Thursday, July 24, 2014

Time to get serious...

At the end of this month I will have been in my current job for one year. It's a big milestone because it means I will start to have my name on the papers that the experiment produces and that I'll be more free to pursue my own research goals within in the collaboration. In principle I will have between 12 and 24 months after that to continue working, and the end date is not yet fixed because it depends on many factors some of which will be (by definition) unknown until next year. The biggest factor is whether or not our team make a significant discovery, which is mostly likely to happen in the first few weeks or months of data taking. If we get lucky I'll probably be convinced to stick around for a while longer to help out with analysis and organisation. I've led a fledgeling analysis that grew unexpectedly popular before and simply keeping the meetings going and introducing new analysts is a full time job that needs excellent communication and management skills, both of which are highly transferable. It's an exhilarating experience, and character building, although quite exhausting, and it would be an excellent legacy to leave behind.

Since this is the halfway point it makes more sense to talk about what kinds of opportunities are available and what I'd like to consider. I've spent about half a year discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the career I've had so far, and how my needs have changed, but in terms of career development this has been quite nebulous. (For those who read this blog you may be interested to see how some of the themes overlap with one of my other blogs, the Good Grief Project.) While it has been very useful to discuss these personal factors I should now start to focus more on what I want from the next stage in my career. I definitely want an opportunity for skill development and growth, which I find is lacking in my current job. It's not that a job in high energy physics does not give opportunities to develop new skills, it's just that I've already explored so many of them so enthusiastically already that my CV is already overflowing with skills that go beyond the minimal requirements of such a job. One of the biggest motivators is finding a job that challenges me and gives me a chance to contribute something new. It would also be helpful to have a job which will encourage me to confront my weaknesses as an employee in order to make me more desirable. Staying in a job that allows you to define your own working hours and (to an extent) your own working environment tends to lead to work habits that need ot be adapted when looking elsewhere.

While looking at was available I found some recruitment agencies dedicated to people with scientific backgrounds, although these do tend to focus more on students than on people who are leaving the field. Without further ado, and to ensure I never lose these links, here are a few that come recommended from the Institute of Physics. First, an article from Institue itself titled Working in physics: Next steps for physics graduates. There they recommend their own Bright Recruits service, the ever present Milkround which I've known of since I was an undergraduate, and Prospects, which seems to be run by a charity rather than a business. In addition I also came across ecm who specialise in high tech recruitment and seem to promise higher quality rather than a brute force approach.

Tiime to get recruited!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

When "interesting" isn't enough

For the past few months I've been trying to find the right words for how I feel about my work and personal life and how they relate to each other. It seemed like an epiphany when used the word "outgrown" in January, and recently I've stumbled across another turn of phrase that sums up how I feel. Some people reading this blog have the impression that I hate my job, and this is not at all true. I quite enjoy the job, it's very interesting, it can be mentally stimulating, there is a lot of freedom and there are many things I'll miss when I move on to something new. I think the people who make this mistake have some confusion concerning the difference between a job and a career, because I can't see how else someone can come to that conclusion. Even the first post I ever wrote on this blog concluded with an image showing how much I've had being a physicist. That photo was taken during the preparations for the LHC running.

Spreading the physics joy in my spare time in my apartment.
At that time the job took my life, and it was great.

At the time there was a lot of excitement in the air about the upcoming data. We had access to fresh data at energies we'd never seen before and were eagerly awaiting more. There were discoveries to be made, old models to test, and it seemed to bring together young and old physicists. I made videos and wrote blogs about what was happening, I mentored students and often stayed up until 2am debating physical principles with people. I set up social groups and I frequently invited physicists over to my home. We were all excited, we were all part of something bigger than us, and we were all homesick and, to an extent, lonely. I found the job fascinating and it soon took over my whole life. My boss was one of my best friends and had been an inspiration to me for many years. We would often talk about physics in our spare time, over breakfast, on the tram to Geneva, or hikes in the nearby mountains, wherever we were. Shortly before that contract came to an end the wonder of it all had begun to fade and I already had a sense that it was time to move on, so I looked for another postdoc and found a position in Brussels.

Brussels is reason enough to live in Brussels.

So here I am now, in Brussels. It's a fine place to live, there's no doubt about that. The job is still interesting, and I still enjoy it. The problem now is that I only find the job interesting, and the job is determining nearly everything else about my life. I find myself single and living alone in a foreign country for a job I find interesting. That's not enough for me, if something is going to eclipse all other factors in my life, whether it's a job, a relationship, my family, some charity work, it must be fascinating. I've got to fall in love with whatever it is that's making me make compromises elsewhere. If I'm going to have a job that I find just interesting, I may as well relocate and find an interesting job closer to home.

That's the phrase I've been struggling to find for the past few months:

"I don't want to build the rest of my life around a job I find merely interesting."

I've either got to go out and find a job that's fresh and new that fascinates me, then build my life around that, or spend more time prioritising the rest of my life. Or another way to think about is that:

"I want my job to work for me, not have me work for my job"

because at the end of the day who really cares if I do this job or someone else does? Probably just me, and I could be just as happy, if not more so in a different job.

As a side note, I also get the impression that some people have a problem with the idea that I might, for once in my life, put my personal needs above my career. That's not a healthy attitude for anyone to have, and you can probably guess what my two word reply to that kind of attitude would be. I'm not about to stay in the field for the sake of meeting someone else's expectations, especially if that person doesn't understand what factors have motivated me to choose the path I have taken.