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Ask me anything: Chad Orzel

29 Apr 2020 Tushna Commissariat
Taken from the April 2020 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

For our new series of careers-advice articles, we talk to Chad Orzel, who is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College, US. He is also the author of four popular-science books, the latest being Breakfast with Einstein, which describes how quantum-mechanical phenomena show up in ordinary morning activities

Chad Orzel
(Courtesy: Kate Nepveu)

What skills do you use every day in your job?

I effectively have multiple jobs – including teaching, writing, administrative work and some research – so I tap into a range of skills gained from different parts of my education. Probably the most important skill across the board, though, is being somewhat obsessive about checking and rechecking things. The worst nightmare for a research scientist is to discover that your “big result” is actually just a statistical fluke, so you need as much confirming evidence as possible, in the form of different experiments or calculations that all arrive at the same conclusion.

That general approach turns out to be useful across all sorts of fields. When teaching a class, it’s good to have multiple ways of explaining the same thing, in case some students don’t follow the details of the first one you try. When writing it’s important to make sure that all your stories fit together into a coherent whole, and also that the colourful anecdote that perfectly illustrates some point is actually true. And when doing administrative work to support academic programmes and institutions, it’s important to cross-check all the numbers that justify a particular decision. So, with all my tasks, I spend a lot of time asking, “Is there another path to this same conclusion?” as a way of making sure that it’s the right thing to do.

More specifically speaking, one of the most useful skills I picked up from physics is the idea of doing quick order-of-magnitude estimates, to check whether it’s worth doing a more detailed investigation of any task. If your back-of-the-envelope numbers say you’re a factor of 100 away from having the resources you need, you shouldn’t waste any more time refining that estimate. The other absolutely essential “soft skill” is communication: having the confidence and ability to speak up in both small and large meetings, as well as clearly explaining what you’re doing (or want to do) is invaluable. No matter what line of work you end up in, you’ll always need to be able to convince other people to help you achieve your goals.

What do you like best and least about your job?

The absolute best moments come from teaching and writing – when something I said makes an idea click into place for a student or reader. It’s incredibly gratifying to see students light up when they finally get a tricky problem, or to hear from readers saying things like “I’ve heard about this topic before, but now it finally makes sense to me!” It’s an honour to be in a line of work where I get to do that on a somewhat regular basis.

I also like the variety of the job. Even when I’m teaching the same class for the fourth year in a row, there’s always some new twist, a new explanation that occurs to me on the fly, or a question that no previous student has asked. On the writing and research side, I get to pick whatever topics I want to pursue, so if I stumble across some new quirk of physics, I can go chasing down all the details of that topic in the lab or library, and usually get something out of it that I end up being able to use later.

My absolute least favourite thing in the world is grading. It’s just miserable, and I will invent elaborate ways to procrastinate on doing it, up to and including answering interview questions from physics magazines.

What do you know today that you wish you knew when you were starting out in your career?

My first few years as a faculty member, when people asked how I found the job, I would say “It’s a lot more work than it looked like from out in the classroom.” That’s still true, and something to keep in mind for anyone on the academic track: a one-hour lecture in a class takes the same amount of prep time as a one-hour seminar talk, but you’re expected to do 3–4 new class lectures per week, every week.

The other key advice I would offer is that basically every task you need to do, either for work or in life more generally, can expand to exceed the time available for doing it. It’s critically important to set boundaries, and make sure that you’re blocking out enough time to do each of the many things you’ll need to do, and not letting any one of them encroach on the time for the others. To make this a reality can involve some unexpected changes. I remain somewhat surprised that I’ve turned into a morning person. I do most of my writing between about 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., from when the kids get up to when I need to go to campus, because that’s a block of time when I know I can work uninterrupted.

I work hard to keep that block of time free and not spend it on any of my other tasks. That’s been essential to maintaining writing productivity despite having two school-age kids and expanding responsibilities at work. I don’t necessarily recommend waking before dawn as a path for everyone, but the general idea of finding a block of time for what you really need to do, and protecting that time against everything else, is critical.

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