Thursday, October 23, 2014

A handful of perspectives

Over the past few months I've spoken to quite a few people about leaving the field. (One of the first questions many people often ask is "Have you found a new job yet? What are you going to do?" which is premature and I think is missing the point.) A few perspectives have stuck with me, and while I'm not sure I can make a full blog post about each, I can certainly combine them into a single post.

One of my former physicist friends told me about how she'd moved onto jobs more closely related to technology and finance. She's with the people she cares about and she seems happier and more driven than when I knew her as a PhD student, and I think she made the right choice. In spite of this, there's something you can get from science that can't really get elsewhere, and she said that the work was like looking at the face of nature. It's almost a spiritual experience when you find out a fact about the universe that nobody has known before. That's something that I'll miss. On the other hand there's also a great amount of satisfaction to be gained from creating something new, and that's what has really interested me to a greater and greater extent in recent years. Trading in one satisfying experience for another is no bad thing, even if nothing else can ever replace the feeling you get when you make a new measurement.

Another friend and colleague pointed out that I might miss life as an ex-patriate, and this hadn't occured to me at all. When you're an expat you tend to meet other expats, who are living abroad to follow their passions. You get used to being a tourist in your home town, finding out the most exciting and bizarre places you can. It's an exciting experience, and there's a rush you get when you have a decent converstaion in a foreign language. Knowing that you can set your roots down anywhere is quite liberating and expands the mind. Something I should be careful about is settling down into a rut, where I surround myself with people who have never even travelled abroad, let alone lived in a foreign country. My life has been much richer for being a serial expat and I should try to hold onto that.

Recently I was speaking with a friend who said half-jokingly that I was a poor role model because of the sacrifices he had to make to be a physicist. I pointed out that this was one of the main reasons for leaving. We have to make sacrifices for anything we choose to do, and making a different set of sacrifices can be a welcome change. While I see that having role models at any stage in your career is important, I don't think that a fallen role model is a reason to lose motivation, and in any case I should be a strong role model for those people who want to leave the field. The only difference between my own experience and other people's is that I'm publicly discussing my choice. It helps focus my own mind, and helps others who are going through similar thought processes to come to conclusions.

Finally I'll mention my own thoughts on the matter. At every stage in my life I've been more interested in becoming something rather being something. I'd rather study to get a degree than just have the degree, I'd rather search the dataset for a new discovery than have my name on the discovery paper. In the same way I'd rather do everything necessary to become a professor than actually be a professor, and I think that I would stand a rather good chance at getting a faculty position if I applied myself. However once I got a permanent position somewhere I'd stop becoming a professor and start being a professor. It's not that I wouldn't have things to aim for after that, but it just wouldn't be the same. I enjoy the struggle, I enjoy bettering myself, I enjoy working my way up to more prestigious positions, but I don't want that process to end yet.


  1. Aidan, you would be an awesome professor. A couple weeks ago I was chatting with some postdocs, and your name came up in the conversation. One person (who shall here remain nameless) said, "Aidan is one of the few people on this experiment who actually comes up with new ideas." I completely agree! That said, you would also be an awesome X, where X is anything that lights up your passions.

    1. Hey Wells, thanks! I suspect I know who that nameless person might be :) As you know, I love physics, but I also love other stuff and life is short and I think it's time to expand my horizons a little.