• Question: How did you get into research science? Did you just happen to end up in it or was it always a dream and, if so, how did you achieve this?

    Asked by anon-353726 on 6 Mar 2023.
    • Photo: Mary Richardson-Slipper

      Mary Richardson-Slipper answered on 6 Mar 2023:

      For me it was a bit of luck and being honest with myself about what I wanted. My school didn’t have a sixth form, so I moved to a large college after GCSE. When I finished school and my GCSEs, I was 100% CONVINCED I wanted to be a medic (I wanted to be a vet first but allergies…). So with that in mind, I did Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Physics at college. I chose physics because I enjoyed it, despite it not being a requirement for medicine and everyone telling me I didn’t need it (this was the first clue that physics was the one I really wanted).

      Very quickly after starting my A Levels I realised I actually didn’t like biology at all. I think it was the way the A Level was taught rather than the content, it was a lot of just remembering stuff which wasn’t fun or engaging for me. I went to an open day for medicine and they said I should keep biology and ‘drop’ physics. I very much did not want to do this and then re-evaluated my entire plan. I decided I wanted to follow what I was actually interested in, rather than what I was expected to do as a girl that was good at science (medicine). So I got some prospectuses and looked at what degrees I could do with my A Levels and I just kept getting drawn to physics. I found out about CERN and read a couple of books on particle physics and it was then that I decided I should do a degree in physics.

      I applied for an Integrated Masters in Physics and got into Manchester. Once there, I realised it was my dream to do a PhD. I worked hard and got a good degree and ended up getting a PhD place at Edinburgh. I took all the particle physics modules I could and did my Masters project in neutrino physics, but I was also interested in Astronomy and took a lot of astro modules too! My undergraduate studies were fascinating and I really enjoyed it. I got where I am because I followed what I was really interested in and what I really loved, rather than what other people thought I should do.

    • Photo: Joel Goldstein

      Joel Goldstein answered on 9 Mar 2023:

      I have wanted to be a particle physicist for almost as long as I can remember. It probably started with reading popular science books at around the age of 10.

      Fortunately, I found that maths and physics at school came quite naturally to me, so I did them at A level, followed by a physics degree and a particle physics PhD.

    • Photo: Jonathan Edward Davies

      Jonathan Edward Davies answered on 21 Mar 2023:

      Apologies that this is a bit long. You’ve got half my life story here! xD

      For me, I had my heart set on being a scientist since I was about 8/9. I wanted to be like the mad scientists I saw in films (like Doc Brown from Back to the Future). Messing about with chemicals or lasers all day and seeing what happens seems like a really fun job! I was always interested in Maths and so I was naturally drawn more towards Physics and also, because both Chemistry and Biology rely on Physics concepts, I saw it as the key to understanding all science. I was 14 when the Higgs boson was discovered at CERN and, for me, this was like a lightbulb moment! I remember reading a lot about particle physics at the time and, just as Physics seemed to me as the basis of science, this subject appeared to best answer my fundamental questions about why things happen. I kind of decided then that I wanted to be a particle physicist!

      I chose my GCSEs with this in mind (taking Triple Science) and then my A-levels (Physics, Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths, and one year of Biology). I applied for an integrated Masters (4 year degree) in Physics at various UK universities and was lucky enough to be accepted at Imperial College London. Learning more about particle physics convinced me that this was definitely something I would like to pursue and, whenever possible, I chose my optional courses to reflect this. In the summer after my 2nd year, I did a short summer research placement at my university on Astrophysics, and then the following year I was lucky enough to be selected to do another summer research placement on Gravitational waves at MIT near Boston in the US. I had ideally wanted to work on particle physics but my applications to do similar projects elsewhere (including at CERN) were rejected.

      These were my first encounters with real science research and, if I’m completely honest, I had a rough time and started experiencing a very common feeling in academia- Impostor Syndrome. I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, that I was stupid and I didn’t deserve to be doing what I was doing, and maybe my ambition of becoming a researcher wasn’t going to happen. These feelings are often in spite of evidence that might convince you otherwise, as you tend not to focus on the positives. In my final year at university, I chose a research topic on particle physics, working on data from the CMS experiment at CERN. My Impostor Syndrome only got worse here as I felt that I didn’t know enough what I was doing relative to my project partner.

      Around this time, I had to apply for PhDs or jobs and I almost didn’t go through with my plans of following physics research, as I thought I wouldn’t be any good. However, because I’d had my heart set on this for so long, I knew that I would later regret it if I didn’t at least try- if I got rejected then I would know for certain that this path wasn’t for me. After a pretty intense few weeks of attending interviews all over the country, most of which I felt went awfully, and not getting any offers, right at the last minute I got an offer from the University of Manchester. Weirdly enough, initially I wasn’t sure whether I’d accept but I decided that I’d give it a go and quit if it got too traumatic.

      Thankfully, my supervisor was very supportive and helped me through the initial few months of adapting to a new research topic. While the Impostor Syndrome didn’t completely go away, I learned to manage it better and after a year I stopped thinking about quitting. (This was during COVID as well so it wasn’t the most fun). With restrictions over, I really enjoyed getting to meet colleagues face-to-face and then getting to move out to Switzerland to work at CERN was amazing. At this point, I became glad that I stuck with my dream. I’m even considering staying in academia for a bit longer, but we shall see!