What does a physicist actually do?

I wrote this when I was a theoretical physicist (a string theorist to be precise) to help explain to people what I actually did all day (hint: it’s not looking at pieces of string, or adding up lots of big numbers). Now I’ve moved on you can expect number two in the series: what does a knowledge engineer actually do? Here’s how I spent my time as a theoretical physicist:

  • Read papers: A lot of time is spent reading academic papers, stacks of which line my desk. Whether learning from classic works or digesting current advances this is a major part of my work. Sometimes in the form of reviews or lecture notes, or even other peoples PhD theses.
  • Attend seminars: Another source of information on current work. Usually someone talks about their recent or upcoming work for around and hour with questions after. Or, in the case of a journal club, someone talks about an interesting recent or classic paper, with the idea usually being the other attendees have read it beforehand as well, so that it can be discussed informally.
  • Drink tea: most physicists seem to run on coffee, but I adhere to British tradition and consume vast amounts of tea throughout the day. To me it’s a major failing of a conference if they only have coffee at the “tea breaks”. And as to the chances of having proper milk to put in it…
  • Calculate: The core of a paper is usually some calculation, usually filling pages and pages of notes up with esoteric squiggles or sometimes using a computer to do more numerical work, but in general it’s letters representing abstract objects that we manipulate, not numbers.
  • Write papers: These calculations and accompanying ideas have to be written up and published online, and then after waiting a little while for any responses they are submitted to journals. This is the main end result on which we are judged – the quality of the papers we produce (or rather popularity, how often they get cited!)
  • Attend conferences: usually a day to a week long, these vary from schools where pedagogical short lecture courses are given, to major conferences where there is prestige in being invited. There are also workshops where more current advances are discussed with the hopes of stimulating progress through collaboration. It could be comfortable accommodation and delicious food on a Greek Island or some hostel in a grey industrial city which may have a bearing where one chooses to go. This can be a nice perk of the job if you can fit some travelling in as well.
  • Write and give seminars: an important part of disseminating your work to other academics this could be at conferences or at the weekly seminars of your own or other departments. Often people are invited because their recent work is of interest to the group, but in other cases people invite themselves because they’re trying to generate interest in their work, especially if there thinking of applying for post-docs or jobs soon.  You would need a very different approach for a room full of experts or a very general audience which may be unfamiliar with any of the background material.
  • Apply for jobs: It seems like an ever increasing amount of time is spent applying for/worrying about result of applications for jobs. Since at the post-doc stage contracts are often for only a few years, with the first year often considered probation  this is pretty often, given that you need to start the application almost a year in advance (more in some cases) and two-body problems mean you often have to move for other reasons this can become an annual affair, with all the associated stress and uncertainty. If you manage to get a permanent tenured position, then it’s time to begin applying for grants instead, and helping other people like your students get jobs.
  • Teaching: I don’t do any of this for the moment but have done some supervising of undergraduate students in the past (in foreign universities where the most courses are taught in the local language there can be limited opportunities for this). Often not required but likely to be if you’re aiming for a tenured position so it can be good to get some experience. Can also be a good way to make sure you know the material thoroughly!

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