Margaret Harris

Science Journalist

Former researcher in physics at Durham University, UK

Margaret HarrisAcademic research experience

I did my PhD in atomic physics at Durham University. I was there for about 4.5 years, including one year when I was an Ogden Trust Teaching Fellow (providing support for science teachers and students in a local secondary school) and a few months spent filling in for a postdoc who left before his contract ended.

My main achievement as a researcher was to construct (in collaboration with my supervisor and one other PhD student) a functioning atomic physics experiment from scratch. Experiments in atomic physics are technically complex, requiring a lot of specialist equipment, and we built much of it ourselves – including lasers, magnets, cooling systems and various circuitry. I also published three first-author papers, co-organized an international conference that was hosted by my research group, and presented my research at two international meetings.

Despite these successes and some other good moments, my PhD was, on the whole, a pretty unpleasant experience. It got off to a bad start because my undergraduate degree in the US (where the curriculum is broader and shallower) didn’t give me the same level of preparation as my British-trained peers, and in retrospect, neither my confidence nor my relationship with my supervisor ever really recovered. The lab I worked in also had a highly competitive and often negative atmosphere, which led two of my colleagues to quit before finishing their PhDs or postdocs, and may have contributed to mental health problems in two others.

In addition, I found some structural aspects of academic careers discouraging. My field of research was (and still is) very international, and everyone I know who went down the postdoc route spent at least a year or two outside the UK. That wasn’t attractive to me, since by the time I finished my PhD, my then-partner (now husband) had a stable job and couldn’t easily move. One such move might have been manageable, but to pursue an academic career I would have needed to spend at least five years (and maybe closer to 10) moving between countries and short-term posts before I could apply for a permanent job.

However, my most important reason for leaving academic research became apparent at a conference about nine months before the end of my PhD. I knew that if I wanted to continue in research, I needed to be networking like mad at that conference – finding out what experiments the key people were doing, what funding they had, whether they were looking to hire a postdoc and so on. But when I tried to do this, I realized that I just didn’t care. I simply wasn’t interested enough in my field to want to build a career in it. It took me a while to admit this to myself (let alone to others), but once I did, it was clear that academia did not belong in my long-term plans.

At that point, I didn’t really have an alternative in mind, so attraction to a different career was not a major factor in my decision to leave academic research. However, once I found my new career, it turned out to have a lot of attractions.

Transition from academic research

When I was an undergraduate, I had a part-time job writing about science for my university press office. I enjoyed this and was good at it, so in the back of my mind, it was always a potential alternative career option. But it didn’t become an obvious destination until a few months before the end of my PhD, when a friend spotted an ad for an editorial position at Physics World – the international monthly physics magazine published by the Institute of Physics – and suggested that I should apply for it. 

The post being advertised was pretty much my ideal job. It opened up at exactly the right time. And when I applied for it, they hired me. I was extremely lucky! 

My first job at Physics World was as the reviews and careers editor, which meant I was responsible for several small sections of the magazine. I was in this role for almost eight years, but the publication changed considerably over that period – adding an audio and video journalism programme and a digital edition, among other things – so I was always picking up new skills.  I was then promoted into a new role as industry editor in autumn 2016.  

Many of the people I work with now also have a background in academic research, so most of them have made pretty much the same transition as I did. Essentially, I went from working with a bunch of physicists who do research to working with a bunch of physicists who do journalism.  There wasn’t much of a culture shock.

Current job – and how it compares                       

As industry editor at Physics World, I commission and write articles about the latest developments in industries such as nanotechnology, optics or nuclear energy. In some ways, it’s exactly the opposite of an academic research career, because I spend my time learning a little bit about a lot of different things, rather than learning about one thing in-depth. But I’m still engaged with the scientific community, which is nice.

I'm responsible for commissioning and editing a series of five or six reports per year on different physics-based industries. In a typical week, I might edit an article or two for the next issue in the series and conduct phone interviews for an article I'm writing in the same issue. I might also fire off a few emails to invite scientists or freelance journalists to write an article for a future issue, or remind people who've agreed to write something that their deadline is coming up soon (or has, ahem, already passed). In a slower week, I'll find time to do some background reading on a new topic, and once a month or so, I'll attend a meeting or conference, go on a site visit, or travel to interview someone in person.

The highs happen every time I need to learn about a new topic. My favourite project (which actually came in my previous role with Physics World) was to find out what Fermilab planned to do after its flagship particle accelerator, the Tevatron, was shut down. I visited both Fermilab and CERN, interviewed more than a dozen physicists about their work, and then synthesized this information into a feature article and a podcast.

The only lows are that there’s a fair amount of admin, and it’s mostly office-based work. Very occasionally, I miss fiddling about with equipment in the lab. But that’s it. For the most part, I love my job.

Competencies old and new

Knowing what the academic research environment is like has definitely been useful for my work as a science journalist. Many of the people who write for me are researchers, so understanding their work patterns and the competing demands on their time has helped me relate to them. The actual subject matter of my PhD has been useful a few times, when I happened to be writing or editing an article on a related topic, and knowing how to read and analyse a scientific paper has been important, too. Finally, having a PhD gives me a certain degree of credibility within the research community (industry as well as academia). I’ve encountered a few academics who were pretty dismissive of people without one.

One area where I’ve needed to develop my skills is in interpersonal relations. In my experience, academic research is very tolerant, sometimes even encouraging, of people who are direct to the point of being confrontational with colleagues and the people they’re managing. The culture outside academia is different, so I’ve had to adapt. The other thing I’ve had to pick up, particularly in my current role, is an understanding of the industry R&D environment, and an awareness of how the business world operates.

Reflections on my career path

There are a lot of things I’d do differently, mostly because I’m no longer 22 years old, as I was when I started my PhD. I have far more self-confidence now, and if I’d had that as a PhD student, I think I would have dealt with the inevitable setbacks of research in a more positive way, such as taking proactive steps to find out more information about a problem, rather than berating myself and feeling stupid for not understanding it immediately.

The main thing I wish I’d known as a researcher, though, was how normal it is to leave academia. Most people do it at some point, generally for reasons that have nothing to do with how “good” they are as a researcher. It’s the people who stay who are unusual.

My advice

If there is something out there that appeals to you, go for it – sooner rather than later. At one point, I contemplated doing an industry-linked postdoc after my PhD, but someone advised me not to unless it would give me a specific skill that I needed to make the next step my career. He explained that companies generally look favourably on a PhD in a relevant field, but a postdoc or string of postdocs on a CV may be viewed as an indication that the applicant really wanted to be an academic, and is now falling back on their second- or third-choice career. I think this is good advice, so I’m passing it on.