I’ve been adopted by three high school groups (so far). Last time I did this, there was a list of questions, so I got a head start on answering the ones I thought might be asked. The answers seem to have tunneled into the ether, however, but since questions about career path are likely to come up (and I haven’t done a post on that), here I go.
I’m not tempted to say “I didn’t take the typical career path” because I don’t think there is any such thing. Some might propose that the typical path is grad school to postdoc to university teaching and research position, but since only about a third of doctorates work in academia, and there are positions other than the university research professor (teaching-only positions, liberal-arts or community colleges) that’s not really “typical,” though it may be perceived to be.
I went to Hartwick College, a small liberal-arts school in
the middle of nowhere Oneonta, NY, which was about two hours away from home (less now, since they put in a highway while I was there). I ended up there because the financial aid offered by my main choice, Cornell, was a tad less than I needed: they offered zero. (I was put on a waiting list and the money ran out before the candidates did). Between student loans, work-study, scholarships and grants, Hartwick was possible. I had AP credits for physics and calculus and overloaded my schedule one term to graduate early. (3.5 years)
I didn’t want to go directly to grad school, so I joined the navy’s nuclear propulsion program as an instructor. This involved a visit to the school (then in Orlando, Florida) and an interview in Washington, DC, where I was quizzed by several staff scientists and engineers at the Naval Reactors headquarters, and then interviewed by the Admiral in charge of the program. For a long time this was Rickover, who was apparently insane by the sound of some of the stories. But my interview was with his successor, McKee, and was pretty sedate. After six weeks at “knife and fork school” in Newport, RI, it was on to nuclear power school. The navy trained the instructors in the course material as well as lecturing technique, and this type of training helped me later on in graduate school during my oral acceptance board. I taught courses in physics and reactor principles to enlisted students (algebra-based material) and then taught a course to officer students that was physics with some reactor engineering added in. I was also the director of the physics division for a little over a year. (5 years)
I then went to Oregon State University in
CorVegas Corvallis, and got my degree in atomic physics. I learned about laser diodes and how to trap atoms; the goal was to build an interferometer using a cold Rubidium atomic beam. Since I was the first PhD student in the lab — my thesis advisor started the same year I did — I was involved in building up a lot of the equipment we used. The upside of a situation like this is that you learn a lot about how the whole lab works because you built the equipment and had to troubleshoot it when it didn’t work properly. In an established lab you have the advantage of learning from students senior to you and probably get some more publications out of your time in school, but you may not be as well versed in some of the quirks of the equipment or procedures — learning from your own mistakes is sometimes a stronger lesson that being told about someone else’s. There’s also the difference between having a fairly well-defined research problem already outlined, as I did, and having the opportunity to play around a little with different experiments, and having to come up with a specific research topic. (6 years)
After that I went to TRIUMF and did a postdoc in the TRINAT group. The goal of the experiments was investigation into physics beyond the standard model by looking at decay symmetries. They wanted to use trapped atoms because there would be few distortions in the trajectories of atoms in a vapor, which wouldn’t be affected by the lasers after the decay. (Particles moving through a solid substrate always have path distortions) So expertise in atomic physics was lacking, and they needed people who were familiar with trapping. I helped with that, and set up a system that allowed the trapped atoms to be transferred to a second trap in a cleaner environment, away from background signals. (2.5 years)
And then it was on to a second postdoc at the US Naval Observatory, which turned into a permanent staff position. I am once again trapping atoms, this time with the goal of measuring time in an atomic fountain. Well, fountains. We are in the process of building up six operational Rubidium Fountain clocks. I’ve been here long enough that I also “enjoy” additional duties of an administrative nature, as well as working on a new building to house many atomic clocks. (10 years and counting)