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Grant Applying for Dummies (for Aspiring Theoretical Particle Physicists)

  1. Apr 30, 2009 #1
    Hi, I want to be a theoretical particle physicist, and was wondering how I, having not yet been *formally* edumacated in the various subjects of physics (but will be going to get my M.S. at the M.S.-only-granting physics department in Duluth, MN)...

    ...go about applying for grants, and getting a head start on what I currently understand to be a fundamental and essential part of an academic career.

    In other words, "show me the money!!!" ( :-p )
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 30, 2009 #2

    Andy Resnick

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    Writing a grant application is easy:

    1) get an idea
    2) identify a funding agency that you may apply to
    3) fill out application form.

    Writing a *successfull* application is a whole different story. At your stage, I would look around for graduate fellowships from NSF or state-level STEM opportunities. Faculty at your Department will have a lot of sources identified.

    Convincing a scientific review board that your idea is compelling, and if it is not funded then major questions will remain unanswered, is what is politely called 'grantsmanship'.
  4. Apr 30, 2009 #3
    lol..."grantsmanship"...and yet, it's probably not so funny. I foresee politics...but that's OK, because physics is just *that* cool and neat-o.

    I have another question: how do I "get an idea" *without* yet being formally educated? I mean, I'm in the process of reading about mechanics, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics, and have typed out about 350 pages of notes (I checked!) since last Christmas or so. How much know-how must one have before one starts wondering "Hey, this question needs answering (in the words of Gandalf). I ought to obtain funding for this!". Give me your best educated guess....
  5. Apr 30, 2009 #4
    In fact, I refine my question further: what is the difference between the "unsolved problems" in physics (e.g., closed-form solutions to the Navier-Stokes equations, sominolumninescence, St. Elmo's fire, dark matter), and the ones people are researching right now? I mean, it seems to me that some questions are "unanswered" and some are "notoriously unanswered" (e.g., what examples I mentioned before). I'm kind of confused as to what research-questions I *ought* to be pondering, in order to take that Step 1 of "come up with an idea".
  6. Apr 30, 2009 #5


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    Knowing what problems are worth solving comes from exerperience plain and simple.

    While there are accounts of people who have had wonderful ideas from scratch, these are certainly outliers. For the vast majority of us, it begins with a formal education - learning and verifying the basics of physics. Then once we have those mastered, we essentially become 'apprentice' researchers under the guidance of someone more experienced (graduate school).

    As we advance in education, our reading interests narrow into particular sub-fields. We start with reading more popular journals like Physics Today, or Nature, and then cone down into the scientific literature of a given field. Further, graduate students go to conferences to see specifically what projects are being tackled and what approaches are being used. When you have a solid handle on the appropriate tools, a solid understanding of the background of a particular sub-field and you know what everyone else is working on, you begin to develop your own ideas about what is worth pursuing and whether a given idea has any likelihood of proving fruitful.
  7. Apr 30, 2009 #6


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    Staff: Mentor

    Also, university physics departments with a Ph.D. program have (or should have) a regular (usually weekly) colloquium where researchers talk about what they're working on and present new or preliminary results. Often these will be visitors from other universities, "making the rounds" so to speak, to publicize what their groups are doing, and talk with colleagues to get new ideas etc.

    Graduate students are usually expected to attend as many of these colloquia as they can.
  8. Apr 30, 2009 #7
    Okay, great!! I was getting worried that, as I sit here in my black chair "aspiring" to be a physicist (doing homework problems in preparation for my Fall education), no ideas on *what* to research (whatever that means) were "popping into my head".
  9. Apr 30, 2009 #8


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    Are you planning on getting a PhD?
  10. May 1, 2009 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    I think you are getting ahead of yourself. No reputable agency is going to give *you* money to think about or work on those problems, because you simply don't yet have sufficient training to realistically work on them.

    That's why I suggested fellowships/training grants as a more realistic mechanism. There, you are only making the argument that you are bright and interested in a problem, but you need some time (and salary and tuition expenses) to develop the skills to begin to work on the problem. That's very different than arguing that you are poised to actually make progress on some difficult problem.

    The grantsmanship at your level then simply becomes showing that some faculty member is willing to put in the time and effort to train you during the course of the grant. This is most often done by a letter of support, or some equivalent statement.

    The specific problem at your career stage is largely irrelevant, as long as you make clear the relevance of the problem to the mission of the funding agency: NSF probably doesn't care about St. Elmo's Fire, but perhaps the Navy does, for example. Funding agencies often post a list of topics they want to fund, and you are well-advised to carefully match your interests to the appropriate funding mechanism.
  11. May 1, 2009 #10
    Yup: I will get my PhD.

    Since I don't have any physics qualifications (e.g., research experience, a B.S. due to coursework, etc.), I'm getting my M.S. first so that I can confidently apply to prestigious schools having professors that are publishing-machines, where I'll get my PhD (and maybe even get grilled by even more coursework).

    Then, I'm going to write tons of journal-articles and books, and teach...as a tenured professor. Hopefully, I'll pull in a decent salary, 'cuz I want to have 10 children :-D
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