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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Christmas Songs That Don't Suck

We're sliding into the light blogging period all across the Net-- hardly anyone is posting much, and comment traffic is light-- so it's really not a good time to bust out Deep Thoughts about the nature of science or any of that. I've got a bunch of other things to do that will tie up a lot of the time I would otherwise use for substantive blogging.

So here's some fluff. As I noted last year, I don't much care for Christmas music. I have picked up a few holiday tunes here and there, though, and after a conversation during last weekend's drive home, I pulled them together into a whopping ten-song playlist:

Obviously, I had to stretch the definition a little bit to find even those ten-- "Valley Winter Song" is a lovely, sweet tune, but it's really a winter song, not a Christmas song. But then, if "Jingle Bells" is a Christmas song, I can count that.

Still, this seems a little light. There must be more tolerable Christmas music out there, so what would people suggest? Subject to the basic constraints mentioned in last year's post, of course: no oversung Three Tenors crap, no Little goddamn Drummer Boy (I heard yet another horrific cover of that piece of crap last weekend, by some sub-Rusted-Root world-music kind of act), no treacly crooner stuff.

What Christmas songs would you recommend that can hold their own against "Fairytale of New York"? (Bonus points for songs available via iTunes...)

Posted at 6:35 PM | link | follow-ups | 22 comments

Grad School Advice

It's that time of year again, when eager undergraduates start thinking about their futures, including the possibility of graduate school. This inevitably leads to emails of the form "Hi, Professor, could you write recommendations for me for these nine schools? And by the way, they're due Friday. Thanks!"

Happily, Sean Carroll comes to the rescue of those of us in need of a way to put off writing recommendation letters, by offering unsolicited advice on getting into graduate school in physics. The advice he gives is mostly good, and comes from the perspective of someone who has read applications at a top graduate school, and thus has some actual knowledge of what goes on. There are a couple of comments and additions I would make from the perspective of a faculty member at an undergraduate institution.

Sean writes, in Q&A format:

Are GRE scores important? Yes. At least, in the following sense: while bad GRE’s won’t kill your chances, good GRE’s make it much easier to admit you. (We’re speaking of the Physics GRE, of course; the general tests are completely irrelevant.) It stands to reason: given two applicants from similar schools with similar grades and interests, there’s no reason for a department to choose the student with lower GRE scores. At the same time, you can certainly overcome sub-par GRE’s by being outstanding in other areas; this is particularly true for students who want to do experiment.

This is true, and can be a problem for undergraduates from small departments or small schools. The Physics GRE is a very difficult and comprehensive test, and students at small schools are in many ways at a disadvantage when it comes to preparing for it.

For one thing, small schools often can't offer the range of courses that larger places do. My department, for example, doesn't have anyone on staff who can really teach a course on solid-state physics. We get the occasional visitor who can teach it, but most years, we don't cover it at all beyond a week or so in our sophomore-level modern physics class. My undergrad alma mater was even more limited-- they didn't even offer classes on particle or nuclear physics while I was there. They did an excellent job teaching quantum mechanics and optics, but there wasn't anybody who did research in particle or nuclear physics.

Another problem, in a perverse sort of way, is that we teach small classes, even at the intro level. If the largest class you teach is fifteen or twenty students, you can feel free to assign long and complex problems, even on the exams, and emphasize problem-solving over memorization. If you're teaching classes of eighty or a hundred, you're more likely to lean on multiple-choice and short-answer questions, just for reasons of logistics. The GRE is a bubble-sheet multiple-choice test, and to score well, you need to have a large array of formulae memorized, and know how to get answers quickly. You just don't pick that up as easily from the sort of small classes we teach (even though those classes are pedagogically superior in other ways).

Still, the fact is that the Physics GRE does matter for graduate admissions. If you're a student at a small school, you need to take it seriously, and start studying for it well in advance, as it's going to be very different from what you're used to.


How do I get good letters of recommendation?

Go to your faculty advisor's house and disable his cable and Internet access, so he can't do anything other than write your letter. Or:

It’s more important to have letters from people who know you well than from people who are well-known themselves. One of the best side benefits of doing research is that you can get your supervisor (who hopefully has interacted with you quite a bit) to write letters for you. It’s really hard to write a good letter for a student who you only know because they took one class from you a year or two ago. Over the course of your undergrad career, you should find some way to strike up a personal relationship with one or more faculty members, if only to sit in their office now and then and ask some physics questions. Then they can write a much more personal and effective letter.

This is excellent advice, and I can't stress that enough. I've had to write letters for students I've only had in one or two classes, and it's excruciating. Writing for students who have done research in my lab, on the other hand, is much easier, because I have something to say about them.

We've recently hired a Fellowship and Internship Coordinator at the college, and she says that she tells students who are being groomed for prestigious awards (Watson, Fullbright, Goldwater, Rhodes, etc.) that they need to get to know one of their professors well every term. That way, when it comes time to get supporting letters, they've got people to ask. The advice is just as good for students who aren't necessarily Rhodes Scholarship caliber-- try to make sure that at least a few faculty members know you as something other than "that kid in the hat, who always sat in the back of the room."


Do I need to know exactly what I will specialize in? Not really, although in certain circumstances it can help. Professors like to know that someone is interested in their own area of research, and might push a little harder to accept someone whose interest overlaps with their work; on the other hand, most people understand that you don’t know everything after three and a half years of being an undergraduate, and it can take time to choose a specialization.

I would actually put a little more emphasis on this than Sean does, for strategic reasons. But here, I'm really talking to the "B" students in the audience.

If you've got the grades and the test scores to get into one of the very top schools-- Harvard, MIT, Caltech, Berkeley, Chicago (more for theory than experiment), Princeton, a few others-- it doesn't really matter whether you know what you want to do or not, as they're almost guaranteed to have an excellent research group in any subfield you decide to pursue. Below those schools, though, there's a tier of schools that are not as broadly excellent as the very top programs, but that have specific areas in which they are every bit as good as the big-name places. In AMO physics, these would be schools like Colorado, Texas, UConn, Rice, and these days Penn State and Maryland (among others). Those schools don't have the cachet of a Harvard or a Caltech, so they're a little easier to get into, but if you go there to study the right subfield, you'll be working with people who are every bit as good as anyone at the big-name places. And within the field, everybody knows that, so the "lesser" degree will still get you a good post-doc, and carry some weight when it comes time to look for a job.

You can believe me when I say this, because that's how I got where I am today. I ran a B/B+ average in college, and had middle-of-the-road GRE scores (quite literally), so I wouldn't've stood a chance of getting into Harvard or MIT. I knew what I was interested in, though, and despite going to a second-tier graduate school, I ended up in a world-class research group. And things have gone pretty well since then.

Which brings us to:

Is my life over if I don’t get into my top grad school? Yes. Well, only if you let it be. The truth is, how you do in grad school and beyond (including how you do on the postdoc and faculty job market) depends much more on you than it does on where you go to school.

What he said.

Sean promises a second installment talking about how to choose a graduate school, so I'll save my comments on those issues for that. Which I guess means I need to go write that letter...

Posted at 6:48 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

"Breathtaking Inanity" Would Be a Great Album Title

I'm probably just about the last science blogger on Earth to note this, but the Dover Panda Trial decision was handed down today, and it's a doozy. I particularly like the summation:

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

That is one pissed-off judge...

You can find lots of good commentary (and the full text of the decision in PDF form) at Dispatches From the Culture Wars-- just keep hitting "next post" for a while.

Posted at 6:44 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

You Don't Know From Stress

Pub Sociology points to an Inside Higher Ed piece on the work weeks of scientists and engineers:

Scientists and engineers employed in the education sector, which included those with doctorates who work in elementary and secondary schools as well as professors and researchers in higher education, reported a 50.59-hour average work week. Scientists and engineers in industry jobs worked 47.61 hours in an average week, and government workers clocked out at 45.17 hours a week.

Woo! Eat my dust, industry slackers! With your high salaries and your short work weeks... Umm...

Of course, even among hard-working academic types, there's stress, and there's stress. And then there's Dr. What Now?'s tenure case:

Unfortunately, it wasn't actually such a great conversation with the president. He gave me the letter offering me tenure and then followed that up by saying that he really wanted me to go away –- for my own sake, don’t you know –- and encouraged me to turn in my letter of resignation by the end of spring term in return for a generous buy-out. And the positive thing that he said to me was to wish that I weren't a good teacher or a good scholar so that he could have easily turned me down, but unfortunately I was good at my job. Um, thanks?

My worst days of tenure panic are better than that. I can't even imagine dealing with the stuff she's had to (flip back through her archives for more details). Congratulations to her, and feel free to remind me of this story if I start whining about my tenure process here.

Posted at 8:12 AM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

Monday, December 19, 2005

Seventeen Books Answers

After a pleasant but exhausting weekend spent visiting Kate's family, I don't feel like doing anything all that taxing. There'll be plenty of excitement around her in the near future, though, so I'll take a slow Monday morning and post the titles of the books I quoted from on Friday. Links are to booklog posts, where available.

I'm far too lazy to cull through the comments to Friday's post to congratulate people who identified specific books, but feel free to pat yourselves on the back. Now I really need to get my act together and go to work.

Posted at 8:34 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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