ASTR 511 (O'Connell) Lecture Notes
TIPS FOR SUCCESS IN
Here are some tips for graduate students, which I think would be
echoed by most of my colleagues, on how to approach research in
A. Learn to ask the right questions
- In undergraduate school, you became good at answering questions
posed by others. Now, you have to learn to ask your own
questions. This is as important as any other aspect of
- Learn to rank issues for
overall importance to the field and for novelty.
B. Learn to assess solvability
- Learn how to determine which questions/problems are ripe for
- Solvability is a function both of the state of current knowledge and
existing observational capabilities.
- Many "interesting" problems are not ripe for solution.
- Evaluate signal-to-noise issues; these are often critical
to assessing solvability.
- Also assess the interests & strengths of competing
groups & their potential for beating you to a result.
C. Develop a healthily skeptical outlook
- Cultivated skepticism is the cornerstone of science
"He believed in the primacy of doubt,
not as a blemish upon our ability to know
but as the essence of
----- J. Gleick, writing about physicist Richard Feynman.
- Apply to: established results, new results, and (especially)
your own results
Be self-critical: make "reality check" your mantra.
Find your own mistakes before somebody else does.
D. Know the scientific background thoroughly
- Learn to critically dissect the
literature, based on original, not secondary, sources and
to integrate it into a coherent whole.
- For longer term projects (e.g. a thesis) it is important to learn
the entire history of your field. You need to know how others
got from "C" to "D" if you're hoping to go from "J" to "K." Among
other benefits, there are many excellent insights that remain
unexploited in the older literature.
- It is just as important to become familiar with the wrong
ideas and why they were wrong as it is to know the currently accepted
"right" ideas. There have been many more wrong ideas than right ones.
- Beware of the "emperor's new clothes." Always bring fresh eyes
to any subject.
Read the more important papers from hardcopy. Annotate them or make
written summaries of key findings, strengths & weaknesses. It helps
to keep copies of related papers together in a binder.
- In this area, your memory is one of your greatest personal
assets. The ability to absorb, organize, correlate, synthesize, and
recall large amounts of information is essential to a working
scientist. Your K-12 teachers should have spent more time on that.
Any fool can "look it up on the Internet."
E. Develop skill with ROMPs & SWAGs
- ROMPs & SWAGs = "rough order of magnitude problems" and "silly wild-ass
- Simple exploratory calculations are the best way to shape the
early stages of any research program.
- The first three ASTR 511 problem sets
contain good examples of ROMPs in basic observational astronomy.
- For an extended treatment, see, for example, S. Mahajan's MIT
F. Track your own progress
- Set milestones and regularly review your progress
towards them. Are you converging towards your goals?
- Keep a regular journal of your ideas (good
& bad). If you're engaged with your subject, there should
be entries on a ~daily basis.
- You will find it essential to also keep detailed logs/journals
concerning individual research projects. That includes tracking
software development and journaling interactive computing sessions.
G. Take quick advantage of new observational capabilities
- These are often the source of important new discoveries.
- A "new capability" can be as simple as large amounts of observing
time on an existing facility or a small upgrade such as a new type
of imaging filter or a higher dispersion grating in a spectrometer.
- You need a running start (and an informed assessment of the
competitive climate) to take advantage of early science in big new
projects like JWST or LSST.
H. Learn to write good observing proposals
- Success rates for proposals on important facilities are small:
typically in the range 10-40%.
- A compelling proposal must be clearly, persuasively, and concisely
written and must demonstrate:
- That the questions you are asking are important and interesting;
- That the program is technically feasible;
- That you are competent to execute it; and
- That it will provide a definitive answer to the questions posed.
- You must write for harried, non-specialist TAC members who
usually have only a few minutes to read each proposal and who
are looking for reasons to reject
- For details on planning and writing proposals in this
competitive environment, see my
"Tips on Writing Proposals in Astronomy".
- Practice writing proposals in conjunction with your
advisors before you leave the shelter of graduate school.
I. Understand your instruments well
- This will take a minimum of 2-3 observing runs with a given
- Learn their limits and how to push the envelope.
J. Understand analysis techniques well
- It is doubtful that your early reductions/analysis for a given problem will be
acceptable in the long run. Plan for iterations, possibly extensive.
- Test techniques on synthetic data sets where you know the answer.
- You will need to develop a good working familiarity
with statistical methods of analyzing observations and
K. Dealing with computers
- Computers are tools, not science
- Despite appearances, computers have not increased
the capacity of the human brain to absorb and process information.
You will have to work hard to distill and clarify what computers
are telling you.
- Don't trust and always verify. You can't really do this
unless you understand clearly how computers work, and this
You will almost certainly have to become a capable computer
programmer, not merely a user of pre-packaged software. It's
useful to know how to code in more than one language, assuming
the need arises naturally out of the science.
- Grad school in astronomy provides excellent exposure to
sophisticated applications programming and large data sets. If this
becomes your main interest and you decide on a career outside of
academic science that emphasizes computing, your best approach is to
obtain your astronomy degrees as quickly as possible, learning more
about computing in your spare time, and then focus all your energies
on the new field.
L. Dealing with advisors
- Most advice comes from long experience; don't
disregard it lightly. In troublesome areas, seek advice from several
- Look at any research project or task assigned you, no matter how
outwardly routine, as an opportunity to grow as a scientist beyond the
nominal boundaries. You may well have new insights or see new avenues
to exploit that your overloaded advisor has missed or ignored.
- In the course of a PhD project, you are expected to become
independent of your advisor and at least as knowledgeable
as s/he is on that subject. You should know what is the "next
step" before being told.
M. Dealing with groups
A glance at the ApJ will demonstrate the growing dominance of
group science. The rise of groups is a natural consequence of the
increasing scope and complexity of modern astronomical research. New
instruments are almost always shepherded by groups, which therefore
constitute a key avenue to new observational capabilities. Group work
is also an increasingly important mechanism for marshalling existing
resources to do large-scale science (e.g. the supernova
surveys, the deep fields, SDSS, etc).
Being a member of a large group in an active research area provides a
rapid education in how professional astronomy is conducted and also
cushions your initiation because substantial resources and expertise
are there to help you. On the other hand, you have to work harder to
establish a perspective and reputation independent of the group.
Successful professional groups are based on complementary
strengths, not mutual weaknesses (unlike the group learning that
is now fashionable in educational circles). Therefore:
Consult the history of "big physics" (accelerators, etc) for group
sociology. For instance, large groups breed institutional imperatives
for publicizing results, which is why the media often mistake
incremental results for fundamental ones.
- Develop a unique expertise, skill
- Produce; be responsible
- Think for yourself...but learn how to interact with other members
cordially and constructively
- Lead by example
- Be sure you develop a reputation/expertise that distinguishes
you from other group members. In practice that implies, at a minimum,
being lead author on some of the group's publications.
- A good goal by PhD time is to have published in the major
journals one paper for every year you've been in graduate
school. You should be lead author of some of these.
- Learn to write good, clear, concise scientific prose. Most entering
graduate students cannot do this.
- Consult style guides for tips, e.g.
the Guide to Science Writing
from the Journal of Young Investigators and The
Elements of Style by Strunk & White.
- The more practice, the better. Write up for yourself brief
reviews of the literature or summaries of your interim results in full
journal style. These serve as good writing practice, as drafts for
polished versions or presentations, and to place your accomplishments
in the context of the main issues you are trying to address. Ask
other students to read and critique your work.
- Learn to write well before you begin to submit work to
your advisors. You want them spending time on your ideas, not
grammar, spelling, or word usage.
- Be aware of the ``reader pyramid'': few people will read the
whole paper; more will read the introduction and conclusion; many more
will skim/read the abstract.
- Therefore, be sure the abstract contains all the key points, and
be sure the intro/conclusion are clear and complete. The conclusion
should emphasize what is new or unique about the work.
- Set high standards for yourself (and your co-authors) in
writing. Reputations are based on the number of good papers one produces,
not the total number of papers.
- Learn to give interesting and effective presentations on all
time scales from 5 minutes to an hour. Analyze and emulate others who do
- Real-time rehearsals are the only way to prepare well
for your early ventures in this arena.
Your rehearsals should include formulating answers to all the likely
questions, especially skeptical ones, from your audience. Try to view
your presentation as an outsider would.
- Unfortunately, you will need to learn PowerPoint or the
equivalent. Just bear in mind that PowerPoint is the messenger, not
P. Dealing with teaching
- The best way to understand a subject is to try to teach it
to somebody else. Volunteer to give research talks, tutorials,
paper reviews, etc., to your colleagues.
- Universities now expect viable job candidates to have some
experience with teaching, preferably undergraduate and in the form of
complete responsibility for development and delivery of at least one
course. At UVa your best opportunity for that is to teach in the
- Take any teaching assignment whether as TA or instructor seriously
and plan to do a good job. Among other things, that means learning
how to handle two disparate responsibilities (teaching and studying/research)
- If you are interested in what awaits you in teaching large
undergraduate courses, see
my lecture or
article on Facts of Life for New Teachers in the Astronomy
Q. Scientific Discovery, Scientific Careers
The list of tips above constitutes tactics; but what
about strategy? What is the best path to scientific discovery
or a good scientific career?
Broadly, there are two kinds of discovery: recognition of something
new or a definitive interpretation of known phenomena. The former is
easier for young people. For the latter, you usually need greater
exposure to the field. Although many "interpretational" discoveries
are theoretical, others are observational (e.g. Hubble's discovery of
Cepheid variables in M31, which instantly resolved the "island
universe" controversy; or the identification of gamma-ray bursts with
Scientific discoveries emerge from some combination of "the prepared
mind," resources, opportunity, and, inevitably, luck. There is
probably about equal weight to those four components, and there's no
way to successfully engineer them. But follow the chain in order.
The better prepared you are---the more you know and have produced---the
more likely it is that the good resources you seek will be available
to you. Opportunity may follow. You have to wait for luck. Whatever
form that takes, it's essential that you be able to recognize a
favorable coincidence of opportunity and luck, which means that you must
actively cultivate an alertness for them.
Discovery and innovation are rarely associated with very young
scientists. All the low-hanging fruit was harvested long ago. You
have a foundational mountain to climb before you can approach new
territory. In pop-psychology this is sometimes referred to as the
"10,000 hours" standard: it probably takes 10,000 hours of close
engagement with the field to become ready for real
contributions. You can't "think out of the box" until you know
what's inside it.
You obviously can't discover something if you aren't looking, so discovery
depends also on effort and persistence.
Careers? You need a plan, and you
need to think actively about it. Your plan should build on your
interests and inclinations, but it must be shaped by the realities,
economic and otherwise, of the field. You will require a number of
skills which you have only in embryonic form now, and part of your
plan must be to act deliberately to develop them further.
Brainpower in professional astronomy counts --- but less than it did
in your undergraduate career because (almost) everybody in the field
is bright and capable. Instead, self-motivation, hard
work, persistence, focus, efficiency, and good time-management are
critical to success.
Training in most graduate programs is "T-shaped". You are
expected to become acquainted with the basics of many subfields of
astronomy (the crossbar) while acquiring deep knowledge in at least
one (the upright). The whole "T" is important. The narrow/deep
component is essential to understanding how scientific research
actually progresses. But from a career standpoint, you must also
develop a broad understanding of the field and versatile skills that
are transferable to other research areas.
Your immediate aim by PhD time should be to become one of the
leading authorities on some area of significant current
interest. It is expected that this area will usually be of modest
scope, but when conference organizers are picking the most
knowledgeable younger speakers for review talks, you want your name to
be on the short list.
This means that you must not only have
important expertise but that others must know you have it. The
more you talk science with your graduate student colleagues, local
scientists, and outsiders, the better. The more you publish, the
better. Attend topic-oriented meetings as well as the large annual
AAS meetings and make as many contacts as practicable.
Keep in mind that the future leaders of the field are your
Research topics? Paradoxically, it is not necessarily best to get
into the currently "hot" subject areas. Those may be where the money
is and where your mentors are; but these areas tend to overproduce
PhDs, and there will be tough competition from experienced scientists.
Ideally, you want to be at the leading edge of a new wave of
research that peaks about ten years from now. But, obviously,
it's not easy to figure out what that might be. Some "hot" areas will
persist, but others won't. Seek advice on prospects for the next
decade before deciding on your primary research program.
No matter how promising
the field you choose to work in, keep developing those transferable
skills and interests; keep looking around the corner.
Last modified March 2018 by rwo
Text copyright © 2000-2018 Robert W. O'Connell. All rights
These notes are intended for the private, noncommercial
use of students at the University of Virginia.