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Group Culture (The Method to the Madness)

This page is about the culture of the Toback Group. This group has been active since 2000 and has produced more than a dozen different students with degrees, and a good fraction have gone on to faculty jobs. What they all have in common is that they learned the culture of the group which is about the DOING of science, and the relentless pursuit of excellence.

How to be Effective

While it seems hokey to some, we use the Seven (now eight) Habits of Highly Effective people. More detail can be found here. To quickly summarize the habits

  1. Be proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. First things first
  4. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  5. Think Win-Win
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw
  8. Find your voice, and help others do the same

How the Toback Group is Managed

The central ideas are:

  1. All activity in the group is done with a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is to learn by playing. This is Habit 1 above
  2. Toback will work with each member on their MUTUAL goals. The idea is for us to agree on where we are trying to end up. That is a LOT harder than it sounds, and why it is Habit 2 above. Ideally, we work together on things that excite both of us, get great science done, and help you get trained so you can do what you want after graduation.
  3. We want to be able to make sure we can we BOTH articulate the same vision before getting started. This is Habit 3 above. A common thing you will be asked is “Is your path clear?” or “Are your next steps clear?” All full-time research group members will be asked to touch base with Toback once a day with a Noon Report. These are our daily way of making sure we are going in the right direction (this is Habit 3 above). It may feel like you are being micromanaged. The idea is not to micromanage you, but rather make sure you are well on your way before you are left on your own. In the end, you should be simply moving on your own, and taking the lead in your direction. Ultimately, Toback’s goal is to have a clear path, make sure you have what you need to be successful, and get out of the way. The Noon Reports are not about “what you accomplished” but just touching base to ensure you are moving steadily in the right direction. If you feel like you are being managed, then you have not understood the purpose of them.
  4. Group Meetings happen once a week and typically last just over an hour. This gives us a chance to know each other, learn from each other and become more than the sum of our parts.
  5. Our mutual goals will change over time, and we want to have a path that takes your destination in mind. This is essentially the fact that we need to periodically go back to Habit 2. Toback’s role as a mentor is to help with determining what your goals are and then help along the path. Your role is to be the technical lead along the road. The younger generation is usually more technically skilled on the day-to-day stuff, as Toback’s skills are out of date.
  6. We have a big group with lots of expertise. Take advantage of that. You are expected to ask for help as a beginner. A LOT of help. The rest of the group is expected to help learn what you need to learn. Don’t be shy about taking their time. Someone did it for them, and you will do it for the next generation. More on how to spend your time on your own can be found here
  7. We expect you to make mistakes. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t doing anything interesting or learning anything. To me, the word “failure” means not getting up and trying again. The skill we are learning is how to get up again quickly and do better next time. As has been said, “we need to learn to fail more quickly.”
  8. As you move forward in your training the amount and type of guidance will (and should) change. At the beginning he will provide lots of guidance (his “door” is always open, and you can always Skype, email, text etc.).
  9. Ideally, for every major task in the group, we will have a student Expert, an Apprentice and an someone who is Emeritus (for example in simulations or big computing). What we mean by each so the roles are clear:
    1. The Expert is responsible for making the thing happen that need to happen, or for getting assistance to get it done. They are there to help others get what they need/provide support for the group. They are expected to lead discussions during the Group Meetings .
    2. An Apprentice is trained by the Expert to take over as the next Expert. This process starts when the Expert is mostly done learning, AND we have a new student who is ready to be trained. The new student becomes the Apprentice. They start by watching the Expert, checking the documentation, and learning how to do the things the expert does. When they can do everything the Expert can do, they become the new Expert.
    3. The old Expert gains the title Emeritus when the new Expert is ready to go solo. The old Expert is there to consult and help as needed, but mostly needs to get out of the way.
  10. Start with the Documentation. If the documentation isn’t good enough, then we need to make it better. If you can’t find the documenation, then we need to make the documentation that points to the right place better. A few of my favorite quotes:
    1. One of my favorite quotes is something I stole from John Orrell (not sure where he got it): “With a good six months in the lab you can definately save yourself a few hours in the library.”
    2. The other one is “When all else fails, read the instructions…”
    3. Another from Mark Twain: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Documentation needs to be detailed enough to help others. Even if it needs to be long.
    4. From Michael Kelsey: “Good documentation provides many doors to information.”
  11. Yes Toback has more experience than you. Yes, he’s done this a lot of times. That doesn’t make him right. Don’t be afraid to argue with him. But do expect him to expect you to “Seek first to understand.” Toback usually asks the most questions, and usually he tries to understand first. He ain’t perfect. He’s quite comfortable being wrong (but he’s also human, and doesn’t like to be wrong, and isn’t afraid to argue his point). On the other hand, it makes him proud to have trained students who can convince him he’s wrong.
  12. Yes, Toback can get grumpy (his granddaughter calls him “Grum-pa”), but he doesn’t hold a grudge. He expects you to make mistakes. More importantly, he expects you to learn from them.
  13. One of our Motto’s is “Be hard on the problem, and soft on the people.” Toback tries to live by that, but doesn’t always succeed. This is an apology in advance, but doesn’t excuse the behavior,
  14. One of my favorite lines is something I stole from Harry Truman (who knows where it came from). He said “My job as a parent is to help figure out what my kids love to do, and encourage them to do it.” I think this is right, but the phrase “love to do” is potentially mis-leading here. Lots of people love watching TV or eating chocolate chip cookies. That’s not what we mean here. My best shot is that “love to do” is closer to “things we like working hard on because it’s fun.” Those activities put us in Flow. If you are in physics you know this type of activity. Working hard on a difficult puzzle and solving it is one of the best feelings in the world, but while many people may not realize it the DOING of the puzzle is the part that we enjoy. We can get lost in the doing, we can look up and notice we are hungry because we’ve been at the table with intense focus for hours and lost track of the time. The activity works because it’s at the cutting edge of our abilities, and by seeing it come together we get feedback. The word “struggle” has the wrong connotation, but at least it’s better.
  15. The lifeblood of a group is the combination of wise-council, a good plan, and students who question everything. “Nothing ever goes according to plan, but nothing great happens without one.” We need students who ask questions, and make the more senior members of the group clearly articulate what they think.

The typical timeline for graduate students (and undergrads) in the Group

Grad Student Notes

The big picture is that a typical graduate student is in school for 6 years. Of course there can be huge variation depending on their level of preparation and their intensity as they work. To a decent degree of approximation you can think of the first two years as classes, the next two years as training/service work, and the last two years as bulk of the thesis work and job hunting. More details:

  1. Year 1: Taking classes and being a TA. Summer is typically half TA and half RA. This will be the case for all students who are still taking lots of classes. The summer will be taking on what we call “warmup projects” that will lead to a Master’s Degree. All students in the group are expected to get a Master’s. Some students may take on an Apprentice role here.
  2. Year 2: This is the same as year 1. If your research has gone well, then in principle we can get your your Master’s degree by the end of the summer. Many students, if they haven’t taken on an Apprentice role yet, will likely take on one.
  3. Year 3: Many people have a few more classes to take, and they will be a TA during that time. At some point, most students finish all their required classes and are ready for full-time research. If you have demonstrated committment and ability, you will be given an RA when you are doing full time work. The primary task of this year is to get your Master’s degree, and pick the areas where you are most interested. This includes Analysis, Simulations, Electronics, Computing, Software etc. From those areas we will pick your first service tasks as a way of developing the skills you will want to develop in preparations for your thesis work. This is when we start thinking more heavily about what you want to be doing AFTER graduation. If you are wanting to stay in academia, you will need expertise in all of them. If you are thinking about something other than academia, we will use this time to figure out what you want to develop expertise in so we can make your time in grad school most useful. This is when Apprenticeships ramp up and the student is transitioning from Apprentice to Expert.
  4. Year 4: This year is focused on finishing the developement from a young student to a senior student. It typically involves heavy lifting in the service areas, and is when you should be finishing deciding what you want your thesis topic to be on. This is typically the prime year for being an Expert. The ramp down from Expert and training the next Apprentice often starts in this year. Some work on outlining your thesis should be done in this year, and you should be preparing for your Preliminary Examination. The department wants this done in your third year, but… uhm… too bad.
  5. Year 5: This year is mostly about ramping down service work (for example finishing training an Apprentice), and moving full steam ahead with your thesis work. This is when you you need to have a focus on outlining your thesis. It can be a difficult time, as decisions about what you will do after graduation move from vague thoughts to pressing reality.
  6. Year 6: This year is about finishing your thesis work, turning that work in to papers and a dissertation, and applying for jobs. It typically takes at least a year to write a disseration. Do not underestimate how long that takes. It looks like it should be quick. It isn’t. It’s a long, painful slog that rarely has any fun aspect to it. Many of the fun parts of grad school are now over. One should be thinking actively about jobs about 6 months before graduation, and be applying for them about 3 months before graduation. Unfortunately, most students badly underestimate how far away they are from graduation and get pissed at their advisor about this. He’s ok with you being pissed. He’s done this before and knows what excellence looks like and how to get there. Stay focused on excellence rather than a time frame and all will be well.

One more thing before we stop. Being a graduate student is not a job. It is a short period of time where the government has agreed to keep you out of debt while you are training. This is not a time for emphasizing work/life balance. You can decide you want to only work 40 hrs/week, but that’s not students who get out in 6 years do.

Undergrad Student Notes

Any undergraduate is welcome to try doing research in our group. That being said, there are somethings you should know:

  1. We typically don’t have money to support undergraduates, but there are programs from the department that can support you during the summer if you register for hours.
  2. There are many reasons to do research. Most of the students who do research in our group are looking to have some fun, learn some physics, gain some experience and make themselves well prepared for graduate school applications and research.
  3. We have had some students do the Honors Thesis. We’ve had mixed results with that program as they put artificial deadlines on the completion of tasks.
  4. Most undergrads do their research during the summer. We’ve had VERY few undergrads make progress during the semester. The ones that have typically do so AFTER they have done a full time summer with us. You can’t do real research on 5 hours a week. 10 hours a week is still probably too small. You can probably make some progress with that amount of time committment AFTER a full summer.
  5. In general we don’t encourage students to sign up for credit for research hours, as it’s very difficult to find a group that is a good fit for you. Our advice is to try it out, put in a lot of hours if you are having fun, and we’ll get you the credit hours in a later semester.

How to spend your time:

The Important/Not-Important vs. Urgent/Not-Urgent Grid
  Urgent Not Urgent
Important       1            2
Not Important       3            4

While most people think we should always be working in box 1 (important and urgent), greatness comes from working on box 2 (important and not urgent). In the Toback Group we are ALWAYS trying to be working on Type 2 activities, and stealing time from the other three. We will always have SOME type 1 activites, but the job is to minimize them.

Examples of tasks in each category

  1. Trying to finish a talk or project to meet a deadline
  2. Figuring out what you want your thesis to be about. Planning the set of topics for a big project. Learning a new programming tool. Documenting what you know so the next person can take over for you, and you can do something more interesting. Reading the documentation. Figuring out what you want to do after graduation, as well as making a 5, 10 and 20 year plan.
  3. Attending a meeting someone JUST told you about that they think you need to go to, but isn’t actually helpful to you
  4. Surfing the web for the fourth hour, following up on the latest in pictures of cute kittens
Spending Time Learning from a Book
When learning from a textbook, it’s recommended to focus on doing chapter problems, rather than reading and re-reading. This can be rather time consuming. You should be focused on doing the important problems. But what are the important problems? The important question are those that doesn’t make sense and where you need to struggle.
Can you tell the difference between an easy problem and a hard problem? If it’s easy, can you do it quickly and CORRECTLY?

How long should you spend working on something before you ask for help?

This is a hard question. We’ll start with a plot that shows a typical example of how useful it is to spend time working by yourself, and then say some more. As mentioned above, we have a big group with lots of expertise. You should take advantage of that. You are expected to ask for help as a beginner. A LOT of help. The rest of the group is expected to help learn what you need to learn. Don’t be shy about taking their time. Someone did it for them, and you will do it for the next generation. On the otherhand, usually you want to start on your own before asking for help so you can learn.

  1. Learning how to do something on your own is a Type 2 activity (it is sharpening the saw). Therefore, you should spend time learning on your own. The amount of usefulness goes up as you spend time learning and trying to do it yourself. It also can be a lot of fun. This is shown on the left side of the plot.
  2. At some point, you are not really learning anything new about what you need to learn about. It can be a waste or your time and even become pure frustration. Either way, the usefullness goes down as you put in more time on your own (this is the far right on the plot) so it’s time to stop and get help.
  3. Since we all understand calculus, if something is rising at one point and falling at another point then there must be an optimal, as shown in the figure. THAT is where you should be as much as possible. Shown with the arrow in the plot.

When are you done?

One of the hardest questions to ask yourself, when doing science (not exams or homework), is “How do I know when I’m done”? The answer isn’t necessarily simple either. We can say we are done when there are no known issues and we understand what we are looking at.

Let’s assume that one of your “steps” for your project is to create a plot. If you’ve successfully created the plot, the process to create the plot makes sense, and the plot itself makes sense, then we have completed a step towards the end goal. If you’ve done this for every step, there are no more steps forward, then you might be done.

Picking A Research Topic

Picking a research topic is more difficult than it looks. Three things need to be present in any excellent plan

  1. It answers the “so what?” question
  2. You have a competitive advantage
  3. The first steps are obvious

A set of examples:

  1. An easy (but bad way) way to pick a thesis topic is to use the “Well… because no one has done it before” method. It’s true that I could do a “Search for colored zebras”. Heck, I have a CLEAR competative advantage (no one is completing with me to do the world’s best search), and the first steps are obvious: Go to the zoo and take a look. Heck, I could even quickly improve the world’s best limit by going to Africa. I could even put in a research proposal to a funding agency to rent a helicopter and improve the limits from 1 in a thousand zebras to probably one in a million zebras within a year! The problem with this study is that no one CARES about the result! So what?
  2. A better topic would be to “cure world hunger”! It CLEARLY is important, so it clearly answers the so what question. Unfortunately, it’s not clear what your compatative advantage is. On the other hand, if you were Bill Gates or Warren Buffet and had a billion dollars, then you would have a clear competative advantage. The problem is that it’s not clear what the problem is. What ARE the first steps? Maybe commission some more useful studies? Dunno… I don’t see a role for myself here.
  3. What is the nature of dark matter? Now THAT is a good question. We CLEARLY care about the answer. We have a big, powerful group with real expertise, better simulations tools than everyone else as well as some of the most useful computing in the world. We CLEARLY have a competative advantage. Are the first steps obvious? You bet. Let’s get the simulations to work to see if we can correctly describe the standard model/known backgrounds to show that the tools work and the detectors are understood. Do we know what dark matter looks like? Sure… we can create models to try some hypotheses to see if there are any of those types of events in our data. Then again, we can also just understand ALL of the backgrounds and see if there is anything left we DON’T understand. I’m ok with discovering something OTHER than dark matter. I don’t care WHAT we go to Stockholm for 😉

Other Crap Dave Says

Some sayings you will hear a lot in the group

  1. Is your path clear? (this is really about habits 2 and 3)
  2. What is on your to-do list? Do you have it in a priority order? (again, habits 2 and 3)
  3. What does the documentation say?
  4. The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing
  5. You can be disappointed, but it’s worth working hard to not be surprised
  6. Type of people I have no patience for: “Often wrong, never in doubt” (my dad called these “surgeons”)
  7. If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t doing anything interesting or learning anything
  8. The most successful people don’t have the BEST ideas, or the MOST ideas. They are just much better at deciding which are good ideas to work on and which ideas aren’t worth spending time on. Leaning which is which is one of the most useful things you will ever learn to do. This is Habit 7.
  9. An insult I learned from my days at the Univ of Chicago (one of the snootiest places on Earth): “You aren’t being clear”
  10. Question: Have I made it clear what I’m thinking, and more importantly, WHY I’m thinking that? In some sense, my job is to put myself OUT of a job.
  11. It’s important to work on being comfortable with “periods of sustained muddle-headedness”
  12. Most people want to BE a professor. The question is “do you want to do what professors DO?” and “Do you actually want to do what they do?”
  13. Celebrity, Wealth and Priveledge are the WRONG goals. The goal is to spend your most valuable resource, your time/energy, on something fun, interesting and worthwhile
  14. If you can’t write it clearly, then you don’t really understand. People often see writing it down as a way of slowing progress. I see it as an investment in the future. I also see it as one of the few checks we have to make sure we ACTUALLY understand. I never cease to be amazed at how often I realize I don’t actually understand something when I try to write it down. Being able to write it down flushes the misunderstandings out into the open. The other thing I find remarkable is how often I find that I make an agreement with someone and we both believe we have agreed, but when we try to write down what we agreed upon, we realize we both meant different things. This ties back to “seek first to understand.” Finally, if you write down the WHY, then people don’t have to re-discover it.

How we Write Talks and Other Documents

  1. Expect we will do lots of iterations
  2. First we do the outline, then we do figures and tables, and THEN we do the text
    1. For a talk, we start with the outline page, and the titles of the slides with the figures
    2. For a paper or a thesis, this is the chapters, sub-sections and sub-sub-sections. Then we do the figures. To start all figures, the caption should start the same way to get us started “This figure shows…, it is here because…”
  3. Writing talks, even if they are internal documents, will allow us to SEE if the path is clear all the way to the end
  4. There are a number of questions that will help you tell if you are on target/getting close to being done:
    1. Are all the pieces needed in the document?
    2. Are they all in the right order?
    3. Are there any things in the main document that aren’t needed?
  5. Be aware that often at first the talk will will be long with a lot of stuff, then lots of things will go to the backup slides as we organize the talk.
  6. When first putting your thoughts into a document, start by writing words so that the reader understands your point. After it is clear, THEN you can make it shorter and better written. To quote Mark Twain “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
  7. The goal is NOT to make the talk pedagogically beautiful. It is to take the reader from not understanding to understand.
  8. We are not trying to impress people, we need to focus on the GOAL of the talk. Some example goals that we typically are trying to achieve:
    1. For members of a Working Group to say “This is fine, keep doing what you are doing.”
    2. For members of the collaboration to say “This looks good, go ahead and publish it as is”
    3. For a PhD defense: For members of your thesis committee to say “This looks fine, you have earned a PhD”
    4. For a PhD prelim “I understand what you did and where you are going, I approve you moving on to finish your PhD.”
  9. While they don’t need to start this way as we develop the talk, by the time we are done the plots should have readable labels and titles and parameters should be defined clearly. This is part of what we call making “golden plots”
  10. Every so often in the talk it is useful to stop and make it clear where are we and where are we going.
  11. A good example of a talk is (pick one)

Thesis and Graduation Notes

  • Thesis Notes:
    1. See the notes about writing in general
    2. Notes on Chapter Contents:
        Chapter 1: Opening statement from a lawyer. Lay out the context and why everything is coming. This is about motivating the topic and giving the final answer. It should summarize what the evidence will be and how it will tied together. Don’t include anything that you will not be coming back to in later chapters as that is just distracting. Last subsection should be a description of the upcoming chapters. Assume this is the only chapter the non-physics member of your committee will read
      1. Middle Chapters: Make the case, provide the evidence. Provide evidence that the evidence is correct.
      2. Middle Chapter: If you find yourself introducing a new topic so you can use it here, then that’s likely a mistake. It probably needs to be integrated into an earlier chapter.
      3. Conclusion Chapter: Now that you have given all the evidence, tie it all together
      4. Other notes about topic sentences and topic paragraphs:
        1. Each Chapter, sub-section, sub-subsection and paragraph should have a clear topic sentence. In principle, one should be able to get the big picture of what is the coming text without having to read it. While it’s not great writing, a good place to start is “In this chapter we….”, “In this section we…” The stuff in the middle is the details. While we don’t need that level of explicitness in a topic sentence for the paragraph, everything you need to know should be in the topic sentence, while the rest of the paragraph is the details.
        2. The goal is NOT to make the talk pegagocically beautiful. It is to take the reader from not understanding to understand.
        3. The use of jargon words is tricky. If you are going to use them, define them first and THEN use them. Don’t use them and then define them.
        4. When we are working on the thesis together, we will typically have a sheet where we go through each of the following topics, one for each chapter. This is like a giant grid:
          1. Section Titles
          2. Placeholder Figures in right place with an explicit basic caption
          3. Figure Caption well written
          4. Tables in right place with an explicit basic caption
          5. Figures done
          6. All the right paragraphs and in the right order
          7. Right topic sentence for each paragraph
          8. Text
          9. Table content done
          10. Tables Caption well written
  • Some of Dave’s questions to see if you are ready to graduate:
    1. Can you argue with me and be right?
    2. If you make a plot, and you are able to correctly able to guess what I would have asked for, and you have already made it? (You show me a plot and I say “Oooohhhh… That’s interesting! What about (fill in the blank)?” and you reply with “I *knew* you would ask about that, so I made this plot which shows…”)
    3. Do you know what you want to do after graduation? Have you been teaching someone else to take over for what you are doing now?
  • Guidance of Prelim Exam and Proposal

Leadership and Management

  1. Leadership: A Leader articulates the vision. They ask the following questions: Do we all agree on the mission and vision? Are we all excited about the goals? Clear on the steps?
  2. Management: A manager helps get people what they need, makes sure everyone is moving in the right direction together and provides feedback to both leadership and the people doing the work. A manager asks the following questions: Does everyone have a task? Do you have a clear Clear path and know who to ask if you need help? Can I help? Am I missing something? Are we doing the right things? How can we do it better?
  3. It is my philosophy that the important members of a group are the people doing the work. The Leaders and Managers should be “service-oriented.” They shouldn’t decide what people should do and them tell them what to do. They should be working to craft a wise vision and plan so that we all get what we want/need. They should manage the group so the people doing the work have what they need and are well supported.
  4. There are three things you can have when trying to complete a project. You can have done Cheap, you can have it done Quick, or you can have it Done Right. Pick 2. You don’t GET 2. If you are LUCKY you can get two. My may get one. You may get none. The trick is to pick which two you are going to choose, and start there. In our group, since most of us are underpaid, we will get Cheap. We usually focus on getting it done right. If we don’t have time to get it right, where are we going to find time to fix it later?
  5. I’m not much for large groups getting together to make proposals. I favor a small group with varied expertise (and a skeptic) to make a Proposal, then bring back to the large group and have them vet it (“throw darts at it”)
  6. I believe this came from Richard Branson: “Train people so well that everyone wants to steal them. Treat them so well that they never want to leave.” I’m a great believer in that philiosophy. Unfortunately, all students HAVE to leave. However, I find it particularly fun when they find they have wings, fly off, create their own new groups and let me play with them as well.
  7. There is no “right” way to do things, but there are lots of wrong ways. As my wife, Katherine, say to be with a grin on her face when I’m being a pain: “That’s not the right way, that’s Dave’s way.”
  8. Don’t BE in charge, HAVE influence. Being in charge in a collaboration is an illusion. What you can have is responsibility. Don’t pretend you can make someone do something. If you want their heart to be in it, then they need to know WHY their heart should be in it. THAT is leadership.
  9. Dave’s Golf Analogy for how to decide how well you are doing/how you should plan to evaluate how well you have done on something
    1. Par: The right things happen, and people complain about it anyways
    2. Birdie: The right things happen, and no one complains
    3. Eagle/hole-in-one: The right things happen and people are happy (this never happens)