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    Five Tips For Particle Physics Ph. D. Wannabes
    By Tommaso Dorigo | November 23rd 2009 03:49 PM | 17 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Tommaso

    I am an experimental particle physicist working with the CMS experiment at CERN. In my spare time I play chess, abuse the piano, and aim my dobson...

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    Being a graduate student in particle physics is a tough, stressful job. I know it because I once was one, and I still remember the burden of giving exams, carrying on single-handedly a difficult analysis, and desperately struggling to learn the job of particle physicist, all the while trying to prove my worth to my colleagues. On the personal side, further trouble compounds the situation: one is usually fighting with tight money, stranded away from her family and boyfriend, and finds herself in the company of people whose similar priorities make the otherwise natural impulse of "having fun whenever possible" the last of their thoughts.

    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.

    Comments

    Hfarmer
    Sounds like good advice in general.  Thanks professor. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    adaptivecomplexity
    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.
    In all likelihood, your average first-year graduate student will think she's expected to know more than is really the case. The advisor and old hands in the lab will really expect a new grad student to very little, at least in the biomedical sciences.
    Mike
    dorigo
    Hi Mike, that's probably true, but there are good advidors and total a•••••es.... The important thing is for the student to realize she is Entitled to ignorance. Cheers, T.
    jtwitten
    Hmm, what is this word: "a•••••es"? Perhaps "abacuses"? Or is the plural "abaci"? Very confusing. Tragically, your restraint has rendered your argument unintelligible to me.

    Mike: very little = nothing
    adaptivecomplexity
    I know exactly what Tomaso is talking about - at one point I had an advisor who was an abacuses, before I settled into my final graduate lab.


    very little = nothing
    There are undergrads and 1st years who read this - I was trying not to be too insulting. But yeah, in biology anyway, expect to come in knowing basically nothing.
    Mike
    jtwitten
    You talked about the expectation. We expect you to know nothing. You cannot disappoint. Many first years exceed this expectation, just not in predictable ways.
    dorigo
    Very interesting Josh, tell us about the unpredictable ways and where they lead.
    Anyway, you guessed it wrong, it is actually "acrobats". The acrobats are the worse advisors, because in order to talk to them you have to first get them to come down on the floor.
    Cheers,
    T.
    jtwitten
    From the perspective of biology, they usually know many interesting ways to get PCR to fail that none of us have ever seen before.

    "Acrobats" does not end in "-es" per your original comment. Me thinks you are just making things up.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I wish I had known that the expectation was pretty low when I had started. By that I mean expectation of the adviser, not of the student - my own expectations were outlandish and unachievable. I also wish I had known that you could switch advisers midstream. They really should put together a book of practical tips like this for first years.
    adaptivecomplexity
    They really should put together a book of practical tips like this for first years.
    I sense a book in the making - "The Scientific Blogging Grad School Survival Guide" with the secrets that your thesis committee will never tell you about.
    Mike
    Becky Jungbauer
    That's not a bad idea at all! One of the best books someone ever gave me was Alternative Careers in Science - how did I not know about this big world out there that involved science but not tenure or publication pressure or running time series experiments over the holidays? We could do a combo grad school survival guide and career guide.
    dorigo
    Done deal. We just need Hank to find a good agent for us and sell the project to an editor for a hefty sum, and then we can get it done pretty quickly.
    T.
    adaptivecomplexity
    I get the impression that Hank can sell anyone anything - so be prepared to write!
    Mike
    Hank
    I am off selling snow to eskimos this week but as soon as I return, negotiations can begin ...
    dorigo
    I dunno about eskimos, but Al Gore would buy a hundred billion tons of it if you had it handy. Do you accept carbon emission vouchers as a form of payment ? ;-)
    Cheers,
    T.
    Scrodingers Cat
    Enjoyed reading this and good advice -a much needed guide to the totally unstructured environment that grad school is can really help save students increase their efficiency and find more balance in their experience.  And less frustration! Jigs
    > Life at a laboratory is a 24/7 business for a graduate student.

    Having known several graduate students with wives, and some with wives and kids, I will say that for many graduate students, life in a lab can be a 9-5, M-F job. Your life and your research are what you make it. And though your professor or others may try to squeeze more work out of you (because you are salaried and not paid by the hour), you often can decide what % of your life you are willing to devote to work.

    I've known many graduate students who have left professors who expected too high a % of waking hours in the lab and have been happy with the switch.