PHYS 390: Undergraduate Research in Physics

This page was last updated on August 16, 2020)

General Bulletin description: “Research conducted under the supervision of a faculty member in the Department of Physics.  Arrangements must be made with a faculty member and a written description of these arrangements must be submitted to and approved by the department before a permit will be issued to register for this course. A final report must be supplied to the department at the end of the semester.”   Prereq: Consent of department.

PHYS 390 provides a mechanism for students to receive academic credit for engaging in research. A faculty member in the physics department will serve as the research advisor for each student. This faculty advisor will have the primary responsibility for overseeing each individual student’s work and will determine the grade for the course. The number of credits can vary between 0 – 6 per semester, based on CWRU’s definition of the workload associated with a credit as  3 – 4 hours per week, on average, for each credit-hour. (

The department’s Senior Project Committee has an oversight role for PHYS 390; the chair of this committee must approve the arrangements made between the student and faculty advisor before a permit will be issued to enroll in PHYS 390. The chair of the committee will also receive the final report that must be submitted at the end of the semester and will post the course grade.

The procedure for registering for PHYS 390 is as follows. 
(Note that registration must be completed by the end of the DROP/ADD period in which PHYS 390 will be taken.  Ideally the process will be started – and largely completed – before the semester begins.)

1.  The student will contact a faculty member and negotiate the terms of the course, including:
– the nature of the research effort
– any particular objectives for the semester
– the number of credits (Each unit of credit equates to 3 to 4 hours per week of effort, on average. Effort equal to or less than 2 hours per week can be recognized on the transcript as a zero-credit course.)
– a tentative schedule of work (which the advisor and student may later modify on their own)
– a tentative schedule for student-advisor meetings (to insure appropriate oversight)
– the basis on which a grade will be assigned

2. A formal contract should be signed and returned to the chair of the senior project committee, in either hard copy or electronic form. The contract is available in pdf and Word format.  

3. After the senior project committee reviews the contract and any required adjustments are made, a permit will be issued for registration for the course.

4. At the end of the semester, before final grades are due, the student must provide a written report on the research experience to the Senior Project Committee .

5. Although SIS will show that the chair of the senior project committee is the instructor of record for PHYS 390, the research adviser for each student is responsible for the student’s experience in PHYS 390 and will decide the grade, transmitting it to the chair of the senior project committee for entry in SIS.

Archive of Projects   – original abstracts submitted by students for PHYS 390


1. The Senior Project Committee will not micromanage projects; the research advisor has the authority to modify arrangements such as time spent in the lab and the schedule for meetings. These elements of the project are included in the initial contract only to be certain that there is a mutual understanding of the expectations between the student and advisor.

2. If problems develop during the course of the semester, either from the student’s or the advisor’s point of view, and these problems can’t be settled directly, the issue can be referred to the Senior Project Committee or the department chair.  It is generally possible to withdraw from PHYS 390 until approximately the middle of the semester but assigning a grade is necessary after that point.

3. Credit is variable from 0 – 6 each semester.  This value should be determined in the contract and cannot be changed after the drop/add period ends.  See this posting for an explanation of the meaning of a credit-hour at CWRU.

4. There is no formal limit on how many times this course may be taken or the number of credits earned, either with the same research advisor or with different advisors.  While there is currently no restriction on the use of PHYS 390 to satisfy open elective credit requirements, this course is not intended for that purpose.  Students should not seek to use it and academic advisors and the Senior Project Committee should not approve it for this purpose.  The Senior Project Committee may reject requests for PHYS 390 if it feels this course is being used inappropriately.

5. Regular meetings with the faculty advisor should be scheduled, at a minimum of twice per month. This schedule should be noted on the contract.

6. The basis for assigning a final grade should be understood by both student and advisor, and included in the contract. It is permissible to leave the grade solely to the discretion of the advisor, without any quantifiable criteria, if this is acceptable to the student.

7. PHYS 390 was created with a regular A-F grading scale.  Since this course is not a degree requirement, it is possible for an individual student to change the grading system to P/NP using normal university procedures. It is not required that the student inform the course instructor when this is done but the student should, as a courtesy, inform the research advisor.  The advisor and student might, in fact, agree on using P/NP at the beginning of the semester.

8. A final written report must be submitted to the department.  The department may determine the due date (most likely the last day of class or a final exam reading day) and any specific format for the report. However, until further notice, these details are left to the research advisor to specify.  It is expected that the report will be reviewed by the advisor before it is submitted to the senior project committee chair and that the advisor will decide whether the report is acceptable or not before issuing a grade for the course.

9.  Work done for PHYS 390 credit must be independent of any paid research position or credit for another course, such as PHYS 351/353 Senior Project.  While the topic of any research pursued in PHYS 390 may be similar to other work done by the same student for other purposes, the actual hours devoted to PHYS 390 should be independent of any paid effort or senior project work.