Category Archives: Career Concerns

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:
    http://www.espnfc.us/blog/the-toe-poke/65/post/3036987/bayern-munichs-thomas-muller-has-ingenious-way-of-dodging-journalists

  2. Barack Obama’s piece in Science Magazine:
    http://tinyurl.com/jmeoyz5

  3. An interesting read on the history of physics education reform (Thanks to Rodrigo Soto-Garrido for sharing this with me):
    http://aapt.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1119/1.4967888

  4. I wonder if an experimentalist can get this to work:
    http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-bristol-38573364

Crises in Confidence

While pursuing a PhD in physics, it seems almost inevitable that at some point one will suffer a crisis in confidence. This is usually accompanied by asking oneself some of the following questions, especially if one is intending to go down the academic route:

  1. Am I good enough to be here?
  2. Should I leave with a Masters degree? Have I been in graduate school too long to leave with just a Masters degree?
  3. Should I start developing other skills to make myself a more marketable candidate to pursue other careers?
  4. Do I really like this enough to continue doing this?
  5. Have I made a huge mistake in going to graduate school? My friends who started working right away seem happier.
  6. Is the modern academic climate, where there is pressure to publish, where I want to be?

Obviously, I can’t answer all these questions. Everyone’s answers will be different. The reason I bring these questions up, though, is that they are on everyone’s mind, that is, unless you are going to be the next Feynman. Even the most successful of graduate students will likely go through periods where they are low on confidence.

The only thing that one can do is be honest and work to the best of one’s ability. Despite the immense pressure to publish, I think it is worth pursuing a project that will enable one to say after graduate school, “I accomplished A and I developed skills in B” and not “I published X papers”.

I also think it is worth talking to older graduate students and postdocs about how they combated their periods of low confidence — it may help you get through yours. Talking to one’s advisor about these issues can also help, but be wary that they are sometimes far removed from the graduate school experience.

I think that everyone can and should acknowledge that there is certainly a large element of luck involved in determining one’s scientific path. Sometimes you roll double-sixes and sometimes you roll a two-three combo.

Related: Inna has also written an excellent article about her experience in getting a PhD. You can read it here.

Non-sequitur: I was recently at another beam time run and as with most runs, got little sleep. As fatigue starts to kick in at 4-5 AM, I sometimes (for some bizarre reason) find myself listening to a song on repeat. “Ageless Beauty” happened to be the one this week, a cover of a song originally sung by Canadian group Stars:

Breadth Vs. Depth

One of the recurring struggles of being a physicist, especially for those early in their career, is how to balance depth and breadth of topics. In pursuing a PhD, it is necessary to study a particular topic in great detail, read the previous literature on the subject, and in some sense, become an expert in a very narrow area. One then needs to solve a problem in this area. In reality, this is all that is needed to obtain a PhD.

To become a good physicist, though, requires that one has a broad and general overview of, in our case, condensed matter physics and even topics beyond. Obviously, this is not the only trait one must have in order to become a good physicist, but it is indeed one of them.

Colloquially, there is therefore a balance that needs to be struck between “knowing a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing” vs. “knowing everything about something that is almost nothing and nothing about anything“.

Becoming a good physicist therefore requires both a broad physical knowledge and a depth of knowledge in a few specialized topics. It requires one to “zoom in” and focus on a narrow field, and solve a problem. It then requires one to “zoom out” to understand its implications on the grander scale for condensed matter physics or physics in general.

The thing about striking this balance between depth and breadth is that it is extremely difficult to do! There are questions that arise like:

  • How broad is broad enough?
  • For us in condensed matter physics, is learning particle physics “too broad”?
  • What about learning topics like computer science, electronics or economics?

I think that these questions are challenging to answer, partly because the answers will vary from person to person. There are numerous examples of physicists pursuing subjects like economics, biology, neuroscience, philosophy and computer science with great success.

During graduate school, the strategy I employed was to spend the day doing research, remaining narrow, while spending the evening reading widely in attempt to broaden my knowledge and understand why my research was of any importance at all. This was a decent strategy for me, but I can see others pursuing different schemes.

I still struggle with this dichotomy relatively often, and it is not one I see vanishing any time soon. I’m curious to know how others approach this problem, so please feel free to comment.

Is it really as bad as they say?

It’s been a little while since I attended A.J. Leggett’s March Meeting talk (see my review of it here), and some part of that talk still irks me. It is the portion where he referred to “the scourge of bibliometrics”, and how it prevents one from thinking about long-term problems.

I am not old enough to know what science was like when he was a graduate student or a young lecturer, but it seems like something was fundamentally different back then. The only evidence that I can present is the word of other scientists who lived through the same time period and witnessed the transformation (there seems to be a dearth of historical work on this issue).

phd100311s

It was easy for me to find articles corroborating Leggett’s views, unsurprisingly I suppose. In addition to the article I linked last week by P. Nozieres, I found interviews with Sydney Brenner and Peter Higgs, and a damning article by P.W. Anderson in his book More and Different entitled Could Modern America Have Invented Wave Mechanics? In his opinion piece, Anderson also refers to an article by L. Kadanoff expressing a similar sentiment, which I was not able to find online (please let me know if you find it, and I’ll link it here!). The conditions described at Bell Labs in David Gertner’s book The Idea Factory also paint a rather stark contrast to the present status of condensed matter physics.

Since I wasn’t alive back then, I really cannot know with any great certainty whether the current state of affairs has impeded me from pursuing a longer-term project or thinking about more fundamental problems in physics. I can only speak for myself, and at present I can openly admit that I am incentivized to work on problems that I can solve in 2-3 years. I do have some concrete ideas for longer-term projects in mind, but I cannot pursue these at the present time because, as an experimentalist and postdoc, I do not have the resources nor the permanent setting in which to complete this work.

While the above anecdote is personal and it may corroborate the viewpoints of the aforementioned scientists, I don’t necessarily perceive all these items as purely negative. I think it is important to publish a paper based on one’s graduate work. It should be something, however small, that no one has done before. It is important to be able to communicate with the scientific community through a technical paper — writing is an important part of science. I also don’t mind spending a few years (not more than four, hopefully!) as a postdoc, where I will pick up a few more tools to add to my current arsenal. This is something that Sydney Brenner, in particular, decried in his interview. However, it is likely that most of what was said in these articles was aimed at junior faculty.

Ultimately, the opinions expressed by these authors is concerning. However, I am uncertain as to the extent to which what is said is exaggeration and the extent to which it is true. Reading these articles has made me ask how the scientific environment I was trained in (US universities) has shaped my attitude and scientific outlook.

One thing is undoubtedly true, though. If one chooses to resist the publish-or-perish trend by working on long-term problems and not publishing, the likelihood of landing an academic job is close to null. Perhaps this is the most damning consequence. Nevertheless, there is still some outstanding experimental and theoretical science done today, some of it very fundamental, so one should not lose all hope.

Again, I haven’t lived through this academic transformation, so if anyone has any insight concerning these issues, please feel free to comment.

Flash Boys: A Few Lessons

In the past couple weeks, I was able to get my hands on and read (finally!) Flash Boys by Michael Lewis. It tells the story of a few honest guys that try to stir up the way business is done on Wall Street, with the main protagonist being Brad Katsuyama, a former employee at the Royal Bank of Canada. There are some startling revelations in this book, some of which are relevant to physicists that go onto work on Wall Street, and some that apply more generally.

During my time in graduate school, I saw a fair share of theoretically-trained physicists (that tended to be quite computationally proficient) go onto work at high-frequency trading (HFT) and investment banking firms. I don’t see this as necessarily a negative trend (especially for those that are working in investment banks rather than HFT firms), but this largely depends on the roles the physicists are hired to fill. In speaking to the physicists who have gone onto work on Wall Street, many of them have been attracted by the interesting puzzles/problems they are given to solve.

One of the main themes of the book is that the physicists, mathematicians and other STEM PhDs that work on Wall Street are often prevented from understanding their own roles within their companies. What I mean by this is that upper management in many Wall Street companies actively try to impede people with a more technical leaning from gaining a broad overview of the firm’s intentions and its role in the economy as a whole. The PhDs are hired to solve puzzles, not to understand the meaning of the puzzles they are solving. Indeed, many STEM PhDs are not even interested in knowing the consequences of the problems they are solving. This is just one of the parts of the book that I found to be particularly disturbing.

For those STEM PhDs that are thinking of going to work on Wall Street, Flash Boys is one of the most insightful and accessible reads one is likely to find. In stark contrast to the management at many of these firms, the book seeks to provide one with an overview of what has occurred on Wall Street since 2007. In it, Lewis describes the reasons behind the rise of dark pools and other public stock exchanges (i.e. the fragmentation of trading sites), why optical fibers that connect, e.g. Chicago exchanges to New York exchanges, are of immense value to HFT firms, how HFT firms essentially provide an unwanted tax to investors in the American stock market, and how investment banks’ (e.g. Goldman Sachs’) incentives don’t always align with those of their clients.

Since the writing of the book, things have started to change somewhat on Wall Street. Brad Katsuyama and his team have opened up the IEX (Investors Exchange), which seeks to prevent high-frequency traders from teasing out information about investment strategies employed by mutual funds, hedge funds, and individuals who invest from home. (This information can be used by HFT firms to front-run.) Even as things change, the book is without a doubt still very relevant today and is highly recommended, especially for those seeking a job on Wall Street.

On a more general level, one of the lessons I took from the book was about the need for introspection. It is sometimes necessary to ask oneself questions such as:

  1. What are the broader consequences of my work?
  2. What are the possible unintended consequences?
  3. What are the societal impacts?
  4. Are these consequences long or short term?

Even though we choose to pursue the seemingly singular goal of scientific knowledge and understanding, we do have a role to play in the broader society as well.

Paradigm Shifts and “The Scourge of Bibliometrics”

Yesterday, I attended an insightful talk by A.J. Leggett at the APS March Meeting entitled Reflection on the Past, Present and Future of Condensed Matter Physics. The talk was interesting in two regards. Firstly, he referred to specific points in the history of condensed matter physics that resulted in (Kuhn-type) paradigm shifts in our thinking of condensed matter. Of course these paradigm shifts were not as violent as special relativity or quantum mechanics, so he deemed them “velvet” paradigm shifts.

This list, which he acknowledged was personal, consisted of:

  1. Landau’s theory of the Fermi liquid
  2. BCS theory
  3. Renormalization group
  4. Fractional quantum hall effect

Notable absentees from this list were superfluidity in 3He, the integer quanutm hall effect, the discovery of cuprate superconductivity and topological insulators. He argued that these latter advances did not result in major conceptual upheavals.

He went on to elaborate the reasons for these velvet revolutions, which I enumerate to correspond to the list above:

  1. Abandonment of microscopic theory, in particular with the use of Landau parameters; trying to relate experimental properties to one another with the input of experiment
  2. Use of an effective low-energy Hamiltonian to describe phase of matter
  3. Concept of universality and scaling
  4. Discovery of quasiparticles with fractional charge

It is informative to think about condensed matter physics in this way, as it demonstrates the conceptual advances that we almost take for granted in today’s work.

The second aspect of his talk that resonated strongly with the audience was what he dubbed “the scourge of bibliometrics”. He told the tale of his own formative years as a physicist. He published one single-page paper for his PhD work. Furthermore, once appointed as a lecturer at the University of Sussex, his job was to be a lecturer and teach from Monday thru Friday. If he did this job well, it was considered a job well-done. If research was something he wanted to partake in as a side-project, he was encouraged to do so. He discussed how this atmosphere allowed him to develop as a physicist, without the requirement of publishing papers for career advancement.

Furthermore, he claimed, because of the current focus on metrics, burgeoning young scientists are now encouraged to seek out problems that they can solve in a time frame of two to three years. He saw this as a terrible trend. While it is often necessary to complete short-term projects, it is also important to think about problems that one may be able to solve in, say, twenty years, or maybe even never. He claimed that this is what is meant by doing real science — jumping into the unknown. In fact, he asserted that if he were to give any advice to graduate students, postdocs and young faculty in the audience, it would be to try to spend about 20% of one’s time committed to some of these long-term problems.

This raises a number of questions in my mind. It is well-acknowledged within the community and even the blogosphere that the focus on publication number and short term-ism within the condensed matter physics community is detrimental. Both Ross McKenzie and Doug Natelson have expressed such sentiment numerous times on their blogs as well. From speaking to almost every physicist I know, this is a consensus opinion. The natural question to ask then is: if this is the consensus opinion, why is the modern climate as such?

It seems to me like part of this comes from the competition for funding among different research groups and funding agencies needing a way to discriminate between them. This leads to the widespread use of metrics, such as h-indices and publication number, to decide whether or not to allocate funding to a particular group. This doesn’t seem to be the only reason, however. Increasingly, young scientists are judged for hire by their publication output and the journals in which they publish.

Luckily, the situation is not all bad. Because so many people openly discuss this issue, I have noticed that the there is a certain amount of push-back from individual scientists. On my recent postdoc interviews, the principal investigators were most interested in what I was going to bring to the table rather than peruse through my publication list. I appreciated this immensely, as I had spent a large part of my graduate years pursuing instrumentation development. Nonetheless, I still felt a great deal of pressure to publish papers towards the end of graduate school, and it is this feeling of pressure that needs to be alleviated.

Strangely, I often find myself in the situation working despite the forces that be, rather than being encouraged to do so. I highly doubt that I am the only one with this feeling.

Private Sector Careers from a Physics PhD

There is an interesting document that was put out by the American Institute of Physics recently about the careers of physics PhDs who had decided to join the private sector.

One interesting note from this document was that most of these physicists were asked: If you could go back in time, would you still accept your postdoc?

Most physicists in the private sector answered in the affirmative to this question. Perhaps a postdoc is not a bad idea even for those people who intend to later take a job in a company or elsewhere. Below is a table demonstrating these statistics with a more precise breakdown:

Postdoc

There are also numbers on salaries across different fields in the private sector. It is worth looking through the document if one is considering joining the private sector.