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Once a physicist: Alok Sharma

Alok Sharma is the Member of Parliament for the Reading West constituency in Berkshire, UK.

Alok Sharma

What sparked your interest in physics?

I enjoyed maths and science at school and my thought was that if I did a science degree, I would keep my options open in terms of the careers I could go into afterwards. When I went to Salford University to study applied physics and electronics, I was lucky enough to get an industrial scholarship from the Mars Group. This is the same group that manufactures Mars bars, but it also used to have an electronics business and I spent a number of summers working for them. I was never consciously focused on pursuing a career in physics or academia after my degree; for me physics was an interesting subject and I happened to enjoy it.

Why did you choose to go into accountancy after you graduated?

I felt that if I got a professional qualification such as accountancy alongside my physics degree, it would make me a lot more marketable in the job market. Mars Electronics did offer me the opportunity to work for them after graduation, but by then I had decided I was more focused on pursuing an accountancy qualification. After I qualified as an accountant, I went into investment banking. I worked first for Nikko Securities, advising companies on matters such as mergers and acquisitions, listings and restructurings, and then I spent 15 years doing similar work for SEBanken. I found it a hugely productive period. I saw some of the peaks and troughs in the banking sector, which was extremely interesting, and I think both my physics and my accounting background were incredibly helpful. Corporate finance needs people who are analytical in the way they think and those who do physics degrees are by their very nature quite analytical.

Why did you decide to enter politics?

I have always had an interest in politics, but the catalyst came when I moved back to the UK in 2003 after spending about four years in Germany setting up a business for my employer. I felt that the UK was going in the wrong direction. In a way, I think you need to go away for a time before you can appreciate what is going on at home. After the 2005 election, my wife suggested that if I believed I could make a difference I should try and stand for parliament, and I was incredibly lucky: I was selected for the first seat I applied for (which happened to be a seat in Reading, where I grew up), and then I was elected in 2010 for the first time.

You mentioned that your physics skills transferred well to accountancy and finance. Have they also helped you in politics?

There is a public-facing part of being a politician, like when you see people debating in parliament, but actually a large amount of the work you do as an MP involves assisting constituents, helping to lead campaigns, taking part in discussions with government departments and so on. This all requires you to be analytical and methodical in the same way as you are trained to be when you study science. But you could argue that this same skill set is equally valuable to someone in a business environment.

What is the biggest scientific challenge facing the UK at the moment?

If Britain is to continue to successfully compete among the top flight of world economies, we will need to create more value-added jobs. To accomplish this, science-based businesses will need to be increasingly creative and productive. I was delighted therefore that the government made a conscious decision to maintain funding for science and research in the November 2015 Spending Review, as it did throughout the last parliament.

You’ve been a spokesperson for black and minority ethnic (BME) communities within the Conservative party. What do you think needs to be done to get more BME students into physics?

I think we need to look at measures to get more young people from all walks of life interested in science; not just to increase the number of ethnic minorities involved in science, but also to help improve the gender balance. The more that we can do to make science exciting, the more likely individuals from across the board will say “this could be the career for me”.

Any advice for today’s physics students?

I have two teenage daughters and my advice to them is always to do something that they have an interest in. Generally speaking, if you are interested in something, you will enjoy it and become quite good at it; there is a sort of virtuous circle. I would also advise students to start thinking early on about what they want to do when they finish their undergraduate degrees and try to get an industrial placement if they can. Any practical work experience during your time as an undergraduate will be incredibly valuable when you are applying for jobs.