by Andrea Albert
After I earned my Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, I took 6 weeks off to play video games, learn how to drive a motorcycle, and pack up the apartment. The last week of June in 2013 my husband and I drove across most of the country to Los Altos, California.
I had accepted a “postdoc” position at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory as a Research Associate. As stated in my offer letter, my job is “to be actively involved in the physics studies with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.” No more classes, just research. While my job gives me the freedom to study whatever I want, not being told what to do or having a specific task list from a supervisor is daunting.
My first day was pretty typical: took some basic training, got a badge, gave human resources all my info so they could pay me, and started settling into my new office. In the first few weeks, I had some work left over from a project I started at Ohio State to keep me busy while I thought about what else I wanted to start researching. I knew I wanted to continue looking for dark matter signals hiding in the gamma rays produced in our Milky Way Galaxy. Even though I technically have a supervisor, he is there to give me advice, not tell me what to do. Unlike in graduate school, the professors and senior scientists are now my colleagues, not my superiors.
My advisers at Ohio State, Brian Winer and Richard Hughes, helped make this transition pretty easy. I remember when I started out as a first year graduate student, I was clueless and needed them to tell me what to do. I quickly started getting my own ideas of things to investigate. In my last year of graduate school, Brian would walk in on Monday mornings and ask me “What great things are you planning to do this week superstar?” I felt, and still feel, like their colleague in addition to their student.
As a postdoc, you are only employed for a few years (typically 2-3, but sometimes up to 5). You are expected to demonstrate your capability as an independent researcher. My typical day involves downloading some data, asking a question like “I wonder how variable Y changes as I increase variable X?”, making a plot, studying it and then getting a new understanding that leads to another question “hmm, if variable Y increases then I’d expect variable Z to decrease”, and so on until I’ve developed a complete new understanding that can be published in an academic paper. I also attend meetings with my colleagues working on similar projects where we show each other our plots and talk about what questions they raise that we can study next. Some of these meetings are with people just at SLAC, but others are phone meetings with colleagues from all over the world. Its a lot like crime shows like CSI; you find clues (plots), those lead to more questions and leads (follow up plots), you discuss your theories and conclusions with colleagues (meetings) and get new clues from them. Then once you have a strong enough conclusion you can make an arrest (write a paper).
I love research and plan to stay in academia. My goal is to become a professor at a research university, but those jobs are tough to get. There are simply not enough professor jobs for every interested qualified person. Landing a tenure-track job is a gamble for anyone, no matter how good you are. You have to apply for the right job, at the right place, at the right time and sometimes the stars just don’t align. I’ve had plenty of rejections to things like undergraduate summer research jobs or graduate schools, but if it’s something you are truly passionate about you have to keep trying!
As I look ahead, I realize there is still a lot I will learn as I transition to becoming a more senior postdoc and hopefully a professor. I have already taken on more leadership roles in my research projects. I just got tapped to be the new coordinator of the Dark Matter and New Physics group in the Fermi-LAT Collaboration (or the “Dark Queen” as my dad likes to say). Its my job to coordinate our group of ~50 dark matter hunters from all over the world (my co-coordinator is in Stockholm, Sweden). I organize and run our biweekly meetings, read and approve all paper drafts and conference talks from the group, and coordinate the internal peer review process within our group.
I put together a couple faculty applications this season. This kind of application is different from college and graduate school applications. Sure I needed reference letters, but they didn’t require a transcript and I had to outline my research and teaching plan for the next 5-10 years. I had to start thinking about what my vision would be as the leader of my own research group for the first time. Thinking about myself in this kind of a role just a little over a year after getting my Ph.D. was scary, but my fellow postdoc Regina Caputo (UC Santa Cruz) said “Its time to put on our big kid pants!” I’m already starting to feel a little bit like an adult (I say typing in my Rainbow Dash robe) since I’m no longer in school and have a job that pays a decent salary. Also, I have colleagues asking me for my opinion on the direction of our group at SLAC since I’m the Dark Queen and I actually have good input to give!
Taking on a lot of new responsibility without a road map is super scary, but I just dive in and do my best. Actually, not having a specific plan just means I can’t fail at that plan. In the words of Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, my plan is to “make it work”. I always say, when confronted with a mountain, don’t look up at the whole thing…that’s scary. Just take it one step at a time and take a moment to look back at how far you’ve come every once in awhile. I have brought along a safety rope, though, and have some backup plans in case academia doesn’t work out. As a physicist, you learn leadership, research, communication, and teamwork skills that definitely translate outside of academia. Hey, only 6.5% of physics majors are unemployed!
About Andrea Albert
I am a Research Associate at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. I study gamma rays produced through the most extreme, energetic processes in the Universe. I am hunting for a small gamma ray signal from dark matter interactions. In my spare time I enjoy Jazzercise, playing video games with my husband Dylan Zanow, traveling, and sharing my love of physics. Learn more about me at www.physics-andrea.com and follow me on Twitter @PhysicsAndrea.