So a few months ago I was asked by Tara Garcia (@donthitmybike) to be the subject of a school project looking at people in STEM. All it required of me was to answer a short questionnaire Tara had written to help her understand my job and what I allegedly spend my days doing. I liked this questionnaire so much that I asked Tara for permission to share it (and my answers) here as a sort of Q&A.

Tara’s 40 questions mimic my own questions when I was a teenager and I think it’s a great set that other people should have a go at. So if you have a blog, please download them here and post your own answers for any other teenagers curious about your particular STEM job.

Questions of General Interest

1. Why did you choose this job?

Honestly, because I’ve always wanted to be a scientific researcher. I don’t remember wanting to be anything else. Although what I research I’ve always been a little bit laissez-faire about. A brief age-based summary is: 13-16 Pathology, 16-18 Chemical engineering, 18-21 Biochemistry, 21-26 Biosensors, 26-current Something to do with fibres.

2. How many years have you been working at your job?

My current job, 2 years. However, I’ve been working in research for a little more than a decade.

3. Do you enjoy it?

Yes, very much! Particularly the bits I get to laugh about online or name after cartoon characters.

4. Can you describe your typical day?

Get in to work about 07:30 and turn on all my equipment. Set up experiments until my students come in and then I help them with their projects till around 10:30 when I have coffee with my colleagues. Coffee time is a daily opportunity to chat through any problems we’re having. Then I’ll go back to my office to normally catch up on paperwork (H&S documents or papers) until lunch time at 12:00. I use lunch time to work on my blog and cartoons. The afternoon is typically a mix of meetings with people to sort out research projects and finishing off experiments, before heading home around 16:30ish to make dinner for my family.

Typical academic day

5. What is your favorite thing about your typical day?

Experimental work is the most rewarding. The rest of my work is really just focused on doing this bit better. I thrive most on experiments that are brand new and (possibly) never done before. The results might not always be ground-breaking but I love getting to try out random new things.

6. How many different types of jobs are there in your field of work?  What are they?

Ummm… an infinte number? The work I do is unique as pretty much every other post-Doc working in my field has a different job scope to me. Being a post-Doc is very flexible and tends to be about working on projects in a way that suits your knowledge and expertise.

7. Is your job mainly physical strain, mental strain or both?

Mental strain. If I physically strain myself I’ll get in to trouble for not filling out the proper H&S form for working with heavy boxes.

8. Did you know you were going to be doing this job when you were a teenager?

Sort of. I always wanted to be a researcher but I didn’t really know what that was until I was at university. When I was at school (around 16 years old) we had some mock interviews by external people, some of whom were researchers. When they asked why I wanted to do research I said “Because I could cope with the boredom”, there was a pause followed by both interviewers totally loosing it with laughter.

9. Does your job take any special talents?

Thinking laterally and very carefully about problems. Although the source of my best data is in questioning everything, particularly the small patterns in data and errors that appear unexplained.

10. Can you live and work anywhere or can your job be done only in certain places?

One of the key techniques I use is called Langmuir-Blodgettry. The core chemistry understanding behind this was discovered by Angus Pockles – a house wife doing experiments in her kitchen sink. While places with lots of equipment and resources certainly help with research, I’m pretty sure I’d still be doing research if I lived in a mud hut in the Andes.

11. Are there any limitations on your personal and/or social life because of the nature of your work?

None. Research work is very family friendly in the main. Academic life can be a bit more of a burden as long hours and working in the evenings seem the norm, however things are getting much better. I have pretty strict personal rules on not working weekends, which helps me a lot.

12. What do you feel are the best jobs in your field?

Difficult to answer (see question 6)

13. Are there many openings for your type of job now?  Will there be in the future  when I get old enough to choose my career?

Some. It’s very difficult, as the number of openings is very closely linked to the economic focus on research.

14. How would you advise me to plan for my future?

Learn to code. Even if you don’t go into STEM this is a vital skill.

15. What are some other interesting jobs that might be related to yours?

Difficult to answer. There are lots of jobs that have a research focus which are in many ways different to the ways I describe my job (Lab technician, research Fellow, research scientist etc).

16. What job would you choose if you didn’t do what you do now?

Something else related to scientific research. I clearly have a one track mind.

17. What do you think are going to be good jobs in the future?

Research jobs. Lateral thinking is very difficult (although probably not impossible) to replace with a computer or automation.

18. What is the most satisfying thing about a job?  Money?  Vacations?  Co‐workers?   Retirement?  Or what?

The moment when I discover something no one else in the world knows. Often about an hour later I discover it’s an artefact in my data and not a real result. But that hour is fantastic!

19. What are some things you don’t like about your job?

I can’t take the lasers home with me…

Questions on Education and/or Training

20. Does your job require a high school, community college, technical college or 4  year college education?

My job requires a university degree and a PhD qualification, although you can do many very similar jobs with only a university degree.

21. What classes or courses should I take to prepare for this career?

To be a post-Doc in science, you need to have any of the STEM subjects however – history and english are also important as they will give you helpful critical thinking and writing skills. Even in science, being able to clearly communicate your ideas is very helpful.

22. Does your job change often?  And if so, how do you update your knowledge and  skills?

Yes. I update my knowledge constantly with reading literature and attending conferences.

Questions on Working Conditions

23. How many days do you work each week?

5 days – Monday to Friday

24. How many hours a day?

I’m paid to work 7.5 hours a day, however my job has ‘flexi-time’ so some days I work more than this and some days I work less.

25. Do you belong to a union?

Yes, University and College Union. I have very mixed feelings on the union so I’m not exactly a die-hard member. 

26. How are vacations awarded?  How long are they?

I get 25 days holiday a year and I can take this as and when needed. Typically, I would inform my line manager a few weeks before I am due to take holiday time.

27. What sort of tools do you use?  Do you have to buy your work tools?

I use a very large number of machine and tools from giant 2 meter long lasers to tiny 5cm spatulas. I don’t have to buy any myself as these are provided by the University.

Murder yourself a promotion28. Are promotions possible in your job and if so, what must you do for a promotion?

Yes promotions are available but often (but not always) when there are vacancies above me. Typically, to get a promotion you have to show that you can work at a higher level e.g. bring in funding, write more papers and supervise more students.

29. Do you ever get transferred and can you be transferred if you don’t want to be?

Not particularly, once you have a working group it is more common to stay within it. Sometimes it may be necessary but these are rare occasions.

30. Do you work with other people or mainly by yourself?

I work in a group of 18 people. Most of my research work is done on my own, however I will frequently collaborate with my colleagues. Also most days we will talk about our research and ‘brainstorm’ solutions together.  

31. Do you work for yourself or someone?

Technically both. As a University post-Doc I work in a department and have a line manager.

32. Are there any health hazards in your job?

Yes. In an average day, there are many dangerous processes and chemicals I need to handle. I typically use a laser than can burn through my arm and another that will potentially blind me if I’m not wearing the right safety goggles. Also, I have chemicals that can’t even be stored in the same cupboard as each other as they may react violently.

33. Do you work mainly indoors or outdoors?

Indoors. Putting dangerous lasers outdoors is frowned upon.

34. Do you need any special physical characteristics to do your job?

None. Anyone can do my job. Although if there is someone with laser resistant skin that might be of benefit.

35. Do you have to travel much in your job?

Occasionally. As part of academia I need to both keep up to date with current research and network with other academic colleagues. The easiest way to do this is attend conferences – which can be held anywhere in the world. Last year I went to Japan and Brazil.

Questions on Money

36. Does this type of job earn overtime?

No, I don’t get any overtime pay. A certain amount of overtime seems expected in academia. This is something that is slowly changing but old habits die hard.

37. Are you paid by the hour, by a fee that you charge, by sales commission, or salary?

I am paid by monthly salary.

38. Will you receive a pension when you retire or does this type of job require you to make contributions to another retirement fund?

I receive a benefits package which includes a pension. This is a voluntary package however, that I sacrifice a portion of my salary to get.

39. How is your job affected by the economy?

The ups and down of the economy have a big impact on the amount of research funding available. All my funding is in one form or another from central government (sometimes as part of industry funding) so their policies affect it very heavily.

40. What fringe benefits do you receive?

I get to play with lasers all day. Seems like a benefit to me. <nerd> also the beam passes through slits which create some very pretty fringe patterns </nerd>

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