Learning something new

Whilst on this research trip I’ve been trying to get my head around a new topic, quantum stochastic processes (stochastic processes have a certain amount of “noise” and are used for modelling all sorts of things, including stock markets). Getting to grips with any new area requires a lot of dedication, some really good resources, and (ideally) someone patient enough to sit with you and answer all your questions. When you’re struggling with a new topic, it’s normal to feel like you don’t understand any of it. It’s normal to think that you will never make any sense of the material in front of you; that this is beyond you and that you’re not clever enough. It’s normal to want to give up, to throw the textbook across the room and get a job at Tesco’s.

Frustrated: fifth attempt at the same calculation

 

I’ve thought these thoughts (and more) every time I try and teach myself a new topic. It’s a painful process. But until we sit down with the material that we don’t understand, we don’t know the limits of our knowledge. The first step to learning something new is discovering what we don’t know and exploring the limits of our understanding. This can be frustrating and demoralising. “I thought I understood X”, you say to yourself; “if I don’t even understand that, then obviously I don’t understand anything else either!” Cue massive confidence crisis and general feelings of unworthiness and misery.

Before you fill in the Tesco’s job application form though, consider this: by realising that you don’t understand something, you have taken a step towards learning it. That’s probably the most painful step in learning, and it’s one we’re not given much guidance on dealing with. Whilst at school, high flyers don’t often experience the feeling of not being able to understand something, and the first year of university comes as a shock to many who were used to getting 100% on their school homework assignments. It can be very difficult to make that adjustment; to go from thinking that your understanding of the universe is basically complete to realising that your knowledge is shaky, incomplete and often wrong.

During a PhD, the inconvenient truth of your incomplete knowledge is brought home, day in, day out, often brutally. It’s no wonder that PhD students often doubt themselves and their capabilities; they’re coming up against the limits of their understanding on a daily basis. “I’m so stupid”, they say, “I can’t even put the optical master equation into Lindblad form!” What they often forget is that not only does this make absolutely no sense to the majority of the population, but also that probably made no sense to them until relatively recently. To know you can’t put something in Lindblad form, you first have to know what Lindblad form is.

It also doesn’t help your confidence that everyone else around you at work is throwing around Lindblad equations like they were born doing it. But remember: this is just an act, a clever disguise. Academics make a career out of being smart, so it pays for them to look smart. They weren’t actually born knowing all of physics, they had to learn this stuff too. This means they’re in a great place to help you learn it. So ask them questions, again and again, because in my experience books can only take you so far. You’ll need someone to thrash ideas out with, to explain those sticky points and correct you when you go wrong. With patience, perseverance and (probably) some help, you’ll get there. But before you move onto the next thing you don’t understand, take a moment to congratulate yourself. You learnt something new.

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The benefits of research trips

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Life down under: a koala takes it easy

I’m now a fortnight into my Australian trip, and things are panning out well. The heat is tolerable, the sunshine welcome, the people friendly. I’m on first name terms with the waiters in the coffee shop, the college chefs and the porters. The Aussie sunshine has turned me (much to my surprise) into an early riser; 6am is so much more pleasant here where the birds sing, the warm air is fresh and the sun is already poking its head above the horizon.

Lest anyone think this is all just a glorified holiday, I’ve been learning a lot here too. My collaborator here is focused and has an excellent understanding of the problem I’m working on and the tools I’m using to tackle it. I’ve gained a lot from our frequent chats over coffee in the shade of the eucalyptus trees in the corner of the quad. I’ve learnt new techniques and understood new pieces of physics. But more than that; I’ve participated in all sorts of research discussions, heard new ideas, seen new perspectives. And I think this is the most valuable thing about travelling; your viewpoint literally alters. You get the opportunity to look at the world anew and get a fresh perspective on things.

Prior to coming out here, I had been working on the same project for months – it had turned into a monstrous hydra, growing three new heads for every one that was cut off. I needed a break. I needed a fresh start. That’s what Australia has given me – a fresh project to sink my teeth into and fresh ideas to get my head around.

There are other benefits to working away from home, particularly somewhere far away: due to the time difference, emails don’t come into my inbox during working hours. I don’t have all the usual obligations of work – no seminars to attend, no colloquia, no tutorials to give. It’s amazing how much more one can do in a day that isn’t punctuated by constant distractions and commitments. The sunshine has cured me of my usual winter lethargy, giving me extra energy and making me more productive. Besides which, I’m enjoying it all – the weather, the wildlife, the flowers, the sights and smells. Now, how do I turn the temperature down by a couple of degrees?

To seize an opportunity, first you need to create it

On Saturday I’m travelling to Australia for a month-long research trip. I’m excited and nervous and a little bit scared, and it’ll be hard to be away from my other half for so long. But this is a fantastic opportunity for me, and I’m definitely looking forward to a breath of fresh air (and sun!) and a chance to get to grips with a different research project and meet new collaborators.

My supervisor first mentioned the idea of a trip to Australia around a year ago, and my response was enthusiastic. However, other PhD students warned me that they had had similar offers, but they had come to nothing. I realised that if I really wanted to make this trip happen, I would need to be proactive. In order to seize the opportunity, I first had to create it.

A few days before the deadline, I applied for a scholarship fund for PhD students from the UK to travel to an Australian institution for a research visit. The application included a research proposal which I constructed with help from my supervisor and our Australian collaborator. We had some detailed discussions about the project that I would be given, and agreed rough dates for the visit. My scholarship application was successful, and the trip began to feel real – flights were booked, accommodation arranged, visa applied for.

This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been proactive – followed up on my supervisor’s suggestion and pestered him about when the trip would be possible, applied for the scholarship even though it was close to the deadline, contacted our collaborator and discussed the research proposal. Sometimes you have to ask to get something. Sometimes you have to ask more than once. On some occasions you might not get it, but on others you will. You’ve nothing to lose and potentially there’s everything to be gained from asking.