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Kelly Oakes GBR

I'm an Undergraduate Physics student from Imperial College London, about to start the Masters year of my degree. I mostly write about physics research papers that I find interesting in the hope that other people will find them interesting too. The wordpress version of my blog is here.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

You may have noticed I've been a bit quiet for the past week or so. Well, that was partly due to going home to Manchester for the weekend, and partly because I've finally started working on the literature review that's due in before I start my masters project in October. This will be the first bit of real research I've ever done, and will be a big change from the kind of follow-the-lab-script-and-do-an-experiment-you-already-know-the-answer-to lab work I've been used to in the previous years of my degree.

This is what physics looks like. Source.

And it turns out that physics is actually pretty hard. So far I've only read a thesis and some review papers, but not a lot of it is going in. Before I started I was feeling quite confident about the whole thing given that I've read proper research papers before (I do it all the time for my blog!) and, well, I actually quite like writing. But I've found that with these papers I can read the same paragraphs over and over again without realising, and I've come to the conclusion that there can only be one of two reasons for this. Either the whole of particle physics is completely made up and as a result everything I've read is nonsense, handily explaining why I don’t understand it, or, I'm really not cut out for this and should just quit now before anyone realises.

I've often thought that maybe all this stuff about penguin decays and charmed particles is just a huge joke the particle physics community are playing on undergraduates, but in reality I suspect that the second explanation is closer to the truth. Seeing as it's too late to quit now I should probably just get on with it and stop complaining.

So, with hope that everyone will tell me that this is a perfectly normal phase to be going through, I decided it'd be quite interesting to hear other people's stories of the first time they got to grips with some proper research as a student, or maybe any difficulties they encountered when starting a new project outside of their field... Or is it just me?

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There is a third, and I suspect most likely explanation: the writing in that thesis and those reviews sucks. Yes, physics is hard (some of it is impossible for me), but if a physics student is having a hard time understanding, then maybe the writing is a tad... awful?

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I dunno, when I had to write my comprehensive exam grant proposal, I had to choose an unfamiliar topic and come up with some coherent experiment ideas. It was really hard to first pick the topic and finally to come up with the experimental ideas. It slowly came to me after reading a ton of papers and reviews, but it wasn't easy. I think it's pretty typical to be a little overwhelmed in the beginning, Kelly. I think you should just keep your head in the papers, read as much as you can, and things should slowly work themselves out. Also, don't forget to talk to other students and professors about your ideas. At least for us, we could talk to other people about the ideas, (we just couldn't have our mentor help us!). I don't know what the rules are in your program, but just airing out your ideas to another person helps a ton!

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I bet Odyssey is right. But I will add that "this is a perfectly normal phase to go through" and you will be fine. When writing my comprehensive exam (and also postdoc fellowships) I found myself in a similar place. I became aware that there is a point where you know just enough to make everything really confusing. Eventually you will break through to a place where you can synthesize what you have read and everything will make a lot more sense.

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I'm really not cut out for this and should just quit now before anyone realises.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Science (with a capital S).

It is hard and learning how do "be" a scientist is very difficult. That's why it takes so long :)

I remember in the first year of my PhD taking a class that taught us how to read the literature carefully and scientifically for the first time... well, shit. I thought I was fine, and I wasn't.

I vividly remember thinking so hard about some things I could feel my brain. I felt like I was going to get a nosebleed from being forced to think Really. Fucking. Hard for the first time.

I promise you: this is a phase, you'll be fine and one day (soon) you'll look back on this and smile. '

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Science.

Kelly Oakes
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@Odyssey: That may be true in part but I don't think it's the whole story.

@Brian: I am supposed to go and see my supervisor at some point before I actually start writing so he can check I know what I'm going to be talking about, but I need to have some questions to ask first. I don't want to just turn up at his office with no clue about anything, i feel like that would be a bad start to the project...

The general consensus seems to be keep reading and it will make sense eventually, which if i'm honest, is the answer I was expecting if not exactly looking forwards to. Back to the papers then...

biochem belle
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It is tough getting started, really digging into the literature that's the foundation of your project that you're not familiar with-regardless of the field. Keep your head down, nose to the grindstone, etc. etc. It might be overwhelming, but you'll get through it :)

Then you get to start producing some of that work that confuses others - which is totes awesome :P
kinetic energy

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agreed, the amount of hours people put into their theories is crazy, but all worth it in the end.

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