CTP Norms and Expectations
The mission of the Center for Theoretical Physics is to drive forward our understanding of the fundamental properties of the universe and to help develop the next generation of researchers, educators, and leaders in nuclear physics, high energy physics, and quantum information. We endeavor to create a lively, collegial working environment that fosters collaboration, sparks novel ideas, and generates exciting discoveries. We also strive to uphold the Department’s Physics Values Statement, and anticipate that new members of the group will read this statement and do likewise.
The primary mission of our PhD program is for students to learn how to advance the frontiers of human knowledge, and to contribute their own piece to the puzzle for the first time.
CTP expectations directly flow from this sense of purpose. Generally, advisors individually set workplace norms and expectations based on the specific environment they wish to create for their own group. Below, we offer some general guidelines.
While theoretical physics can be done from anywhere, one of the key benefits of institutions like the CTP and MIT is that they bring people together in person. Being in the same space creates spontaneous interactions that can lead to new ideas and collaborations, and create a dynamic working environment. These broader connections are often an important part of a successful PhD and academic career. Thus, while working hours are flexible, many advisors feel that it is important that students/postdocs be present in the CTP for a non-negligible fraction of standard business hours to facilitate such impromptu discussions, as well as attending seminars and meetings. We certainly understand that your presence in the CTP is not possible 100% of the time (e.g. for childcare, daytime medical appointments, religious holidays, etc.). Also note that some faculty are okay with significant amounts of remote work. In general with all of these things you should talk about expectations with your advisor. In addition, if you have some ongoing extenuating circumstances that change your work patterns, your advisor will generally be happy to accommodate you — please do not hesitate to ask. And please do not come in when you are sick!
Graduate students should understand that a PhD program is a full-time commitment. Students are expected to devote 40 hours/week to their academic, teaching, and research program. Some people may find that certain commitments (e.g. homework, exams, giving a talk) lead these hours to fluctuate. In addition, many physicists feel passionate about their research topics and/or have specific career goals, and may choose to devote substantially more hours than this. An academic career, starting with a PhD, requires making personal choices about work-life balance, and we strive to support students in finding ways to be productive and fulfilled. You should plan on regularly talking with your research advisor about progress and expectations. The Physics Values Committee has developed a set of worksheets to help facilitate such conversations.
What counts as academics and work?
Postdocs and students engage in a wide variety of different physics-related activities, including but not limited to: research activities, required classes and exam preparation, physics seminars and socials (like the joint CTP/CMT tea, IAIFI coffee hours, Department colloquium cookies, etc), attending conferences and schools, serving on committees, auditing extra classes relevant to a research project, professional development, teaching assistantships, and mentoring junior physicists.
Seminars are highly valuable: you can hear about a wide range of new physics, learn by example how to give talks, and meet people whom you may consider working with one day. CTP faculty have a wide range of expectations for which seminars and group meetings their trainees should attend: this is important to ask of your research advisor when you join a group. First-year students are encouraged to attend seminars such as the Monday nuclear/particle seminar, the Wednesday string seminar, the Friday QI seminar, and the Thursday department colloquium, if they do not overlap with classes. Anyone in the CTP may sign up for any seminar mailing list; first-years especially may find this useful in searching for a good research fit and advisor fit.
It is important for your mental health to take breaks from physics; you will be more productive in the long run! That being said, MIT has stringent policies on the number of vacation days allotted to Postdocs and Grad students. Students and postdocs with fellowships may have different rules from their funding agency. Note that graduate school is different from undergraduate studies, in that students do not have the summer off. Summer is typically core research time.
Please ask your advisor for approval before booking travel for personal vacation. Note that many advisors prefer that their trainees do not take personal vacation during term time (though some do not mind). We also remark that it is common for physicists to add a vacation onto the end of a conference trip, but you must personally pay any difference in travel costs out of pocket. You should ask your advisor to tell you what conferences and/or summer schools it would be beneficial for you to attend.
A typical CTP faculty member holds a one hour meeting per week for each research project (though again this is advisor-specific). Our meeting schedules may differ from what you were used to at your previous institution. Just as you are engaged in a wide variety of physics activities, so too are faculty. We often have tight schedules, but we truly care about you. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you need something. Be sure to ask your advisor about their preferred method of communication (email, Slack, carrier pigeon), and please remind us a few days later if we miss a message! Other places to catch up informally include seminars, group meetings, informal CTP lunches, or simply saying hi at the coffee machine.
It is important to cultivate a wide network of many mentors to help guide you, including other students and postdocs. At this point in your career, it begins to fall on you, the mentee, to proactively seek out and conscientiously cultivate mentoring relationships, and build a large support network that can provide you advice and help propel you towards your personal goals. In turn, you can pay it forward by providing your own advice to the next crop of students and postdocs.