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Students: writing tips

This advice is aimed at masters and PhD students in STEM, who are writing their first few reports and papers in English. Some of the advice is specific to quantum information, some is specific to LaTeX, some to German natives speakers, but most is pretty general. I’m writing this as found myself repeating the same advice to generations and generations of students, before and after reading their drafts.

  1. Read books. Read books by native English speakers: novels, YA, sci-fi, fantasy, history, fiction and non-fiction, comics. Start with whatever genre you like. This is how you build intuition for grammar, story structure and vocabulary. Reading is mandatory.
  2. Read a style guide. Not as a prescriptive rulebook, but as an example of how people find conventions. I like the Guardian style guide, for example (follow that link for that vs which, a common hiccup for German-speaking students; check also H for half and hyphen).
  3. LaTeX macros and packages. Ask your supervisor if they have a file of macros and template they normally use; eventually you’ll want to write papers with them, and it’s easier if they don’t have to adapt to your macros. You can also download the source code of one of their recent papers from the arXiv and take the macros from there. (Still, I’d ask first, just in case they didn’t write that particular paper.) You may still decide that their conventions are a hot mess and want to define your macros from scratch, but it’s good to check first, as you’ll have to explain them how to use your commands.
  4. Decide who your target reader is. Ask your supervisor: whom am I writing for, what background can I assume? For student projects that I supervise, this is “the student who’ll come after you to follow up on your work, or on a related topic.” That is: someone who knows as much as you did when you started the project (for example, someone who took one or two quantum information courses but knows nothing on your specific topic). You have probably done a thorough bibliographic research to get the basics of the topic of your project; please include a review of the topic with all these basics needed to understand your work. This way the next student can read your report in a self-contained way, and it can be the first step towards their building up on your results. As a nice side effect, if the review part of the project is very good, it may be useful for other people and sometimes it can be published independently. Now, of course this doesn’t necessarily hold if you are writing a paper aimed at experts, so ask your supervisor.
  5. Formulas are part of the sentence. As such, they require punctuation, even if they are in their own line. For example, now we show that 2 = 1 + 1, and also
    4 = 2 + 2,
    3 = 2 + 1.
    Note how I didn’t write “we show that: ” with a colon, just as I wouldn’t write “we show that: pigs don’t fly.”
  6. Have a running example. Especially if your work has many definitions and abstract results, have an easy, intuitive, grounding example from the beginning helps the reader follow what (and why) you’re developing the framework in a certain way. Every time you have a new result or definition, show us how it applies to the example. This is doubly important for talks. Take the simplest example you can find that still shows what’s interesting about your approach: an ideal gas, a couple of qubits, Alice and Bob sending an encrypted letter, the picture of a cat.
  7. Intuitions before definitions. See above. Give the reader a reason to care about the upcoming definition; usually best done through examples, but sometimes you can find another way to frame it.
  8. Shorter sentences. Yes, all rules are made to be broken, but if you routinely have four-line sentences, you have a problem. Read each paragraph and see if it’s easy to parse the sentence. Long sentences are ok if they’re parsed sequentially, that is if the reader doesn’t have to keep the whole thing in their memory in order to process the meaning of the sentence.
  9. Name your people. It is just so much easier to read, say, a cryptographic protocol between Alice and Bob than between agents A1 and A2. You can stay abstract in the definitions and theorems, but for examples and explanatory text between formal math environments, name your agents, and stick to those names throughout the document. It doesn’t need to be the standard Alice, Bob, Charlie and Eve, and it’s refreshing to see more diverse examples; just be consistent after you’ve introduced them for the first time. Pro-tip: if you have two agents interacting often it helps if they have different pronouns, so that it’s unambiguous whom you’re referring to, without always having to write their names (“after Alice sends him the qubit, Bob measures it and announces the basis choice through their public authenticated channel”).
  10. Don’t default to him. Few things are more annoying than reading a paper where the writer is always referring to an abstract physicist, experimenter, or even the reader, as “him”. There’s a fascinating historical and cultural context to why this is annoying (a long tradition of taking STEM as the default domain of men), but you’re probably more interested in knowing how to avoid making your readers feel excluded and alienated. You have two options: use the gender-neutral singular they (“after the physicist measures the qubit, they have to process the outcome classically”), or use a variety of pronouns throughout the document. For example, “an observer may wonder what the state of the qubit was before she measured it” and later in a new section “the agent may try to decode the message he received” or “we can now make an educated guess for the final state.” These hypothetical placeholder scientists that only come up once don’t need to be named, though there’s nothing wrong with doing so. “We” is such a nice pronoun: it makes the reader feel included in your journey of discovery.
  11. Get to the point. Tell us what you’re going to achieve in the document within the first two sentences. There is time to motivate it and give the big picture right after, but an expert reader (like your supervisor or a referee) will want to know immediately what your results are. Often this can be done by putting the abstract up front. If for some reason that’s not possible, start the introduction with this.
  12. Hunt and destroy weasel words. Read the wikipedia article on this. Half of my comments on student drafts are just scratching out “importantly”, “scientists think” and “it is trivial to show” bits. Show, don’t tell.
  13. Take care of your bibliography. This may sound like nitpicking but it’s actually mandatory for any publication venue, so the sooner you get this right, the least painful it will be in the long run. All published articles cited need clickable DOI links (use \doi in your bib file — you’re using a bib file, right?). As a matter of courtesy to the reader, include clickable links to all possible references (arXiv, talk recordings, conference website, publisher page for books, GitHub repo, author’s website for lecture notes). If you want to preserve upper case letters inside a title, use curly brackets: \title{A summary of {L}\’idia’s opinions on style}. If possible, follow the same naming convention throughout the bibliography, for instance on whether to show the full names of authors or just their family name (careful there, as conventions vary around the globe). Personally I prefer to go with the way the authors put it on their paper; it just shouldn’t be arbitrary due to the quirks of the software you used to import the bib reference. Check authors’ preferences for the spelling of their names (you can compare the compiled version of your bibliography to the way their names are written on the arXiv or journal).
  14. Figure captions should stand on their own. We like to think that readers will patiently take our hand and read our papers from the introduction to the conclusions. In practice, most readers will read the abstract and then skim the paper, looking first at the pictures and reading their captions. Therefore, the captions should give them enough information to understand the picture (within reason). So don’t just write “Fig. 1) Example of the key distribution protocol” in the caption and leave the description only in the main text, say “Fig. 1) Key distribution protocol: Alice prepares a qubit in one of four states (…) ” .
  15. More pictures. Whenever something takes many words to explain, try also showing it with a picture. This will help give an intuition of what your maths are trying to express, and you can reuse the figures to explain things quickly in a talk. Some things are obvious to draw: the setting of an experiment, the architecture of a neural network, a quantum circuit, a space-time diagram. But abstract concepts can also benefit from this, for instance when you have a series of maps between different spaces (think of the Stinespring dilation, for a simple example), it can help to have a picture where each space is a square, demonstrating the inclusions, and the map is drawn as arrows. Sometimes it seems impossible to draw a very formal definition or result, but you can still draw how it applies to your running example. The drawing style doesn’t matter, as long as it’s clear. You can have a first shot just taking a photo of a hand-drawn sketch to get your supervisor’s ok before you invest too much in it.
  16. Run pictures by a colour blindness simulator. Do this for the final version of your pictures: there are many colourblind researchers, and you want your figures to be accessible. Ten years ago I might add “see how they look in black and white” but most papers are read on screens these days. I might be wrong, let me know! [Edit: indeed some people reached out to say that they still print papers, so make the figures legible in black and white, at least for the arXiv version. For example, if your plot has lines of different colours and that’s important, make sure they also have different dash patterns or thickness. If you must have very colour-heavy figures that may eat up someone’s toner, one option is to put them all on the same page (without normal text in it) and add a footnote to that effect, so that people can skip that page when printing.]
  17. Lídia Hates Camel Case. Others disagree. Don’t feel pressured to follow my pet peeve. To me, a title or section title in camel case is saying This Text Is Not That Interesting So I Need Big Letters To Get Your Attention.
  18. Lídia hates double column. It’s just super impractical to read on screens. If you’re my student, please use single column. [Edit: if you like reading papers on your phone or on small screens, use the arXiv Vanity, which converts arXiv papers to responsive html. It’s better than scrolling down, then right, then up again, which you do if you try to read it in double column.] [Second edit: dear student, sooner or later you will find out that researchers have strong opinions on single vs double column, with both sides providing reasonable, irrefutable arguments. It’s like a spontaneous symmetry break. The best way to survive this until you’re senior enough to have your own stubborn opinion and can impose it on your coauthors (one of the privileges of being around for a while) is to ask your supervisor what they prefer, and roll with that.]
  19. LaTeX spacing peculiarities. Use ~ before \cite, \ref and after periods that are not full stops, e.g.~\cite{this}, i.e.~you know what I mean, as shown in Fig.~\ref{fig:that}. This makes sure the thing before and after the ~ are in the same line and with a standard space between them, and not the long space that comes after a full stop. You can also use e.g.\ just a backslash, if you don’t necessarily want them in the same line and only care about the spacing (but for references you want them in the same line). Use \dots, not … .
  20. Informative table of contents. If your report or paper has more than a handful of pages, add a clickable table of contents before or after the introduction. At the very least, detail the structure of the document at the end of the introduction. It’s not a mystery thriller, let us know where you are going.
  21. Notation table. If your report is interdisciplinary (for example, a project on relativity for a quantum information group), include a table of notation at the start. If it becomes a paper, you can move the table to the appendix.

Thanks: Some of this advice I picked up over the years from here and there, and I’ll add references here as I recall them. Thanks to everyone who sent comments that made it to the list: Johan “we” Åberg , Nuriya “spoilers” Nurgalieva, Ernest “spacing” Tan, Sabine “toner” Hossenfelder and Bruno “punctuation” Montalto.
Thanks also to people who have given me advice specific to papers, like Howard “a paper is a story” Wiseman and Sandu “one idea, one paper” Popescu, and advice about the backend of writing papers, like Eloísa “one bib to rule them all” Grifo and Matt “but not a super large bib” Leifer (see below).

Disclaimers:

  1. Because this is specifically about writing and the presentation of your report from the perspective of the reader, I’ve left out backend matters: how to organise your macros (I have a file called packages.tex and another called macros.tex that I bring to every paper) and bibliography (a master .bib file to rule them all, in my case), or how overleaf is the best thing since sliced bread for collaborative paper writing (git is best left for software).
  2. There is also very good advice for papers that doesn’t necessarily apply to student reports: this is because student projects are limited to a fixed time window, while a paper tells a single story. For example, a report shows what you’ve achieved in six months, and from there 0-2 papers can stem, depending on how many self-contained stories one can extract from that. By the way, that number means very little in terms of your abilities as a researcher! Research is unpredictable, and sometimes it takes a few more months after the project to find results worth publishing, or the conclusion may be “we don’t have the tools to tackle this topic for now”, and that’s all valid.

How to baby – start here

Hi! As I’ve managed to keep my kid alive for nearly a year and a half now, I thought I’d write up a bit my experience and tips, in case it is useful for someone out there. Mandatory disclaimer: what worked for me may very well not fit you, and anyway there are a trillion ways to raise healthy kids. My general attitude has been “this is quite a ride, so let’s try to make life as easy as possible.”

Some suggestions are specific to Switzerland, but most are more general. The relevant context is that I was a single mum during the pregnancy (single pre-mum?) and the first months of the kid’s life, so this should apply to some single parents. I was also very lucky health-wise and with my support network.

Stuff to buy

Books: Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet. Much has been written about this data-driven take on pregnancy and infancy. Trust me, it helps so much. Get them early on in the pregnancy, and you will have a much more relaxed experience. Expecting Better has a blind spot about planned c-sections, more on this below. After the birth: Precious Little Sleep by Alexis Dubief. 

Podcasts & online advice: To Birth and Beyond, by Jessie Mundel and Anita Lambert. They are super inclusive and talk about all matters related to pregnancy, child birth and the post-natal period, from mental and physical health to all sorts of logistics. Once the baby is a few months old: Respectful Parenting by Janet Lansbury (if you don’t like podcasts, her website has all the transcripts). Slate’s Care and Feeding advice column is excellent, and feels like a window into the kid’s future years. 

You will thank me later: noise-cancelling bluetooth headphones, foot massager, vibrator, cushions, audiobooks, meditation app. You may think that some of these items can be replaced by the organic equivalent, but when you stumble on demand-and-supply mismatches, these items go a long way to keep everyone sane. For example, I had swollen feet every day of the last trimester of pregnancy.

Basic economics of baby stuff: if an item’s physical half-life is much longer than the baby’s usage of it, parents will pop up from everywhere trying to pass them on to you. You don’t need to buy these items. Examples: clothes, cribs, toys, some changing tables. Relax, and if these don’t come to you, ask on social media (eg facebook groups for resales). It will rain onesies. I bought vacuum bags, sort the clothes by size and stuffed them in a drawer. Every couple of months I open the drawer, take out the next bag of clothes, and pass on the old ones to my friends who have a younger kid.  Conversely, stuff that doesn’t significantly outlive the baby’s usage of it does not easily trickle down to new parents. Examples: cloths, bibs, bottles, Tripp Trapp chairs, those changing tables that convert into desks. The small things make great cheap presents and you can’t really go too wrong or have too many, so suggest them to friends.

Nappies and wet wipes: Buy them online in bulk. Friends: if you don’t know what to give new parents, give them nappies of a size a bit larger than now. 

Transporting the baby: I inherited a beautiful buggy from a friend, but I only used it in the first couple of months, while recovering from the c-section. After that I’ve always used a carrier (in this case the Ergobaby 360 Air). At 15 months and 12kg, it’s getting a bit much, but shortly before his birthday I got a baby seat for my bike (Thule RideAlong) which is great and should last a few years. At 14 months I got him a little scooter, and while it’s a learning process, he definitely enjoys it. I decided to to bypass strollers because there’s lots of steps in my building, not so much space in public transport, and I’m quite clumsy — for me the carrier is just more practical. But this depends on your circumstances and lots of people are happy with them! 

We were still experimenting with the riding gear back then.

Baby sleep: had I known what I know today, I would have bought a baby “dondolo” (a sort of swing, something like this). You can use it for the first 4-6 months (until they start crawling), and it’s magic to make the baby sleep. Childcare people know all about it. Also, sleeping bags for the baby — in general I recommend following the suggestions of Precious Little Sleep. After that, a crib the baby can’t climb. As it happened, he slept in my bed for the first eight months or so, which was super sweet at first… but my life improved greatly for me once I moved him to the crib and into his own room. 

Social

So. This whole thing has many, many moments of deep loneliness. From what I hear, this is true even for partnered people, which may be unexpected at first, and it may be good to go into it knowing that no matter how loving people around you are, it will sometimes feel scary, crushing and… just lonely. It will be ok, and it helps to prepare. You will need the following categories of people: 

Your people: partner, friends, family. Let them know that sometimes you will just need hugs, tea and a mountain of pillows to lie on. Sometimes you will need to go for a walk and hear about something, anything else. Often you’ll need them to bring you food and distractions, or an ear to listen. Ask for support. 

People going through the same: these people you find through social media (local facebook mum and parenting groups, reddit) or by asking friends with kids. You want to be part of a group of people with similar due dates who meet now and then to share experiences. I’m part of such a cohort: we found each other on facebook and one of them created a lovely WhatsApp group. We met before the babies were born, sent out photos as they started coming, shared loads of local tips (like emergency contacts, paediatrician tips, cafés with comfy chairs and changing tables, activities for rainy days)… But it’s mostly just relaxing to know these people who are going through similar experiences at the same time. That thing that none of your friends gets? They’ll get it. 

Neighbours with kids of the same age: priceless.

Families with young kids: for spoilers, and to let you know that it will be all right. One of the things that helped me the most during my pregnancy was hanging out with a friend and her two-year old kid. 

Visitors are only allowed if they bring food. Start enforcing this on the third trimester of pregnancy (earlier, if it’s a tough one), and keep it on for as long as you manage to get away with it. If someone forgets to bring food, no problem! They can order in, or make up for it by cleaning or holding the baby while you shower. Seriously, it may sound petty now but please enforce this; it’s about your energy and mental health. If anyone complains you can send them to me. 

Good surprises

Changing nappies is trivial. The first week is tricky, because that green poop of the first week (meconium) is super sticky, and you think “oh well, I guess this is love” while you scrub, the baby cries, and soothing jazz fills your noise-cancelling headphones (see, they are useful), but then babies transition to normal(ish) poop and I swear, it’s so easy. Also, in the beginning they hate being naked and cold, and will cry their lungs out, and this gets better in the first couple of months. 

Physically, everything gets so much easier immediately after the birth. I couldn’t stand up for a day, and it took a week until I could proper walk, there was this whole new human being needing me full time, I was bleeding for two weeks and on pain killers for three, everything was a bit scary, breastfeeding took a while to work out and hurt like crazy at first, but y’all… I could breathe! Mere existence wasn’t tiring, and my metabolism normalised! Sleeping was comfortable without a pillow nest! There’s a lot to be said for not having a small person squeezing your organs from the inside. 

Babies are relatively portable.

There’s a lot you can do while the baby is small, like going on hikes, visiting museums, some level of exercising, meeting friends (if safe). In general anything that’s about walking outside will be tolerated, even enjoyed, by the little one. Things the baby won’t be happy about: opening your laptop and trying to work.

The kid was cute from the start but he started being fun at around 7 months. Once they start crawling they are just so much happier! It’s been getting better and better since then. Hold on during these first few months, think of them like bootcamp, and know that this too shall pass. Promise. 

There was only a short window between “I can take him everywhere and he’ll sleep on the café’s table” and “I can take him everywhere and he’ll sit on the café’s highchair.” That window coincided with the first lockdown of 2020. 

Sleep training works, and life is just so much better when you can sleep through the night. 

Maybe I’m lucky, but I feel that selective memory (plus sleep deprivation) leads to us forgetting the bad stuff. I vaguely remember thinking “I’m never going through this again” at eight months pregnant, “surely all second children are accidents” when the bub was a couple of months old and “argghhh how do people survive this, where is my brain” during the lockdown around six months. And now, now I find myself fondly thinking “ah maybe the second way around it would be much smoother, maybe making another little person would be fun” a few times a week. Go figure. 

Your body recovers. Functionally I can do everything just as well as before the pregnancy. Scars heal. It’s ok to take it slow. Journey before destination. 

C-section scar after a year. That’s all.

The internet knows it all. There are online communities for everything, there’s solid medical information out there, and googling “what colour poop 3 week baby” is strangely reassuring.

Best decisions

Having a planned c-section. If this is possible in your country, please look into in. “Natural” child birth is a lottery where the best outcome is “hours of pain” and the worst go from vaginal tears to emergency c-section, PTSD, internal damage and all sorts of complications. It’s infuriating that pregnant people aren’t given more information about other options. Here I could opt for a planned c-section for free, but the briefing with doctors where they explained the risks  (and tried to dissuade me) was lacking, to say the least: they list all the possible consequences, but not the associated probabilities. For example: “there could be this rupture here which leads to problems with a second pregnancy.” ‘Ok, what is the probability of that happening?’ “About one in a thousand.” And so on. If I hadn’t asked, they would have left that out. Complications are much, much more likely in vaginal births, but women who choose to have one don’t get the talk to discuss risks, maybe because it’s taken to be the default option, and partly because the healthcare system tends to dismiss women’s pain and experiences. One day I’ll wage a war agains the whole industry that glorifies “natural methods” and shames women out of even learning about alternatives. My experience: the surgery was relatively quick and painless, and the baby was totally fine. Recovery didn’t take significantly longer than that of vaginal births; I was dancing in less than two weeks, and knew what to expect. Your body, your choice, but please research all the options and don’t let yourself be pressured by anyone else, family included. 

Formula: It took me a couple of months to see this, but then I started making very liberal use of baby milk formula. Pumping is… tiring, and you need to be lucky with the timing (ideally you’d want a 1h cushion between pumping and breastfeeding the baby, and if he ever gave me a 2h break I’d rather sleep). I breastfed for a little over a year, but complementing with formula helped me take breaks (see below). Whatever formula you buy will be fine, these things are highly regulated; for research on this read Cribsheet. In Switzerland I use Bimbosan bio soya, which is vegan. 

Baby-led weaning is great. You’ll want to cover the floor in a two-meter radius.

Taking at least one hour a day of personal time away from the baby, from the beginning. You’ll need this. For me it was leaving him with a nanny and going to teach tango or just out for a coffee (pre-pandemic). If you have a partner, take shifts where one of you gets to leave the home and not be disturbed for one or two hours. Personal time must be conquered from childcare like Dutch land from the relentless sea. These breaks refreshed me and essentially saved my sanity. Yes, sometimes the baby cried when I left (I am his favourite person after all) but having a live human and not a zombie for a mum was much more important in the long run. Using breaks for sports and dance was particularly clever. By the way, formula helps to leave the baby alone. 

Starting childcare very early: kid has been going to nursery since he was four months old. This has been amazing for everyone. They are professionals, have lots of kids around for company, activities that keep him engaged, playful and learning, and I… I get to work and be a person. He’s happy to be there within five minutes of drop-off, and happy to see me in the evening. They observe his development and tell me about his day. It’s amazing. If you can afford it, I recommend it, even if it’s only a few days a week at first. Again, formula helps here! 

Taking “this is a long game” as a guiding principle in what regards the baby’s bio father. I only found out I was pregnant at five months (long story), we had split up four months prior and live in different countries. This wasn’t easy for either of us. Was there mutual resentment? Some, how could it not? The news caught us off guard and changed everything, just when we thought we were free. Focussing on kindness and “this is what I need from you now, let’s see how things develop” was challenging at best, but it was a good approach. The key was: venting with friends, keeping things as friendly as possible between us. Not as in pretending that we were ok; just an acknowledgement that it was a difficult and awkward situation, and that we were doing our best trying to take it easy.  What worked for us: agreeing on an alimony plan, visits every few months, and a flexible attitude. I have full custody and no unrealistic expectations on his role – we provide opportunities for him and the kid to get to know each other, and then it will be up to them how close they want to be. If you’re in such a situation: you’ll be ok. The bitterness goes and if you’re lucky, after a while you can reforge a friendship. Also, whenever your former partner does or says something disappointing, you get to think “wow, I’m so glad this is not my problem anymore,” and that’s amazing.

I’m not sure how this advice applies to couples. The nicest thing about being a single mum was not having to manage the baby and negotiations about how to raise him and a romantic relationship all at the same time. Now I’m seeing someone who loves the kid to bits. It’s wonderful! And… oof, not trivial to navigate. I may write again when we figure it out (cue to seasoned parents laughing at our innocence). 

Continuing therapy: Given the circumstances of the pregnancy and my history, I was quite scared of falling into postpartum depression. To address this, I booked regular therapy appointments during and after the pregnancy. This was a good call, like a safety net. I was lucky and felt generally good, but it was nice to know that if I slipped there would be medical help around the corner.

Taking life with a laugh: easier said than done. I had my moments of “oh no, my body mutated into this glorified medical device, my brain melted, I’m alone and stuck with a baby, I will never be free, happy and loved again.” And yet. Life goes on, love happens, laughter returns. The pain is real and runs deep, but give it time. Lean on your support network, accept all help, take time for yourself, read lots of escapist sci-fi, lower your hygiene standards, and, you know, trust that Spring will come. 

Indulging in goofy animal outfits is underrated.

Walburga’s Zopf

Zopf is a kind of fluffy sweet braided bread that the Swiss eat on weekends.

My friend Walburga makes a vegan Zopf that is too good not to share.

Zoooopf!
True beauty is on the inside.

Requirements

  • Tools: bread machine and oven
  • Working time: 15min tops (if you have a bread machine)
  • Total time: a day (overnight soaking, 2h in bread machine, 10min braiding if you’re anything like me, 40min baking)
  • Difficulty: minimal
  • Nutritional value: this is for Saturday mornings. The question does not apply.

Ingredients

  • 500g flour (Zopf flour if possible: it’s a blend of 80% white and 20% wholemeal flour, to the best of my German)
  • a bunch of [chia and/or flax]  seeds
  • [3 dL + a bit for soaking] [soy/oat/rice/whatever] milk
  • 1 table spoon sugar
  • 1.5 tea spoons salt
  • 20g yeast (in emergencies I’ve mixed yeast and baking soda and it was fine)
  • 60g margarine
  • optional: a bit of maple syrup

Preparation

  • Let the seeds soak in the bit of milk overnight in the fridge (experience shows that it’s ok to forget them there for a week). If it gets gooey, that’s a good thing.
  • Warm up the soaked seeds + all the milk.
  • Throw all ingredients in the bread machine and select setting “dough” (meaning it kneads and lets it rest and grow, but does not bake; typically this takes a couple of hours). If you are doing this by hand, knead it and leave it like you would do with bread (and good luck).
  • Optional: let it rest another 30min (haven’t properly tested the effect of this).
  • Turn on the oven: 200 C. Put some vegetable paper over an oven tray (you can reuse it forever).
  • Braiding: Split the dough in two, call them A and B. Roll each part to a long cylinder of some 4cm diameter. Place A horizontally and B on top, vertically, in a cross. Bring the left side of A (A1) over the lower side of B (B1). From now on, there are different conventions (meaning I never get it quite right), and I think I do something as follows. Bring the right side of A (A2) over A1. Bring B1 over A2. Bring B2 over B1. Continue as it looks the least wrong until you run out of rolls.
  • Optional: brush the top with maple syrup (this is just to make it shiny).
  • Bake for 20-40min, depending on your oven (I normally go for 40min).
  • Marvel! Let it cool a bit before eating with sweet or salty spreads.

Finding a PhD

I often have master students asking me for advice in finding a PhD position. I tried to make  a list of things to look for in a supervisor, in this case before an interview. Comments are welcome, in particular if you don’t agree with something, or if you have more suggestions! See also this guide by Tara Brabazon.

It’s good to keep in mind that job interviews go both ways. You will spend at least three years with your supervisor, so you should be picky.

Here is what I came up with:

  • do they have a vision and insight into their field? *
  • do you get along well at a personal level? (trust your intuition)
  • do you admire them academically? *
  • are they technically strong? *
  • do they care about their students?
  • do they have time for students?
  • are they relatively relaxed about rules? (if this is important for you)
  • are they engaging in conversation outside physics? (idem)

* These things might be tricky to evaluate if you are relatively new to the field. Things that help:

  • Read a couple of their papers, even if just to get an overview of what they do, and ask them questions about them: general questions about the significance of the problem and results, and technical questions about lemmas or proofs (for instance, if you didn’t understand a step). This will help you gauge their view and knowledge of the paper, and will also show your interest in their work.
  • Ask them about their current projects. Ask why they are interesting questions. Ask detailed questions about their plans to tackle them. After the meeting, try to write down a summary of their arguments. See if they make sense. If the projects are not confidential, discuss them with someone you trust who has some experience.
  • Ask them about their past research; ask them to tell you of a result that they are particularly proud of. (call this **)
  • Try to find out how they are seen in the community. This is tricky for several reasons. Firstly their reputation is not always highly correlated with their performance as supervisors. It is also a delicate thing to find out, as no-one will want to tell a student what they think about a colleague. Finally, many researchers will have a personal bias, or simply not know very much about that person. Try asking objective questions like “what discoveries are they known for?” If they don’t know of any, discuss ** with them. Is this as relevant as framed by the prospective supervisor? Listen very carefully to what might sound like small unimportant  drawbacks, like “X micromanages” or “X travels much”. Sometimes this is all that the person feels they can safely tell you.
  •  You might be able to find recordings of talks online. Do you like the way they explain a topic? And how they deal with the audience?
  • Check out the group’s website and find whether past students finished their PhDs, and where they are now. I find the “former group members” section to be most enlightening.

Very important: talk to other PhD students in the same group. They will give you a more realistic idea of how life is there. Some questions to ask them:

  •  how often do you meet with the supervisor?
  • at meetings with the supervisor, do you feel like they understand the problem and help guide you?
  •  do you leave meetings with new ideas?
  • are you encouraged to collaborate with people outside the group?
  • if the supervisor does not have much time, are there postdocs or older PhD students around, with whom you can discuss your topic?
  • what do you do when you are stuck?
  • do you mostly work alone? (I have to insist on this, as it’s #1 cause of unhappiness during a PhD)
  • do you have some freedom to work on your own ideas, or do they make you follow their agenda very closely?
    (in the beginning of your PhD you will want well-contained projects and close supervision, but as you develop you will want to explore ideas outside the original plan)
  • are there visitors around often? group seminars? a journal club?
  • how is the teaching/admin workload?
  • how is the pay, compared to local life costs?
  • how often do you go to conferences? if you find an interesting conference, would you be allowed to go?
  • how are holidays and work hours controlled?
  • where are former PhD students now?
  • this should go without saying: do they ever make you feel uncomfortable? how?
  • how is life in town? public transport? housing? things to do?
  • can you take lectures? are there interesting lectures?

Good luck!