Working in physics: Why not do both?
Physicists thinking about academic or industrial research should consider a career that brings together elements from both, urges Stephen Sweeney.
When undergraduate and postgraduate students ask me for advice, the question "industry or academia?" is a common one. Most of them know that they want to continue to do research in physics – they are just not sure what kind of working environment will suit them best. But in fact, the choice between industry and academia is not always as stark as it seems, and in the true spirit of a good experimental investigation, I usually tell them to try both. This may sound easier said than done, but in my career I have found plenty of opportunities to follow my own advice
Moving between worlds
As an undergraduate at the University of Bath in the UK, I was unsure whether to go into a career in physics teaching, academic research or industry-based R&D. After spending time on an undergraduate placement at a UK government laboratory and training as a physics teacher, I decided that my interests were very much in applied research, where I could work on real-world problems and use physics to solve a particular task or develop something useful. This led me to do a PhD in semiconductor laser physics at the University of Surrey in 1995, with sponsorship from the electronics firm Philips. This was the best of both worlds for me. My PhD research focused on understanding the processes limiting the efficiency of semiconductor lasers for optical communications, and I worked closely with scientists and engineers at Philips' research headquarters in Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
Doing the PhD was undoubtedly one of my best decisions. I suspect that most people, me included, study physics because they have a strong desire to learn more about the universe and the everyday world around them, rather than because they have a specific career path in mind. So I found it really exciting to know I was the only person working on my specific area of research – and getting good, publishable results was a real thrill too. After I finished my PhD, I became a postdoc working on gallium-nitride light-emitting diodes for visible light sources (still a hot topic) and the emerging area of quantum dots. Although I was interested in my research, after two years as a postdoc I felt it was time for a change. Having been based mainly in academia for what seemed an eternity, I wanted to apply what I had learned full-time in a commercial environment.
In 2000 I therefore accepted a position as a scientist at Marconi Optical Components (now Oclaro), which was then a UK-based firm specializing in developing components for use in optical-fibre communications. Joining Marconi was a real eye-opener. I learned a lot about working within a large organization on big multicentred commercial projects, often to tight deadlines, in a highly competitive industry. However, during this period I also maintained a strong connection with academia through collaborative projects, and by helping to supervise industrially sponsored PhD students at a number of universities. This gave me the opportunity to see the other side of the fence, and undoubtedly kept some doors in the academic world open for later in my career.
In any commercial organization, opportunities to try out things that are a bit tangential to the company's principal focus can be limited. In academia, in contrast, you can direct your own research activity, and you often have a lot of flexibility (depending on funding) in what you work on. So when, after two years at Marconi, I became interested in taking a wider look at my field, returning to academia to broaden my knowledge base was an obvious choice. Therefore, in 2002 I joined the physics department and newly formed Advanced Technology Institute at the University of Surrey, where I am an academic lecturer. However, I still keep in touch with industrial research, and I recently joined the board of a UK-based start-up company, ZiNIR Ltd, as its chief technology officer.
Ups and downs
Working with a small, fast-moving company like ZiNIR is exciting. The firm is developing light sources and portable spectrometry systems for chemical and biological detection, and space-based remote sensing. My job is to lead innovation and develop the company's intellectual-property portfolio. I have a direct link with both investors and customers, and I often get involved in aspects of the firm's operation where I need to be flexible and to respond quickly to challenges and opportunities – like the need to take a prototype concept and develop a project around it within just a few days.
On the academic side, I have a fantastic team of PhD students and postdocs working on projects ranging from low-energy solid-state lighting, high-efficiency lasers and photovoltaics through to developing new types of biosensors. These projects have attracted a lot of interest from industry, with firms contributing to them directly by supporting students or funding projects. It is great to be able to stay closely involved with industry while also having the opportunity to inspire the next generation of academic or industrial-based physicists and engineers through lectures, lab classes and projects.
The down side is that life as an academic is busy – I doubt any academic would disagree! We typically juggle a workload of lecturing, research and administration, often working long hours and into the weekend, and there is no doubt that my responsibilities with ZiNIR add to the mix. Although my position at Surrey is full-time, I am allowed to spend some of my time doing things outside the university. Even so, unless there is an urgent matter that demands my attention, I mostly fit my ZiNIR work into evenings and weekends. But all-in-all, I find it immensely satisfying that my earlier quandary about going into teaching, research or industry has been resolved since I have had the opportunity to do all three. You can too, if you want.
Finding the middle ground
For students interested in both academia and industry, degrees that offer an industry-placement year are a great place to start. At the University of Surrey, most students spend typically 10–12 months during their BSc or MPhys degree doing either an industrial-placement or research year, respectively, where they get the chance to work in either a company or research laboratory in the UK or overseas. This is a fantastic opportunity for students to gain a feeling for what to do after finishing their degree. Some other UK universities offer similar schemes.
Beyond undergraduate level, industrially sponsored PhDs and EngDs are excellent for physics graduates who want to carry out interesting physics research while helping to resolve the industry/academia question. I have worked with a number of companies sponsoring PhD students, including the German semiconductor company Infineon and the UK defence firm QinetiQ. It is worth noting that the PhD and EngD schemes operate differently, with PhDs being mainly university-based with industrial input, and EngDs being company-based with academic guidance from a university supervisor. However, both provide a thoroughly interesting and challenging way to engage and operate within both the academic and commercial worlds.
About the author
Stephen Sweeney is a senior lecturer in physics and EPSRC Leadership Fellow at the Advanced Technology Institute and Department of Physics at the University of Surrey. He is also director and chief technology officer of ZiNIR Ltd.
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Physics World
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last edited: January 30, 2014