Friday, April 15, 2005

Propagation of the Species

I’m blogging from the USAir club in Philadelphia airport (although it may only get published later), where, due to a delay, I have a lengthy layover on my way to Tampa. Despite the flight delay, I should arrive in Tampa by 6pm and intend to find a good, quiet restaurant in which to eat dinner while working on my talk for tomorrow.

Yesterday turned out to be a very good day indeed. I currently have three graduate students and one postdoctoral researcher working with me. It is true, I think, that individual physicists, be they students, postdocs, or faculty members, play the major role in determining the quality of the work they do, and therefore their career trajectories. However, there are, of course, many other contributing factors, and graduate or postdoctoral mentoring is one of them. This year, my postdoc, Damien Easson, and my senior graduate student, Antonio De Felice, have both applied for postdoctoral positions. While I have fully expected all along that they would be offered good jobs, I have still been a little anxious on their behalves (OK, fair enough, and for myself, because of my role in their careers) during the application season. As of yesterday though, I can relax, because they’ve both accepted excellent positions. In the fall, Damien will be a postdoc at the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology at the University of Durham in England, and Antonio will take up a postdoc at Sussex University, also in England. These are both great places to do particle cosmology and I am delighted.

Mentoring graduate students and postdocs is something that one is not formally trained to do in graduate school. This means that, often, one’s primary influence is one’s own advisor and this can either be a very good or a very bad thing. I consider myself to have been extremely fortunate, in that my Ph.D. advisor, Robert Brandenberger, is a wonderful role model, who treats all his students well and works hard to make their careers succeed. I know of many other people with the opposite experience.

I don’t really know where I sit on the spectrum of advisors, but I do know that I worry a lot about this part of my job. I find Ph.D. mentoring quite difficult. With my own projects I just have ideas and plough ahead into them. Sometimes they work out. Mostly they don’t. This is fine, of course, because it only involves me. However, with students, I continually worry that the projects I set them will turn out to be either trivial, or too difficult, or just silly. Indeed, on occasion, each of these results has happened.

In any case, this year I'm celebrating because everything has worked out well. Let’s see how things go in future years.
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