Disorganized Reflections

Recently, this blog has been concentrating on topics that have lacked a personal touch. A couple months ago, I started a postdoc position and it has gotten me thinking about a few questions related to my situation and some that are more general. I thought it would be a good time to share some of my thoughts and experiences. Here is just a list of some miscellaneous questions and introspections.

  1. In a new role, doing new work, people often make mistakes while getting accustomed to their new surroundings. Since starting at my new position, I’ve been lucky enough to have patient colleagues who have forgiven my rather embarrassing blunders and guided me through uncharted territory. It’s sometimes deflating admitting your (usually) daft errors, but it’s a part of the learning process (at least it is for me).
  2. There are a lot of reasons why people are drawn to doing science. One of them is perpetually doing something new, scary and challenging. I hope that, at least for me, science never gets monotonous and there is consistently some “fear” of the unknown at work.
  3. In general, I am wary of working too much. It is important to take time to exercise and take care of one’s mental and emotional health. One of the things I have noticed is that sometimes the most driven and most intelligent graduate students suffered from burnout due to their intense work schedules at the beginning of graduate school.
  4. Along with the previous point, I am also wary of spending too much time in the lab because it is important to have  time to reflect. It is necessary to think about what you’ve done, what can be done tomorrow and conjure up experiments that one can possibly try, even if they may be lofty. It’s not a bad idea to set aside a little time each day or week to think about these kinds of things.
  5. It is necessary to be resilient, not take things personally and know your limits. I know that I am not going to be the greatest physicist of my generation or anything like that, but what keeps me going is the hope that I can make a small contribution to the literature that some physicists and other scientists will appreciate. Maybe they might even say “Huh, that’s pretty cool” with some raised eyebrows.
  6. Is physics my “passion”? I would say that I really like it, but I could have just as easily studied a host of other topics (such as literature, philosophy, economics, etc.), and I’m sure I would have enjoyed them just as much. I’ve always been more of a generalist in contrast to being focused on physics since I was a kid or teenager. There are too many interesting things out there in the world to feel satiated just studying condensed matter physics. This is sometimes a drawback and sometimes an asset (i.e. I am sometimes less technically competent than my lab-mates, but I can probably write with less trouble).
  7. For me, reading widely is valuable, but I need to be careful that it does not impede or become a substitute for active thought.
  8. Overall, science can be intimidating and it can feel unrewarding. This can be particularly true if you measure your success using a publication rate or some so-called “objective” measure. I would venture to say that a much better measure of success is whether you have grown during graduate school or during a postdoc by being able to think more independently, by picking up some valuable skills (both hard and soft) and have brought a  multi-year project into fruition.

Please feel free to share thoughts from your own experiences! I am always eager to learn about people whose experiences and attitudes differ from mine.

A few nuggets on the internet this week:

  1. For football/soccer fans:

  2. Barack Obama’s piece in Science Magazine:

  3. An interesting read on the history of physics education reform (Thanks to Rodrigo Soto-Garrido for sharing this with me):

  4. I wonder if an experimentalist can get this to work:

6 responses to “Disorganized Reflections

  1. As a mid-stage PhD student, I agree and/or identify with many of these! In particular, it’s nice to hear someone else articulate #6. I feel similarly, but I think many of peers would not feel the same. On a related note, I also sometimes think about how I ended up in my particular field due to a series of fairly random events – e.g. choosing a certain undergrad institution, taking a couple courses with certain professors who strongly influenced my grad school choice, etc. Had I simply chosen a different undergrad institution, or taken slightly different classes, things could have easily turned out completely differently. I really enjoy my field, so no complaints – but it’s interesting to think about how easily I could have ended up on a fairly different research path.


    • Thanks for your comment. I agree with you — my research path was also quite tortuous. Strangely, in my case, though a little context is needed, I probably wouldn’t be doing physics if I did not tear my ACL at the age of 19.


  2. #8 (what you venture to say there) is a nice way to keep internally motivated, but it is (partially) at odds with the economics of academic hiring. I think that’s a good perspective as a “life goal”, but not necessarily, by itself, a good way to organize one’s approach to “work goals”. I would suggest that life goals supersede (or encompass) work goals. So achieving the life goal parts does mean success, but this structure allows for both to be important, while allowing for a bit of distance between one’s personal worth from the “work goals”, which I think is the spirit of what you are trying to say.


    • I totally agree that it is at odds with the way academic hiring is done. What I am trying to say is that one should not measure his/herself with respect to that. I would much rather pursue science in a way I see fit, rather than publish x papers that I may not perceive as worthwhile.

      If, at the end of the day, physics departments think that my agenda doesn’t align with theirs, these are probably places I wouldn’t want to be anyway. Being an academic isn’t my goal — the goal is to be able to do things I find creatively fulfilling, and this can be done in many ways.

      In this sense, I don’t have “work goals” and “life goals” — I just have goals.


  3. It’s also good to have a working environment where it is okay to not know everything. If people can admit mistakes without judgement, it makes for a happier, more productive workplace, where we are more open to learning from one another (of course if it isn’t the same mistake repeated ten times, that gets on everyone’s nerves).

    Regarding passions, it’s true that the more you know about a topic, the more curious you become. Perhaps your passion is for learning, for knowledge and understanding, and you just happen to know an awful lot about one part of cmp.
    Thought processes aren’t that different among disciplines. We sometimes discover great universalities between different areas. Isn’t that wonderful, too?


  4. ‘One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.’ A Einstein.

    This is a wonderful quote for posterity.


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