Sunday, February 13, 2011

Advice to future academics

A colleague and old friend of mine was charged with running a session at an NSF-supported workshop on career choices for PhDs. He thought that it would be instructive to compile the key success factors for each type of job. So, he asked me for my thoughts. I provided the following subjective response that is based on my own limited experience. Many of you may have other ideas. If so, I would like to hear about them.

I believe that success in a physics department at a major university depends critically on the following factors:

1. An excellent grounding in the core physics areas, as taught in a rigorous set of doctoral-level classes. This lays the foundations upon which a researcher builds a deep understanding from which new ideas spring and puzzling results are interpreted. I believe that being required to pass a PhD qualifier exam helped me bring together my knowledge into a coherent form that serves me even today in many aspects of my research.

2. Experience doing research. There are many intangibles required of a researcher, which are not easily taught in the classroom. The best way of learning is doing. A key part of my development was working with other bright colleagues in the lab both in graduate school and early in my career. I think that it is easy to train a specialist to work in a narrow research area. The training of an academic scientist, on the other hand, requires the ability to sniff out new research directions and to take chances on new ideas that may be far outside our comfort zones. Again, the best experience is working with the brightest and most successful people.

3. Writing skills. Academic scientists are required to generate funding from external sources, which in addition to good ideas, demands the ability to write clearly. Our product is new knowledge, which appears in journals for future consumption. Since writing grant proposals and papers is a large part of what we do, success hinges on the ability to write clearly and effectively.

4. Communication skills. Presentations at conferences and other research institutions are a critical part of giving our work visibility. This requires the ability to present ideas clearly and at the appropriate level for the intended audience. Good Communication skills are also a crucial aspect of good teaching in the classroom and when interacting with students/colleagues in the lab.

5. Passion for learning. A passion for learning new things drives both excellence in teaching and creative research. An individual who is not continually being challenged is not being fully productive. An expert is a person who has learned everything the he or she needs to know to perform a specific task while a scientist is a person who is comfortable living in the unknown. An indicator that I am doing my job is the constant feeling of being stupid. Smug satisfaction in one's own expertise is a sign of mental stagnation. If you have become an expert, move on to something new.

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