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I am a theoretical physics PhD student in the initial years. There is something which has been bothering me ever since I have started my PhD till today i.e whether one should completely focus on research all the time? Let me clarify:

I understand that PhD is about becoming an independent researcher and that is why most of the time should be spent on the research problem and reading relevant papers. But as everyone knows in research one picks up relevant tools along the way and a consequence of this is that one learns things only specific to the problem and may miss the global picture or may still have gaps in understanding.

For example, I work in Quantum Field Theory and often I am working in super specific areas then I wonder whether I should divide my time between research and reading background material of my field i.e excellent books on QFT like that of Coleman, Weinberg ( properly from page 1 onwards) etc( coursework is often fast, so It is not sufficient).

My advisor says that I should completely focus on my research problem all the time but I feel like by doing this I would not have a good grasp of the overall framework, QFT in this context.

What should one do? Devote all time to research or divide it between research and reading of important texts? Of course when I say divide the time, it is like 80-20 between research and parallel reading

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    Are you in a location with a seminar in your field so that you also get a sense of what is going on by listening to other people present their research? I found that I learned a lot of the broader ideas in the field through osmosis in this way. (But a couple weeks ago, there was something basic that I didn't know that tripped me up while reviewing a paper.) Sep 21 at 19:42
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    Normally I would say you should listen to your advisor. But, in this case, I'm wondering whether there is a mismatch between your ambitions and your advisor's ambitions (for you). The right strategy is probably different depending on whether you're aiming to just produce enough results for a dissertation and perhaps enough papers to get a permanent position that is mostly teaching and relatively little research or if you're aiming to eventually do research that makes you a Nobel Prize candidate. (Of course your aims should depend on your talent level!) Sep 21 at 22:31
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    I don’t have a full answer, and what I do have is anecdotal, but from experience the background research bleeds into your research problem quite a bit, and I would say is almost an extension of your research question. For me, it’s general relativity, and as I’ve come to better understand GR at its more fundamental levels, my more specific research topics have benefited greatly from new perspectives and new tools I can use because I better understand the fundamentals.
    – Justin T
    Sep 21 at 23:09
  • You should specify which country you are in. Expectations about the length of PhD programmes can vary significantly from country to country, and that will affect the answer. Sep 22 at 11:35

7 Answers 7

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My recommendation is to figure out roughly how much time it's reasonable and sustainable long run for you to think really hard (maybe this is one or two hours a day?), and then commit to spending that much time every day on your research problem. Then you want to also not waste the rest of your working day, even if it's not being spent on hard thinking. Learning stuff is one very reasonable use of this lower key time, another reasonable use is lightly skimming papers so you have a better idea of what's going on in the field, as is doing some research work that doesn't require serious thinking (sitting down and doing some calculation you know how to do, for example). That said, once you've gotten far enough to start writing papers or your thesis, I'd suggest prioritizing writing pretty heavily among these secondary activities.

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    One of the important things I realised during my PhD is that I can't work at 100% efficiency 100% of the time. I found that by procrastinating by doing "useful" things, rather than, say, er, idly browsing the internet, I'd become much more productive over a longer period of time. Maths inspiration only hits at odd times and infrequently so -- at least for me -- and knowing when to sit down, drop everything, and do some work was a really, really useful skill to develop. Seminars, reading around the subject, solving other interesting problems etc are all good examples of good procrastination.
    – Landak
    Sep 22 at 16:41
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I don't think there is a "one-size-fits-all" answer that will work for everyone. I think it's useful to be aware of two extreme scenarios, as well as a few practical considerations. Then you need to decide how to spend your time.

The first extreme is that you narrowly focus only on your research problem. For example, let's say you are computing electroweak loop corrections. You can spend all of your time learning how to use special software to calculate Feynman diagrams, intricacies of the Standard Model, and generally become an expert calculator. If you work hard and are lucky, you may produce several papers in your area. However, you may find it difficult to move into a new area, or to understand the context for what you are working on. By hyperfocusing, you may also not have the feeling of "joy" that comes from satisfying your curiosity and learning new things. On top of this, you may find your knowledge consists of a hodgepodge of unrelated tricks, instead of seeing and understanding interconnections between methods you would get learning things systematically.

The other extreme is that you spend all of your time reading a general book like Weinberg, cover to cover. (And it will take all of your time to read and understand every word in Weinberg). If this goes well, you will be exposed to a lot of topics and you will gain a systematic understanding of the foundations of the field. You will likely be able to understand research papers more quickly and ask better questions. However, you won't be directly solving a research problem and you will not be learning things on the cutting edge, which means you won't be making demonstrable progress toward your PhD. You should also be aware that Weinberg's book in particular is notoriously difficult to learn from. Often people say they use it as a reference, or come to it after they have learned the subject well from another book. There is a real risk of floundering, in the sense of spending a lot of time trying to understand a minute detail in a book, and then in the end discovering it is not really that important, and at the end of your effort you have nothing concrete to show for it.

Of course, you want to avoid these two extremes. Having said that, I think most PhDs are closer to the first extreme, than the second. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Your goal in a PhD is to become an expert in a narrow domain. That requires intense focus. I also have generally found that having a specific problem to solve will force you to read relevant literature more carefully and understand it more deeply than if you were just browsing that same literature abstractly.

Additionally, there are some practical considerations:

  • You may have funding tied to a tight timeline, in which case you will want to prioritize producing work that will lead to a thesis.
  • Your advisor may be unhappy with your rate of progress if you spend too much time reading a textbook and not enough on your problem, which may cause friction. Generally minimizing friction with your advisor will make other things easier (such as applying for jobs).
  • You may find that you can produce work at a rate your advisor is acceptable with while also doing readings on your own. You might even be more productive, since maintaining a fresh and interesting perspective on your field can keep you motivated and give you fodder for asking questions.
  • A common approach is to work simultaneously on two research problems. (You probably don't want to do more than this if you are the person doing the majority of the work and you are just starting out). This kind of naturally forces you away from both of the extremes above, since you will get a breadth of knowledge by having two focus areas, but you'll also avoid being "lost at sea" with nothing to show for it.

What I would probably recommend is establishing the rate at which you need to work to be productive in research and meet (even exceed) your advisor's expectations, and then fill in the remaining work time you have with outside studies.

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For the "initial years" of doctoral study the answer would be quite different in different places. For example, in US most students spend a couple/few years in advanced coursework preparing for qualifying examinations, so the question wouldn't arise here. But other places the research phase starts much earlier.

So, rephrasing it a bit, starting in the research phase of the degree, your advisor is approximately correct. Most of your time, almost all, should be spent on your research project(s) with readings and such as necessary to advance that research. Perhaps you do need to read somewhat widely in your field to do that.

However, reading in your narrow research topic area is natural for any academic. You need to keep up with what is happening and how it affects your own research.

There is a mental/psychological issue that comes in to play. If you spend too much effort on too narrow a subject too intensely, burnout is a possible result and you need to avoid that or it will set you back. You need to take breaks from intense study to do other things. Some of those things could be "lighter" reading, though still in physics. But you also need some exercise and sleep and human contact and ...

I doubt that any recommendation like 80/20 would be very valid in general and you need to work out your own work schedule. Let your body and your mind tell you what you need to do at the moment. Your mind will likely also work more efficiently if you give it a break now and then. The big ideas won't go away when you do this and the mind works subconsciously quite efficiently, but do something to keep the blood flowing if you want to be productive in the long run.

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I think you're looking at this a bit sideways. With your mentor, work out a reasonable schedule for your graduate work, with deadlines and milestone reviews. The two of you should agree on the deadlines and the targeted completion date.

Once that is done, you need to do whatever you need to do to meet those deadlines. If you're spending 100% of your time on this, and you are still falling behind, you need to sit down with your mentor and work out more realistic deadlines.

If you find you need to spend 80% of your time to meet the deadlines, then 20% of your time is available for more general studies.

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Vash, I can't agree more with the concern you brought up in your question.

I'm also doing Ph.D. I also have background projects. To make the long story short, here's what I came up with.

I analyzed my day: I was surprised how much time I was wasting.

I bought a planner. I planned my day. I specified the hours for each activity. That was a crucial point. Initially, I just planned the activities without specifying time for them. That didn't work very well. Once, I specified the time it made so much difference.

I allocated times for background projects (low percentage comparatively to my Ph.D. work).

I forced myself to follow the allocated times exactly. That was very difficult. But I kept forcing myself to release the pen from my hand immediately once the time comes for the next activity, no matter where I was. I, somewhat, got used to it with practice.

Switching between activities is very difficult. Immediate concentration on another activity is very difficult. A diet and sleep regime helps me make it possible. Sleep regime is 9pm-5am every day (except for weekends when I don't setup the alarm). The diet is my recent discovery. I'm following Dr. Berg's YouTube channel. The health and productivity outcomes from Dr. Berg's diet advice are amazing without exaggeration (even though I don't follow his advice exactly). My concentration raised to the levels I have never experienced before.

I've been practicing this regime for some time. I'm very pleased with the results. Not only it helped me to advance my background projects, but I also started doing more in my Ph.D. work.

To sum up, doing everything strictly with accordance to the allocated time and strictly following the diet and sleep regime helps me advance my background projects without hurting my Ph.D. work (and even to the benefit of my Ph.D. work). But the regime must be followed strictly.

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Your advisor's suggestion is a good one. You should completely focus on your research problem. As you progress, you will face some questions. Try to actively seek answers to those questions even when they are somewhat tangential to your problem. Also, one of the thesis goals is to put your research problem in the proper context. One learns about the context through discussion with a supervisor, attending seminars, and, of course, reading papers and books.

However, reading books from the beginning to the end at the Ph.D. stage may be a mistake. You must discuss and actively use the material to learn it well. Sometimes students are requested to do literature reviews and to seminars on these topics. This provides you with feedback and facilitates learning. That is the balanced way.

But, skimming through a book without actively using it is a waste of time.

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    "But, skimming through a book without actively using it is a waste of time." -- I mostly agree with this, but with the caveat that there are times I've found it useful to go through the table of contents of a book, or skim through a chapter, to build up a mental network of how different concepts are linked together, essentially making a skeleton. Then I can go back and "put meat on the bones" later by studying all the details. This is mainly useful to learn vocabulary or to get the overall picture, of course you shouldn't put too much time into this or believe you have really learned it.
    – Andrew
    Sep 22 at 13:16
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That depends on what year you are in. If you are in first or second year of grad school, then I'd say it makes no sense to work on anything non-trivial research wise, if you don't have the necessary background knowledge to even determine what problems are open, what problems are interesting (to you), and what problems actually have a chance of being solved. This is especially true for QFT. So I'd spend most of my initial years just catching up on background knowledge.

Besides the textbooks you have mentioned (which I'd also add David Tong's notes to), you need to determine what branch of QFT interests you (CFTs, constructive QFT, gauge theories, etc.), and find a recent review/survey paper, and focus on trying to understand every classical results being covered in there. A common pitful in theoretical physics research is spending a long time on a problem, and later realizing that it has been solved by someone decades ago.

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    But most PhD students don't need this background knowledge themselves, because they can count on their advisors to provide it to them. Your advisor hands you a problem that they tell you (hopefully correctly) is open and that they tell you (hopefully correctly) that you have a good chance of solving. Sep 22 at 17:12
  • @AlexanderWoo that's assuming that your advisor is competent, which is a big assumption
    – PeaBrane
    Sep 23 at 2:56
  • If your advisor is incompetent, you have bigger problems and should quit your PhD posthaste. Sep 23 at 3:29

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