Being a graduate student within the ATLAS collaboration

ImageHey! It’s been a while! The analysis I have been working on should be coming to an end at some point this Fall. The last year has been a hell of a ride, but we’re soon going to reap the benefits. The world (well, maybe not the whole world) has been wondering if that Higgs boson thing we discovered also decays into pairs of tau leptons, and my friends in ATLAS and I have been hard at work trying to provide an answer. This partly explains my absenteeism from the blogging plane, and I can’t guarantee that I’ll be back here regularly in the near future. I’m nearing the end of my Ph.D., and I have trying times ahead.

In the meantime, here’s a little something. I have been asked to write a short essay on the life of a graduate student in high energy physics nowadays for Physics in Canada, the journal of the Canadian Association of Physicists. I’m not 100% sure it will appear in the journal, but I thought it was definitely blogging material. So here it is, edited a little by Emma Ideal, someone who now has a lot of experience editing essays (an upcoming post will be dedicated to that awesome book she made called Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science).


Being a graduate student within the ATLAS collaboration has been an incredible ride. I have learned a number of lessons during these last 5 years. Interestingly, the most important ones don’t have anything to do with physics. Physics is the fun part of life in high energy physics. Sure, I learned an astonishing amount about detectors, colliders, collisions, fundamental interactions, and how all these pieces come together when you start looking for new fundamental phenomena, but there are a number of elements that come into this game which someone would be foolish to ignore.

Experimental high energy physics as it’s currently being done on the energy and luminosity frontier involves two things that can be fairly daunting to incoming students: politics and computing. I was lucky enough to be prepared for the computing aspect, but I was little prepared for the political aspect. They try to prepare you in school for teamwork, but it comes short of the reality you face in the ATLAS collaboration. If you choose to pursue the current hot topic (in these days, anything having to do with the Higgs boson), you will find yourself working alongside groups that can be as large as a few hundred people. You will also find yourself competing for attention and recognition with dozens of other smart graduate students. Everyone will seem smarter than you, because nobody shows how much they really struggle to understand what they are trying to do.

Everybody really does struggle, at least in the beginning. There is no exception, no matter how it appears. As you get more experience, you start to have a bigger basis on which to build your understanding of new concepts. The challenges keep coming though. The problems we face in the ATLAS experiment need creative solutions, and there is always something new to understand. I was lucky enough to work alongside very smart people who would answer my “stupid” questions every time I asked. I discovered soon enough that nobody worth worrying about in this collaboration scoffs at a stupid question so I soon started flaunting my stupidity. I discovered fast enough that if I didn’t understand something, odds were that other people weren’t clear on it either.

I spend a lot of time writing and rethinking code as part of the collaboration, but I also spend a lot of time communicating. I sometimes bring new ideas to the table, and these ideas need to be understood by people before they can be adopted. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to represent concepts visually so that they are clear. Sometimes, new worthwhile ideas don’t get across because they are not communicated clearly or because their implications aren’t understood. Don’t be afraid to get creative, but also be prepared to fight for your ideas. It can take a while before that new idea is adopted, but trust that people are reasonable and that they will recognize genuine advantages if there are any. Everyone will be better off, all thanks to your exercising the courage to ask that stupid question that no one ever asks.

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One Response to Being a graduate student within the ATLAS collaboration

  1. Emma Ideal says:

    Michel, so many students are going to appreciate this essay (including yours truly…). You’re honest about many things which plague freshly-minted graduate students and which most senior grad students are afraid to admit.

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