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Physics research stories (your own stories)

  1. Aug 19, 2015 #1
    There are a lot of Q&A about research in physics here. I'd like to know more about examples of your own career path. Did you change your subject, how did it work out? Did you do work mostly independently, and if so, when did you start? How did you pick your school?

    I'm a 23 years old physics master student. I went to a university which offered theoretical physics, graduated as a bachelor, went on an exchange and ended up studying for a Master's degree in China. I get to choose my own research topic, of which I am very glad about, and now I'm wondering about where to go after I complete my studies here.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 19, 2015 #2
  4. Aug 19, 2015 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    My career has mostly been happy accidents- I went into undergraduate studies interested in high energy theory stuff (which was fashionable at the time), but senior year I took a course on lasers and changed my mind- among other things, I realized that I liked working in a lab rather than on a computer. I looked for graduate programs emphasizing optics, and went to one. Two years later, when 'matching' for a PhD advisor, I ended up in a multidisciplinary group studying fluid flow, primarily in microgravity conditions, and my dissertation was about 50/50 optics and fluids. I would characterize my formal schooling period as developing deep expertise in one or two specific topics while maintaining a fairly broad outlook, being ready when an opportunity presents itself.

    After my PhD, I got a job (military contractor, then NASA contractor) where I was able to use both fluids and optics background to lead technical groups in a laboratory setting, but wasn't doing "real" research. I started looking for ways to get back into academic research, and ended up with a NIH training grant and a postdoc position in a medical school (Physiology department). Fast forward to now, I'm a tenured member of a Physics department, continuing the research I started with the training grant. I still have active relationships with my previous colleagues- I just finished reviewing a set of experiments that are going to fly using the equipment I (and many others) built at NASA. Much of the instrumentation I use now, I either learned to use or built during my 'past lives'.

    So I would say it's worked out pretty great- I've flown on the 'vomit comet' a bunch of times, played with fancy military bang-bangs, and now I am poking cells with laser tweezers. As for advice, I tell students to have both a short-term (1-3 years) and long-term (10-15 years) career plan- there are many paths to independence. You can't predict where the jobs will be in 10 years, but you can position yourself to take advantage of opportunities as they appear.
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