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My job explained: Physics professor

physics professorDr. Paul Strange, Professor of Physical Sciences at the University of Kent, explains why modern discoveries in physics will be remembered long after popular music and reality TV shows have faded into history.

What inspired you to study physics?

At school I enjoyed maths and physics, however, I couldn’t see how they could lead to a career. Then in my mid-teens I saw a TV programme where they interviewed scientists with the title "Professor of Theoretical Physics". I was dumbstruck by this. You could actually get paid for doing maths and physics! From that moment my ambition was to become Professor of Theoretical Physics. It took me 30 years, but I finally achieved that in 2001.

How long did it take to train and what did the training involve?

You can argue that you are training all your life for this job. My degree and PhD took seven years after school.

I still look back on my first degree as one of the best periods of my life. If you manage your time well you can combine your studies with having a really good time.

The PhD was very different. I struggled at first as there was no longer a group of other students working on the same topic. My PhD was a mixture of learning some areas of theoretical physics and writing a computer code to implement the theory. There were many difficulties, but overcoming them is part of what makes having a PhD worthwhile.

Can you describe a typical working day?

I have several hours a week in contact with undergraduate students either lecturing or supervising classes. I also spend some of my time on research. My research is entirely theoretical.

Currently my research group consists of four students. They are all working on different projects and there is always something interesting going on in research. Current research questions include things like “what happens when metal atoms are brought close to the surface of a carbon nanotube?” It’s really interesting.

There are also administrative tasks that have to be performed and of course I have done my share of them. Right now I am head of department and that takes up a lot of my time. It involves going to a lot of meetings and taking responsibility for a multi-million-pound departmental budget.

What's the best thing about your job?

The best thing is the intellectual freedom - I can research any topic I want to. Although there is pressure to publish research and bring in grant money, the basic freedom to research into anything is still there.

I really enjoy my teaching, particularly when it is informal and with a small group – it can be really rewarding. A particular example always sticks in my mind. I spent an hour with two second year students going through an advanced mathematics topic. Towards the end of the hour I could see realisation dawning on the face of one of the students. He said, almost in wonder `I never understood three dimensional integrals before, now I get it’. The satisfaction that sort of comment provides is priceless.

I enjoy my research very much as well. I wake up thinking about it in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking about it. I particularly like problems I can’t solve to start with. They are the ones that give the greatest thrill and excitement when I do solve them.

Have there been any challenges in getting to where you are now?

I was the first person in my family to go to university, but my parents always supported me, even though they didn’t understand what I did. My PhD was the part of my career where I came most close to failing. The challenges have really been to overcome my own prejudices about myself. Coming from a working class background, it took a long time to feel comfortable with what I was doing. Even today, my father doesn’t really see being a physicist as ‘real work’.

During my degree and Ph.D and even beyond I spent a lot of time trying to hide what I perceived as my huge ignorance from my peers. It took a long time to realise that everybody’s ignorance is infinite. My view of this has completely reversed, and I now believe that a truly wise man is one who is aware of how much he doesn’t know.

What qualities and skills do you think are important for your role?

A certain degree of intellectual ability is obviously a pre-requisite for a job like mine. However, I obtained the lowest pass grade at A-level in mathematics and so I think that anyone who has passed A-level physics and maths has the ability to get to where I am today. The main quality after that is the willingness to work hard. I never give up on any problem. I either solve it, or I convince myself that it cannot be solved. If I haven’t done either of those then I am still thinking about it.

What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps?

Be absolutely sure that it is what you want to do, and you are willing to work for it. If you are absolutely sure of both those things, go for it and don’t let anything distract you.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If anyone makes you feel stupid when you ask a question, don’t worry. That says a lot more about them than it does about you.

Finally, make time for your family and friends. They are more important than your career.