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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Welcome to college, future colleagues (advice for science undergrads)

It’s the beginning of another academic year, which means another generation of young people entering universities across the US. As a grad student one feels a sense of nostalgia when realizing that some fraction of these students will be following in your footsteps to become your future colleagues at the scientific frontier. Of course, the nostalgia fades away when you realize that those students are hidden among the other hundred or so that are just taking the class you’re teaching only because it’s a requirement for their major and just want to figure out how to pass the final exam. 🙂

With slightly more seriousness, a warm “welcome to college” to all of the freshmen out there, and a special ‘hello’ to all of the future scientists among you. I have a strong belief that one of the roles of the graduate student community is to provide mentors for undergraduates, especially those who are interested in pursuing academic careers. To that extent, there are a few things that I always thought I would have appreciated knowing when I was a freshman and that I’d like to share with the blogosphere.

(Random factoid: the first mention of my name on the blogosphere came from a Cosmic Variance post about applying to grad schools. I really appreciated that post and write this in the same spirit.)

These tend to be physics/science-oriented, but I hope at least some of it is broadly-applicable:

1. Figure out what you want. There’s no single definition for success in college; this all depends on what you want to get out of your undergraduate years. Depending on whether you pursue an academic career, go into industry, professional school, politics, start the next great rock band—whatever it is you end up following, you will be judged on different criteria. College is a time of self discovery—and that can take time—but it helps if you discover yourself sooner rather than later since that gives you more time to prepare for the next step. Once you find what it is you want to do, dive into it with enthusiasm.

2. Find mentors. No matter what you end up doing (but especially if you want to pursue scientific research), find people who can provide guidance and inspiration. For scientists this usually means faculty and grad students. They’ve been where you are and they’re bursting with advice about how they navigated their path through academia. Make a point to talk to them! Go to office hours and ask about their research. Invite them to lunch. Be pro-active about this.

3. Do research. Undergraduate research experience is practically an unstated prerequisite for a strong grad school application. Research is where your coursework comes to life and you find out what it’s like to work on open-ended questions. It’s also a chance to try out different fields: not sure if you’d enjoy particle physics? Spend a summer (or better: a year) as an undergrad research assistant!

Actually doing research will help you figure out what you really want to pursue (theory or experiment? condensed matter or high energy?). Even if you end up deciding that you never want to set foot into a condensed matter lab ever again in your life, at the very least you’ve learned something new and valuable about yourself; maybe you’ll find you are more drawn to the nuances of developing theoretical models rather than the ingenuity required to construct experiments. That’s great! And if you get a few publications and a nice letter of recommendation from a respected professor out of it as well—then all the better.

Keep an eye out for undergraduate research opportunities in your department. Talking to faculty is really important here. If there aren’t many options at your university, look for summer research opportunities at other universities or national labs.

4. Be lopsided. Forget the idea of a “well rounded” university student, be “well lopsided!” Find the things that you are really passionate about and devote yourself to them. You don’t have to join every single club, be on every single committee, and juggle three majors. Your passions don’t have to be all academic things, either: even if all you do is party and research (with a reasonable division between the two), then you’ll still be a better researcher than someone who is split ten ways between several extracurricular (even academic) activities.

As a caveat: while you’re being lopsided, try to keep your balance. You might want to do nothing more than eat, breathe, and physics. This isn’t enough. Make time to socialize, exercise, and otherwise challenge yourself in ways that you wouldn’t be able to outside of college.

5. Do your problem sets. I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to practice your science. This is especially true in mathematics and physics. Problem sets are more than just ways to make sure you do your reading; they force your brain to apply what you’ve learned to new problems. This is—at a very fundamental level—what scientific research is all about. I will go so far as to say that you only learn something meaningfully when you’ve used it to generate new (at least to you) ideas, such as when you solve a hard homework problem. (In grad school this becomes: “… when you’ve used it to write an academic paper.”)

While we’re on the topic: do your problem sets with friends. You should always be able to write up a solution on your own, but it is good to discuss with others to learn how to generate solutions. Again: this is how real science is done, though collaboration and communication. Anyway, it’s always good to find friends with similar goals: it forms a kind of “support group” to encourage one another. ((It’s also important to make friends with people who are doing completely different things from you!))

6. Learn to communicate. This holds universally no matter what you want to do, but somehow this ends up being understated for scientists. A big part of science is communicating your work to a broad range of people. Whether it’s a colleague whom you are working with on a particular problem, a funding agency that needs to be convinced that your line of research is a good investment, or the general public (whose tax dollars fund research, from whom future scientists emerge, and who really do want to learn about the frontiers of human knowledge), you need to be able to explain your work. Be comfortable discussing, presenting, and writing about ideas in your field.

7. Learn to think. This is a little more abstract, but I think it’s important in a very general way. This generation of college students grew up with Wikipedia at their fingertips. Information is cheap and readily available. You don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to learn facts. The value of being at a university is to learn how to generate and use those facts. This is the “transformative” nature of education; you need to be able to parse information and generate meaning.The professors giving your lectures aren’t trying to make you memorize facts from their textbook; they want you to interact with those facts: question them, generalize them to principles, apply them elsewhere, cross-reference against accepted dogma, etc.

8. Develop tools. The other thing you should get out of your classes are a set of tools that will be valuable in the future. If you’re going to be a physicist, then you will certainly need to be well versed in quantum mechanics, for example. One often under-appreciated skill: programming. Also, for those who will be working in physics and mathematics, learn how to use the LaTeX typesetting system. (For particle theorists in particular: differential geometry, complex analysis, and group theory!)

9. Go to academic talks and read academic papers. You don’t magically learn how to read papers and listen to talks when you become a grad student. These are skills that you have to develop. Challenge yourself—even if you only understand the first five minutes of a talk, you’ll at least begin to familiarize yourself with words and ideas. Start with what’s accessible: departments usually have colloquia which are meant to be accessible to a broad audience within the department, and look for “review articles” which are meant to be pedagogical introductions to current research. If you’re just starting out, read the American Journal of Physics (which has lots of undergraduate-level discussions) or Physics Today. (Everyone who reads this blog should follow Symmetry Magazine.) As you learn more, start attending seminars in the fields that you’re interested in and start to peruse current research on the arXiv.

10. Have fun. This is an amazing time in your life where you have professors who will teach all sorts of things to you, a vibrant community of young people around you, and no responsibilities other than to make the most of your time. Do it!

  • Cerberus

    Dear sir, I am at a loss for how such first year student’s advice made it on the blog.
    Is it plausible there are no forthcoming discoveries, summation of observations or standard model deviations proven or disproven? You have elected to monologue as a life coach on an important science blog. Nice for you if you are cozy with the details of that wondrous experiment and a bit condescending to those of us who are laymen. It is obvious no one pays any mind to what is said or what is important to the lhc mission, and its observers. Maybe this will insult your intelligence as much as your exclusion of anything salient concerning the greatest science project ever… did to mine
    Just consider that it is not what you said but where you said it. It ain’t avala college student prep office blog. Thank you and keep in mind there are others who need this lesson as well.

  • Heisenberg

    @Cerberus who do you think you are to tell him what to write or not and giving here “lessons”?? This blog is what it is thanks to people writing here. And we like it, especially Flip Tanedo posts! So if you don’t like it please don’t read it.

  • anonym

    This article is very cool!
    I wished someone would have told me said last year where I started my first year at the university.
    Thanks 🙂

    I am studying in Germany and it’s not easy. There’s a lot of stuff to learn but few things are important.

    I questioned whether I did the right thing.

  • Sean

    Sorry, I agree w/Cerbrus. There are many blogs where that essay is appropriate, this isn’t one of them. Too narrow an audience and not at all physics related! Looking back, this has become more of a social-events blog. Vacationing, dinners, travel woes. I’m going to take your advice Heisenberg, because this blog is not relevant to science.

  • Hi everyone — what a response. My sincere apologies to those who didn’t think this post was appropriate.

    My intent was to reach out to a cross section of the readers of the blog; and while this at times seems like a narrow cross section, I also hoped it would shine light about the kind of training that one goes through as a physicist which might be of broader interest.

    I also understand that every reader and every author on the blog can have slightly different expectations about the “right” content for this blog. Some prefer posts about what it’s like to be a physicist, some prefer strictly science posts, etc.

    My personal style has been to focus on pedagogical discussions about the physics relevant to the LHC. The thing is that these posts are hard to write. It takes me a lot of time to think about how to explain the essence of the science in a way which is accurate, accessible, and fun to read. It takes time to make figures and write drafts, and I’m sorry that sometimes those kinds of posts are few and far between. I enjoy writing them, but part of being a grad student is that sometimes one just has to keep one’s nose to the grindstone with research.

    This is partly why I’ve written a few ‘personal’ posts lately which I think highlight part of what it’s like to be a physicist. A post about what’s important as a science undergrad might not be useful as advice to the casual LHC fan, but I hope it provides as much insight as when ESPN discusses how Kobe Bryant spent part of the summer of 2009 training with Hakeem Olajuwon. In the future I will reconsider how many such posts I write.

    Everyone here at the US/LHC blog writes because we want to share what we do with the public. And part of the appeal of a blog is that these are not official press-releases written for the media; authors can provide a bit of a candid look at the lives of scientists. We’re not paid to do this, we’re not official LHC spokespeople (well, at least I’m not…), and we do it purely because we think it’s important to share with the public.

    So in short, I really do appreciate the feedback and will take it into account for future posts. (I appreciate it a little bit more when it’s written politely.)

    For those who want “only the facts and news about LHC status and science,” I refer you to the links in one of Mike’s previous posts:


    Best wishes to all,

  • josh222

    Me thinks some people don’t understand science too much 😉
    Science is about research *and* teaching.
    Otherwise, each generation would have to reinvent the wheel.
    For me teaching includes to take care of young academics not only in the field they choose, it begins with some support in choosing their subject. I have met a lot of students who decided to study a subject on their *believe* of what it is about (during education and/or the later day to day work).
    Some of them changed the subject after getting more informed a few semester later, they lost some time.
    Some of them are stuck with a job they don’t like.
    And some of them canceled their studies doing all kind of jobs now, many of them coding stuff ;-).

    I like this blog because it shows a bit of the daily life of scientists too. As a European I’m really interested in the experience from people from overseas which take part in this huge international cooperation.
    Facing some global challenges in the next decades I think such kind of cooperation is much more important -in general- than the question whether there “is a Higgs” or not. Sooner or later we will know but I’m sure
    it will not be announced on this blog at first 😉

    @Sean & Cerberus:
    I didn’t found pure science blogs related to the LHC yet but Philip Gibbs seems to follow the results of the LHC experiments closely in his Blog. For example:
    But beware! there is a lot of other stuff too:

    This is a blog with only a very few % science but I think it is funny:

    @anonym: In which town you are studying and what subject?

  • Regina

    Hi Flip,

    As a fellow LHC blogger, I definitely appreciate the time you put in to your blogging. Your posts are enjoyed by my non-physicist friends and physicist peers alike. I’m sorry to see the negative response that some of our readers feel the need to convey.

    As you know, physicists are multidimensional people who have many interests and like to share that (as compared to how we are portrayed on TV). I’m afraid what most people don’t understand is you can only blog about things like being on shift before even you find it boring. We share our analysis topics as often as we can, but it’s refreshing to have a non-physics post now and then. Now that the LHC is running, we are all busy waiting for enough data to run our analyses.

    I’m sure people found your blog useful, keep up the good work 🙂


  • anonym

    @josh: I am studying Computational Engineering in Erlangen.

    What are you studying and where? Or have you finished your studies?

    I could not decide between maths, physics and informatics.
    Computational Engineering is a mix of these 3 subjects.

    With Computational Engineering you should be able to simulate scientific questions with your pc (well, your supercomputer).

    I thought I would write simulations in physics and do research there.
    But I think I am kind of wrong.

    I love math. We’ve a great lecturer.
    But physics is boring. We have not done much more than in school.
    I mean I find physics interesting but I want to learn about quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, quantum chromodynamics.
    We did lots of mechanics. And we used math I was not familiar with in my first semester. I could solve all problems with school knowledge, but I did not really understand the new mathematical concepts because they did not explain them to us.
    Things like tensor and so on.

    The LHC is interesting too. And I am looking forward whether they will find the Higgs boson.

    Sometimes I think that I’d rather studied maths or physics. These new multi-things are not so good.

    Well, and quantum computing is really interesting for me. But nobody could explain it to me. That’s very funny…
    You can ask so many people and they say to you they’ve heard from it, but if you digg deeper you will be desperately disappointed.

  • josh222

    I’m a LHC enthusiast, mostly interested in technical details about the accelerator and experiments.
    But what is the LHC without the people who use it, operate and not to forget who built it.
    So I’m perfectly fine with postings about personal experience, social interaction, cultural
    diversity and such. I like the postings about partical physics too but must admit that I don’t
    understand much about this. But I’m learning and probably will learn till I leave.
    Thanks to you and all your fellow bloggers for a little insight in your life.

    I studied a few semester Biomedical- and Physical Engineering at FH Aachen/Juelich about 15 years ago.
    These are a mix from different subjects too and in fact you learn a bit from some subjects
    but nothing really in depth. I always wanted to do something in research/development but most jobs
    for this kind of studies where in the marketing. I canceled it for a lot of reasons.
    At first there was no real need to have a degree, would have been nice but I was already a
    “certified engineer” (staatl. gepr. Techniker).
    Additionally I ran out of money and motivation and maybe I was simply too old when I began 😉
    I had worked 5 years as an instructor for apprentices before, I had my own ideas (and education) about pedagogics. So I was a bit delicate about the arbitrariness and bad didactics of some profs and assistants.
    When you are fresh from school you may be used to it, but when you already have worked “out there” especially a few years at the “chalkboard side” of a classroom or workshop you can get a bit angry about the behavior of a few profs.
    I think some basic education about pedagogics and didactics should be mandatory for the teaching
    personnel in academia. Even a short seminar of 20-30h would help a lot.
    The best teachers I had were in professional school and technical school, some of them had always a short story or anecdote to tell, related to the teaching.
    People love stories and it helped a lot to remember the stuff.

    Re your doubts about choosing the right field:
    As always in education you learn a lot of things that you think you never need or which are boring.
    Now you might know what you later want to do, but you never know where you end up.
    Back in technical school I hated power electronics, now I deal with it all the time and I’m
    happy that I learned it.
    Of course you do not start with writing simulations, to do that you have to understand the basics.
    But if you really want to you can always start your own project in your free time:
    Look around, I’m sure there is going on a lot of physics which only waits to get simulated 😉
    Or pick a simple example from the net and extend it, maybe with an impressive graphical output.

    For me it all started with a gift from a cousin at the age around 10. It was an electronics
    construction kit from Philips and it was very useful: I built a light barrier as an early warning system.
    So when I was reading in bed at night I could switch the light off when a parent came near my room 😉
    Now I’m a freelancer, developing and building electronics, mostly battery management systems for cars,
    bikes, AUVs, and planes. Once a hobby it became a profession.
    It is very close to the kind of things I always wanted to do and how I wanted to do them.
    My favorite project is located not far away from the LHC and last Saturday it would have
    almost flown over the ring, but sadly there was too much wind:
    I hope there is a day with some nice weather the next weeks. The plan was to fly
    along the western shore of lake Geneva before approaching Geneva airport.
    so it may be visible from the Meyrin area if it doesn’t come in too early (before twilight).

    Finally some LHC-links if you like to see the LHC in action, just in case you didn’t know them already:
    Collection of Vistars:
    operating parameters of the LHC
    Slides of daily meetings of the commissioning staff:
    Audio announcer:
    Link collection and forum related to the LHC and the experiments:
    Site in German:
    (Translators to English wanted: http://www.lhcportal.com/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=693)

  • anonym

    Thanks for your answer.
    Sometimes I feel depressed about all this,
    about what I am studying, whether it’s the right thing to do or not, and so on.
    Sometimes it’s hard to fight against yourself. I’m really sad very often and cannot do what I want to do and then I loose my will to do anything.
    I am sharing what you say about “the arbitrariness and bad didactics of some profs and assistants.”
    The only person whom I like for his cool-headedness is my math lecturer. He inspires me and that are the hours when light is shining in my live.

  • josh222

    Hi annonym,
    it is really difficult for me to find the right words for an answer. So I write the following under a worst case assumption.
    I may be completely wrong, but what you wrote sounds to me as if you are in some kind of depressive disorder.
    Please do yourself a favor and read the following Wikipedia link:
    It is somewhat “technical” but it is always good to be a bit educated in this field, you may understand yourself and the people around you a bit more.
    My point is: If you are really suffering and if it affects your life not only for a short time, search for professional help.
    This is abso(f*cking)lutely nothing to be ashamed of,
    a huge percentage of people have such problems in their lifetime.
    There are a lot of professional people around whose job it is to help in such a situation and you have the invaluable luck to live in a country where such help is completely free! (OK, besides the 10€/quarter and if you are under the age of 25, otherwise it is included in your 65€/month students health insurance (pure socialism to some Americans 😉 )).
    They are able to evaluate if there is a serious problem that affords treatment or not. Sometimes it helps just to talk for half an hour to somebody. You may find it difficult to talk to a complete stranger but believe me it is better than to somebody you know. It is part of the concept 🙂
    It may take some time to get an appointment (up to weeks) but it is important not to cancel even if you fell a lot better. I just found the following:
    That would be the fastest way and you an be sure that they are somewhat near to the problems of students.

    If you have any questions please feel free to ask.
    My girlfriend is an MD, she is more in the bones and
    endoprosthesis branch, but she has some experience with
    psychological stuff too and I can ask her at least about some technical/bureaucratic issues.
    But if so, I would like to recommend that we switch to a forum where we can exchange our e-mail addresses without
    making them public.
    It would not be apropiate to discuss this here further.

  • anonym


    You are not wrong. At least – I think – I have a bipolar disorder.
    Sometimes I am extremely happy and sometimes I am extremely sad.
    Actually, I feel more sad than happy.
    I feel like that there is no reason why anyone should believe me
    that I am a kind of depressed. It’s like that there should be
    no explanation.
    It’s not like a quick explosion but more subtle, like a plant growing.
    Please don’t understand me wrong.
    Your post is very honourable. Thank you.
    You are the first person who noticed it and told me that.

  • Hi anonym: I have been reluctant to respond to your comments in such a public arena, but I do want to say that frustration, doubt, and frustration are all very natural parts of a PhD (and even university). Making a career in academia is *hard*, and many of the feelings you are having are—to some extent—natural.

    Everyone’s individual situation is different and dependent on the particular circumstances around them (department, university, even personal/social).

    I’m not sure if I am qualified to give advice about your situation (I suspect I am not), but I encourage you to seek out the appropriate people to discuss. In US universities there is a lot of flexibility to change fields, but I am not sure what the procedure is in Germany. Perhaps it would be possible still to shift to a track that you feel more comfortable with?

    I think the most important thing, though, is that you seek out the things which really excite you. Sometimes this means going through things which are rather dry, but when that is the case it helps to have some support structure to know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

    (The sarcastic part of me also wants to say that there are more tunnels at the end of the tunnel—but this is true in a good way: the frustrations and heartbreak of doing research.)

    Best wishes,

  • badmash

    I just signed up to your blogs rss feed. Will you post more on this subject?

  • Hi badmash—based on some of the other comments in this thread, I think I’ll tend focus more on posts that are of interest to the general public rather than a specific cross section. However, I have written a few similar posts on a previous blog I had in 2006-2008. Here are some links:

    Tips for NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Applications

    Congrats, you’ve got PhD offers… now what?

    A roadmap for undergrads in science

    Attention rising seniors: time to start grad school and fellowship applications

    March Madness… for physics students

    It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at these posts… so maybe my thoughts have shifted a little. However, all advice is “potentially good” advice—it’s up to the receiver to parse which pieces of advice are especially applicable. 🙂

    (If you still want more posts on this subject, then feel free to keep commenting to let us know!)

    Thanks for subscribing to the blog’s RSS feed, we do our best to provide interesting and insightful posts for all of our readers.


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  • Alvaro Navarro

    I know this was writen 4 years ago, but despite that, it was helpful since I am going to start studing physics this year. I’m so excited! 😀