Image result for caltech logoPh 78 @ Caltech - Physics Senior Thesis (Experiment)
Ph 79 @ Caltech - Physics Senior Thesis (Theory)
Course coordinator: Professor Kenneth Libbrecht,
Office: 263 West Bridge

Course Description
Ph 78abc is the Physics Senior Thesis course for projects in experimental physics.
Ph 78 can be used to satisfy the Senior Laboratory requirement (Ph 77ab) in the physics option, provided the thesis project involves sufficient content pertaining to experimental physics.

Ph 79abc is the Physics Senior Thesis course for projects in theoretical physics.
Ph 79 cannot be used to satisfy the Senior Laboratory requirement (Ph 77ab).

In both Ph 78abc and Ph 79abc, students perform independent physics research under the supervision of a faculty advisor, and that research is described in a written Senior Thesis, which is defended during an oral presentation to the thesis committee near the end of the academic year. Your faculty advisor does not have to be in the physics department, although your research should have a reasonable amount of physics content.

Ph 171 and Ph 172 are other options for obtaining course credit for independent research. Ph171/172 can be taken for any number of terms, and the number of units awarded is flexible. Plus there is no course requirement in Ph171/172 for a thesis or oral presentation (although your advisor may require these). In contrast, Ph78 and Ph79 must be taken for a full year, and both the written thesis and two oral presentations are required.

Schedule and Procedures
Before fall term begins: The first step in taking Ph 78/79 is to find a faculty advisor and research project. There is no set procedure for how this happens. The most common route is to talk with various professors and inquire about a suitable project. You can continue a previous SURF or other existing research project if you wish. You are also welcome to devise your own research project, as long as you can find a faculty member who agrees to be your thesis advisor.

Note: To be considered as a substitute for Ph77ab, a Ph78 Senior Thesis project does not need to include a laboratory component, but it should involve experimental physics research. For example, a thesis project involving experimental data analysis can be used to fulfill the Ph77ab option requirement.

Beginning of fall term: Once you have a project lined up, fill out this form (plain text version below) within one week after courses begin, and send it to (please return one-page pdf files only). Then sign up for Ph 78 or Ph 79 as you would any other course, before Add Day. If you have any questions, contact

Near the end of fall term: At some date in December (date to be determined), you will be required to present your thesis topic to the thesis committee in a 20-minute oral presentation. In this presentation you should:
1) Describe your project, including some physics background and specific project details.
2) Describe what you have accomplished so far during fall quarter.
3) Describe what you plan to accomplish during the remainder of the academic year.

Near the end of spring term: By some deadline in May (date to be determined), you will need to submit your final written Senior Thesis. You can find some information about formats for senior theses here, and this page includes a link to examples of past senior theses at Caltech. About a week later, you will describe your thesis research to the thesis committee in a 20-minute oral presentation.

Assuming your first presentation to the thesis committee goes well, you will receive a grade of Pass for fall term, to be followed by another grade of Pass for winter term. After your final thesis presentation, the thesis committee will assign a letter grade that will apply retroactively for the entire year. In other words, if your final grade is an A-, then your Ph78/79 grades for fall, winter, and spring terms will all be A-.

Grading process: Each member of the Senior Thesis committee reads every written thesis and attends every thesis presentation. Then the committee comes together to discuss grading at some length. For each thesis we consider the quality of the science, the written thesis, the oral presentation, the difficulty of the project, research progress and results, possible setbacks and problems encountered, and perhaps other factors. We have no set rubric or point system, but the written thesis is clearly of central importance. In this document we are looking for research accomplishment, clear presentation, scholarly writing, and a solid knowledge of the subject. We may discuss your thesis with your faculty advisor(s) and immediate supervisor(s) as well. Typically each committee member brings different opinions about the different theses to the table, depending on their individual backgrounds and interests. The discussion then goes back and forth until a grade is decided for every thesis, and every committee member agrees with all the grades.

Contact, or stop by at 263 West Bridge.

Some useful links
Caltech Senior Theses. This page descibes how you can submit your written thesis to the Caltech archive. There is no specific thesis template or style
required for Ph78/79, and you are not required to deposit your thesis into the Caltech system. (Also, this is not done for you as part of Ph78/79.) All we require is that you provide a pdf version for the committee.

Example Senior Theses. This page (linked to in the above page) shows you some past senior theses at Caltech. These are useful for guiding your own writing, and you can pursue different theses and topics to see what writing styles you like best.

Plain text version of form mentioned above: 

Student Name:
Student e-mail address:

Faculty Advisor Name:
Faculty Advisor e-mail address:

Main Supervisor Name (if different from Faculty Advisor):
Main Supervisor e-mail (if different from Faculty Advisor):

Project Title (can be changed later):

Is this an Experimental (Ph 78) or Theoretical (Ph 79) project?:
If Experimental, will you be using Ph 78 as a substitute for Ph 77ab?:

Is this project a continuation of a SURF or other research project (yes/no)?:
If yes, who was your previous advisor?:

Brief Project Description: (Please fit entire document on one page; okay to reduce font size as needed. Return .pdf files only):