Tag Archives: physics

How to Be Like Me: My seminar on alternative science careers

Last month, I was invited to Northwestern University to give a seminar at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Each semester, they invite one speaker who talks on a topic that is “outside of the box,” as my host put it. I was invited to share my experience moving from a research position into a non-research position as a scientist. As some of you may know, about a year ago, I left my second postdoc position to take a job at a scientific journal. It was an interesting experience to speak to a room full of young scientists about my career path, how I got there, and what I wish I’d known, and I thought I’d give some highlights.

First of all, I had a slight leg up on the average postdoctoral researcher, but only because I’d done enough government interviews to have an outfit that was appropriate for an interview situation. I could dress myself, at least. Apart from that, I was entering new territory.

But let’s back up a bit. As I told the audience, my journey to a publishing job really started years ago when I was trying to decide on a college major and what I wanted to do with my degree. I very briefly considered becoming a high school science teacher because the idea of teaching science appealed to me more than the idea of working in a lab. Now, while I currently realize that I do not want to stand up in front of a high school class every day for the next thirty years and teach them about force and reactions and how to blow things up and call it a “classroom demonstration,” I think I might have been onto something. I find current research fascinating. But I don’t want to sit in a lab and perform it. And working in science publishing gives me the opportunity to do just that.

So I guess the point is, you need to first know yourself and know why you’re looking at a job outside of research. Are you frustrated with the low rate of pay that tends to come with pursuing an academic career? Don’t go into publishing. There are plenty of non-academic and non-research jobs that will provide a higher starting salary to recent PhDs or former postdocs, but publishing doesn’t really seem to be one of them. But are you interested in learning about a lot of different new research without having to turn knobs in the lab? Publishing is where a lot of that research goes.

I suppose the biggest thing I wish I’d known before starting my job search was about the blog The Scholarly Kitchen. This is a blog that covers topics about science publishing and from which my boss sends me posts relating to my work regularly. I also wish I’d took a bit of time to learn more about the more advance capabilities of MS Word. And I had a brief section in my presentation about science writing credentials. While I don’t currently

What I did find useful were blogs about corporate life. I started reading Ask A Manager to get advice about navigating a more corporate interview process, but I stayed for the stories about crazy coworkers and bosses. I also referred to corporate style blogs like Capitol Hill Style (now The Work Edit, which is not quite what it was when I found it useful) and Corporette. As a woman, it can be hard to figure out what to wear to an interview, particularly since your choices are not limited to the color of suit, tie, and Oxford shirt to choose.

I definitely don’t regret leaving research, and I highly encourage anyone who’s considering it to at least check out their options. And organizing my thoughts about my career path has not only helped me organize my resources, but also reminded me just why I’m where I am. If anyone has questions about alternative science careers, I’d be happy to discuss in the comments.

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On Casual Prejudice and Remembering People’s Names

My colleague recently sent an email to the wrong person because they had a similar south Asian name to the person to whom he meant to send the email. He asked me, “Is that racist?” And, honestly, the answer is yes, a little bit. No, it’s not the kind of racist that causes people bodily harm, but it is an example of the little annoyances of standing out in a primarily white, male environment.

For another example: I used to be assumed to be a secretary by people I contacted from my old job, and now that I work for a female scientist, I’m often assumed to be her before I have a chance to introduce myself. As in, people say “Oh, you must be [boss’ name]” before I even open my mouth to actually tell them who I am. It’s not a problem with which most of my male colleagues have to deal. And, yeah, it’s kind of annoying to have it pointed out that, hey, what are the odds there are two of you in a single physics group?!

The really sad part is that I have a really common female name, and my boss has a very uncommon name. I mean, also we’re totally different people and look different.

Seriously, stop.

Because that’s the crux of the problem: it points out a person’s otherness. Yes, people with non-Western names are used to people mispronouncing their names. They’re used to being asked if they’re from the same country or city as another person who looks vaguely similar. It just highlights to them that you are judging them first and foremost by what you see, and that you don’t have the ability to distinguish between different people who aren’t the same race (or gender?!) as you.

Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s a real problem. Every time it happens, it’s an alarm going off, “you’re different, you’re different, you’re different,” in your head. It grates. As with the concept of “lighten up” in response to off-color jokes, it builds up. I promise you, your slip is not the first time this person has had to deal with this, even if you think it’s the first time you’ve made such a mistake. We notice the people who treat us like individuals, rather than a demographic group. But we’re going to be gracious and polite about it, because what else can we do?

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Good Enough and the Tyranny of Perfection in Science

In science, perfect is attractive. We talk about errors and deviations, but we always want to know that our equipment is working ideally. We spend our younger years in classes where we study concepts in a perfect world, and then we have the shock of going to a lab where things are decidedly messy. We may have an experiment held together with cable ties and electrical tape, but we want peak power out of it all the time.

When I was in graduate school, one of the banes of my existence was the frequency doubling cavity that gave me one of the laser colors I needed. I would take all my pump laser power, put it into this cavity, and get out a tenth of that in the color that I wanted. And that was on a good day. I probably spent at least a third of my graduate life fighting with the doubler power. There was always an elusive benchmark that if I could hit it, that would be enough power. In order to actually graduate, I had to step back and look at what I had, maybe do a couple rough calculations, and realize that I didn’t need optimal power, I just needed it to be good enough.

“Good enough” has become my rallying cry since then. Good enough means that you run your experiment as soon as it’s good enough to get a result. Because the result doesn’t really care if you had optimal power. The result cares that it was good enough to see an effect. And let’s face it, we’re probably not going to use the first data we take. We’re going to use that initial data to guide our experiments, refine it. So maybe along the way, we’ll see we need a smidge more power, an ounce more stability, and few more atoms in our trap. And maybe one day that will add up to “well, we need to overhaul the experiment.” But, in general, it’s best to save the obsessive perfectionism for those times when you’re waiting for your paper to be accepted for publication and have some down time to make big repairs. Which doesn’t actually happen that often.

Because let’s be clear, it’s really easy to get bogged down in the details. And the details are sometimes not even that interesting. Sometimes they’re even a bit depressing. Sometimes you’re turning two knobs back and forth, seemingly doing the same thing, but somehow getting a slow, steady improvement. And it’s boring and doesn’t have a lot to do with science. Or maybe you’re debugging code because you forgot to capitalize that ancient subroutine you called in the 268th line and also there might be a semicolon missing somewhere. It’s not adding to our understanding of the beauty of the universe, but it has to be done because things don’t work without it.

So why not let the things that don’t prevent forward momentum go? If you’re making steady forward progress, maybe it doesn’t matter that you’re operating on the edge of usefulness, just this once. It helps you keep sight of the big picture, of why you got into science in the first place. Because that’s important. Nothing kills dreams quicker than losing sight of them. And it’s especially important in graduate school because the tunnel gets really dark before you see the light at the end. So don’t linger in the dark places any longer than you have to, and listen to the adage: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

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Science and Babies

A new study about women in the sciences has come out and it suggests that women don’t have it so bad. I find the language used particularly interesting. The takeaway message is that women who choose to pursue upper-level science careers don’t face any discrimination that their male counterparts escape. This statement is interesting for two reasons: one, it suggests that the societal pressures that prevent a female from pursuing upper-level sciences mysteriously evaporate once she reaches a certain level, and two, it ignores the experiential differences between being a male and being a female.

This topic has been on my mind lately anyway as I near another birthday over the age of 30. Thirty is an interesting milestone for a woman because it’s the number that tends to get thrown around when people talk about declining fertility. Thirty-five is sometimes quoted by those who are feeling more generous. Either way, the baby clock, it seems, is ticking. So I have to ask myself: Do I want a baby?

And this is an important and relevant question because having children is a biologically different experience for a man versus a woman. Beyond societal constructs that pressure women disproportionately to stay home with children, there is a physical cost. Even before the actual birth, pregnancy seems to be no picnic, and even the healthiest woman can end up with a complication that puts her on bed rest. And then, once the baby comes, there is wear and tear on the body, as well as the dilemma of breast feeding. Sure, a woman can pump, but even that requires more breaks than the researchers I know tend to take. And rather than socializing and batting around ideas, the new mother would be secluded in an area where her breasts and associated machinery won’t offend delicate sensibilities. That is, you’re not going to be pumping in the lab or coffee room. So not only are you taking more breaks, but those you do take aren’t community-oriented. This could lead to a perception that the woman is less invested in her work.

That’s where this research gets tricky. There are a whole lot of ways in which women can experience discrimination that defy quantification. It goes back to my post about a woman being described as “not aggressive enough.” Is this code for “too feminine” or a legitimate critique?

This is why, during a conversation about future babies with D the other day, I lamented, “All the experimental physicists I know with children are men!” I’m glad to have an impending exception to that rule, but the exceptions are few and far between. Perhaps because it’s easier to abandon research when it becomes complicated with an infant’s demand on a woman.

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What Is a Physicist?

Last Friday, I stumbled upon a paper on the arXiv called “Upper-Level Physics Students’ Perception of Physicists,” which investigates the question “what is a physicist?” from the perspective of undergraduate students pursuing a physics major. That evening, I listened while D tried to explain what he’d been doing that week to my mother. Now, my mom is a pretty savvy lady when it comes to what physicists do, but I realized while listening to the conversation that even she had a hard time understanding that the project that D was describing wasn’t even really his ultimate research goal, just a short-term task that, while important, wasn’t particularly interesting to him at the time.

These two things got me thinking about what physicists are and what they do. And how that’s not really the same thing much of the time. The paper asks for students to answer the aforementioned question and then sorted the responses according to four categories on a 2×2 grid. Responses could put either a high or low emphasis on the importance of research to identifying a physicist, and they could focus on internal mastery of physics concepts versus external performance that shows this mastery. The four categories were ranked such that physicists were perceived as anything from natural philosophers akin to Aristotle or Newton (“Physicists Are Researchers Who Answer the Unanswered Questions”) to simply a student who declares a physics major (“Physicists Are People Who Are Committed to Physics”), with varying degrees in between. In my view, it seemed like many engineers would certainly fall under some of these definitions of a physicist.

But that’s a good start. It addresses the important ideas about what it means to be “A Physicist,” versus just someone with an interest in physics. I’m not here to claim I have the answer to that. But it misses something important when discussing what a physicist does: physicists don’t always do physics all the time every day. When I was an undergraduate researcher, the post-docs were fixing some plumbing leak or other and we joked about how “physics” involved an awful lot of not-physics work. And one of the post-docs turned to the other and said, “God, I wonder what it’s like to be a theorist and actually do actual physics, like, all the time?” And then we all went quiet and thought about it for a moment, and then went back to mopping.

But it’s true: experimental physicists are often not physicists. We’re plumbers or electricians or mechanics. I was the resident plumbing “expert” in an old group because I was the only one who got a certain connection to not leak. And that’s what we tend to do on a daily basis. Then, there’s the weekly tasks. They’re actually physics experiments, but often they’re at the level of an advanced undergraduate lab: measure some constant or calibrate some equipment. It’s not at all new or groundbreaking, and no one is going to rise through the ranks, but just like making sure your plumbing connections don’t leak and your electronics don’t short-circuit, they’re necessary to advancing the interesting stuff. Heck, even the theorists, the ones that sit around all day thinking about “pure” science sometimes find themselves being computer programmers more than physicists.

And if someone were to go out for a drink or dinner during one of those weeks and asked “what did you do in the lab this week?” the answer would sound depressing and not very science-y. Or it might sound just science-y enough to be confusing because why aren’t you more excited about doing SCIENCE!? That’s where my mom was with D the other night when he was talking about how boring and uninteresting the task that’s been taking him all week is. She was confused because she thought this was his “thesis research.” And it is, inasmuch as it’s necessary to get to the good stuff on which his thesis will be based.

That’s something that I think it’s important to instill in young, aspiring physicists as much as the equations and concepts: being a physicist doesn’t always mean doing physics. But even the not-physics will ultimately advance knowledge in some, albeit indirect, way.

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The Culture of a Physics Group

One of the most striking things I’ve learned in the past couple of years of post-doctoral work has nothing to do with the lab. I’ve been learning about the cultural differences between different groups, as well as between different disciplines in physics. I spent seven years in graduate school, for most of which I was a research assistant in an atomic physics group. Then, I graduated and started a postdoc in a condensed matter group. And now, I’m back in atomic physics. And one of the major things I noticed was how different the scientific and investigative culture is between atomic and condensed matter. I’ve also had to adjust to specific differences particular to each group.

The first group I worked in was as a graduate student. The group was mostly graduate students with the advisor (a professor at the university) and an occasional handful of postdocs. I joined the group when the senior grad student had been there only for a few years, so we had several years together to bond as a group. We were a bit of a gang. We showed up to events at the department together, usually early so we were the first in line for food. We were generally social and outgoing. When we went to conferences, we were the ones bar-hopping and bringing beer back to someone’s room to play XBOX till the wee hours. And I don’t think it was just the students. When a new professor joined the group, I fielded a phone call from someone looking for my adviser because they were heading out to the bar. It calmed down a bit as certain key instigators left the group, but we always had an outgoing mindset in the group. We went out to lunch in a group (a herd of sorts) every Friday. We tried to institute a tradition in which when someone graduated, they had to go out to the bar after and have a drink for every year they spent in grad school.

After grad school, I slowly lost touch with a lot of the guys who had gotten out before I did. And then I joined another group. A quieter group. Culturally, we went out to lunch maybe once a year, usually to celebrate someone starting or leaving. When we went out to lunch on my first day, the other postdoc told me it was the first time he’d ever seen our boss eat out. We would occasionally go to a happy hour during a conference, but it was lower-key. And generally consisted of one drink each.

In my current position, I haven’t quite figured out the culture. Yes, we have a weekly group lunch, and I’ve already been invited to a social gathering in the first month of living there. But all the other postdocs have young children, so it seems unlikely we’ll be doing boilermakers or shotgunning beers.

Even more intriguing is the fact that atomic physicists and condensed matter physicists seem to approach physics differently. Moving from one to the other and back again showed me that. I spent the last two years in a very device-driven field. Conference talks and conversations tend to be about the current device, how you designed it, how you think you could do better. One group spent a year trying to replicate a particularly good device. Two groups square off against each other when one accuses the other of only showing data from “hero” devices — i.e., those that work the best — and ignoring the rest. While that is the general thrust of the field, to implement the best of a certain type of device, exploration of basic physics concepts seems to take a back seat to the product.

Then, a year and a half into this position, I started writing a proposal to get another postdoc in an atomic physics group. All of a sudden, I’m back to thinking about the Bloch sphere, and abstract concepts in quantum mechanics. It’s no longer just about the stuff you can do with your hands in the lab. The day-to-day involves a lot more conversations about fundamental concepts of quantum physics because that’s something atomic physicists aim to study. But apart from that, there’s a sense that you want to learn more than just what you do daily in the lab. You read papers about anything remotely related to quantum, not just papers about your specific project. It’s an attitude that I like a lot, which is why I returned.

But it was intimidating to realize that I’d have to go back to being as well-versed in the theory as the theorists. And that might give me a hangover more than all those Bud Lights at conferences.

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When the Doubt is Not Presumed

One of my favorite blogs, for both style and substance, is Capitol Hill Style. She recently published this post, about how women undercut themselves by responding to presumed doubt of their abilities. And it reminded me of a conversation I had with my boyfriend D a month or so ago. Let me tell you a story.

When I started grad school, I had just graduated from an Ivy League university. And went into grad school at a state school near my hometown. Even though it’s a top-rated physics graduate program, it would be understandable if I felt like I was going down in the ranks, mostly because I’ve heard comments to that effect about my graduate alma mater from other graduates of my undergraduate institution. Fine institutions though they may be, the Ivy League is not known for putting out modest alumni. And yet, from the first moment I stepped into a graduate class, I had the overwhelming sense that I shouldn’t be in grad school. It’s a well-known effect: Impostor Syndrome (or Phenomenon). That feeling that you somehow don’t deserve merit you’ve come by honestly. In fact, the phrase was coined to describe high-achieving women who feel they don’t deserve their achievements, and, boy, did I have it in spades. I went through grad school, passing my classes, passing my qualifier, publishing a paper, and writing and defending my thesis, all the time worrying that at any time I might be “found out” as the idiot I really am. To this day, I wonder if getting my PhD was somehow a fluke.

But then I started to look at the world around me. Specifically, my male classmates. I noticed that a lot of them seemed extraordinarily confident in their intelligence, often to the point of being maybe a little annoying. I even watched a first-year grad student argue with the senior grad student on an experiment that a fundamental element of her experiment was wrong, and even though his assertion came from his own flawed understanding of the concepts involved, even though this was an experiment that had been carried out over the course of many years before he’d even gotten there, he refused to back down. There was this quality of many of the incoming grad students that they knew everything. Eventually, I looked around and realized that none of these erroneously overconfident students were female. In fact, in my admittedly small circle of female scientist friends, everyone I’ve met has had some degree of impostor syndrome coloring their self-perception, while many (if not most) of the men have come in thinking they’re the best thing since sliced bread. Even D, my wonderful, open-minded, not-at-all-an-obnoxious-jerk boyfriend said he recognizes that he came in thinking he knew a lot more than he actually did. And the process of grad school wears that down a bit, every time you get a problem that’s nearly impossible to solve, or an exam where the high score is a 60%. So many of those men will end up on a mentally level playing field with the women who know they don’t know everything. And then you do learn things, and after you’ve learned enough, you get your PhD and are turned out, a shiny new physicist who’s been remade better, stronger, faster. Right?

Except that’s not the end of the story. It’s very easy to say “You spent seven years learning your subject, so now you should know that you’re qualified.” But it’s not that easy to internalize. And part of the reason for that is that it has to come from you, from your internal monologue, because, well, the world is not always going to be so helpful. That’s when you start realizing that this doubt in your ability is not always presumed. It’s not always “self-doubt.” Some of it is internalized doubt that others express. It’s not always explicit, but it’s not veiled enough. Every time I get a price quote back from a company that has assumed I’m an administrative assistant rather than a researcher. Every time a machinist calls me “honey” or “sweetheart,” or that they’re “always happy to help out a pretty girl.” Every time a tech tells me I “need to find someone to write [me] some C code” to program the equipment that’s not working. That’s the doubt that I’ve been trying so hard not to feel on the inside, flung at me from the outside.

And it gets old. It gets hard. But I don’t have to accept it or like it. I don’t have to chalk it up to a miscommunication or (my favorite) an overreaction. And I sure as hell don’t have to parrot it back myself.

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Leaning Out in the Sciences

I found this article today and it made me think. I’m definitely not the kind of person who leans into her career. Since I started my post-doc, I’ve taken up ballet dancing, started crocheting, and performed in a community theater play. All of these activities take my time and energy away from science. There’s a perception among the physicists I’ve met that physics has to be your entire life and identity. It certainly isn’t mine.

When I was in grad school, I ran a marathon. I was a relatively high-mileage runner (~20 miles per week when I wasn’t actively training for something, up to 40 at my max during marathon training) throughout my first few years of grad school, and the marathon was certainly a time and energy commitment. But I kept my specific training goals a secret. No one asked “Oh, hey, are you training for a marathon?” while I was training, so there was no outright lying going on, but I limited my discussion of my training to my personal friends and family. I was afraid that if I let on at work that I was undertaking such training that they might become critical of my performance in the lab: “Oh, Jenn’s too tired to work hard today because she was up at the crack of dawn to run” or “Jenn didn’t get as much done this week if she would have if she’d been in the lab during that 90-minute run she took at 7am.”

And then, the day after my marathon, I was gingerly lowering myself into a chair at our weekly seminar and one of my colleagues jokingly said “What’s up with you? Did you run a marathon this weekend or something?” Probably was not expecting the answer he got.

But just because I’m not devoted to physics with my entire being, body and soul, does not mean I don’t love science. I’ve also been applying for a fellowship lately and in the process of that, I’ve had to write a research proposal. Research proposals are wonderful things because they force you to go out and read all about the cutting edge ideas in a particular field. And I rediscovered my obsessive love of certain fields in physics. I went to bed thinking about my proposal and woke up to it. I had long, deep conversations with my boyfriend about the intricacies of the experiments and hashed out how the theories work, not just to make sure I got it right in my proposal, but to satisfy a genuine curiosity.

I had overly-long, fast-paced conversations with a prospective employer where we got caught up in the science rather than sticking to the one or two logistical questions I had. I joked that it was like physics Gilmore Girls because we talked fast and cut each other off because were both getting so excited. I could feel the science getting into my blood again.

And yet, in a week, after my current play closes, I’m going to go to another round of auditions. Because it’s not all science for me. Science is just my career and I love it as such.

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Explaining Physics to Zen Buddhists

In meditation group the other day, the leader did a brief reading from a book that included an aside about how the philosophy could be exemplified by particle physics. He chose to omit that aside from his reading but later passed the book around so we could take a look. Of course, someone eventually remembered that I am a physicist, so that’s how I ended up, in half-lotus on a zafu, explaining pions to a group of Zen Buddhists.

As a physicist and a meditator and yogini, I’ve encountered my fair share of non-scientists who like to try to use physics, particularly quantum and particle physics, to advance their spiritual worldview. In yoga, any time I mentioned quantum physics, I was told to see the film What the Bleep Do We Know?, which was generally described as life-changing among my yoga friends and utterly ludicrous among my physics friends. The idea is that the principles of quantum mechanics prove that we are all interconnected and our intentions send energy out into the universe and affect things. It’s very woo.

So I was nervous, sitting here in front of a group of people with cushions and incense and talking about interactions among sub-atomic particles. But Zen seems a little more grounded in their understanding of physics. They were very smug about the discovery of sub-atomic particles because their cosmology states that the world can be divided into ever-smeller pieces. And that’s not untrue. It’s also true that, at the sub-atomic level, our bodies have little difference from any other matter in the world. And when we die, we just go back to that bank of raw material that the universe uses to build things. Except we don’t even have to die, really. No matter what state we are in, we are just particles.

But where the pions come in are when you talk about observation and interactions. The idea in the Zen reading was that we don’t ever observe a thing; we observe how it interacts with the world. Personally, I like to think of color, which isn’t an inherent property as much as a way of seeing the light an object doesn’t absorb. When you put green cellophane over a plant, it dies because the green light is the light it reflects, not the light it absorbs for photosynthesis. But the reading talked about the interactions between the constituent particles of protons, how they gain mass from these interactions. And it’s true. If you take two free up quarks and a free down quark, their masses don’t add up to the mass of a proton. However, quarks can interact and form two-quark mediating particles, and these could give the proton its mass. This is a rough explanation because I’m not a particle physicist, but I was glad that I happened to remember this from a college class I took.

When it comes down to it, I sit with a very educated, science-minded, intelligent group of people. I don’t know if the Zen conversations seem more grounded because there are a lot of scientists, or if Zen attracts scientists because it seems to have a more grounded cosmology. But talking about physics to the “layperson” is not always about classroom demonstrations and family gatherings.

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