Becoming a researcher
- Ask questions. Now is the time.
- Take care of yourself. See a doctor regularly.
- I expect you to perform your work ethically. You can
expect the same of me. For details, see
American Physical Society web pages under the headline
"Ethics and Values".
- Always come to my office with something to write on,
either a few pieces of paper or a laptop. Taking a
picture with your cell phone sounds sensible, but this
also means that you never record anything unless one
of us writes it on the board. Thus, if you are going to
use your cell phone instead, then make sure you take
notes on it as well for the things you need to
remember which are not written on the board.
- Make sure you know how to look up articles at
given for example, the first author's last name and a
year of publication.
- If you would like to do research with me,
be prepared to tell me why.
- If we have not seen each other for a few days, when
we meet again, you should always either have a question to
ask or something to present (preferably both). If you
have not made any progress, that is ok, just be prepared
to tell me what you tried (even if it did not
work). Never say you "have no progress".
- Sometimes I give you papers to read. When you come
back, be prepared to tell me something you learned.
You do not have to understand the whole paper, or be
able to derive all of the equations, but you should be
able to tell me about some detail that you learned
(even if it is not a detail that is central to the
- Administrative people in the department (the people
in the front office, the computer support people, the
laboratory support people, etc.) are extremely
important. They deserve your respect. Respond to their
email messages promptly and follow any directions
which they give you.
- Part of being a graduate student is learning to
manage your time. Make sure you are not stagnant and
always making progress. Make sure you are never just
waiting on me to do something. If you are having
trouble with your research project, make sure you
ask for help. Ask your advisor, your fellow graduate
students, or the postdocs in your field. If they
cannot help you, then take a break
and read some recent papers in your topic, or recent
papers in a different topic, or connect with the
physics community some way. Make sure you are
always doing something, not just waiting.
- Impostor syndrome is
feels, at some point, like they are not smart
enough. (Me too.) More often than not, you are a
lot more capable than you think. In any case, I am
always happy to give you an honest assessment of how I
believe you are doing and how you can improve.
However, I can tell you the most likely answer
already: you are smart enough and yes there are things
you can do to improve (and you probably already have a
good idea what they are), but I can not make you any
guarantees about your future.
- Go to the department colloquia, the nuclear physics
seminars, and the astrophysics seminars. If you are not
getting anything out of them, then try to read the
relevant papers authored by the presenter the day or
night before the seminar.
- Success in the future requires a solid understanding
of the scientific background of your thesis topics and
other related topics in the field. I will be able to
help you with a small part of this background
material, but it is important for you to do a fair
amount of reading of papers (and sometimes computer
code) on your own. Make sure that reading is an active
not passive learning process. For example, try to
derive some of the equations in the papers you read,
reproduce some of the plots, write some related
computer code, or download a related open-source
computer code and run it, etc.
- Plots are the scientific currency which our field
uses. You would be surprised how far you can go with one
really great plot. Learn how to make good plots
quickly, using whatever software works best for you. I
recommend starting with python3 and matplotlib, and I
recommend against using Microsoft Excel, but in the
end I leave the final answer up to you. I have my own
for this sort of thing, but it is not well documented
- There may be times which I am on travel and I
cannot answer your email messages quickly. This means
that, in the mean time, you may need to either try a
different approach to your problem, or switch
focus to a different task. Sometimes this
means you need to try again to solve the problem
- Make sure to connect with the physics community in
this country and around the world. Sign up for mailing
lists, become a member of a physics society, go to
virtual online colloquia (ASU has a good one), contact
authors of publications you like, sign up for posters
and summer schools. Make sure to interact with your
local colleagues: graduate students, postdocs, and
faculty. Learn their preferred pronouns and learn to
say their names correctly. Connecting with the physics
community is a critical part of obtaining a Ph.D.
- Be a professional. Show that you take your work
seriously, that you are interested in the results,
and that you care whether or not it is correct.
Make sure your plots have labels and your writing
is not filled with spelling or grammar mistakes.
(Obviously it is ok to be a bit less careful
you are trying to get things done quickly, but
people take notice if you are not careful when
you had plenty of time.)
Worst Advice Grad Students Get",
you want to be a grad student?", and
To An Academic Conference? Here Are Some Tips".
Joining my research group
First and foremost, if you are a graduate student just
beginning at UTK, make sure you meet with faculty early
(within the first year) and often regarding research with
their group. One way of learning about a research group is
to attend one of the group meetings (even if you have not
yet passed the qualifying exam). Almost all faculty
(including me) in the department open up their group
meetings for interested graduate students. Also, consider
working with the associated research group during either
the summer before you begin your first year or during the
summer between the first and second years.
If you want to join a particular
research group, I recommend contacting the faculty member
who leads that group one a semester (and once during the
summer) expressing your interest. Make sure this
expression of interest is not passive: read
one of the research group papers and have questions,
attend a group meeting, and/or meet in person with
the faculty member who leads the group.
If you are reading this and you are a postdoc or graduate
student and you want to join my research group, that is
wonderful! For people interesting in joining my group as a
postdoc, I announce job openings on twitter so you can
always check that (even if you don't have a twitter
account). If you are interesting in joining as a graduate
student, here are a couple things that might help you:
- Please be prepared to tell me what interests you
about the kind of research I have been doing. Your
level of interest is more important than your GPA or
your GRE score.
- While I encourage you to contact me (or any of
my colleages early in your graduate program)
I typically can only hire you as an RA when
(i) I have the available funding to pay
you, (ii) you have passed our department's Ph.D.
qualifying exam, and (iii) you have worked with me on
a trial basis for (at least) a few months. If you are
just beginning graduate school here at UTK, the best
way to increase your probability of being able to join
my research group is to work with me during the summer
(a paid position) before you begin classes. This can
be arranged only after you are accepted into our
Letter of recommendation?
- Inform me by email, preferably a month in advance, that
you would like a letter.
- Send me your CV.
- Provide for me, as soon as possible, the
- the nature of the position you are applying for
(postdoc or faculty job?),
- the name of your future boss or the head of
the search committee,
- the institution you are applying to,
- the deadline, and
- and the way in which the letter
is to be sent.
- Remind me 24-48 hours before the deadline just