Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Departmental Specialization

Well, at first I was going to post a reply to Nick's recent post, but then, the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "You know, I'm slow getting around to reading his post, so if I post a comment, it's likely that no one will ever see it, so I may as well post my own post on the subject." So I am.

"On the other hand, when I visited the University of Illinois, I found the opposite case (Bill, be sure to correct me if I'm wrong). Illinois has a lot of good research areas, but there is no question that condensed matter is king in that department." Sadly, that statement seems to be fully accurate (at least for the most part, I'll explain below). It was actually quite funny when I came to do the standard grad school visits. The first day they had us all in a big room where they did the standard research group overview presentations. Well, it started out normally enough with something like "Hey, we're the condensed matter group(s), and this is what we do." Fair enough. Not having much interest in condensed matter, I think I zoned most of it out. Next was something like "Hey, we're the condensed matter theory group(s), and this is what we do." Again, all well and good. Then a disturbing trend happened. "Hey, we're the biophysics group, and this is how we relate to condensed matter." (Well, I can kind of see how there would be some connections between condensed matter/statistical physics and biophysics, but this is an odd way to introduce your group.) "Hey, we're the AMO group, and this is how we relate to condensed matter." (Ok, connections more tenuous here, but possible...) "Hey, we're the high energy group, and this is how we relate to condensed matter." (...) By the time they got to "Hey, we're the general relativity group, and this is how we relate to condensed matter", it took everything in me to keep from standing up and shouting "NO! YOU ARE WRONG!!! YOU ARE LIEING! DON'T LIE TO ME!!!" Suffice it to say, as a prospective grad student who (by now) had absolutely no interest in condensed matter, this did not leave a good impression. (Honestly, there were a number of other factors that convinced me to come here for grad school, but that is a subject for another day.)

Since then I've often thought, "How in the world does a department get so blatently over-biased toward one research area?" Now, after a lot of thinking, I'm actually surprised it doesn't happen more often. Consider the scenario. Physics departments A and B start out as small, fairly uniform departments. The professors, wanting to do research, do what professors are really paid to do -- go begging for money. So, each of the different research groups goes out begging for money. Well, the NSF (or whatever other applicable funding agency) offers some fairly large grants, because they want some fairly large projects done. So, the professors at A and B each go applying for these fairly large grants. The NSF, not wanting to spend all their money in one place, gives one grant to A and one to B. Let's say A gets a grant for some condensed matter project, and B gets a grant for an AMO project. Well, then the condensed matter group at A spends their money to get some new facilities, hire a couple of new professors, and buy some more grad students. The same thing happens at B. Well, some time passes, and each of the departments, having put their money to good use, becomes well-known in their respective fields. So, most grad students wanting to study AMO will be naturally pre-disposed to go to B, and those wanting to study condensed matter will be naturally pre-disposed to go to A. Similarly, the next time someone wants to give a condensed matter grant, A will be in the front of the running, and B will be less likely to apply, and the corresponding thing happens with AMO. So, several years, some major discoveries, and a few Nobel prizes later, both A and B have become quite blatantly polarized toward their respective areas. This process can also be started by some major discovery at one or the other, but you get the idea. So, what stops this from happening at most places? I'm really not quite sure. Mostly, I think it's direct intervention on the part of a responsible administration, or some very motivated people in other research areas. Honestly, I far prefer a department like BYU, which is much more well-rounded, but I've come to learn to live with being in the minority here. (Despite all my complaining, I really do enjoy it here. It is a great school, even if you're not doing condensed matter.)

So, this has quickly turned into a really long post on a subject that you all probably know better than I do, but those are my thoughts for the time being. So, I guess I would ask a question. Is it better to have a lot of more well-rounded departments, or is it better to have a few "Meccas" for the various disciplines? I personally prefer more well-rounded-ness, but what are your views? What would be the pros and cons? Give me some feedback.

1 comment:

  1. I can honestly say at Irvine I don't know what group would be a "king" group. Everything seems strong, but equally strong.

    As I have said before, there is a center for cosmology with lots of new hires. But they also have and continue to hire lots of particle theorists. The particle experimental group is large with big names with lots of power in the field. (And money, if you do particle experiment here you will get free personal laptops, no fear of funding, your whole family shipped to CERN at the groups expense, etc...)

    The condensed matter group, I am told, has the most people and funding, but they don't seem, to be treated as king.

    There's a bunch of plasma people, bio people, people with bigs labs doing who knows what but it looks cool, etc.. and all seem to be equally admired by everyone else.

    I don't know if it is a good thing or a bad thing, but, again, I think here all groups here are strong, but equally strong and equally admired.


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