Summer Project Dos and Don’ts

by feuilleautumn

The first question about summer projects is of course “To do or not to do?” “To do, to do”, I have answered for most of my time as a teacher. I sometimes wonder whether the summer-project experience is as universally useful as I declare it to be – but this article is not about my doubts. It is a compilation of advice, drawing on my own experiences, both as student and as teacher, and those of my students – experiences had as well as experiences not-had.

Be open to possibilities

Most application forms ask you for your “field of interest” and even, sometimes, “sub-field of interest”. I think this is a deeply misguided question for research institutes to ask of undergraduate students, and I don’t understand why they keep doing it. Most of you don’t really know what you are interested in, and that is as it should be. At this time of your life, you should be open to possibilities. In earlier years bewildered applicants would often ask me how to answer this question, and I would usually advise them to (i) leave it blank, (ii) provide a very general answer like “experimental physics”, or (iii) do some research on the kinds of things that they could imagine themselves doing and were qualified to do, and try to find a possible (but not unique) answer.

In recent years fewer students have asked me this question. I now sometimes find first-year undergraduates declaring quite confidently what their area of interest is. Furthermore, many of them seem to know already what area they will eventually do their PhD in, and begin planning a succession of small research experiences that will accelerate them in that direction. I think this is a very foolish tendency, which limits the directions in which they can grow.

If you are passionate about something that is accessible at your level, e.g. astronomy or electronics, then there may be something to be said for following your passion through summer projects – but even then you’re probably better off allowing yourself to sample other possibilities as well.

If on the other hand you are taken with something that is at the moment way beyond your ken – e.g. string theory or black-hole physics –, then you will need a few more years of training before you can do anything significant in these areas. And, in the meantime, you must allow yourself to explore areas of physics that seem more mundane. Remember that one of the great things about physics is the deep connection that exists between different fields. Who would have imagined that theories of gravity would be used to solved problems in condensed-matter physics, or that string theory would have parallels in fluid dynamics, or that thermodynamics would appear in descriptions of gravity?

Conversely, don’t assume, on the basis of the insufficient evidence available, that you can’t ever become proficient at the physics now beyond reach. Give yourself time, try out things, don’t decide on your limitations before you’ve given your strengths a chance to grow.

Do something, don’t just read something

If your declared field of interest is high-energy physics or gravity, you may be offered the opportunity to spend all your time reading up on some beautiful and profound idea from a beautiful and profound book (written by the kind of scientist you would one day like to be). Resist such an “opportunity” – a temptation both to you and to your adviser – at all costs.

One major reason to do a summer project is to develop your independence – something at which classroom education, especially in India, fails you. Without independence you will not be able to do any kind of worthwhile creative work, no matter how well-trained you are. Here is an opportunity to find yourself totally at sea, to almost drown, and then somehow make it to the shore. Don’t lose this opportunity by playing it safe. You will be amazed at how difficult even a simple problem is when you have to recognize it, formulate it, and then find the means to solve it – and how rewarding.

Retracing a path taken by someone else can be useful, if the steps you have to take are long enough to stretch you to your limit, e.g. if you have to work through and make sense of a research paper. It can also be useful sometimes to learn a new technique that would not be taught in a standard undergraduate curriculum. But, by my reckoning, even such learning cannot compare with doing something independently. You are young, and there’s lots of time for you to increase your knowledge, but you’ll be surprised at how little time there is for you to develop your independence.

And don’t imagine that you are too young to make a significant contribution. Turing discovered the Turing Machine when he was an undergraduate, and Heisenberg was in his early twenties when he discovered Matrix Mechanics. So be of good courage. Who knows what you can discover?

Listen to your adviser with respect, but not with reverence

The working relationship that you should aim to develop with your adviser is somewhat different from the one you have with your teachers. If college teachers give you more space than your school teachers did, research advisers have to go one step further. When doing a research project, you should really look only for general guidelines, occasional nudges, and some insight. When you have doubts, struggle with them yourself first. How else will you develop your abilities as a scientific explorer?

When you find yourself bewildered – as we hope you will – your reaction may be either to run to your adviser constantly or to avoid contact with him altogether. Avoid both these extremes. Listen carefully to what your adviser has to say, but then struggle with the problem yourself; see if you can come up with some ideas of your own.You may say to yourself – what contribution can I possibly make? You may be awed by adviser’s knowledge, and dejected at your own. But your very ignorance may allow you to stumble on openings that a more knowledgeable person would not see.

Talk to people from other disciplines

One of the most creative spaces in modern history was Building 20 at MIT. It housed all kind of scientists, engineers, and social scientists, who constantly ran into each other in its long corridors. This happenstance interaction made for a kind of creative hubbub that has rarely been duplicated anywhere else.

So if you go to IISc or some such place for a summer project, and you meet an environmentalist or a chemist over coffee, do try to explain to them what you are doing, and learn in return what they are doing. Having to translate your technical work into everyday language may help you understand it better. Besides, even casual conversations may carry stray insights and ideas that can seed your mind.

But don’t be afraid to work on your own

Sometimes a first-year student will come up to me and ask: “Sir, you tell us to solve problems. But how do I solve problems? When I see one that I have never seen before, my mind goes blank.” That’s just the kind of feeling you’re likely to get when you work on a research problem – except that it will be deeper and last longer. Don’t be afraid of the darkness. When you are in that state, ideas will eventually start bubbling up in your mind. Some will seem completely crazy, some half-crazy, some obviously wrong, and you’ll find yourself puncturing them before they have the chance to form fully. But unless you let at least some of these ideas grow and lift off, you may not be able to find a way out of your impasse.

Borrow from others, by all means, but allow these borrowings to mature and grow in your own mind – or you’ll end up replicating the thinking patterns of the dominant mind in the conversation, which is not likely to be your own, unless you are very confident. Your mind must be open enough to allow ideas to enter from without, but closed enough to create a unique environment within. The crossing of boundaries – from contact into isolation, from authority into innocence, from madness into method, from one discipline into another – is the beginning of the creative process.

And your tenacity – your ability to hold and stay with a problem you’ve made your own – may be the best indicator of your future success as a scientist, far more so than being “smart.”

Be confident, but don’t be cocky

A belief in your ability to do things you haven’t done before can take you very far. But an “attitude” is not a very useful trait in someone training to be a scientist. Whom will you fool, anyway?

Be honest

Don’t pretend to know or understand things that you don’t. Don’t be reflexively defensive when your adviser criticizes your work – which doesn’t mean that you have to accept all his criticism. Don’t pretend to be working any harder than you are.

Work hard

There is no substitute for this.

Give a talk on the work you’ve done

One communcation skill worth learning is how to give a good talk. Most research institutes running summer programmes will give participants the opportunity to give talks on their summer projects. Take this seriously, and do a good job. Prepare, analyze, practise, and time your talk. (Try your own patience, not others’.)

Write a report

Another communcation skill worth learning is how to write a research paper. A project report is your first stab at this. Don’t think of it as just a requirement to be fulfilled. Ask your adviser for suggestions on how to write it. Discuss it with research students who’re stuggling to write papers. Read some of the advice given on the internet on how to write a research paper or report. Read a classic paper or two, e.g. some early paper by Einstein or Feynman, and see if you can communicate your ideas as effectively, as simply, and as powerfully as they do. After you have written your report, comb out all its logical tangles – edit it and rewrite it until it flows and glistens.

Don’t keep thinking about recommendations and testimonials

In the matter of giving letters of recommendation to summer-project students, I have known two extremes among advisers. One adviser I know lets his summer-project students know in advance that he will not entertain requests for recommendations from them. Another claims he prefers those who want such letters, because they’re the ones who will work. I suspect most advisers lie between these two extremes: they will be willing to write you a letter of recommendation if you work hard and well; but if they think your focus is the recommendation you intend to extract from them, they will not appreciate it.

As for an open testimonial from your adviser, if you get one, good, and if not, don’t worry about it. The experience is the main thing. (And, if you ask me for an important letter of recommendation, I will probably write to your adviser and find out what kind of work you did.)

Don’t take this opportunity for granted

The opportunity to do a summer project in a research institute, all expenses paid, is a privilege. Don’t imagine that you are entitled to such a privilege. It is true that research institutes must invest in potential future members of the scientific community if they’re to survive and grow – but in a country teeming with aspirants those members need not have included you. In this, as in almost everything else, you as a Stephanian have an enormous, possibly unfair, advantage over others. So thank your stars, if nothing else. And make good use of the privilege you’ve been given.

If you are offered more than one summer fellowship, try not to hold on to both until it’s too late for the offer you turn down to be made to anyone else.

Remember to thank and acknowledge your adviser

If your adviser is skilful, he may be able to help you to discover a problem, formulate it, solve it, talk about it, write it up, and perhaps even publish a paper on it, “without ever doing anything himself.” Don’t be fooled into thinking that you did all the work on your own. The force field created by an effective and generous adviser can help you to discover things, about yourself and world, that you could not have imagined. Think about this a little after the work is done, and express your gratitude adequately. If you want to publish the work that resulted from your collaboration, or present it at a conference, make sure you do so with the full knowledge and consent of your adviser.

Reflect on your experience

The assumption I appear to have made in this homily is that you have already decided to pursue a career in research – that you are only waiting to develop your strengths and discover where they intersect with your inclinations. But of course that is not true. Many of you, perhaps most, are not sure whether a career in research is what you want. Some of you are unsure whether you really like physics. Some of you like physics but are unsure whether you have the qualities required of a scientist. Some you have the qualities of a scientist but are unsure whether you are ready to spend ten years on a PhD and post-doctoral positions before finding a stable job. And almost none of you have a clear idea what the life of a scientist is like. Don’t worry – it’s natural to be only partially aware of one’s strengths, weaknesses, and inclinations, and of the kind of life one is prepared for. But there’s no harm in trying to get a preview of one kind of life. So think of a summer project as not just an opportunity to develop your scientific muscles, but also as a foray into a possible future for yourself. Observe your adviser and other scientists; observe PhD students and post-docs, who’re on their way to becoming full-fledged scientists. Ask questions. You may not be able to arrive at any unshakable answers, but that’s all right too – we all step into the future with only a faint idea of what it holds for us.

Good luck!