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Career Week


Einstein's Big Idea homepage

Beginning October 11 for one week, NOVA is collaborating with the Quantum Diaries Web site to help you consider a career in physics. If you've ever had a question about what it's like to be a physicist, now is your chance to ask an expert. Physicists from universities and laboratories around the world will be on hand to answer your questions during Quantum Diaries: Career Week Online.

Responses to questions sent in from the NOVA Web site will be available here on NOVA's Einstein's Big Idea site, or check the Quantum Diaries Career Week blog for the complete set of questions and answers.

Send in your question

Physics Fraction
How much of a researcher's workday is part of his/her research (like conducting experiments or free time to come up with ideas), and how much is other work necessary but not directly related to the research (writing grant requests, teaching, preparing a lecture, etc.)?
Andrew from Virginia

Debbie Harris responds:
The best answer to this question comes from reading the "Day in the Life" blogs from April 15: it was a random day, and people were asked to just pick that day and write about what they did over the entirety of that day. But to try to save you a little time, I can tell you at least my experience at different stages in my carreer (so far, anyway). 

As a graduate student, I spent about 99 percent of my time doing things that could be considered "directly related to research." As a post-doc, I had to help writing the yearly grant request and travel to my home institution once a year to report on progress that the group I was in was making, so maybe the physics fraction dropped to 95 percent.

Once I started as a staff scientist at Fermilab, my physics fraction was "nominally" at only 33 percent, since my job offer letter said I had a 33 percent "research fraction." However, in reality I did a lot of work that to me seemed very directly related to getting the experiment I was on designed, built, or run: yes, it was a small subset of the total number of things that needed to be done, but without someone doing this work we wouldn't be doing the physics! Since I have no teaching responsibilities, I would say that I spent roughly 10-15 percent of my time either going to conferences, writing or giving talks, or going to meetings not directly related to research, so a "physics fraction" of 85-90 percent. 

Now (at the tender age of 38) I'm what's called a "project manager," so in reality I am not designing anything, I'm not building or testing anything, and I'm not taking or analyzing data (except for my three weeks of shifts per year on the MINOS experiment). But I am trying to keep track of an experiment I think is really important to do in the very near term, and trying to understand how much it will cost and how long it will take to design and build that experiment (with the help of lots of folks doing the designing, testing, building). Some might say that now my physics fraction has dropped to roughly three weeks/48 weeks (assuming four weeks of vacation per year) or 6 percent, but since I feel like managing this project is directly related to doing physics, it's still up at something like 80-85 percent. I think the longer you're in this field the more you realize how much work has to happen behind the scenes so that the youngest folks in the field can just "sit back and do physics." How did I get this old?



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