Some Questions that Arose During My Graduate Years

Below are questions and concerns that arose during my graduate school career, many of which I still cannot answer. Most of these are specific to an experimentalist, but there are some in there that apply to theorists as well. Here is a list of some of these points:

  1. If I spend my time developing a new instrument and learning how to build a lab, knowing that my publication record will be delayed/suffer as a result, should I take on such a long-term project? Keep in mind that taking on a long-term project will instill me with the necessary skills to construct and design other experiments in the future.
  2. Related to 1: Are experimentalists who prioritize technique development (which may take years) over churning out papers with a few standard experimental techniques necessarily going to suffer as a result? Should the physics community necessarily prioritize one over the other?
  3. How much time should I spend trying to gain a broader knowledge of different subjects in my field and outside my field, knowing that while this may be a fruitful long-term strategy, I am likely to suffer in the short term?
  4. When is a good time to graduate? Is this dictated by the number of papers that I have published or when I feel like I am no longer growing a physicist in my current climate? Should I stay just so that the papers that are in the works get published?
  5. How much time should I devote to theory? Is it worth the time to learn quantum field theoretical methods and the like as an experimentalist? For a theorist: How much time should I spend getting accustomed to the various experimental techniques?
  6. How do I manage the two-body problem in the modern academic climate if my spouse is likely to get a job at an institution where I’m unlikely to receive an offer (or vice versa)?
  7. Is it possible nowadays to make a departure into the industrial sector and make my way back into academia at some point?
  8. If there is a prominent physicist I would like to postdoc with at an institution that does not have the “brand name”/reputation of a premier university, should I still work with him/her? What if the physicist is not particularly well-known, but is prominent in an non-mainstream sub-field?
  9. Are the papers one has published (number, prominence of journals, etc.) the only metric by which to measure the contribution of a graduate student? Have recommendations become more empty?
  10. Should one work in a field that is trendy/popular? Or should one search for physics in places that are less explored, realizing that one will necessarily receive a lower number of citations?

I suspect that many experimentalists (and maybe some theorists) have questions out there that are similar to these. On most of these questions, I think the safest bet is to take the middle path, but one’s natural inclination may be to lean one way or the other. For instance, I lean towards developing new spectroscopic methods (which I find creatively fulfilling), but this can take years, and publication output is not high during such an undertaking. In some sense, it is “safer” career-wise to just perform tried and true experiments on new materials.

I will try in the near future to answer some of these questions, but it should be said that I am far from being an authority of any kind on these topics. These are just some of the questions that inevitably arise in everyone’s mind during their time in graduate school in condensed matter physics, and I thought sharing my thoughts may help foster some conversation.

In some sense, it is a shame that questions like these have to arise in one’s mind at all during graduate school. Ideally, one would like to concentrate on one’s work and scientific output — however, the modern climate is such that these questions become unavoidable especially when one nears the end of a graduate school career.

Please feel free to share more questions/concerns in the comments.

5 responses to “Some Questions that Arose During My Graduate Years

  1. Regarding number 1 and 2 I think the best thing to do is being conservative and working on relatively boring but paper-producing (in this term right?!) subjects and experiments till getting tenured. After getting tenured one can work on interesting, life-affirming subjects without being afraid of decreased rate of publication.
    Regarding number 3 I would say the same thing. I personally love learning. Learning for the sake of learning. I enjoy it more than anything else but I think learning in the expense of getting no job and being broke is not a good idea. One will have to pay the bills eventually. Real life is much more harder than physics and that is the inevitable bitter truth of life. But the good news is these things are local in time. Eventually these problems will fade away one way or another and then, no one can take the joy of learning from me.


    • Well, I’ll let you know how it turns out…I didn’t play it so safe. Instead, I went for a development project that may pay off in the long-term, but only time will tell how it turns out. Thanks for you comment though.


  2. Anshul, these are really good questions. Here are my thoughts, from the point of view of a junior faculty member in computational condensed matter. I don’t know that they’re right!

    1. Focus on the science, your skills, and your interests. Match the three for best effect. Some people will have an easier road and some a harder one; don’t worry about the ones that appeared to have it easier than you.
    2. The perceived value of your work has a lot of randomness, and can depend as much on how you present it to others as its inherent value. People do recognize that we need a spectrum of scientists with different specialties.
    3. Pursue things that excite you, although remember that you still have a job to do (publish papers on good science!).
    4. Graduation is a sliding scale. Communicate with your advisor.
    5. You can’t know the details of everything. I like to at least try to understand the inputs and outputs of relevant experiments and theoretical tools. Make friends with experts.
    6. It’s really tough. Ask about dual hire opportunities.
    7. This is hard, you need to maintain connections. Ask Yossi Patiel while he’s here!
    8. Depends on what you want your postdoc to be like. At premier universities, it’s not just about the person you work with; the environment is really different and will up your game. But you can be successful with almost anyone if you put your mind to it and they’re not crazy.
    9. The opinion of people in the field matters a lot. Good recommendations are important. Actually, even more important is someone who will talk highly of you in an informal setting. Too bad we can’t control that..
    10. Ideally you are the one that makes the trends! Personally I hate trying to follow trends. But if there is a hot topic that you can provide a unique insight into, go for it.

    Interested if there are other answers..Cheers!


    • Thanks for your comment, Lucas. I actually didn’t deviate too far away from your recommendations, so I hope that’s a good sign! I guess we’ll see in the long run whether the choices I made paid off.


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