Monday, February 3, 2014

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!

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