Tag 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

What Life is Like in Grad School…

Graduate school is tough. It takes a lot of perseverance and this can be emotionally and mentally draining. While it is important to work hard, it is also important to take care of oneself physically, mentally and emotionally. It is necessary to take vacations, and importantly, to do something else (sports, music, hobbies, socialize, etc.). Otherwise the scenes is this video will become an all to familiar reality…

Although this video is humorous, it does tickle a weird part of the graduate school experience that, unfortunately, too many can relate to!

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.