For some reason today I remembered that 11 years ago (wow time flies) I wrote a two-parts piece on advices for PhD students doing a thesis in experimental particle physics. As I checked it out, I found that I mostly share the views I had back then (TBH that’s not necessarily a good thing – consistency requires you to be as ignorant as you were earlier on). Since I think that stuff I posted over 10 years ago are otherwise lost in oblivion and not picked up by generic google searches, I decided it is time to recycle that text – here it is below, unamended but collated into a single longish article. Enjoy!

Being a graduate student in particle physics is a tough, stressful job. I know it because I once was one, and I still remember the burden of giving exams, carrying on single-handedly a difficult analysis, and desperately struggling to learn the job of particle physicist, all the while trying to prove my worth to my colleagues. On the personal side, further trouble compounds the situation: one is usually fighting with tight money, stranded away from her family and boyfriend, and finds herself in the company of people whose similar priorities make the otherwise natural impulse of “having fun whenever possible” the last of their thoughts.

I know that this blog is read by quite a few particle physicist wannabes, so as I travel by train from Venice to Turin this morning (for a workshop on Higgs boson physics, if you care to know), I am putting together a few tips and tricks which may be useful to graduate students. The trip lasts four and a half hours, so there is plenty of time to assemble a thorough list. Whether you have the time to read it, that is another matter, of course.

Now, I do not consider myself old enough yet to feel comfortable as I take the part of the old sage: there is a lot I do not know yet of the world of particle physics, and I sometimes still feel like a tourist, especially when I sit with equal rights in committees or meetings in the company of people who have written the books I studied twenty years ago. Yet during these twenty years I have graduated more than a dozen students and tutored seven Ph.D.s, so I feel capable to give advice to them. After all, I can say with certainty that what I have forgotten about particle physics is a lot more than what I still know: that makes me an expert, does it not ?

Particle physics is the only branch of physics I have direct experience on, and although some of what I will say can be recycled with profit by graduate students in other fields, there are a few things that make the HEP world special. So I shall take as case study a Jane, second-year experimental particle physics graduate student just arrived at the lab where she will carry on her research work. We will try and see how we can help her survive in such a hostile environment as a foreign laboratory, where detectors are built, Feynman diagrams crowd the blackboards, and people of all ethnicities wander with a crazy look in their eyes through cheerless corridors, at the most improbable times of the day or the night.

Of course, at the beginning Jane will have lots of problems which have little or nothing to do with physics: find cheap lodging and furniture, open a bank account, fill endless pages of paperwork for visa and health care, get trained for access to the lab facilities, etcetera. We cannot help her much with that, so we hope Jane is smart enough to get a hold of somebody who has gone through the same business one year before.

One: strip bare in front of selected few

Day-to-day errands are already a challenge in a foreign country, but at the lab is where life will be the toughest. After setting her up, her advisor Bruce will give her a tour of some absurdly complicated hardware, and provide a rather handwaving explanation of how the whole thing works. As she gets briefed she will feel really ignorant, but her impulse to ask questions will be strongly dampened, because her focus will be to try and avoid making a fool of herself with Bruce, especially at the beginning. She will remember that the reference letters Bruce got to read about her contained lots of overstatements about her experience with similar pieces of hardware, so Jane will try and protect that image. Huge mistake.

My advice number one to Jane: find a handful of people ranked higher than you to whom you can show your real self and to whom disclose naked the real status of your knowledge, such that you can ask for their help whenever you need it, without embarrassment. The best thing is if one of these folks is your advisor. If Bruce, after having accepted you in his group, finds out you do not know much about the hardware you are supposed to work on, it all goes to your advantage. He will be slightly pissed off, but he will most likely get over with it; in the meantime, you will have significantly eased the pressure you self-inflicted to yourself by trying to live up to impossible standards. In chessplayer jargon this is a positional sacrifice: you give up a pawn to get out of a cramped position, or to relieve the pressure on your king; maybe regaining the pawn will be possible later on. Leaving chess aside, you are sacrificing some of your prestige with Bruce for an easier access to knowledge: the right to freely ask questions. As for the prestige, there will be time aplenty to get Bruce to change his mind about you.

Now that Bruce knows that Jane cannot tell a resistor from a capacitance, he will have to explain to her the details of the circuitry. If Jane lets Bruce know that her understanding of an oscilloscope is rather foggy, he will have to sit down with her and teach her the tricks of the trade. He will be unlikely to run away in rage, because he needs Jane to perform work for the project, and he is the one responsible for putting his manpower in the condition of working effectively. Jane told Bruce she is unable to handle the task without further help, and help is bound to arrive.

If Jane, on the other hand, does not find the courage to disclose the holes in her background to Bruce, or if she judges that Bruce is the kind of guy who is likely to declare war to her if he realizes he has been misinformed about her expertise, then Jane needs to find somebody else in the lab with whom to come clean, and ask for help. This is not optimal, but there will typically be somebody around willing to play that part: after all, most everybody has gone through the same calvary, and has received help in times of trouble during his or her days of need. Jane really needs a few allies, and the best time to get them is yesterday: she needs to find them early on!

Two: become somebody

Life at a laboratory is a 24/7 business for a graduate student. Jane will have to decide whether to concentrate 110% of her efforts on her work and studies, or to invest some of her vigil time at meetings, and seminars too. While of course the main focus of a Ph.D. must be the creation of some original work and a possibly scientifically interesting new result, there are other strategic occupations that Jane should get busy with. One of these is understanding what others are doing around her, to get inspiration and grab ideas. Another is to build the image of a knowledgeable, active physicist. So one good trick is to catch those two birds with one stone. If Jane participates actively at more meetings and seminars than those specific of her research topic that is an excellent move, because people will see her around and maybe notice her existence. Beware, this is not for granted in a large collaboration, especially if Jane uses to work during the night (as is unfortunately the case with many graduate students) and to stay barricaded in her tiny office, leaving it only for physical needs. Those are Jane’s huge mistakes number two and three together. Let me explain.

A typical particle physics experiment runs several internal meetings at a periodic pace. At the meetings the physics is discussed, people present updates on their work, and results get approved for publication. Although Jane’s analysis will fit well only in one of the meetings, and conversely she will feel the need to be adjourned on the proceedings and activities going on in just one meeting, it is a very good idea for Jane to follow as many other meetings as possible. Conveners of the groups, and leaders of the experiment, like to see these meeting well attended, and they will soon notice Jane’s presence. And Jane will learn a lot from the extra physics she gets exposed to.

My second advice to Jane is thus the following: get out of your hole, become somebody! Live and breathe the life of the lab, feel the privilege of participating in the groups’ activities. Show them you exist. Learn from more experienced people and their seminars. Absorb their technique in putting together talks, in reusing slides, in mastering the subtle art of preparing talks in five minutes. Doing this will allow your face to be known -later you will have to work on associating a name to it in their brains. Your participation will also greatly increase your knowledge of the physics and the analysis techniques used in other groups, which is a necessary input for good ideas to be used in your own work.

Following three times as many meetings as those strictly necessary to Jane’s work is not too heavy a burden. In most instances, Jane will be able to run jobs from her laptop while she listens to the talks, so she will not lose too much time. An added bonus (which unfortunately applies only to US laboratories) is that Jane will usually find free food (bagels, muffins, cookies, etc.) at the meetings: a time and money saver.
Three: be a fool today if you want to be a guru tomorrow

The third advice I have in store for Jane is maybe the toughest to follow, at least at first. But I do believe it is of critical importance for her to grow, become knowledgeable, and distinguish herself from the rest of the pack.

In large experiments, you never manage to get to know all your colleagues -there simply is not enough time to do that. You will get to know the names and recognize the face of the physics group conveners, the people with responsibilities, and the few colleagues who do a job similar to yours. On the other hand, you would like -you should like!- to become known and esteemed by your colleagues. Remember, some of them will be the ones who write reference letters for you one day, or those who decide to grant you the right to represent the collaboration at an international conference. 

How do you manage to become somebody? It is not enough to present your work regularly at the relevant physics group, because not many follow that group’s activities. So you have to play in all the tables, in a way.

The way to get people to know you, attach your name to your face, and realize you are knowledgeable is, maybe suprisingly, to ask questions at meetings, as often as possible. You do not understand something about a plot your colleague is showing during his talk ? Ask about it. The x-axis labels are missing ? Ask what the heck are the units, even if Groucho’s child of five could understand it. You arrive before the last slide and the speaker is saying she measured x with two inverse femtobarns? Sit down, wait ten seconds for the dust to settle (you do not want them to see you have just arrived), and ask her whether she plans to add more data to improve the measurement. You doze off during the talk and wake up at the Summary slide? Ask to see slide 7 again (there is always a slide seven, so this is a safe call), and then stare at it pensively for five seconds, finally saying “Ok, I see, thank you”. 

Of course, you should ensure you do not become a real nuisance, so you need some self-containment. A good rule-of-thumb is the following: ask a question every 30 minutes. A good pace is about three questions per meeting at a meeting with 15 to 30 participants; half that rate should be enough in case of larger audiences -others must ask questions, too!

The examples of questions you may always ask (content-free ones, that is) that I have given above may sound silly, but they work, and they can always be used. Usually, however, you will be at the meeting from the start, with your brain functioning normally. If so, you will have lots of real questions to ask about the work you hear discussed. And most of the times you will be afraid that the questions you are puzzling yourself over are stupid ones: ones with obvious answers, or worse, ones which betray your abysmal ignorance of the whole topic. Surely, you reason, you should avoid making a fool of yourself in front of such large audiences of smart people. Another huge mistake.

My third advice to Jane is the following: ask questions if you do not know the answer, even if you are 99% sure they are dumb ones. Remember, only by asking questions you learn the answer; otherwise, you will remain ignorant. If something is unclear to you, for the love of yourself, put your self-esteem aside and ask the darn thing to the speaker. You think the rest of the audience knows the answer and will think you are a fool? That is quite wrong! First of all, half of the audience is not smarter than you, and you will become popular among them if you straighten out a point over which they too were puzzling, by putting your face behind the question. Among the knowledgeable other half, a good third will be asleep, another third will be busy with their laptop, and the few others will not care to listen to you. In a 40-strong audience, you may expect that maybe three or four people really understand your question, know the answer, and judge you for your ignorance; they will think you are uninformed, but will nevertheless appreciate that you had the balls to ask. The others will raise their eyes from their laptops or turn them to you, stare at you while you ask the question, and go back to their occupation. That is added value: 90% of the audience has identified you as a person who participates actively to meetings. 

And there is more. Jane will be surprised to know that every once in a while her question will turn out to not be dumb at all. At the beginning, and for a while, this will happen rarely; but as Jane’s experience grows, she will find out that the exercise of asking questions does not always produce answers: at times, she will manage to put her finger on a weak point of the work which is being presented, and that will really impress the people in the audience. Suggesting workarounds and improvements is harder to do, but this, too, will come from experience, and from the habit of speaking one’s mind at meetings. Meetings, Jane should not forget, are places where people should be able to discuss freely. It is the conveners’ job to moderate the discussion, if needed; participants should not self-moderate themselves to the point of keeping their mouth shut if they have something to say!

Four: Review Your Papers!

One of the benefits of being a collaborator in a big experiment is that you will sign many scientific publications, even without having given any visible, significant contribution (save the questions at the meetings) to the analyses which produced those results. Heck, one can even get one’s name on a paper without having read the darn thing! 

Although seeing her name on a scientific paper without having seen it first in draft form causes Jane’s euphoria at the start, she should try to strike a balance and play the Scientist. The best time to read a paper is not when it appears in print, but rather, when the first draft is released for collaboration review. It does not take too long to read a scientific article: Jane does not really need to understand all of it, but maybe just grasp its essence, understand the result and its importance. And while she is at, why not taking note of this lousy sentence or that missed comma? If Jane is capable of reading English, she will also be able, at the very least, to correct bad spelling, incorrect phrasing, and messed-up references. And if she understand a bit of the physics discussed in the paper, she might even be able to ask a pointed question or suggest a revision in the substance; this is harder to do, of course, but the practice with questions at meetings will have made Jane a tougher kid in the meantime.

My fourth advice is thus the following: Try and read each and every paper that your collaboration is producing (ok, ok: all except those on diffractive physics), and send a few comments and corrections to the authors of each; do not forget to include the internal reviewers in carbon-copy. Beware, you should avoid exposing your ignorance in written form: unlike oral questions, written ones can be read by all, and they might become a significant source of embarrassment for you later on, if they turn out to be really dumb. Instead, use this as a stimulus to get documented on the matter. Do your homework tidily, and you will gain the respect of your colleagues, all the while learning new things!

Jane will earn lots of credit for this activity, which is often neglected in large collaborations. And her self-esteem will grow by seeing that her advice and corrections have been used to improve the publication. From now on, that paper will be righteously hers.

Five: Talk about yourself in third person

Well, not really. Julius Caesar may have done it, but we lesser souls should be a bit more humble. But not humbler than that! It is very important for Jane to realize that nobody knows her contribution to the experiment better than she herself does. And surprisingly, people will take her word for it, more often than otherwise. If Jane insists in being as modest and backward as she thought polite to be before coming to the lab, she will be ran over. On the contrary, Jane should not lose any occasion to point out that she contributed to something, to let everybody know she had that idea first, to speak of herself in praiseworthy terms. I know, it is tough, but it is the only way to let others realize one is worth something.

My fifth advice to Jane is thus the following: convince yourself that you are better than most of your colleagues, and as good as any. Do not let yourself down, and do not allow others to force their superiority upon you. The world of particle physics is full of intelligent, brilliant people, but you belong to it, and you should not feel inferior: if you do not know something as well as somebody else does, it is only because you did not spend any time on that particular issue while they did, so this should not become evaluation ground. Bring the discussion on ground where you are knowledgeable, show your competence. Crucially, however: even if you do feel inferior to somebody, do not let it transpire. Usually, the people around you will not use your own modesty against you; however, they will tend to believe your high self-esteem if you manifest it.

And it is especially important to boost your self-esteem when you deal with senior physicists who might one day judge you worthy of a responsibility position. To them, your slightly excessive self-esteem will not be overly annoying, and the message they will carry home is that you are a worthy physicist.

In conclusion…

To conclude this rather long article, let me say I did not follow too closely the above line of conduct in my early years; not all of those tips, anyway. I did start asking questions at meetings quite early on, but on the other hand, my self-esteem often prevented me from asking questions to my advisors when I should have, and I sometimes paid a high price for that. Maybe the toughest thing about good advice is to make good use of it, so I am not sure whether this article is useful to you. As Oscar Wilde used to say, “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it: it is of no use to oneself“.