Friday, September 9, 2011

On flunking and publications

This is the right expression after flunking exams!
Some reflections just after I have marked students' midterm exams

I tell people that I belong to the same exclusive club as Albert Einstein! Not that I have two Nobel Prizes in Physics, but that I flunked my PhD exams twice!

Albert Einstein is the poster boy of Science and those who never did well in school and in their PhD studies.

His most famous line during these times (1904-1905) was this "The idea of the doctorate is beginning to bore me" (Which is what I and anyone who flunk PhD exams would say. ). Einstein eventually got his PhD with a thesis on Brownian motion from the University of Zurich which then was never considered as top rate in Physics as the universities in Germany such as Berlin. Einstein proved the physical existence of molecules via his description of Brownian motion. Before then, the idea of a molecule was a phenomenological construct.

But 1905 is Einstein's Annus Mirabilis in which he proposed in  5 publications, three in the Annalen der Physik the theory of special relativity.  In that year, Einstein did for science what Newton did for 20 years!  Also, where he wrote these papers was rather unconventional by today's standards. He wrote it while he was a Swiss patent clerk/examiner and not in a Physics department/institute where he won't be isolated from the general academic community. And this played a part when he submitted his PhD thesis for the first time and had to withdraw it because the examiners did not find it worth examining. After all he was just a patent clerk and his professors had nothing good to say about him.

But what can we learn from Einstein's career. First is that scientific publications are indeed important. If Einstein got rave reviews from his PhD committee and got the best PhD graduate award (which is only granted in the Philippines never in Europe) but never published right after, then he would have been a nobody and definitely not the most recognizable icon of science.

Also (and this is relevant to my PhD students who work in government agencies), one can write "big" papers outside academe. If Einstein did it, then why can't we?

So flunking your candidacy, dissertation etc exams doesn't mean the end of your world. What is required is hard work to make your science excellent. Einstein even as a patent clerk had to work hard and think hard when he was busy with examining patent applications. He found time to write up his results.

Remember, the PhD or MSc is just the start! Einstein rewrote his thesis, like I did and now we belong to the same elite club!

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