Friday, April 28, 2006

So, you want to be an astrophysicist? Part 2.5 - grad school

Deadline is gone, prospectives have visited and I'm off any conflicting committee!
It is safe to talk about grad school again...

You're in grad school. Yay.
Now wtf do you do...

Well, you need to jump through the hurdles first.
Most places have some course and seminar requirements, you may in some cases test out of them or waive them, but think about whether you really want to. Odds are that your undergraduate curriculum was not complete or advanced enough in at least some areas. Yes, you want to get on with research, but you also want to be solid on the fundamentals.
Take the stoopid exams, whatever they call them, usually some variation on candidacy or comps or both.
Most places admit students they expect to pass, a few have a policy of admit everyone and then flunk whoever out, most don't.
So, trained experts have determined you have the innate capability of most likely passing those exams, with a bit of work. Or possibly shitloads of work. So just do it.

Take seminar courses. They are usually on the "hot topics", and usually very good.
As a grad student I liked to take classes, real classes (mostly math, I still want more math) and seminars, up through my final year. A lot of students want to be done with classes as soon as possible, a lot of advisors think classes are a waste of time and dilute research efforts. I disagree, but not strongly.


Seriously, and I don't just say that because I'm in charge of colloquia.
Every place has some mix of formal colloquia, informal lunch talks and meetings.
Go to as many as you can stand. Especially at the beginning and at the end of your time. And in the middle...

The colloquiua are usually either "hot topic" talks, or major reviews of sub-fields. Lunch talks are more likely "in progress" talks. Either way you ought to want to hear about it. This is what the faculty think is hot, was hot recently or will be hot soon.
Go especially if it is outside your sub-field, you might learn something!
Introduce yourself to the speaker if possible. Go to lunch or dinner or coffee, or meet formally, if you can. Be nice.
These people will often remember you, they may be your future employers, or friends of your future employer, they are virtually certain to be reviewing a proposal or something of yours eventually. Astronomy is a small field and people talk.

While you're at it - if you have the oomph, go to stuff outside your department. University wide talks, seminars, things in other departments, even classes. A friend of mine in grad school claimed he could eat for free 5 days a week by attenting the right pattern of seminars and colloquia (not recommended, you can live on cookies and chips and coffee, but not well).

Ok, research. Yes, you should do some.
If you know what you want to work on, get going on it as soon as you can.
If you don't know, start exploring around as soon as feasible.
Go talk to faculty. Mostly they don't bite.

DO NOT ASK ABOUT MONEY! If you're doing it for money, then you're in the wrong business.
Ask to do research you are interested in doing.
Do your homework first, check the web page, glance through a paper or three. If you are not interested in doing research, you know, exploring the universe, adding new knowledge to mankinds inventory of nature and technology, then you should not be doing a PhD.
It is possible that what you think you're interested in is not suitable (in the stoopid profs opinion) for PhD research... it may be done, wrong, not interesting, undoable or just not interesting enough. The Prof may be wrong, but the word "advisor" has a meaning. You want to be advised, take it under consideration.
Try again, or ask for input or both. Some people have lists of projects to do, some people have some general ideas, and some people want to hear what you think. Radical thought.
If the answer from a potential advisor is "no" don't take it personally, and maybe try again, faculty have external lives that may preclude working with students or on particular projects at any given time.
If the project is good, a lot of the time money will be found...
Being a research assistant is good, but it won't kill you to be a teaching assistant for a while. You should be a TA for at least 6 months anyway. If you hate teaching, find out early in grad school, not when you become faculty!

If the department permits, or encourages it, then try doing a research project in a sub-field that is not what you think you want to do for a thesis.

Think very seriously about whether you want to do theory, observation, data analysis or instrumentation.
You may end up doing things you never imagined out of necessity (like theorists go take observations, cause if they don't no one else will; or observers running simulations, or building the instrument they need to do the observations etc etc).
Do you have the aptitude? Do you have the background? Can you learn?

Career goals should matter some, think about whether you want to stay in research? In academia? Industry? Observatories? NASA?
You want to pick up certain skills and experiences depending on which is your primary focus. Be ready to be disappointed, the competition is fierce. But most PhDs end up in some combination of interesting or well paid jobs. Opportunity cost is usually recovered even if you end up doing something other than you planned.

It is worth thinking about the medium term future of your chosen sub-field; is it expanding, new faciltiies coming online, is it peaking, or in decline? BUT, predicting the future is futile, particularly now. I don't know anyone who could confidently tell you which sub-field will see growth in the next decade. JWST is the biggest bet, if it launches and works.
Survey science and database mining look promising; so do mm-wave obserbations; I also suspect computer simulations will be a growth field again - BUT, if you had asked me 1-2 years ago my predictions would have been different and very, very wrong.

Pick and advisor you can get on with. Scientists are often "characters". Way high up on the list of "things you do not want to do" is being stuck with a PhD advisor you do not get along with.

Er, but first make sure you pick an advisor who likes to be bugged...

There are two kinds of advisors - those who meet formally with students and expect progress; and those who bump into people in the corridor and blearily say "oh, you're working with me, right? Well, so, how is it going then...?"
KNOW YOURSELF: if you need the push of regular progress reports, then don't sign up with a hands-off advisor.
If you do want to bug your advisor, bring something to the meeting: progress, news, an idea, a question, a complaint. Something.

Self-motivate: particularly if you work with a hands-off type. Everyone procrastinates, but you're not going to have your hand held in most departments, you fizzle out, you're finished (eventually, when someone finally notices).

You're supposed to be working on new original stuff that you find interesting. So do it.

Finally: READ!!! Pro-actively. Check arXiv regularly and thoroughly. Read the papers relevant to you and anything else that looks interesting.
Read the references! They are there for a reason.
Read the citations - if a paper is interesting, papers which cite it are also likely to be interesting. Use the ADS "C" option liberally and look through it quickly.
If in doubt ask you advisor, or just read it anyway.

Next, the slightly tricky issue of what we actually "do", research wise type of thingy. Might take a while...


Blogger John said...

I would also add that going to the colloquium dinners is an excellent way of getting to know the lay of the land for your own department's faculty. This is one of the few times (on a dry campus anyways) that you might have the chance to see the elder dragons relax a little bit. I learned alot about the different personalities (and gossip) going around the department from my colloquium dinners which helped me immensely in navigating comprehensive exams, picking people to work with, and mostly staying on everyone's good side. It's imperative that everyone perceives you as hard working and successful, while actually being hard working and successful.

9:14 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home