wound up at Microsoft and was there for about 10 years. Then I decided I was done with that career and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next.

What prompted you to earn your master’s in physics?

I was trying to decide if I wanted to go back into academia and jump into a Ph.D. program. The master’s program was a nice way to get back into taking courses and doing science and math work again.

Can you tell us about your current career?

I’m a math and science teacher at Raisbeck Aviation High School. We're a standard public high school, but everything is done as much as possible in an aviation and aerospace context. Project-based learning is a big part of our curriculum and so is getting people in industry to be involved in the classroom – engineers coming into the classroom and working with the kids and judging their projects, for example.
How did you become interested in teaching?
About halfway through the physics master’s program at the UW, I started becoming interested in teaching. I realized that here was something I'm quite passionate about. It seemed to fill my need for something new to do while still allowing me to do math and science, which I've always loved.
Do you think having the master’s in physics helped you get your job?
It was invaluable when I was applying to teaching jobs to be able to say I have a master’s degree in physics. And it certainly helped me pass all the state exams to qualify and be endorsed to teach physics and math.
How has having a master’s degree informed your teaching?
Having a deep conceptual and practical knowledge of the field that you're teaching is invaluable. You need to understand the subject at an advanced level, so when you answer student questions you can make connections to other branches of science. More important, having that deep foundation of a master’s also helps me stay abreast of the field and then bring that into my classroom.
Did you take a specialized track as part of the master’s program?
My first love was always astronomy and astrophysics. I took the three core physics classes that everybody's required to take, and then all of my other coursework was done in the astronomy department.
Can you tell us a bit about your individual study project for the program?
We did a search through the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is a map, a database of the skies and galaxies, that’s continually updated. I was looking through that for a particular variety of binary star system that's composed of two white dwarfs. Prior to the search, there were only about 11 or 12 of these stars that were known. My adviser team discovered several more, so that was fun, and we even published a paper out of it.
What did the instructors bring to the program?
They were all very helpful and more than willing to answer questions and work with you. It was a nice, very comfortable relationship between the instructors and the students, who were all a little bit older. I could focus just on learning. It felt more like a mentorship; I still keep up with the instructors to this day.
What did you value most about the program?
The relationships and being able to focus on learning. Being able to come back as an older student and interact with professors one on one, ask questions and focus on the material. It wasn't a high pressure environment -- they were there to teach and we were there to learn. It was the way you always wanted college to be.