Aerial photograph of Fermi National Accelerator Facility in Batavia, IL. Photo credit: Fermilab Visual Media Services.
This is going to be the first in a series of posts in which I try to describe my job. I say it’ll be a series of posts because there’s a lot to talk about.
I think it’s not enough to say “I build particle accelerators”. First of all, it takes hundreds of talented people to build even the smaller sorts of machines. In the grand scheme of things, I’ve got a very specific and kind of complicated role. And then, it’s not enough just to describe my role. How does it fit into the larger picture? What are all the other accelerator physicists doing? And why do we want to build these things in the first place? Accelerators are big and complicated and not exactly cheap. Finally, since this is my job, what’s it like? Is it hard? Are the hours ok? Do I have a boss? To say that I’m working on the refurbishment of an 805 MHz pillbox cavity for R&D towards a muon ionization cooling channel … well, that’s accurate, but it doesn’t give you a lucid picture of my day-to-day, does it?
I’ve started writing this post quite a few times over the past month or so, and I always end up with an insanely long, dense chunk of text that nobody will ever read. Finally I hit on the (obvious) solution of breaking it down into chunks. So without further ado, here’s chunk number one, a post on
For most of the people in my field, getting a PhD represents the beginning of a career. I know that sounds totally bonkers, since most people are in their late 20s or early 30s by the time they get their doctorates. Just think of it as an apprenticeship for science dorks. Sure I spent a few years at the beginning of grad school doing schooly things: taking classes, doing homework, studying for tests … basic school stuff everybody can relate to.
But for most grad students, at some point there’s a crazy, stressful milestone. Maybe you study for and pass a scary test, maybe you earn your Master’s Degree, or maybe some Klingons jab you with pain sticks. After that hurdle, you’re what’s called a Doctoral Candidate — you’ve earned the right to try to get a degree. And usually, from that point forward, you just do research. No more classes, no more tests, you just have a low-paying job with extremely long hours. This is the part that’s basically an apprenticeship. After several years of doing research, you graduate!
What happens next? Well, some people are smooth enough to waltz straight out of grad school and into a sweet professorship. It’s way more common, though, to spend some years after your apprenticeship as a journey(wo)man. In academic jargon, we call that sort of person a postdoc, short for post-doctoral fellow. A postdoc is typically a 1-3 year temporary position that pays better than being in grad school but not quite as well as a more permanent position. (If my paycheck was dinner, it would be somewhere in between instant ramen noodles and a really nice lasagna.) I’ve got actual responsibilities, my work is more or less self-directed, and I answer to a supervisor who helps to integrate me into the larger work of the group. If it all goes well, I’ll become a “staff scientist” in 2013. That means I’ll be involved in some of these projects for the long haul, which is pretty exciting since I love my work and there’s a lot I want to contribute.
So I’m a journeyman, but you’ll notice I haven’t said anything yet about what I’m actually doing. That’s a topic for an upcoming post. Stay tuned!