Why I left research

My life on the face of it, 1.5 years ago, was of a physicist working her way to a career at the top.  I had a permanent post at the Rutherford Appleton Lab doing research into ways of making fusion energy with very high power lasers. The type of laser fusion I had been working on, called fast ignition, had been the centre of a European wide project to investigate the feasibility of this energy source. My future was bright and I couldn’t have believed in something more than my topic of research. For me, the prospect of helping to create a sustainable and relatively clean energy source was motivation enough to drag my corpse out of bed in the morning.

The problem with physics is that it has the tendency to throw the unexpected at you. In my case – the type of laser driven fusion I was looking into suddenly fell out of favour. This affected quite a large group of people and tensions were high. Consequently in order to survive, diversification became the order of the day. I was adamant that I wanted to continue looking into to laser driven fusion.  Most of my expertise (and interest) was in short pulse, high intensity lasers and this was of upmost relevance to fast ignition. The more favoured schemes depend only on long pulse, lower intensity lasers. I had some limited experience with this and so began to look towards these schemes for research ideas.

So far, so good. However, I am not a robot (!) and emotionally I really found it hard to just “move on” as was expected of me. I had not only invested time into my research, I had invested a substantial piece of myself. The hole it left behind was real and was only exacerbated by the fact that I found the physics of the other schemes frankly boring in comparison! I know that this post sounds like a giant whinge from an ingrate who should feel lucky to have a job at all. The point is, to do research well you must love it and believe it. It can’t just be a bland occupation that fills the space between nine and five. It must excite, amaze, and inspire you. If you don’t buy into your own research, how on earth will research councils, decision makers, and the good old taxpayer do so?

At this point the doubt set in, impostor syndrome doing its best to win over the voice of reason. I began to drift and lifted my foot off the gas. I had never experienced a plateau before and I found it most disconcerting. It didn’t help that I had done my PhD, postdoc, and current post at the same lab. I started to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. It was then that I actively began to think about what I would do outside of the warm, comforting, and ultimately safe environment I was in.

At the same time as this I had fallen in love! We all know that chance means these encounters are rare and precious. M was finishing his PhD and looking for gainful employment. This weighed heavily on my mind, since the “two-body problem” causes havoc for many couples in academia. It is almost seen as a badge of honour for an academic to leave all that they love, the ultimate sacrifice, in exchange for a glittering career in research. Having had a long term, two-city relationship in the past, I was very keen for this not to happen again. Miraculously two positions came up with the same deadline, in the same institution! It was a sociology teaching fellowship for him and an industrial/business development position in plasma physics and fusion for me. It seemed, for a person who doesn’t believe in fate, like fate. Luckily we both succeeded in being employed and the plan fired into action.

And so began the process of extracting myself from the lab and 10 years of research, memories, and all the people I had collected along the way. For a nuts and bolts type of girl the prospect of a life outside the lab was a daunting one. However, even if I had stayed in research the pull away from the lab into writing grants and administration was inevitable. This move was just accelerating the process. Unsurprisingly the announcement of my move sparked a lot of chatter but ultimately my colleagues, my family and friends, and the wider community eventually seemed to understand.

On my last day I walked into the target area of the laser lab by myself to look at all we had accomplished in the last 10 years. I waved goodbye to the cumbersome, if not awkwardly beautiful neutron detectors of my PhD.  I doffed my cap to the target chamber in which I had spent many a frustrating, body-suited, goggled up hour lining up instruments, lasers, and anything else we could get our hands on. I also paid respect to the annoying parts of the system that I wouldn’t have to do battle with again. What a sight I must have been, a grown woman shedding tear or two over inanimate objects that had become friends.

But there are no regrets. Why did I leave research? For the adventure, for the excitement of new ways of having impact, and most important of all for love!


2 thoughts on “Why I left research

  1. Great piece, Kate! Just one comment, are you sure that the neutron detectors were cumbersome and not ‘cucumbersome’….?

  2. Always interesting to hear how the ‘fashions’ of research impact people, and really glad you didn’t let this latest swing in what’s hot or not derail what was, and still is, an obviously high profile and successful career. Your particular two-body solution does indeed have the air of fate about it, but to some extent you make your own luck – your commitment to staying true to your principles stopped you from getting stuck in a rut and avoid the ‘badge of honour’ you mentioned as well. I wish you all the best in your new role – I’m sure you’ll make it your own just as you did at RAL!

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