I'm interested in working in your research group. Where do I sign up?
Do you respond to generic emails asking to come to MIT?
Yes, but I just send stock emails. Like this one, for a perspective Ph.D. student:
Dear Prospective Student,
Thank you for your interest in my research. Information about applying to the MIT Physics Ph.D. program is available at:
Information about my current research interests is available at:
I am happy to discuss opportunities to join my group once you are accepted to MIT.
If you want to get a more detailed response, then you need to make a more personal connection, at minimum by including my name in your email. Or saying that your undergraduate advisor (include your advisor's name!) recommended that you contact me. Or that you are interested in a specific paper of mine (including the reference!). But generic emails saying “Dear Professor, I am very interested in your work.” will get the stock email.
Do you have advice for a starting theoretical physicist?
For me, taking a course in quantum mechanics from Antal Jevicki was the key turning point when I realized that I wanted to pursue theoretical physics as a career. But it was not until I went to graduate school that I realized exactly what it means to be on the front lines of scientific progress. So until you experience the simultaneous frustration and exhilaration of research, it is hard to really grasp what it means to be theoretical physicist on a day-to-day basis.
When I taught quantum mechanics myself at MIT (8.06), I gave the following advice to my students on the last day of class (mostly juniors, many of whom would go on to graduate school in physics and related fields):
Find mentors. Even now as a faculty member, I have around five senior colleagues I regularly turn to for advice. As a younger scientist, it is even more important to have someone (and preferably multiple people) who are looking out for your best interests and giving you honest feedback. In most cases, your mentor will also be your research advisor, but it is generally a good idea to also have a mentor outside of your research group as well. Your mentors will often be your strongest advocates when it comes time to get a permanent job in academia (or elsewhere).
. Somehow society's image of a theoretical physicist is a lone genius toiling away in a closed office. The reality is that physics (especially theoretical physics) is a social enterprise, with many research ideas arising at the coffee machines (or at the lift lines if you go here
in the winter). As a younger scientist, you might feel that the best thing you can do is focus on your specific research project and exclude the outside world, but in my experience, making yourself visible is a better way to forward your research career. This means that you should go to as many seminars and colloquia as you can (and even try to go to dinner with the speaker), as well as discuss your work regularly with people outside of your immediate research group. For me, I credit regular lunches with my Berkeley theory colleagues at this restaurant
with saving me from the research doldrums (get the red rice).
Tell a story. Science is a process of discovering the ultimate truths of nature, and while the truths themselves are independent of the research process, research itself is shaped by the personalities involved. In order to make sure that other scientists understand and appreciate your work, you need to make an effort to explain not just the results of your work, but why your work is interesting and important and how it fits into the narrative arc of the field. This means that you have to develop strong writing and presentation skills. Bland research results are difficult to appreciate, but telling a compelling story about your research (in print or in person) is a great way to engage your audience.
If you are looking for more advice, I found this transcript of a podcast by my MIT colleauge Peter Fisher to be quite enlightening (especially the part about the fish).
Why a wiki?
Though I loved my old black and white webpage, I never got around to editting it much. In the wiki format, editing and viewing pages take the same amount of work, so my innate narcissism will drive me to actually make updated content. Or at least that's the hope…
What wiki server do you use?
I use DokuWiki because… well, I'm not sure why, but it works.
Why don't you ever update your website?
Because I am too busy padding my cv.
Why don't you have a blog?
See above. Though I do think that scientific communication to the general public is very important, so I participate in the TheoryNet program to visit high school physics classes in the Boston area. Also, I appear briefly in a particle physics documentary.
Who chose your color scheme?
What? You don't like orange links? I was semi-inspired by the SFJAZZ poster hanging in my office, but a certain someone refused to let me use purple. Consider yourself lucky I didn't use the 2004 color scheme.