Texas Tech University

Physics & Astronomy Continues Upward Trajectory

December 18, 2023

Physics & Astronomy Continues Upward Trajectory

Sticking to a strategic plan helps Texas Tech’s Department of Physics and Astronomy continue its upward trajectory in a competitive world.

The consistently diligent work of the faculty of Texas Tech University's Department of Physics and Astronomy is paying off in terms of prestige and recognition.

The department was ranked No. 56 among U.S. universities in the recently released ShanghaiRanking Consultancy, one of the significant assessments that review and rate academic institutions from around the world. The department continues a trajectory that has steadily trended upward during the past 20 years.

“I joined the Texas Tech faculty in 2006,” said Sung-Won Lee, the department chair. “In recent years, we have reconstructed the department where the focus of our research falls primarily into three specific areas. The Shanghai rankings emphasize the research side as well as papers published, talks given by faculty members at conferences and overall international reputation.”

Texas Tech's physics and astronomy research is concentrated in three strategic fields of pursuit: astrophysics, condensed-matter physics and high-energy physics. 

“The departments near the top of the rankings are large and have 50 or more faculty members,” Lee said. “About six years ago, we began looking at what we can do better than others. We cannot do everything, so we decided on three important areas of fundamental research that are competitive. We set that up and hire so new faculty members can work on their research and work together with other faculty.”

the decay of the Standard Model Higgs boson to a pair of photons
Texas Tech researchers play role in identifying 'God Particle': Event recorded with the CMS detector in 2012 at a proton-proton center of mass energy of 8 TeV. The event shows characteristics expected from the decay of the Standard Model Higgs boson to a pair of photons (dashed yellow lines and green towers).

The department's long-range planning and adherence to its goals have not gone unnoticed on campus.

“The Department of Physics and Astronomy has been very strategic in building its areas of specialty,” said Tosha Dupras, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “That, coupled with the hiring of excellent, internationally renowned faculty has resulted in the department being well ranked. This achievement is remarkable given the department's size, as many of the top-ranked national and international departments are double to triple in size.”

Globally, Texas Tech is ranked between No. 201 and No. 300 among thousands of institutions (more than 750 in the U.S. alone). It also was ranked 78th in the U.S. in the most recent QS Rankings. 

“Rankings don't mean everything, but they are something people pay attention to, especially prospective students who might Google ‘top 100 physics departments,'” Lee said. “They are also important from the standpoint of departmental pride. All our faculty are research-oriented, which is one reason we do well.”

Physics and Astronomy was one of 17 areas of study at Texas Tech to be included in the Shanghai rankings. Others (and their ranking) are: communication (51-75); library and information science (51-75); education (101-150); public administration (151-200); hospitality & tourism management (151-200); veterinary sciences (201-300); law (201-300); business administration (201-300); political science (201-300); psychology (201-300); agricultural sciences (301-400); management (301-400); earth sciences (401-500); ecology (401-500); chemical engineering (401-500); environmental science & engineering (401-500).

Lee said the rankings validate the department's strategic vision – and should continue to do so in the years ahead.

“We will see additional impacts in the next three to four years,” he said. “The approach requires patience with junior faculty and their research in terms of being able to continue measuring outcomes. We see some successes now because of their ability to land grants and fund their research.”

About a decade ago, the department established the astrophysics group, which has brought significant prestige to the department.

merging of two black holes
Texas Tech researchers involved in Gravitational Wave discovery: Depiction of the merging of two black holes that was detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) on September 14, 2015. It was the first direct observation of gravitational waves and of a black hole binary.

“They are super,” Lee said. “Every one of them is internationally recognized for outstanding scientific achievements. That helps raise our rankings. We would like to become a mecca for gravitational waves and observational astrophysics.”

The ranking, though, is not only a reflection of the outstanding faculty in the department, but it is also indicative of the university's strong financial commitment to academic excellence.

“You cannot do it without sufficient resources,” Lee said. “At Texas Tech, we have strong support from funding agencies, and we are well funded to run our research programs being carried out. Our department is part of world-class scientific collaborations. We produce a minimum of at least 100 published papers per year. We are conducting top-tier physics research that is internationally recognized.”

The department will continue to strive for excellence in the future, particularly in the areas of multi-messenger astrophysics and instrumentation, theoretical particle physics and non-collider experimental particle physics, and quantum information science.

“Our department is smaller than other R1 universities, but we are getting younger due to the recent recruitment of several new faculty members,” Lee said. “We are well aware of what we can do to be competitive and better than others. Considering all the resources we have, I think the ranking we achieved is somewhat miraculous. However, we will continue to invest in our three priority research areas in line with the department's long-term strategic plan to conduct top-notch, internationally competitive research and ultimately strive to become a top-tier physics department in the U.S.

“I would like to extend my sincere thanks to our research teams for the great work they have done over the past many years. I would also like to thank the university leadership for generously supporting our department in many ways." 

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