Five Tips For Particle Physics Ph. D. Wannabes - Part II
    By Tommaso Dorigo | November 24th 2009 05:50 PM | 12 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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    This is the second part of a two-part collection of tips for particle physics graduate students. The first part is here.

    Three: be a fool today if you want to be a guru tomorrow

    The third advice I have in store for Jane is maybe the toughest to follow, at least at first. But I do believe it is of critical importance for her to grow, become knowledgeable, and distinguish herself from the rest of the pack.

    In large experiments, you never manage to get to know all your colleagues -there simply is not enough time to do that. You will get to know the names and recognize the face of the physics group conveners, the people with responsibilities, and the few colleagues who do a job similar to yours. On the other hand, you would like -you should like!- to become known and esteemed by your colleagues. Remember, some of them will be the ones who write reference letters for you one day, or those who decide to grant you the right to represent the collaboration at an international conference.

    How do you manage to become somebody ? It is not enough to present your work regularly at the relevant physics group, because not many follow that group's activities. So you have to play in all the tables, in a way.

    The way to get people to know you, attach your name to your face, and realize you are knowledgeable is, maybe suprisingly, to ask questions at meetings, as often as possible. You do not understand something about a plot your colleague is showing during his talk ? Ask about it. The x-axis labels are missing ? Ask what the heck are the units, even if Groucho's child of five could understand it. You arrive before the last slide and the speaker is saying she measured x with two inverse femtobarns ? Sit down, wait ten seconds for the dust to settle (you do not want them to see you have just arrived), and ask her whether she plans to add more data to improve the measurement. You doze off during the talk and wake up at the Summary slide ? Ask to see slide 7 again (there is always a slide seven, so this is a safe call), and then stare at it pensively for five seconds, finally saying "Ok, I see, thank you".

    Of course, you should ensure you do not become a real nuisance, so you need some self-containment. A good rule-of-thumb is the following: ask a question every 30 minutes. A good pace is about three questions per meeting at a meeting with 15 to 30 participants; half that rate should be enough in case of larger audiences -others must ask questions, too!

    The examples of questions you may always ask (content-free ones, that is) that I have given above may sound silly, but they work, and they can always be used. Usually, however, you will be at the meeting from the start, with your brain functioning normally. If so, you will have lots of real questions to ask about the work you hear discussed. And most of the times you will be afraid that the questions you are puzzling yourself over are stupid ones: ones with obvious answers, or worse, ones which betray your abysmal ignorance of the whole topic. Surely, you reason, you should avoid making a fool of yourself in front of such large audiences of smart people. Another huge mistake.

    My third advice to Jane is the following: ask questions if you do not know the answer, even if you are 99% sure they are dumb ones. Remember, only by asking questions you learn the answer; otherwise, you will remain ignorant. If something is unclear to you, for the love of yourself, put your self-esteem aside and ask the darn thing to the speaker. You think the rest of the audience knows the answer and will think you are a fool ? That is quite wrong! First of all, half of the audience is not smarter than you, and you will become popular among them if you straighten out a point over which they too were puzzling, by putting your face behind the question. Among the knowledgeable other half, a good third will be asleep, another third will be busy with their laptop, and the few others will not care to listen to you. In a 40-strong audience, you may expect that maybe three or four people really understand your question, know the answer, and judge you for your ignorance; they will think you are uninformed, but will nevertheless appreciate that you had the balls to ask. The others will raise their eyes from their laptops or turn them to you, stare at you while you ask the question, and go back to their occupation. That is added value: 90% of the audience has identified you as a person who participates actively to meetings.

    And there is more. Jane will be surprised to know that every once in a while her question will turn out to not be dumb at all. At the beginning, and for a while, this will happen rarely; but as Jane's experience grows, she will find out that the exercise of asking questions does not always produce answers: at times, she will manage to put her finger on a weak point of the work which is being presented, and that will really impress the people in the audience. Suggesting workarounds and improvements is harder to do, but this, too, will come from experience, and from the habit of speaking one's mind at meetings. Meetings, Jane should not forget, are places where people should be able to discuss freely. It is the conveners' job to moderate the discussion, if needed; participants should not self-moderate themselves to the point of keeping their mouth shut if they have something to say!

    Four: Review Your Papers!

    One of the benefits of being a collaborator in a big experiment is that you will sign many scientific publications, even without having given any visible, significant contribution (save the questions at the meetings) to the analyses which produced those results. Heck, one can even get one's name on a paper without having read the darn thing!

    Although seeing her name on a scientific paper without having seen it first in draft form causes Jane's euphoria at the start, she should try to strike a balance and play the Scientist. The best time to read a paper is not when it appears in print, but rather, when the first draft is released for collaboration review. It does not take too long to read a scientific article: Jane does not really need to understand all of it, but maybe just grasp its essence, understand the result and its importance. And while she is at, why not taking note of this lousy sentence or that missed comma ? If Jane is capable of reading English, she will also be able, at the very least, to correct bad spelling, incorrect phrasing, and messed-up references. And if she understand a bit of the physics discussed in the paper, she might even be able to ask a pointed question or suggest a revision in the substance; this is harder to do, of course, but the practice with questions at meetings will have made Jane a tougher kid in the meantime.

    My fourth advice is thus the following: Try and read each and every paper that your collaboration is producing (ok, ok: all except those on diffractive physics), and send a few comments and corrections to the authors of each; do not forget to include the internal reviewers in carbon-copy. Beware, you should avoid exposing your ignorance in written form: unlike oral questions, written ones can be read by all, and they might become a significant embarassment for you later on, if they turn out to be really dumb. Instead, use this as a stimulus to get documented on the matter. Do your homework tidily, and you will gain the respect of your colleagues, all the while learning new things!

    Jane will earn lots of credit for this activity, which is often neglected in large collaborations. And her self-esteem will grow by seeing that her advice and corrections have been used to improve the publication. From now on, that paper will be righteously hers.

    Five: Talk about yourself in third person

    Well, not really. Julius Caesar may have done it, but we lesser souls should be a bit more humble. But not humbler than that! It is very important for Jane to realize that nobody knows her contribution to the experiment better than she herself does. And surprisingly, people will take her word for it, more often than otherwise. If Jane insists in being as modest and backward as she thought polite to be before coming to the lab, she will be ran over. On the contrary, Jane should not lose any occasion to point out whether she contributed to something, to let everybody know she had that idea first, to speak of herself in praiseworthy terms. I know, it is tough, but it is the only way to let others realize one is worth something.

    My fifth advice to Jane is thus the following: convince yourself that you are better than most of your colleagues, and as good as any. Do not let yourself down, and do not allow others to force their superiority upon you. The world of particle physics is full of intelligent, brilliant people, but you belong to it, and you should not feel inferior: if you do not know something as well as somebody else does, it is only because you did not spend any time on that particular issue while they did, so this should not become evaluation ground. Bring the discussion on ground where you are knowledgeable, show your competence. Crucially, however: even if you do feel inferior to somebody, do not let it transpire. Usually, the people around you will not use your own modesty against you; however, they will tend to believe your high self-esteem if you manifest it.

    And it is especially important to boost your self-esteem when you deal with senior physicists who might one day judge you worthy of a responsibility position. To them, your slightly excessive self-esteem will not be overly annoying, and the message they will carry home is that you are a worthy physicist.

    In conclusion...

    To conclude this rather long article, let me say I did not follow too closely the above line of conduct in my early years; not all of those tips, anyway. I did start asking questions at meetings quite early on, but on the other hand, my self-esteem often prevented me from asking questions to my advisors when I should have, and I sometimes paid a high price for that. Maybe the toughest thing about good advice is to make good use of it, so I am not sure whether this article is useful to you. As Oscar Wilde used to say, "I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it: it is of no use to oneself".


    I really enjoyed reading these two articles. I often think about going back to physics for postgraduate study, and this sounds like great advice for me. Thanks for taking the time to write them! It seems to be a very rare thing when physicists choose to write anything about being (or training to be) a physicist rather than physics itself. Physics can be such an unfriendly place to the students I often wonder if the faculty have simply forgotten what it felt like to be a student!

    I liked very much the two articles!

    By the way, I missed some warning in the articles or is there a problem with visualizing them? In the blog homepage they do not appear, only the RSS feed has a reference to them...


    I found this second part quite disturbing.
    Not because it's wrong: on the contrary, I now know by experience that many people do what you advice and for the same motivations (e.g., asking questions more to be noticed than to know the answer) and their strategies are rewarded, but in a better world they wouldn't...
    Anyway, I suspect that in many workplaces (especially were many people interact) your advices are very good advices, not only in HEP.

    I would maybe add a Socratic piece of advice to this very nice article: know yourself and know your advisor. If you are really ambitious and gung-ho about blazing your own trail and making contributions to the experiment, pick a low-key supervisor with a lot of other responsibilities who won't waste your time with constant pestering. If you have trouble staying motivated, pick a supervisor who will meet you every day to make sure you are progressing. If you are very shy and modest, pick a ballsy supervisor who will stand up for your work and hopefully teach you to do the same. (You can talk to their other students to find out these things.) To me, this kind of consideration should have an equal or bigger weight in the decision than say, what kind of physics your potential advisor is interested in.


    Just one question: what's the problem with Diffractive Physics? :-)


    Hi Felipe,

    nothing, really. It was just a joke, brought about by the fact that it appears that diffractive physics (maybe incorrectly) appears to interest only physicists who study diffractive physics.

    Thanks for these two articles.  I'm just starting a PhD in volcanology, and while there aren't the same large collaborations as in particle physics sounds like sound, general advice.
    Sure, things are bound to be different there, but I am sure there are similarities too, and these advices may still retain some use there.

    these two posts were really helpful.
    The question thing you mentioned is very much correct. I remember, during my undergraduate courses, having a question concerning the lecture. Before I popped the question, I asked the other students around me if they understood what I had to ask. And they had no idea... I take it that the same happens in group meetings in at least a few percent.
    One question I'd like to ask. How easy is for a guy coming from a different field in particle physics, to fit in their new field? And how should they act in order to gain both knowledge and recognition?
    (E.g. I come from the field of high energy neutrino telescopes and now I have started my master thesis at dijets in CMS.)

    Γεια σου Ε.,

    σ΄ευχαριστώ για το μήνυμά σου. Η ερώτηση δεν είναι εύκολη να απαντήσω... Θα έλεγα ότι εξαρτάται πολύ από τις περιοριστικές συνθήκες.

    In CMS I think there is a way. Go to physics meetings, ask questions, show availability to discuss and be helpful with your colleagues; become an expert of something useful to others and make your experience available to othersi, and you will get people to like you soon!

    Ευχαριστώ πολύ για την απάντησή σας!Best 
    PS: You seem to speak Greek very nicely!
    I'm still working at it ;-)