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Once a physicist: Carol Monaghan

Former physics teacher Carol Monaghan is the Member of Parliament for Glasgow North West, UK.


What sparked your interest in physics? I think it was just a subject that came very naturally to me. I found it straightforward, certainly at school level – possibly it was different at degree level, but when I was at school everything in physics made perfect sense to me, as opposed to subjects like English, which I had to work very hard at. So it was really a matter of enjoyment – I didn't choose physics with any thought to careers or what would give me the best job. In fact, when I went to Strathclyde University, there were three physics courses available and, if I'm being perfectly honest, I picked laser physics and optoelectronics because it sounded more impressive!

Why did you decide to become a physics teacher? Well, actually what I really wanted to be was a fighter pilot. That was my dream job, and in later years I did actually get my private pilot's licence. But my interactions with the Royal Air Force at a young age were not terribly positive: I went to a careers day with my Scottish Highers qualifications in physics and maths, and I was told I would make a great cook! I know other people have had that kind of response and have fought through it, but I felt, "If that's the type of organization you are and that's how you look at me, then actually I want nothing to do with you." In terms of teaching, in the third year of my honours degree I realized that, while I found a lot of the physics quite tricky, there were people in my course who found it even trickier. I realized I could explain things to them in a simpler way and that this was something I had a bit of a talent for.

Why did you decide to enter politics? I've always been interested in politics and particularly in the constitutional question of Scotland, but I never really considered it as a career – I have a healthy disdain for politicians, so I thought anybody who wanted to be one should automatically be barred from undertaking the process. The reason I am where I am is plain and simple: it's because of the Scottish referendum [on independence in September 2014]. I campaigned very hard on the "Yes" side for an independent Scotland, and I think people expected that, following the "No" result, we would go back in our box and stop striving for the type of Scotland we wanted. But I'm afraid it's one of these things where, if you really believe in something as much as many of us did, you're going to keep working for it. After the referendum I went through a lot of emotions. First there was real bereavement for the Scotland that had been lost. Second there was anger that people had thrown away this opportunity. But the third emotion was a determination to keep up the fight, and that's what led me to put my name forward. It was a snap decision, and when I won the nomination to become the Scottish National Party candidate in the constituency, it came as a surprise to my husband and family because it wasn't something we had even discussed.

What skills do you think are required to succeed as a politician? When you watch parliament on television, what you see are very skilled public speakers throwing clever phrases back and forth across the chamber. But the reality is that after these debates take place, most members will vote the way their whips tell them to. So actually I think the most important skills are the ones we develop in our constituencies, where being able to listen and empathize are really important. Those are skills I had as a teacher as well. Also, the problem-solving skills that all physicists possess are vitally important when you're trying to work your way through the plethora of information that's thrown at you in parliament.

What is the biggest scientific challenge facing the country at the moment? The biggest issue is getting highly trained, highly qualified teachers into our schools. We can talk about problems with funding and with research and development and all of these things, but the reality is unless young people are coming through, then there are serious challenges facing the scientific community and the physics community in particular. In Scotland, a physics teacher must have some sort of physics or engineering qualification, but that's not true in other parts of the UK, and I think that's a real issue – I think you need specialists with a physics background who can inspire their students with a depth of knowledge behind them.

Any advice for today's students? Remember that you are really special. A physics degree is hugely respected and it shows that you have skills in many different areas – communication skills, problem-solving skills, investigative skills and so on. So when you're applying for jobs and looking at future careers, remember employers are looking on you favourably, and have confidence in the degree you've achieved.

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