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!

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