Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Our New Podcast and My First Year of Graduate School

I am currently a Physics PhD student going to school in Washington, DC. I just finished my first year of courses and teaching earlier in the week, and now I am excited to have some time to work on this project. This blog is hopefully going to be the basis for a podcast produced by a good friend of mine from Undergrad and myself.  It is still being built, so pardon the appearance. We are both physicists by degree (although he has since transitioned to the dark arts of Electrical Engineering in the evil land of Industry) and we want to share our love of science and technology with the world.
The name is a bit of nostalgia from our time studying. The physics student lounge was where we spent most of our undergraduate lives not only doing work, but also coming to outrageous conclusions about life and being entirely hyperbolic. With any luck our podcast will capture all of that wonderful knowledge and absurdity, and provide--at the very least--some manner of amusement to the listener.
In the mean time, I am going to attempt to provide some content and share a bit of my experience as a (now) second year graduate student. The first year was quite an adventure. I went from being an undergraduate with a full course load of: physics, math, and liberal arts courses to dealing exclusively in physics full-time, alongside teaching laboratory sections. It was a big transition and there were a lot of times when I was not sure if I could make it. But here I am, sat at my computer with some tea on a rainy day, and feeling like reminiscing.
I have learned a lot:
  1. Group Theory is actually deeply embedded in so much of physics.  Every course I took in the past year dealt with groups. (I am really excited about Group Theory, but I will save that for another post)
  2. Graduate Courses move very quickly. The course is not necessarily about learning deeply, it is about exposing you to everything. The deep learning is your responsibility.
  3. Credit Hours are not representative of work required. The course requires what it requires to learn the material. Credit Hours are simply a bureaucratic thing.
  4. Attitudes about learning and students are very different at large universities.  Students and Professors seem to view the interaction and the course itself much more like a business transaction. Something that took a lot of getting used to coming from a liberal arts college.
  5. Teaching on your own is terrifyingly rewarding. My first semester, I had 4 labs that I was in charge of organizing, teaching, and evaluating. My lead instructor essentially gave me a few guidelines on what he expected from the labs, but left the quizzes and actual grading structure to me. Initially, this was terrifying, but I am really appreciative of this experience in hindsight. Having dealt with that out of the gate has made me a much more confident instructor.
  6. C, LaTeX and Mathematica/Octave/Gnuplot are everywhere. There is no escaping them. Linux is also an eventuality if you are pursuing an advanced degree in physics. You cannot fight it forever.
  7. Black Coffee is a miracle. I have nothing more to say.
  8. Always sleep when you can. Your schedule is going to be erratic for the next while.
  9. Make time for friends and family. You need contact with the outside world to stay sane.
  10. Don't lose sight of what you are interested in. It is so easy to become entirely engrossed in the coursework and teaching and entirely forget what it is you came here for. That can be incredibly demoralizing and hurt your overall graduate school experience in the first year. Keep up with new research in the field, listen to podcasts, attend lectures, do whatever it takes to stay connected with what you love about the field and motivated in what you are doing.

I have other thoughts on the nature and culture of Graduate programs, but I will save those for another post. Right now, I am content to have survived my first year, and am excited to move forward into my summer work.  For the intrepid reader I am hoping to share my experiences working with Gauge Theories on the Lattice this summer.