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...