Top 10 questions for your potential PhD adviser/group

Everyone in grad school has taken on the task of picking the perfect research group at some point.  Then some among us had the dubious distinction of choosing the perfect research group twice.  Luckily for me, a year of grad research taught me a lot and I found myself asking group members and PIs (primary investigators) very different questions.  And luckily for you, I wrote these questions down to share with future generations.  My background as an experimental applied physicist showed through initially, so I got Shaun Maguire and Spiros Michalakis to help make it applicable for theorists too, and most of them should be useful outside physics as well.

Questions to break that silence when your potential advisor asks “So, do you have any questions for me?”

1. Are you taking new students?
– 2a. if yes: How many are you looking to take?
– 2b. if no: Ask them about the department or other professors.  They’ve been there long enough to have opinions.  Alternatively, ask what kinds of questions they would suggest you ask other PIs
3. What is the procedure for joining the group?
4. (experimental) Would you have me TA?  (This is the nicest way I thought of to ask if a PI can fund you with a research assistance-ship (RA), though sometimes they just like you to TA their class.)
4. (theory) Funding routes will often be covered by question 3 since TAs are the dominant funding method for theory students, unlike for experimentalists. If relevant, you can follow up with: How does funding for your students normally work? Do you have funding for me?
5. Do new students work for/report to other grad students, post docs, or you directly?
6. How do you like students to arrange time to meet with you?
7. How often do you have group meetings?
8. How much would you like students to prepare for them?
9. Would you suggest I take any specific classes?
10. What makes someone a good fit for this group?

And then for the high bandwidth information transfer.  Grill the group members themselves, and try to ask more than one group member if you can.

1. How much do you prepare for meetings with PI?
2. How long until people lead their own project? – Equivalently, who’s working on what projects.
3. How much do people on different projects communicate? (only group meeting or every day)
4. Is the PI hands on (how often PI wants to meet with you)?
5. Is the PI accessible (how easily can you meet with the PI if you want to)?
6. What is the average time to graduation? (if it’s important to you personally)
7. Does the group/subgroup have any bonding activities?
8. Do you think I should join this group?
9. What are people’s backgrounds?
10. What makes someone a good fit for this group?

Hope that helps.  If you have any other suggested questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

My 10 biggest thrills


BICEP2 results for the ratio r of gravitational wave perturbations to density perturbations, and the density perturbation spectral tilt n.

Evidence for gravitational waves produced during cosmic inflation. BICEP2 results for the ratio r of gravitational wave perturbations to density perturbations, and the density perturbation spectral tilt n.

Like many physicists, I have been reflecting a lot the past few days about the BICEP2 results, trying to put them in context. Other bloggers have been telling you all about it (here, here, and here, for example); what can I possibly add?

The hoopla this week reminds me of other times I have been really excited about scientific advances. And I recall some wise advice I received from Sean Carroll: blog readers like lists.  So here are (in chronological order)…

My 10 biggest thrills (in science)

This is a very personal list — your results may vary. I’m not saying these are necessarily the most important discoveries of my lifetime (there are conspicuous omissions), just that, as best I can recall, these are the developments that really started my heart pounding at the time.

1) The J/Psi from below (1974)

I was a senior at Princeton during the November Revolution. I was too young to appreciate fully what it was all about — having just learned about the Weinberg-Salam model, I thought at first that the Z boson had been discovered. But by stalking the third floor of Jadwin I picked up the buzz. No, it was charm! The discovery of a very narrow charmonium resonance meant we were on the right track in two ways — charm itself confirmed ideas about the electroweak gauge theory, and the narrowness of the resonance fit in with the then recent idea of asymptotic freedom. Theory triumphant!

2) A magnetic monopole in Palo Alto (1982)

By 1982 I had been thinking about the magnetic monopoles in grand unified theories for a few years. We thought we understood why no monopoles seem to be around. Sure, monopoles would be copiously produced in the very early universe, but then cosmic inflation would blow them away, diluting their density to a hopelessly undetectable value. Then somebody saw one …. a magnetic monopole obediently passed through Blas Cabrera’s loop of superconducting wire, producing a sudden jump in the persistent current. On Valentine’s Day!

According to then current theory, the monopole mass was expected to be about 10^16 GeV (10 million billion times heavier than a proton). Had Nature really been so kind as the bless us with this spectacular message from an staggeringly high energy scale? It seemed too good to be true.

It was. Blas never detected another monopole. As far as I know he never understood what glitch had caused the aberrant signal in his device.

3) “They’re green!” High-temperature superconductivity (1987)

High-temperature superconductors were discovered in 1986 by Bednorz and Mueller, but I did not pay much attention until Paul Chu found one in early 1987 with a critical temperature of 77 K. Then for a while the critical temperature seemed to be creeping higher and higher on an almost daily basis, eventually topping 130K …. one wondered whether it might go up, up, up forever.

It didn’t. Today 138K still seems to be the record.

My most vivid memory is that David Politzer stormed into my office one day with a big grin. “They’re green!” he squealed. David did not mean that high-temperature superconductors would be good for the environment. He was passing on information he had just learned from Phil Anderson, who happened to be visiting Caltech: Chu’s samples were copper oxides.

4) “Now I have mine” Supernova 1987A (1987)

What was most remarkable and satisfying about the 1987 supernova in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud was that the neutrinos released in a ten second burst during the stellar core collapse were detected here on earth, by gigantic water Cerenkov detectors that had been built to test grand unified theories by looking for proton decay! Not a truly fundamental discovery, but very cool nonetheless.

Soon after it happened some of us were loafing in the Lauritsen seminar room, relishing the good luck that had made the detection possible. Then Feynman piped up: “Tycho Brahe had his supernova, Kepler had his, … and now I have mine!” We were all silent for a few seconds, and then everyone burst out laughing, with Feynman laughing the hardest. It was funny because Feynman was making fun of his own gargantuan ego. Feynman knew a good gag, and I heard him use this line at a few other opportune times thereafter.

5) Science by press conference: Cold fusion (1989)

The New York Times was my source for the news that two chemists claimed to have produced nuclear fusion in heavy water using an electrochemical cell on a tabletop. I was interested enough to consult that day with our local nuclear experts Charlie Barnes, Bob McKeown, and Steve Koonin, none of whom believed it. Still, could it be true?

I decided to spend a quiet day in my office, trying to imagine ways to induce nuclear fusion by stuffing deuterium into a palladium electrode. I came up empty.

My interest dimmed when I heard that they had done a “control” experiment using ordinary water, had observed the same excess heat as with heavy water, and remained just as convinced as before that they were observing fusion. Later, Caltech chemist Nate Lewis gave a clear and convincing talk to the campus community debunking the original experiment.

6) “The face of God” COBE (1992)

I’m often too skeptical. When I first heard in the early 1980s about proposals to detect the anisotropy in the cosmic microwave background, I doubted it would be possible. The signal is so small! It will be blurred by reionization of the universe! What about the galaxy! What about the dust! Blah, blah, blah, …

The COBE DMR instrument showed it could be done, at least at large angular scales, and set the stage for the spectacular advances in observational cosmology we’ve witnessed over the past 20 years. George Smoot infamously declared that he had glimpsed “the face of God.” Overly dramatic, perhaps, but he was excited! And so was I.

7) “83 SNU” Gallex solar neutrinos (1992)

Until 1992 the only neutrinos from the sun ever detected were the relatively high energy neutrinos produced by nuclear reactions involving boron and beryllium — these account for just a tiny fraction of all neutrinos emitted. Fewer than expected were seen, a puzzle that could be resolved if neutrinos have mass and oscillate to another flavor before reaching earth. But it made me uncomfortable that the evidence for solar neutrino oscillations was based on the boron-beryllium side show, and might conceivably be explained just by tweaking the astrophysics of the sun’s core.

The Gallex experiment was the first to detect the lower energy pp neutrinos, the predominant type coming from the sun. The results seemed to confirm that we really did understand the sun and that solar neutrinos really oscillate. (More compelling evidence, from SNO, came later.) I stayed up late the night I heard about the Gallex result, and gave a talk the next day to our particle theory group explaining its significance. The talk title was “83 SNU” — that was the initially reported neutrino flux in Solar Neutrino Units, later revised downward somewhat.

8) Awestruck: Shor’s algorithm (1994)

I’ve written before about how Peter Shor’s discovery of an efficient quantum algorithm for factoring numbers changed my life. This came at a pivotal time for me, as the SSC had been cancelled six months earlier, and I was growing pessimistic about the future of particle physics. I realized that observational cosmology would have a bright future, but I sensed that theoretical cosmology would be dominated by data analysis, where I would have little comparative advantage. So I became a quantum informationist, and have not regretted it.

9) The Higgs boson at last (2012)

The discovery of the Higgs boson was exciting because we had been waiting soooo long for it to happen. Unable to stream the live feed of the announcement, I followed developments via Twitter. That was the first time I appreciated the potential value of Twitter for scientific communication, and soon after I started to tweet.

10) A lucky universe: BICEP2 (2014)

Many past experiences prepared me to appreciate the BICEP2 announcement this past Monday.

I first came to admire Alan Guth‘s distinctive clarity of thought in the fall of 1973 when he was the instructor for my classical mechanics course at Princeton (one of the best classes I ever took). I got to know him better in the summer of 1979 when I was a graduate student, and Alan invited me to visit Cornell because we were both interested in magnetic monopole production  in the very early universe. Months later Alan realized that cosmic inflation could explain the isotropy and flatness of the universe, as well as the dearth of magnetic monopoles. I recall his first seminar at Harvard explaining his discovery. Steve Weinberg had to leave before the seminar was over, and Alan called as Steve walked out, “I was hoping to hear your reaction.” Steve replied, “My reaction is applause.” We all felt that way.

I was at a wonderful workshop in Cambridge during the summer of 1982, where Alan and others made great progress in understanding the origin of primordial density perturbations produced from quantum fluctuations during inflation (Bardeen, Steinhardt, Turner, Starobinsky, and Hawking were also working on that problem, and they all reached a consensus by the end of the three-week workshop … meanwhile I was thinking about the cosmological implications of axions).

I also met Andrei Linde at that same workshop, my first encounter with his mischievous grin and deadpan wit. (There was a delegation of Russians, who split their time between Xeroxing papers and watching the World Cup on TV.) When Andrei visited Caltech in 1987, I took him to Disneyland, and he had even more fun than my two-year-old daughter.

During my first year at Caltech in 1984, Mark Wise and Larry Abbott told me about their calculations of the gravitational waves produced during inflation, which they used to derive a bound on the characteristic energy scale driving inflation, a few times 10^16 GeV. We mused about whether the signal might turn out to be detectable someday. Would Nature really be so kind as to place that mass scale below the Abbott-Wise bound, yet high enough (above 10^16 GeV) to be detectable? It seemed unlikely.

Last week I caught up with the rumors about the BICEP2 results by scanning my Twitter feed on my iPad, while still lying in bed during the early morning. I immediately leapt up and stumbled around the house in the dark, mumbling to myself over and over again, “Holy Shit! … Holy Shit! …” The dog cast a curious glance my way, then went back to sleep.

Like millions of others, I was frustrated Monday morning, trying to follow the live feed of the discovery announcement broadcast from the hopelessly overtaxed Center for Astrophysics website. I was able to join in the moment, though, by following on Twitter, and I indulged in a few breathless tweets of my own.

Many of his friends have been thinking a lot these past few days about Andrew Lange, who had been the leader of the BICEP team (current senior team members John Kovac and Chao-Lin Kuo were Caltech postdocs under Andrew in the mid-2000s). One day in September 2007 he sent me an unexpected email, with the subject heading “the bard of cosmology.” Having discovered on the Internet a poem I had written to introduce a seminar by Craig Hogan, Andrew wrote:


just came across this – I must have been out of town for the event.

l love it.

it will be posted prominently in our lab today (with “LISA” replaced by “BICEP”, and remain our rallying cry till we detect the B-mode.

have you set it to music yet?


I lifted a couplet from that poem for one of my tweets (while rumors were swirling prior to the official announcement):

We’ll finally know how the cosmos behaves
If we can detect gravitational waves.

Assuming the BICEP2 measurement r ~ 0.2 is really a detection of primordial gravitational waves, we have learned that the characteristic mass scale during inflation is an astonishingly high 2 X 10^16 GeV. Were it a factor of 2 smaller, the signal would have been far too small to detect in current experiments. This time, Nature really is on our side, eagerly revealing secrets about physics at a scale far, far beyond what we will every explore using particle accelerators. We feel lucky.

We physicists can never quite believe that the equations we scrawl on a notepad actually have something to do with the real universe. You would think we’d be used to that by now, but we’re not — when it happens we’re amazed. In my case, never more so than this time.

The BICEP2 paper, a historic document (if the result holds up), ends just the way it should:

“We dedicate this paper to the memory of Andrew Lange, whom we sorely miss.”

Of sensors and science students

Click click.

Once the clasps unfastened, the tubular black case opened like a yard-long mussel. It might have held a bazooka, a collapsible pole tent, or enough shellfish for three plates of paella.

“This,” said Rob Young, for certain types of light, “is the most efficient detector in the world.”
Continue reading

Squeezing light using mechanical motion

This post is about generating a special type of light, squeezed light, using a mechanical resonator. But perhaps more importantly, it’s about an experiment (Caltech press release can be found here) that is very close to my heart: an experiment that brings to an end my career as a graduate student at Caltech and the IQIM, while paying homage to nearly four decades of work done by those before me at this institute.

The Quantum Noise of Light

First of all, what is squeezed light? It would be silly of me to imagine that I can provide a more clear and thorough explanation than what Jeff Kimble gave twenty years ago in Caltech’s Engineering and Science magazine. Instead, I’ll try to present what squeezing is in the context of optomechanics.


Quantization of light makes it noisy. Imagine a steady stream of water hitting a plate, and rolling off of it smoothly. The stream would indeed impart a steady force on the plate, but wouldn’t really cause it to “shake” around much. The plate would sense a steady pressure. This is what the classical theory of light, as proposed by James Clerk Maxwell, predicts. The effect is called radiation pressure. In the early 20th century, a few decades after this prediction, quantum theory came along and told us that “light is made of photons”. More or less, this means that a measurement capable of measuring the energy, power, or pressure imparted by light, if sensitive enough, will detect “quanta”, as if light were composed of particles. The force felt by a mirror is exactly this sort of measurement. To make sense of this, we can replace that mental image of a stream hitting a plate with one of the little raindrops hitting it, where each raindrop is a photon. Since the photons are coming in one at a time, and imparting their momentum all at once in little packets, they generate a new type of noise due to their random arrival times. This is called shot-noise (since the photons act as little “shots”). Since shot-noise is being detected here by the sound it generates due to the pressure imparted by light, we call it “Radiation Pressure Shot-Noise” (RPSN).
Continue reading

Quantum Matter Animated!

by Jorge Cham

What does it mean for something to be Quantum? I have to confess, I don’t know. My Ph.D was in Robotics and Kinematics, so my neurons are deeply trained to think in terms of classical dynamics. I asked my siblings (two engineers and one architect) what comes to mind for them when they hear the word Quantum, what they remember from college physics, and here is what they said:

- “Quantum Leap!” (the late 80’s TV show)

- “Quantum of Solace!” (the James Bond movie which, incidentally, was filmed in my home country of Panama, even though the movie was set in Bolivia)

- “I don’t remember anything I learned in college”

- “Light acting as a particle instead of a wave?”

The third answer came from my sister, who went to MIT. The fourth came from my brother, who went to Stanford (+1 point for Stanford!).

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 12.15.21 AM

I also asked my spouse what comes to mind for her. She said, “Quantum Computing: it’s the next big advance in computers. Transistors the size of atoms.” Clearly, I married someone smarter than me (she also went to Stanford). When I asked if she knew how they worked, she said, “I don’t know how it works.” She also said, “Quantum is related to how time moves more slowly as you approach the speed of light, right?” Nice try, but that’s Relativity (-1 point for Stanford!).

I think the word Quantum has a special power in our collective consciousness. It’s used to convey science-iness, technology, the weirdness of the Physical world. If you Google “Quantum”, most of the top hits are for technology companies that have nothing to do with Quantum Physics (including Quantum Fishing Tackles. I suppose that half the time, you pull up a dead fish).

It’s one of those words that a lot of people have heard of, but very few really understand what it means. Which is why I was excited when Spiros Michalakis and IQIM approached me to produce a series of animations that explore and explain Quantum Information and Matter. Like my previous videos (The Higgs Boson, Dark Matter, Exoplanets), I’d have the chance to interview experts in this field and use their expertise and their voices to learn and to help others learn what amazing things lie just around the corner, beyond our classical understanding of the Universe.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 12.16.55 AM

This will be a big Leap for me (I’m trying to avoid the obvious pun), and a journey of exploration. The first installment goes live today, and you can watch it below. Like Schrödinger’s box, I don’t know what we’ll discover with these videos, but I know there are exciting possibilities inside. This is also going to be a BIG challenge. Understanding and putting Quantum concepts in visual form will be hard. I mean, Hair-pulling hard. Fortunately, I’ve discovered there’s a remedy for that.

Screen Shot 2013-06-11 at 12.17.20 AM

Watch the first installment of this series:

Jorge Cham is the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper (


Featuring: Amir Safavi-Naeini and Oskar Painter

Produced in Partnership with the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter ( at Caltech with funding provided by the National Science Foundation.

Transcription: Noel Dilworth
Thanks to: Spiros Michalakis, John Preskill and Bert Painter

Grad student life: high highs and low lows

Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, Caltech, 19 January 2013

Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, Caltech, 19 January 2013.

On January 18-20, Caltech was one of the host campuses for the annual Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. Nearly 200 women attended here, mostly physics majors from the western US. It was an exciting and fun event, packed with talks, panel discussions, lab tours, a poster session, and other activities.

One highlight was a screening of The PhD Movie, followed by a discussion with director Jorge Cham and the cast (real-life Caltech grad students Alex Lockwood and Crystal Dilworth, and undergrad Raj Katti). The movie, filmed on location at Caltech, provides a very funny look at the misery of graduate student life. You can get a pretty accurate impression of the movie’s tone by viewing the trailer. The discussion afterward featured poignant warnings about the pitfalls of graduate school, and emphasized the importance of having the right mentor.

I found myself reflecting on my own experience. Graduate school will sometimes deal grave blows to your self confidence, but it can also be a time of exhilarating intellectual growth. The highs are high but the lows are low.

One thing we try to do at Quantum Frontiers is provide a variety of perspectives on the graduate student experience by featuring our students as contributors. Today we’ll try something a bit different: a profile of grad student Debaleena Nandi from Caltech writer Ann Wendland.

Of Bravery, Support, and Breakthroughs
By Ann Wendland

Debaleena Nandi, in the lab as usual.

Debaleena Nandi, in the lab as usual.

In March 2008, a graduate student at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) named Debaleena Nandi heard Caltech physics professor Jim Eisenstein give a series of lectures on two-dimensional systems of quantum electronic matter. “I was very keen to take a peek into his lab,” she says—so keen that, with a friend by her side for moral support, she walked up to Eisenstein and asked if she could join his group for the summer. Eisenstein had noted her smart questions during his talks and said he was open to the idea. Still, he was surprised when he returned to Caltech and found she’d e-mailed him. A few months later, Nandi rented an apartment in Pasadena and left India for the first time.

Continue reading

Science Magazine’s Breakthrough of 2012

A few nights ago, I attended Dr. Harvey B. Newman’s public lecture at Caltech titled: “Physics at the Large Hadron Collider: A New Window on Matter, Spacetime and the Universe.” The weekly quantum information group meeting finished early so that we could attend the lecture (Dr. Preskill’s group meeting lasted slightly longer than two hours: record brevity during the seven months that I’ve been a member!) We weren’t alone in deciding to attend this lecture. Seating on the ground floor of Beckman Auditorium was filled, so there were at least 800 people in attendance. Judging by the age of the audience, and from a few comments that I overheard, I estimate that a majority of the audience was unaffiliated with Caltech. Anyways, Dr. Newman’s inspiring lecture reminded me how lucky I am to be a graduate student at Caltech and it also clarified misconceptions surrounding the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and the discovery of the Higgs, in particular.

Before mentioning some of the highlights of Dr. Newman’s lecture, I want to describe the atmosphere in the room leading up to the talk. A few minutes before the lecture began, I overheard a conversation between three women. It came up that one of the ladies is a Caltech physics graduate student. When I glanced over my shoulder, I recognized that the girl, Emily, is a friend of mine. She was talking to a mother and her high school-aged daughter who loves physics. It’s hard to describe the admiration that oozed from the mother’s face as she spoke with Emily–it was as if Emily provided a window into a future where her daughter’s dreams had come true. It brought back memories, from when I was in the high schooler’s position. As a scientifically-minded child growing up in Southern California, I dreamed of studying at Caltech, but it seemed like an impossible goal. I empathized with the high schooler and also with her mother, who reminded me of my own mom. Mom’s have a hopeless job: they’re genetically programmed to want the best for their children, but they oftentimes don’t have the means to make these dreams a reality. Especially when the child’s dream is to become a scientist. It’s a rare parent who understands the textbooks that an aspiring scientist consumes themselves with, and an even rarer parent, who can give their child an advantage when they enter the crapshoot that is undergraduate admissions. The angst of the conversation reminded me that I’m one of the lucky few whose childhood dreams have come true–it’s an opportunity that I don’t want to squander.

The conversation between two elderly men sitting next to me also brought back uncomfortable memories. They were trying to prove their intelligence to each other through an endless proceeding of anecdotes and physics observations. I empathized with them as well. Being at a place like Caltech is intimidating. As an outsider, you don’t have explicit credentials signaling that you belong, so you walk on eggshells, trying to prove how smart you are. I’ve seen this countless times, such as when I give tours to high schoolers, but it’s especially pronounced amongst incoming graduate students. However, it quickly fades as they become comfortable with their position. But to outsiders, every time they re-enter a hallowed place, their insecurities flood back. I know this because I was guilty of this! I spoke with the gentlemen for a while and they were incredibly nice, but smart as they were, they were momentarily insecure. Putting on my ambassador hat for a moment, if there are any ‘outsiders’ reading this blog, I want to say that I, for one, am glad that you attend events like this.
Continue reading