In lieu of quals...
October 7, 2016 1:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm currently in the first year of a PhD program in physics. Right now I am just taking classes. My school does not have a qualifying exam, and there's not much I need to do outside of my classwork. However, I don't want to live from homework to homework -- so I'd like to set aside some extra time for textbook-reading and problem-solving. Have you done this? Tell me about your experience.

I've done this in the past; I'm capable of sitting down for several hours on an evening or weekend and walking through a piece of textbook. I'm just looking for any specific, extra things you noticed that might be helpful.

To my situation: I'm still deciding what research (cond-mat theory?) I'd like to get into, and have been doing the usual -- attending seminars, getting to know professors, etc. But there's plenty of "textbook stuff" that I need to learn over the next year or three, so I'm just going to have to crunch through this part.

To the question: where did you work? When did you study during the week? Were there specific ways in which you thought about the texts/problems differently from your typical course material? What did you do when you got stuck? How fast did you move along? What was most useful for remembering the appropriate connections, scales, and approximations? Did you work with other students, or did you mostly work alone? About what did you have to be brutally honest with yourself? Any other advice for grad school self-study?

posted by miniraptor to Education (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you start reading about particular reaearch you may do later? I learn substaintially more when I am considering how to solve a problem. If you ever need to know background, you may learn it as needed in the future. You have a B.S. I'd look forward in your spare time, to future research projects. Looking back is largely a waste of time IMO as were my comps. I could've studied none and passes these anyway.

Read about these topics. Grad student office, library, coffee shop, home. You can try reading in each of these places .

It's great to have a number of mentors. Professors, post docs, grad students to learn from. You need their experience to help you focus your work. Basically, you want to make research daya for you and your coworkers. Classes and atudying are basically a waste of time. I did the absolute bare minimum on these. It worked well.

When you're stuck, talk to your team. Reading similar research and trying things are also helpful. You're going to move at a unique pace. Basically you're not going to get anything done in the next year but learning your resources ans some background in your chosen research area. So enjoy your life outside school.
posted by Kalmya at 2:09 PM on October 7, 2016

I was able to be a full-time graduate student, so I treated it like a full-time job (and, 5 years into my PhD with the end increasingly near, I still do). Monday-Friday I get to my office around 8, work consistently via pomodoro - whether that is writing something, reading new papers, brainstorming, preparing for teaching, whatever - take a half hour of lunch/goofiness, and then work again until 5 or 6. Then I go home. Before I had my own workspace in the department, I took over a particular study carrel in the library every day. That consistency was the best thing to get me working and doing what needed to be done. Even now, I can get work done at home or in coffee shops, but not nearly as effectively as I can when I am in my office.
posted by ChuraChura at 3:28 PM on October 7, 2016

I did a social science PhD, so take my advice with a grain of salt.

For where to work, I tended to alternate between my office (tiny, windowless) and cafes (more conducive to not committing suicide, but also more distracting and can get expensive). Our campus also had a very nice graduate-student-only reading room that I took frequent advantage of. I would experiment with different things around your campus and see what works for you, as I think this is very personal. Some people love routine and others like to mix it up. For myself, I think I like to mix it up, but find routine typically does make me more productive.

I would try to put together a reading group with other grad students if you can. It will give you some external motivation and also build your network for future coauthorships, people to read your work, etc. Set a regular meeting date (maybe once or twice a month) to discuss what you're reading. As you move out of textbook-learning phase, it can turn into reading and commenting on each others' work, which is hugely valuable.

Finally, I can't tell from your post whether you know exactly what you want to learn/read and are just nailing down the location/style, or are also asking for recommendations on what to read. Obviously I don't have specific suggestions not being a physics student, but as a general strategy I would suggest starting with reading recently published articles/research you find interesting, and using that to guide you as to what you should learn more about so you can understand that research.
posted by rainbowbrite at 4:15 PM on October 7, 2016

I used to come up with a classic text, then my supervisor would set up a reading course for me. I'd self study, but I'd have to show him problems / proofs, and talk to him about the book once a week. I sometimes did this with a group of students and one prof. I also got course credit... Which was nice
posted by Valancy Rachel at 4:33 PM on October 7, 2016

Social Science, not physics.

When I started my doctoral program, my advisor suggested picking one of the journals in my field and reading every article starting with the current publication and going backward for ten years. I didn't quite make it that far, but over the years of my program I plowed through about five years of past literature, and kept pace with the current publication.

While my advisor was a bit of a space cadet, that turned out to be very good advice. Reading the entire journal forced me to read content that was peripheral to my interests and gave me greater context for my own research. It also gave me a perspective of what scholars in my field were discussing and allowed me to feel confident at conferences, etc.
posted by 26.2 at 1:56 AM on October 8, 2016

I'm a mathematician who works on problems related to string theory. I'm really good at learning from textbooks; one of the trickier parts of grad school for me was figuring out how to learn subjects that are new enough that good textbooks don't exist yet. If you're looking at theoretical physics, trying to make this transition seems more important than doing more textbook problems on your own. (If you're planning to do more experimental research, you should find a way to join a lab and build something.)

Are you reading the arXiv? I'd start by signing up for the appropriate arXiv mailings.
posted by yarntheory at 7:55 PM on October 8, 2016

Yes, it is time to read research. There is an essentially infinite amount of physics to learn- in the sense that you have a finite lifetime and will never learn it all.

This was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a young physics (string theory) grad student: you cannot learn everything ahead of time, so instead you must figure out how to know which things you need for a given project, as well as how to teach yourself those things.

For the first question, I would recommend talking to older grad students, postdocs, and the professor(s) you want to work for. If you're feeling gutsy, ask the prof for a project and then for background on the project.

As for the second question, how to learn things that aren't in textbooks, that's a skill in and of itself. Learn how to use arxiv to find papers talking about the thing you want to learn. I suggest looking for review articles and pedagogical notes (in my world I would suggest looking for notes from focused PhD schools such as TASI or PITP; I don't know what the condensed matter equivalents are). When I was a student there was a list of the 100 papers every string theorist should read; find today's equivalent for your area. Learn how to deeply read a paper; unlike textbooks most papers are communicating to other experts and thus won't include exercises and may have only minimal or no worked examples. You'll need to figure out what work to do to be sure you've understood what the paper is about. Learn how to go up and down citation trees (look at references, as well as the papers that cite the one you are reading; then look at refs/cites in those papers too). Most importantly though, ask your mentors (older PhDs, postdocs, profs) at your own institution what they did. Ask more than one person since there isn't a single unique way to proceed.
posted by nat at 6:36 AM on October 9, 2016

Yes, I would recommend spending any "free" time not perusing random textbooks necessarily, but trying to figure out what sort of research you are going to do and with whom. Figuring out an advisor and a project will help you sort your priorities on the background research front. Talk to people in the department about what sorts of things you're interested in generally, set up meetings with professors who do those sorts of things to see if they are taking on students and if they have projects in mind. Talk to grad students to see if you can get intel on which professors make good advisors.
posted by freezer cake at 2:46 PM on October 10, 2016

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