As I get closer to the end of my PhD, I wanted to talk about why grad school sucks so much. For my first complaint, let’s talk about physics talks. I’m not referring to popular stuff like Stephen Hawking’s TED Talk or whatever. I’m referring to talks given by physicists to other physicists in their field.
By design, a physics talk starts out with a broadly accessible introduction, and dives into technical details that only two people in the audience understand. This is followed by a Q&A where those two people ask (apparently) extremely intelligent questions, and everyone else silently feels stupid as they listen to arguments over arcane details.
When I started out my PhD, approximately 0% of physics talks made sense. I thought that maybe when I got further into my PhD I would understand much more. Nope! Now, maybe 10% of talks make sense. And even that high rate comes from knowing when to avoid going to a talk in the first place.
The 10% figure, by the way, is just a number I pulled out of my ass. Obviously that’s not something you can easily quantify. How much of the talk do I need to understand? How strongly do I need to understand it? Which talks am I counting in the first place?
And if I could quantify it, would I want to? Maybe every other grad student in my position understands 30% of the talks they go to, and by saying 10% I’m publicly admitting to stupidity. I’m admitting that I’ve wasted a whole lot of my time, and the time of the speakers. I’m admitting that my entire academic career is a fraud. There’s no way I could know, because people don’t talk about it. Maybe everyone else is afraid too.
I’m working on the assumption that it’s not just me. Probably most grad students feel this way, more or less, depending on the field and the individual. And it pisses me off. Why do we spend so much effort getting the technical details of the talk correct, while ignoring the elephant in the room that nobody understands it? Why do we cater so much to that one professor? Why do we try so hard to make sure everyone feels like an impostor?
This sort of thing makes me feel like science is just awful. I can’t recommend anyone else become a scientist. I can’t be excited about outreach efforts, not to underrepresented minorities, not to anyone. I can’t respect Nobel laureates (because believe me, their talks are some of the worst). I can’t support pop science enthusiasm. And I hate the notion that physics is the most superior of all sciences.
You know what would be great? If we had more social science funding. Then social scientists could study the culture around science talks and figure out how to fix it. Because it’s fucked up.