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Once a physicist: Jean Boulton

Jean Boulton is a visiting fellow, specializing in complexity theory, at Cranfield and Bristol business schools

How did you become interested in physics?

This may not be the answer you expect, but I found it easy. Unlike chemistry, where you need to know a lot of facts, physics was more about concepts; if you understood the concepts, then it was straightforward. I also liked its elegance, and its coherence – it was about getting down to the bare bones of things. However, I always loathed practical work. If I as much as looked at a piece of kit, it would break. My interests were much more towards the philosophical end of physics; my PhD at Cambridge University looked at quantum-mechanical systems using mathematical modelling.

Did you remain in physics after your PhD?

Although I enjoyed my research, I was working very much on my own. I remember going to the pub with some friends at one point and noticing that I had absolutely nothing to say other than "line 375 of my computer programme doesn't seem to be working and I don't know why". I felt quite isolated. My then husband was working for Cambridge Consultants, a technical consultancy. I could see how interesting that was, so I joined him and soon developed further via a part-time MBA at Cranfield.

What did you do next?

I went to work for Hay Management Consultants and one of my clients was British Aerospace Commercial Aircraft. I was subsequently asked to join the firm as head of its engineering operations, which I did in 1989. It was a very brave move for them and for me; I did not have an aerospace background, and, at 34, I was much younger than many of the 1000 people I was managing. Being a woman was unusual, too. But I learned an enormous amount about what works in practice and what only works in theory. One really popular thing I did was to address the retention of technical specialists. At one point the firm upped the salaries by a flat 10%, and my popularity went up enormously.

What led you to start your own consultancy?

After one of British Aerospace's sites closed, I would have either had to relocate to Woodford near Manchester or wait around for someone to make me redundant. I did not want to do that, so I resigned and went back to Hay as Practice Director for Organization Change. But I found that after having a "real job", and seeing organization change from the inside, my ideas had changed quite a bit. I wanted to set up my own business and experiment.

You've become quite interested in complexity theory recently. What brought you back to physics?

In some ways I never left. Physics was always present in the way I thought about things, and I think it brings a kind of integrity to the way I approach problems. But I got interested in complexity theory about 10 years ago after reading some of the popular books out there, such as James Gleick's Chaos and Roger Lewin's Complexity. Then I learned that Peter Allen, a professor at Cranfield, was looking at ways of applying ideas about complexity to social systems and management. I found this very exciting, because if you believe that the world is intrinsically complex and intrinsically interconnected, rather than predictable and controllable, then you approach things from a different angle.

Much of management theory takes a rather Newtonian view of the world and assumes strategies can be optimized and planned, and that outcomes can be measured – even though everyone knows this is not entirely the case. But if you adopt a broader, emergent, messier worldview, you may – for example – review your implementation strategy more often and see whether the things you thought were going to be successful actually are, and indeed whether other things are succeeding that you had not considered. So I am passionately interested in conveying these ideas.

In fact, I am just about to publish a book on the subject and I am involved in organizing a workshop on cross-disciplinary applications of complexity thinking in Cambridge this September.

Do you have any career advice for today's physics students?

Physics is very good training for whatever you decide to do. It is systematic and coherent, but what a lot of non-physicists do not understand is that physics is very creative, too. I also think it is a really good career for a woman, because I do not think scientists are intrinsically chauvinistic; if you know what you are talking about, that is what counts.

Have you ever experienced any difficulties being in a male-dominated field?

When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, only about 5% of physics students were women. I think it is probably true to say that we were all a bit anoraky; we were treated as "one of the guys" and taken seriously as fellow students, but we were perhaps not at the top of the "girls to date" list. Before university, I went to an all-girls school in Leeds where half of the sixth form did physics at A-level, and at home my father in particular always expected me to mend my bike or help build fires, for example; so I never got the idea that some things were not for girls to do. I do not feel I have been treated prejudicially as a woman in my career, although I can see that some women are. I am interested in how feminism has evolved since the 1970s and in the balance between personal and professional life.

Do you think you have struck a good balance?

Not entirely, no. I think I have paid a price to some extent. For example, I do not have children. Sometimes women who do management and science early on are quite "male" in the way they do things, but I do think I have softened as I have grown older. I have not exactly made choices on where to focus, perhaps, but choices have nevertheless been made.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Physics World.

last edited: September 11, 2018

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