Review: A PhD Is Not Enough

Since I decided to become an aspiring physicist back in high school, looking for tips and advice on what to do has been a valuable resource to me. One of the first guides I read that I think is still very valuable today, is ZapperZ’s So You Want to Be a Physicist. It gives extremely practical and detailed tips on what to do, as opposed to more general pieces of advice that everybody gives to you all throughout your education. That being said, general advice is still useful as long as you take it seriously and translate it to concrete steps to take in your everyday learning. Some of the well-written guides out that I’ve either either read recently or were memorable enough to stay with me include:

I think it’s generally a good idea to start as early as possible in reading advice on what to do, as you want your later years to be preoccupied with actually learning and studying science. Being still in my first semester of graduate school, I’ve decided to try out some of the books published on the subject, which is new for me.

Peter Feibelman’s A PhD Is Not Enough: A Guide to Survival in Science is a succinct guide on navigating a career as a scientist starting from the graduate student level all the way to getting tenure as an assistant professor or junior scientist in a government or industrial lab. It includes tips on giving scientific talks and job interviews. By today’s standards, with the proliferation of many websites and blogs with all sorts of advice for the aspiring scientist, the advice is rather general and boilerplate, but there are still a lot of good pointers to take away from it.

Probably the most unique piece of advice Feibelman gives is the importance of picking good, short-term projects to work on as a postdoc instead of blindly accepting whatever your supervisor gives. Also, be aware of the big picture of what you’re doing. He also stresses how crucial project completion is in forming the perception of your success as a scientist. Thus, it is crucial to choose the right project, as important as choosing the right supervisor. This is something I’ve noticed recently, and Feibelman is the first person who explicitly and forcefully drives this point home. It’s always better to have two small completed projects than one 50% completed large project.

In giving out his advice, Feibelman does have certain strong preferences, which seem to reflect his own life journey as a long-time physicist in a national lab:

  1. Always try to work for an established professor (not an assistant professor or a newer person) at all stages of your life
  2. Go to national or industrial labs first and try to skip the assistant professor phase, even if you ultimately want an academic job
  3. If you’re a theorist, always find ways to impress experimentalists by talking to them and explaining your ideas in simpler, conceptual terms.

While the book is slated as a general book for scientists, it’s slightly geared towards theorists, as that is Feibelman’s area of expertise. I think the skills needed to impress and network scientific colleagues as an experimentalist are slightly different in subtle ways, based on what I’ve listened to from older and more established experimentalists so far (such as always remember to know the theories and motivations underpinning your experiment, instead of falling into the temptation of blindly doing technical lab work). Networking for experimentalists is also a different experience, I think. The book would’ve been better overall if more concrete tips were given for how to network with scientists other than in your own lab. (Feibelman just mentions shyness as a problem to be “overcome” by focusing the benefits of not being shy. I guess I shouldn’t hold that too much against him, since he’s just not a psychologist or motivational speaker.)

I would also like more details about how to gain expertise in your field and intellectually mature as a scientist. For example, how do you read papers effectively? Which papers should you read in full, which ones should be skimmed over? Should you read papers from other subfields (or even other fields)? How do you learn to become a designer of experiments, as opposed to just an executor? Maybe elucidating such details is outside of the intended scope of the book. It’s even questionable whether it’s possible to craft a general theory of “becoming a mature scientist” that is applicable to all sciences, or even all physics. However, it is these things which are sorely lacking even in today’s wealth of information on “how to become a scientist.”

Lastly, Feibelman openly admits he is from an older generation more used to snail mail than email and Facebook. Enlisting a younger scientist to write a section about personal online branding, writing CVs and resumes and using social media to increase the visibility of your research might be useful. There are other topics that may be peripheral but interesting to touch upon. For example, is doing physics outreach ever a useful thing? How do you become a better teacher, if you’re looking for jobs with significant teaching components? How do you start writing lecture notes when you’re designing courses for the first time? (I guess Feibelman never had that experience himself.)

All of that having been said, despite its shortcomings, the book is still a good, useful read for any aspiring scientist, even biologists or chemists.

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