In my final year of undergrad, I had a plan: go to the university near my house, begin my master’s degree, and eventually do a PhD. It was nice, simple, and straightforward. Not having a ton of people around me applying for graduate school, I wasn’t aware of how big a deal the choice of institution was, nor the fact that some people apply to ten or more schools (often for those looking to go in the US). In my case, I had someone at the local university agree to supervise me, and that was that.
Oh, and as a long-shot chance, I applied to a theoretical physics program in Waterloo, Ontario. I knew I would most certainly not get in, but it was free to apply so I wrote up my application quickly and sent it off, not thinking much about it.
Which is why I was very surprised to hear back from them at the beginning of March, asking for an interview.
I wasn’t expecting much. I still didn’t think I had a shot. I showed up to the interview, did my best, but didn’t let myself get too hopeful. It was only when I received the letter of acceptance about a few days later did things start to sink in.
Perimeter Scholars International (what we call PSI) is a yearlong course-based master’s program in theoretical physics. About thirty students are selected each year, and they get taught by researchers at Perimeter Institute. The program is different from others in many ways. First, everything is free. From the tuition fees to food and housing, Perimeter provides everything you need. Second, there are no grades. Courses are pass/fail, with no exams. Instead, interviews at the end with the instructors serve as a final assessment. Third, the program is all about collaboration rather than grades (as you can imagine by the previous item). This means students are encouraged to work together, rather than compete.
Okay, so that’s the marketing fluff. But that’s not why you’re here. I’m hoping this essay can achieve two things. First, I want it to give an unfiltered look at what the program is like from the eyes of someone who attended. Despite knowing this was a good program, the number of posts online from past students when I looked was woefully short (this is the only one I found). I won’t be able to make up for the lack of many perspectives, but I will give you a sense of what the PSI program is like. Second, I want to chronicle my own growth from the start of the program to the end. PSI is all about growth, so I figure it’s worth sharing my own.
The researchers that run the program are called PSI Fellows. They teach most of the courses in the fall semester and are the main contacts for the program. They also choose the incoming cohort each year. From my understanding, they whittle down the applicant pool several times before finally getting to around fifty or so students. How much whittling do they do? In my class, we ended up being 28 students (though only 26 attended in the end), and there were roughly 700 applicants. So yes, a lot of whittling.
At this point, interviews begin. I received an email to schedule an interview during the first week of March. The email said that I would be asked basic questions about fields like special relativity, statistical physics, and electromagnetism. I guess this is an opportunity for you to study up, but since I didn’t think my chances were that great, I figured that I would simply do my best in the interview and not study beforehand. Probably not something I would recommend, but it did keep me from feeling too much pressure.
The interview is done with two PSI fellows. It doesn’t last long, perhaps twenty minutes. I imagine that’s because there are many interviews to do.
I also want to note that interviews differ from person to person. I know that one of the students in my class didn’t really have an interview at all. It was more like a formality, and he was basically already accepted into the program. I don’t know everything about how this works, but I just wanted to mention it for completeness.
After the interview was done, I heard back with my offer a few days later. You then get two weeks to decide if you will attend.
Once I was accepted, I didn’t get a whole lot of information from the program for most of the summer. There were a few brief emails, though nothing significant. I think my year was a bit exceptional because there were some ongoing staff changes on the administrative side of PSI. From talking with the other students, a lot of us felt like we were given radio silence for a good part of the months preceding PSI. It’s not like we couldn’t ask for information, but it was on us to reach out.
The program asked us to be there at the beginning of August, though this was flexible depending on a student’s situation, and it goes until the end of June.
Accommodations and logistics
PSI students live in the University of Waterloo residences. These are quite close to Perimeter, about 800 metres away (and through a park). The apartments have three bedrooms each.
The apartments are stocked with appliances and things you will need. That means there’s bedding, pots, pans, glasses, utensils, and all other miscellaneous things. The reason I list these out in boring detail is because the email we got simply said something along the lines of, “You will have everything you need, so you only have to bring personal belongings.” For a future PSI student wondering what they will get, the answer really is “basically everything”.
PSI students each get a living stipend, which isn’t a lot but serves to cover meals on the weekends and any other small personal costs you might have. I found it sufficient for myself, but this could vary drastically depending on your circumstance. Since I drove here (I’m from Quebec, the province beside Ontario), I was able to bring winter clothing and everything I needed. Others had to buy all of this, which means budgeting this living stipend appropriately.
Meals during the week are provided at the Black Hole Bistro, which is the restaurant within Perimeter itself. For PSI students, most items are free, and we get three meals a day from Monday to Friday.
Perimeter provides students with computing hardware and software (laptops, Mathematica, Maple, and so on). Also, since the bread and butter of theoretical physicists is working through equations and ideas, Perimeter has a basically unlimited supply of paper, pencils, pens, and other office gear. So yes, when the email said, “Only bring your personal belongings,” they weren’t joking. This came in handy throughout the year, and made hunting for supplies much easier.
Finally, the PSI students (we’re also called “PSIons”) have our own room in Perimeter. It’s aptly called the PSI Room, and is where tutorials are done, people hang out to work, and basically is a space just for us. I preferred working in the library, but many worked in the PSI Room all the time.
Those are the logistical details in a nutshell. Again, not the most exciting of stuff, but I know that I would have liked to know this coming into the program, so I’ve done my best to satisfy that curiosity here.
PSI is broken up into roughly three sections (though this is already outdated because I hear that there won’t be any Front End starting in 2020). The first is called the Front End. During the month of August, students take a few review classes. The goal here is to help students acclimate to the new environment and set everyone on the same page. The courses here are even shorter than later on, and there is no homework (only tutorials).
In my year, the following classes were offered:
- Lie Groups and Lie Algebras
- Programming in Python
- Classical Mechanics Review
- Math for QFT
I won’t go into each one in detail, because that will get dreadfully boring. I’ll just note that I didn’t think these were super useful (except for the Classical Mechanics Review). Everything else was so new to me that I had trouble absorbing the details. It made for a rough start, to say the least. Even though there was no pressure in terms of homework or tests, I still felt like I was much worse than a lot of other students. Or rather, that I was behind because I hadn’t ever seen these topics. Combine that with the fact that these courses were sometimes just a few lectures, and you can imagine how intimidating it feels when you don’t have a good grasp on things.
The Front End courses are taught by the PSI fellows, and like most varieties in life, some are better than others. I had my personal selection of courses I enjoyed or not, but I think this will vary wildly by student.
To me, the main point of the Front End is to give students a buffer to mentally get ready for the next phase of the program: the Core Courses. In that regard, it was successful.
As the name suggests, these are the courses that every PSI student needs to take. There are six courses, and they are spread out over the fall semester (from September to December):
- Relativity Theory
- Quantum Theory
- Quantum Field Theory I
- Statistical Physics
- Quantum Field Theory II
- Condensed Matter
I’ve listed them in the order that they occur. The PSI program has experimented with different schedules, but the way it usually works is that two courses are given at the same time (so group them up in the list above). The courses last for either three or four weeks (these are the two variants we tried). When the course lasts for three weeks, that means you have class every single day. In particular, the schedule looks something like this:
- 90 minutes for first class (beginning at 09:00)
- 15 minutes for a break
- 90 minutes for second class
- Two hours for lunch
- 90 minutes for tutorial from first class
- 90 minutes for tutorial from second class
If you’re looking at this and think it’s a lot, you’re right. And this is repeated every weekday (sometimes with less tutorials in the afternoon) for three weeks. I remember taking Relativity and Quantum Theory under this schedule and thinking that there was just so much to absorb every day. It was quite the onslaught. You can definitely do it, but it takes a lot out of you.
At the end of three weeks, we had a week off. This sounds nice, but what it’s to prepare for the interviews. You can think of these as “final exams”, but they aren’t quite that.
The interview works as follows. For about 30-40 minutes, you go into a room and talk with two of the PSI fellows about concepts you saw in the course. They might ask you to prove something, or sketch out the argument on a blackboard. It’s not as high-stakes as an exam, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prepare for these a lot. In fact, I would almost say that I prepared more than I did for exams when I was in undergrad. I guess I was just worried about this different format than what I was used to. At the end, they tell you how you did and if you passed.
Honestly, they aren’t so bad. You do your best, explain what you know, and that tends to be enough. If for some reason you’re lacking in a certain area and the fellows aren’t satisfied, you will be asked to retake the interview. I know several of my friends who did exactly that. Luckily, I passed on the first go for each course, but it’s not a huge deal to retake an interview.
The other variant of the schedule was having courses for four weeks, with each Wednesday off. This was really nice, because it gave us a break during the week in which we could do homework. The downside is that it took up our study week at the end of the courses. This meant we had to prepare for the interviews during the weekend and during the interview week itself.
So in total, the schedule looked like this:
- 3 weeks for the courses
- 1 study week
- 1 interview week
- 4 weeks for the courses with Wednesday off
- 1 interview week
It turned out that people were torn about which format they enjoyed. I think when we were polled it was roughly split in half. I actually enjoyed having the longer format, because it meant the week didn’t feel like as much of a slog.
I’ll also note here that my particular year didn’t have an interview for the Statistical Physics course, due to some external issues. We instead had to give a small presentation, which I thought was easier. This shows you the advantage of being in a small program like PSI. The flexibility offered is great.
I would say that I learned a lot from these interviews. It gave me a chance to work at explaining ideas aloud, instead of on the page. I think it was a useful way to do the assessments, and I am glad I didn’t have to write exams.
Homework tended to be lengthy. It depended on the course, but I remember taking a ton of time for some of the assignments. If you’re smart about things though, you learn to do them in collaboration with others. You still write your own copy, but there’s no reason you should go about it all alone. Heck, we’re encouraged to talk about it with others.
From what I’ve gathered, the most difficult courses are QFT II, QFT I, and Statistical Physics. These are for different reasons, such as teaching style and content. Some of these ideas are quite advanced, so it does take time to wrap your head around them. Your mileage will also vary, depending on your background.
I have to say though: Once I finished my last interview in December, I was filled with joy knowing that I got through many courses that I had never seen before in my life. Out of the six, the only one whose content I saw in part was the Relativity course (Statistical Physics at PSI is different than what you’ve probably done). Even then, I didn’t have a general relativity course during my undergrad, and learned things through summer research with my supervisor. I say this because I think many of the students had seen some of the content before.
This is where I want to interject with some of my own thoughts. During the Core Courses, I did often feel like I was one of the “weaker” students in terms of my background. While this was probably true, it helped to realize that this didn’t mean I was incapable of doing as well as anyone else. I just had to accept that I would move along at my own pace. It was difficult for me to do so at the beginning, but I got more comfortable with this as the semester wore on.
After the Core Courses are over, we get a holiday break (I and several other students returned home), and then start back up in early January for the Elective Courses.
To get the PSI certificate (which isn’t the Master’s degree, but a separate thing from Perimeter), we needed to take at least six of these electives. However, because 2020 was the year of COVID-19, things ended up changing. They are supposed to be half the work of a Core course, though that didn’t always happen. Even if they go on for the same number of weeks, the density is significantly less. This meant fewer tutorials, which was great for me because I find tutorials take up a lot of energy.
To give you an idea of the available courses, here’s what my year had:
- Quantum Matter (Part I and II)
- Standard Model and Beyond (Part I and II)
- Gravitational Physics
- Quantum Field Theory III
- Machine Learning for Many-Body Physics
- Chern-Simons Theory (Part I and II)
- Quantum Gravity (Part I and II)
- String Theory
- Relativistic Quantum Information (Part I and II)
- Computational Physics
- Quantum Information
- Quantum Foundations
- Cosmology (Part I and II)
As you can see, there was quite a lot on offer (though a few were cancelled due to COVID-19). A difference in my year was the addition of Part II courses. The goal was for Perimeter to offer courses for the PhD students, while letting PSI students also take them. The idea was to have Part I be accessible for any PSI student, while Part II was more research-oriented. I only took Part I courses, and I thought they were fine.
I won’t go into the precise details of each course, but the basic format was this: classes, a few tutorials, and some homework assignments. No interviews at the end.
I enjoyed some of my classes, while disliking others. Mainly though, I kept a simple mentality: explore the classes, and don’t worry about understanding everything. I had the mindset of a taster: try and see what was interesting, while being okay with not knowing everything. It worked well for me, and allowed me to get my courses done without too much stress. That’s important, since the winter semester is when research begins.
One tradition of PSI is the Winter School. This is a week-long trip to a remote area where we got to work on research projects and do a bunch of winter activities. It’s fun, giving everyone a chance to kick back and enjoy the winter as well as learn something with new people.
The way it works is that there are several research projects available. We filled out a survey, and then were placed in groups of three or four PSI students to tackle these projects. Each project also had someone supervising it, and sometimes there were multiple people (including professors and post-docs). The projects ranged from quantum foundations, to quantum information theory, to quantum computing and simulations, to gravitational theory, to mathematical physics and particle physics. The theme for our year was definitely “quantum”, but there was enough variety to satisfy most people.
Winter School was one of the highlights of the program, and that’s saying something because I was sick the whole week! Even then, we got to do a bunch of fun winter activities. It wasn’t exactly the coldest of winters (we had a mild season), but thankfully I got to bring out my Canadian and Québécois roots while playing hockey. There was also indoor roller skating, games, rock climbing, XC skiing, and archery.
The place is basically a retreat, and it has a staff of employees who show up each day and do everything from setting up the activities to preparing every meal and snack (which there are many of!). I thought they were great, and it definitely made the week easy, allowing us to just focus on our work and the activities.
We would work in the morning from 9:00-12:00, break for lunch, have afternoon activities from 14:00-17:00, have dinner, and then go for one more session between 18:30-21:00. It was a relaxed atmosphere, with each group getting their own workspace to ponder.
My group was actually composed of people from academia and industry. We worked with 1QBit, a company doing research on quantum computing and software development. Our problem was looking at the loss landscape for something called a variational quantum eigensolver. The idea is that we want to simulate a quantum Hamiltonian using quantum circuits, and the loss landscape is a multidimensional space where we want to find global minima (this lets us find the ground state, which is important when trying to understand a quantum system). For most of the week, we learned about visualizing these landscapes, building the necessary code for the visualization, and also coding the actual Hamiltonian in the language we were using (Pennylane from Xanadu, for those who are interested).
As someone who never really got into coding, I was excited but also anxious, not knowing if I would really be able to contribute. Thankfully, my two friends on the project with me were more than happy to help. I might not have contributed a lot to the actual coding that week, but I did learn a ton.
Some projects during Winter School result in published research. Others don’t. At the moment, ours hasn’t been published. We have plans to do more work to investigate, but we really learning for the most part. I didn’t feel much pressure to actually get a publication out from this, so I just focused on enjoying myself. Since the Winter School, a few groups have put work out on the arXiv, but it’s not the norm.
On the final day, we all gathered together and presented our work. It was nice to see what everyone had spent the week doing. I did not understand everything, but I enjoyed listening and trying to take nuggets of information from them. It made for good practice in sharing our research.
The Winter School was a welcome change of pace from everything else that was happening during PSI, and it was something I could even see myself doing again (as a project leader). Whereas a lot of PSI can feel fast-paced, that week was more of a stroll.
The PSI essay is one of the big requirements for the program. It can sound scary in the abstract, but it’s not bad.
The essay is a “mini” research project. It doesn’t have to include original research, though some do. The idea is to produce a written work at the level expected of someone who does research. It’s only thirty pages, which is quite short when you think about it. Combined with this is a presentation, given at the end of the year and is examined by three people: one PSI fellow, your supervisor, and an external examiner.
Because you need a supervisor for this project, you have to start looking for one during the fall. As someone who is keen to start things early, I began contacting people about potentially doing a project during the very first weeks of PSI. (That’s much earlier than needed.) That being said, I only chose my supervisor in December. I also didn’t start working on my essay in earnest until February, which I think is the norm for many PSI students. During the Core Courses, I felt too occupied by homework and preparing for interviews to do any research on the side. For some of my friends, applications for graduate programs in the U.S. are due then, so that occupied a lot of time.
After the Winter School though, things picked up for me. I met with my supervisor more frequently, and we worked on a plan of attack for my project. Different supervisors have different styles, so it’s important to find someone who you like working with. The person I chose to work with was Roger Melko, who works on the intersection between quantum many-body physics and machine learning. These were two areas that I wanted to become more familiar with, so working with him was a straightforward choice. Moreover, Roger is simply someone who is very easy to get along with, which helped my choice.
If you’re curious about what I actually worked on, I will be writing about in in a future essay. The topic is quantum error correction on the surface code with recurrent neural networks, but I’ll save the full explanation for the essay dedicated to it.
In terms of time spent working on things, I would say that my PSI essay became my main focus by March. I was almost done classes by then, which left me with more free time. A large chunk of my essay was background, so I began with that. It let me get familiar with the conceptual aspects of the problem, and this was probably where I made the quickest progress. As evidenced by this blog, writing isn’t something I fear, so sitting down to write was fun.
Another thing that’s great about working with Roger is that he has a large group of people who can help answer questions. His group is called the PIQuIL, and the people there helped me a bunch with my essay. In particular, Mohamed Hibat Allah and Dan Sehayek were key in helping me get my code working, so I am super grateful to them.
Even though I had written an Honour’s thesis for my undergraduate degree, this was a different sort of project. It might have been shorter in terms of page count, but I think it offered me the chance to dig deep and really understand a topic. Plus, it’s short enough that even if I ended up hating it, I wouldn’t be attached to this work forever.
Because the project I was working on had the potential to be original research, I wasn’t bothered with making the essay a masterpiece. That’s not to say I didn’t put a lot of time into making the presentation good. It’s just that I kept my efforts modest. I wanted to do good work with this idea, which meant covering all bases for a future publication. My essay was like a work-in-progress towards achieving that. It eased the pressure to feel like the essay was a huge thing (it’s not). My recommendation for writing the essay is to think of it as a chance to work on how you communicate your science. Try to make it the best you can, and treat it as a learning opportunity where you can test your ideas.
I also had a lot of time to think about my project because of COVID-19. The lockdown meant that I had many hours per day where I could just think about things that were interesting to me. I put many of those hours into my project, and I think that definitely helped get things moving along.
Presentation, defense, and graduation
In addition to the essay, we each gave a presentation of our work. This consisted of twenty minutes for us to talk, then twenty minutes for the examiners to ask questions and for discussion. The lockdown meant that this was entirely online, which was an interesting experience.
As I mentioned before, I like starting things early. So you won’t be surprised to hear that I began working on my presentation in April, over two months before presenting. For contrast, some of the PSIons were talking about starting their presentations after submitting their essay, giving them one or two weeks to prepare.
I started early for a reason: I never felt like I had given a good presentation before. Yes, my presentations were fine, but they didn’t sing. They didn’t inspire people, or make them excited about my work. I decided that this presentation would be different. I would put in a lot of work to make the presentation look good.
This turned out to be a great decision, since the impact of COVID-19 meant that our presentations were done entirely online. Having a nice set of slides became even more important.
I worked on my slides for longer than I would almost care to admit. I knew that the ideas I wanted to get across for my work could be encoded graphically. The question was: How much time was I willing to spend to make these look good?
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I spent hours on the slides, getting the animations and visuals just right. I even spent a bunch of time making visuals that didn’t make the final cut for the presentation (but will make it into that future essay I mentioned). My goal was clear. If I had a picture inside my head, I had to make it a reality on screen.
Getting the visuals was good, but I also wanted to sound good. That meant knowing my material inside and out. Furthermore, it meant eliminating needless “ums” and “uhs” while speaking, and pausing at the appropriate places. By starting early, I became intimately familiar with the content.
The presentation itself wasn’t a big affair. I showed up to the call, I talked for twenty minutes about my project on surface codes and machine learning, and then I got questions for about twenty minutes. It was fun, and I must admit, the stakes felt lower. Since you aren’t actually facing a room full of people, it’s easier to focus on giving a good presentation. I think I would have done alright anyway, but I note this because I think it will have implications for how schools do presentations in the future.
And with my presentation completed, I was finally done. It was the last thing I had to finish during PSI. A few weeks later, we had an online graduation ceremony to replace the one that we couldn’t do in person. It was a nice way to cap off the year, and there was one part in particular that I thought was brilliant. During a physical ceremony, each person would get called up and be handed their PSI certificate. For the online ceremony, students were able to send in a video of one minute talking about their favourite moments during PSI, and each one was played during the ceremony. You can view those videos here, as well as the video messages that were sent by special guests.
I was struck by how many talked about the same idea: friendship. Despite this whole year being nominally about physics, most students focused on meeting new people and thanking them for the wonderful year. This was what my video was about, and it seems like others had similar thoughts. It made for a wonderful series of videos, and a nice way to finish the program.
Before I wrap up, there are a few more items to talk about concerning PSI.
Mentors and buddies
Each PSI student is assigned to a PSI fellow as a mentor. This gives everyone a person they can go to throughout the year to ask questions, share problems, and so on. Depending on the PSI fellow, you might have more or less contact with them. They can also help you for reference letters, and school applications.
I thought this was a really good idea. During my undergraduate degree, I never had anything like this. Sure, I talked with my supervisor, but there was never anything set up explicitly for mentorship. More places should have this structure in place.
Then, there’s the PhD buddy system. In addition to your mentor, a bunch of Perimeter PhD students sign up to be a point of contact for the PSIons. Since we are in our master’s degree, being able to talk with PhD students is probably easier since we are close enough along the journey through academia. Even better, a lot (maybe most?) of the PhD students are former PSI students, so they know the program intimately as well.
Overall, I thought both systems were good, though I personally didn’t use them a ton.
COVID-19 and the shutdown of Perimeter
I planned to write an essay about my time at PSI before even starting the program. It was something I knew I wanted to do. But I had no idea that I would be including a section like this. I want to take a few paragraphs to explain how the PSI program morphed during the pandemic, and how we all coped with it.
Like most places, Perimeter was shut down in mid-March. Just before, there were a bunch of things happening. One of the main concerns was travel. Since the PSI group was mostly comprised of international students, being able to return home was a constant thought for most of them.
Because of the border shutdowns in various countries, many of my friends left (in various states of hurry). This was, to say the least, an emotionally trying time for a lot of our group. We thought that we still had another three months to be together, and suddenly I was helping my friends pack and leave the country. In particular, it often crossed my mind that I was maybe saying goodbye to someone who I would never see in person again. Or, at least for a long while.
Staying in a university residence when all other public places were closing down was also stressful. Even though we were assured that we would be taken care of, the truth was that everyone was reacting to this new situation, and confident statements didn’t mean too much. The end of March was filled with a lot of uncertainty.
However, I began to adjust to the new normal. I gave myself permission to do things that I wanted to do, like reading, writing, and drawing. I had neglected these a lot during PSI (something I knew I would have to do but wasn’t thrilled about). Being able to pick them back up with more regularity during the shutdown was great.
Perimeter was also in a good position to make the transition online. Some of our winter courses were cancelled, but some continued online. It helps that Perimeter records all past lectures, so we were able to watch the lectures from previous PSI years. Not ideal, but better than nothing.
I wasn’t a fan of the online courses, but I think that was also because I was tired of taking classes. These final months are when you’re balancing class work and your research project. I was getting into the bulk of my project, so I wasn’t motivated for the classes. We still had video calls in order to discuss the material twice a week, but my mind wasn’t in it. I’m thankful that the lockdown happened near the end of classes, because I think taking them all online would have driven me crazy.
Overall, the lockdown was difficult in terms of society having to change its regular functions, but for myself, I was able to spend more time alone with my thoughts, and I enjoyed that. I know that I am one of the luckier ones when it comes to being able to do my work. As long as I have books to read, pencils to draw, and a computer for writing, I’m set. I took this as a time to reorient myself, and while it was far from easy at times, I’m glad I was able to make a bit of progress.
I’m impressed by what Perimeter did though in reaction to the shutdown. There are many seminars and talks each week, and a bunch of them moved online. Even the Friday social events got moved into virtual calls for people to gather. I didn’t participate in these even when they were held in Perimeter, but I thought it was good to continue the tradition online.
I also want to acknowledge that not all of the PSI students adjusted quite like I did. Some had very legitimate concerns about their future (PhD and so on) that caused a lot of anxiety when the shutdown happened. I’m lucky that the university I’ll be attending for my PhD studies is close to home and still in Canada, so I was one of the least affected. I just wanted to point out that not everyone was in the same boat as I was. This was also complicated by the various messages we received concerning the evolving situation. I think I can be confident in saying that the sense of instability during these months was felt throughout the PSI group.
My Thoughts on PSI
In the last several thousand words, I’ve talked mostly about what the program is and what you can expect if you join. Here though, I want to invite you into the window of my experience.
When I started PSI, I didn’t think much of my abilities. I saw people who had taken more courses than I, who knew more advanced mathematics and physics, and generally seemed smarter. It made me very reluctant to share my own thoughts on things, since I felt like everyone around me had probably thought what I had before.
But as I got through more of the program, I realized that, while the PSIons are on a shared journey, we aren’t at the same point in that journey. Some of us are further along than others. This doesn’t mean that anyone is better or worse. It simply means that there’s diversity.
This was different from my usual experience in school, where everyone in a class has basically the same background and knowledge. It’s what made me uncomfortable in PSI at the beginning, but as I learned to embrace where I was in my journey through academia and physics, I didn’t worry about it as much.
PSI makes you grow. That’s the most succinct way I can put it. I’m not even talking about growing as a physicist in particular. Throughout my time, I grew in other ways, too. I made a variety of friends who made coming to PSI worth it on their own, I learned about managing my time, and I learned to let go of the ridiculous notion that you can absorb everything.
The year was stressful at times. I’m thinking particularly of the Core Courses, where homework and preparing for my interviews consumed the bulk of my energy. Still, I would absolutely say that PSI was a positive experience for me.
PSI was an opportunity for me to do something different than I had done in my undergrad. I wanted to branch out from the research I had done (modified gravity) and into quantum computing. I studied quantum error correction with machine learning, a blend of two fields that was fun to discover. Being able to jump into new fields was something that PSI allowed me to do without committing for years.
If there’s one thing that I will treasure the most from PSI, it was meeting the other PSIons. Being able to form relationships with others who are on a similar journey is so rewarding, and it gave me a chance to really connect with people (more than I ever had with people I went to school with). There are so many memories I can think of: a Thanksgiving dinner with fifteen of us squeezed into my apartment, walks around Waterloo Park, playing hockey and other games at the Winter School, driving five hours to go 2km underground to visit SNOLab, and many more.
I would be lying if I said the shutdown due to COVID-19 didn’t somewhat take away from the experience, but there’s nothing that could be done there. It was a stressful transition, but we made it through.
Throughout the program, I felt like I was supported by the PSI Fellows. They were always very kind to me, and it was clear they wanted the best for me. And because the program is so tight-knit, there’s a feeling of community that might not be present in larger programs. We did have some tension when things weren’t communicated to us in the best way during the health crisis, but I knew that Perimeter had our best interests at heart.
I also met great people outside of my program. In particular, I’m thinking of those from the PIQuIL, who were always kind and took the time to answer many questions I had when it came to my project. I also made friends outside of PSI who were at Perimeter, and that was great, too.
Being at Perimeter gave me a better sense of what I wanted to do in physics. That journey of self-discovery isn’t complete (and I hope it won’t be anytime soon), but seeing a huge swath of physics in more depth than I had as an undergraduate was eye-opening to me. As an undergraduate, my university had a limited number of physics classes. For example, the only courses on condensed matter that I’ve taken were during PSI (these were Condensed Matter, Quantum Matter I, and Machine Learning for Quantum Many-Body Physics). I’m glad that I was able to be exposed to these ideas, because they revealed a whole sector of physics that I had never encountered beforehand. Likewise, I’m happy that I got opportunities to play with code and do more computational work. As someone who used to swear by only using pencil and paper and tried his best to get away from computers, I wanted my time at Perimeter to include coding so I had a chance to build my skills. Through courses, the Winter School, and my PSI essay, I was able to do exactly this.
PSI was a great time for me. There were ups and downs (as is the case with anything in life), but I don’t regret joining the program at all. In fact, I’m so thankful that I was chosen. I didn’t go to a prestigious school, I was a good but not necessarily fantastic student, and I am happy that the PSI fellows gave me a chance to partake in this program. It was quite a ride, and it will be a year I never forget.
I’m proud to be a PSIon.