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Christine Nattrass | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

I wear many hats

My name is Christine Nattrass and I’m a post doc on ALICE.  For my first post, I thought I’d talk about what I actually do on a daily basis.

First of all, what is a post doc?  Well, it’s something between a graduate student and a professor. Post doc is short for post-doctoral researcher or post-doctoral fellow and it comes after one’s doctoral studies.  The first couple years of graduate school are spent taking classes.  Afterwards, a graduate student has to do independent research that adds to our body of scientific knowledge.  Graduate students also usually have teaching responsibilities at least some of the time.  In the sciences, a graduate student is generally expected to present one’s work at conferences and to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals.  A professor* is expected to advise students, teach classes, sit on committees, publish papers, apply for grants (and actually get at least enough of these to support his or her research group), and attend conferences.  Most universities also require some form of outreach or community service of professors, although the amount of work can vary widely depending on the university.  A professor is generally in a pretty much permanent position – it may or may not be a lifetime job, but there is a reasonable amount of job security.  The average duration of a PhD in physics in the US is six years.  A post doc generally lasts 2-3 years.  A post doc has inherent job insecurity.

Two post docs are usually required to become a professor in heavy ion physics.  I spent five years getting my bachelor’s degree, six years getting my doctorate, and can expect to spend at least five years as a post doc before I could reasonably expect to get a faculty position or a permanent position at a national laboratory.  It is generally expected that someone will be at different institutes for his or her bachelor’s degree, doctorate, and each post doc, although there are exceptions.  A permanent position is also usually at a different institute too.  This means about five moves in about twenty years, often across the country or even to different countries.  My goal is to become a professor.  That means that, if I am lucky, in about five years I’ll get a tenure track position.  This mean the earliest I could reasonably expect to be able to live in one place for the next five years would be roughly at the age of 35.  Even then, competition for permanent positions is stiff – there is no guarantee that a position will even be open when I’m ready to apply.

My job responsibilities include a lot of the responsibilities of graduate students and professors.  Post docs do not usually teach classes, although sometimes this is sometimes an option.  I spend most of my time doing research.  This includes supervising graduate students.  Depending on the group, a graduate student may work closer with a post doc than with a faculty member.  A post doc is more likely to sift through a graduate student’s code to find a bug than a faculty member and often looks at the first draft of a student’s work.  “Doing research” can involve a lot of things, so let me list some of the things I’ve done this week:

  • Reading and commenting on two papers that will be submitted soon
  • Working on an expense report for a two month trip I just took to CERN
  • Discussing the aforementioned trip to CERN, future directions for research for the group, and the progress of graduate students with my faculty supervisor
  • Preparation of a poster for a poster session at our institute
  • Writing a paper
  • Three phone meetings with collaborators abroad
  • Preparation of a presentation for a paper discussion group I lead today
  • Finding and then reading papers on a topic I’ll soon start working on
  • Meeting with the author of a department newsletter to discuss an outreach project I’ve been working on (the Southeastern Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics)
  • Writing this blog post (which I consider outreach)

My job can vary a lot day to day.  Generally I do whatever has to get done.  If I don’t know how to do it, I have to learn.  This is the hard part and one of the best parts about this job.  It never gets boring.  I’m always doing something new.

Contrary to stereotypes about physicists, I actually spend most of my day communicating.  One of my responsibilities as a native English speaker in a highly international field is editing others’ English.  I draw a lot on the extra language training I got in my minor in German and auditing two years of Czech.  I also draw on my time in theater, orchestra, and choir.  The way physicists get known in the field is by giving talks and the way a physicist gets her next job is giving good talks.  In the last year I gave nine formal talks (either seminars or at conferences.)  In addition, I typically give at least twenty informal talks a year (in group meetings, at collaboration meetings, and in phone meetings.)  I am always performing.  I’ve been a system administrator for a computer system.  I’ve given public tours of a national lab.  I’ve done science workshops with middle schoolers and talked to students at several levels about being a physicist.  I’ve organized meetings and conferences.  I’ve tested electronics boards.  I’ve made ethernet cables.  I teach.  I write.  I mentor.  In short, I wear many hats.

And I want to hear from you – what do you want to know about physics, being a physicist, or CERN?  I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to everything, but I’ll try.

*I’m lumping together all ranks of professors.  Yes I’m fudging over details.

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