Tag Archives: grad school

The Pointy-Haired University

We all know what it looks like when office work sucks. Maybe you think of Dilbert, or The Office, or the dozens of other comics and shows with the same theme. You picture characters like Dilbert’s Pointy-Haired Boss, stupid and controlling, terrible people with far too much power.

Pictured: what you picture

What does it look like when grad school sucks?

There aren’t a lot of comics, or shows, about grad school. The main one I can think of is PHD Comics.

There are a few characters like the Pointy-Haired Boss in PHD Comics, who are just genuinely bad people, in particular the main character’s advisor Professor Smith. But for the most part, the dysfunction the comic depicts is subtler. Characters aren’t selfish so much as oblivious, they aren’t demanding out of malice but out of misplaced expectations, they’re ineffective not due to incompetence but to understandable human weaknesses.

The comic gets this mostly right. If you’re struggling in grad school, you might have a Pointy-Haired Advisor. But more likely, you’re surrounded by well-meaning, reasonable, intelligent people, who nevertheless are somehow making your life a living hell.

In that situation, it can be tempting to blame yourself. You instinctively look for someone at fault, some terrible person who’s causing the problem, and nobody knows your own faults better than you do.

But before you blame yourself, consider another possibility. Consider that there aren’t just Pointy-Haired Bosses, but Pointy-Haired Institutions. Start with the wrong rules, the wrong incentives, the wrong access to information and accountability, and those well-meaning, intelligent people will end up doing some pretty stupid things. Before deciding you aren’t good enough, ask yourself: is this the only way things could have gone? Instead of a Pointy-Haired Advisor, or a Pointy-Haired Self, maybe you’re just attending a Pointy-Haired University.

Kicking Students Out of Their Homes During a Pandemic: A Bad Idea

I avoid talking politics on this blog. There are a few issues, though, where I feel not just able, but duty-bound, to speak out. Those are issues affecting graduate students.

This week, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that, if a university switched to online courses as a response to COVID-19, international students would have to return to their home countries or transfer to a school that still teaches in-person.

This is already pretty unreasonable for many undergrads. But think about PhD students.

Suppose you’re a foreign PhD student at a US university. Maybe your school is already planning to have classes online this fall, like Harvard is. Maybe your school is planning to have classes in person, but will change its mind a few weeks in, when so many students and professors are infected that it’s clearly unreasonable to continue. Maybe your school never changes its mind, but your state does, and the school has to lock down anyway.

As a PhD student, you likely don’t live in the dorms. More likely you live in a shared house, or an apartment. You’re an independent adult. Your parents aren’t paying for you to go to school. Your school is itself a full-time job, one that pays (as little as the university thinks it can get away with).

What happens when your school goes online? If you need to leave the country?

You’d have to find some way out of your lease, or keep paying for it. You’d have to find a flight on short notice. You’d have to pack up all your belongings, ship or sell anything you can’t store, or find friends to hold on to it.

You’d have to find somewhere to stay in your “home country”. Some could move in with their parents temporarily, many can’t. Some of those who could in other circumstances, shouldn’t if they’re fleeing from an outbreak: their parents are likely older, and vulnerable to the virus. So you have to find a hotel, eventually perhaps a new apartment, far from what was until recently your home.

Reminder: you’re doing all of this on a shoestring budget, because the university pays you peanuts.

Can you transfer instead? In a word, no.

PhD students are specialists. They’re learning very specific things from very specific people. Academics aren’t the sort of omnidisciplinary scientists you see in movies. Bruce Banner or Tony Stark could pick up a new line of research on a whim, real people can’t. This is why, while international students may be good at the undergraduate level, they’re absolutely necessary for PhDs. When only three people in the world study the thing you want to study, you don’t have the luxury of staying in your birth country. And you can’t just transfer schools when yours goes online.

It feels like the people who made this decision didn’t think about any of this. That they don’t think grad students matter, or forgot they exist altogether. It seems frustratingly common for policy that affects grad students to be made by people who know nothing about grad students, and that baffles me. PhDs are a vital part of the academic career, without them universities in their current form wouldn’t even exist. Ignoring them is like if hospital policy ignored residencies.

I hope that this policy gets reversed, or halted, or schools find some way around it. At the moment, anyone starting school in the US this fall is in a very tricky position. And anyone already there is in a worse one.

As usual, I’m going to ask that the comments don’t get too directly political. As a partial measure to tone things down, I’d like to ask you to please avoid mentioning any specific politicians, political parties, or political ideologies. Feel free to talk instead about your own experiences: how this policy is likely to affect you, or your loved ones. Please also feel free to talk more technically on the policy/legal side. I’d like to know what universities can do to work around this, and whether there are plausible paths to change or halt the policy. Please be civil, and be kind to your fellow commenters.

The Academic Workflow (Or Lack Thereof)

I was chatting with someone in biotech recently, who was frustrated with the current state of coronavirus research. The problem, in her view, was that researchers were approaching the problem in too “academic” a way. Instead of coordinating, trying to narrow down to a few approaches and make sure they get the testing they need, researchers were each focusing on their own approach, answering the questions they thought were interesting or important without fitting their work into a broader plan. She thought that a more top-down, corporate approach would do much better.

I don’t know anything about the current state of coronavirus research, what works and what doesn’t. But the conversation got me thinking about my own field.

Theoretical physics is about as far from “top-down” as you can get. As a graduate student, your “boss” is your advisor, but that “bossiness” can vary from telling you to do specific calculations to just meeting you every so often to discuss ideas. As a postdoc, even that structure evaporates: while you usually have an official “supervisor”, they won’t tell you what to do outside of the most regimented projects. Instead, they suggest, proposing ideas they’d like to collaborate on. As a professor, you don’t have this kind of “supervisor”: while there are people in charge of the department, they won’t tell you what to research. At most, you have informal hierarchies: senior professors influencing junior professors, or the hot-shots influencing the rest.

Even when we get a collaboration going, we don’t tend to have assigned roles. People do what they can, when they can, and if you’re an expert on one part of the work you’ll probably end up doing that part, but that won’t be “the plan” because there almost never is a plan. There’s very rarely a “person in charge”: if there’s a disagreement it gets solved by one person convincing another that they’re right.

This kind of loose structure is freeing, but it can also be frustrating. Even the question of who is on a collaboration can be up in the air, with a sometimes tacit assumption that if you were there for certain conversations you’re there for the paper. It’s possible to push for more structure, but push too hard and people will start ignoring you anyway.

Would we benefit from more structure? That depends on the project. Sometimes, when we have clear goals, a more “corporate” approach can work. Other times, when we’re exploring something genuinely new, any plan is going to fail: we simply don’t know what we’re going to run into, what will matter and what won’t. Maybe there are corporate strategies for that kind of research, ways to manage that workflow. I don’t know them.

Calculating the Hard Way, for Science!

I had a new paper out last week, with Jacob Bourjaily and Matthias Volk. We’re calculating the probability that particles bounce off each other in our favorite toy model, N=4 super Yang-Mills. And this time, we’re doing it the hard way.

The “easy way” we didn’t take is one I have a lot of experience with. Almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve been calculating these particle probabilities by “guesswork”: starting with a plausible answer, then honing it down until I can be confident it’s right. This might sound reckless, but it works remarkably well, letting us calculate things we could never have hoped for with other methods. The catch is that “guessing” is much easier when we know what we’re looking for: in particular, it works much better in toy models than in the real world.

Over the last few years, though, I’ve been using a much more “normal” method, one that so far has a better track record in the real world. This method, too, works better than you would expect, and we’ve managed some quite complicated calculations.

So we have an “easy way”, and a “hard way”. Which one is better? Is the hard way actually harder?

To test that, you need to do the same calculation both ways, and see which is easier. You want it to be a fair test: if “guessing” only works in the toy model, then you should do the “hard” version in the toy model as well. And you don’t want to give “guessing” any unfair advantages. In particular, the “guess” method works best when we know a lot about the result we’re looking for: what it’s made of, what symmetries it has. In order to do a fair test, we must use that knowledge to its fullest to improve the “hard way” as well.

We picked an example in the middle: not too easy, and not too hard, a calculation that was done a few years back “the easy way” but not yet done “the hard way”. We plugged in all the modern tricks we could, trying to use as much of what we knew as possible. We trained a grad student: Matthias Volk, who did the lion’s share of the calculation and learned a lot in the process. We worked through the calculation, and did it properly the hard way.

Which method won?

In the end, the hard way was indeed harder…but not by that much! Most of the calculation went quite smoothly, with only a few difficulties at the end. Just five years ago, when the calculation was done “the easy way”, I doubt anyone would have expected the hard way to be viable. But with modern tricks it wasn’t actually that hard.

This is encouraging. It tells us that the “hard way” has potential, that it’s almost good enough to compete at this kind of calculation. It tells us that the “easy way” is still quite powerful. And it reminds us that the more we know, and the more we apply our knowledge, the more we can do.

Life Cycle of an Academic Scientist

So you want to do science for a living. Some scientists work for companies, developing new products. Some work for governments. But if you want to do “pure science”, science just to learn about the world, then you’ll likely work at a university, as part of what we call academia.

The first step towards academia is graduate school. In the US, this means getting a PhD.

(Master’s degrees, at least in the US, have a different purpose. Most are “terminal Master’s”, designed to be your last degree. With a terminal Master’s, you can be a technician in a lab, but you won’t get farther down this path. In the US you don’t need a Master’s before you apply for a PhD program, and having one is usually a waste of time: PhD programs will make you re-take most of the same classes.)

Once you have a PhD, it’s time to get a job! Often, your first job after graduate school is a postdoc. Postdocs are short-term jobs, usually one to three years long. Some people are lucky enough to go to the next stage quickly, others have more postdoc jobs first. These jobs will take you all over the world, everywhere people with your specialty work. Sometimes these jobs involve teaching, but more often you just do scientific research.

In the US system, If everything goes well, eventually you get a tenure-track job. These jobs involve both teaching and research. You get to train PhD students, hire postdocs, and in general start acting like a proper professor. This stage lasts around seven years, while the university evaluates you. If they decide you’re not worth it then typically you’ll have to leave to apply for another job in another university. If they like you though, you get tenure.

Tenure is the first time as an academic scientist that you aren’t on a short-term contract. Your job is more permanent than most, you have extra protection from being fired that most people don’t. While you can’t just let everything slide, you have freedom to make more of your own decisions.

A tenured job can last until retirement, when you become an emeritus professor. Emeritus professors are retired but still do some of the work they did as professors. They’re paid out of their pension instead of a university salary, but they still sometimes teach or do research, and they usually still have an office. The university can hire someone new, and the cycle continues.

This isn’t the only path scientists take. Some work in a national lab instead. These don’t usually involve teaching duties, and the path to a permanent job is a bit different. Some get teaching jobs instead of research professorships. These teaching jobs are usually not permanent, instead universities are hiring more and more adjunct faculty who have to string together temporary contracts to make a precarious living.

I’ve mostly focused on the US system here. Europe is a bit different: Master’s degrees are a real part of the system, tenure-track doesn’t really exist, and adjunct faculty don’t always either. Some particular countries, like Germany, have their own quite complicated systems, other countries fall in between.

Reader Background Poll Reflections

A few weeks back I posted a poll, asking you guys what sort of physics background you have. The idea was to follow up on a poll I did back in 2015, to see how this blog’s audience has changed.

One thing that immediately leaped out of the data was how many of you are physicists. As of writing this, 66% of readers say they either have a PhD in physics or a related field, or are currently in grad school. This includes 7% specifically from my sub-field, “amplitudeology” (though this number may be higher than usual since we just had our yearly conference, and more amplitudeologists were reminded my blog exists).

I didn’t use the same categories in 2015, so the numbers can’t be easily compared. In 2015 only 2.5% of readers described themselves as amplitudeologists. Adding these up with the physics PhDs and grad students gives 59%, which goes up to 64.5% if I include the mathematicians (who this year might have put either “PhD in a related field” or “Other Academic”). So overall the percentages are pretty similar, though now it looks like more of my readers are grad students.

Despite the small difference, I am a bit worried: it looks like I’m losing non-physicist readers. I could flatter myself and think that I inspired those non-physicists to go to grad school, but more realistically I should admit that fewer of my posts have been interesting to a non-physics audience. In 2015 I worked at the Perimeter Institute, and helped out with their public lectures. Now I’m at the Niels Bohr Institute, and I get fewer opportunities to hear questions from non-physicists. I get fewer ideas for interesting questions to answer.

I want to keep this blog’s language accessible and its audience general. I appreciate that physicists like this blog and view it as a resource, but I don’t want it to turn into a blog for physicists only. I’d like to encourage the non-physicists in the audience: ask questions! Don’t worry if it sounds naive, or if the question seems easy: if you’re confused, likely others are too.

When to Read Someone Else’s Thesis

There’s a cynical truism we use to reassure grad students. A thesis is a big, daunting project, but it shouldn’t be too stressful: in the end, nobody else is going to read it.

This is mostly true. In many fields your thesis is a mix of papers you’ve already published, stitched together into your overall story. Anyone who’s interested will have read the papers the thesis is based on, they don’t need to read the thesis too.

Like every good truism, though, there is an exception. Some rare times, you will actually want to read someone else’s thesis. This isn’t usually because the material is new: rather it’s because it’s well explained.

When we academics publish, we’re often in a hurry, and there isn’t time to write well. When we publish more slowly, often we have more collaborators, so the paper is a set of compromises written by committee. Either way, we rarely make a concept totally crystal-clear.

A thesis isn’t always crystal-clear either, but it can be. It’s written by just one person, and that person is learning. A grad student who just learned a topic can be in the best position to teach it: they know exactly what confused them when they start out. Thesis-writing is also a slower process, one that gives more time to hammer at a text until it’s right. Finally, a thesis is written for a committee, and that committee usually contains people from different fields. A thesis needs to be an accessible introduction, in a way that a published paper doesn’t.

There are topics that I never really understood until I looked up the thesis of the grad student who helped discover it. There are tricks that never made it to published papers, that I’ve learned because they were tucked in to the thesis of someone who went on to do great things.

So if you’re finding a subject confusing, if you’ve read all the papers and none of them make any sense, look for the grad students. Sometimes the best explanation of a tricky topic isn’t in the published literature, it’s hidden away in someone’s thesis.

Academic Age

Growing up in the US there are a lot of age-based milestones. You can drive at 16, vote at 18, and drink at 21. Once you’re in academia though, your actual age becomes much less relevant. Instead, academics are judged based on academic age, the time since you got your PhD.

And no, we don’t get academic birthdays

Grants often have restrictions based on academic age. The European Research Council’s Starting Grant, for example, demands an academic age of 2-7. If you’re academically “older”, they expect more from you: you must instead apply for a Consolidator Grant, or an Advanced Grant.

More generally, when academics apply for jobs they are often weighed in terms of academic age. Compared to others, how long have you spent as a postdoc since your PhD? How many papers have you published since then, and how well cited were they? The longer you spend without finding a permanent position, the more likely employers are to wonder why, and the reasons they assume are rarely positive.

This creates some weird incentives. If you have a choice, it’s often better to graduate late than to graduate early. Employers don’t check how long you took to get your PhD, but they do pay attention to how many papers you published. If it’s an option, staying in school to finish one more project can actually be good for your career.

Biological age matters, but mostly for biological reasons: for example, if you plan to have children. Raising a family is harder if you have to move every few years, so those who find permanent positions by then have an easier time of it. That said, as academics have to take more temporary positions before settling down fewer people have this advantage.

Beyond that, biological age only matters again at the end of your career, especially if you work somewhere with a mandatory retirement age. Even then, retirement for academics doesn’t mean the same thing as for normal people: retired professors often have emeritus status, meaning that while technically retired they keep a role at the university, maintaining an office and often still doing some teaching or research.

A Newtonmas Present of Internet Content

I’m lazy this Newtonmas, so instead of writing a post of my own I’m going to recommend a few other people who do excellent work.

Quantum Frontiers is a shared blog updated by researchers connected to Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter. While the whole blog is good, I’m going to be more specific and recommend the posts by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Nicole is really a great writer, and her posts are full of vivid imagery and fun analogies. If she’s not as well-known, it’s only because she lacks the attention-grabbing habit of getting into stupid arguments with other bloggers. Definitely worth a follow.

Recommending Slate Star Codex feels a bit strange, because it seems like everyone I’ve met who would enjoy the blog already reads it. It’s not a physics blog by any stretch, so it’s also an unusual recommendation to give here. Slate Star Codex writes about a wide variety of topics, and while the author isn’t an expert in most of them he does a lot more research than you or I would. If you’re interested in up-to-date meta-analyses on psychology, social science, and policy, pored over by someone with scrupulous intellectual honesty and an inexplicably large amount of time to indulge it, then Slate Star Codex is the blog for you.

I mentioned Piled Higher and Deeper a few weeks back, when I reviewed the author’s popular science book We Have No Idea. Piled Higher and Deeper is a webcomic about life in grad school. Humor is all about exaggeration, and it’s true that Piled Higher and Deeper exaggerates just how miserable and dysfunctional grad school can be…but not by as much as you’d think. I recommend that anyone considering grad school read Piled Higher and Deeper, and take it seriously. Grad school can really be like that, and if you don’t think you can deal with spending five or six years in the world of that comic you should take that into account.

Interdisciplinarity Is Good for the Soul

Interdisciplinary research is trendy these days. Grant agencies love it, for one. But talking to people in other fields isn’t just promoted by the authorities: like eating your vegetables, it’s good for you too.

If you talk only to people from your own field, you can lose track of what matters in the wider world. There’s a feedback effect where everyone in a field works on what everyone else in the field finds interesting, and the field spirals inward. “Interesting” starts meaning what everyone else is working on, without fulfilling any other criteria. Interdisciplinary contacts hold that back: not only can they call bullshit when you’re deep in your field’s arcane weirdness, they can also point out things that are more interesting than you expected, ideas that your field has seen so often they look boring but that are actually more surprising or useful than you realize.

Interdisciplinary research is good for self-esteem, too. As a young researcher, you can easily spend all your time talking to people who know more about your field than you do. Branching out reminds you of how much you’ve learned: all that specialized knowledge may be entry-level in your field, but it still puts you ahead of the rest of the world. Even as a grad student, you can be someone else’s guest expert if the right topic comes up.