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.

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