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Episode 4

Never Gonna Keep Me Down

Sam: Sometimes you’ve just gotta go, ‘you know what stuff it, something needs to happen. Anything needs to happen rather than this’. 

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’re here to help. My name’s Chris Stewart, the host of this podcast, and in this episode we talk about when things go a bit pear shaped.

Sam: Here’s a whole festering web of problems that my degree has become.

Chris: As we wander along life’s path, sometimes we stumble, we fall down. 

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

Chris: And lying there hurt on the ground, it can seem like we’ll never get up again. 

Jonathan: So mentally I was struggling a lot more than, than, I thought I was at the time.

Chris: But with help, with support, with effort, we can stand up and start moving again. Maybe it’s in a new direction, but we are moving. In this episode, we’ll hear from three physics graduates… 

Sam: So I’m Sam, and I’m currently the customer data manager for Cazoo. 

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

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

Chris: You had to think about that!

Natalie:  I did!

Chris: And as you’ll hear, all three hit the ground hard during their physics studies. But it turns out their stories collectively can be summed up by the lyrics of that great nineties punk dance rock anthem tub thumping by Northern punk rock band, Chumbawamba! So here’s part one. I get knocked down. Sam did his undergraduate degree at the University of York, enrolling in an integrated four year master’s degree in physics with astrophysics. 

Sam: I enjoyed physics. I enjoyed math, sort of thinking about the basics of things and the fundamentals.

Chris: But Sam was already carrying a few problems with him when he arrived at university.

Sam: There’d been a lot of issues in my home and family life, uh, on the lead up to going to uni. That had definitely severely impacted my mental health. 

Chris: In particular, Sam was on his own financially. 

Sam: Uh, I didn’t have the support of a family through university, so I was working 30 hours a week on top of the, the course. Student finance don’t truly properly understand, uh, when there are edge cases like mine was, and a student doesn’t necessarily have any financial support. It was a bit stressful and I put more focus into work, sort of working 40 to 50 hours a week rather than the 30. Some of my coursework definitely took a hit for that.

Chris: So through first and second year, Sam worked to earn money, got involved in a load of university activities and societies, and did enough work on his studies.

Sam: I just about managed to coast along through it and come out at the end with a 2:1 grade for the year and it wasn’t what I should be getting in inverted commas, but it was what I had managed.

Chris: So a new year, a new start. 

Sam: Yeah. My third year was kind of more of that spiral. Hmm. Organizing staff, uh, running conference events, doing society’s things. Definitely not focusing on, on the studies at all. Fooling myself into going, you know what? I don’t need to do the hard graph coz I can just get by. 

Chris: And because the stress levels were ramping up a bit, Sam had the perfectly natural response of leaning into the things that felt good. 

Sam: And this is giving me a little bit of a dopamine hit when I do some society stuff or organize a symposium or whatever. That was what was making me feel better in the short term. 

Chris: And so taking stock at the end of third year… 

Sam: Again, doing fine, a bit worse. So it was sort of up a second for, uh, my third year, not the end of the world, but it was very much head in the sand and not addressing the problems that I was actually facing. That meant I wasn’t getting the most out of my degree at all.

Chris: Sam’s still looking ahead though. He’s got his fourth year ahead of him, the Masters research project, and after that…

Sam: Guess I do what everybody in this position does and carries on and finds some PhD applications, fill them out and get that done, and then you go and do your postdocs or whatever and life is fine, right? Cause that’s just what happens.

Chris: So what did happen? 

Sam: Uh, fourth year happened…

Chris: Yeah, Sam ended up on a research placement that really didn’t work out for him.

Sam: So that fed back into the, well, of course I’m not going to actually be doing the work because why would I, I don’t enjoy it. I need to find something that I enjoy. So we got to sort of midway through the second trimester again, and I’d effectively done nothing in my master’s year. Achieved very little. There was just a moment where it was like, like this, this is, this is not a good use of time nor money and what am I doing here? 

Chris: Sam’s ambition to do the canonical four year degree, PhD, postdoc, and academic career. It’s a familiar one. All the physics graduates in this episode started down that same path and found themselves getting knocked down at different stages. Natalie also did her degree at York, and as we heard in the ‘Changing direction’ episode of this podcast, she was excited to get her degree underway. 

Natalie: I was like, I’m gonna do the integrated master’s and then I’m gonna go into 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: I mean, she knew it was a great degree to have under her belt for the future.

Natalie: The skills you get and the knowledge you get is so transferrable. So kind of 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: And then she arrived at university. 

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

Chris: Not a great start then. Like many people, Natalie was looking forward to her university years, like a big new adventure. 

Natalie: It’s kind of sold to you as ‘it’s the best time of your life’ and first year, you know, you can kind of just mess around and, but I think kind of the reality of that is never gonna be as good as it seems.

Chris: She moved into student accommodation expecting to make a big new group of friends in a warm social atmosphere. Instead she was with a small group that didn’t gel very well, and she suddenly felt alone. 

Natalie: Living what felt like on my own and then kind of not having the kind of fresher’s experience like everybody else with big groups and, and things like that. So yeah, I, I, I definitely struggled. I think I’m, I’m not afraid to say that. I think it’s important to kind of highlight that uni isn’t always as good as people say it is. 

Chris: Natalie lost a large amount of her enthusiasm and drive for her physics studies. 

Natalie: Got my head down, went to the lectures and things kind of, I needed to got the exam’s done and the reports that I needed to, and felt like I was just doing the bare minimum. I went home every other weekend. I, I remember dreading coming back on a Sunday and just being not in a good head space to kind of tackle tackle uni, which I think at 18 is a lot to ask of somebody.

Chris: She was 18. Sure. But Natalie really thought she was prepared for everything university would throw at her. 

Natalie: I’d already had like two part-time jobs by then and I was really ready to leave and kind of was all, you know, excited to do it and it just came crashing down.

Chris: For Natalie the crash came very early on. For Sam the troubles built gradually over several years of his undergraduate degree. But for Jonathan, our third graduate. Things actually went pretty well throughout his physics degree at Leeds, like Sam and Natalie he’d begun university with that now familiar plan… 

Jonathan: 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 out new things and, and all that aspect of science. And I will become an academic. And a professor, and that was my rough plan at the time. 

Chris: Jonathan’s four year physics master’s degree went pretty smoothly, so tick. Next step, the PhD…

Jonathan: I got offered three different PhDs and I took the the Welcome Trust one at Leeds Uni, which was split between biology, physics, medicine. So that was kind of the, the perfect combination for me. The other benefit of the Welcome Trust one was it, it was just, so well paid. It was really good and I was really happy to have gotten onto that course.  

Chris: To get onto a good PhD program in a place you want to be and it pays well. That’s the doctoral dream. But after a year of coursework and lab rotations, Jonathan started the research project and that’s where the trouble began. 

Jonathan: I liked the subject matter. I liked all my supervisors, albeit there were four of them. I really liked the people I worked with. Individually if you looked at all the components, I was, I, I really liked them all, but I was just having a rubbish time.

Chris: Jonathan went into a bit of a downward spiral.

Jonathan: I guess the sort of open-endedness, just because you are doing some experiments, you might not get a result. And, and the open-endedness and the monotony of repeating experiments, and it just really got to me. 

Chris: There are these moments in life when you realize, this is not what I want to be doing. And that clarity can come as a complete shock.  

Jonathan: And I became, became really anxious. I just wanted to get in and out of the day and get it done as quickly as possible. You know, I’d shifted my working patterns, so I was going in at six and leaving by two, just so I could do everything in the quietest times. And, and, and that really wasn’t me because I’m very social. And again, I liked all the people I worked with. 

Chris:  When your personality and behavior changes so dramatically, that’s probably a sign.

Jonathan: Yeah. I just spend all my time doing anything but the research and, and yeah, I think at the time I just thought, I just don’t really like it. But, but 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: It can be easy to ignore or downplay when you are feeling anxious or depressed. You shouldn’t feel like this. Just push through, it’ll get better. But Jonathan came to see that it wasn’t going to get better, not unless something changed.

Which brings us to part two, but I get up again. We’d left Sam at a bit of a turning point after several years of spiraling, and let’s face it, a bit of denial. He finally realized he needed to get some help.

Sam: It was like, I need to sort myself out. And so I ended up finally booking some time in with my GP and addressing mental health concerns. And as soon as I started doing that, it was like, well, here’s a whole festering web of problems that my degree has become. I should probably start untangling that. 

Chris: Yep. Sam realized he had some work to do on his mental health, which meant he had to face some hard facts about his studies.

Sam: By that point, it was kind of too late for much of the degree. It had been left too late, and I’d put my head in the sand for too long. So worked with a couple of the staff members to go, well, what are the options here because I’m not doing okay and this needs sorting out.

Chris: Sam was getting help for his brain from medical professionals and at the same time he sought help about his degree and career from the education professionals in his department and with their guidance, he realized… 

Sam: You know what? With the modules that I, I’ve done and the grades I’ve got, I’ve actually got a decent degree here. It just won’t be a master’s there that I signed up for. 

Chris: Now it can’t have been easy to give up on the masters, the PhD, the whole academic career thing? 

Sam: No, it’s horrible.  I’d put myself out in all the societies and stuff. I’d been chair of the physics society for a few years. What are other people gonna see me just crashing and burning.

Chris: Anyway, if not a future in physics, then what? 

Sam: I’ve never necessarily been one for having a good backup plan of sort of long-term future goals. 

Chris: See in his life so far, if there was something that Sam wanted, he tended to go after it until he got it.

Sam: This was the first thing that was like, actually, that would be the wrong choice. But it meant that I didn’t have a backup of going, okay, well if not this, then what? So it was very much a, I guess anything will do. I need a job, therefore I need to apply for jobs and see what happens.

Chris: So what was it like turning off that academic path and changing course so completely?

Sam: In general I think it was overall a good transition. I’d sort of prioritize the mental health stuff and kind of got that a bit more on lock, and so I was able to start fresh. It’s not like, oh, I had six appointments with my GP and I’m healed, but it was a very important step to have taken.

Chris: In the end, Sam had to learn a whole new way of approaching his future. 

Sam: The key difference is the mindset change that I had at the time of going from this is my path. This is exactly what I’m doing. Everything’s planned out, to, okay, there’s things I don’t know, and I have to deal with that now. 

Chris: Speaking of dealing with things, let’s get back to Natalie now, who’d been having a less than perfect first year at university and was really struggling. Into second year things were a little bit more positive. 

Natalie: Second year’s always the hardest part of the degree, and I think that was definitely there, but I kind of felt a little more settled and able to, to tackle it a little bit better. 

Chris: She’d found some new flatmates, was feeling a bit less alone. Still those dreams of becoming the next, Brian Cox had well and truly begun to evaporate and now it was a question of do I even finish this degree? And that’s when her supervisor talked to her about the options available. 

Natalie: You don’t need to get her first, you don’t need to do the masters if, if it’s not gonna work for you. Do what you need to do to get through. Whilst I was supposed to be doing the integrated masters and switch down from that just to give myself a, a good chance of finishing the degree rather than kind of calling it quits and, and packing it in. So yeah, I think everything like that combined really did, helped her turn things around really. 

Chris: Talking things through with her supervisor really took some of the pressure off.

Natalie: Aim for the 2:1, like it’s, it’s perfectly fine to have that and that’s, that’s kind of what we did and wouldn’t have changed it for a second now. 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 kind of in the better head space I’m in now. Hopefully much easier than the first. That was a huge relief and kind of helped motivate me to, to, to get through and, and kind of do the, my exams and things. 

Chris: Actually having someone to talk to was, for Natalie, the most important thing in helping her to get through.

Natalie: Having somebody there that recommended it, helped make the decision and b, and kind of come to terms with the masters and the PhD isn’t for everyone and that’s fine.

Chris: Giving up on a life plan can be traumatic and she had to deal with feeling like a failure, like she was letting people down. It’s  hard. 

Natalie: Admitting out loud is the hardest bit a hundred percent, but, there was nothing but kind of support that I got. There was no kind of shouting, no one ever kind of making me feel like it was my fault or, you know, I shouldn’t be feeling this way. No, everyone was really receptive and no matter when it was, I could send my supervisor an email and just go around and just sit and have a bit of a, a brain dump and a bit of a meltdown, and it was fine. 

Chris: And actually, once the decision was made, things went pretty smoothly. 

Natalie: Probably around the same time I switched, actually I was accepted onto KPMG’s Summer Internship scheme in, uh, back in Leeds. 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: She did the summer internship and began what was now her third and final year of her degree. 

Natalie: Having done the internship, they had offered me a place on their graduate scheme the last day I was there, so I knew I was fine. I can spend all my time just focusing on my exams, you know, my study and that kind of thing. So yeah, much more of a calm and relaxed head space. I moved back home as well to kind of help just keep things as as stable as I could.

Chris: The big lesson from Natalie’s experience then is… 

Natalie: Talk to people like the, as soon as I spoke to my supervisor at the start, second year, things got things started to kind of make the moves to get better. There’s so many options you can do to kind of help lift the load, so don’t be afraid to kind of, even explore, doesn’t matter how early on it is, like they’re, they’re there to kind of be, be used. 

Chris: And what a Jonathan who discovered his PhD wasn’t all he’d hoped for. Around the time he was at his lowest point he went to an academic conference in France and he knew at that moment he had to make a change.

Jonathan: It, it wasn’t a, I’m gonna take a break, I’ll take some time off. It was. I’m out.

Chris: He’d already tried to talk to other PhD students about how bad things were, but… 

Jonathan: That’s the consensus of everyone around you, right? There’s a lot of laughing and joking of, ha, this is rubbish. I’m having a rubbish time, isn’t it great? And that just becomes so normal to go in. It’s like, how are you? Rubbish.

Chris: And at the conference he encountered a mindset that really wasn’t helpful.  

Jonathan: You can’t leave. If you leave, basically your life’s gonna be ruined. You know, every job you go into, you’ll be paid 30% less because you don’t have a PhD. 

Chris: When he returned to Leeds, he took a deep breath and sat down with his supervisors to talk. 

Jonathan: The nice thing about having four supervisors is you have to go through this conversation times four, which is horrendous. 

Chris: So what was it like saying it out loud? ‘I want to quit my PhD’. 

Jonathan: That moment was absolutely horrendous. It just, it, I, I just felt sick. I want to cry. It was, it was rubbish. The feeling of either sort of failure. I, I think actually most of it was probably letting the supervisors down.  

Chris: His supervisors were kind and helpful. They even gave Jonathan the option of writing up what he’d already done as a research master’s degree.

Jonathan: I was not enjoying it that much that I, I even said to that, I don’t want to write about this anymore. I don’t, I’m not sound grateful. I don’t care about your Mphil. I just want out. 

Chris: So they all agreed what Jonathan needed was a bit of time to step away. 

Jonathan: The supervisor who was in sort of in charge of the program said, look, take a month. Don’t come in. Or come in as little as you like. Just think about it. You know, just take a step away, de-stress. You come back and chat at the end of that. I’d never slept so well that night after saying I quit. It was, 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: When you know, you know.  

Jonathan: Once I’d left and I was no longer sort of burdened with the, the day-to-day anxiety of having to go and do this thing that I didn’t enjoy. I think at the time my actual thoughts were I could literally do anything. It is, there are so many opportunities now. 

Chris: So keep in mind it’s normal to feel turmoil around these crossroads in life.

Jonathan: The, definitely the, the lead up to leaving, making the decision and come into terms with. I am going to quit this and I’m gonna have to tell people I’m quitting and people are gonna think I’m a quitter. That was the hard thing to deal with. Once I’d done it, it was then applying to jobs. It was exciting. It was, it was fun. But you know, again, with a physics degree and having done some post-grad research, they’re very employable that there were, there were gonna be people that want to employ it. So I found it very exciting. But yeah, definitely the coming to terms with the decision and dealing with the day-to-day feeling rubbish was by far the hardest part.

Chris: And that brings us to part three. You’re never gonna keep me down. We left Sam at the point where he was beginning to sort out his life and his mind and looking for a job. He found one with a gaming company in London, which ticked enough boxes. He moved south and started work. 

Sam: So it was initially a 12 month contract that got extended for the extra six months. Then yeah, there was some headcount issues and contracts, uh, weren’t renewed at the end of 18 months.

Chris: Headcount issues, such a great euphemism. Being let go meant Sam had a chance to take stock. 

Sam: A bit of a breather to sort myself out and work out what the next step was. And part of that was analyzing what I had been doing in the previous role and going, what the hell is this?

Chris: That first job had been in business relations and he needed to work out where that fit on his CV.

Sam: I had a lot of retail experiences from all of my part-time work that had supported me through university. I have this physics experience, bucket of analytical skills and all of that good stuff, uh, from my degree. And then now I have this weird pot of hard to label experiences from my first role in the world of work. 

Chris: Working out how to sell himself and his experience led to new jobs, new responsibilities, and a whole lot of learning. Things were going well, and in early 2020, just as he was lining up his next move, well, you know what happened? The world shut down. Unemployed in a global pandemic Sam could easily have spiraled downwards again, but instead he saw it as an opportunity. 

Sam: I actually used this time to do a bit of introspection and writing out sort of the manifesto of me, style. What do I actually want. 

Chris: For Sam, there were clear parallels between the challenges of his degree and coping with the pandemic.

Sam: The learnings I took from the end of the degree definitely completely changed how I could approach a situation like when Covid happened and, um, the world locked down. I don’t think I could have done the second without the first. 

Chris: He’d honed his philosophy by this point to a few important principles. 

Sam: Work out what is good enough for you and what is good for you. Don’t let the perfect be, the enemy of the good right don’t have a, uh, an ideal that you clinging to, to the detriment of all else.

Chris: And most importantly…

Sam: If you are in a bad position, you will continue to be in that bad position. If you don’t do anything about it. 

Chris: It’s really about acknowledging change is normal and embracing the new.

Sam: Taking that action and I guess owning it a little bit is one of the, the key things that has put me in a much better place now. Sometimes you’ve just gotta go, you know what stuff it, something needs to happen, anything needs to happen, rather than this. And just taking that jump and going, I’m gonna do something different. You don’t learn anything if you don’t try and do things first, and maybe 80% of the things you try won’t work and they’ll be wrong or whatever. That’s okay. You’ve learned a lot from them and you can apply that to the next thing that you try. 

Chris: As for Natalie, one of the consequences of changing career course is that it left her feeling things are a little bit unresolved. 

Natalie: Looking  back, having the first year and a half, not ruined, but kind of in such a, a bad head space. I feel like I was robbed from it a little bit. It’s the kind of sense of, well, what could have been, and I think even now I kind of think I’ve got a physics and astrophysics degree and I don’t use it. And it’s like, why, why don’t I use it? 

Chris: She doesn’t regret the decisions she’s made at all. It’s more a sense of unfinished business.

Natalie: I, I definitely did the right thing that at the time that I needed to do and don’t wish to have changed it in anywhere. But yeah, I think there is always. In the back of my mind it’s, you know, I was clever enough to get this degree. Why didn’t I take it any further? Kind of thing. 

Chris: But by dealing with her problems, she learned to deal with uncertainty as well.

Natalie: Yeah, I  think kind of having the struggles in first and second year, I, I really am at a point now where I’m like, I. I’m okay every, it will be okay if I kind of, I got through that and got through like things will be okay. But I definitely do have the, I have no idea where I’m going with my career. But again, yeah, it’s fine. Like I’m clever enough and kind of settled enough that it, I will f I’ll figure it out. A very kind of big believer in things just will work themselves out like this. It will be fine. 

Chris: And as for the unfinished business, Natalie’s still working on that part with plans for more study in the near future.

Natalie: Moving forwards, I’m looking at doing a master’s in computer science and data analytics, so it’s kind of where that takes me. No idea. But I think kind of coming to terms with being okay with not knowing is a huge thing that I’ve had to kind of deal with. And I think I’m, I’m a good place. 

Chris: Going through one major change gives her confidence that whatever comes. She can work it out. 

Natalie: 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 and you can figure the rest out later. I think’s kind of a good way to think about it. Not having that figured out is perfectly fine. You go into the working well and you will work with people that have changed careers four times. You don’t have to be interested in the same thing for your entire life. Like, it’s, it’s fine.

Chris: And what did Jonathan, with the weight of the PhD lifted, he started looking for a new career. But was he worried that abandoning his research degree would look bad to prospective employers? 

Jonathan: I have no doubt that some people who will have seen my CV, that, you know, jobs that I never looked at again, will have saw that and gone, didn’t finish, whatever. But if that’s the attitude and employer’s gonna have, then I probably don’t wanna work for them.

Chris: That’s a good point. And just to drive that home, he quickly landed a role in a patent law firm.

Jonathan: You know, 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 sort of perspective of it being not a, a linear path. 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.

Chris: It’s also given him the confidence to look ahead, eyes wide open for other opportunities. 

Jonathan: Having spent sort of a year and a half doing the PhD and not necessarily enjoying it, if it gets to the point where, uh, where I don’t enjoy this job. I’ll move on to the next career thing. And I’m very privileged to be able to do that in terms of life upbringing, but also having a physics degree because I’ll never not have that, I’ll never not have the experiences on my CV. So if I want to go into a different career, thankfully I, I, I will be able to. 

Chris: Because next time he’s not going to let things spiral downwards. 

Jonathan: And I think I now have the foresight to enact change way before I got to the point where I was at before I’d do something about it far sooner. And I’d be far less afraid to do it now it, because I’ve already had those difficult conversations. If had to happen again, it wouldn’t be great, but, but I know it’s fine. I know it all works out fine. 

Chris: And one last wonderfully positive thing to come out of Jonathan’s PhD troubles from his own experience of falling down. Jonathan has pioneered a new support structure for young graduates starting out in patent law. 

Jonathan: I’ve done a lot of things now with the trainee arm of the Charter Institute of Patent Attorneys created welfare officer role, so trying to bring that sort of support to trainees who might be in a similar position that I was in. But just having resources for people to, to look at, people to talk to. Generally having more availability to mental health First aiders, having talks on burnout and stress and things that just didn’t, or at least I didn’t seek out or weren’t available when I was struggling. 

Chris: In the end, it’s about giving yourself permission to look after yourself.

Jonathan: Looking back now, I’m, I’m happy that that’s how I went through and ended up in the profession I am now because it, it’s now taught me to, if you’re not enjoying something, change something, try and think wider than the thing that, that you’re in now, I guess, and, and make a change if you’re unhappy.

Chris: All three of this episode’s graduates came through their difficulties with new perspectives, new directions, and new careers. They’re all in a good place now. Sure, their original plans changed, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s something new. 

Listen, if you are going through a difficult time, if you’ve fallen down and need help getting back up again, please reach out. Talk to your degree supervisor, your university’s support office, your friends, your family. They really can help. You are not alone. 

You’ve been listening to Potential, A podcast for physics students. Huge thanks to all 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.