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How to get ahead in physics grad school?

  1. May 1, 2009 #1

    diazona

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    I've been wondering about this for a while, but only today it occurred to me that I could ask here... anyway, here's my situation: I'm currently finishing up my first year of grad school (PhD program) in physics. I got my undergraduate degree last year from a tier 1 (as they call it) university with an excellent physics department. But I graduated with a mediocre GPA and didn't get accepted to any of my top choices for grad school; right now I'm at an institution which is pretty decent but not quite on par with the so-called tier 1 schools. So right now, pretty much all that I have going for me is the name on my B.A. degree ;-)

    In retrospect, I don't think I worked as hard as I could/should have as an undergrad, and I'd like to recover from that - I want to do something(s), in the course of getting my PhD, to show that I can "compete" as a physicist. So my question is, how can I make a name for myself? What kinds of things should I try to do in grad school to prove that I have talent as a physicist? I guess I'm especially looking for any good advice from people who have already gone through the system.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. May 1, 2009 #2

    f95toli

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    Do good work and publish good papers. That is essentially all the matters.
    I guess physics is a bit different from most other careers in that respect, the fact that we publish our work means that there is an "objective" measure of how successful you are.
    However, it is by no means a fair system; there are some very talented people out there working on complicated problems that are nevertheless struggling because they are not working in a "hot" area. You also need a certain amount of luck, especially if you are working on something where it is not obvious that you will get a publishable result .

    I know of one guy who spent spent 4.5 years (out of five) struggling with various fabrication problems. Then he finally managed to fabricate a working sample, spent 3 months measuring it and then published a paper in Nature. He was basically able to pick where he wanted to do his post-doc (he got several offers, from some really good groups), he is now working at a "tier 1" university in the US.
     
  4. May 1, 2009 #3

    Choppy

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    It sounds to me like you're a little hung up on school name, which isn't too uncommon. Sometimes I wonder there's an extra chaper in Jackson that's only available to schools with a certain ranking or above - you know the one that begins with "this will all make sense once you read the following..."

    Seriously though, you could google the CV's of post-docs and younger professors in your field to see what specifically got them into the kinds of positions you aspire to.

    In my opinion, what distinguishes a graduate student is research - but not just research. You have to have documented research - which means peer-reviewed publications and conference abstracts. In my field, one way of making job connections comes from presenting at conferences - someone sees your work, asks a few questions and all of a sudden you have a contact.

    Something else, if you want to advance in academia, is teaching experience and training. Many universities have teaching programs for graduate students these days. I highly recommend taking advantage of these because they give you documented evidence of having studied aspects of teaching to one degree or another, which gives you the edge over someone who doesn't have those.
     
  5. May 1, 2009 #4

    diazona

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    lol... well, I never saw any such chapter in Jackson as an undergrad. It'd be nice though ;-)

    I'm normally not one to be hung up on the school name, but there are a couple of reasons I have for asking this question: for one thing, the vast majority of the physicists whose alma maters (i.e. where they got their PhD) I know went to one of the top universities for graduate school - Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Caltech, UC Berkely, Stanford, occasionally U. Chicago or Cornell, etc. It gives the impression that it's nearly impossible to get a job as a physicist at a decent research university without a graduate degree from one of those tier 1 institutions (which does seem ridiculous, I know, but I say what I see).

    My other reason is that somewhere down the line, I imagine someone asking, if I'm as good as I (want to) claim to be, why did I choose to go to grad school where I did? Well, I didn't have any other choice, and I'm sure the fact that I got rejected from all the top choices for grad school is going to raise some red flags.
    I kind of figured that would be part of it, but not just anyone can present at a conference or publish a paper - I'd have to distinguish myself first. So by the time I'm able to do something like that, I don't think I'll be worried about this question anymore ;-)

    I guess it's the kind of thing in this post (link) that's most on my mind right now.
     
  6. May 2, 2009 #5

    Choppy

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    Learning how to do, write up and present the research is what graduate school is all about. When I was a graduate student, I found it was very easy to get caught up in the details of the work and lose sight of the bigger picture. The students who keep the bigger picture in mind tend to be the ones who excel.
     
  7. May 2, 2009 #6

    f95toli

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    It obviously doesn't hurt your chances. But remember that the quality of the group is much more important than the university. There are many examples of small, relatively unknown, universities that have excellent research groups in maybe one or two areas. There are also examples of not-so-successful- groups based at well known universities.
    Post-docs are hired because the employer needs a certain set of skills, this means that someone that did his/her PhD at an "unknown" university but has worked in a good group and has showed that they have those particular skills (by publishing good papers in good journals in the relevant area) will always be chosen over someone who only has a "tier 1" Alma Mater as a "merit".
     
  8. May 2, 2009 #7

    Born2bwire

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    You don't have to distinguished to get published or to be invited to present, your advisor/group does (to some extent). His name will be on pretty much anything that you publish, present, or submit so if you have a strong group behind you then you'll be attached to good research.. Like f95toli has said, it's the research group that matters. The top universities are not the top in every area. Some of the most important work in my area has come out of rather obscure departments because they had a few excellent groups. If you have an idea of what area you want to work in, then take the time to research who is publishing in that field (and what) and try to get into those universities. Send e-mails to the professors to see if they have openings and discuss with them about the positions and work. If you have a good group, then they'll support you in getting published and such.

    Unfortunately, f95toli has glaringly omitted key information to you. Graduate school is nothing like undergraduate and you need to step up to the plate. Getting free food and perks in graduate school is a much higher perogative than before and you should steel yourself for the ongoing efforts. Take note of conference rooms so that you can monitor them for conferences and seminars. The newer conference rooms are more desirable as they will hold the more prominant conferences. Learn where they stash the food, those that are foolish enough to set out the drinks and snacks outside of the room are prime targets. Get to know other grad students in key offices that can monitor and alert you to any situations. Coffee is your life blood, learn where the main coffee stations are so that you know the nearest one in an emergency. Keys are treasured gifts that are meant to be jealously guarded. Control of the keys controls the meeting rooms and to give them up is not something to be taken lightly. Pay attention to trash weeks and when senior member graduate, those are prime times to upgrade your office equipment, especially chairs. Finally, remember, the advisor giveth and the lack of funding taketh away.
     
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