I know that this blog is read by quite a few particle physicist wannabes, so as I travel by train from Venice to Turin this morning (for a workshop on Higgs boson physics, if you care to know), I am putting together a few tips and tricks which may be useful to graduate students. The trip lasts four and a half hours, so there is plenty of time to assemble a thorough list. Whether you have the time to read it, that is another matter, of course.
Now, I do not consider myself old enough yet to feel comfortable as I take the part of the old sage: there is a lot I do not know yet of the world of particle physics, and I sometimes still feel like a tourist, especially when I sit with equal rights in committees or meetings in the company of people who have written the books I studied twenty years ago. Yet during these twenty years I have graduated more than a dozen students and tutored seven Ph.D.s, so I feel capable to give advice to them. After all, I can say with certainty that what I have forgotten about particle physics is a lot more than what I still know: that makes me an expert, does it not ?
Particle physics is the only branch of physics I have direct experience on, and although some of what I will say can be recycled with profit by graduate students in other fields, there are a few things that make the HEP world special. So I shall take as case study a Jane, second-year experimental particle physics graduate student just arrived at the lab where she will carry on her research work. We will try and see how we can help her survive in such a hostile environment as a foreign laboratory, where detectors are built, Feynman diagrams crowd the blackboards, and people of all ethnicities wander with a crazy look in their eyes through cheerless corridors, at the most improbable times of the day or the night.
Of course, at the beginning Jane will have lots of problems which have little or nothing to do with physics: find cheap lodging and furniture, open a bank account, fill endless pages of paperwork for visa and health care, get trained for access to the lab facilities, etcetera. We cannot help her much with that, so we hope Jane is smart enough to get a hold of somebody who has gone through the same business one year before.
One: strip bare in front of selected few
Day-to-day errands are already a challenge in a foreign country, but at the lab is where life will be the toughest. After setting her up, her advisor Bruce will give her a tour of some absurdly complicated hardware, and provide a rather handwaving explanation of how the whole thing works. As she gets briefed she will feel really ignorant, but her impulse to ask questions will be strongly dampened, because her focus will be to try and avoid making a fool of herself with Bruce, especially at the beginning. She will remember that the reference letters Bruce got to read about her contained lots of overstatements about her experience with similar pieces of hardware, so Jane will try and protect that image. Huge mistake.
My advice number one to Jane: find a handful of people ranked higher than you to whom you can show your real self and to whom disclose naked the real status of your knowledge, such that you can ask for their help whenever you need it, without embarassment. The best thing is if one of these folks is your advisor. If Bruce, after having accepted you in his group, finds out you do not know much about the hardware you are supposed to work on, it all goes to your advantage. He will be slightly pissed off, but he will most likely get over with it; in the meantime, you will have significantly eased the pressure you self-inflicted to yourself by trying to live up to impossible standards. In chessplayer jargon this is a positional sacrifice: you give up a pawn to get out of a cramped position, or to relieve the pressure on your king; maybe regaining the pawn will be possible later on. Leaving chess aside, you are sacrificing some of your prestige with Bruce for an easier access to knowledge: the right to freely ask questions. As for the prestige, there will be time aplenty to get Bruce to change his mind about you.Now that Bruce knows that Jane cannot tell a resistor from a capacitance, he will have to explain to her the details of the circuitry. If Jane lets Bruce know that her understanding of an oscilloscope is rather foggy, he will have to sit down with her and teach her the tricks of the trade. He will be unlikely to run away in rage, because he needs Jane to perform work for the project, and he is the one responsible for putting his manpower in the condition of working effectively. Jane told Bruce she is unable to handle the task without further help, and help is bound to arrive.
If Jane, on the other hand, does not find the courage to disclose the holes in her background to Bruce, or if she judges that Bruce is the kind of guy who is likely to declare war to her if he realizes he has been misinformed about her expertise, then Jane needs to find somebody else in the lab with whom to come clean, and ask for help. This is not optimal, but there will typically be somebody around willing to play that part: after all, most everybody has gone through the same calvary, and has received help in times of trouble during his or her days of need. Jane really needs a few allies, and the best time to get them is yesterday: she needs to find them early on!
Two: become somebody
Life at a laboratory is a 24/7 business for a graduate student. Jane will have to decide whether to concentrate 110% of her efforts on her work and studies, or to invest some of her vigil time at meetings, and seminars too. While of course the main focus of a Ph.D. must be the creation of some original work and a possibly scientifically interesting new result, there are other strategic occupations that Jane should get busy with. One of these is understanding what others are doing around her, to get inspiration and grab ideas. Another is to build the image of a knowledgeable, active physicist. So one good trick is to catch those two birds with one stone. If Jane participates actively at more meetings and seminars than those specific of her research topic that is an excellent move, because people will see her around and maybe notice her existence. Beware, this is not for granted in a large collaboration, especially if Jane uses to work during the night (as is unfortunately the case with many graduate students) and to stay barricaded in her tiny office, leaving it only for physical needs. Those are Jane's huge mistakes number two and three together. Let me explain.
A typical particle physics experiment runs several internal meetings at a periodic pace. At the meetings the physics is discussed, people present updates on their work, and results get approved for publication. Although Jane's analysis will fit well only in one of the meetings, and conversely she will feel the need to be adjourned on the proceedings and activities going on in just one meeting, it is a very good idea for Jane to follow as many other meetings as possible. Conveners of the groups, and leaders of the experiment, like to see these meeting well attended, and they will soon notice Jane's presence. And Jane will learn a lot from the extra physics she gets exposed to.
My second advice to Jane is thus the following: get out of your hole, become somebody! Live and breathe the life of the lab, feel the privilege of participating in the groups' activities. Show them you exist. Learn from more experienced people and their seminars. Absorb their technique in putting together talks, in reusing slides, in mastering the subtle art of preparing talks in five minutes. Doing this will allow your face to be known -later you will have to work on associating a name to it in their brains. Your participation will also greatly increase your knowledge of the physics and the analysis techniques used in other groups, which is a necessary input for good ideas to be used in your own work.
Following three times as many meetings as those strictly necessary to Jane's work is not too heavy a burden. In most instances, Jane will be able to run jobs from her laptop while she listens to the talks, so she will not lose too much time. An added bonus (which unfortunately applies only to US laboratories) is that Jane will usually find free food (bagels, muffins, cookies, etc.) at the meetings: a time and money saver.
The second and last part of this long piece is available here.