by Giles Strong

The other day I attended a seminar given by an alumna of my university. She’d studied a master’s in physics before leaving academia and going into the IT industry and the title of her presentation was “College to Corporate”.

She began with a quick overview of how she got to where she was and what her current life was like; how she worked with teams around the world and travelled frequently, all the while looking after her three children. She then moved on to her main topic of the skills which are reckoned to be necessary for a successful career post-2020:

1. Sense making – being able to understand problems and data
2. Social intelligence – being able to communicate & network with a range of people
3. Cross-cultural competency – being able to work with people from other backgrounds by understanding ones biases
4. Novel thinking – being able to approach problems from new angles to find better solutions
5. Computational thinking – being able to use a computer/technology and programme
6. New-media literacy – being up to date in the forms of communication and publication, as well as use of social media
7. Transdisciplinary research – being able to draw skills and ideas from a wide range of fields and knowledge areas
8. Design mindset – being able to build and develop ideas
9. Cognitive-load management – being able work well by balancing work and life
10. Virtual interactivity – being used to using long-distance communication to work with people around the world

Having introduced and expanded upon this list, she then proceeded to explain how the training and development one receives through studying a degree in physics really does touch on all ten of these skill areas: The problems we face are often complex and our data non-trivial (1); Solving these problems invariably requires designing some new, often computational, approach (4, 5, 8); These new approaches may well be stimulated by ideas outside the realm of current physics (7); Due to the size of experiments, or range of expertise required, modern physics often requires working in a team, which may not be local, requiring scientists to interact with people from a range of different backgrounds (2, 3, 10); And at the end of the day we need to let our findings be known to both the public and the scientific community, all the while keeping abreast of the current state of our particular, and related, fields (6).

The remaining skill “cognitive-load management” has two meanings. She initially described it in terms of a computer; our brain is like a CPU, and it needs to be powerful enough to do the tasks we ask of it. The second meaning could again be likened to a CPU; one which is being asked to perform many tasks. It only has a finite clock-frequency and so is limited in how quickly/well it can process them.

45 minutes before the seminar, her boss had contacted her to say that they were meeting with another team at 5:30 (the same time her seminar was due to end) and that she should prepare a presentation. These ‘immovable tasks’, she said, are just part of life; she would have liked to have had longer to write the presentation, but 45 minutes was all she had. She then described how she tried to establish a good work-life balance; was able to work hard in her profession but still set aside time to play with her children and teach them cool science experiments.

Whilst I am in to fortunate position of finding my work to be fun, fascinating, and fulfilling, I too try to strike a balance between my research & studies and my living & hobbies. There are immovables, things which have deadlines or are essential for day-to-day life: that meeting I need to attend, that presentation I need to give, commuting, sleeping, cooking, cleaning, et cetera. Then there are the activities which don’t have deadlines, but still need to be worked on: continuing my research, reading papers, and studying. Finally there are my hobbies, things which aren’t essential but I would like to do: playing guitar, training in my martial art, and travelling.

My approach for the past year has been to work on my research for seven and a half hours per weekday, which might vary depending on what professional immovables there are. Then I aim to attend all three of the evening training session each week for my martial art. Due to their late finishing times I try to cook in advance, and will normally intend for a meal to last about three days. The weekend mornings are normally given over to working through tasks which accumulated during the week, cleaning my flat, and grocery shopping. The afternoons are for serious guitar practice and music writing; I also slot in the odd few hours of relaxed practice throughout the week. Sleeping-wise, I aim for seven hours a night, though this is often subject to how party-hard the youths in the building opposite are feeling…

I quick count up says that this schedule should leave me with about three hours spare per day, averaged over the week; I guess these are spent on smaller activities and inefficiencies between tasks. I am worried, however, that I might not be spending enough time on my research and studies; one of the other PhD students in the audience of the seminar mentioned they work close on 12 hours a day. The presenter agreed that a PhD is a huge time sink and very hard work, but from the feedback of my supervisors and work colleagues, I seem to be getting on very well with my comparatively humble 7.5 hours. Of course it’s quite hard to measure “well” given that I’ve not done a PhD before, and timescales become hard to judge over the four-year period. It’s also not a good sign when I can wake up on Monday morning and find emails from some researcher that were sent at 3AM.

So my questions to you are: how many hours do you spend per week on your primary work, and (how) do you balance your life with your work? Also, if you could mention what your particular area of work is, and whether or not you’re a student, that’d be interesting too.