Academics → Mentoring Award

Dr. Konstantin Matchev
Associate Professor
UF Department of Physics
2011-2012 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

Ultimately, my goal is to prepare my PhD graduate students for a successful career in academia. In my particular field (theoretical particle physics) a successful post-graduation career path typically requires going through 2 or 3 postdoctoral appointments before landing a tenure-track faculty position. Needless to say, tenure-track faculty positions are extremely competitive and very difficult to obtain, especially in recent years, when the number of available positions has been shrinking and the pool of applicants has become larger than ever. Obviously, in order to be competitive on the junior faculty job market, one must have done first-class postdoctoral work at a premier institution. In turn, being competitive on the postdoc job market, one must come out of graduate school extremely well prepared, and already with an excellent publication record.

In order to achieve this main goal, I am guided by two main principles:

Physics (and science in general) should be fun. I believe that you cannot succeed unless you love what you are doing. Most of our PhD students enter our graduate program because they like physics, so my first responsibility is to keep that fire burning. This is not always easy: sometimes the students may feel overwhelmed by the challenging math, or the complicated computer simulations, or perhaps find the subject too dry and without any practical applications. We have all heard those stereotypes about physics. I am fortunate to work in the area of particle physics phenomenology — namely, the interface between particle theory and particle experiment. This gives me the unique opportunity to select research topics which suit the taste and abilities of each individual student — sometimes we go into subjects which are more theoretical, other times we do things which are closer to experiment. Of course, each time I need to have my ears and eyes open for the feedback from the student, and adjust the thematics correspondingly. In that sense, it also helps that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva has finally started operations, providing further excitement in our field, in anticipation of major discoveries. Being a member of one of the two main experiments at the LHC allows me a unique “behind the scenes” look at the workings of a major experimental collaboration, and I can subsequently communicate both the excitement and the challenges to my graduate students.

Being competitive on the job market. I believe that UF graduates can and should be able to successfully compete against graduates from the very best schools like Harvard and Princeton. I am therefore trying to do my best to prepare my students for this difficult challenge, by giving them the assets which search committees are looking for:

(1) Timely and topical research projects. I try to choose research projects whose results will be noticed and valued by the community, and will have a lasting impact. For example, the average number of citations of my papers is over 100 citations per paper, which means that my work and that of my students is well noticed and appreciated in the community.

(2) Publishing often, and in the top journals of the field. I typically require my students to have numerous* journal publications before graduation, and furthermore, those publications should be in one of the three top journals of our discipline: Physical Review Letters, Journal of High Energy Physics or Physical Review D. I am proud to report that all of the papers of my students are in one of those three journals.

(3) Research presentations at conferences and workshops. I require that my students attend conferences and workshops to give presentations about our research results. This serves a dual purpose — on the one hand, the students learn how to give good talks and seminars, and on the other hand, they get to advertize themselves to potential future employers (i.e., other faculty attending those conferences and workshops). In fact, my students typically go out to conferences and workshops more often than I do. I also encourage them to apply for additional travel funding from UF, the local organisers or other sources, and support their applications when they do. We have been often successful in securing such funding. In the absence of such external funding, I have always supported my students’ travel from our theory group grant.

(4) Identifying a niche and creating a unique advantage of our Gator grads over their competition. Finally, I feel that in order to compete with, say, Ivy League graduates, our students need to display some unique skills which would make them attractive to a search committee. This is why the emphasis of my graduate-level teaching here at UF is on the topics which we here at UF can do very well — in fact better that the Ivy Leagues. For example, my expertise is in the design of Monte Carlo computer simulation tools for searching for signals of new physics at the LHC, and in data analysis of new physics signatures, including dark matter detection and identification. My students generally come out with excellent knowledge of those methods and techniques, which automatically makes them experts in those areas, and thus extremely valuable in the eyes of employers looking to fill in positions in those particular areas.

*For example, my very last student, M. Park, had 12 papers at graduation.

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