I find life quite bewildering: the way it can seemingly drag on for prolonged periods, as if moving through treacle, progression frustratingly gradual; the way that then, like light suddenly escaping some unperceived medium, I am gushing forth with great speed, into the great unknown, the future, the life I thought would never come. It feels like my timeline is completely broken. Over the past few months, things have simply flown by, leaving me somewhere I never thought I would be. Liverpool, to be specific.
Since I last posted, so much has happened I hardly know where to start…should I perhaps begin with the last, and most remarkable interview I had last year, which happened to be for a heavy ion physics position here in the UK? My new boss, after seeing my interview in a “brain-drain” article in The Times, invited me to apply for the position many months ago, when it was based at Daresbury. Soon after this, the application process was frozen due to funding cuts. Luckily, the vacancy was moved to Liverpool and survived, but became a shorter term post for a more experienced candidate. I hadn’t expected or even imagined success, but simply went to the interview and introduced myself, enthusiastic and hopeful. The experience was a delight, and it felt great to finally meet people who seemed to appreciate my skills, experience, achievements and passion (not least, I imagine, because this was the one job opening in the country for which my training was perfectly designed. This is precisely the difficulty that many postgraduates are now facing, as positions in scientific research are not only extremely competitive but also sadly rare, and in other areas they are seen as over-qualified or lacking in “real-world” experience).
The position was for a research scientist to work on an experiment at GSI, Darmstadt, measuring a fascinating heavy ion observable known as “flow” (observations of which, at RHIC, led to the idea of the Quark Gluon Plasma as a strongly interacting, low viscosity liquid, and has been observed more recently at ALICE). However, in this case, it would be for isospin-asymmetric nuclear matter, in order to investigate the symmetry energy of the nuclear equation of state. Symmetry energy describes the difference between protons and neutrons in the EOS, and it is especially interesting for understanding phase changes in, for example, the neutron-rich matter of neutron stars at high density (their masses and radii are intrinsically linked to the EOS).
Of course, I went back to my usual business of PhD completion, convinced that the trip to Liverpool University had been an enjoyable confidence-boost that would go no further, and that come September I would most likely be undertaking a PGCE course. It was not until a week before Christmas, as I was discussing the job market with visiting friends, that I received a phone call that has since changed my life. “Could you start on the 1st February?”
My partner, Phil, and I spent the weekend thinking through the logistics and trying to decide whether relocating was possible at such short notice. The same week had brought him the unfortunate news that his research group at Birmingham in Hydrogen Storage was unlikely to gain further funding, so his days at Birmingham were coming to an end too. He was so supportive, and although we have both considered Birmingham our home for many years, we decided to leap on the opportunity and spent most of Christmas viewing unfurnished properties in Merseyside.* Apparently, rental agents’ busiest time of year is the new year, supposedly due to break-ups caused by the stress of Christmas. We probably viewed about 20 properties in a few short days, with help from my parents living a reasonable drive away in Manchester, and for every viewing we secured, 3 or 4 were cancelled the same morning as the property had already gone. Luckily, we found somewhere lovely, fresh on the market, across the pond in the Wirral.
*Yes, after spending years as students living in run-down rental accommodation ready-furnished with bright orange sofas and worn-out mattresses, we decided the move was a perfect opportunity to take the relationship-altering step of buying all our furniture together. We have conquered the challenge of long distance, sure, but that’s nothing on going to Ikea, so they say. We’re still together though, so we seem to have survived!
I say “my partner, Phil, and I” with reluctance because, there is one more change in here that I have neglected to mention. On Christmas morning, the first I have ever spent away from home, I awoke in the afore-mentioned orange student house, buzzing with the usual excitement and feeling slightly strange. I am used to having a giddy Santa-oriented Christmas with the kids and dog of my family bringing the day to life with a frantic joyous noise. Instead, I was to spend the day in the calm and tranquil adult company of Phil’s family. He had promised to bring up breakfast in bed before we set off, but instead he invited me to come downstairs for it. Drowsily pottering down in my dressing gown, I was greeted with a trail of candles which led through the house, to my coat and boots, and then out into our garden, which was completely blanketed with snow. At its foot, there stood Phil, waiting for me to join him. At first I thought it was a romantic impulsion to run outside and play in the snow and feel the Christmasness of it all, but in fact it was the setting of his sweet proposal. Apparently I couldn’t stop giggling and kept interrupting him with “Aaah! No way!” All I can remember is it feeling so magical.
With only a weekend to move in before my job started, I am amazed that it came together quite as well as it did. With the very generous assistance of our families, we have somehow managed to get moved in, unpacked, our furniture budgeted, bought, brought home and built, all the paperwork and logistics out of the way…I am getting settled into work and finishing off commitments in Birmingham, and we have a home office that is set up for me to continue to finish off my thesis. We even have a wedding folder ready to fill with ideas once we get the chance to think about it. It’s been a whirlwind of a winter.
I am keen to tell you more about GSI, flow, the work I am now to be involved with, and some of the incredible achievements of the Physics department at Liverpool. These things will have to wait for another time. However, I will leave you with something I was drawn to reading Derren Brown’s Confessions of a Conjurer (a Christmas present from my mom) – Csíkszentmihályi’s definition of “flow” – something completely different, referring to personal motivation. Derren described it as:
“…a kind of retrospective happiness we can look forward to when we are in our “zones”; when our skills match the ongoing challenges of the moment in such a way that we lose ourselves and our sense of time, and experience the kind of focused reverie, the unhindered creative flux…”
This for me describes so well the feeling of work when it is going well. Of course, there are times when I get completely stuck, or times when there are more mediocre tasks to be done that I can’t help putting off, but to be in the midst of this “flow” is to have the most enjoyable work experience, to feel that you have found precisely what you were meant to do with your life. Crucially, it can apparently only be achieved by pursuing difficult challenges, and developing high level of confidence and ability. Could this be a major factor (alongside the obvious) in why many scientists love their job so much?
I must confess that I am teetering on the anxious side in work at the moment, as everything is new and confusing still, but these things take time. To paraphrase Brian Cox after his recent appearance on BBC Breakfast, it’s not about being a genius but about working hard and constantly improving. I’ll try to keep you posted.