Just what does a postdoctoral theoretical physicist do all day?

Coffee… mostly, I drink coffee.

A kindergartener once asked me, “why don’t you wear science clothes?” I gathered that she meant a lab coat. Then there is the utter surprise my neighbors show when I tell them—yes—I am on my way to work wearing sandals, shorts and a t-shirt. Take a moment and do a google image search of “scientist”. You have to scroll through several pages before you see a person not wearing a lab coat. So if I don’t wear a lab coat while staring into a beaker as if the colorful liquid inside contained a part of my soul, what do I do all day?

Generally speaking, a postdoctoral researcher (postdoc) is someone at a stage in their academic career between a graduate student and a professor. This usually involves traveling around the world working on short-term contracts. In theoretical physics the typical situation is to move several times over a period of 5–10 years before landing a permanent position as a professor or leave academia for an industry job.

While that sounds kind of horrible, as far as responsibilities go, it’s the best job in the world. I have the freedom of a graduate student, but I don’t have to write exams or engage in any of the administrative duties of a professor. I get to focus on my passion: research.

Now, you might be thinking “wait, pictures of physicists still have lab equipment surrounding them. Presumably, instead of beakers, you still have to be doing something technical with your hands.” No. Let me explain. There are two types of physicists: experimental and theoretical. The distinction is easy to make. Experimental physicists (experimentalists) spend at least some of their time in a lab building devices to probe and test hypotheses about the world. Theoretical physicists (theorists) do not. I am one of the latter.

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OK, so I don’t wear a lab coat, I don’t use beakers, I don’t build anything, I don’t even step foot into a lab, what exactly do I do?

What does the internet say:

Theoretical physicists have a fascinating job that combines observation with mathematics in order to create complex formulas that describe the workings of the universe around us.

Not bad, but still not very illuminating in terms of my day-to-day life. In a business sense, I do create products: journal articles. These are usually 5–15 page papers which summarize a successful result, which can takes months to years to obtain. What they do not contain is any semblance of the blood, sweat and tears which make up the chaotic mess that went into them.

This mess can broken down into four tasks:

  1. Discuss problems with colleagues
  2. Perform mathematical calculations
  3. Read journal articles
  4. Write computer software

I don’t do every task every day, but on average my time is about equally spent on each.

piechart_postdoc
A day in the life of a postdoctoral theoretical physicist.

Much of every day is spent discussing problems with colleagues. Sometimes I seek advice on the problems I’m working from a co-worker; sometimes I am providing advice to others; and sometimes I am discussing a problem we are jointly working on. These are often brainstorming session which involve scribbling notes on a whiteboard and plenty of coffee.

Next, I perform mathematical calculations. This involves a lot of paper covered in the kinds of symbols pictured above. You’ll notice there is no arithmetic. These are abstract manipulations of symbols according to some rules. The fun part is that I sometimes get to make the rules! Most of the work done in this category gets trashed due to dead ends or errors and the rest gets heavily compressed if and when a journal article is written.

In order to find out what things others have tried and what techniques I can use to solve a problem, I read journal articles written by other scientists. Finding the right articles is a skill on its own given that over 2.5 million scientific journal articles are written each year. Often I find myself skimming over papers, picking out specific pieces. Occasionally, I am asked by a journal to evaluate the scientific merit of another article. This process is called peer review and could very well be the subject of a future post.

Lastly, there is coding. I write computer software that helps answer the scientific questions I have. For example, with my long-time friend and colleague Chris Granade I co-wrote Qinfer, which is statistical software for debugging small quantum computers. You’ll see examples of this and other software projects in future blog posts.

So there you have it. A day in the life of a postdoctoral theoretical physicist.

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