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Advises before a first experience of research in theoretical physics

  1. Mar 30, 2012 #1

    I'll be starting next week a 6 months internship, and I'll be working on quantum cosmology, roughly. I have been studying physics for 5 years now, and mostly interested in theoretical things for 4 years (from my first lectures of electromagnetism to conformal field theory), but exclusively reading books and solving small problems, my (small) experiences of research have only been related to experimental physics, more specifically in high energy physics. So, as really want to take the most of this first experience, I am asking you for advises, even really general, about the attitude I should have (trying to be the more curious possible, to not give up on problems/calculations even if it means struggling for weeks on it), ask as much as I can my adviser or trying to be more autonomous... Anything really.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 30, 2012 #2
    I'm nearing the end of my first year as a graduate student, so I'll try to give you some pointers that really helped me. I apologize in advance if I ramble a bit; I'm just learning some of these things, myself.

    1) Don't be afraid to ask questions about what you're learning. There's a temptation to try and be completely autonomous in order to impress everyone. The issue with that is you could end up spending a lot of time on something that someone else could explain to you (or point you to a good resource on) rather quickly.

    2) The other side of that same coin is that you don't want to be too dependent on your professor. If you're always asking him/her questions and can't get anything on your own, what is the point of your being involved in the research?

    3) Graduate students, post-docs, and perhaps some senior graduate students who have been in the group a while are a great resource. They tend to know a lot and have fewer things going on than your professor does, which makes them easier to contact for casual questions.

    4) Document your progress. Whether your manipulating equations with pencil and paper or coding, make sure you carefully keep record of what you're doing. Hopefully you picked up this skill when running experiments, but the same thing holds true for more theoretical work. This jogs your memory for the next time you start and helps ensure you don't waste time redoing the same things.

    5) The library is your friend. This may sound silly and obvious, but in the internet age we tend to run a Google search on things when we don't know something. This can be a good thing, but as you start studying more advanced topics, this method becomes less and less useful. I've killed whole afternoons sitting in the stacks, looking through books with similar call numbers, trying to figure out which one will be the most useful for one particular thing.

    6) I'm assuming that you'll have other responsibilities (perhaps coursework and/or a job). Make sure that this research project is a priority, especially given it has a set time-frame. It's easy to make the mistake of "I'll do research when I finish X and Y." If you're anything like me, you may finish x, but before you start on Y, Z and A come up, too. Set out some time and specific goals for what you want to accomplish during that time and actually do it. Most of the time things will take longer than you plan, but don't stop early. There's often a large amount of start-up energy involved in accomplishing something, and you don't want to spend a good chunk of your next work session redoing things you already did.

    7) Try to have fun and appreciate what you do. Of course, not every time you work will be productive or fun, and there will certainly be aspects of research that you dread. These are the times when it's especially important to think about the big picture of your project. Other days, you'll work 16 hours straight and barely notice because you're kicking ***, taking names, and having fun.

    Best of luck!
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