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...