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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

View Blog | Read Bio

Student Life

Looking through the biography page, I find that I am the sole representative graduate student blogging here, from the new crew or the old, so perhaps I ought to be writing about what it’s like to be a student. The thing is, being a student here at CERN is not so different from being a postdoc or a researcher. (It’s the professors who are weighed down with other obligations, apparently.) I work full-time on the experiment, and my colleagues of whatever academic level ask me for help on things that I know, just like I would ask them. (Last Friday, for example, I helped a faculty member on the other side of the world figure out how to submit additions to our software.) Obviously, though, I know less than those with more experience, so I’m usually the one asking the questions.

Life was a little different when I started out as a student, of course. For my first two or so years at Berkeley, I took classes—hard ones with scary titles like Quantum Field Theory or (worse) Classical Electrodynamics. Although these were necessary prerequisites to my work, I would say most of what I’ve learned has been from going to talks and group meetings, and above all from diving in and learning by doing.

Students at Berkeley also have to take two rather formidable exams. The second, called the Qualifying Exam, I just took this past January. It essentially consisted of going into a little room with five professors, telling them about a project I might do for my Ph.D., and answering questions on any topic they felt like asking about. As you can imagine, those three hours were not among the least stressful of my entire life. If you’re interested, you can see part of my talk for the exam here:

You have my sincerest apologies if you find it less than readable; I’ll explain the project better in a future post. I should also mention that the talk, being for an examination, is not any kind of official ATLAS proposal or document, nor are its contents necessarily an accurate reflection of anyone’s views other than my own. I did pass, though.

Of course, one thing that’s different for students than for other scientists on the experiment is that, since we’re students, we get paid a stipend instead of a salary—the two being pretty much the same, except that the former is significantly smaller. And with the number of Swiss Francs you can buy with a dollar having gone down by 25% since I got to Geneva, it’s even smaller than it used to be. I’m fortunate in that my group was able to supplement that stipend to account for the extra costs of living in Geneva instead of Berkeley, and that the amount has been adjusted for the falling exchange rate as far as the (rather tight) budget allowed. Students at other universities have had more trouble making ends meet, though.

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