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!

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