Tag Archives: grad school

The Irons in the Fire Metric

I remember, a while back, visiting a friend in his office. He had just became a professor, and was still setting things up. I noticed a list on the chalkboard, taking up almost one whole side. Taking a closer look, I realized that list was a list of projects. To my young postdoc eyes, the list was amazing: how could one person be working on so many things?

There’s an idiom in English, “too many irons in the fire”. You can imagine a blacksmith forging many things at once, each piece of iron taking focus from the others. Too many, and a piece might break, or otherwise fail.

Perhaps the irons in the fire are fire irons

In theoretical physics, a typical PhD publishes three papers before they graduate. That usually means one project at a time, maybe two. For someone used to one or two irons in the fire, so many at a time seems an impossible feat.

Scientists grow over their careers, though, and in more than one way. What seems impossible can eventually be business as usual.

First, as your skill grows, you become more efficient. A lot of scientific work is a kind of debugging: making mistakes, and figuring out how to fix them. The more experience you have, the more you know what kinds of mistakes you might make, and the better you will be at avoiding them. (Never perfect, of course: scientists always have to debug something.)

Second, your collaborations grow. The more people you work with, the more you can share these projects, each person contributing their own piece. With time, you start supervising as well: Masters students, PhD students, postdocs. Each one adds to the number of irons you can manage in your fire. While for bad supervisors this just means having their name on lots of projects, the good supervisors will be genuinely contributing to each one. That’s yet another kind of growth: as you get further along, you get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t, so even in a quick meeting you can solve meaningful problems.

Third, you grow your system. The ideas you explore early on blossom into full-fledged methods, tricks which you can pull out again and again when you need them. The tricks combine, forming new, bigger tricks, and eventually a long list of projects becomes second nature, a natural thing your system is able to do.

As you grow as a scientist, you become more than just one researcher, one debugger at a laptop or pipetter at a lab bench. You become a research program, one that manifests across many people and laptops and labs. As your expertise grows, you become a kind of living exchange of ideas, concepts flowing through you when needed, building your own scientific world.

Serial Killers and Grad School Horror Stories

It’s time for my yearly Halloween post. My regular readers know what to expect: a horror trope and a physics topic, linked by a tortured analogy. And this year, the pun is definitely intended.

Horror movies have a fascination with serial killers. Over the years, they’ve explored every possible concept: from gritty realism to the supernatural, crude weapons to sophisticated traps, motivations straightforward to mysterious, and even killers who are puppets.

Yes I know Billy is not actually the killer in the Saw films

One common theme of all fictional serial killers is power. Serial killers are scary because they have almost all the power in a situation, turned to alien and unpredictable goals. The protagonists of a horror film are the underdogs, never knowing whether the killer will pull out some new ability or plan that makes everything they try irrelevant. Even if they get the opportunity to negotiate, the power imbalance means that they can’t count on getting what they need: anything the killer agrees will be twisted to serve their own ends.

Academics tell their own kind of horror stories. Earlier this month, the historian Brett Deveraux had a blog post about graduate school, describing what students go through to get a PhD. As he admits, parts of his story only apply to the humanities. STEM departments have more money, and pay their students a bit better. It’s not a lot better (I was making around $20,000 a year at Stony Brook), but it’s enough that I’ve never heard of a student taking out a loan to make ends meet. (At most, people took on tutoring jobs for a bit of extra cash.) We don’t need to learn new languages, and our degrees take a bit less time: six or seven years for an experimental physicist, and often five for a theoretical physicist. Finally, the work can be a lot less lonely, especially for those who work in a lab.

Still, there is a core in common, and that core once again is power. Universities have power, of course: and when you’re not a paying customer but an employee with your career on the line, that power can be quite scary. But the person with the most power over a PhD student is their advisor. Deveraux talks compellingly about the difference that power can make: how an advisor who is cruel, or indifferent, or just clueless, can make or break not just your career but your psychological well-being. The lucky students, like Deveraux and me, find supportive mentors who help us survive and move forward. The unlucky students leave with scars, even if those scars aren’t jigsaw-shaped.

Neither Deveraux or I have experience with PhD programs in Europe, which are quite different in structure from those in the US. But the power imbalance is still there, and still deadly, and so despite the different structure, I’ve seen students here break down, scarred in the same way.

Deveraux frames his post as advice for those who want to go to grad school, and his first piece of advice is “Have you tried wanting something else?” I try to echo that when I advise students. I don’t always succeed: there’s something exciting about a young person interested in the same topics we’re interested in, willing to try to make a life of it. But it is important to know what you’re getting into, and to know there’s a big world out there of other options. If, after all that, you decide to stick through it, just remember: power matters. If you give someone power over you, try to be as sure as you can that it won’t turn into a horror story.

Why Can’t I Pay Academics to Do Things for Me?

A couple weeks back someone linked to this blog with a problem. A non-academic, he had done some mathematical work but didn’t feel it was ready to publish. He reached out to a nearby math department and asked what they would charge to help him clean up the work. If the price was reasonable, he’d do it, if not at least he’d know what it would cost.

Neither happened. He got no response, and got more and more frustrated.

For many of you, that result isn’t a big surprise. My academic readers are probably cringing at the thought of getting an email like that. But the guy’s instinct here isn’t too off-base. Certainly, in many industries that kind of email would get a response with an actual quote. Academia happens to be different, in a way that makes the general rule not really apply.

There’s a community called Effective Altruists that evaluate charities. They have a saying, “Money is the Unit of Caring”. The point of the saying isn’t that people with more money care more, or anything like that. Rather, it’s a reminder that, whatever a charity wants to accomplish, more money makes it easier. A lawyer could work an hour in a soup kitchen, but if they donated the proceeds of an hour’s work the soup kitchen could hire four workers instead. Food banks would rather receive money than food, because the money lets them buy whatever they need in bulk. As the Simpsons meme says, “money can be exchanged for goods and services”.

If you pay a charity, or a business, it helps them achieve what they want to do. If you pay an academic, it gets a bit more complicated.

The problem is that for academics, time matters a lot more than our bank accounts. If we want to settle down with a stable job, we need to spend our time doing things that look good on job applications: writing papers, teaching students, and so on. The rest of the time gets spent resting so we have the energy to do all of that.

(What about tenured professors? They don’t have to fight for their own jobs…but by that point, they’ve gotten to know their students and other young people in their sub-field. They want them to get jobs too!)

Money can certainly help with those goals, but not personal money: grant money. With grant money we can hire students and postdocs to do some of that work for us, or pay our own salary so we’re easier for a university to hire. We can buy equipment for those who need that sort of thing, and get to do more interesting science. Rather than “Money is the Unit of Caring”, for academics, “Grant Money is the Unit of Caring”.

Personal money, in contrast, just matters for our rest time. And unless we have expensive tastes, we usually get paid enough for that.

(The exception is for extremely underpaid academics, like PhD students and adjuncts. For some of them money can make a big difference to their quality of life. I had quite a few friends during my PhD who had side gigs, like tutoring, to live a bit more comfortably.)

This is not to say that it’s impossible to pay academics to do side jobs. People do. But when it works, it’s usually due to one of these reasons:

  1. It’s fun. Side work trades against rest time, but if it helps us rest up then it’s not really a tradeoff. Even if it’s a little more boring that what we’d rather do, if it’s not so bad the money can make up the difference.
  2. It looks good on a CV. This covers most of the things academics are sometimes paid to do, like writing articles for magazines. If we can spin something as useful to our teaching or research, or as good for the greater health of the field (or just for our “personal brand”), then we can justify doing it.
  3. It’s a door out of academia. I’ve seen the occasional academic take time off to work for a company. Usually that’s a matter of seeing what it’s like, and deciding whether it looks like a better life. It’s not really “about the money”, even in those cases.

So what if you need an academic’s help with something? You need to convince them it’s worth their time. Money could do it, but only if they’re living precariously, like some PhD students. Otherwise, you need to show that what you’re asking helps the academic do what they’re trying to do: that it is likely to move the field forward, or that it fulfills some responsibility tied to their personal brand. Without that, you’re not likely to hear back.

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.