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Episode 5

The Benefit Of Hindsight

Lottie: I, I think I would say something along the lines of not to worry too much about everything being perfect. Life doesn’t really work out that way. 

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, host of this podcast, and in this episode we ask our wonderful group of wise physics graduates what advice they would give to their younger selves if they could go back in time to their first or second year of their physics degree, knowing what they know now. What would they say? Their responses range from the illuminating… 

Sam: 95% of problems can probably be mitigated by communicating. 

Chris: To the thoughtful… 

Lottie: You never really know what’s going to come around.

Chris: To the inspiring… 

Harry: If you don’t go for it, you’re not gonna get in the first place. So yeah, just, just go for it. Uh, it’s too cliche, I’m not happy with that at all. 

Chris: We’ll hear from all eight of our physics graduates. That’s Nicola, Jonathan, Harry Lottie, Sam Xanthe, Natalie, and Calum. We’ve collected all of the wisdom that they dropped during our interviews and put them into five buckets. So let’s begin, shall we? The first of these wisdom buckets is all about understanding what’s best for you. When we ask Calum what he’d say to undergrad Calum, here’s what he started with…  

Calum: First I would probably say there’s no rush. I think when I, when I got to uni, I was very much kind of keen to do my three years and get it done with and not enjoy all the, the different parts of that uni experience coz you only really normally have that once, especially from like an undergraduate standpoint. 

Chris: Often students are in a hurry to get their degree done and get into a career, but several of our graduates said that they wish they’d taken a bit more time to explore different possibilities or be open to different paths. Jonathan followed a straight line path from undergrad degree into PhD before discovering that research really wasn’t his cup of tea at all. And while it was difficult at the time changing direction, taught him the importance of pursuing what you enjoy, 

Jonathan: Do the thing that you enjoy then and there, and try not to worry about too much long-term. Although it’s great to have something in mind that you think you might want to work towards, you never know what’s gonna happen as you get older or study different things, what you enjoy will change. What you think you might really enjoy, you might end up hitting. I thought I was gonna love research and I hated it. 

Chris: It’s great to have a plan, but you’re also still learning about yourself. So keep an eye out for new things, new directions. 

Jonathan: Do the thing you enjoy and, and don’t worry about, you know, taking those left and right turns and seeing something and thinking actually that, that looks quite interesting. It’s, it’s nothing like the thing I plan to do with my life, but it looks interesting. So go and do it.

Chris: But what if you try something and it doesn’t go to plan? What if you get something wrong or find a new path just isn’t right for you? One thing that Lottie has learned over the years is she needs to let go of her desire to always get things right.

Lottie: I’m quite a perfectionist when I have got things wrong before, I certainly take things to heart, and I think that it’s kind of a, a reflection on my personality or, or who I am as a human if I get something wrong. I don’t know whether we’re kind of trained to be that way in physics. Uh, the answer’s either right or it’s wrong, and I guess to some extent life doesn’t really work out that way. Uh, and actually it’s the mistakes and when you get things wrong is probably the biggest learning opportunities. 

Chris: Fairly early in Lottie’s finance career, as she was sitting some professional exams, the unthinkable happened. She failed one. At first, that was horrible. But then her perspective shifted.

Lottie: I had never failed an exam before, but it kind of made me realize that there’s many choices. I didn’t need that exam. It wasn’t go, it wasn’t necessarily helping me in my career. I could have spent just as much time, uh, and money joining, like a wine club or networking club, and I would’ve had probably far more fun. So maybe it was a time to make decisions based on fun, and you don’t necessarily have to, uh, you don’t have to win everything. You don’t have to be perfect. 

Chris: If you are stressing about an exam or a project or a decision, it’s really worth asking yourself ‘what’s actually at stake here’. Lottie found some advice, which is probably broadly applicable.

Lottie: All meetings should start with, right, something’s gone wrong, but I just wanna tell everyone that no one’s gonna die over this and the world’s not gonna stop turning, but let’s just figure this out. And it kind of puts things in perspective. I think submitting one thing wrong with an error is not the end of the world. 

Chris: Get a little perspective. Sam had some similar advice. 

Sam: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Right? Don’t have a, uh, an ideal that you cling to, to the detriment of all else. 

Chris: Sometimes you’re so focused on achieving the most, getting the best results. You forget why you’re doing it in the first place. 

Sam: Work out what is good enough for you and what is good for you. Find those things that make you happy rather than having some idea that whether or not you’ve fully researched it and know it to be right, at least look at other things and go, what if. 

Chris: After spending a few months in China as an au pair mid degree, when Harry graduated, he was looking for a way to get back to China. One option was a scholarship for a Mandarin course at a Chinese university, an intimidating option for a physics graduate. But he applied anyway. 

Harry: Apply for those things that you would like, even if you think it’s over the top. I didn’t think I’d get the scholarship. I was looking at it, I was like, ah, that’s, you know, that’s gotta be competitive. Got it! You know, you, you just gotta go for things. Just gotta go for what, if you think you want something, go for it. And if you decide you don’t, fine.

Chris: So the point is…

Harry: If you don’t go for it, you’re not gonna get it in the first place. So yeah, just, just go for it. It’s very cliche that I don’t like it. haha, uh, it’s too cliche, I’m not happy with that at all. Uh, but ‘just do it’. Yeah, awful. 

Chris: Okay. That was a bit cliche, but you get the point. And that brings us to the second bucket of graduate wisdom, which is called Look Around. Here’s Harry again. 

Harry: The education system often feels like you’re very much on railroad tracks in that it’s right pass each stage, right? Pass your A level, okay, pick a degree again, now pass your degree and then you finish your degree and it’s just kind of the tracks end. You just phumf. 

Chris:  It can seem very restricted and linear when you’re in your degree thinking about your next steps. 

Harry: It can feel sometimes very much one directional, but then another part of me very much disagrees with that in that there’s so many different things you can get involved with at university and so many different things you can do. And you don’t necessarily need to know always where  you’re going.

Chris: You’re allowed to not know what direction you want to go. You have permission to try different things on for size.

Harry: Pick something that you think you might like, and just keep plugging away at the various things you enjoy. And eventually you’ll figure it out. It’ll work out eventually. 

Calum: There is a whole world of things that you you cannot know about, frankly. Um, as a first or second year student without kind of putting yourself out there, turning over a few rocks, seeing what’s under it, you know, 95% of the time you might hate it, but 5% of the time you might be like, oh, you know what, this is something really interesting that I’ve never thought about before. And it opens up your, your perspective and your, your viewpoint to what may, may come. 

Chris: Calum there. Explaining to his younger self the importance of being open to different paths and possibilities, and knowing that university is a rare window in your life to explore. 

Calum: Understanding where you are now is an incredible stepping stone to where you want to go. Like the opportunities that you have now, with the right focus, with the right steering, you’re not necessarily gonna get, um, similar opportunities that, that often in your career. So it’s, or in your life, frankly. So it’s, you know, it’s about making the most of the, the doors that are currently open for you to, to venture down. 

Chris: It’s a very common theme in our graduates advice because all of them, in some way have ended up in a different place from where they thought they were going. As her degree came to an end, Lottie had planned to start a career in intellectual property. She had a job lined up and everything, and then a different door opened. She heard about an investment finance position from a friend and applied. 

Lottie: I think I, I got myself in a bit of a focused area looking at intellectual property, um, and I was glad that I took the interview with the investment job. Um, certainly it led to what I’m doing now, so it was a good decision, but, uh, you never really know what’s going to come around. 

Chris: Maybe IP would’ve been a great career for her. But being open to other things led Lottie on a completely different path. One that took her to a career in finance in Dubai. So it’s her philosophy now and her advice to undergrad Lottie. 

Lottie: And it’s also very hard, particularly as an undergraduate, knowing the breadth of all of the possible jobs in the world that you could end up doing. There’s like a, an endless opportunity set. Uh, and it just, whatever comes your way, keep an open mind to it. 

Chris: The flip side to this, as Calum realized is if you don’t explore the options available to you, then you are limiting your horizons. 

Calum: You don’t buy ticket, don’t win the raffle. Like there can be some daunting experiences where you put yourself out there, you go to career fairs or whatever. You go to, uh, an event run by a company and you know, no one. But if you don’t put yourself in that situation, you won’t kind of gain and learn from it. And then, you know, it might not resonate with it, but you can kind of take that away and be like, okay, on reflection maybe this industry wasn’t for me. Maybe this company wasn’t for me. Maybe it’s somewhere a bit different. And that, that, you know, isn’t just limited to companies and, and the, the professional kind of setting it’s, you know, also sporting stuff is also your courses. You know, you can have a, have a chance to reflect on, you know, what works, what doesn’t.

Chris: There’s that old adage, fortune favours the brave! 

Calum: When you put yourself out there You kind of give yourself the opportunity, you kind of create your own luck. In my first and second year, I think in hindsight, I definitely would’ve put myself out there a bit more to get a bit more of an informed view on, on what was to come rather than this kind of mad dash of trying to figure out what my life would be, um, when I started my final year.

Chris: Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, hey, still solid advice. In contrast to Harry’s train tracks analogy from earlier. Jonathan is a firm believer in non-linearity. 

Jonathan: Non-linear is good. Yeah, coz that’s why you’re gonna find things that you really, really enjoy probably. And it, it’s easy to say, but just try not to worry too much about what you’re going to do long-term. Because what you’re gonna do, it’s probably gonna be multiple different things. 

Chris: The idea of one job, one career for the rest of your life. It’s not that it doesn’t happen anymore. It’s just that it’s far less common than a few generations ago. So if you can get comfortable with the fact that statistically you’ll probably do several different things across your career, well, it takes some of the pressure off. 

Jonathan: Do the thing you enjoy and, and don’t worry about, you know, taking those left and right turns and seeing something and thinking actually that, that looks quite interesting. It’s, it’s nothing like what, the thing I plan to do with my life, but it looks interesting. So go and do it because you’re gonna have career changes. Statistically. You’re gonna have career changes. The thing that you probably want do now for the rest of your life, statistically, you’re probably not gonna do it for the rest of your life. Just do the thing you enjoy and if you stop enjoying that thing, move on to the next thing.

Chris: You can even explore these possibilities within your degree. You might be doing loads of physics, but maybe you could try something a bit different, a bit tangential. 

Jonathan: Modules outside of physics, you know, medical physics or things that are outside of the department that you enjoy. Do them because that niche bit of thing that you study might be the thing you think, oh, I really, really like that. It might actually be the thing that you end up loving. 

Chris: Jonathan’s advice is hard earned. He followed what he thought he wanted into a research PhD and found himself somewhere he really didn’t want to be. From those pretty dark moments, he realized he could actually just quit his PhD and change direction. And making that change meant Jonathan could look around and start something new, which led him to his current position in a patent law firm, and it’s really working for him.

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. So I think the advice is probably then if, if, if you’re really struggling or having a bad time or not enjoying 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, which can be easier said than done.

Chris: A few of our graduates have had some rough times during their degrees or into their careers, but that’s actually really normal. Everyone has setbacks, right? Some small, some pretty big. Sam had some serious setbacks during his degree. His mental health spiralled and eventually he had to face facts. He needed to let go of the plan that he’d laid out for himself. 

Sam: Don’t blindly cling to something because that’s the way it should be. 

Chris: Sam’s advice to younger Sam can be summed up in a famous law of physics actually…

Sam: A body at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an external force. 

Chris: Sir Isaac Newton there repurposed as psychology. 

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: Now, life does get hard sometimes, and most of the time you can push through. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, but if you’re in a job, a degree, some situation that’s really not great for you…

Sam:  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. Might not be perfect, might not be the right thing immediately, but it’s something and it’s a step forward and it helps make the next step easier. 

Chris: This wisdom bucket’s been pretty deep, but there’s one last piece in here. When she finished her physics degree, Nicola knew she needed a bit of a break before planning her next career move. So she did some casual work, raised a bit of money, and went travelling. Something that she highly recommends. 

Nicola: I’d say do it. I think it gave me so much life experience and it’s being able to meet so many different people from so many different backgrounds and being able to be adaptive and be on my own and to do all of these different things, all of these soft skills that I learned through travelling I think only added to like the hard skills that I learned throughout my physics degree. So in combination, I think it was like a really valuable to create a more well-rounded like individual that I am. 

Chris: And it can help you clear your mind a bit. To prepare you for the next phase of life. 

Nicola: Go and explore. Go and have that break. Give yourself the mental space to check back in with yourself and, and then maybe you’ll be in a better place to make the right decisions in terms of when you come back and you start figuring out what you’re gonna do as a career.

Chris: Okay, next bucket. It’s a small one, but it’s important. It’s about comparing yourself with others. Calum found himself looking back at his first few years of university, knowing he probably could have devoted a bit more time to thinking about the future. 

Calum: You know, it’s very much like, okay, let’s do the, the last minute cram and make the most of the, the broader university experience. 

Chris: Nothing wrong with that. We just spent half the episode on the virtues of trying stuff out.

Calum: I know friends who were far more career inclined, let’s say, first, second year of university than I ever was. 

Chris: It can feel like everyone else is more focused. More switched on, working harder, getting further, which as Xanthe explains, can be intimidating and demotivating.

Xanthe: There was definitely a point in my university’s career where I looked around and thought everyone else is doing a lot easier, better than me. They’re finding it a lot easier than me. I’m having to put in more work, and maybe it’s not worth it, you know, why am I having to put in more work than these people?

Chris: But given the chance, Xanthe would take her undergrad self aside. And explain some truths.

Xanthe: Some people are just like that. You’ve just gotta say, okay, well, you know, I’m gonna put in the work and I’m gonna get the results out of it. Doesn’t matter what they’re doing, because they can make their own decisions. You know, they’re adults. Some of them are gonna get first by doing absolutely no work whatsoever or looking like they’re not doing absolutely any work. 

Chris: Just let other people be themselves and get on with being you. And more than that, your perception of other people’s abilities and seemingly effortless achievement. Yeah, that’s probably wrong. 

Xanthe: Those people who look like they’re doing no work. Might be doing loads of work, but I just, I’m not seeing it. Some people might look like they’re doing no work and are doing no work, and then they’ll get the zero degree at the end, you know. 

Chris: The point is you only have control over what you do yourself, so…

Xanthe: Focus on what you are doing and the work that you are putting in, and as long as you’re happy with that and it’s getting you the results that you want, that’s fine. You can live with that. 

Chris: Right. Wisdom bucket number four, ask for help. Here’s Sam to set this one up. 

Sam: 95% of problems can probably be, if not completely solved, mitigated by communicating. 

Chris: Everyone has setbacks, everyone has problems to solve. Very few people can do that in a vacuum. As we found earlier, Sam had some really difficult times at university and he’s learned a lot since then about opening up to people and tackling issues together.

Sam: Communicate with your peers. They’re a massive support network for you that you don’t necessarily realize you have till it’s gone. Communicate with your supervisor, um, your careers department if you have one. Talking things through with those people is huge in, not necessarily solving directly all of the problems that you might face, but starting to recognize some of those problems and starting to switch your headspace to one where you can be in a good place to start combating any problems as they come up.

Chris: It might not be easy to reach out, especially when you’re feeling rubbish or uncertain, but… 

Sam: Push yourself, coz it’s hard sometimes, uh, especially in a new place. But if you push yourself a little bit outside your comfort zone on it, you can end up with new great friends, uh, new hobbies and a generally better time I think.

Chris: Now you might be worried that if you actually admit you are having a hard time to your supervisor or your boss or your friends, they’re gonna judge you or somehow you’re a failure. Natalie’s been there. She gets that. 

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 everyone was really, really kind of helpful and, and more than happy to sit. 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: People want to help. And if you are at all concerned that admitting you need help will mean that you’re a failure and that you’ll be shown the door. No, it’s not like that. 

Natalie: There’s always options. It’s not, it’s not a case of if you are struggling, that’s it, pack it in, like doesn’t, that’s, I remember speaking to my supervisor at one point and he was like, there’s so many more things to do before you pack it in. Kind of that’s the, the last resort when you really can’t get through. But he was like, there’s so many options we can do before that. So he was like, don’t. Don’t do anything drastic and don’t kind of panic, which is again, easier said than done when you’re spiralling, it will work out. You know, whether that looks like changing courses, dropping down to three years, there’s so many options you can do to kind of help lift the load. So don’t be afraid to kind of ex even explore those. Doesn’t matter how early on it is. But they’re, they’re there to kind of be, be used. 

Chris: It’s not like you are the first person ever to have difficulties at university or at work. 

Natalie: You, supervisors and kind of lecturers and things. They will have heard this so many times before, so they’ll know what to do and where to point and things like that. So don’t feel like you’re gonna go in and they’re gonna flap and not know what you’re talking about. Coz they, everybody, will.

Chris: Even with all the support, the different options, sometimes you might realize ‘I’m in the wrong place’. Remember Jonathan who came to that conclusion partway into his PhD. He had support, his supervisors, showed him different ways he could keep the research going, turn it into something different and manageable. But Jonathan knew himself. He knew it was time to move on.

Jonathan:  If you’re really not enjoying, uh, uh, research or a job leaving, quitting is not a bad thing. 

Chris: When you know, you know, so beating yourself up for making the positive decision to leave that doesn’t make sense. If you’ve made up your mind, embrace it.

Jonathan: I’ve told people so many times now that I’ve quit, uh, I will happily refer to myself as a quitter because if that’s, if that means I’ll go on and do something that I enjoy more and that I succeed in better than great, I’ll be a quitter all, all, all my life. That’s absolutely fine. 

Chris: And that brings us to wisdom bucket number five. You’re gonna be okay. In the end, all of our graduates seem to be in a good place, really. Some have had adventures, some have had real challenges, some have gone through some dark times along the way, but they’re all progressing along the road of their careers now, and things are going pretty well, which raises an interesting point about all of this advice for their younger selves, and that is, maybe it doesn’t really matter anyway, because where they are now, it’s a product of where they’ve been. As Calum put it…

Calum: Would I necessarily change anything? I think the short answer is no, because I’m quite happy with where I am now. I wouldn’t wanna change anything in, in the life that I’ve got here now and the journey to kind of get here, coz I think that makes me, me. 

Chris: If you could go back and give yourself advice in the past, what would that change? 

Calum: I’d been very interested in a parallel universe to see if I’d listened to myself where things would’ve, would’ve ended up. 

Chris: Harry’s a good case in point. He initially thought he’d pursue a finance or accounting career in the city, and in second year he had a browser window open on his computer with an application for an internship at Deloitte. A flash of self-awareness made him close it and instead pursue a career in education and a life in China. 

Harry: It’s impossible to say whether I should have closed that Deloitte application sitting where I am now. I think that was absolutely one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Um, and you can be constantly paralyzed by that choice. But gut’s done me pretty well. Gut reactions, gut decisions. I’m happy with where I’m at. 

Chris: And that’s the common denominator here. Follow your gut, or as Natalie put it…

Natalie: You know yourself better than everybody else, so, do what you need to do. 

Chris: Harry admitted that if an older hin had come back and started doling out the advice…  

Harry: I probably won’t listen anyway. So there’s not much point in saying anything to me, the arrogance of youth!

Chris: But maybe that’s not arrogance. The final word today comes from Xanthe because when I asked her what she’d say to her undergraduate self, working through her degree and trying to imagine what the future holds. She said…

Xanthe: I think that would be spoiling it. You, you wanna know that things are gonna turn out for you, right? But I think giving yourself too much information is gonna spoil it a bit. I think you are always gonna have times where you find it hard and you wanna know that you get through those times, but if it all seems like it’s just gonna work out, then you might not put the work in. So keep working hard. And it’ll all be fine.

Chris: You’ve been listening to Potential, a podcast for physics students. Huge thanks to Xanthe, Calum, Harry, Lottie, Jonathan, Natalie, Nicola, and Sam, our wise physics graduates for sharing their experiences so openly and honestly throughout this entire series. 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.