Do fewer things

Kevin, there is not a fix-it-all formula in the years ahead of you. I know you will try to look for one. In that process you will try to read about methodologies and the lives of physicists who were where you are right now. Indeed, nothing will account for the learning from your own future experiences. Here I am leaving you some words for you to take in your steps forward. First, the length scales in a PhD are going to be very different than in undergraduate. And second, you will have narrow much more your focus.

In the summer of 2017, at the end of my second year of PhD, I went to knock on Prof. Yong Chen’s door. After working relentlessly for half a year in my first research project it did not go anywhere. I was feeling pretty low, so I went and ask for some advice. Looking back, I do not recall the words I said to Prof. Chen, but fortunately I remember somewhat what the told me. Prof. Chen told me that it is very common for PhD students to probe around too much (breadth). What he meant was: taking too many projects but not sticking to them for long enough (depth). At the end of our conversation, he suggested to me that the latter was a better way to proceed (depth over breadth).

A memory that is directly linked to the previous paragraph is from a conversation with Luis Jauregui. Again, in that summer of 2017 I went to visit Luie in Boston. I managed to hold myself and babble some words about my first project not working. Luie asked me for how long have I been working on it? I told him about 6 months. He looked at me and told me that it was too little time. Give it more time, he suggested to me. Reflecting back into what Luie had achieved in the past decade, it is my impression that he has been pursuing depth over breadth (at least looking from far away – I haven’t really asked him any specific question).

I did not have the confidence to take on the advice from my seniors. My immediate gut reaction after that first failed project was that I need to do more. More hours, more projects. The former led to dire results, but more on that in the future. After 3 years of “more projects” I find myself reaching the final bits of them and I hope soon to enter the writing stage. The problematic of this approach was that I found myself with empty hands for years on end – that had a big struck on my confidence. The projects are not extremely dissimilar but their results are branches from different seeds. I often find myself saying “I wish I had more time to read about this other detail”.

Nevertheless, now it is time to dive in each of those little trees that I have at my grasp – no more new projects. One very difficult thing about transitioning into the PhD lifestyle from undergraduate was that is very much structureless. Projects could easily run on the year(s) length scales, and the weekly exams in undergraduate pale next to this long projects. I have learned a lot about my work and myself over the past years, and the lessons acquired will definitely find a spot in my future.

(photo by Lionel Bucaile)

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