Learn from the experts

I was elated to be starting my Ph.D. and felt ready to give all of myself into research. In parallel to doing research, I thought to get advice from people that have already walked the Ph.D. path. The quest to find advice led me to two directions. The first direction was to the library. I searched for famous physicist’s autobiographies/biographies – famous enough to have last the eroding passage of time. The second direction was to interact with alive people. I found a space to converse about the Ph.D. journey with Prof. de Leon. She told me that to learn how to do the research, I had to learn from somebody who knows how to do research. I nodded in agreement, but I did not understand what she meant. Now I will tell you my interpretation.

Your Ph.D. training, on average, will take 5 to 6 years. It is a journey to master a broad set of skills. Those years require a monumental effort, but it comes as an exchange of some intellectual freedom. My field of experimental physics requires me to pick up laboratory skills, generation of new ideas, writing, and presenting skills. 

When your time comes to learn these skills, choose to learn from the experts. The experts being the ones who know how to do research. Who in my research group is producing the kind of work that I want to mimic? It is an excellent question to have as a starting point. If I had to turn the clock backward, my decision to pursue a research topic would have been a balance between what I like and the possibility to work with experts. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to be close to the experts. So, alternatively, I would try to study their methodology. If I had become an apprentice from the experts, I could have walked a shorter path. 

Another route is to be self-directed. To become accountable for my steps and progress. On a Daily, to face the feedback from my actions. Step by step, one can stumble with good research practices.

Now, I want to take a small digression to explain some details about experts in sports and music before coming back to the Ph.D. The reason is that the psychology of expert performance has been extensively studied in those fields.

Playing a musical instrument or being an athlete are fields that players take to extreme performance conditions. For example, the first violin in the most famous Orchestra on the world, or the top-winning gold medallist in the Olympics. Ander Ericsson spent all his career studying expert performers in these fields and coined a term called deliberate practice, which is the best way to practice skills to attain mastery.

Deliberate practice consists of three components. First, find a teacher who was a previous top-performer in the last generation. Second, that teacher will design exercises tailored to you. Third, those exercises will push you outside of the boundaries of your comfort zone by about 10 %. That is the short recipe for deliberate practice.

I started writing this article by telling you to go to find the experts. Now, Ericsson describes the experts as the top performers from the previous generation. In the case of a Ph.D. I think you can find the experts by asking yourself: What is the kind of physics that I want to produce? Then you find the physicist who is making such physics right now. At the end of your Ph. D., you will not be an exact copy of your adviser but will have learned the how of her doings. 

To learn the laboratory skills, I think there are three types of experts: the senior graduate student, the postdoctoral associate, and the young professor. In research groups where the adviser is senior, the front line people are graduate students and postdocs. If you are the first student of a young professor, there is not much freedom to choose from different experts. Nevertheless, the young professor just completed a full cycle of success record, so it is the ultimate expert to learn from, in an ideal world, of course.

I do not think there is a distinction between young or senior professors regarding writing and presentation skills. The laboratory that you will join will transfer their type of expertise to you. If the research group most of the time publishes in a top-flashy journal, that is, likely, the variety of projects you will pursue. If the lab publishes more systematic and small papers but large in quantity, that is what you will likely end up learning.

When a young Ph.D. starts to look for a research group to join, she needs to be aware of what the research group can deliver during the apprenticeship. On average, you will learn the skills that the research group has honed over the years. 

The lab that you will be choosing, in its current state, is a good representation of what you will be surrounded by in the future. The apprenticeship will be the average value of your Ph.D. A lab that mainly directs a Ph.D. towards industry will make your chances of going to a particular specific industry much higher. A lab that mostly steers Ph.D. to academic positions, that is where you will likely be a few years down the road. A lab that graduates early their students or late is what you will be facing towards the end of your Ph.D. Of course, there is an error bar; It is possible to land beyond or below that average.

(photo by Rui He)

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