Friday, December 10, 2010

Becoming a Physicist

Lately, I've been looking back on the experiences that brought me to the point I am at now - working with LIGO as a scientist.  It made me realize that many things happened throughout my education which brought me here today.  So, for any readers out there who are thinking of becoming a scientist (not just one for LIGO) here is my advice.


The bottom line about the high school experience is to learn as much as you can.  It was a little bit disappointing when I got to college that no one cared about what great things I did when I was in high school.  Colleges and universities stop caring about things like that once you have gained admission.

Therefore, the most important thing you can do is learn as much about what you want to do as you can.  I was lucky to already know what I wanted to do when I was that young, but if you don't that's fine too!  Just learn about what interests you the most at that time.  It may turn out not to be something you want to do for the rest of your life but you will still have the knowledge you gained which will help you do whatever you end up doing.  And you never know - your interests in high school may end up being your calling.

Since I knew that I wanted to be a physicist, I took all of the science that my high school offered me.  In the end, I had 1 year of biology, 1 year of chemistry, 2 years of physics, a half year of astronomy, a half year of geology and a half year of ecology.  If your high school doesn't offer this range of topics, that's fine!  Just learn as much as you can in general.


In college is where you start to make choices.  What do I want to major in?  What do I want to do with my degree?  Do I want to continue on to grad school for a masters or Ph.D. or do I want to stop with a bachelors degree?

Don't panic!  Most colleges do not make you declare a major until the end of your sophomore year BUT some majors require four years worth of coursework.  Look at the requirements for the majors you are seriously considering and start taking some of the introductory classes.  This will help you figure out if this is something you want to do for a living while making sure that you have some of the course work done if you decide it is (and if it isn't, introductory classes usually count towards your general education requirements).

Once you have decided to be a scientist, you need to think about what kind of scientist you want to be.  I'm not talking about subject matter (biologist, chemist, physicist, etc.) but how much education you will need to do the work you are most interested in.  This is a good time to seek out your advisor and start telling them about what you want from your education overall, and ask what degree you will need to do that work.

If grad school appears to be in your future, you need to make sure that you get the best grades you can in the classes that are part of your major (and overall too, but a bad grade in economics is easily overlooked when you have good grades in your major field) and gain some form of research experience.

A student who has research experience has an advantage over students who don't when applying to grad schools since research is the largest component to earning a graduate degree.  There are many programs out there for you to get this experience over the summer.  For example, the NSF gives grants to colleges to have undergraduates work with professors over the summer on their research.  This program is called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU - click here for more info).  There are also similar programs out there.  Caltech has the SURF program (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) that do a lot of work with LIGO (including at the observatories in Livingston, LA and Hanford, WA) and the University of Florida has an International REU program where you can work on LIGO related research in a different country.  (Find out more about these programs on here.)

If you are going on to grad school, you will also need to think about what you want to specialize in.   Let's say you are finishing your physics bachelors degree.  All of your work so far has been very broad and covered the foundations of physics.  In grad school, you will specialize in a particular part of physics.  I specialized in gravity.  Therefore, I am an expert on that subject matter, but if you ask me something about particle physics (like the Large Hadron Collider) I will only be able to tell you very general things about that since I am not an expert.  It is a lot like asking your neurologist (brain & spinal cord specialist) about your upset stomach - he knows generalities but you would need to see a different specialist for a deeper answer.  Having a good idea of what you want to specialize in will be helpful when applying to grad school so that they admit the right number of people for each specialty.  That's not to say that you can't change your mind later, though.


Now you have your bachelors degree in hand and you have been accepted to a grad school to work some subfield of your major.  Your first year will be filled with very challenging classes that will make you think again about if this is something you REALLY want to do.  Don't lose heart!  The first year is always the hardest and when you make it through that, it gets much better.

Make sure that you find an advisor to start performing research with.  After your first 2 years or so of grad school, the rest of the time you are there will be doing research for your thesis.  Many people think that grad school is like signing up for more school like you had from 1st grade through college - classes.  Grad school has some of that, but most of it is learning by doing research.  Grad school is more like an apprenticeship than "school" as we normally think about it.

Fast-forward a few years.  You are finishing your thesis and you are getting ready to finish your masters or Ph.D.  What now?  Well that depends on what you plan on doing next.  Many people with masters degrees go on to work in industry.  Most Ph.D.s are planning on going to a position in academia (college/university faculty positions).  The interesting thing to consider is that most of these people will end up in industry and that's not a bad thing.  For those getting Ph.D.s, they have been guided to this point by other Ph.D.'s who have usually never worked outside of academia.  Therefore, they are being guided by people who don't necessarily have the experience to talk about doing anything else with their degree.  Surveys have shown that those who move on to industry are just as happy, if not more so, than their classmates who went on to become college faculty.

If you are getting a Ph.D., chances are that you will be doing a postdoctoral (postdoc) appointment next.  This is what I am doing right now and it allows to you better establish yourself in your field by doing more independent research and publishing your results.

Regardless, you are a bona fide <whatever it is you majored in>.  One of the best but scariest things about my life right now is what lays ahead...  Can I find a permanent position where I am (I would love that) or will I have to look elsewhere?  Where am I going to end up?  I really don't know the answers to these questions (yet) but I do know that I love doing LIGO research and will continue doing that wherever I end up!


If you have any questions about becoming a scientist, feel free to contact me.  Just leave a comment below or email me at and I will be happy to talk with you!