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!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Opportunity: Hacker Shcool

One of my lovelier, geekier friends, Rami, has pointed me in the direction of Hacker School, a free intensive three month workshop focused on developing code skills. It looks like a marvellous opportunity, and I hope I can do this under my current US visa.

This looks great!
Hacker School

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Funding woes

In the past decade or so there have been serious problems with research for particle physics (and the hard sciences in general) in the UK.  This isn't unique to the UK, and the USA has also faced, and is still facing, troubling financial problems in high energy physics.  This was most keenly felt when the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced that is had to find £80,000,000 from somewhere, and that it had to come in the form of cuts to funding of many projects.  Mark Lancaster from UCL kept a huge amount on information on this crisis on a dedicated website if you want to know more.

Some of the decisions that were made were quite discouraging.  Perhaps the most troubling was the emphasis on economic return of science projects, which is clearly not the goal of high energy physics.  The field a blue sky science and its benefits are very rarely realised until many years later, but when they pay off they revolutionise the world. There's a brilliant quote from the TV show the West Wing that illustrates this point well.  Enlow is a Senator who is trying to stop a project going forward, and Millgate is a physicist who is trying to rescue the situation:

Enlow: If only we could only say what benefit this thing has, but no one's been able to do that.

Milligate : That's because great achievement has no road map. The X-ray's pretty good. So is penicillin. Neither were discovered with a practical objective in mind. I mean, when the electron was discovered in 1897, it was useless. And now, we have an entire world run by electronics. Haydn and Mozart never studied the classics. They couldn't. They invented them.

Sam Seaborn, trying to save the Superconducting Super Collider, even though he can't spell it, let alone understand what it does.
(This is actually a parody of the actual cancelling of the Superconducting Super Collider, which was axed after spending $2 billion out of a total budget of $4.4 billion.  As a result it's now CERN that leads the field and the USA missed a trick.) The point is that the people who hold the purse strings have very different priorities compared to the people actually doing the work, and this leads to all kinds of instability. I've got no confidence that I can find projects with stable funding in the UK, and even worse, as we lose projects we also lose expertise. A while ago the International Linear Collider (ILC) project was considered a bad buzz word in the USA, so any proposal that mentioned the ILC would get dismissed. This caused a huge problem because if the USA temporarily lost the positions related to the ILC-like projects, it would permanently lose a lot of expertise in accelerator physics, because these people need jobs in the meantime. If they can't find jobs in the field they'll move elsewhere and it's not easy or (in many cases) desirable for them to come back. Cutting funding sends a message to scientists in the field about how little their work is valued and how poorly their priorities are understood.

The choice of cuts was also interesting and sent a very dangerous message. When having to choose which projects to cut, STFC made the choice to keep the LHC projects (LHC, ATLAS and CMS), while cutting funding to existing projects (BaBar and Gemini are two good examples.) In the case of BaBar, my experiment at the time, there was huge potential to use the existing dataset to make more discoveries and more importantly BaBar had data, which was more than the LHC projects had at the time, and essential for students who want to write a thesis. In the case of the Gemini telescope an attempt was made to leave, but this would have cost more than staying. The response was to sell our telescope time to other nations, thus depriving the UK of an entire hemisphere of observation. (When the UK finally left in 2012 this impacted the other nations in the project, as they had to reduce operating costs to cover the loss.) All this was done to in order to invest in both ATLAS and CMS. I understand that STFC wanted to make sure they got the Higgs boson discovery, especially after two decades of investment, but did they really need to fund both sides of that competition? What I read from this was that STFC was valuing charismatic projects over diversity of projects, and that's exactly the worst way to support science through funding. In the meantime there are a whole host of experiments and facilities out there that the UK is not a part of, and we miss out because of that.

All this was demoralising and was one of the major decisions to look outside the UK for funding. In 2009 I applied for an STFC Fellowship, which would have given me a good opportunity to come back to the UK and work on the T2K project with one of my colleagues who helped me a great deal with my PhD. After spending nearly a week on the proposal I got the news that the Fellowships had been cancelled that year because of funding cuts. At that point I started to think it wasn't worth pursuing a career in particle physics, or at least pursuing that career in the UK. Having spent seven years giving me a free education the research council decided it didn't want my expertise (or my taxes) after all. If the research council doesn't value my work why should I? Why not do something else with my skills and ambition that won't get as easily dismissed. For a few years I found an excellent home at SMU, with a position maintained through stimulus funding.

Dear STFC, This is what I did for the USA. They have their problems too, but they value our work more than you seem to do. (Moriond link)

As I mentioned in my previous post, physics research is less interesting now than it was a decade ago, and I can't see any silver lining in the next few years. STFC has made the decision to fund the LHC projects, which will probably not see anything new in the next couple of runs. So this is an excellent time to leave the field. After the way STFC has been treated and has subsequently acted I no longer feel any moral obligation to contribute to the field anymore.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Diminishing Returns Part I

Diminishing returns (Part I)

When I started my PhD I worked on the BaBar experiment at SLAC.  By LHC standards this was a very low energy experiment, optimised to produce huge numbers of B mesons.  This allowed physicists to study CP violation and the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe, which is one of the deepest questions we face today.  (For those interested, it turns out that a precise measurement was made of the only known source of CP violation that we know of, and it was found to be too small by a factor of about a million to explain the current asymmetry.)  Alongside the B mesons and the "golden" channel of CP violation ,the dataset gave us access to a huge range of other phenomena, including production of charm mesons and tau leptons.  We knew the centre of mass energy as well, so we could look for missing particles recoiling against the rest.  To make things even more interesting, many measurements only made sense in the context of others, so we could combine many measurements searching for any discrepancy.  With all this in mind it would be possible to spend one's whole life working with the BaBar dataset and keeping finding new things and making new measurements.  When you spoke to other BaBar physicists about your work you'd find connections between what you were doing, what it implied about higher energy phenomena.  This lead to all kinds of stimulating discussions, some of them about questions that went back decades.  As a PhD student, SLAC was one of most fascinating places I'd ever been and each week I'd learn something new.  The collection of low energy mass phenomena were just complicated and rich enough to keep me interested and present a challenge, while also being small enough and unified enough for me to develop a good understanding of them.  I would have happily stayed on BaBar, but funding was scarce, all the latent was moving to the LHC, and that's where I should have moved to as well.

When I finished my PhD I moved on to my first postdoc position on the ATLAS experiment at CERN.  Everything about the experiment was new, the hardware, the energy, the luminosity and the discoveries.  There were high hopes for the discovery of the Higgs boson, and with good reason, since everything we thought we know about the fundamental forces would collapse without it.  Some people had been waiting about 20 years to see this dataset, and the media machine at CERN had gone into overdrive to share excitement with the world.  Since I enjoyed talking about the physics I wanted to be a part of the excitement, and started making blogs posts and videos, following the progress of the Higgs search.  Eventually it was discovered, after much hard work, and it was a great time to be at CERN.  Unfortunately this time I felt the discovery was a little disappointing, because after discovering the boson and measuring its properties there's not much else to be done.  The Higgs bosons doesn't come with a whole new sector, or bound states to explore, none of the many spectra seems to show any serious interference effects.  It appears to be just a single boson that fits our expectations, and now that it's been discovered we're left wondering what else there is to find out there.

In the meantime all other searches for physics beyond the Standard Model have ended in failure.  It's quite straightforward to say something about the phenomenology of Run II and venturing into the unknown, and channels with high discovery potential, and answering unanswered questions, but honestly, I'm finding it hard to muster the enthusiasm for that.  Let's suppose that Run II of the LHC gives us nothing new, what would happen then?  There are still a handful of Standard Model measurements that have yet to be performed, but the problem is that they're very hard to measure and not particularly interesting.  So that would leave us with a situation where we're analysing data for no real reward.  Given how well the Standard Model has done for decades I'm not at all confident that we'll find anything new, which means this is probably a good time to leave the field and move on to something else.

I've also found that, for whatever reason, people at CERN are less likely to talk about the more abstract and exotic ideas of particle physics over lunch.  The few times that this has happened have been either rare and immensely rewarding, or slightly less rare and demoralising.  I get the impression that not only do most students not know how their measurements fit into the "big picture", but they're also missing some vital knowledge because it's not seen as being as important as the Higgs physics that currently surrounds us.  One of the reasons for this is probably the sizes of the collaborations we have to deal with today, but that's a topic for a different post.

So when I said "Physics is no more or less fascinating than it was ten years ago" I was actually telling a white lie.  The concepts themselves are just as fascinating as ever, but (with the exception of the Higgs boson discovery) the latest developments have been getting steadily less and less interesting.  We're probably about to face a long period of "bread and butter" physics where nothing interesting happens until we get a linear collider.  If there's ever to be a best time to leave the field it must be now.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The road not travelled

Recently a friend and fellow blogger, Pauline, write a blog post about a couple, Giuseppe and Maria Fidecaro, who started working at CERN as physicists in 1956 shortly after the lab first opened, and haven't stopped since.  I've seen the couple around CERN quite a few times and they always seem to be good spirits.  Reading about their experiences seems like they've had a marvellous time taking part in research and watching the discoveries unfold over the decades.

Giuseppe and Maria at lunch (From Quantum Diaries)
They started their careers in particle physics at a very different time.  The experiments were smaller, there were more faculty positions, and it was generally easier to establish a career.  These days finding a job is more competitive, so postdocs are expected to work longer under more difficult conditions, and if you're not willing to make that commitment someone else is.

The tools we use have also changed, and although I don't know Giuseppe and Maria I'll bet them a bottle of wine that they wouldn't be able to reconstruct Z bosons in the ATLAS or CMS datasets.  As a particle physicist's career progresses they spend less time working on the analyses and more time supporting younger physicists with teaching, project management and finding funding.  At the same time as the roles change, the technologies change too, and the older physicists find themselves falling behind with the latest software developments.  I've met many physicists over the age of 50 (and some over the age of 30) who cannot use C++, an industry standard for over a decade, to perform an analysis.  In fact even C++ is a bit old hat now, and most physicists have to be proficient in python too.  This is why it's no surprise to me to find that Giuseppe and Maria's latest work seems to be on reviews of past works.  That kind of research is just as rewarding as writing the code that makes the discoveries, but to get from the stage of your career where you move from one to the other you've usually got to spend a long time in the middle not doing much of either.

If I could go back in time and have a career like Giuseppe and Maria I might go for it.  They clearly enjoy what they've done and are still doing.  Times have changed though, and not only is this career path significantly more difficult today, but there are also many more options available to us.  So their path is the one I won't travel, although it looks like a fun one!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A little irony

In the past week I've made a conscious effort to treat my job as a "normal" job.  So when I leave the office I don't take anything work-related with me (well, except for this laptop.)  I don't take any papers with me, I even leave my log book behind, and I don't answer any work emails at home.  I'm keeping regular work hours (which for this job means 10:00-18:00, since we have so many collaborators in the USA, and an extra hour makes a big difference for meeting times.)

Since making these changes and "coming out" as someone who wants to leave the field, my productivity has increased quite substantially.  Once I got to the point where I was working for my job, and not trying to make my job work for me, it got a lot easier.  There's no stress in trying to give more than I need to, which means that I don't get caught up in cycles of taking work home, eating late, sleeping late, waking late, staying at the office late etc.  Instead I concentrate on enjoying the job, because the day to day activities are a lot of fun.  This all leaves me with more free time and more energy, which I'll put into getting more of a social life in Brussels and travel.

In the meantime someone sent me this comic from SMBC.  This sums things up quite nicely.  I started my PhD seven and a half years ago.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The best response (of many)

From my big sister: "I'm so proud of you and I can't wait to see what you do next."

The note that started it all

Here is the note that I put on facebook, in its entirety. An edited and pruned copy will follow when I get time.

I've had quite a few people contact me in private or public, concerning my recent decision to leave the field. I thought it would be useful for them and me to write down my reasons for leaving. I'm not unhappy, and I will stay in my job and give it everything I have between now and the end of the contract (at least another 18 months from now) but the reasons for leaving are complex, numerous, subtle, and powerful.

In the past couple of weeks I've come to the realisation that I cannot continue my career in particle physics. This was not a sudden change, and in fact I have felt that I should eventually leave since a few years ago, but it is only recently that I realised that staying is not even a viable option for me anymore. The way I realised this was when I was asked to apply for additional funding that would eventually extend the length of my current contract. As I started to fill out the application I found the whole process repellant. I didn't want to stay any longer. I found myself planning for a future I didn't want to be a part of, so then I knew it was time to leave. I've felt a lingering frustration on and off ever since I started my degree, and I think this is entirely natural. When people care about what they do, they keep doing it in spite of the frustrations. At one point I decided that the balance had moved too far and the frustrations outweighed the satisfactions, so the next time I felt this kind of frustration would be the last time. Well I've felt it again so it's time to act on it.

When completing the application for funding I found I was expected to measure my success as a physicist by the number of conference talks I'd given and the number of papers that had my name on them. That's never been my measure of success. The way I measure success is by how many questions we answer, and if they are interesting, and how many people we can reach, and how many new ideas (including the failures) we explore. That was the kind of physics I did at SMU with Steve, who encouraged this kind of thinking since before I even started working for him. That's when I took a rough idea about the Higgs boson and turned it into a fully fledged analysis that was highlighted at an international conference as the first such measurement to ever be presented. In fact this caught the attention of my current ULB boss (Barbara) at the time, and it may go a long way to explaining why she hired me in the first place. The sad part is that she seems wants to carve out a career for me that I don't want, and if she wants me to create another analysis as I did on ATLAS I need to have the freedom to do that, and not count my conference talks. The fact I got to interview in person with her and a chance to interact with the group helped me get this job too, as I always do better in person than on paper. However for applications for pretty much any funding everything has to be done on paper, and I resent how careers and grant acquisitions are handled in this way. This isn't a fault of the state of particle physics, or of the university, because things must be assessed somehow and this is how we've come to assess them. And it's not my fault either, if my idea of productivity includes creativity at the expense of exposure. It simply means that I'm not well suited to the field.

It would be easy to say that I should just put up with it, play the game and move on to the next position on the ladder of physics, but why should I? There are many other jobs out there and they all have their advantages and disadvantages. I'm not going to pretend that I'll not miss being a physicist. I get to work whenever I want (within reason), the work environment is very informal, people generally react positively to my job, there are good opportunities for travel, some of the most wonderful people I've ever met have been physicists, and the physics itself is a fascinating subject that could keep anyone busy for a lifetime. I will miss all those things, but by choosing to be a physicist I've had to make other sacrifices and I know that I don't want to make those sacrifices anymore. Staying purely with the work environment, there are jobs out there that are just as fascinating, but with shorter hours, better pay, more pleasant workplaces and just as much opportunity for travel and conferences. They may have rigid work hours and dress codes, and the goals may be focused more on profit than on research, but that's a whole different set of sacrifices to make.

However the main reason to move on is that I want to have more of a personal life. Having to move to a new country every few years is exhausting and stressful. It means having to find a new social life from scratch which is hard work. Over the years I've made many great friends, but I've had to move away time and time again. I do my best to visit people when I come home for Christmas, but it's becoming more and more obvious that I want to stay for longer and spend more time with them. The more I move from place to place, the more people I meet and the harder work it is to keep the friends I already have. Keeping friends isn't some shallow popularity contest for me, my old friends are a very important link to my past that I don't want to lose. When I hang out with the people I knew from Trinity they remind me that I'm more than just a physicist, that I had other dreams and interests, and that I still have them today. It reminds me that once I took a sabbatical year out of physics simply because I cared so much about equal opportunities and provision of welfare services. That was my dream job at the time, something I remain very proud of, and I would do it again, given the chance. It's so far removed from my career as a physicist that it tells me that there is so much more to me than just being a physicist. If I surround myself with physicists then that's all I'll ever be. It's a fine choice to make of course, but I want a chance to be something other than a physicist as well.

Recently I've found that I want a love life as well, and this is a bit more complicated to explain. This is something I've never really felt before; until I've never thought that being in a relationship would actually make me any happier. Part of this is because I'm naturally an introvert and an insomniac, which makes relationships difficult and solitude essential. Part of this comes from losing my brother about eight years ago. Before then I'd had some relationships that I wasn't particularly serious about (although my boyfriends thought otherwise. Oops.) Then just after I finished my degree my older brother, Dylan, killed himself. When I was at my lowest point I had a short and destructive relationship, but at least I didn't have be alone at night when the grief was the most painful and terrifying. It was around this time I decided to do a PhD as the "easy option" to give me time to think about my life and what I wanted to do with it, while I got on with the important task of grieving,coming to terms with the loss of Dylan, and finding a way to rebuild my life. After that time I shied away from relationships for a long time, because I didn't feel ready to share my time with someone else. I still needed a lot of time alone to find how I wanted to live my life. If you've not been through a period of intense bereavement you might not know what I'm talking about, but grief is life changing. When you realise you can't go back to how you used to live it forces you to rethink how you're going to live the rest of your life and how you're going to get through the bit between now and then. Until then I wouldn't feel comfortable with a relationship, and in any case I was moving about so much a long term relationship would be impossible. Over time my feelings have changed slowly but significantly. I feel much more confident and happy about my life now, I've overcome the loss of Dylan and the far reaching impact it's had on my life and the my family. Now I feel this need within me to give something to another person, and that being single will leave this part of my life unfulfilled. Why can't I have a relationship and be a physicist? Well I can, but it makes things much harder. There's a constant tension between my work life and my love life, and my priorities have changed. And I don't want to get into the reasons why finding a stable gay relationship is difficult enough in the UK, let alone abroad. That's a whole different issue that I don't even want to go into right now. In my last relationship I was not invested in it at all, for all these reasons. My life was too transient, and I still had a lot of baggage from the past decade to deal with. In the end it gave me a chance to explore what I'd been missing out on all this time and it turned out that while I am still painfully shy about romance, it does have its upsides. In the past few months I've had a chance to meet up with most of the guys I've had a crush on over the past few years and that's helped me realise that keeping myself in a job that's hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from the guys I'm interested in is not a great idea. At the moment I find myself having to avoid the issue altogether, pretend to be aloof, and put my love life off for another couple of years.

There are also many, many things I miss about Britain. I've enjoyed living abroad and experiencing the USA and Europe for a few years, but I do feel like a foreigner here. There's no escaping the fact that I'm a product of my culture and that I want to do all those typically British things and enjoy British culture again. This isn't a major consideration, but if I'm going to move again I'd rather it be back to the UK where I can listen to Radio 4 with friends, make jokes about Thatcher, and spend hours making awful puns. And then there are pub quizzes, Cornish pasties and decent tea. They're not quite the same when you live abroad.

The final reason to leave is that this is an all-consuming job. It doesn't have to be that way, but it is. I often take work home with me, and for a long time Sundays were my sixth work day to catch up on things. I think about the problems I'm having at work in the shower, on the metro and when I'm doing the ironing. Thoughts occur to me in the middle of the night and I'll get out of bed to check them out. That's not what I want anymore, because it gets in the way of my social life. So now I'm doing my best to make this "just a job", where I keep sensible hours and refuse to reply to emails from home. That's not easy for me, because I have problems with self discipline! If I stay in physics it will only get worse, as everywhere I look the faculty are already overwhelmed with work, and it's more administrative than anything else. Instead I want to have a job that leaves me plenty of time to socialise in a place where it's easy to spend time with my friends (old or new) and that means moving to the UK and finding a job in a different field.

There are people who have asked what I'll do instead, what my plan is, and why I think it'll be any better in a different field. These questions miss the point entirely, and if you force me to answer these questions you won't get an honest answer from me. People have always expected a career plan, but I've found that's not how life works out. It's okay to have blind ambition and not know where I'm going to be a few years from now. In fact the last time things went as I had planned was 2001 when I got a position in Oxford. Ever since then every part of my career has been shaped by what was there at the time and (apart from working for the student union) my first choice has never happened. In spite of that I've had a very rewarding time and enjoyed it a lot, so to expect me to give a plan of what I will do now it pointless. I'll enjoy whatever I do and wherever I go because I want to do something different. I thrive on change and new challenges, and doing the same thing in a different city just isn't enough for me anymore.

So with all that in mind the way I see the situation is that I've outgrown physics. I've loved the experiences I've had and I don't regret doing what I've done. I think most people feel this at some point, and I wouldn't want to meet someone who didn't outgrow (for example) being a student. If you've been a student and enjoyed it, but moved onto other things you'll know what I'm talking about. I've been a physicist, and it's time to do something else with my life. Physics is no more or less fascinating than it was ten years ago, and I wish all the best to the people who find that the field suits them. Having got to this stage of my life is not a sign of failure, it's a sign of success, so I don't need people offering me virtual hugs. I'm perfectly happy, and excited about my life in a way that I haven't been for a very long time. In the meantime I find the disparate wisdom of my friends is very useful, and that's one of the reasons I love them so much and yet another reason why I need to go back to the UK. As I make this change I hope to get the support of my former bosses. Steve and Barbara seem to have very different approaches to research. I find Steve's approach more satisfying, and Barbara's approach more career oriented. I doubt I'll ever find a boss as rewarding to work with as Steve, or a boss more concerned with my future than Babara. Hopefully between them I'll get some very good references and a lot of support from them. If anyone wants to ask more questions the feel free, but I might not answer them if they aren't relevant. If anyone wants to try to convince me to stay in field then by all means try, but you'll be wasting your time. At this point I need a very good reason to stay, rather than a very good reason to leave. For those who have been going through similar feelings, I hope reading this helps. You are not alone!

Another blog!

Just in case I don't have enough blogs I've decided to create another one.  In January 2014 I decided that after working in particle physics for nearly a decade, it was time to leave.  I wrote a long post on facebook and shared with my friends, outlining my reasons and emotions for the decision.  The short version is that I had outgrown this stage of my life and it is time to move on.  This blog will keep track of what happens over the next 18 months as I consider my options, explore new career paths, discuss physics some more and generally enjoy having the luxury of all these possibilities.

On the off chance that anyone is under any illusions, this is how much I have enjoyed my particle physics career:

Cleaning the ATLAS detector