This will take a minimum of 2-3 observing runs with a given
Learn their limits and how to push the envelope
H. Understand analysis techniques well
It is doubtful that your early reductions/analysis for a given problem will be
acceptable in the long run. Plan for iterations, possibly extensive.
Test techniques on synthetic data sets where you know the answer.
I. Track your own progress
Set milestones and regularly review your progress towards them; are
you converging towards answering the main questions?
Keep a regular journal of your ideas (good
J. Dealing with computers
Computers are tools, not science
Despite appearances, computers have not increased
the capacity of the human brain to absorb and process information
Don't trust and always verify
You will almost certainly have to become a capable computer
programmer, not merely a user of pre-packaged software
If it's important, read it from paper
K. Dealing with advisors
Most advice comes from long experience; don't
disregard it lightly. In troublesome areas, seek advice from several
Look at any research project, no matter how outwardly routine, as
an opportunity to grow as a scientist beyond the nominal boundaries.
You may well have new insights or see new avenues to exploit that your
overloaded advisor has missed or ignored.
In the course of a PhD project, you are expected to become
independent of your advisor and at least as knowledgeable
as he/she is on that subject. You should know what is the "next
step" before being told.
L. Dealing with groups
A glance at the ApJ will demonstrate the growing dominance of
The rise of groups is a natural consequence of the increasing scope
and complexity of modern astronomical research. New instruments are
usually shepherded by groups, so they constitute a key avenue to new
observational capabilities. Group work is also an increasingly
important mechanism for marshalling existing resources to do new
science (e.g. the supernova surveys).
Successful groups are based on complementary strengths, not
mutual weaknesses. Therefore, ...
Bring a unique expertise, skill
Produce; be responsible
Think for yourself
...but learn how to interact with other members cordially and
Lead by example
Be sure you develop a reputation/expertise that distinguishes
you from other group members. In practice that implies, at a minimum,
being lead author on some of the group's publications.
Consult the history of "big physics" (accelerators, etc) for group sociology.
E.g.: larger groups breed institutional imperatives for
publicizing results, which is why the media often mistake incremental
results for fundamental ones.
A good goal by PhD time is to have published in the major
journals one paper for every year you've been in graduate
school. You should be lead author of some of these.
Learn to write good, clear, concise scientific prose. Most entering
graduate students cannot do this.
Consult style guides for tips, e.g.
the Guide to Science Writing
from the Journal of Young Investigators and The
Elements of Style by Strunk & White.
Write up for yourself brief reviews of the literature or
summaries of interim results in full journal style. These serve as
good writing practice, as drafts for polished versions or
presentations, and to place your accomplishments in the context of the
main issues you are trying to address. Ask other students to read
and critique your work.
Be aware of the ``reader pyramid'': few people will read the whole
paper; more will read the introduction and conclusion; many more will
skim/read the abstract.
Be sure the abstract contains all the key
Be sure the Intro/Conclusion are clear and complete; the conclusion
should emphasize what is new or unique about the work.
Set high standards for yourself (and your co-authors) in
writing. Reputations are based on the number of good papers one produces,
not the total number of papers.
Learn to give interesting and effective presentations on all
time scales from 5 minutes to an hour. Analyze and emulate others who do
this well. Real-time rehearsals are the only way to prepare well
for your early ventures in this arena.
Unfortunately, you will need to learn PowerPoint or the
equivalent. Just bear in mind that PowerPoint is the messenger, not
O. Observing Proposals
Success rates for proposals on important facilities are small:
in the range 20-40%.
A compelling proposal must be clearly, persuasively, and concisely
written and must demonstrate:
That the questions you are asking are important/interesting;
That the program is technically feasible;
That it will provide a definitive answer to the questions posed.
Write for harried TAC members who have only a few minutes to
read each proposal and who are looking for reasons to reject
Write for people who are generally well informed but who are not
specialists in the field. Clearly explain the main issues. Place in
the larger context. Make sure claims for importance/uniqueness are
defensible; don't exaggerate. Address any controversial points.
Keep it short and clear: use subheadings, short
paragraphs, topic sentences, large fonts; don't crowd text
Put key points in the abstract and up front in the main text
Don't waffle: where ambiguities exist, state clearcut choices and
how you intend to resolve the issues involved
Illustrations can quickly clarify issues for the reader; they add
interest and can substitute for lengthy text
Essential: proofread line-by-line from paper, not a
computer screen; always spell-check.
More tips and details on planning and writing proposals in
astronomy are given
P. Dealing with teaching
Universities now expect viable job candidates to have some experience
with teaching, preferably in the form of complete responsibility for
development and delivery of at least one course. At UVa your best
opportunity for that is to teach in the summer session.
Take any teaching assignment whether as TA or instructor seriously
and plan to do a good job. Among other things, that means learning
how to handle two disparate responsibilities (teaching and studying/research)
If you are interested in what awaits you in teaching large
undergraduate courses, see
article on Facts of Life for New Teachers in the Astronomy
Q. Scientific Discovery, Scientific Careers
The list of tips above
constitutes tactics; but what about strategy? What is the best
path to scientific discovery or a good scientific career?
Broadly, there are two kinds of discovery:
recognition of something new or a definitive interpretation of known
phenomena. The former is easier for young people. For the
latter, you usually need greater exposure to the field. Although many
"interpretational" discoveries are theoretical, others are
observational (e.g. Hubble's discovery of Cepheid variables in M31,
which instantly resolved the "island universe" controversy; or
the identification of gamma-ray bursts with distant galaxies).
Scientific discoveries emerge from some combination of "the prepared
mind," resources, opportunity, and, inevitably, luck. There is
probably about equal weight to those four components, and there's no
way to successfully engineer them. But follow the chain in order.
The better prepared you are---the more you know and have produced---the
more likely it is that the good resources you seek will be available
to you. Opportunity may follow. You have to wait for luck. Whatever
form that takes, it's essential that you be able to recognize a
favorable coincidence of opportunity and luck, which means that you must
actively cultivate an alertness for them.
You obviously can't discover something if you aren't looking, so discovery
depends also on effort and persistence.
Careers? You need a plan, and you need to
think actively about it. Your plan should build on your interests and
inclinations, but it must be shaped by the realities, economic and
otherwise, of the field.
Training in most graduate programs is "T-shaped". You are expected to
become acquainted with the basics of many subfields of astronomy (the
crossbar) while acquiring deep knowledge in at least one (the
upright). The whole "T" is important. The narrow/deep component is
necessary if you are to understand how scientific research actually
progresses; but from a career standpoint you must also develop a broad
understanding of the field and versatile skills that are transferable
to other research areas.
Your immediate aim by PhD time should be to become one of the
leading authorities on some area of significant current
interest. It is expected that this area will usually be of modest
scope, but when conference organizers are picking the most
knowledgeable younger speakers for review talks, you want your name to
be on the short list. This means that you must not only have
important expertise but that others must know you have it. [Hint:
publish and talk to as many outsiders as you can.]
Research topics? Paradoxically, it is not necessarily best to get into
the currently "hot" subject areas. Those may be where the money is
and where your mentors are; but these areas tend to overproduce PhDs,
and there will be tough competition from experienced scientists.
Ideally, you want to be at the leading edge of a new wave of
research that peaks about ten years from now. But, obviously, it's
not easy to figure out what that might be. No matter how promising
the field you choose to work in, keep developing those transferable
skills and interests; keep looking around the corner.
**ROMPs & SWAGs = "rough order of magnitude problems" and "silly wild-ass