NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Working Scientist podcast: Start looking for jobs before you finish your PhD

Gaia Donati and Julie Gould discuss some of the career issues faced by physicists today.
Julie Gould is a freelance journalist in London, and produces the Nature Careers Podcast.

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Gaia Donati and Julie Gould discuss career transitions and Donati's move into scientific publishing following a PhD in physics.

In the final episode of this six-part podcast series about physics careers, Gaia Donati draws on her contact with fellow physicists in her role as a manuscript editor at Nature, where she oversees research papers in several areas, including quantum information and computing, high-energy physics and plasma physics.

She also reflects on her own career experience and how academia in her native Italy compares to the UK, where she gained her PhD in 2015. "Start looking for jobs before you finish your PhD," Donati advises.

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Transcript

Gaia Donati and Julie Gould discuss career transitions and Donati's move into scientific publishing following a PhD in physics.

Julie Gould

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This is the final episode of our six-part series on careers in physics, where we’ve been hearing stories about transitions.

Now, this whole series on careers in physics actually started out as a discussion with two physicists, turned-editors. One was Andrea Taroni, the Chief Editor of Nature Physics, and the other Gaia Donati, an associate editor in the Nature team who has a focus on physics. Now, their jobs day in, day out as editors involves speaking to countless physicists, going to physics conferences, reading physics papers and visiting physics laboratories. They are completely immersed in the whole discipline, not just into one specific area. And that’s why I wanted to share some of their insights into what the field of physics is experiencing, and thankfully, Gaia Donati was happy to share her transition story too, and give some of her insights into the world of physics. Here’s her story.

Gaia Donati

I cover quantum information and particle physics, nuclear physics, so I get a good picture of physics research at the edge of what is going on. I have a PhD in physics, but I transitioned into publishing and into this type of role I have now straight after my PhD.

Julie Gould

So, tell me a little bit more about your PhD because you said you cover in your job quite a wide range of physics, but I imagine your PhD was much more focused.

Gaia Donati

Yes, it was. It was a PhD in experimental quantum optics, which basically means that I got to play around with lasers mostly, making them interact with all sorts of optical elements and that was a good experience, but part of the reason why I felt like something different was that it was very focused because in your PhD, you become a specialist, an expert, in one particular topic or area. So, yeah, it was a big step because now I get to read about things that I studied years ago.

Julie Gould

And why was the concept of the PhD being so focused on one subject just not the right fit for you?

Gaia Donati

It wasn’t fun anymore. Somehow it felt like I was missing out on what was going on in the rest of physics, and the more I found myself diving in, the more I thought I was losing the big picture and I wanted to bring that back a bit, I guess. And to be honest, I think that for me, the big hint towards the career, the job, I’m doing now was that I used to say while I was writing up that that felt like the best moment of my entire PhD, and generally, my fellow PhD students were saying, ‘How can you say that? I can’t wait for this to be over. I don’t like writing up. It’s such a waste of time. I want to go back to the lab and do experiments.’ And I so, so enjoyed it. Those 200 pages, I kind of poured all of my ideas and my knowledge of the experiments and all of that and I really enjoyed having to develop a narrative, not because I have to publish or because I have to pass my viva, but because I want to make sense of this. I want to bring this into, again, the wider picture and I thought maybe that means I want to do something that has to do with this ability to express things clearly, organise your thoughts, writing, and so that’s how it came about.

Julie Gould

And so here we are. So, now working as an editor on the physical sciences team. So, tell me a little bit about that transition because it’s not an easy transition to make.

Gaia Donati

No, it wasn’t, and in fact, if I could give a piece of advice, and in fact I have to some friends who were younger than me and are now finishing their PhDs in the group where I did mine, start looking for jobs before you finish because I really got to the end of the PhD and so what now? And that was not very clever because it took me about six months from my viva, basically, so from the end of my PhD examination to find my first job, which was not a permanent position, which was in fact a locum associate editor position with Nature Photonics, which is a sister journal here. So, that was extremely good as an opportunity because even though I had identified publishing as a sector I wanted to explore, I didn’t know anyone who did that job and it was difficult to picture what it would be on a day-to-day basis, so to some extent the fact that it was not permanent gave me an opportunity to dip my toes and see if I liked it and it turned out I liked it. So then when that experience finished I was again on the lookout for other editorial jobs, this time permanent, and then I landed my current job.

Julie Gould

So, one of the big topics of discussion in physics is this concept of gender balance, of trying to bring some sort of parity to the labs and having more women in senior positions, more women coming throughout the ranks and we’ve discussed this in our very first episode of this series with Cornelius Storm and with Elizabeth Tasker, who were both part of a gender positive hiring policy to try and entice more women into academia and in their purposes specifically, in physics. Now, you did your undergraduate masters research in Italy, but then did your PhD in the UK. Now, did you find any differences in the gender balance between those two countries in your experience?

Gaia Donati

Well, I think the short answer is that I became aware of a gender balance issue when I moved to the UK because I simply I was not aware of it when I studied in Italy. My university undergraduate cohort was, I would say, 50/50 between male and female students, and the research group where I did my masters research was female dominated. Let’s describe it as follows: I remember my PhD interview. So, I walk into this meeting room for what would become my research group, and I look around and there’s about 10-12 people and they’re all male and it doesn’t dawn on me immediately but then I look around a bit and think where are the women? What is going on? And I discover that a couple of female postdocs have just left. It’s something that definitely struck me because I could see that there was a lot of talk about it at Oxford and in the department and it does leave me with the feeling that maybe it is country-dependent, that there is something cultural so you do have some variability across countries. My personal diagnosis in a sense is that the problem starts a lot earlier than university. That’s my feeling. I think it starts, I would say, almost at primary school.

Julie Gould

Okay, now I want to talk a little bit about this thread that’s been running through our conversation which is the concept of a broad overview. Now, you as an editor yourself, you said that you learn about all sorts of different subjects in physics. You also have contacts in all these various subjects, and you see how the field of physics is evolving as time goes on and as the research advances. So, I want to know, from your perspective, what are some of the big things happening in physics and what are some of the big challenges that people see in physics?

Gaia Donati

Well, one trend which I see probably more of than when I was a PhD student, say, is people deciding to switch fields or actively try to find an interdisciplinary collaboration. So, somehow, I think they might have the same drive I had, like maybe they are slightly fed up with their focus, what they’ve been working on for years, so rather than, say, look for a job outside of academia, they stay in academia but they try to branch into something else where they will need to learn, obviously because they won’t be subject experts, but somehow a new challenge. And I think that this is something that is characterising physics more and more, this willingness to reach out to different fields, different areas, see if the so-called physics mindset can somehow collaborate, can help, can bring insights into other areas. This is something that I think is now characterising the field more than it used to years ago. Then obviously, there are some backgrounds whereby I feel the transition to industry is facilitated, so particle physics, I think, is an example. At least from what I’ve seen, many projects there involve a huge component in data analysis. Those people are usually experts in machine learning techniques. They handle huge amounts of data that’s real, big data, at least from the perspective of someone like me, if I think of my datasets. And I can see and I know of several people who then think of going into data science, for example, which is one field that is attracting a lot of attention. Lots of companies search for data scientists, data analysts. The names can change slightly but probably in my perception at least, which is obviously not all encompassing, I feel that particle physics might be one of those areas where the transition into data science is probably, for physicists, kind of the easiest or the most natural, you could say.

Julie Gould

Well, I’ve got to admit, I’m very pleased to hear all of these things because these are all topics that we’ve discussed throughout this series on careers in physics. We’ve had Stuart Higgins talk about his transition from physics into biophysics and we’ve also heard from Lewis Armitage who was a researcher at CERN during his PhD and he now works as a data analyst as well, so these are just a couple of examples of the people that we’ve spoken to. So, it’s nice to hear that your perspective is what we’ve covered in this series. So, Gaia, thank you very much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Gaia Donati

Thank you.

Julie Gould

Now, that’s it for this series on careers in physics from Working Scientist, but I will be back later this year with a series on PhDs – what the needs of PhD researchers are, how the PhD training schemes have changed and what changes are yet to come. It’s going to be launched in November 2019, so come back then. But in the meantime, you can always follow the Nature Careers adventures online on Twitter, on Facebook and on the website at www.nature.com/careers. Thank you for listening. I’m Julie G