Advice For Physics Majors (a serious article, for once)

Furthering the pain — Physics grad school

How do you pick a school?

Sean starts to repeat himself
Did I mention how important it is to pick an area you want to work in? Look back in your notes and let me know if I did. You are taking notes, aren’t you?

Not to belabor the obvious, but you aren’t going to do “physics” for a living — you’ll do physical chemistry simulations… or lithography techniques development… or you’ll figure out ways to better teach the physicists to come. The most important factor in deciding on a school is what research you want to do, and so the first criterion to work with is the professors at the school, and the research they do. In fact, you’re looking for a lab to join, not a school! It doesn’t matter if you got into MIT, if there is no one doing research there you’d want to work for, then you’re not at the right school. This is one thing I managed to do right — when I sat down to decide on schools, my ranking of schools depended solely on how many labs were there that I could see myself joining. In my case my interests were in biophysics, and more specifically in neuroscience. This eliminated many “big-name” schools right off the bat, and brought a few surprising schools to the front of the pack.

Of course the quality of the school should have some bearing on your decision, and it did for mine, for two reasons. First of all, a high-quality school will have the advantages of name- recognition (good for jobs later), excellent professors, and excellent students (or “competition”). It’s just a simple fact that the best educations in physics are gotten at the best schools, the “big name” schools.Second, what if you’re not 100% sure of your research area? If you’ve followed my advice and attempted to explore potential areas early on in undergrad, you’ll probably feel more assured. But if you get to Big Laser University, find out you hate lasers and love superstrings, you’ll give yourself a better shot at finding a top-notch lab if you’re at a top-notch school.

In my case, I was fairly certain of my area, but I hedged my bets that I might switch from a neuroscience focus to another sub-area in biophysics. I was lucky in that the clear front-runner in neuroscience/ biophysics was also very strong in biophysics in general. But I did consider another, smaller school, one not known for a long tradition in graduate training, which had a surprisingly large group of researchers in “neuro-physics” (name omitted to protect the innocent). In the end, I decided the lack of name recognition and well-established tradition in physics was too much of a drawback of the smaller school. Ideally the school you pick should have a whole range of labs you’d like to work for, and has a name that doesn’t make people say, “Who?”

Bug ‘em
Keeping in mind that most schools’ applications are due in the winter of the school year before you start, you’ll definitely want to be hunting for a good lab to join by the time you start your final year. Do you remember collecting a giant wad of brochures, catalogs, and other merchandise for colleges back in high school? Clear a space on your milk crate/ coffee table,3 because you’re going to be doing that again. I don’t remember precisely when I started, but sometime in my junior year I began to send off for grad school information for any and all schools that came across my path. Lately, everybody who’s anybody has an online webpage describing their school — go on there and poke around, and submit your name and address for more info. In your junior year you can be pretty content to just collect, but the summer before your senior year you’re going to have to start sifting through and culling out the good ones. Heck, send off for them your freshman year — they’ll look impressive lying around your dorm room.

If — oops, I should say when — you come across professors you’d like to learn more about, go ahead and email them. Don’t be shy about bothering Mr. Nobel — if he wants more researchers in his lab, he needs to recruit, right? Tell them a bit about yourself and ask for some info on their lab — usually they will send you some copies of their research papers from their lab, which is really the best way to learn about them. (Or, these days, you can often download them from their websites.)  Give their research papers a good solid read, try to understand them, as if it were a major project in a class — even if it’s incomprehensible, really try to get something out of them. After all, if you join their lab, you’ll be writing more of those papers soon enough, so you better get a good feel for what the research is all about. If the professor (or someone from the lab) doesn’t contact you back, that may be a foreshadowing of the lack of attention you’d get if you join their lab. (But give ‘em a few weeks, at least!)

Get your head out of the physics books, and look around
The single biggest mistake I made in my physics career, I think, is limiting my search to physics and biophysics departments. Looking back, the research that would have most interested me is really found in engineering and applied physics departments, which I completely ignored in my grad school search. If I had looked beyond the bounds of physics, I might have found the scientific areas that I really enjoy, instead of wandering my way through one grad school and two jobs to find it — I might have even finished the PhD, instead of leaving with the master’s. Lately it’s become almost meaningless to assign a lab to one single subject area, and it can be a challenge to uncover all the labs across the nation that work in your area of interest. Heed my warning, youngsters, and look around! These days you can find lots of physicists in biology, chemistry, math, and who knows where else. A more wide- ranging and rigorous search of research areas in my undergrad years would have really saved me a lot of uncertainty, and years of working in the wrong area, later on.

Am I good / interested enough?
Maybe you’ve been to your professor’s office or lab, stare at the hundreds of books and millions of dollars worth of equipment, and you think to yourself, “There’s no way they’re going to let ME do this stuff!” Professional scientists seem like an alien species, so far removed from beer-drinking couch-potatoing till-noon- sleeping you, that you think you’ll never be good enough. Or there’s so much to learn that you’ll just never get there. Or maybe you’re wondering how the hell you’re going to stay interested in one little research topic for the rest of your life — how do people stay interested, considering that the typical research paper makes your eyes glaze over?

First, a word on your competence, and what is known as the “learning curve”. Undoubtedly you’ve heard the term — well, you’re about to live it. What this tired cliche means for you is that new skills you try to pick up are hardest, and progress is slowest, in the beginning. I remember pretty vividly the intimidation I felt my first week in my grad school research lab, how I felt that I would never learn the ropes, and be thrown out for the fraud I was in a matter of weeks. By the end of the summer I had the hang of it, and within a year or two I was one of the more senior people in the lab. At first it seemed like I spent days and weeks on the most inane things — learning to solder wires together properly, figuring out what UNIX is, all the little basic things you do as part of your job. But after a while the skills accumulated, and I was doing several experiments a week, collecting data, gradually becoming an expert in my field (albeit a tiny, incredibly narrow niche of a field). To put it into geek-math terms, the effort-expended to results-achieved ratio dropped quickly as I gained experience. And in the couple of job changes I’ve had since then, the initial “dumbness” went away more quickly and started lower — the second time you have to slide your way down the learning curve, the slide is steeper and shorter. So what I’m saying is, the hardest times you are going to have at your job are probably going on right now — hang in there, it gets better, and it happens faster than you might think.

Now what about interest level? Maybe you come across lots of topics that interest you, but when you start digging deeper, reading the research and getting a feel for the jargon, you start getting bored. What seemed like a cutting-edge, exciting research area when you read about it in Newsweek has morphed into a dry, dusty, detail-filled mess in the academic journals and research labs. Keep going — just like the struggle to learn the ropes I talked about above, the interest level increases the more you learn. I’ve heard it described like this — your interest might be high when you first learn about a research area, then it will dip when you first get into the nitty-gritty details, but it rises again when you actually become an active researcher in the field. Soon, you too will be yammering on and on about your area to outsiders, boring them as they bored you just a few years earlier. After my time in grad school, when I come across any research on rat whiskers, I read them with fascination, papers that would have put me to sleep before grad school.

3. Unless it’s a big spool — you know who you are.


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