PhD Life

I recently put up my first paper on the arXiv and have been dealing with the torrent of e-mails asking for citations. This is normal and part of the publication process, though I’ve been amused by some of the e-mails I’ve been getting…

  • One person decided to e-mail my adviser even though it was my e-mail address that was associated with the paper. There is a reason why my e-mail associated with the paper: the senior collaborators don’t want to have to deal your “please cite me” e-mails! Don’t worry, I discuss everything with my collaborators,  but let’s keep things organized, yes?
  • E-mails that start with “I read your paper with great interest…” This is a very nice thing to say, but of course when you send it just 30 minutes after the paper is made public, then I know that you really mean: “I quickly searched your bibliography for my name… with great interest.
  • All these e-mails make me wonder if anything I’ve done is original at all.
  • There is something to be said about being a competent writer. When I skim some of these papers begging for citations, it is clear why they’re not part of the ‘standard’ set of cited papers: they’re unreadable. Yes, being a native English speaker is a huge advantage here and yes, that’s unfair for those who aren’t native speakers, but that’s the way it is.
  • I’ll cite papers even though they don’t really have to be cited. This is partly to avoid confrontation, but also because I can sympathize with other grad students who keep an eye on their citations on SPIRES.

One of the difficulties for chalk board jockeys (i.e. most theorists) is transferring our diagrams into our tex files. One of the top priorities is effectively drawing Feynman diagrams. There are two schools of thought on this:

  1. TeX purist: Generate Feynman diagrams within LaTeX using TeX packages and some software front end.
  2. Pragmatist: Generate diagrams any way you want, then import them as eps or pdf images into a TeX document.

The first option has the benefit of elegance and portability. A good — if not comprehensive — list of options are available at InsectNation. (I prefer JaxoDraw myself). The trade-offs are that these options usually have a bit of a learning curve and tend to be a bit limited when you want to do something “outside of the box.”

The second option allows one to use a full-fleged graphics program, but it’s tedious to make some Feynman components with very general tools [1]. Luckily, there’s a fantastic pair of how-to videos by AjabberWok for using Adobe Illustrator to create Feynman diagrams:

The handy feature is that one defines Illustrator brushes to implement the particular type of propagator: scalar, vector, gluon, etc. Thus all one has to do is draw the topology of the diagram and apply the appropriate brushes.

But Illustrator is ‘high end’ graphic design software. What is a student to do? If you’re really lucky, your adviser will give it to you [2].  In a pinch, many universities have site licenses for Adobe software for use in computer labs. A third option that you might not be aware of, however, is student licensing.

I recently discovered that the “academic discount” software that my university’s bookstore sells off its shelves are not the best deals students can get. Student licensed software are typically boxed sets with no fancy packaging or manuals, but that are even further discounted. One might also be able to get even further discounted deals on old versions of this software. I was able to get a copy of the full Adobe Design Premium CS 3.3 suite for the cost of two or three hardback textbooks.

Now I can draw funky Feynman diagrams with brane-localized fields. 🙂


[1] This is like trying to use a lock picking kit to open a locked door: you have many tools that do many different things, but it’s more complicated than having a particular key for the particular door. This analogy, in turn, reminds me of an old barometer joke.

[2] I know of one lucky PhD student who got a copy of Illustrator from his adviser. I tried asking my adviser for a copy and he laughed at me.

One of the objectives of a PhD student is “adviser-independence,” such as being able to navigate the literature to learn new topics on one’s own. The most pedagogical material is contained in textbooks, but by the time something has made it into a published text it has already fallen a bit behind the ‘forefront of research.’ The second most pedagogical material can be found in review articles, which are papers that are meant to summarize topics at the ‘forefront’ of a particular (sub-)field.

There are a few journals that specialize in review articles. These tend to have very high-quality, formal papers that are nearly textbook-like in their presentation:

The published reviews in your subfield form a corpus of knowledge that one is expected to have mastered as a research scientist.

More broadly, however, there are many `review articles’ that are not necessarily published in the above journals. These include lecture notes from summer schools or other less-formal write ups. Here are a few collections that I regularly refer to (and a couple that I don’t):

One can also play with the really neat search engine, ArXiv Structure, which will offer review articles for particular ‘themes’. In limited use I’ve had mixed success for particular searches, but have had a lot of fun browsing randomly. The site shows a lot of promise for finding and categorizing literature on particular topics. (Here’s an example.)

Most of the summer school lecture notes out there end up in proceedings, bound volumes that form a the published records of conferences. Two of the most useful proceedings are those from the Les Houches and TASI schools. Hard copies of these books can be hard to find, but more recent sessions of these schools tend to have copies of lectures on the arXiv as well as video lectures. A few classic summer school lectures go on to be published widely, such as Sidney Coleman’s Aspects of Symmetry (from the Erice schools) and Methods in Field Theory (from the Les Houches schools). Other places to look for lectures are the Proceedings of Science and on SPIRES (conference search).

I suppose it’s worth pandering to ourselves by noting that the blogosphere is also a budding place to look for literature reviews and subject summaries. 🙂