Obviously I am asking this because I am worried!

I am a theoretical physics grad student at one of the top places in the US. The following is a brief history of my last 2 years and I would like to know of opinions and suggestions regarding the path ahead.

I did the most advanced courses (relevant to my interests) during my first year and worked on some project ideas through very high-profile external collaborations (but the projects didn't work out and I had to can the drafts) During my second year I tried working with some other profs but the projects were never really interesting.

[..though I have a (single author) paper on arxiv from my 2nd year work and may be I will get one more...]

Towards the end of second year I started meeting with a very brilliant scientist who will be joining my institute as a faculty in January 2014. With him the projects are very exciting - but interactions are difficult since he is still mostly not in campus.

Of course this unstable path happened since I had to join a grad school which didn't have people in my subject of interest. But over the last 2-3 months things have been looking up as this new person came in...

  • How many years do you have to complete your PhD? – user7130 Sep 23 '13 at 7:07
  • I would love to get it done in 5 years! – user6818 Sep 23 '13 at 7:16
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    I don't think you have a lot to worry about, you have done some extensive networking already and exciting times lay ahead. – user7130 Sep 23 '13 at 7:17
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    what about your phd advisor? – user774025 Sep 23 '13 at 8:54
  • @user774025 As in? – user6818 Sep 24 '13 at 6:16

"but the projects didn't work out and I had to can the drafts" — this sounds weird to me. It is not rare at all for a project/idea not to work ou the way you would like, but for it to fail so utterly that you cannot get any work published out of it, i.e. that there is nothing for the community to learn from it, is rather rare. That it happened multiple times might be an indicator that you threw the towel too early, or that you could be looking harder into how to extract something useful from your failed attempt. Helping you out with that would typically be the job of your advisor, because it is not the easiest part of the job...

Other than that, your account does not look particularly worrying: as others have noted, you have already built a good network of collaborations, have one publication, and advanced your course requirements... Sounds good to me!

  • I'd suggest this is more common than you might imagine in theoretical physics. I wouldn't call it failing utterly, but there is in general little patience for false starts. You can get such things published somewhere, but of course, you will be told that those publications (with IF < Phys.Rev.[subject letter]) don't "count." – wsc Sep 24 '13 at 7:27
  • Those projects very soon became way too difficult for me to carry on on my own. There is only so far that a beginning student can possibly collaborate with big scientists over email. Whatever little I achieved through these collaborations is seemingly not of publishable standards. – user6818 Sep 24 '13 at 14:55

I don't think you have much to worry about. I recently obtained my PhD in physics from one of the top universities in the country and then went on to my current position of postdoc at another of the country's top universities, and I didn't get my first publication until my 3rd year. Hell, I didn't even start research until early on in my 3rd year, so you really seem ahead of where I was at this point.

With regards to the comments on having to abandon the fist projects you worked on, that doesn't seem particularly worrisome either, especially as you get started in research. Your ability and speed with which you can do research will increase dramatically over the next couple years, and your ability to choose good problems will do so perhaps even more. Perhaps the reason your projects previously didn't pan out has to do with problem selection (I'm assuming the external collaborators were largely involved in the project selection here); PIs can sometimes be pretty poor judges of project quality, since some don't know the literature as well as they used to, but this varies from PI to PI.

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    +1: you're ready to graduate when you start having all the good ideas, and resent your advisor riding on your coattails ;) – wsc Sep 24 '13 at 7:29

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