View from the top: Advice from Professor Brian Cox

A portrait of Brian Cox looking directly at the camera.

6 July 2015 7 minute read

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QEPrize judge Professor Brian Cox took some time to talk to us about careers between all of his different roles.


Prof. Cox was inspired to become a physicist by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Now he’s inspired by the huge open questions in science and how we might answer them

“Every time I see an interesting new piece of research, it will catch my eye… If you look at my area, it’s very exciting. I have a sense that we’re on the brink of a revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics, and that revolution is being delivered in large part by the data we’re getting from space missions, like the Planck satellite, and other experiments resulting from engineering triumphs. The reason we have data is because of one of the great engineering triumphs of history: the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) is an astonishing machine… That’s what inspires me now - the fact that we can see exactly where the fundamental gaps in our understanding are. There are genuinely big, vast, gaping holes in our knowledge - and that’s inspiring.”He also admits that he’s “always been an armchair fan of engineering - particularly aerospace.” He saw engineering up close when while managing a cryogenic engineering project at the LHC, sections of which are colder than outer space. The team modified the cooling system so that small sections of it would be warm enough to install detectors. And he’s been inspired as a QEPrize judge: “One of the delights of moving out of my area of particle physics and across the sciences and engineering is that I get to see and learn what engineering is about… To get to interact with the best engineers in the world and to learn about the history and current frontiers of engineering is just wonderful. It couldn’t be more exciting because it’s a world that I’ve been able to glimpse before, but now I can sit at the heart of it and meet the world’s best engineers. I sit on a judging panel with them and give awards to the other world's best engineers. I can’t say how much I’ve enjoyed it.”


He’s able to explore a variety of areas but adds that it’s important to build the right skills before branching out

Prof. Cox chooses problems based on what he finds “exciting and interesting.” As a Royal Society Professor, he speaks to the public and politicians on a wide range of science issues. He is working on a long-term BBC documentary series and the Year of Code, aimed at encouraging young people to pursue coding. He is exploring the origins of life with the Cheltenham Science Festival, and the latest paper he published with colleagues at Manchester was on the esoteric physics of how cause and effect play out in quantum theory. And that’s in addition to his work on the LHC and his duties as a professor at the University of Manchester.He acknowledges that it is different earlier in a career: “It’s unusual that you’ll be able to say, I want to work in this specific area, on a specific problem, and then persuade a professor - it’s usually the other way around.” But he adds that this isn’t necessarily negative: “It’s a balance… you’re learning to be a researcher - or a scientist or a physicist or an engineer.” Building these skills in an early career starts with being open and interested: “You’ve got to be interested in the area you’re working in, but then again it’s all interesting! I can’t think of any piece of research that’s uninteresting because you don’t know what you're doing - you’re at the edge, at the border of the known and the unknown… Once you’ve accumulated skills and are building your career, then gradually change and adjust your focus.”


Being active and inquisitive in the search for a work environment is key

“When looking for jobs, or an institution, look very carefully at the management culture of that institution - its direction and its promotion structure. If you want to spend some time doing things like the QEPrize or public outreach, you can find out easily which institutions are open to that and value it and will promote you partly because of it. You can ask them; you can be active. Institutions are competing for the best people, so you can question them and make sure you’re in the right place.” Similarly, outside of academia: “You can see whether the corporate structure fits with what you want to do.”


Developing a vision for what you want to do can be difficult, but building a career needs balance between finishing hard work and knowing when to make a change

“It’s easy to say and harder to do. If you’re in a position where you’re not happy, then at that point it’s appropriate to change. I wouldn’t jump around for the sake of it, because obviously there are downsides. Realistically, if you want to build a career for yourself, you shouldn't be too eager to jump ship.”“You’ve got to balance these things. There is great value in focusing on something and making sure you finish it. This is one of the most important things you learn when you’re doing a PhD; it’s one of the first times that you finish something so difficult. Writing a thesis and defending it is probably the most difficult thing you have ever done, and arguably will ever do... You’ve got to finish things that you start. The other side to that is that if you’re in a position where you think, ‘This is definitely not what I want to do, it’s going nowhere, and I want to make a change,’ then that’s a valuable thing to do as long as you’re very honest with yourself and know you’re not just doing it to avoid a difficult 6 months.”


Make changes after big accomplishments to ensure that you are acting for the right reasons

“The time to change direction is, almost paradoxically, at the time of your greatest triumph; change from a position of strength. Otherwise, you might be deceiving yourself and just being a bit lazy. Don’t accidentally justify an easy path. When you think about it, you know when you’re taking the path of least resistance or doing something for the right reasons.”Even jumping between learning curves needs balance: “Learning curves are great! If I’m going into an area that I’ve not known much about, there’s this real exhilaration; an avalanche of new knowledge washes over when you go into a new area. There's also a need to balance that with becoming an expert and really contributing. Really finishing something takes focus.”


Being in control of your career requires clear vision but not necessarily a position of power

“Don’t feel powerless - because you’re not. It works for you if you’ve got a very clear vision of what you want to do. There are great opportunities for people who think about what they want to do, what kind of environment they want to work in, and who go to those organizations who provide that environment… Being in control of your own destiny doesn’t require you to be in a position of power first. It’s more about empowering: good employers and universities and research institutions respect people who know what they want and are clear about it. Take responsibility.”


Laser-focus in the short-term is necessary, but it should be balanced with periods of reflection and reorientation

“If you become totally focused on ‘How do I get there’- that’s probably not the way to be. It is the way to be in set time-frames. If you think, ‘I need to get this paper published, so this is how I’m going to do it’ - that’s good. You’ve got to do that. That’s called hard work and focus. But then, over your whole career, it’s better to take those breaths. Once you’ve achieved something and it's in the bank, then you say - what do I want to do now? I think that’s very important.”Modern scientific understanding rejects biological teleology, the idea that biology is geared toward final causes: “Evolution isn’t a march to odd complexity. It’s the same in careers. If you make quite responsible decisions, then you can sometimes find that you end up somewhere you never imagined.”


Don’t get trapped by tunnel-vision. You may end up somewhere you never expected

“I had no idea I’d end up doing the more public-facing things. Until about 6 or 7 years ago, I’d been doing particle physics 100% of the time. If you’d asked me then, I would’ve said I’d be running the physics department at Manchester or something like that... Actually - no! I’m doing something else."

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