At high school I liked physics. I don’t know why, I just did. It was interesting, thought-provoking, I liked experiments perhaps…. So by GCSE I knew I wanted to study physics further, so I took physics and maths at A-level (including further maths AS), and I also did economics. Now I wish I’d done chemistry too, but back then I didn’t like it. I would have rather studied French or English lit. Anyway, I got my A-levels and went to Bristol University where I did an MSci in physics with a year in Europe. I went to Grenoble, France, for my 3rd year, where I learned a lot about skiing and French but very little physics. But I also got out of my comfort zone and met many inspiring people so it was a wonderful experience. I thoroughly enjoyed both Bristol and Grenoble.
I’m a great fan of work experience because I like trying things, so during some university summer holidays I would work in physics labs. I visited the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory after the 2nd year and Oxford University after the 3rd year for one month each. RAL was really good but I didn’t enjoy my time in Oxford, just because of the project I was given. It nearly put me off physics completely. I think work experience can be really valuable, but you need to be able to assess why things are good or bad and use that information.
Finishing university was the end of one of my ‘steps’ – meaning a big chunk of time when I was stable and knew what I was doing. I had no idea what I should do next; it was a bit intimidating. I was tired and needed a rest from physics after finals. And I didn’t think I wanted to do physics anymore. The Oxford work placement had made me think a physics career wasn’t for me, and I was demoralised and upset because I didn’t quite get a first, so I think I felt a bit rubbish. I went travelling. My parents had always encouraged it, so I worked over the summer then took my backpack and left. In the end I worked and travelled for two years. I went to south and central America, then Canada, then went back to London to work for 6 months (in a fashion agency – a far cry from Physics! I also modelled for a designer at London Fashion Week and helped at sales. It was fun, but never stimulating.) Then I went on to Australia and Asia. It sounds like a lot of fun, and it was mostly, though there were things I did then that I’m proud of too – it wasn’t all just messing around. I learnt Spanish in South America; I walked the Inca Trail in Peru, which started me on a greater journey of trekking, and later climbing; I learnt to dive in Honduras; I improved my skiing (another passion) in Canada; I worked in Sydney, Australia; I lived on a yacht for a month, sailing up the Queensland coast; I trekked for a month in the Himalayas; I took the Trans-Siberian express back to Europe…. That’s not much to do with physics but it shaped me. Or maybe I was always that way inclined. I’m quite adventurous, but I like to learn from my experiences, and I think everything through a lot. And all this time, I was still thinking about physics. I visited some telescopes and observatories in Australia. At some point during these years I had heard about fusion, and while I was working in London I had visited Imperial College and Culham Centre for Fusion Energy to talk to people. By the time I returned from my Australia/Asia trip I knew I wanted to do a PhD in fusion energy.
However, it wasn’t that simple. It was July and PhD funding is usually given out in March/April, so I had missed it. I didn’t want to do anything else, so I decided to wait and apply the next year. In the meantime I did another 6 months work in London in fashion, then managed to get myself a work placement in Lausanne, Switzerland, working on fusion. This was like heaven – fusion, French and skiing all in one place! I had the best time and still have some great friends from then. But I came back to England and did my PhD. I lived out near Oxford, by Culham Science Centre, and once a week or once every two I would go to Imperial College. So I was back in physics and I loved working in fusion. The timescales can be long and frustrating with such big experiments, but I loved working towards something, especially something as dramatic as fusion. So the PhD was a good decision for me.
Anyway, finishing the PhD was the end of another ‘step’ so I had to reassess again (never an easy process). In the last 5 years I have been freelance, doing a mixture of physics-related jobs. This is really unusual for a physicist, so you shouldn’t take me as the best example. You could go on to be an academic, or work in industry, or do something entirely different like finance or patent law or documentary making. Physics gives you lots of options. I have been lecturing on fusion and doing other communication work, including TV. I wrote a book, and will write more. I’m currently writing a book on the Northern Lights, and blending some of the things I love – like science and adventure – to inspire people to see the science in the beauty around them and to appreciate it. Because science is an exploration and that’s wonderful. I worked for two years for an invention company, where I actually did invent things for big clients (it’s really hard…). I’m now working with a fusion start-up company that is trying to get to fusion faster by designing smaller, cheaper machines. This is very exciting. I work in physics education too, as a consultant for the Ogden Trust, and I’m an ambassador for the Your Life campaign, which aims to show the myriad opportunities available to those studying science and maths.
I don’t really have any routine, which some people would hate but I rather like. I tend to go to the fusion lab on Mondays (lunchtime yoga!) and any other time they need me. I usually have at least one meeting in London sometime during the week. In term time I may have meetings with local schools or go off lecturing for a couple of weeks. The rest of the time I work from home, juggling my jobs and planning my next mountain expeditions.
I’m so lucky that I get to work in something that excites and inspires me – all of it does! – and I have complete freedom to follow my own interests. But it’s still hard work, and I’m still up far too late on my computer every night. So remember that even if you love your work, it’s still work. It’s never going to be perfect or easy.
I’m sorry this has been such a long story, but I hope I’ve given you some idea that, if anything, your career doesn’t have to be a straight path and you don’t have to know all the answers now Get the information, get the skills and you can shape your life following your priorities. Main things: do physics 😉 ; do work experience; do what suits you.
- inform yourself – talk to people, try things out (work experience)
- think about *your* priorities – do you want money? challenge? a short commute? to work abroad? stability or flexibility? These are different for everyone.
- find mentors – find people you like who can inspire you and support you – like a teacher or a supervisor or a head of department or a phd student… anyone. Seek them out, because you may not be given them.