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Episode 3

Changing Direction

Natalie: Right, I’m gonna do the integrated masters and then I’m gonna go into a PhD and then I’m gonna go and be the next Brian Cox. I’m gonna go and be a physicist coz that’s what you do with a physics degree. 

Chris: Hi. Welcome to Potential, a podcast from the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy, in which we talk to physics students about the good times, the hard times, the ups and the downs of starting a career. It’s about falling over and then picking yourself back up again. It’s about finding your path and then changing direction completely. If you are in the middle of your degree and wondering what happens next, we are here to help. My name’s Chris Stewart. I’m your host for this podcast, and in this episode we follow our wise physics graduates as they navigate the complicated street map of their early careers. We’ll see them start down a road only to realize they’re going completely the wrong way.

Jonathan:  I have no affinity or love for teeth, never have. 

Chris: We’ll watch them confidently cruising along until they’re forced to take the next exit onto an unfamiliar detour. 

Xanthe: Yeah, it was, it was scary. I’m not gonna lie. I knew nothing. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. 

Chris: And we’ll learn about different styles of career navigation. 

Harry: Pick a good target, and then wander in that direction. 

Chris: In this episode, we’ll talk to Harry…

Harry: I am currently a teacher at Yewlands Academy, which is in North Sheffield 

Chris: Xanthe…

Xanthe: I am an automated test engineer at BA Systems Digital Intelligence.

Chris: Jonathan…

Jonathan: I am a European patent attorney, and I work at a company called Appleyard Lees.. 

Chris: And to kick off this exploration of the highways and byways of career choices… 

Natalie: Hi, I’m Natalie Greenwood, and I currently work at Aviva as a IT audit and internal audit manager.

Chris: You had to think about that.

Natalie:  I did!! 

Chris: If you’re listening to this podcast, chances are you’re at university and most likely in the middle of a physics degree. Can you remember how you ended up here? When did you make that choice? 

Natalie: So the choice was heavily influenced by my high school teacher.

Chris: In school Natalie hadn’t been thinking of a physics degree, but her teacher convinced her it was a great path to explore. 

Natalie: Initially I wasn’t supposed to do physics at A level. Kind of got my arm Bent in a, in a nice way to, to do it. Um, and just kind of went from there. I think his enthusiasm and kind of passion for it passed on to me and, and yeah, decided this is kind of what I wanna do, where I wanna go. I knew it’d be a useful degree and I went from there. 

Chris: Sometimes the choices we make can seem a bit odd in retrospect. In school, Xanthe had a choice to make… 

Xanthe: When it came to my A Levels. Um, I did physics, maths, and classics, and I was unsure when it came to choosing my subject, which one I wanted to go for. 

Chris: Physics and classics, how to choose, I don’t know, toss a coin?

Xanthe: I decided that I didn’t really like writing essays very much. Um, and so classics sort of went out the window for me. Um, physics was, was the one I went for. Um, funnily enough, I did end up writing quite a lot of reports, um, but my classics, uh, essay writing came in handy there. 

Chris: Ah, yes, that well worn trope. ‘You don’t have to write essays in science degrees’. Then there’s Jonathan who didn’t choose to do a physics degree, but ended up there anyway.

Jonathan:  I originally chose to do a dentistry degree, and that was because I’d done maths and science at A level and didn’t know what I wanted to do and thought I don’t wanna be a medic. So dentistry sounds like a good career, reasonable money. So I, I applied and got to do dentistry at various universities. 

Chris: So, great plan made, path chosen…

Jonathan: And then didn’t get the grades, so didn’t get in. So I was forced into a an enforced gap year when many people tell me they took a gap year, I thought your gap year’s different to my gap year.

Chris: Applying for a degree, choosing a career path, and then not getting accepted. Well, some people would find that pretty hard to take, but when Jonathan took some time to reflect, he realized something really important. 

Jonathan: I have no affinity or love for  teeth. I never have. In hindsight, I’m very glad I didn’t get into dentistry because, and I’m very glad I’m not a dentist, that’s no slight on dentists out there, but it definitely would not be a job that I would enjoy, I don’t think.

Chris: So while he worked away at various jobs over his enforced gap year, he thought hard about what he wanted to do next. 

Jonathan: You know, when I eventually came to the decision of wanting to do physics, I thought, well, you know, that is a good career decision because it doesn’t close any doors, and it’s certainly a sort of well-respected, well gimme the right skills to do anything within reason, obviously not be a dentist but….

Chris: Which as we’ve established, is probably a good thing for Jonathan anyway. Another of our graduates who changed direction pretty drastically is Harry. As a physics student at York, he was thinking about jobs in the city after graduation, something in finance or accounting. So in second year, he diligently started doing all the things you’re supposed to do to build up your experience and fill out your CV. 

Harry: I did things like the investment Soc or something had their tests for, if you want to go into finance in terms of London based investment banking, like do these aptitude tests, things like that. So I was doing those at the start of second year. So I was very much keeping it in my mind.

Chris: And then a strange thing happened… 

Harry: It’s very much kind of fork in the road type moment. Um, I was filling out a application for a second year summer internship for, I think it was Deloitte or something, one of the big four accountancy firms. And it was just that box where it says, why do you want to do this? And I couldn’t even think of nonsense. I couldn’t even think of a nonsense reason to put in the box. And so I just closed the window. I just closed the application, never finished it. And it’s one of those moments where you can see, well, if I, if I thought of some good quality nonsense or if I’d actually really wanted to do that and being able to fill it out, but maybe that’s where my life would’ve gone down. 

Chris:  Forks in the road. Those moments where you are confronted with the question, well, come on then. What do you want to do? 

Harry: And it turned out ‘not accountancy’ was the answer. 

Chris: Harry’s life changed direction completely. He wound up in China learning Mandarin and eventually becoming a qualified teacher. We explore Harry’s story in more detail in our episode on work and travel called ‘Where in the World’. So have a listen to that one for all of the ups and downs of Harry’s global career to date. 

So remember Natalie who chose to do physics at university in part because of her A-level teacher’s enthusiasm and encouragement, she leaned into that decision, hard. 

Natalie: Once I held on physics, when I was going, I was like, I’m gonna do the integrated masters and then I’m gonna go and do a PhD, and then I’m gonna go and be the next Brian Cox. Like that’s what I’m, I’m gonna go and be a physicist coz that’s what you do with a physics degree. 

Chris: She knew it was a great choice for a wide range of potential future careers. 

Natalie: It’s a very good degree to have, you know, the, the skills you get and the knowledge you get is so transferrable. In the back of my mind. Knew that was always there, but yeah, no, a hundred percent I was gonna do a PhD. I was gonna be a physicist.  

Chris: I mean the next Brian Cox, right? So when she got to university and started along her chosen path… 

Natalie: I hated it. I absolutely hated every second of my first year. 

Chris: Ah, so that’s not great. And look, it happens, right? Natalie’s University experience just wasn’t right for her and she really struggled. 

Natalie: To be honest, I can’t remember much of it. I think I just kind of got my head down, went to the lectures and things kind of, I needed to, got the exams done and the reports and I needed to, and felt like I was just doing the bare minimum.

Chris: After a  pretty tough first year, Natalie eventually found help through talking things through with her course supervisors at university, they couldn’t make all of her problems go away, but at least they could show her she had options, including changing from an integrated master’s to a three year degree.

Natalie: They didn’t push and obviously that, that they never would. It was, it was my choice, but I think having them kind of suggest it and almost recommend it, I think helped. Coz again, you, you know, you are on your own at uni, you’ve gotta try and figure it out. My parents, neither of them kind of understood what I was trying to kind of explain and how to make this decision and things like that. So I think having somebody there that recommended it helped make the decision and, and kind of come to terms with the masters and the PhD isn’t for everyone and that’s fine. So it was nice having that, that there rather than them just being like, well, it’s your choice. 

Chris: In the end it was her decision, but knowing she wasn’t alone, she had people she could talk to who could help her to step back and reevaluate. That was crucial in helping Natalie work out what path to explore next. Of course, that’s not always easy. If she wasn’t going to be a physicist, did Natalie have any other plans in mind?

Natalie: At the start of second year, absolutely not. Absolutely no idea.

Chris: Right. Well then you do what students in that position have always done.You look around and see what’s on offer. 

Natalie: Complete potluck, to be honest with you, I remember just scrolling on my laptop one day, stumbling across KPMG’s summer internship scheme in, uh, back in Leeds. So thinking, this sounds quite interesting, let’s just kind of apply. Didn’t put too much thought or effort into the application, which I know is hard for some people to hear. Um, applied to it and, and got it. So yeah. Was incredibly lucky to land that as, I don’t wanna say easily as I did, but yeah, it, it kind of all paid off. 

Chris: Look, she’d had a hard time. I think we can give her this one. With an internship, at least she could relax a  little. 

Natalie: At that point, kind of had that in the bag and just kind of was like, I’m just gonna roll with this, see what happens, and then if needs be, I’ll figure it out next year. 

Chris: The internship turned out to be more than just a stop gap. It showed Natalie that in backing away from her original plan, there were new possibilities to explore. 

Natalie: Completely different world to what I’d ever imagined, completely different, but really kind of enjoyed it. Like the structure, yeah, just being in kind of the working environment and feeling like I was making a contribution to something I think really helped, that kind of again, keep me motivated to think, okay, there is some, there is other things outside of a PhD that you know you can do. 

Chris: And even better than that…

Natalie: Having done the internship, they had offered me a place on their graduate scheme, I think the last day I was there. So I knew I was fine. 

Chris: Yeah, Natalie had been through some hard times, but with some help and guidance, a deep breath, some determination, and a bit of luck, she set out along a new road.

Another of our graduates wound up in a grad scheme after her degree. When Xanthe  was a physics undergrad at York did she have a clear idea of what she wanted to do afterwards?

Xanthe: No. I’m hoping that it will magically come to me someday and I’ll go, yes, you know, light bulb moment, that’s exactly what I want to do. Um, but I continued through university, enjoying my course, enjoying the things I was doing. But still not really knowing what I was gonna do with my degree at the end of my time at university. I just had no idea. 

Chris: Well, she had some idea…

Xanthe: So I knew I didn’t want to go into research, um, and I didn’t want to go into a PhD or anything like that. I wanted to go out into the big wide world and get a, a proper job, as some people say.

Chris: To get a ‘proper job’, Xanthe researched loads of grad schemes and other possibilities, put in a bunch of applications, got lots of rejections, progressed through a few interviews and assessment centers. The sum total of which was…

Xanthe: Two job offers at the end. Um, so one of them was as a, um, physics teaching assistant in a school. Um, and the other one was for this graduate scheme, um, BAE systems graduate scheme. So I thought, well, okay. For me, I either. I go into teaching or I go into a two year scheme where they can show me lots of different bits of the business, lots of different skills. Um, and then again, I can whittle it down to maybe what I’d like and what I don’t like. So I chose the graduate scheme coz that to me felt like it gave me more options.

Chris: That’s the great thing about many grad schemes. You get to have a good look around a bunch of different areas and roles within the organization, and the employer gets to find the right fit for their potential new employee.

Xanthe: I like to have a change of scene every now and again. Um, I don’t like to get, uh, bogged down doing one thing all the time, so for me, six months is perfect because it was like, you’ve got enough time to come onto a project to learn all you can about that, that area of the business. So by the end of the six months, you’re like, right, okay. You know, I’ve covered this area of the business. I know how it works. I’ve met all these people. Want to go and do something a bit different now. 

Chris: And at the end of her two year scheme, Xanthe was offered a job in an area she enjoyed as a systems engineer in BAE’s Navy ships division down south. She settled in, made a bunch of new friends, understood what she was doing, which is always nice. But there was one thing missing from her brand new life and career. 

Xanthe: So I’d met my partner, um, at university. When it came to graduation from university we said, you know, we’re not gonna hold each other back. We’re gonna do long distance for as long as it takes. And the two year grad scheme seemed like a good, a good time period. 

Chris: As Xanthe’s two years in the grad scheme came to a close, they realized it was a lot cheaper for her to move back up north than her partner to move down south.

Xanthe: And so unfortunately, I had to decide to leave, which was, uh, a big shame for me. I really enjoyed my job. I’d worked really hard. Uh, I’d made a lot of friends, I’d made a lot of contacts in that business. Um, I knew what I was doing, so to move completely, um, was a, it was a big shock. 

Chris: But it was something that they both knew they wanted, and so she got on with it. Xanthe started looking around for something new, and this is where the sheer size of the BAE organization was useful. 

Xanthe: So I actually knew that, uh, BAE had an office up in Leeds for the digital intelligence arm of the business. I was like, okay, well, you know, maybe I apply to, to go and work up there. And it’s not like a complete change of scene. It was a slightly easier move than completely moving to a completely different business.

Chris: Staying within the organization means, you know, how the payroll works, but BAE employees, vast numbers of people across the UK and dozens of countries overseas. And so she prepared herself for what was essentially, a brand new job. Fortunately, Xanthe had done some work in a sort of similar area during her grad placements. 

Xanthe: When I was applying, I thought, actually, you know, I have done some of this before. Um, I dunno an awful lot about it. I’ve not had any proper training in it, but I have a little bit of experience in it, so maybe it’s not gonna be totally new to me. Maybe, hopefully?

Chris: Still it’s a big change, saying goodbye to the familiar, moving back up north and hitting the reset button. 

Xanthe: Yeah, it was. It was scary, I’m not gonna lie. 

Chris: Which brings us to Jonathan, someone else who hit the reset button early in his career. 

Jonathan: When I actually applied to do physics and went onto the uni course. At that time, in my mind I wanted to be an academic because at the time I liked studying physics and I liked discovery and finding, finding out new things and, and all that aspect of science. 

Chris: After the wrong turn towards dentistry, he knew that with a physics degree…

Jonathan: It doesn’t shut any doors. It keeps all the doors open, and what I am most interested in right now is physics and science, and I will become an academic. And a professor, I thought I’d go into astrophysics and study the stars and, and the cosmos. Um, I, I soon realized that definitely wasn’t what I wanted to do. 

Chris: Not the astrophysics part anyway, but he was still set on a PhD because he still wanted to explore some research physics. 

Jonathan: Plus it also keeps on track for if you want to go into academia, postdoc professor, etc, and has the nice side effect of also delaying any life choices in case you want to go into a different career. You don’t, you can just delay it. 

Chris: So he applied for several PhD programs in very non astrophysics areas. 

Jonathan: Biophysics, soft matter. Again, that kind of halfway between physics and medicine or biology or materials. Lots of application, because still at that point I thought, well, statistically it will be difficult to progress in academia because you look at the numbers and it’s a very steep pyramid at the top.

Chris: He wanted an academic career, but Jonathan’s keeping his options open anyway, so he ended up in a very interdisciplinary PhD. And spent the first year in coursework, learning loads of non-physics, biomedical stuff. But when the research kicked in, he quickly realized things weren’t right… 

Jonathan: Individually if you looked at all the components, I was, I, I really like them all, but I was just having a rubbish time.

Chris: Jonathan found it hard to put his finger on exactly what was wrong. 

Jonathan: I guess the sort of, the aspect of research that actually you might not get a result. Just because you are doing some experiments doesn’t mean that the end result will just be, there is no result. There’s nothing here. And, and the open-endedness and the monotony of repeating experiments, and it just really got to me, became really anxious, I mean I just spent all my time doing anything but, or trying to do anything but the research.

Chris: In the end, doesn’t really matter why.  Clearly Jonathan’s life wasn’t going great at this point. 

Jonathan: Looking back, I think, well, actually, I think sort of mentally I was struggling a lot more than, than I thought I was at the time. 

Chris: Jonathan knew it was time to quit his PhD. We explore how Jonathan dealt with this pretty crushing realization in a different episode of this podcast called ‘Falling Down’, where he explains quite candidly how he felt, what he did to push through the hard times, and how he got the support he needed. In the meantime, here’s a quick summary. After several difficult conversations with his four PhD supervisors, Jonathan took a month’s break from his research, to think, but he knew it was time to go, and so he used that time to look around and start applying for jobs. 

Jonathan: I knew at that point I didn’t want to go into research, obviously. And then I thought, well, what can I do with a physics degree? The answer is quite a lot. 

Chris: Many of his friends had gone from their undergrad degrees to jobs in finance or consulting, but Jonathan wanted to stay a bit closer to science. 

Jonathan: I ended up applying to lots of tech jobs, so software engineering. Um, I applied to cybersecurity consultancies and some more engineering type roles. And then I also applied to patent attorney roles.  

Chris: I mean, if it was good enough, Einstein!

Jonathan: It’s a really nice combination of legal and scientific. People in tech were obviously at very high demand. It’s exploding. There are always gonna be lots of jobs in tech. Similarly, as a patent attorney, there are very, un shockingly, very few scientists who then also want to become lawyers. It’s a very, very small profession. 

Chris: If he’d been offered either a tech job or a patent attorney job, that would’ve been easy. But as often happens, the universe had other plans. 

Jonathan: On the same day I was offered a, a patent attorney trainee role, at Appleyard Lees, and I was offered a, a software consultancy role at BAE. It was a fork in the road and I had to decide what to do.

Chris: Ultimately, the choice was clear. The patent attorney job won out.

Jonathan: It was a more set career path and I thought it would be more interesting and more variety of, coz you’re looking at all kinds of different technologies and I thought that that is the job that’s gonna keep me most interested and most engaged, and that’s what I want to do.

Chris: So we’ve heard stories from our four graduates now, journeys that start out in one direction and then switch to a different direction. Some of these changes have been completely natural and easy. Some have been abrupt and painful. All of them took some courage and determination. 

So what can we take from all of this? Well, first of all, if you are caught up in a dilemma, making a difficult choice, wondering how you’re gonna get through, just know that things will get easier. 

Jonathan: I, I’d never slept so well that night after saying I quit. It was, it was like, it was like a wave of relief and the anxiety had just, just left my body. I just instantly knew that I’d done exactly the right thing. 

Chris: Natalie had a similar response when she changed from a four year to a three year degree.

Natalie: Kind of the relief of, I think by the time I had to make the make and submit the decision, I was halfway through and I was like, okay, well I’ve done half, I can get through the other half in the better head space I’m in now. Hopefully much easier than the first. So yeah, that was a huge relief and kind of helped motivate me to, to, to get through and, and kind of do my exams and things. 

Chris: You can make a decision, you can change course, and it will be okay. The next thing to know is even though it sometimes feels like your whole future depends on your next decision… 

Natalie: You don’t have to have everything figured out at that point. Like, I’m four years post graduating, still figuring out where I want my career to go, and things like that. Like coming to terms with, there’s no right decision. It’s just a decision. And you know there’s paths that lead off either way. So which one suits you now when you can figure the rest out later. I think’s kind of a good way to think about it.

Chris: Harry’s philosophy is worth considering… 

Harry: Pick a good target and then wander in that direction. 

Chris: Work out roughly where you’d like to go, but don’t get too bogged down in the specifics. 

Harry: As long as you’ve gone somewhere and done something, built some skills, built some, built something along the way. If you decide to pivot, you’re absolutely fine.

Chris: Everything you do on your particular journey is good experience. Even the bad bits. 

Jonathan: I’ve ended up in a career that I really enjoy. And in a place that I really like working. And I think having that perspective of it being not a, a linear path, that I didn’t do A to B to C, I did a couple of other things on the way, and I think that’s helped me enjoy this role more and sort of given me a bit more perspective on, on what I definitely don’t like doing.

Xanthe: When I went from university to systems engineering, I knew nothing. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and actually really, going from this job into a different job, it’s gonna be kind of the same, I guess. I dunno a lot about it. I’ve got some experience in it, but I dunno, everything. Um, I don’t think anyone knows everything when they move to a new job, but I’ve done it before. Maybe I’ll be able to do it again. Hopefully. 

Chris: Ultimately, a great thing to take away from this episode is that every one of our four graduates is in a good place now. In fact, they all said quite clearly that the course corrections, the stumbles and the U-turns, the choices they made give them confidence to face change in the future.

Jonathan: If it gets to the point where I, where I don’t enjoy this job, I’ll move on to the next career thing. I’ve already had those difficult conversations. If it had to happen again, it wouldn’t be great, but, but I know it’s fine. I know it all works out fine. 

Xanthe: It’s given me that bit of self-confidence that right, it was scary the first time. It was scary the second time. Scary the third, fourth, fifth time. But I’m here. I’ve got a job that I enjoy. I’ve come through it all, and you know, I’m having a nice time. If something else comes up in the future, I can just right face it, head on. Let’s do it. Let’s see what happens. 

Chris: I mean, look, change is inevitable. It’s the only constant thing in life. So, You may as well get used to it. Since she opened this episode, I’ll hand over to Natalie for the final word… 

Natalie: I have no idea where I’m going with my career, but it’s fine. Like I’m clever enough and kind of settled enough that it, I’ll figure it out. A very kind of big believer in things just will work themselves out. It will be fine. 

Chris: You’ve been listening to Potential, a podcast for physics students. Huge thanks to Natalie, Jonathan, Harry, and Xanthe, our wise physics graduates for sharing their experiences so openly and honestly. The show is produced and presented by me, Chris Stewart, and brought to you by WRIPA the White Rose Industrial Physics Academy, a collaboration of five university physics departments all working together to better prepare students for graduate level technical employment.