Physics students become interested in physics because they want to understand the universe and typically excel in problem solving, but do not necessarily understand the daily work that experimental particle physics entails on a day-to-day basis. Upon leaving the CERN program, some people were inspired to do particle physics, while others were dissuaded. It was a very positive experience insofar as it really helped students discover what they wanted to do at an earlier point in their careers. This is incredibly useful, as introductory physics courses do not typically address it. It also opened opportunities to people to pursue other, related careers. For instance, one student is now pursuing medical physics, as much of the scientific knowledge needed runs parallel to this field.
The study abroad experience was also life-enriching. Few students, particularly those in STEM fields, have the opportunity to take courses in another country and be completely immersed in another culture and language. Our courses were taught in French and we interacted with the Swiss students on a daily basis. I think many universities try to be more protective of their students-they may study abroad but not experience real immersion. We learned to adapt and acquire communication skills that many young scientists do not attain.
We also were exposed to practical skills and were able to participate in the research evolving at the time. Many of us acquired programming as well as electronics skills. We encountered common obstacles in experimental physics research and learned to overcome them. We were able to learn about a variety of scientific research topics besides simply the search for the Higgs boson. I recall once listening with fascination to Dr. Sulak’s description of the ANTARES underwater telescope in the Mediterranean, and how it could even detect bioluminescence. The entire program gave me much more perspective that I think other new physics graduate students may not necessarily have.
Some advice to future interns:
(1) Take advantage of the occasional snow-shoeing trip, etc. That one trip will not make or break your grade. Do not be like me and persist in being a workaholic while missing out on some cool life experiences. When you are 80 years old, you’ll probably remember not going on the snow-shoe trip, but you won’t remember that you got a few points off on your partial wave analysis problem set.
(2) That said, do all your homework, despite the fact that the academic culture is a bit more laid back in Europe. You need to make sure you are still in line with your peers when you get back home to the US.
(3) Try to get as many people to show you what they are doing at CERN as possible and be really proactive about talking to different people there. This is a really good chance to network.
(4) If you find that you are getting claustrophobic studying in the dorms, head to the library. There are also nice places to study at UNIMAIL on the top floors.
(5) Try to speak French as often as you can. Don’t let the fact that you are often in a large group of Americans dissuade you from trying. It can be awkward, but it is not as difficult as you may believe.
(6) For the exams: The oral exams are not prevalent in the US. Do not worry too much if one does not go as well as you hoped. There is a bit of luck involved as you have to draw a question randomly and respond on the spot. I noticed that the European students are more aware of this and take everything in stride. Still, as always, preparation is key! Just don’t be too hard on yourself if the results are not what you expected.
(7) Be aggressive and energetic about your research and try to look for interesting projects outside of your more academic work. In other words, use Larry Sulak as your role model!