Friday, December 5, 2014

Support, structure, and students

This time it will again be a behind-the-scenes entry. The reason is that we got just our graduate school prolonged. This is a great success. 'We' are in this case the professors doing particle physics here at the University of Graz, in total five. With this, we are now able to support nine new PhD students, i.e. give them a job during the time they are doing their PhD work, and giving them the opportunity to travel to conferences, or to invite people for them to talk to.

You may wonder what I mean by 'giving a job'. PhD students in physics are not only students. They are beginning researchers. Each and every PhD thesis contributes to our knowledge, and opens up new frontiers. In the course of doing this, the PhD students are guided and supported by us, their supervisors. The goal is, of course, that at the end of their thesis they have matured into equal partners in research. A goal, which is satisfyingly often achieved. And hence, they are not only studying but indeed contributing, and thus they also do a job, and should get paid for the work they are doing. And hence having PhD positions is not only nice - it is required already out of fairness. And therefore this success means that we can now accompany nine more young people on their way to become researchers.

But this is not everything a graduate school provides. A graduate school is also providing the infrastructure too provide advanced lectures by world-leading experts to the students. But here one has to walk a thin line. What we do not want is that they just soak up knowledge, and then reproduce it. This can never be how a PhD education should be. The aim of the PhD studies must always be that the students learn how to create, how to be creative, and how to think in directions nobody else did before. Especially not their supervisors. Providing a too much formalized education would quell much or all of this.

On the other hand, it cannot work without some formal education. While creativity is important, (particle) physics has become a vast field. As a consequence, almost every simple idea has already been found decades ago by someone else. Knowing what is known is therefore already important to avoid repeating the same things (and often the same mistakes) others did. At the same time, knowledge of general principles and structures is important such that one's own ideas can be embedded into the big picture. And in the course, checked for technical consistency. Without knowing about technical details, this would be hard to achieve. One could then easily loose oneself in pursuing a chain of technical points, leading one far astray. It is especially here where it shows that theoretical particle physics is nowadays an enormous collaborative and worldwide effort. None of the problems we are dealing with can be solved by one person alone. It requires the combined knowledge of many people to make progress.

Knowing what other people did - and do - is therefore of paramount importance. Here, the graduate school helps also in another way. It provides the PhD students with the possibility to travel themselves, meet people, and go to conferences. We also can make it possible for them to stay abroad for up to half a year at a different institution to work with different people on a different project. They can thereby substantially broaden their horizon, and learn how to cooperate with different people.

So, are there any downsides? Well, not for the students. Except that they may at times have to go a lecture or talk, which they otherwise would not go to. Most of the downsides are hitting us supervisors, because there is a lot of additional administrative work involved. However, this is easily outweighed by the possibility to have more PhD students to work with, and with their ambition achieve something new.