Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Jet setting

Enjoying the view from the hotel.

As I write this post I'm sitting on the patio of a hotel in Miami. It's CMS Week and that means it's time to travel to a foreign country and present my work to the whole collaboration. Since mid August I've spent about half my time away from Brussels, travelling for work, and spending a large amount of time in the air. It's certainly one of the perks of the job and conference organisers go out of their way to make the experience fun. So putting everything else to one side for a minute, the opportunity for travel is something I love and certaintly one of the most fun parts of the job.

There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to this part of the lifestyle though. Spending so much time travelling obviously means spending much less time at home, so I've barely been to the gym, or even had regular shopping trips for the past four months. My social life has taken second place to shifts at CERN, workshops and CMS week, and that takes a toll after a while.

Elsewhere on my travels I got to stay on the Danube and watch the Serbian navy sail past.

However I think the biggest advantage of these trips is that it gives me time to think outside of my normal routine for a while. Physics needs a huge amount of innovation and new ideas are not cheap. Taking the time to get out of the lab, walk in a foreign climate for while with a laptop and a notepad, without meetings to attend or deadlines to meet gives me the chance to step back and find new directions for my work. It's very rare that I go for a trip and don't come back with at least three new ideas that can substantially improve my current work, or lead to something new. I love innovating, I love problem solving, and I love physics. Although I'm attending talks and collaborating, this is essentially a working holiday so I'm going to do what I love doing the most- blue sky thinking about how to solve the biggest problems I currently face at work. I wish I work like this all the time, but unfortunately the hard work needs to be done too, and when I get back to Brussels I'll have to return to meetings and documentation and submitting jobs.

Anticipating my presentation to the collaboration.

For now I can bask in the December sun, chat with the Director of the lab about the "bigger picture", decide what my priorities should be for next year, and take the time to plan it all out. It's good to be back in the USA again, and I hope to have opportunities like this in whatever job I have in the future.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Coding opportunity: ContentMine

While on a trip to CERN I met a collaborator of a friend, and we discussed options after physics. She mentioned an interesting project called ContentMine, which aims to electronically mine data and information from academic articles. It's a concept which could change the way we respond to information and academic findings, and its website explicitly says:

"Although content mining can be done without breaking current laws, the borderline between legal and illegal is usually unclear. So we campaign for reform, and we work on the basis that anything that is legal for a human should also be legal for a machine."

As a scientist, a supporter of open access to academic discoveries, an acticist, a coder, and one who loves to push boundaries of technology, this is of great interest to me! At the moment I am at saturation when it comes to coding projects, but this is certainly a project I would like to be a part of in the future, and one to keep watching.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

And now for something completely different

Earlier this year I took part in a stand up comedy event at CERN. I knew one of the people who arranged it last year and tentatively put my name forward. A few months later I had to confirm my interest in the act and somewhat nervously decided to go ahead with it. I like to paint myself into corners like this, it focuses the mind. I wrote a set and after some help slashing the worst jokes I was left with fifteen minutes of presentable material. On the evening I got on stage, performed the act, got many laughs and a few rounds of applause. It felt great and I am very glad I put my neck out to do what is often considered one of the most challenging acts to perform.

The amateaur lineup before the show.

The main reason I was glad was not because it was fun, or because of the great people I met, or because I helped the outreach efforts of CERN, or because of the support of my friends (although I am glad about all these things as well) but because it was something completely new that challenged me in ways I'd never thought about before. I was given a brief that went something like "Create a fifteen minute set related to physics or CERN for an audience of people who are mostly non-scientists, who do not speak English as a first language." That brief was simultaneously constraining and liberating. There was a huge scope for creativity in terms of content, style, behaviour, and delivery. At the same time having to craft each joke to fit in with the thematic and language constraints stretched my vocabulary. For example, I couldn't say "vial of poison" when discussing Schrödinger's cat, it had to be a "bottle of poison", and I couldn't use the word "mantlepiece" at all. None of my jokes could rely on speaking quickly or using British idioms. Even referring to simple scientific concepts reqired explanations. Perhaps the most difficult part was seeing the act from the point of view of the audience, and realising that their collective sense of humour was not the same as mine. They didn't know where the jokes were heading, and I did, so I would have to lead them very deliberately from one joke to another, including a few callbacks.

One of the organisers took this photo in rehearsal. It looks as though I'm talking about something dynamic and insightful instead of joking about cats.

All these challenges exercised skills I hadn't really used before and the experience was exhilerating. To realise you can take on something so alien and succeed is a huge achievement. Even better, it improved my general communication and public speaking skills, which is very marketable when looking for new jobs. It was an opportunity to step outside of the world academia and research, which values thoroughness, discourse and precision, to stand up comedy, which values storytelling, empathy, and a certain amount of ambiguity. In an act it's not acceptable to stumble or be corrected, whereas in an academic discussion if nobody questions what you say then you are either irrelevant or not communicating clearly enough. In addition to that the presentation of the message matters almost as much as the message itself, which is the complete antithesis of academic discourse. (One of my friends told me that with the correct timing and delivery the audience will laugh no matter what you say, which is true to an extent.)

My friends came out in force and after the event they started the after party.

Once the show was over I was of course very happy with what I had done, but I wasn't sure what would come of it. It turns out that I didn't merely perform a set, I met many new people who would encourage me to explore comedy further. In my next trip to the UK I made a point to visit the Edinburgh Festival with one of the event talents, Chella. Next week I intend to meet some more talent, Helen, for another project that could open up a few more exciting projects. In between I've met with all the organisers of the event and it's helped to change the way I think about how we communicate with the public, and the importance of getting the message right. Whatever the next decades bring this experience will help to shape the way I approach my work and add some new edge to my communication skills which should serve my career well. Being challenged is good, being creative is good, novelty is good, and getting outside one's comfort zone is great. If it's possible to entertain people along the way then all the better.

We all take to the stage for a final bow.

You can view the event in its entirety with the following link. My set starts around 30:00. Webcast archive of Comedy Collider 2014

(All photos © CERN:, or @AlexBrovvn.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A handful of perspectives

Over the past few months I've spoken to quite a few people about leaving the field. (One of the first questions many people often ask is "Have you found a new job yet? What are you going to do?" which is premature and I think is missing the point.) A few perspectives have stuck with me, and while I'm not sure I can make a full blog post about each, I can certainly combine them into a single post.

One of my former physicist friends told me about how she'd moved onto jobs more closely related to technology and finance. She's with the people she cares about and she seems happier and more driven than when I knew her as a PhD student, and I think she made the right choice. In spite of this, there's something you can get from science that can't really get elsewhere, and she said that the work was like looking at the face of nature. It's almost a spiritual experience when you find out a fact about the universe that nobody has known before. That's something that I'll miss. On the other hand there's also a great amount of satisfaction to be gained from creating something new, and that's what has really interested me to a greater and greater extent in recent years. Trading in one satisfying experience for another is no bad thing, even if nothing else can ever replace the feeling you get when you make a new measurement.

Another friend and colleague pointed out that I might miss life as an ex-patriate, and this hadn't occured to me at all. When you're an expat you tend to meet other expats, who are living abroad to follow their passions. You get used to being a tourist in your home town, finding out the most exciting and bizarre places you can. It's an exciting experience, and there's a rush you get when you have a decent converstaion in a foreign language. Knowing that you can set your roots down anywhere is quite liberating and expands the mind. Something I should be careful about is settling down into a rut, where I surround myself with people who have never even travelled abroad, let alone lived in a foreign country. My life has been much richer for being a serial expat and I should try to hold onto that.

Recently I was speaking with a friend who said half-jokingly that I was a poor role model because of the sacrifices he had to make to be a physicist. I pointed out that this was one of the main reasons for leaving. We have to make sacrifices for anything we choose to do, and making a different set of sacrifices can be a welcome change. While I see that having role models at any stage in your career is important, I don't think that a fallen role model is a reason to lose motivation, and in any case I should be a strong role model for those people who want to leave the field. The only difference between my own experience and other people's is that I'm publicly discussing my choice. It helps focus my own mind, and helps others who are going through similar thought processes to come to conclusions.

Finally I'll mention my own thoughts on the matter. At every stage in my life I've been more interested in becoming something rather being something. I'd rather study to get a degree than just have the degree, I'd rather search the dataset for a new discovery than have my name on the discovery paper. In the same way I'd rather do everything necessary to become a professor than actually be a professor, and I think that I would stand a rather good chance at getting a faculty position if I applied myself. However once I got a permanent position somewhere I'd stop becoming a professor and start being a professor. It's not that I wouldn't have things to aim for after that, but it just wouldn't be the same. I enjoy the struggle, I enjoy bettering myself, I enjoy working my way up to more prestigious positions, but I don't want that process to end yet.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Health scare

Recently my nana was taken into hospital with blood clots in her lungs. That's the kind of condition that can be suddenly fatal, or from which one can make a full recovery. I found out about her condition on Tuesday evening, after she'd been in hospital for a few days and her situation looked serious. At the time I was in Brussels, due to fly to Geneva on the Thursday to give a talk, and then to Belgrade on the Saturday to attend a week long conference. I tried to find a way to fit in a trip to the UK to see her while I still could. Leaving that a week or more could have meant it was too late.

Having lost my other grandmother while I was in the USA (having visited her in hospital a couple of weeks before) I didn't want the same thing to happen to my nana while I was away. She's a central part of my mother's side of the family, linking my rather large extended family together and for as long as I can remember hosting very successful parties on Hallowe'en (very close to her birthday.) When I think of my nana I usually have memories of when I was a teenager and still living in Crewe. She loved to make us bacon sandwiches, rice pudding, and cups of tea. (I still enjoy a good cup of tea when I visit her.) So when I found out she might not leave the hospital alive I found myself dealing with the potential of a double loss, first that I might lose my nana, and second that I might lose one of my strongest connections to my past and to the rest of my family.

My decision to move abroad for a few years was largely a response to my brother's suicide, and it was a good opportunity to get away and clear my mind of troubles while I got the rest of my life back together again. I saw staying in academia as the easy option in terms of my emotional state (it's obviously the more challenging option, intellectually, which also helped.) But now, nine years after Dylan's death it's fairly obvious that I've come to terms with that loss and moved with my life. In the meantime I'm still living abroad while my nana is rushed into hospital while a potentially life threatening condition, and all I can think of is that I don't want her to die before I return to the UK. The whole incident has reinforced all the reasons why I want to return. There are many sacrifices that have to be made to be a nomadic scientist (or nomadic in any profession) but close family members are not sacrifices I want to make. I've been away for eight years now, and people's lives have moved on, some people have had brushes with death. On the other hand I'm just eight years older and eight years more experienced and there's nothing really keeping me in Belgium (or anywhere else) long term.

I get the feeling that had my nana died while I was abroad and I suffered from amnesia about the past few years, the first question I'd ask myself would be "Why were you still in Belgium in the first place?" I don't think I could provide an answer to that question that wouldn't work equally well if I chose to live in the UK instead.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Branching out

For the past eight years I've been active in particle physics research, but that hasn't been my only interest. As time has gone on I've found myself taking on more and more elaborate projects in my spare time that build on my experiences as an international particle physicist, without directly contributing to my physics research. During my time at SLAC I spent most of my spare time travelling and exploring the local (and not so local) world around me. As time passed I found I spent more and more time developing programming skills for fun, but always with an eye for what would be useful and transferable in the future. (At one point I wrote a content management system from scratch. It was rapid development and looking back I shudder to think of the security holes it had. Still, that was all part of the learning process!) On top of the normal work there were of course all the other burdens that go with being a student, such as writing a thesis, taking a lecture course, and helping with the then brand new series of student seminars. Add to that the tedious paperwork of being an expat in the US, and taking the time to react to the funding cuts on both sides of the Atlantic I had a full schedule. It was a brilliant experience, and one that left me exhausted.

Then I moved to Geneva to work at CERN and things changed quite radically. My new boss was an old colleague and friend of mine and we had high expectations of each other. The three years we spent working together were probably the most rewarding of my career so far. As well as all the usual work: taking part in two analyses (one of which I started and lead for a year), service work, software development, giving talks at international conferences, and mentoring students, I also took part in many extra curricular activities. I was one of the most prolific outreach bloggers in the field, making liveblogs and videos, including a 10 minute April 1st video. On top of this my programming and photography skills saw a huge improvement. I directed and gathered footage for a horror series (still to be edited and published, alas) and started a whole new set of blogs exploring life as physicist, life following bereavement and musings about life in general. One of the long term projects where I'm still active is the LGBT group at CERN. When I arrived there was no such group, which I thought was a gross oversight, so I aimed to fixed this. After negotiations with CERN management we got recognition and paved the way for other similar groups to join us, modernising CERN's approach to equal opportunities by (in my opinion) a couple of decades. Towards the end of my contract at CERN I was spend more of my time evangelising particle physics, first by reaching out to particle physicists in the field to advertise my new analysis (and to try to change the focus of the work from a bump hunt to a signal strength measurement, which was largely unsuccessful) and later to advertise the work of the whole experiment to the US funding agencies. This had style and flair that went beyond what is normally expected of physicists. Most talks we give are clinical and drab. Mine were bright and energetic, conveying emotion and wonder as well as information. I also spent a great deal of time socialising with my students and colleagues, often at my own expense, not only because it's a pleasant way to spend time, but because it's vital that people in a foreign country feel welcome, supported, and willing to come back in the future. As all this happened I tried to tie the different activities in together. I explored CERN for fun, taking photos as I did and getting the idea for the horror series. The photos I took I posted on my outreach blogs, and I would go with some people from the LGBT group to film more footage. I socialised with the people I knew the best, finding common ground between the Brits, the outreach bloggers, the analysis team, and the LGBT group, drawing on the strengths of each and making new connections when useful, building stronger social networks for everyone. In all this my boss helped with the outreach, the horror series, the evangelising, and, of course, the work itself. All the time this was documented with a "photo of a day" project, and highlighted with the discovery of the Higgs and some truly amazing conferences.

The point to all this is that the physics itself was not enough to keep my mind occupied. I needed a lot of other outlets for my creativity and to keep boredom at bay. It also gave a welcome break from the physics, allowing my subconscious to take over those problems for a while and quite often in the middle of doing something else entirely I'd come acros the answer to a physics related problem I'd been thinking over for days. I had to have distractions to keep my mind active and reach those parts of my brain that physics research didn't exercise often. This has become more and more important to me as I've become more experienced and competent as a physicist. Since moving to Brussels I've found myself taking on additional projects that are moving even further away from physics. This blog is one example, where I take a deep and long look at where my life is heading. It's been an exercise in clarity that has taken a great deal of thought and attention, and many people have praised me for my writing on here. Finding the right words takes practice, and I've been developing the necessary skills in many different guises over many years. This has included being a student activist and support officer (including writing hundreds of pages of literature and policy), the technical writings associated with physics, some teaching and mentoring experience, documenting software effectively, blogging in many styles and contexts from the frivolous to the poignant to the serious, to the LGBT activism at CERN, writing for audiences of different levels of knowledge and competence of English. I find I have an ongoing need to explore new and different styles to challenge myself in novel ways. I currently have a few long term software projects taking place that go far beyond anything I've attempted before, and have definite audience demographics with their own challenges. One is an educational game for pupils in high school, another is a point and click tool for creating physics diagrams (an interface which is woefully underused in our field) and another is an online tile based exploration game that tests the limits of what a browser is capable of delivering, in terms of scope and resource use.

However the project that surprised me the most and what I enjoyed the most was taking part in stand up comedy at CERN. Writing a comedy set and performing it on stage for a given audience is something I had never done before. It tapped into a whole set of skills I had only skirted around before and never used fully. It forced me to think about the differences between being funny to friends and being funny to an audience, between telling a joke and setting up a joke. During the whole process I received all kinds of positive and negative feedback (all constructive), learned that the creative process is largely about deciding what not to include, received praise for my performance on the night, and ultimately made something of which I very proud. It also opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities for me. I met all kinds of creative and funny people who were equally as excited about the evening as I was, each with their own acts. Again, it fed into the social life I had developed at CERN, drawing on my experiences as a physicist, as someone who takes part in outreach, as an LGBT physicist, meeting familiar faces in a new context, and realising that a lot of the talent was already there at CERN. If only I had known this four years ago instead of being more mercenary! I look back on the experience as one of the most impressive and "cool" things I've ever done, and note that on the one hand it would not have been possible if I was not a physicist, and on the other that it used skills which are mostly non-overlapping with those of the typical physicist. It was outside my comfort zone by just the right amount, and that's what I'm looking for in the next chapter of my life. Something that builds on my creative and social skills, not necessarily a distraction from my technical skills, but something complementary that makes me a more well rounded person, and fulfils me in a different way. At that point I'll find my goalposts moving again and who knows where that will lead in terms of my personal life. I have a few ideas for short stories, so perhaps I'll take up writing for a few years.

Monday, September 1, 2014

CERN people - The Shrinking Field

A friend of mine posted the following video, which sums up the situation in particle physics rather well. At times it can feel like exploitation.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Time to get serious...

At the end of this month I will have been in my current job for one year. It's a big milestone because it means I will start to have my name on the papers that the experiment produces and that I'll be more free to pursue my own research goals within in the collaboration. In principle I will have between 12 and 24 months after that to continue working, and the end date is not yet fixed because it depends on many factors some of which will be (by definition) unknown until next year. The biggest factor is whether or not our team make a significant discovery, which is mostly likely to happen in the first few weeks or months of data taking. If we get lucky I'll probably be convinced to stick around for a while longer to help out with analysis and organisation. I've led a fledgeling analysis that grew unexpectedly popular before and simply keeping the meetings going and introducing new analysts is a full time job that needs excellent communication and management skills, both of which are highly transferable. It's an exhilarating experience, and character building, although quite exhausting, and it would be an excellent legacy to leave behind.

Since this is the halfway point it makes more sense to talk about what kinds of opportunities are available and what I'd like to consider. I've spent about half a year discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the career I've had so far, and how my needs have changed, but in terms of career development this has been quite nebulous. (For those who read this blog you may be interested to see how some of the themes overlap with one of my other blogs, the Good Grief Project.) While it has been very useful to discuss these personal factors I should now start to focus more on what I want from the next stage in my career. I definitely want an opportunity for skill development and growth, which I find is lacking in my current job. It's not that a job in high energy physics does not give opportunities to develop new skills, it's just that I've already explored so many of them so enthusiastically already that my CV is already overflowing with skills that go beyond the minimal requirements of such a job. One of the biggest motivators is finding a job that challenges me and gives me a chance to contribute something new. It would also be helpful to have a job which will encourage me to confront my weaknesses as an employee in order to make me more desirable. Staying in a job that allows you to define your own working hours and (to an extent) your own working environment tends to lead to work habits that need ot be adapted when looking elsewhere.

While looking at was available I found some recruitment agencies dedicated to people with scientific backgrounds, although these do tend to focus more on students than on people who are leaving the field. Without further ado, and to ensure I never lose these links, here are a few that come recommended from the Institute of Physics. First, an article from Institue itself titled Working in physics: Next steps for physics graduates. There they recommend their own Bright Recruits service, the ever present Milkround which I've known of since I was an undergraduate, and Prospects, which seems to be run by a charity rather than a business. In addition I also came across ecm who specialise in high tech recruitment and seem to promise higher quality rather than a brute force approach.

Tiime to get recruited!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

When "interesting" isn't enough

For the past few months I've been trying to find the right words for how I feel about my work and personal life and how they relate to each other. It seemed like an epiphany when used the word "outgrown" in January, and recently I've stumbled across another turn of phrase that sums up how I feel. Some people reading this blog have the impression that I hate my job, and this is not at all true. I quite enjoy the job, it's very interesting, it can be mentally stimulating, there is a lot of freedom and there are many things I'll miss when I move on to something new. I think the people who make this mistake have some confusion concerning the difference between a job and a career, because I can't see how else someone can come to that conclusion. Even the first post I ever wrote on this blog concluded with an image showing how much I've had being a physicist. That photo was taken during the preparations for the LHC running.

Spreading the physics joy in my spare time in my apartment.
At that time the job took my life, and it was great.

At the time there was a lot of excitement in the air about the upcoming data. We had access to fresh data at energies we'd never seen before and were eagerly awaiting more. There were discoveries to be made, old models to test, and it seemed to bring together young and old physicists. I made videos and wrote blogs about what was happening, I mentored students and often stayed up until 2am debating physical principles with people. I set up social groups and I frequently invited physicists over to my home. We were all excited, we were all part of something bigger than us, and we were all homesick and, to an extent, lonely. I found the job fascinating and it soon took over my whole life. My boss was one of my best friends and had been an inspiration to me for many years. We would often talk about physics in our spare time, over breakfast, on the tram to Geneva, or hikes in the nearby mountains, wherever we were. Shortly before that contract came to an end the wonder of it all had begun to fade and I already had a sense that it was time to move on, so I looked for another postdoc and found a position in Brussels.

Brussels is reason enough to live in Brussels.

So here I am now, in Brussels. It's a fine place to live, there's no doubt about that. The job is still interesting, and I still enjoy it. The problem now is that I only find the job interesting, and the job is determining nearly everything else about my life. I find myself single and living alone in a foreign country for a job I find interesting. That's not enough for me, if something is going to eclipse all other factors in my life, whether it's a job, a relationship, my family, some charity work, it must be fascinating. I've got to fall in love with whatever it is that's making me make compromises elsewhere. If I'm going to have a job that I find just interesting, I may as well relocate and find an interesting job closer to home.

That's the phrase I've been struggling to find for the past few months:

"I don't want to build the rest of my life around a job I find merely interesting."

I've either got to go out and find a job that's fresh and new that fascinates me, then build my life around that, or spend more time prioritising the rest of my life. Or another way to think about is that:

"I want my job to work for me, not have me work for my job"

because at the end of the day who really cares if I do this job or someone else does? Probably just me, and I could be just as happy, if not more so in a different job.

As a side note, I also get the impression that some people have a problem with the idea that I might, for once in my life, put my personal needs above my career. That's not a healthy attitude for anyone to have, and you can probably guess what my two word reply to that kind of attitude would be. I'm not about to stay in the field for the sake of meeting someone else's expectations, especially if that person doesn't understand what factors have motivated me to choose the path I have taken.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Educated, first world, young, white male privilege

I've been meaning to write this post for a while, but I keep putting off in favour of other posts that address individual aspects of the career change instead of writing about myself.  Some people have praised me for my honesty and self awareness, and some people have mistaken my blog posts as complaints about my job.  I actually enjoy my job and find it a comfortable vocation.  What has happened is that my needs and abilities have changed and the jobs that have served me well in the past are no longer what I should be doing with my life.

At every stage in my life, for as long as I can remember, I've noticed the following patterns about my behaviour.  I've always had a need to be mentally stimulated and this is by far the greatest drive in my life.  Sometimes in my idle moments I've wondered what it would have been like to have lived in a different time or place where I didn't have the opportunity to go to university, own a computer or travel the world.  You will notice that these are all very much first world opportunities not avaiable to the majority of the world's population, and that is the point of this post.  I know am privileged to have these opportunities and I am extremely grateful to have them.  They have enriched my life in ways I can't even begin to describe (and probably in ways I don't even realise, let alone understand.)  I can't stand reading complaints from people with an over developed sense of entitlement, and hope to never be one of those people.

Once my need for mental stimulation is met I move onto the second biggest motivator in my life, and that is helping others.  If I don't take the opportunity to use the skills, knowledge and resources I have to help other people I am simply wasting my time here.  In the final year of my degree my first choice for my next career move was a PhD in physics, and this is was mainly because I felt a need to give something back.  The government had provided me with four years of free tuition at one of the best universities in the world, giving me a decent (although far from complete) understanding of the physical world.  I felt that the least I could do was to give something back so that I wasn't just a consumer of knowledge.  (Naturally when Dylan died this became not only an altruistic act, it was also one of personal self interest.)  For as long as I can remember I've tried to make a different people's lives.  From taking on extra curricular activities at school, to helping run the student union, to being an LGBT officer at university, to helping grieving friends talk, to setting up the LGBT CERN group, to taking part in physics outreach I have always wanted to give something back.  I have done all of this without ever expecting anything in return (with the exception of the student union, which provided a modest salary) and for the majority of the time without seeking recognition for my contributions.  I have no idea why, but I very rarely want to be centre of attention, and put on a façade of false modesty to avoid embarrassing myself a lot of the time.

My third strong motivation in life is being independent.  I grew up in a crowded house, sharing a tiny bedroom for the first 12 years of my life.  I'm naturally an introvert, so I internalised most of my thoughts and feelings until I had the freedom to move away from home.  Since then I've tried to do my best to be as independent as I can, although at times I've failed quite badly in this respect.  I don't want to be the person that needs constant emotional support or financial support.  I'm someone who needs solitude more than companionship, and for a very long time I've found the idea of "settling down" abhorrent.  When I've moved from one place to another I've found the change invigorating (although I think I've done enough moving at this stage that it will do little to make me a better person if I move again!)  It's with this sense of independence in mind that I keep trying to improve myself and see myself grow as a person.  Having demonstrated to myself that I can move across the world, make a new life for myself and invite my friends to share some of the local life I'm starting to feel restless.

I'm also very good at collecting large amounts of posessions, which is rather unusual for a physicst.  Many of my friends and colleagues consider it impractical to fill a moving van with posessions, preferring to live out of a few bags and boxes for years at a time. I don't understand this attitude at all, and this materialism is one of the reasons I want to leave the field.  To some people it would seem shallow to want to live in a nice apartment and work in a pleasant, modern office environment, but for me it's a sign of self esteem to want these kinds of luxuries.  It took about a year of counselling after Dylan's death to convince me that it was okay to want to be happy and to take the time and resources to look after my own desires.  Right now my job dominates my life and for a while I defined myself in terms of my job.  Once that attitude changes, as it has for me, the materialistic quality of life becomes important, and he days where "love of the job" was enough to get me through another contract are over.  Again, this is a sign of personal growth.  I've lived the life of a student, in poverty, in putting up with substandard accommodation, looking to the future when things will improve.  I'm now in my early thirties and I don't want to live my life as if I'm still my early twenties.  As with the other motivating factors in my life, my materialism isn't just about making myself happier, I see most of my possessions as tools to help me build better things and improve myself in new ways.  Despite the fact I love video games I hardly own any, because I usually feel that time spent playing videos games is time wasted.

So that's where I feel am in my life at the moment.  Behind me lies a huge trail of wonderful opportunities, some of which are due to being born in the right place, and some of which are due to my own choices.  It's been a pleasure to be a part of this and I've always been grateful.  As a person I've grown personally and professionally and now I feel I'm at the next stage of my life where I've outgrown a career in physics.  I've had a brilliant time and most of the time I have enjoyed the experience (with recurrent periods of intense frustration and resentment every few years.)  Looking back on what I've achieved and the experiences I've had, I have no regrets, but I do want the chance to do something different with my life in the future.  I can't think of anything else that I could give the particle physics community in the near future that another physicist couldn't also give, especially with my current job.  It's time I took my talents elsewhere, gave myself more opportunities to develop new skills and abilities, and allow me to maintain a higher quality of life than academia offers.

If you've been reading these blog posts thinking that I'm a spoilt white man complaining about his job then I hope this has cleared some things up.  I'm aware I have a lot of privilege and I am trying my best to not complain.  In fact all of my problems are first world problems, and that's my definition of happiness.  Instead of complaining I want to do more with my life and give something even bigger back to the world.  I want to keep growing my potential alongside developing my abilities, but I've found I've reached a plateau.  Any job has its downsides, and I've explained a few I've faced so far.  For as long as the job allows me to grow and feeds my need for mental stimulation I'll put up with those downsides with a smile.  The downsides haven't changed, I have, and I want to seek some new challenges somewhere else.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Academics anonymous

A while ago, the following article was doing the rounds:

Academic Anonymous: why I'm leaving academia

The article talks about the kinds of pressures that people face in the world of academia and the advantages and disadvantages of academia. One of the lines that stood out and got my attention was (my emphasis):

We put up with this in the hope that we will be rewarded with a permanent position at a university in a town or city we would actually like to live in.

That sums up how I feel quite well. Of course my career is very important to me, and my work is probably the most important thing in my life right now, but it's not so important that it eclipses everything else in my life. One of the main reasons I want to leave the field is that I want to spend more time and energy on the other parts of my life. I've never had a relationship that lasted more than a year. Since leaving home I've never lived a reasonably from either of my parents. It's been years since I was able to just go and have a picnic with some of my university friends without first getting on a plane (or more recently the Eurostar) at a huge cost in terms of time and money. See friends shouldn't be that difficult. I should be able to give my friend the attention they deserve. When we get together we have a lot of fun, and I try to spend the time in a way that isn't just enjoyable, but goes a little way to making us better people, whether that means learning some local history, exploring some esoteric museum, or just taking some beautiful photographs. I'd like to have time to spend a night in playing on an Xbox, but that just seems like a wasted opportunity.

From this point there are only two realistic options for me if I choose to stay in academia:

Get a faculty position
There are two possibilities here, either I get lucky and get a safe tenured position, or I get unlucky and have to pursue tenure (so I'd be facing pressure to work hard and compete for the position.) Now being a professor would not be bad at all. The working conditions and pay are generally better, and I'd get the opportunity to teach, which I love to do. However it would still mean putting my career ahead of everything else in my life and saying that it's more important, as if my life should suit my career rather than the other way around.
Get another postdoc position
This is not desirable because it really just pushes the real question back a few years, and time is precious. This is the decision after my previous postdoc position and it's helped me to realise that I want a change. Getting another postdoc position would mean moving to a new city again, making a new set of friends again and upheaving all my life again, and then doing that once more after the contract has finished. Doing all that just to delay a career decision would probably be a big mistake.

Some people have the impression that I hate my job, and this is untrue. I quite like my job, it's fairly easy, the hours are flexible and the working conditions are laid back. Since I choose not to devote all my waking hours to it's become quite comfortable, and for me that's a problem. If I'm comfortable at work then it feels as though I'm stagnating. So either I stagnate, pursue a goal I don't want, or choose a third option. I think I'll take the third option: the unknown! With friends!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

More jobbortunities (and a couple of comics)

Recently I've come across a couple of job opportunities via family and friends. First of all, my step father suggested I look into the Lean Six Sigma program, which specialises in reducing waste in industries. It would require some training (at some cost) to pursue this as a career, as well as meaning a dramatic change in the line of work, but it does look rather attractive. I do like this kind of problem solving, and cutting out the inefficiencies from a process is very satisfying. It would also give quite a good variety of work, as once a problem is solved it's generally solved permanently, and attention must go elsewhere.

In the meantime I've also been contacted by a few friends involved in software engineering about possible jobs. This includes startup work, a permanent position solving combinatoric problems, and taking on some freelancing. One of my friends also suggested I take on some science policy work with a colleague. So there are plenty of leads to follow up where I would not have to create a new social life from scratch again.

Since these two paragraphs didn't warrant a post on their own, here are some comics that made me smile lately:

First of all, a Zen Pencils comic about have the artist, Gav, found his true calling. I can't help notice that the character in the comic spent a long time developing the skills he really loved all the time. It's not as though the time he spent not drawing for a living were wasted, as he was developing his real interest all along. I suppose that's the point of the comic.

And another comic that has been doing the rounds lately. This time it's about people going from the mundane to the amazing relatively late in life. Not that particle physics is mundane, far from it. It is, however, not hitting the spot anymore. I'm not lost either. I don't know where I'll be a couple of years from now, but I know the kinds of things I want and don't want.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Diminishing returns Part III: The competition

In the past few decades the field had changed in a rather disturbing way. The number of professors and faculty positions has increased slowly, yet the number of PhD students has increased significantly. This has had the effect of making the competition more fierce and the individual contributions more diluted. It seems that in order to get a faculty position one must work very hard on boring projects for little reward except for the faculty position itself. I'm not scared of competition, I just don't want the need to compete to become more important than the process of discovery and job satisfaction. I'm not prepared to work long hours and weekends on someone else's project to get ahead, when I can be having a much more fulfilling career somewhere else. The longer one stays in the field, the more one has to cling to "love of the job" to keep going, and that reservoir has been steadily drying up for me over the years. This plot shows how bad the situation is in the USA across all the sciences:

Monday, April 14, 2014

The elephant in the room

So far I've written several blog posts outlining the various frustrations about being a physicist, as well as some of the perks. Underlying all this there is another factor that I've not touched really touched on and plays a big role in the events that have shaped my life in the past decade. In 2005 my older brother, Dylan, decided to kill himself. At the time I had just finished the final year of my undergraduate and I was starting my Sabbatical year. I didn't really have a plan for what to do after that, and a PhD in physics was the simplest choice, and a very good backup plan. Since it was the end of my degree, most of my friends had already left, with many of them having already left the previous year. I found myself alone, grieving, and in a job that soaked up almost all my time.

I've described the job I had in a previous post; it was a huge responsibility with very little support. The fact that my brother had killed himself was never a secret (although I didn't realise how widely known it was until the end of the year when I found out people were quite regularly asking colleagues how I was holding up) and by sheer chance the university Counselling Service were the first people to know about the news. I was having a meeting with one of the members of staff about listening skills training when I got the phone call from my mother. I spent the rest of the year in and out of counselling as they did their best to keep me functioning properly in the midst of the emotional strain I was facing. It took most of the year to convince me that what I needed was to spend more time and attention on myself, and find out what my own needs are.

With Dylan's death I knew it would take a long time for my life to come back to "normal", and that I couldn't think clearly about the future. There were many times when I couldn't even picture a future worth living. The idea that things might never get better terrified me, and there is a point in the grieving process where that feels like a real possibility. At some point you lose a sense of hope, and it takes a long time to return. When it does return you can suddenly see a future worth working towards and it becomes a lot easier to get through the days again. It was around this time that PhD applications were taking place and I decided to apply to Oxford. It meant I didn't have to travel and that the department knew me. The idea was that I knew I would need some way to survive the following year, even if I didn't care about that at the time, so I'd go to the interview, do my best to show willingness and ambition, and have something lined up for when my current contract came to an end. There was very little work involved apart from showing up, answering their questions and showing enthusiasm. Even so I was having a bad day (although better than most at the time), I knew I faltered on a couple of questions, and I didn't get the position. I resigned myself to taking another year out with a relatively menial job in Oxford with the few good friends I knew would still be around.

A few months later I got a letter from Brunel University. They had a position available, they'd heard about me, and they'd asked me to come to interview. On hearing that they were willing to take me on, with no competition, and send me to California at an electron-positron collider with real data I couldn't believe my luck! I took a couple of days to think it over, as I didn't trust myself to make a coherent decision with my then current state of mind. It would mean getting out of a tenancy agreement (that I'd pretty much just agreed to so that I didn't have to find a house myself) and going to a university I'd never heard of where I knew nobody. Given that I'd spent most of the past year having to make new friends, and that Oxford would be only a coach ride away it didn't seem too daunting. So after a few sanity checks with friends I decided to go for it and accepted the offer. This is still one of the decisions that makes me wonder what would have happened if I'd turned it down. A few weeks after accepting the offer at Brunel, I got an offer from the University of Birmingham, which was more prestigious and had a more established group, but didn't have the same opportunities that the position at Brunel had.

In any case I accepted the offer, moved to Uxbridge, and after a few weeks well deserved break I started my PhD. (It's a matter of pride to me that this is the only time I've ever actively chosen to be without work. Since then and before then I've always been either studying or in work full time.) The motivation for taking the position was two-fold. First, it meant that I could use the skills I'd learned in my degree to do something useful, and at the time I still felt a moral obligation to give something back in exchange for a free education. Secondly, and most importantly, it allowed me to put of career related decisions for a few years. I could come back to the most important questions later in life, once I'd dealt with the emotional fallout of Dylan's death and the effects it had had on the family. By choosing to stay in physics for a few more years I could remain competitive in the job market because the PhD was definitely a fine career progression.

To the USA, home of life changing road trips full of navel gazing opportunities!

After just under a year I had my bags packed and ready to go to the USA. This was something very new to me, as the furthest I'd ever travelled was to Germany for a school trip. Now I was getting the opportunity to go California with my flights paid for and even an allowance for moving my possessions there and back. As soon as I arrived in California I had a warm welcome and found everything to be relatively luxurious compared to in the UK. It was the perfect place to escape to for a few years and during that time I found a new sense of purpose in my life that I hadn't had before. The academic freedom was very important to me, and having that freedom in the absence of all family and friends from the UK enabled me to find the space I needed to come to terms with Dylan's death and to see a future worth working towards. I was lonely for much of the time that I was in California, but this was what was needed at the time, and this is one of the reasons I agreed to go in the first place. While I was there one of my close friends in the USA had to deal with the loss of her mother, and I did what I could to help out, give her space to talk and keep her company. It was around this time that I realised I was ready to go back to the UK and it was just a matter of finishing up the loose ends of my PhD (which had provided its own share of headaches.)

Towards the end of my PhD I was looking for postdoc positions after a few rejections I found a good match at Southern Methodist University (SMU), Dallas. The decision to work for SMU was based on a few major factors. The most important was that my boss would be Steve Sekula, who had been a brilliant and enthusiastic colleague at California, and proceeded to be the best boss I think I will ever have. Under his watch I contributed to the ATLAS experiment, started working on outreach activities, immersed myself in the activities at CERN, and created a new analysis from scratch. At the same time the Higgs boson was discovered and I got to be a part of the media frenzy and see the inside story as it unfolded. I doubt physics will ever be as rewarding as it was that summer, and with any boss other than Steve. The other reason for accepting the position at SMU was that time was getting tight towards the end of the PhD, and any job other than being a physicist would mean taking time off, looking over my options, and asking all kinds of questions that I didn't feel I had the time to answer. Given all this, working with Steve for a few years was an obvious choice and one of the best experiences of my life.

However, even though I had a very productive and rewarding time as a physicist it does not change the fact that the choice to pursue physics as far as I have was one of convenience and one intended to push back the more pressing questions about my career until I felt ready to deal with them. That's been at the back of my mind for all of the past eight years. A long term career in physics has always been a possibility, but it's never been the goal. I didn't really have a firm goal, and still don't have one. In a way, everything that's happened since Dylan's death has shown me that I'm not going to have a conventional life or career, that my life is a series of unpredictable events, that none of my "plans" have been realised (each career progression has been a second or third option) and that things have worked out very well in spite of all this. I have a lot of enthusiasm and creativity to offer any job I take, and people seem to confuse this with enthusiasm and creativity that is exclusive to physics.

The process of grieving has made life plans seems rather trivial in comparison. Obviously I never planned to lose Dylan for suicide, so none of my life plans before then could have prepared me for what happened afterwards. Since then I've only planned a year or so ahead at a time and that approach has served me well. I'm certainly not ready to settle down in one place at the moment, and I still feel as though I left a lot of friendships behind in the UK. Dylan's death gave me a huge opportunity for personal growth that I wouldn't have had otherwise and one that is still teaching me more about myself, while I feel as though I've come to the end of the road in physic. I don't know if I'd have realised that had it not been for the more important things in life becoming more prominent.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A brief interlude

It's time for a slightly different blog post. In my first year as an undergraduate at Oxford university I took an interest in student politics, wanting to find a way to contribute to the university life around me. I stood for the position of LGBT officer on the college Junior Common Room, a position I held for two years. Within a few weeks I was asked if I wanted to take part in the Peer Support programme, which consisted of listening and communication skills for student counsellors. At the same time I took part in the equal opportunities campaign, Queer Rights, of the central student union, eventually becoming a Co-Chair. Over the course of the next few years I took on more responsibilities in different areas, including support for students suffering from problems with mental health, finance, and eating disorders, and representing physical science undergraduates to the university, as well as contributing to many publications. As this happened I spent more time with the central student union, leaning how it worked and finding out the challenges unique to the institution. Oxford is made up of several colleges, each of which has its own history and its own regulations, which has the result that each one has a different system for supporting its students, its own problems, and there are wide disparities between experiences at each college. The role of the central student union is to support the student common rooms across the university and trying to improve the quality of life of students across the university while at the same time respecting the independence and unique characters of the colleges.

Given all the experience I'd had, how fascinating I found the political environment at the university, and how much work there was still left to do, I decided to put my hat into the ring and stand for a sabbatical position at the central student union, with the grand (if somewhat intimidating) title Vice President (Welfare and Equal Opportunities). I saw off the competition before the elections had even begun. The election process itself was a two week slog, taking up a quarter of the term with evening hustings, touring around the many colleges and finding out what issues matter most to the students and the common rooms. Given that the terms are only eight weeks long, this was a huge commitment alongside normal studies and my competition dropped out before the race even started. I was elected, and after my final exams the two week handover period began. I quickly got up to speed with the rest of the issues facing the student union, and meeting the people I'd have to work with over the next year.

Part of the photo shoot for the manifesto. Calm, collected, confident, reassuring.

With all the preparations complete I had to start on the real work of improving life at the university. It was hard work right from the beginning and took nearly all of my time and energy. During the course of the year I rewrote and published four major handbooks, trained for the student nightline service, assisted with the running of six student campaigns, met with several university committees, racked up more column inches than anyone else in the student press, and spent every spare minute improving the organisation of the student union. During this time I picked a few key projects to work on (because it's impossible to improve everything) and my legacy was to get condom machines in nearly all the colleges, getting permanently cheap pregnancy tests for students, giving the sabbatical officers listening skills, and bringing the university accommodation office to the students who needed them most. I kept up with the student nightline service and LGB society, contributing where I could, and enjoying their company when I needed a sympathetic friend to help cope with the stress. The changes I made to the student union literature outlasted my time there by several years (in fact much of it is still used on the website today!) As all this happened I also had responsibilities to help individual students with their problems, often acting as the final safety net when all else failed. In addition to the welfare support I had to provide, the role was inherently a political one, so all my actions were open to scrutiny and press coverage. I found myself embroiled in the odd controversy, on the the receiving end of politically charged questions and standing before an audience of several hundred hostile students, opposing poorly thought out changes that would cause the support structures to collapse around us. My final act was hand everything over to my successor and leave him with a summary that would enable to hit the ground running. The following autumn I moved on to London and started my PhD.

Back to the office, on my graduation day.

After the most exhausting year of my life, I was satisfied that I had left the student union and the university a better place than I found it. I made a few mistakes, of course, and there were things I would do very differently if I could do them again, but that year remains one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. I am extremely grateful to the friends I made during that time, many of whom are still on my facebook feed, peppering my news feed with inspring stories from around the world about the ongoing social struggles and political movements, continuing the good work they started all those years ago at university. Many are now working for charities, or active in political parties, or remain activists in their spare time (as I also am.) I haven't kept in touch with too many of these people, but it brings me a lot of comfort and confidence to realise that I was once a part of something much bigger and more influential that I could be alone, and that in my own small way I remained fighting the good fight. All those issues that I cared about then, mental health, financial inequality, personal health and responsibility, social equality, and all the rest, I still care about. The structures we put in place to meet the goals, and the political machinations we went through to achieve still fascinate me.

Looking back at what I achieved before returning to physics makes me nostalgic, and even years later I'd still check in on the student union to see how things are going. Some problems are the same, some are fixed, some are pathological and will never go away. I feel as though I achieved more in that one year than I have since. Some people see my year at the student union as a brief interlude in my physics career when I went and did something else, and I've tried to see it that way too. However I've found I can't let go of that part of me that is an activist, that wants to tell the world why things matter and that wants to lobby the people with the power and influence. With that context, it seems like the physics research might be the interlude in the middle of something much bigger, or at least a small part of something else. It's easy to forget that I had a "former life", which makes it easy to forget that dramatic changes of direction are even possible, let alone desirable in my future life. I still don't know what I'll do next, but I want to be something else that matters and lets me give something back that I haven't yet given.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A change would do me good

Over the past few weeks I've had a hard time explaining to people why I need a change of career, and it's hard to find the right words. Today I had a very long phone call with my mother, and we talked about all sorts of things (mostly her cats and my marble run). One of the things we talked about was my attitude towards finding a new career, and this was great, because I know that my mother is one of the few people who understands what I mean. She said to me (as has been saying for years) that "You've done that now, you can do something else" and this is pretty much what I'm thinking about the whole process. Apart from a one year sabbatical, I've been a physicist in some form or another for thirteen years, and a particle physicist for ten years. That's a long time to be doing anything, and it's time for a change. I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to study physics and take part in world class research and do not regret that choice for a second. It's given me so many new experiences, new friends, new chances to explore the world and all kinds of freedom I never had before. And that's precisely why I need to move on with my life and try something else. I need to find new opportunities and experiences that a life in particle physics can't offer. An opportunity to create a new company, or to create my own software, or develop a more creative skill set, or make enough money to retire early, or... the list goes on. In my later years, when I tire of software, I'd quite like to stand as an MP.

When I look for a new job I don't want to find something safe and comfortable and boring. Instead I ask myself how the job is going to challenge me, make me a better person, and help me to develop new skills or find new skills (or limitations) that I didn't know I had. If I get to my early 30s and people are already suggesting that I should start looking for a permanent position then I've clearly done something wrong. I would hate to look back ten years from now and think that I'd reached my peak at 33. As far as I'm concerned the physics research was not a means to an end, it was the end, it was the only reason I continue to perform physics analysis today. In all the jobs I've had I haven't been investing in my career, I've been investing in myself and my abilities. To some people this seems confusing and paradoxical, and I'm sure to some people it even seems disappointing. I don't understand this view at all. To have a full career plan carved out at any age seems like a deeply sad prospect to me, and the younger it happens, the sadder it is. Anyone who claims that someone should know what they want to do by the age of 16 must think very little of the capacity of other people and suffer from both a lack of imagination and a lack of realism. That's no surprise to anyone, and nearly everyone acknowledges this problem with encouraging young people to have career plans. All I ask is that we bump the age up to 30, 40, 50, any age we like. If someone thinks they know what they want to do with the rest of their life at the age of 50 then they're lacking imagination, ambition, curiosity, and/or confidence.

There are, of course, many other factors to consider, and so far I've only addressed desires, not realistic plans. When someone has a family to support, or other responsibilities that tie them down, or don't have the qualifications (academic or otherwise) they need to move onto something else, they may find themselves stuck and unable to change career. In those circumstances I imagine a comfortable and reliable job is very attractive, and I wouldn't want to show any disrespect for anyone who makes that choice. However it should be understood that this is not the positon I find myself in. In fact my problem is the exact opposite, I spent so much time and effort on my job to the exclusion of nearly everything else that I find diminishing returns in terms of my work life and plenty of room for growth in my personal life. What I want to do is find a job that gives me more freedom to pursue growth in both these areas. Something I can get my teeth into, while giving me more opportunities to get closer to my family and friends in the UK. My family is getting older and so am I, and I don't want to be so far away from anymore. So I'm well aware of my privilege and don't want to come across as insulting those who make other choices, or come across as someone who thinks less of them.

With that hand-wringing out of the way let's get back to the main point. The end of my career in physics is the end of a chapter in my life and the start of a new one. It's time to look at another empty apartment and to fill the shelves with new souvenirs and the picture frames with new memories, alongside the old and cherished ones. When I was younger I would often be sad when one of my favourite TV shows would end, or a band would break up, thinking what a loss it was to the world. However when I realised the artists who made these works wanted to move on to different things and find something new to create, I found a new respect for them and a new source of hope. There are plenty of examples of people who have moved on from their "greatest hits" to something less glamorous but more rewarding. I recently saw a TED tak where Bill Gates, who once resided over the most powerful software company in the world, had decided to use his vast fortune to help fix some of the biggest problems in the world. There's a man and an attitude I can respect. Not content with developing Microsoft, he decided to take his life in a completely different direction, create something new, give something back and not be afraid to fail every now and then. Right now I'm listening to IAMX, one of my favourite bands. Chris Corner made his name with the Sneaker Pimps in the late 90s, then the group broke up and he pursued a single career with IAMX. The music he's made has been more intense and been much less prominent in the media, but I get the impression his experience is all the better because of it. Again, I have a great deal of respect for someone who decided to pack up everything and move from Yorkshire to Berlin to do what he really wanted at the time, and I would love to see what he does next with his life.

One of the questions I get asked is "If you think physics and academia are so bad, what makes you think anything else will be any different?" First of all I obviously don't think physics and academia are bad, otherwise I would have left long ago. Secondly, "different" is exactly what I'm looking for. Different advantages, different problems, different frustrations, different pleasures. Different is good. Even if I'm no more or less happy in a new job at least it will be different enough to keep me interested in it. I'd rather be content and learning something new than content and bored. I hope this post answers some questions some people have been asking me. I don't see myself as Aidan the physicist, I see myself as Aidan the person, who can be more than just a physicist, and anyone who thinks differently thinks less of me for it.

It starts with a late night at the office...

This week has been a rather strange week. Right now I am sitting on the Eurostar, bound for London, and this visit to the UK was arranged in January when I felt it would be important to get away from the lab for a while and clear my head. With that in mind the purpose of this visit is to take some time to really ask myself what I want from a change in career.

There are certainly social aspects to the choice, because it's hard work having to make a new set of friends with every new job, and it gets increasingly difficult to make new friends as well as keep up with the old ones. It'll help to get some perspective, and I can do this by spending time with people outside the field, enjoying socialising with them and focusing on the things we enjoy that aren't physics. One of the biggest fears about changing career is that I will no longer be surrounded by people who enjoy solving problems and finding questions for the joy of it, because that is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. If, after 10 days in the UK, I find myself climbing the walls looking for new problems to solve then this will be a hard process than I thought. If, on the other hand, I have a great time seeing family and friends and manage to get the balance right then this will give me many more options for a different job, and I would be content with a job I can leave at the office. That would be ideal because one of the biggest sacrifices I've had to make to follow my physics career has been having a difficult social life. There have been times when I've been very lonely, or frustrated at how little time I spend back in the UK seeing friends, and after a few years it no longer seems like a sacrifice worth making. As rewarding as the work is, it can't stay novel and exciting long enough to make it worthwhile, and in the meantime my social needs have changed.

This weekend I found myself falling into a couple of traps that I would fall into when at CERN. We had a Chinese student visiting for a few weeks and one of the things I wanted to do was to make sure he felt welcome at the lab and eager to come back, and to tell his fellow students to come to Belgium. Having been a student in a foreign country, spending a few weeks or days in one place, I know how isolating it can be. If you end up in a one room apartment with nothing to do except work and nobody to talk to, you soon feel the need to escape and never return. This is why I've spent so much time trying to make it easier for physicists to socialise and find common interests outside the field, and I'm glad to say it's worked to a large extent. However it's frustrating how little other people seem to care about it. Instead of showing this student around Belgium and sharing some of the history and food and culture with hin it should have been someone else's responsibility, but she didn't seem to show any interest. As a result I end up giving up some of my free time to help out a foreign student. I don't mind this, and I had a lot of fun, but this is an easy trap to fall into, the idea that it's acceptable for me to choose to give up my free time so easily. Clearly my priorities are starting to slip a little, and my social life is leaning on the lab more than it did a few weeks ago.

The other trap, which is more lethal, is the notion that work must be done at the expense of everything else. I had promised to give an update on Monday afternoon, and between a few bugs in the code, looking after the student, and having my phone stolen, I found myself falling behind. I had no choice but to do some work in the weekend to meet the deadline, and this was the first time I'd broken my resolution of not working outside the office and not working at weekends. Physics analysis is addictive, because each answer piques the curiosity, so you find yourself thinking "Just one more compilation, just one more selection." After starting work at 8pm on Sunday evening, I found myself collapsing into bed, jobs running, at 7am. I got a few hours sleep, wrote the talk and presented it from my kitchen (with apparently very good audio quality.) Since then I've been intrigued by the study. It's nice to see it all come together and tempting to just trim a bit here and there. In fact I ran a job while on the train just to see if I could improve things a little further. The problem is that this is what leads to obsessive behaviour, and that if I do this now, people will expect of me in the future (including myself.) I got lucky this time, because the results were what we expected and probably the final time I will have present them as they are. There have been many times in the past where I haven't been lucky and had to repeat the late nights many times, and that leads to very rapid deterioration of morale and quality of work. As a result I've decided that this week I will not work on any physics unless it's an emergency. We'll see how long that lasts. Physics is addictive, so I should find some other problem to work on to keep me busy.

Last night I arranged dinner a local restaurant with some people from the lab. We went there, had a good chat over some beers and burgers, and for the first time since my interview I got to have a long chat with my boss about where my career is heading. She's weighed down with many responsibilities so she has precious little time to discuss these things at the moment, but it was a relief to breach the subject with her in an informal environment, and we agreed that we need to have a longer chat some time in the future. We both want to make things as easy as possible, and we both want me to get excellent physics results while I'm at the lab, so the main point of contention will be about when the best time for to leave would be. From my point of view, it would be August 2015, but this might be very inconvenient for the lab, since we will still be in the early days of LHC Run II data taking. She hinted that she wanted me to stay until 2016, and that if we don't see new physics at that point then I'd have every right to leave the field and never look back. She also said something along the lines of the reason we stay in the field is because of love of the job. Well that's certainly true, there are parts of the job I love and can't find elsewhere, but then there are other things I love that I can't find working at the lab, including a higher salary for less work, a better working environment, and the chance to settle down somewhere. And if I do that in the UK I'm much more likely to find a long term partner as well. I got a chance to ask her about er own experiences as a postdoc and it seems she didn't face the same kinds of problems that I have done (although I'm sure she had her own problems) so while she can appreciate why I might not want to stay in the field, I doubt she can fully understand it. In the same way, I can't understand why she wanted to get a permanent position. To me, getting a permanent position in my early 30s is like a form of stagnation, as if that is best I can ever achieve in my career. It would be as if I was stuck in one job, in one place for the rest of my life. I'm not ready for that yet! I need to sort out my personal life before I do that! (Well not quite, I need to find a balance between the two, and stop putting my career ahead of my social life and love life.)

So it's been a week of gentle reminders of the dangers of physics addiction, and how it can slowly take over every aspect of my life if I let it. It's also a good time for me to reflect on my future and consider my options. I'll try to consolidate some more of my online projects and detail my work experience as I travel, putting my time to its best use. I'm about halfway through updating my portfolio and once that's finished, my website won't be far behind. Then I'll need to overhaul many of my online profiles to look a little more slick, then put some effort into improving the presentation of my non-physics based skills, such as blogging, communication, and long term policy work. There's a lot of experience to tap into there, and it won't be easy to summarise. I can see myself needing another trip to the UK to polish my CV and personal statement sometime in the summer...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Mode Analytics SQL School

One of my friend sent me the following page, which is an introduction to SQL commands. I've known how to use MySQL at a basic level for about seven years, but so far none of my projects have required me to learn pivot and join commands, so I suppose it's time I added that to my portfolio of skills! Mode Analytics SQL School

Thursday, March 6, 2014

It's git time

I haven't published much on this blog lately because I've been spending my time developing another blog. Over the past few years I've worked a large range of different projects, many of them on my website. This involves taking my projects one by one, adding them to a git repository, adding documentation, adding a blog entry about and then committing them to github. The immediate reason for this is that when applying for a job that involves computing it helps to have a portfolio of projects for prospective employers to browse. The less immediate reason is that it's something I've been meaning to do for years. After about seven years of continual development, at varying levels of competence, my website is a complete mess. It seriously needs to be revamped and made more versatile. It's very refreshing to finally get around to doing this and satisfying to see it come together!

The new blog summarising my projects (in progress!)

Looking back over the past seven years I've realised that every step of the way I chosen projects which would allow me to develop my skills. This had lead to some code which today makes me cringe! I need to go back and fix up or completely delete some of the projects for the sake of sanity and security. In parallel to my skills developing the technology has changed as well. Back in 2008 SVG was all the rage and with PHP I could create any SVG document I wanted. Since then the canvas has enjoyed widespread support, so now it's all about Javascript and canvas. There are quite a few projects that need to make the transition from SVG to canvas (and maybe back again, because the formats aren't equivalent.) With the canvas things suddenly become more intuitive for the user- you can create and manipulate images using the canvas! So it's no surprise that many of the things I made involve clicking a canvas and interacting with shapes.

There are still gaps in my experience that need to be addressed. For example, I made an application that enabled users to login, but it wasn't exactly secure! In principle this is easy to do, and once I have a reason to make a project that involves logging in, I'll create one. Working on the projects blog has also helped me get to grips with Wordpress, and one of the things I want to do is write a few Wordpress themes to bring my CSS skills up to scratch. Then there's advanced API interaction. I have a handful of projects that need to interact with Twitter and have a MySQL backend, and that's not an easy task to get into! However once it's done I can use it elsewhere.

In addition to all that I've added more support for web development on my laptop. I now have a fully functioning apache server with PHP interfaced with MySQL. I finally upgraded TextWrangler to BBEdit and arranged all my projects using the dedicated BBEdit feature. Combine that with a "Labs" directory for testing out new ideas, and version control on GitHub and I've got quite an operation going on in my laptop!

Finally I gave my website a service, and as I process my projects one by one, the website too will change. The old homemade content management system has been disabled, I finally fixed the error pages to be a bit more useful, and the same setup works both locally and online (with a simple change of environment variables using .htaccess files). With that done it might also be time to give the user various CSS options to show off my l33t styling skills.

Let's also not forget the hundreds of gigabytes of photos I have stored away. I have plans for those too, eventually. If I can use them in my web design, all the better. And all this is to say nothing of my C++ and python skills. They need honing too. This year I plan to learn how to make a C++ executable from scratch, including the makefiles, the most feared and mysterious of files. It's going to be a fun year!

In case you're curious, here are the links:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Diminishing Returns Part II

It seems that as you progress further in this field you end up spending less time actually discussing physics and more time sitting in meetings and discussing discussions.  It's becoming more and more rate to find times to actually discuss the difficulties we're facing and take part in a bit of problem solving.  After all that's what interest us as scientists, a mystery to be understood.

Recently I was appointed as a the electron contact for the CMS Exotica group.  This means that I form a point of contact between the two groups to make it easier to keep track of the latest studies and changes to analyses.  Its one of those tasks that is essential and isn't particularly difficult.  I consider it a responsibility as a postdoc to take on a role like this and I'm doing my best to make it easy and enjoyable, but at times it simply means reading several pages or papers and summarising them on another webpage.  That's one of those things that you have to be sufficiently knowledgeable to perform properly, but it is essentially just administration.  Writing about what someone else has written about an analysis is not how I want to spend the rest of my career.  It's not all bad of course, it's one of the quickest ways to learn about the electron reconstruction, which is essential to my analysis, and it gives me visibility which opens up new career options in the future.  But it is boring at times.

The situation gets more frustrating the higher you go.  I've spoken to group conveners and sub-conveners, whose roles are essentially to monitor the progress of analyses, and they have to find the compromise between meeting tight deadlines and giving the analysts the time they need to complete the studies.  When the analyst is a first year PhD student it can mean slow progress.  Having to sit back and watch someone perform a study much more slowly than you could manage can be a painful experience and teaches a great deal of patience.  Being a sub convener or convener would be the next logical step for me after working on analysis for a long time, but the idea does not appeal to me at all.

I'm naturally a problem solver and that's what I want to do for the rest of my life.  I'd rather make my own project than administer someone else's.  At the moment I can't see any future path in particle physics with lead to a situation where I'll get to spend more time problem solving.  Then again at least I'm not going to be person who makes a summary of my summary of other people's work.

Monday, February 24, 2014

How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang

This article was doing the rounds a while back: How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang

The promise of a professorship was never particularly glamorous to me, although the kinds of people who are drawn to that are the people I'm supposedly competing with every day. Im that guy who joins the gang simply for the joy of taking part in drive-by shootings and finding new ways improve the distribution of merchandise. The guy who's in the gang just to pass the time while he secretly learns how to flip burgers. That's sort of creepy. As the weeks pass by I find myself spending more and more time finding distractions. I find productive outlets for my problem solving urges, but I still can't shake the feeling that I need to be doing something else with my time.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Job market

I saw this on facebook and Buzzfeed. Notice how far away "Research scientist" is from sane working hours and respectable pay.

Creator: Kevin Tang

Outreach opportunity

One of the options I'm currently considering is a physics outreach position. There are special Media Fellowships for this, so I'm just saving the link to back to it later.

British Science Association Media Fellowships

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Atypical days at CERN

Someone asked me what it's like to be a postdoc at CERN. I decided to write it down as a sort of calendar, so here's what a few days might look like when the workload is not too high/low. There are no typical days, so I prefer to think of atypical days.


  • 10:30: Arrive at the office, a bit later than I'd want to. Check emails and find about 25 emails that arrived overnight. Take a look at the agenda for the day.
  • 11:00: Write software to perform a study to estimate a systematic uncertainty.
  • 12:45: Time for lunch! (My students ask me at 12:30, and it takes me 15 minutes to get my code and notes to a state where I can safely leave them, and come back to them later without forgetting what I was doing/where I was up to.)
  • 13:00: Lunch in Restaurant 1, with huge lines and crowded tables. While I'm at lunch I look at the LHC status screens to see if we're taking data. At lunch me and my students talk about our analysis and what problems we're having.
  • 13:45: After lunch we grab a coffee and talk about what we did at the weekend. Eventually the conversation drift back to physics, and we decide to head back to the office.
  • 14:00: Back to the software again. I forget exactly what I was doing, so I try to compile the code and let the debug messages remind me what I was doing.
  • 14:10: I realise I forgot to join in a meeting! I quickly get my headphones out and join the meeting virtually, continuing to work on the code in the foreground.
  • 15:30: The meeting is still going, and so far nothing relevant has happened. I submit some short jobs to test the code, and move on to the next task: service work. This means downloading the data from another set of jobs that were running over the weekend and making some histograms.
  • 15:55: Another meeting is about to begin down the corridor, so I leave the virtual meeting, put my laptop under my arm and head down there.
  • 16:00: The previous meeting in this room is running late, so we're standing outside waiting.
  • 16:15: We finally get into the meeting room! One of my friends has been asking if I want coffee on facebook. "Not today, I'm far too busy sorry :)"
  • 16:45: I'm still looking at histograms I'm making with one eye, while looking at the talks being presented with the other. A student presents a graph with a feature that nobody seems to understand. We discuss it in some detail for about 15 minutes, and I join in as it might affect my analysis. The rest of the meeting continues with things which are interesting, but nothing relevant to my work. I check on my test job, it's still running.
  • 18:15: It's the end of the meeting, and the chair of the meeting asks me to present something next week. I agree, because it's been a few weeks since I gave an update, but at the same time I don't know if I'll have results by then! It all depends on my test jobs go...
  • 18:25: Back at the office, and the admin at my university need me to "urgently" send them some paperwork for expenses. Where did I put those? Where is the nearest scanner? Where's that email I need for the hotel receipt?!
  • 19:00: The paperwork's all scanned, collated and sent in. The test job has finished, so I start to download the output and head off to Restaurant 1 for dinner.
  • 19:15: I bump into a friend from another university and we sit together for dinner. He asks if I'd like a beer, but I say no, I've still got some work to do tonight. We chat a bit about our problems with the software and upcoming conferences.
  • 20:15: I head back to the office and the download has finished (it's turning out to be a good day!) I make some rough histograms and send them to my boss in the USA for a sanity check. Things look good, but a second opinion always helps.
  • 20:30: Now that test job works I need to submit the rest- that about 1000 times as many jobs to prepare and submit. I play some youtube videos in the background as I work, because this is boring work and it's already very dark outside.
  • 21:15: The scripts to submit the jobs are finished and they're running. It'll take about another 30 minutes to submit everything and I can't unplug my laptop in that time. I start writing a blog post about recent physics results, and get about three paragraphs written by the time the scripts finish.
  • 21:50: Time to head home! I pack everything up and head back.
  • 22:00: Arrive at home, and get a cup of tea. I remember I need to send out a reminder about this weeks analysis meeting. I also take a look at how many emails I got today that I didn't have time to read/reply to.

Hard at work, my student snaps a shot of me between writing talks! (Note the youtube in the background. I can't work without background noise.)


  • 10:00: Get into the office. Some of the jobs I submitted last night have already returned success, some have failed. I take a look at the error messages to see what the problems are. It turns out the computers have run out of RAM. That's not an easy fix, so I'll just work with the results I get. They should be finished in the next day or so.
  • 10:30: An email from my boss arrived last night. There are some visitors coming to CERN next week and he wants me to arrange a sight seeing trip around the lab for them. I send out some emails asking for help, and trying to find gaps in schedules to take them around various places.
  • 11:15: I get a reminder email asking me to update webpage. I search through my files to get the relevant information, cross check everything and update the webpage. There are bits and pieces missing and many of the pages that are linked to are already out of date. I send out more emails asking for updates and help finding information. There are problems with the formatting that take another 5 minutes to fix.
  • 12:15: Lunch is a bit earlier today! This time I'm meeting with a friend and we're not going to talk about physics at all.
  • 13:00: Back to the office, and I have to present at an informal group meeting today. I put together a few quick histograms and bullet points. My students keep interrupting with physics questions, and I take short breaks to answer them. (The group meetings don't need to be well presented and we're very tolerant of mistakes in the slides, so taking lots of breaks is fine.)
  • 13:50: It's time for the experiment's Weekly Meeting, and it's a ten minute walk away. Invariably I'll meet someone in the corridor along the way, so I rush as quickly as I can, and arrive 5 minutes late.
  • 14:40: The Weekly Meeting ends. The introduction slide gave an update on the status of the LHC, so I'll report that back to my group in the group meeting.
  • 14:45: I bump into a colleague I've not seen for a while and we grab a coffee. We talk a bit about what's happened since we last met, and then about physics. It turns out they know someone who can help me with part of my analysis.
  • 15:15: The group meeting starts soon, so I add last minute information to my slides and set up the video conference equipment.
  • 15:30: The meeting starts, and we wait 10 minutes for people to connect. As usual we have talks from two students and myself, and as usual the professors as the same questions that were answered last week. (I tell my students to put this information in the "extra" slides at the end of the talk so we can speed up the meetings.)
  • 16:45: The meeting is over. Back to checking those jobs. About 40% success rate, which isn't bad. At least I can present some preliminary results next week while I fix the problems. I finish off the blog post I started last night with a few images and check for typos, and publish it. There are probably a couple of spelling errors in there, but I don't have time to check twice.
  • 17:15: I finally get around to replying to emails that arrived over the weekend. Most of them need just a few lines of response, but finding uninterrupted time to do that is hard!
  • 18:00: Quick dinner at Restaurant 1, before heading out to Geneva with friends!
  • 22:30: I get back form a night out in Geneva and find an email from my boss. He asks me to prepare some slides for a talk he is giving tomorrow. I pack up my stuff and head home.
  • 23:15: I start working on the slides he wants me to make, which means writing code to make some more histograms. I get most of the work done before I get too tired to go on.
  • 02:30: I've had enough, time to get some sleep!


  • 08:00: Wake up feeling very tired. I take a look at the code I wrote, fix a couple of bugs, rerun it to make the histograms correctly. I grab a screenshot of the output and email all that to my boss. "Here's what I managed to do. All the information is there but you'll have to make the slides yourself. Good luck!".
  • 09:30: I fall back into bed and get another hour of sleep.
  • 11:00: To the office again. I've got to write and present yet another talk at 14:00 today, and it's got to look good. I spend most of the morning writing the slides.
  • 12:45: Quick lunch today. I just grab a sandwich and a coffee and head back to the office. I check facebook and twitter while I eat my lunch. Some people replied to my blog post with comments pushing their own agenda instead of writing something relevant. I don't have time to reply to those at the moment.
  • 13:10: Back to the slides, only 50 minutes left! My students interrupt every now and then until I lose my patience and ask them to wait until later.
  • 13:55: The meeting starts in 5 minutes and I'm still not ready! I unplug my laptop and run to the meeting. I have another 20 minutes before I due to give my talk. I add final touches as someone else presents their talk.
  • 14:20: Time to present my slides, and asking people to refresh the webpage annoys them slightly. The talk goes on, and there are a few questions. An expert explains the solution to one of the problems I'm facing. The response is generally positive and I leave the meeting with a "shopping list" of new studies to perform.
  • 16:00: I'm exhausted now! 6 hours sleep is not enough. I get back to the office and ask if the students would like to get some crepes from the cafeteria. We head out there and I ask how their work is going. It turns out they've managed to answer all the questions they had asked me earlier. One of them mentions that they want to go to an upcoming conference so I promise to mention that to my boss.
  • 16:30: I can chat to my boss at 17:00, and right now I have nothing urgent to respond to. I head to the library to look something up that is relevant to my analysis. This is what being a physicist is all about!
  • 17:10: I meet my boss over Skype. We discuss the meeting he has today, the conference my student mentioned, and the visitors who are coming to CERN next week. After an hour we end the meeting and I call it a day. I head home.
  • 18:25: I get home and stick a frozen pizza in the oven.
  • 19:30: Time to sleep. Hopefully I'll be in the office earlier tomorrow.

And so it goes... There's no "typical" day and no stable sleep schedule. When we have conference deadlines it's not unusual to get 5 hours of sleep every night for a week!