Challenges for an MPhys Student

Preface

This post was originally born out of my frustration with a particular problem at work. After preventing myself from posting a rather more extremely worded version of this post a fortnight ago (I don’t want to be unprofessional), I realized that  there was something interesting here – albeit hidden in the difficulties I’ve had. It’s been tough for me to articulate properly, and getting away from my own sources of frustration has been extremely hard. It’s taken me weeks to get the post to a point where I feel comfortable publishing it. I’m not exactly happy with the way it turned out, but I feel that this is the best I can do for the moment and it’s important enough that I think I should publish it anyway. I hope that I’ve done the subject justice, and maybe I will revisit this same subject later when I can gain a better perspective on it. Next time – something rather lighter. Enjoy!

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Doing Science can be hard. Doing excellent Science is hard. Doing excellent science under pressure is an easy way to develop a stress-related illness. Yet we still do it, we do it all the time. We do it because the best Science comes out of that melting pot of horridness. We do it because, ultimately, it’s worth it in the end. That’s what sees us through, what motivates us and what helps us put up with the crap. Coping is hard, but it’s worth it.

In this post I’m going to outline some of the pressures I find myself under as both an MPhys student on placement year and a member of a leading research team in the UK. I’m going to speak openly, and fairly, about very current problems I am facing. Hopefully this will be insightful.

MPhys students have extensive motivation to do good science properly. Firstly, you’re likely to care that the work you’re doing is good just for the sake of it. Secondly, your employer usually wants you to do acceptable science, and thirdly your future career depends on you creating a reputation for yourself for doing good science.

As an MPhys student, one is expected to produce original work of a high caliber in an environment and field of study that the student does not necessarily know anything about to begin with. It can take whole months of a very short placement (up to a fifth of the entire time spent on placement – and up to six months to get to the stage of working independently!) to become comfortable with the subject area and the research being done, so once the placement has started the clock is really ticking. Every opportunity must be grabbed to do good, original science.

This brings me to the final and most general motivation – the research you do on your placement is assessed. Your work on placement counts significantly towards the degree you’ve already spent much effort over many years working towards. If you do badly on the research year, you do badly overall. This turns out to be both a challenge and a motivation – you are motivated to do original work, but it can sometimes be challenging to see whether this work is going to be relevant to the group you’re working in and to your project overall.

Some things work against these unquestionably good motivations; the primary antagonist for good work is time constraints. This might be because you’re working in a commercial institution which requires so-and-so benchmarks on such-and-such a date, or because you’re working closely with a manufacturer to produce something which you both have an interest in. It can be because your supervisor needs some results and thinks that they should look one particular way, and requires them by Friday.

Whatever the cause of the time constraints, it’s naturally essential that you work quickly. There are several ways to achieve this, but just working hard doesn’t always do the trick – you might have to think about changing your testing parameters, or test in a batch rather than individually to save time or just reduce the number of goals you’re trying to meet. Those examples are all sub-optimal, but you might have to choose. Believe me, it’s an important choice that you must take seriously.

Now I come to the point where the conflict really sets in; doing good science means that you have to be careful not to accidentally rig your own results by rejecting data that “looks wrong”. Many scientists fall into this trap occasionally, and as an MPhys student you have to be extremely careful not to do so when the pressure is on. On the other hand, you must also check that your experimental method is yielding sensible results – what better way to do that than check all your data as you’re doing the experiment? But you can’t check every single one because that might end up with you rejecting too much data! Furthermore, depending on the complexity of the analysis, this could dramatically reduce the speed at which you obtain results.

Therein lies the problem – in order to do good science, you need to strike a balance between intellectual honesty and practicality. It’s not a problem that anyone can generalize, and getting it wrong can have consequences – be they on your work or on someone’s deadline.

This is something I’ve been struggling hard with at Rutherford Appleton Laboratories. The group I work in uses a lot of its research in commercial applications, so there is a lot of pressure to work fast and achieve deadlines and goals. Sometimes I find that this conflicts with my opinion of how good science should be done. Honestly, part of this is my naivete – I am only an undergraduate after all – but it’s a real problem I have to tackle, especially when I feel that the research I think would be best isn’t in the group’s best interest. It can be frustratingly hard to internally reconcile all of this!

Having said all that, I’d like to make it clear that talking over concerns like these with the professionals working in the group (and my supervisor in particular) always results in a comfortable way of settling my concerns. Often they prove unfounded or trivial, but when I do raise a valid concern I find that a compromise is invariably arrived at. RAL does excellent science and nothing I have said here should detract from that. Furthermore, the best way to learn to deal with the issues I’ve raised here is to talk to people about it, and the professionals certainly help there.

Overall, I think that one of the unstated learning outcomes of an MPhys is to learn about these pressures and how to deal with them. Honestly, I wish it wasn’t unstated – I’d have been much less frustrated and surprised the first time I had to deal with this kind of thing if I’d been mentally prepared for it to happen!

In the end, it’s good to have learned that these kind of problems exist and how to deal with them – this is unquestionably a good thing. Despite the stress.

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About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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