Scientist for hire
Specialised technology companies and academic research are not the only ways of building a career using your skills as a physicist. Technology consultant Jeffrey Philippson shares his enthusiasm for a more varied option.
You have an analytical mind, technical skills and an understanding of the physical world that most people can only dream of – but how are you going to use those attributes to build a career? Do you have the uneasy feeling that work in the "real world" is going to be a disappointment after the challenges, variety and intellectual stimulation of research in physics? Are you looking for a technology sector that has remained strong throughout the economic downturn?
These were the questions that gnawed at me as I approached completion of a doctorate in experimental physics towards the end of 2011. I found the answers in the world of technology consultancy, in which "scientists for hire" apply technical expertise and analytical thinking to solve real-world problems for companies across the globe. Consultants work in sectors from medical diagnostics and drug delivery to consumer products and scientific instrumentation, so if you are searching for a technology career that won't descend into workaday monotony, then a job like mine could be just the ticket.
A winding path
My desire for variety and new challenges has led me along a winding path in my career. An early interest in architecture sent me in the direction of maths and physics, at which point interest and aptitude led me to obtain a degree in physics with astrophysics from the University of Sussex. During my studies, my thinking evolved further, and I became convinced that I was an experimentalist at heart. So, after a short research fellowship in the Netherlands, I earned a doctorate in experimental atomic and molecular physics from Queen's University in Canada.
On my return to the UK in early 2012, with the economy in the doldrums and no clear career path in mind, my job search was active but unfocused. For the most part, I was looking for posts at specialized technology companies, each of which has its own small product range in a rather niche market, such as laser systems or sensors. But after the luxury of a four-year research programme that covered everything from optics and electronics to vacuum systems and numerical modelling, I found the prospect of such a narrow career uninspiring.
Then a casual remark by an acquaintance introduced me to the concept of technology consultancy, and the idea immediately struck a chord. Further investigation revealed that in the UK, at least, this is a curiously localized industry, with most consultancy firms being based in south Cambridgeshire, an hour's journey north of London. The two interviews I had with the firm that hired me, PA Consulting Group, were not for the faint-hearted, with a broad range of searching technical questions almost from the start. However, the varied and challenging nature of the questions only served to confirm that the job was everything I hoped it would be.
My first full assignment with PA was on a team developing a medical diagnostic instrument involving optics, thermal control, mechanical control, biochemical processes and more. Since then, I've also worked on a hot-drinks dispenser, and my last project had me travelling across the globe to work on a novel vaccine delivery system – demonstrating the extraordinary variety that is a defining characteristic of a career in technology consultancy.
What it takes
The core asset of any technology consultancy is a pool of talented physicists, chemists, mechanical and electrical engineers, computer scientists and other, more specialized, professionals, from which teams can be drawn to solve commercial problems. This could be the design of a new product, development of a manufacturing process, or just solving one of the myriad technical problems that can arise as part of any complex research and development project. Working in such diverse teams is exhilarating, as it enables you to acquire new skills and make connections with experts in other fields. My work on vaccine delivery, for example, opened my eyes to the world of biotechnology, introducing me to a wide range of new analytical tools.
Deadlines in this industry can be short and budgets are often tight, so the ability to work well under pressure is essential. Networking skills are also an indispensable part of the toolkit, both in the context of client interactions and for maintaining good connections with colleagues – which are frequently the key to finding your next assignment (a task for which each consultant is often individually responsible). As you progress within the organization, you are generally expected to make a greater contribution to business development, which is largely a matter of demonstrating the technical capabilities of the organization. This is where those presentation skills you honed by speaking at conferences will stand you in good stead.
Much is made of the analytical thinking skills of physicists, in a manner that can seem rather nebulous, but in my work I've rapidly come to realize how important – yet how uncommon – they are. There are also many more tangible skills physicists can bring to bear. This might include experience with analytical tools such as optical and electron microscopes, mass spectrometers, or optical spectrometers. On the software side, experience with programs such as LabVIEW and MATLAB, or languages such as C++, C# and Java, can offer a way to differentiate yourself within the organization. However, experience with specific tools is sometimes less important than the ability to rapidly become conversant with new ones. And then there are those skills you probably take for granted: time spent searching the literature for that one missing parameter, tracking down a supplier for that non-standard vacuum flange, correcting erroneous error handling and so on – all of that has given you an invaluable box of tools.
A special career
Physicists occupy a unique position within a consultancy. While programmers or engineers who specialize in computer-aided design may have a fairly clear idea of the tasks that will be expected of them, a physicist's role is less clearly defined. Often we are involved from very early in a project, establishing the limits of what can be achieved and developing a framework upon which the details will be constructed. Other common tasks include running an experimental programme to optimize a manufacturing process or testing and validation prior to the release of a product. If you want to branch out, you could engage with the commercial side of technology development by, for example, advising companies, investors and government bodies on how to extract value from innovation.
Experience as a technology consultant is highly valued in many more specialized technology firms, so taking this direction does not close off other options. At PA, progression is based on merit, rather than time served and this makes consulting an exciting and rewarding career.
The widely held view that a PhD in physics is simply preparation for an academic research position overlooks a whole world of technical professions where a background in physics research is highly prized. Technology consultancy is a particularly rewarding example. Seeing your product on the shelf and knowing that your drug delivery system or diagnostic device is making a real difference in people's lives – these things provide excellent motivation. So, if you are looking for a career as challenging, varied, intellectually stimulating, social and educational as your years of research in physics, technology consultancy might be just the job.