Two anecdotes about why grad school is cool

This is just a quick post, because Iknow a handful of people have started perusing my blog regularly, and I feel bad that I haven’t updated in a couple days. You’ll probably have to get used to gaps of a day or two from time to time, especially as we get closer to exams, but  this week, I’m happy to say, the culprit was an old physics pal of mine was visiting from Colorado, so I had to put WLOG on hold for a day or two.

Anyway, I’ve been hearing a lot of negative things about grad school lately, mostly from new grad students eager to seem cool by not seeming too excited about their PhD programs, I think. Still, since the webpage at Zazzle which provided the image of the shirt above explicitly notes that you might want to buy it to make a sarcastic statement, I wanted to tell two brief stories about the cool upside of being a graduate student.

The first took place in my quantum mechanics class yesterday, which meets only on Tuesdays and Thursdays but runs for an hour and a half  (compared to most classes here which are only 55 minutes). It was the third day of the class, but it was our first day with the real professor, who had been out of the country doing some research work (I love that physicists get to travel a lot!) and was clearly just a little bit flustered to be getting back and going immediately into teaching a course.

The class started at 11:20, as it was supposed to, and when the clock got to 12:15, Dr. Abanov, who was in the middle of proving a basic theorem about Hilbert spaces when he suddenly looked at his watch in a panic and said (ed. note: read in a russian accent) “Oh dear, out of time– I have to prove next time, I guess no?”

Well now, if you were paying attention, you’ll have noticed that by this point in the class, we should have had over half an hour left, and since I had been paying attention, too, I knew this and was beginning to wonder if I should say something. On the one hand, I didn’t want the professor to be confused, but on the other hand, I thought maybe he just had to leave early that day, and I wasn’t sure I wanted all my classmates to think of me as That Kid Who Told The Teacher Class Was Supposed To Last For 30 More Minutes.

What I forgot, though, is that I wasn’t in some college physics class sharing the room with a bunch of engineering transfer students and ROTC kids fulfilling their science requirement, because while I was pondering this dilemma in my head, about 8 hands shot up in the air, and, without waiting to be called upon, about 8 voices from around the room started shouting various combinations of the phrases “time left,” “30 minutes,”  and “finish the proof.”  It was a nice way to start the day.

Better still, a few hours later in my graduate lab class I was sitting around with my lab partner trying to get our oscilloscope hooked up correctly to a test probe so that we could practice taking data for later in the course when we’ll be measuring the properties of a superconducting circuit (this is an awesome lab, by the way, which involves, among other things liquid helium.) But the oscilloscope, which should have been showing a straight line, was actually showing a crazy, curvy shape that looked like the kind of thing you might draw with a spirograph. We ultimately discovered that the problem lay in the amplifier circuit we were using to magnify the size of the voltage we were measuring. In particular, the circuit included something called a lowpass filter, which introduces something called a “phase shift” between the waveforms we were studying and makes the straight lines look curved.

The technical details of this aren’t important; the important thing is, I found my self thinking, “man, I’ve got to remember to look up why lowpass filters create phase shifts when I get home, because I can’t remember but I don’t want to do it now or my lab partner will probably get mad.” Well, as you probably expected at this point, instead of snapping at me and saying “why are you sitting there all lost in thought, dummy, if we finish this by 1:00 I can get home in time to play Halo with my friends in China!” in fact the next words of my lab partner’s mouth were “Hey man, do you mind if we stop real quick and look something up? I can’t remember why lowpass filters do that and I just figure, if I don’t look it up now I’ll probably never really understand this stuff.”  I was so proud of him.

So here’s to grad school: for all the reasons there are to rag on it, it’s really, really exciting to be around so many people who are serious about learning as much as they can about the workings of the universe, and ultimately about contributing to our knowledge thereof. Keep up the good work, SBU physics department.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

3 Responses to Two anecdotes about why grad school is cool

  1. Paul West says:

    It’s great to hear that things are starting off on the right foot for you with regard to both the faculty and students. I don’t remember anything about my first days at grad school anymore (other than my creepy roommate), but I do recall the one negative theme that came up over and over again was the feeling that some professors treated the students that joined their research programs as slaves. I wonder if that is unique to lab-intensive programs such as chemistry, or if other disciplines produce similar complaints.

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