Brain Drained

This post also at the Guardian. See also Chapter 7.5 of Smashing Physics.

On Saturday I went to a leaving party for Lily Asquith of LHCSound fame. Lily was one of our PhD students on the ATLAS experiment at the LHC. Having graduated, she is now heading off to a postdoc position (also on ATLAS) at Argonne National Lab in the US.

Whether this is part of a brain drain due to Labour’s STFC cuts followed by coalition doom-and-gloom, or just part of the normal give-and-take of international research, we shall see.

The party reminded me of the almost trance-like state in which I began my first job as a postdoctoral researcher.


“You see, this is what it is like in Chicago…”

I’d accepted a position with Penn State University. I had only a vague idea where this was, but that hardly seemed to matter, since they were a good university and wanted to pay me to live in Hamburg and do physics with the ZEUS experiment, which is what I wanted to do.

To get my J1 visa processed, I had to actually go to Penn State, however briefly. I was supposed to fly out a few days after the oral examination for my doctorate. Not wishing to take anything for granted, I had not booked my plane ticket, but was otherwise ready to go. My exam would be on the Thursday and I would fly out to the US the weekend after, assuming I passed.

Unfortunately, the Saturday before, my bag got stolen. In it were some brand-new M&S underpants, a very long scarf I had knitted myself, and my passport, including the J1 visa.

The pants were easy to replace, the scarf impossible (I had forgotten how to knit). The visa and passport could be replaced but it would be tricky, and would have to be quick.

The first half of the week was spent on trains, going to Manchester (parents, birth certificate) then Liverpool (passport office). I then popped back to Oxford for my exam. On the plus side, I didn’t have time to get nervous. I passed, although I still wince when I remember some of the things I got wrong. Rick Gaitskell then drove me to London. Friends in need, with cars, are great. Rick is a Professor at Brown University these days, working on Dark Matter searches. I hope he has a better car now.

I rushed to Grosvenor Square, and bounced off the US embassy because I had my travel bag with me. No bags. What to do? Eventually I remembered I was a member of the IoP, and sure enough those lovely people let me leave my bag with them. Back to Grosvenor Square. Visa, done. Travel agent. Ticket, done. Hurry.

On the tube, I looked at my tickets. They said Newark. Where the hell was that? I had asked for tickets to New York. The guy must have misheard! Newark could be on the west coast for all I knew!

Eventually I stopped palpitating. I can’t remember whether I asked a random tube traveller or at the airline check-in desk whether Newark was near New York, but either way, I was reassured. I barely remember the flight, but I do remember being rather spaced-out when my new employer met me out of immigration. So spaced-out that it took us more than a day to realise that when I had said “business” in reponse to the official’s question about my three-day visit, he had not spotted, or processed, the J1 visa which was the whole point of the trip, but had stamped a B1 in my pristine passport.

Anyway, I hope Lily’s journey turns out less fraught. She will hopefully write some guest posts for this blog as and when she can, on the experience of starting a first postdoc in a new country.

There’s probably some dramatic coming-of-age-as-a-researcher thing in here, but don’t hold your breath.


About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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3 Responses to Brain Drained

  1. Pingback: Notes from Chicago « Life and Physics

  2. Andrew Jaffe says:

    I’ve driven with Rick Gaitskell in his MG convertible in Northern California when we were both at Berkeley — that was a great car, especially for a drive along the coast!

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