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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

View Blog | Read Bio

The T word: It’s thesis time

I’m back in the UK for good, enjoying the ridiculous amounts of snow (luckily I walk to work so it has been more pleasant than in-the-way) and starting to get back into the swing of things again. In fact, I am days away from submitting a very exciting paper outlining my contribution to the Strangeness in Quark Matter conference last year in Buzios (once it is in, I will, at long last, post about the incredible experience!)

A view of our frozen UK: Taken from BBC News Online

A view of our frozen UK: Taken from BBC News Online

However, this time of year has brought with it the looming prospect of a PhD that needs finishing. My lovely boyfriend handed in his Chemistry thesis before Christmas and has his viva to look forward to soon. A Birmingham graduate friend of mine (and soon-to-be CERN fellow) just passed his viva. One of my colleagues has started to write her thesis and I should really be doing the same. I knew this time would come, but now that it’s here my overriding thought is, “I haven’t done enough yet!”

This is a common phenomenon, but particularly this year as data is finally flowing from CERN, final year particle physics PhD students are finding themselves with much more exciting things to do than writing up. Glum prospects for ALICE in the UK invite some incredible analysis over the coming year, to make the most of what time is left (and with any luck reverse the decision to axe the experiment from UK nuclear physics). Apart from anything else, all of the postulation is coming to an end. We can’t wait to find out how the data at new energy compares to our expectations, and what unusual things show up. None of us want to go from looking at the brand new and unseen to writing a long and detailed account of what we’ve done so far. Deciding when to stop is very difficult.

There is a bright side. I have alot still to do before I am finished, but starting to write up early will give me time later on to continue with analysis when it’s really exciting. Also, to write my thesis I am going to need to dust down alot of physics and that gives me the excuse to read around alot. A PhD can leave one very specialised in knowledge, and day-to-day work doesn’t require most of what I learned and found fascinating about ALICE, so it will be nice to delve deeper into some other areas!

In truth, all the physics I don’t use anymore I actually miss. A friend of mine doing a course in sewage (:-)!) asked me last night to advise her on the usefulness of a PhD as a career step, which of course I can’t say without knowing more about sewage, but it really made me think about how I have changed over the years. I have learned alot and grown substantially in skill and confidence – I can approach a problem or a challenge bravely and my mind copes better with new and difficult concepts. There is no doubting that I will be much more effective in any workplace now than when I graduated. However, the specialisation leaves alot of physics distant and hazy in my mind. I feel like a well-sharpened pencil – knowing one small area in alot of detail. I have taken to reading Feynman’s lectures and doing my old problem sheets every now and again, falling back in love with the subject. Being something of an expert in something really specific is very fun indeed, but I hope that wherever I end up next I get the opportunity to broaden my knowledge as well as my skills.

Yes, I am "starting" my thesis :-)

Yes, I am "starting" my thesis 🙂

The thesis is one of the biggest challenges a person can complete in their lifetime, alongside marathons, novels, etc. Everyone has a different strategy, working through the night, taking a few months as a hermit away from social interaction, or, as in my boyfriend’s case, juggling writing with a full time job (he started a post-doc position at the University!) I now have a real appreciation for how immense a task it is, and everyone I know who has completed one tells me to start as soon as possible. So today is a big day for me. I think I have procrastinated enough (I have fed the office with cupcakes and scones, the house is spotless, and my SQM proceedings are a few tweaks away from submission…) so I am finally taking the leap. Over the coming months, I am going to put my own incredible little pocket of the world on paper. Wish me luck 🙂


5 responses to “The T word: It’s thesis time”

  1. reknaw says:

    “Wish me luck”
    Good luck 🙂

    “juggling writing with a full time job (he started a post-doc position at the University!”

    You’re kidding right? He got a postdoc before even writing his thesis? WTF????? I guess it all comes down to the “connections” each of us has 🙁

  2. Marcos Santander says:

    Good luck Zoe! I hope to be there soon…

  3. Zoe Louise Matthews says:

    It does happen! He is very good. He works in the Solid State group, in Hydrogen Storage, and he is pretty much a genius (not biased, honest!)

    His work is being cited all the time and a structure solution of his (which is very pretty) got to the front of Chem. Comm. at the time, has been used in the University’s prospectus, put on posters around campus during open days and people are constantly asking for a copy of it! Check it out here: http://www.rsc.org/publishing/journals/CC/article.asp?doi=b518243c

    It’s not about connections as much as demonstrating that you are someone people really need 🙂 the Uni would be daft to let him go, he knows the equipment inside out and he is very skilled!

  4. Meike says:

    Good luck!

  5. Penny Jackson says:

    I know someone who started a full time job at another university in a group he had no connections with while writing his thesis, the other postdoc in his group also hadn’t finished (if you can call them postdocs). I think it’s actually quite common.

    If the soon-to-be fellow you refer to is Mark, I believe he has actually been a fellow for the last couple of months.