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.

No comments:

Post a Comment