Particle physicist

Hi everyone,

I am a postdoctoral researcher in an American university working in Particle Physics Theory. When I started my PhD in Spain I had no f*** idea what was this job about or which are the usual stages in a researcher career, so I’ll try to explain it now that I know. I hope it will be useful for others.

Probably I don’t have to explain much what the research in Particle Physics is about because all of you have certainly heard about the LHC, the gigantic particle accelerator that is running at CERN (Geneva), to improve our knowledge of the microscopic world and the early universe.

The routine of a theoretical physicist is the following. Usually one is working in one or more projects, where the idea is to solve a so-far unsolved problem or to improve the precision of the existent solution. One usually works in collaboration with other colleagues, discussing ways of addressing the problem, crosschecking calculations to avoid errors and exchanging ideas. It’s not uncommon to work with people from other institutions and thus the travels are frequent, and the work via-email are the order of the day.

Most of the time is spent in the office, studying which related works have been published and learning new techniques that could be interesting to apply to this problem. A lot of individual work and a lot of study. When one reaches and interesting result, it is sent for publication in a scientific journal and it’s presented in workshops and seminars. And back to the beginning: one has to address a new problem or keep studying the previous one. Study, discussion, results, publication, conferences and back to the beginning. Somehow is like the routine of a singer: composing, releasing, giving concerts and back to composing… but without money, women or fame… 😀

An important aspect of this routing is that usually there are no schedules, what is good and bad: lots of people don’t wake up very early, but lots of people work during the weekends from home. You are kind of your own boss for all your life, but if you use that freedom to work less, usually you don’t succeed in finding a permanent job.

The routine is the same one during all the life of a researcher, although obviously with nuances. At the beginning one works under the supervision of his thesis advisor and as time goes by, one becomes more independent until the moment when one is actually supervising the projects of younger people.

I know it’s usually  a big mystery for the undergrad students which are the different stages in the career of a researcher. There is no one single way, but I’ll explain the usual steps in the Research System in Spain. In other countries the details change but the general idea holds.

STAGE 1: Grad School (4-5 years). After the undergrad one has to choose a Grad School and a PhD advisor. This decision, as so many others, is usually a blind one. A prestigious researcher, that has already had other PhD students that later have succeeded could be a good choice. Not surprisingly, during these years one spends more time studying and less publishing.

STAGE 2: Postdoctoral period (4-8 years). After the PhD one has to go abroad and keep doing research. Usually one applies to several research groups worldwide and crosses his fingers. If you made a good PhD, in a hot topic and your PhD advisor is well connected, you will find a postdoc. Each postdoc takes 2-3 years and usually one makes 3 postdocs before being able to come back to Spain, although this depends on each case.

STAGE 3: Tenure-track and tenure. If everything has gone well, with all this experience one gets a tenure-track position (in Spain: Ramón y Cajal contracts) in a research institution that allows you to work there for 5 years and most probably become a permanent scientist/professor afterwards.

The postdoctoral stage is a critical period in a researcher life, due to the geographical instability/richness and uncertainty. If you are a person that wants to travel a lot and live in different countries until being at least 35, this period can be a pleasure. If you (or your spouse) want a more stable or traditional life, get settled in a city since you are 25-30 years old, then this period can be a real pain. A lot of people quit research because of this. Thus, the bottleneck over the young researchers is not only based in their research quality, as one naively could think.

I want to emphasize that things can be very different in other research fields, and thus it would be very interesting if we could have more posts in this blog. For instead, I don’t think there’s other science field where the average researcher spends more years as a postdoc, although I am not 100% sure.

If you have any doubt, use the comment thread, I’ll be happy to give you my opinion.

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More details if you’re interested in this post:

  • Where should I send my CV?
    As I said above, the first step is going to grad school, choose and advisor and ask for a fellowship.
  • Important qualities to get the job:
    Your GPA and the prestige of the research group you’re joining are important to get a fellowship. A good English level is absolutely necessary in any research life, although is not a requirement at the beginning.
  • What is the typical salary level in the first 5 years?
    You don’t become a researcher for the money, anyone knows that. In Spain the PhD fellowship are all around 1200€/month. The salary of a postdoc is less uniform, although I think that usually it’s not below 25K€/year in Europe and $40K in USA. Some postdocs positions have a much higher salary. Anyhow, at that point usually you’ll have a family and for your spouse it’ll be impossible to have a job like in your original country (language/culture limitations, lack of a recognized degree, …). I think that in Spain a tenure-track salary is around 32K€ and in USA not below $70K, although I really don’t know.

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