A week in the life of a particle accelerator designer

On April 3, 2013

Suzie Sheehy at the Royal Institution

“So, what do you do?”

I’m sure you have an answer that tends to pop out your mouth. My answer-du-jour is “I design particle accelerators”. I have it on some authority that my job is officially cooler than being a rocket scientist. (I didn’t make that up, some students actually told me that!)

But I find that any description I give of my research is always the wrong answer. Ask any high school student or taxi driver, the hardest thing to portray about a job in science is not what I’m trying to achieve with my research, but what I actually genuinely do from when I wake up in the morning to when I go to bed at night.

Even as a university student I imagined many of my lecturers sat in their offices with a pencil and paper all day or were fiddling knobs on a super-whizzy device in some unimaginably advanced version of my high school practical classes.

So what is the truth? What do we actually do all day? To answer the question, I set about recording a fairly typical week in my life.

How it went

It wasn’t the most exciting week – I didn’t go to any far-flung conferences, didn’t make a big breakthrough or even give any major presentations, but at least that made it a fairly ‘typical’ week. After counting up all my work hours (not including commuting time or lunch or tea breaks) I did just over 43 hours this week. I’ve never measured this before as my hours aren’t monitored, but I expect it’s fairly typical for me.

You might notice a lot of running in my schedule because I’m training for my first full marathon at the moment. With that and finishing off building work on our house I had a very busy week! But what is the point in having a flexible job if you don’t use it to achieve work-life balance?

I’d love to know what you think of my week – I find science to be a very varied career and I really enjoy it that way. One thing I’ve learned in this career is that time management is essential!

My Week in Review

Monday

8am, leave home to drive (on icy roads) to work.

I manage to have a good chat to a colleague this morning, which helps move some computational work forward. I also spend about 2 hours trawling through the non-urgent emails I’d ignored while out of office the previous week. The rest of my time is divided between reading papers, doing some python programming and making plots of some simulation data.

I have flexible working hours so I’m the one who has to rush home at midday to meet a delivery man – returning to work for 1pm and grabbing a quick lunch at my desk.

I get home at 5.30pm to spend the early evening cleaning our newly finished kitchen floor and removing old kitchen units, before heading to the gym for 6 miles of intervals on the treadmill and an hour weights class. Whew!

I just about manage dinner before falling asleep exhausted.

Summary: I have discovered the trick for super-productivity: write down everything you do! Not sure I’ll keep this up all week.

Emails: 20 sent, 33 received

Tuesday

7.45am, I get the bus to Oxford station then the train to Warrington Bank Quay.

Today I’m off on a rather last-minute trip to visit Daresbury Laboratory who are hosting a workshop on the LHeC. That is the Large Hadron electron Collider, a possible upgrade scenario to the LHC at CERN. I’m teaching some graduate students who are focusing on it for the next few months.

It’s a really useful meeting to attend, but I spend today travelling on buses, trains and taxis for more than 8 hours when I was only at the meeting for 4 hours! Unfortunately it had to be in person as I needed to chat to the design team to get their views on the students’ work.

I grab dinner on the train home (yuck!) and after traffic chaos because of the snow I arrive home at 9pm, exhausted again.

Summary: I got some writing done on the train and the meeting turned out to be very useful, so all that travelling was worth it.

Emails: 18 sent, 34 received

Wednesday

8am, leave for work, the drive takes twice as long as normal as it’s snowing (again!).

First thing, before coffee, I set up Skype and test it with a colleague in Switzerland. We have a meeting going through some programming one of my colleagues has done and discussing code development. We even manage to share our desktops so it’s like being in the same room. Amazing technology!

I then spend a couple of hours doing some admin: claiming back travel expenses, marking student work and making arrangements for the Oxford Literary Festival which I’m excited to be speaking at this year.

In the afternoon we have a networking coffee break with colleagues from ISIS, then I crack on with some research. This mostly entails trying to get some magnetic field data to work in an unruly simulation code.

I get home early at 5pm and in the evening we head out for Burns supper at a local pub with my PhD supervisor who happens to live nearby. So, half networking, half social!

Summary:It’s important to maintain networks and lines of communication as a scientist – today’s networking was helped by haggis and technology in equal parts!

Emails: 11 sent, 14 received

Thursday

8am. Today I choose to work from home as I have to meet a plumber who is finishing off our new kitchen sink.  I set up my laptop on the dining table and start work.

An hour into the day the news hits me that the Royal Institution is up for sale. As a keen supporter (and fairly regular speaker) I spend an hour or so getting involved in blogging and supporting the Ri. It’s the least I can do!

The rest of the day I discuss teaching with other lecturers, do some more work on the magnetic field data problem I’ve been working on, oversee the plumber who does a great job and get some shopping from the local market.

I then spend the evening doing a 6M run with my running club. I log back in to check twitter over dinner to see how the #savetheRi campaign is getting on.

Summary: A slightly less busy day than the previous three but I feel like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I need to!

Emails: 1 sent, 11 received

Friday

7.45am, leave for work.

Today starts with more email catch-up, following up on teaching and looking into travel arrangements for a conference in China in May. I then spend most of the morning continuing to draft a paper that I’m writing.

At lunchtime I go out for a 5M run with a friend at work which clears my head and puts me in a good mood to do some theoretical work and reading in the afternoon. I manage to consolidate some of the programming work I’ve been doing this week.

I arrive home at 5.30pm and spend most the evening preparing food for our Australia Day themed housewarming party on Saturday.

Summary: Finally it’s Friday and I can (almost) stop writing down everything I do!

Emails 22 sent, 29 received

Weekend:

After spending a lot of time doing house-related stuff during the week I find a quiet moment to catch up on some work for a few hours on Sunday afternoon after a 10 mile long run.

How did I record my time?

It wasn’t too arduous, I just set up a document on Google Drive I could access from anywhere and recorded what I was doing via my laptop or smartphone along with comments about it. You can see the whole document broken down into intricate detail.

Image: Suzie Sheehy giving a talk at the Royal Institution earlier this year.

About Suzie Sheehy

Suzie Sheehy is a researcher at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire. She is a Research Fellow with the Royal Commission for the Exhibition for 1851. Her research focuses on particle accelerators and their applications, ranging from medicine to energy. She has a decade of experience presenting talks and demonstrations to schools and the public, and blogs at High Heels in the Lab.

One Response to A week in the life of a particle accelerator designer

  1. “I’d love to know what you think of my week”

    You sure get a lot of emails. Just found this site due to twitter, looking forward to reading and learning.