Dr Sneha Malde

Dr Sneha Malde is a postdoctoral researcher in particle physics. We asked her a few questions about her career so far, her work and fellowships, and how she balances that with family life.

Had you always hoped to become a physicist?

No, not always. I decided I wanted to do a physics degree when I was about 15 – though I don’t think I got much further than “I like it, so I’ll study it!”. I went to a school that really encouraged you just to follow your interests. And it seemed like a good option in terms of career prospects, so I thought I ought to be able to make my parents happy!

I wasn’t one of those people who came in knowing that they wanted to do a PhD – I’m not sure I knew what a PhD was when I started my undergrad at Oxford. I did a research project in my third year and I hated it, so I thought that was that, I wouldn’t become a researcher. The project was in astrophysics but didn’t seem to involve any real data – it was just looking at different simulations, without any feeling for which one should have been better or comparing them to data. Then in my fourth year I studied particle physics and astrophysics courses because they interested me the most and I started to get an appreciation for what was going on.

I came to realise that particle physics was quite interesting – towards the end of the course they were talking about things that were happening now, and the person teaching me was involved in that research. By that point though I’d missed all the deadlines for applying for PhDs, and I thought I would give the family business a go, so I started to work for my father as a trainee accountant. But I began to feel that I wanted to go back to university and do some more physics – to be honest that idea was already half in my head by the time I graduated. So I applied for graduate school, though I still don’t think I really knew what I was letting myself in for! But I got a place.

I knew I wanted to work on an experiment that had data – the thought of doing simulation studies didn’t go down well with me. I was also concerned about working on hardware because I’d never taken to practical labs. So I came in with quite narrow parameters, but I still got a number of offers. My plan hadn’t really been to come back to Oxford but they made an offer that I could do whatever I wanted on a particular experiment. I felt I didn’t really know what anything meant – I don’t think you start your research career knowing everything there is to know – so I thought it would be great to have some time to figure that out and pick a thesis topic.

I’m not sure I even wanted to be a physicist during my PhD – it has just happened! I figured I would do it for as long as I liked it, and I’m still enjoying it, so I’m still here.

What do your career aspirations look like now?

When I started my second year of postdoctoral research, working on LHCb, I felt like I really wanted to carry on and make a successful career out of it. I had applied for fellowships before this, but at that point it became a more serious activity. The word ‘fellowship’ doesn’t really define a particular thing. The type that I applied for are independent fellowships, meaning that you get to study the research of your choice. You are probably part of someone’s research group but they can’t levy orders at you. You bring your own salary into the department, and you often get some research expenses or travel expenses as a bonus, which means that you can go to more conferences than your regular postdoc.

I applied for a number of fellowships and didn’t get them. I faced a fair amount of rejection – perhaps more than people were expecting to see for me. But part of it is a lottery. For example, one year I applied for an STFC postdoctoral fellowship, and I spent two months of my life writing the best proposal I could, then one month after the submission they turned round and said they weren’t going to award any due to budget cuts. In fact I failed the first six times I applied for fellowships.

Over the last two years, that feeling that I want to make a career out of this has become tempered by reality and the notion that it could very easily not work out. In fact, I have turned down a permanent post because it wasn’t going to work for my family. That was a very difficult decision to make. It was something that I had been working towards single-mindedly for years, and I got the job offer, and I realised that I couldn’t take it. I have a husband with a career, and his career has in all honesty been on the back burner for about four years. My offer of a permanent post came at the same time as his major promotion that required a move in a different direction. And we just decided that his was the better opportunity for us as a family. It seemed to work out fine, though I thought it was probably the end of my career as a physicist.

I didn’t do anything for a long time, because I thought that was that, that was the end of that. Then I applied for another fellowship, and I applied for it to be held at Cambridge, where my husband needed to move to. This application was probably a bit desperate – I really went for it. And I got it. It’s funny how life works out. My husband’s promotion got changed into something else that meant that we didn’t have to move to Cambridge. I didn’t want to have to move – I’d been so well supported here in Oxford. I was part of a large cohesive research group and found it difficult to believe that I would find that elsewhere. The benefits of some fellowships are that the funding is attached to you and moving it to another institute can be relatively easy, so we stayed in Oxford and I’m still really happy here.

Can you tell us a bit more about your fellowship?

I have started a Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship with the Royal Society, which gives me five years. It’s not quite permanent, but maybe in five years I won’t want to do this anyway! I’m not averse to going elsewhere should a position come up and it work for my family, but increasingly it’s quite limited as to where we could go. In many ways, the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship has been much better than taking on a lectureship because instead of going straight into hardcore undergraduate teaching, I still have a number of years in which I can do the research that I want to. I can teach as much as I want to and although I don’t at the moment, I could do in the future. The Royal Society fellowships are viewed as extremely prestigious. Getting one is extremely competitive, and there is also an element of luck. I got mine on my second attempt at applying to the Royal Society.

A fellowship means you have independent money, a grant that you have won yourself and that gives you a bit more autonomy within the department than a postdoc who may have been hired to do a very specific project. You are still tied to whatever the constraints of the grant are. Some are viewed as junior fellowships, which would lead into senior fellowships, and some that are senior or advanced, which are expected to lead into a permanent post. I have one of the latter ones.

What would you say has been the high point of your career so far?

I think there have been quite a lot! I quite like giving conference talks about results that are mine. There isn’t one that stands out in particular, because they all took a lot of work! I really like doing that, because it’s a nice way to see what you have achieved.

On a day-to-day basis, what do you most enjoy about your work?

Every day is quite different, I’m juggling so many activities at the moment. I do really like that aspect of it. That’s one of the things that told me that accountancy wasn’t for me, because, for me at least, the first time you do something it’s interesting and the second time it’s not. In my job it’s always new – the data is new or the problem is new, even though the context might be similar. I like working with people, and I get to do that in a large collaboration. Sometimes that isn’t fun, but most of the time it is.

I think I always have my sights set on the bigger goal because there are many day-to-day aspects of the job that I don’t get a lot of pleasure out of – coding something or making LaTeX do exactly what it is that I want it to do! But I do like seeing the end product. Sometimes if I write something particularly clever, or do something in a really efficient way then I am pretty proud of myself, and I do enjoy it, but making my code run ten percent faster doesn’t really do it for me.

How do you balance your work with your family life?

Not very well is the honest answer! I have a son who is three. I work a lower number of hours now than I did before I had him. I’m full time, not part time, I just work normal full-time hours rather than academics’ hours! That’s not to say that every so often I don’t have to work at the weekend or in an evening, but I try to only do that when necessary. I am in some ways lucky that I have a child who doesn’t sleep, which means I get to see him in the evening. I probably don’t do anything else for me really now. My time is for my family or for my job, and I guess my job is now what I do for fun and for a break!

Has it been difficult starting a family while holding down postdoc research jobs?

Yes. I think combining short term contracts with trying to start a family is some sort of cruel joke. It’s really hard because there’s no right time to fall pregnant and no guarantee it will happen. When I became pregnant it became clear that if I took six months maternity leave, that took me to the end of my contract. So essentially it meant that was six months of my job that I wasn’t going to get back, and that when I left for maternity leave, there was no guarantee that I would have anything to come back to. Obviously the right things were said – they would try to extend my contract – but there was no guarantee. The only comfort was that my position was funded by the consolidated grant so we had some idea that the funding would likely continue.

Once I had my son, my mobility totally dropped. For example, the things I needed to be working on to move forward in my career were things like visibility. It was clear that I had done a high profile analysis, I was firing on all cylinders, but what I didn’t have was visibility within the collaboration or at CERN, or internationally. Once you have a child, even if you come back to work, it isn’t easy to find a way to head off to CERN for a week here and a week there. That was one of the reasons I applied for the L’Oréal UNESCO women in science fellowship. It’s a totally different kind of fellowship in that they didn’t pay my salary, but they did give me money to use in any way I wanted. It was a very flexible scheme. In my application I said that I was going to use it to travel with my child and a carer. That’s a hugely expensive thing to do, but we did it a couple of times.

What you don’t realise as a first time mother is how much things change. As he became a toddler, it became difficult to take him anywhere. I don’t have a nanny, so I was relying on my parents and it was too much effort for them to look after him in a foreign place. But that also coincided with him coming to an age where he was alright to be left for one or two nights. So I did a couple of really expensive trips to CERN where I would fly out one morning and come back the next night so I wasn’t away for very long, but I managed to do what I needed to at CERN. I could do those trips much more often than I think would have been reasonable on my experiment’s UK budget. So I think it is necessary to help women re-establish themselves after they come back.

If I compare my experience to my friends’ experiences when they went on maternity leave, their worry was ‘Is my job still going to be there when I get back? Am I going to be dismissed unfairly? Will I have to hire an employment lawyer?’ I think as a postdoc working for the public sector, you feel more secure within the law, but short term contracts mean that you are more likely to be concerned about a severance that is going to happen regardless of your pregnancy status, simply because a grant runs out of money. But the other big problem is that the field moves on in the time you aren’t working, which means that if you are working on something competitive, then maybe someone else is going to come in and take your spot, and there’s no real way to stop that.

It’s also very hard to appoint someone for maternity leave cover, especially if you’re doing something highly specialised. Someone might be able to fill in for part of your role. For example a student who is about to finish can be hired as a short term postdoc to cover some of your responsibilities, but probably isn’t going to drive your research forwards. I think having a child as a postdoc is really difficult. But at the same time, people are getting permanent positions later and later, so unless you really luck out and get one of these fellowships early or something, then it’s always going to be tough.

Is there anything you think needs to change? What should be done differently?

Since I came back, the university has started a grant you can apply for if you have been on leave. That’s quite a good thing, because I think someone could use that to do the type of thing I was doing with the L’Oréal UNESCO fellowship.

Subsidised childcare would also make a very big difference. For me a second child is out of the question. I can’t have two children in full time care because that would be my entire salary. I have a reasonable salary, but the fact is that childcare costs a lot of money. If you are in full time work, you should be able to tax-deduct full time childcare from your salary. I can do so at the moment, because I’m on the university scheme, but it was a two year waiting list to get onto the scheme. That’s what makes things affordable for me at the moment actually. Although I’ve benefitted from the scheme, you can imagine that a postdoc coming in to Oxford would have to spend two years on the waiting list and then may well be towards the end of their contract and never benefit from the policy. I don’t know the ins and outs of the University’s constraints and so on, but I think there is something going wrong if I as a member of staff can get a discount that is worth a lot of money to me, when another member of staff that is also a postdoc at the university can’t, and someone else can be benefitting even more because they’ve managed to get a place in a university nursery and are a higher rate taxpayer.

Is there anything in your career you would do differently if you could do it again?

I think I would have asked for more help earlier in the process. It’s not that people aren’t doing their best for you, but they aren’t mind readers and may not realise what you are struggling with. Often people are more than happy to help, but sometimes need to be told how. My PhD supervisor was wonderful but if I’d told him earlier about the things I was struggling with, we could have stopped things escalating to the point where I had ‘I hate my PhD!’ moments! He just hadn’t realised the despair I was feeling and the whole situation snowballed more than was necessary.

I also would have put myself forward for things a lot more, like putting myself forward for prizes a lot earlier. It might not have changed anything, of course, but maybe I didn’t realise you sometimes have to push people to do things like nominate you.

I perhaps didn’t realise the things I was good at early on. I think I’m quite good at reading people and I’m quite good at getting what I want out of people. I have a management position on LHCb at the moment, and it’s something I enjoy.

What does that role involve?

The physics of LHCb is divided into nine working groups and I am one of two conveners for one of them. There’s the organisational aspect, organising and chairing biweekly meetings and so on, but that’s really not actually a big thing. It’s the kind of stuff you can do just before you go to bed! The things I find interesting are shepherding an analysis through, and reviewing analyses. It’s been good to see how other people do their analyses. I think I’ve picked up a few tips and techniques, but also I feel like I’m making a difference because I’m making things better as a whole.

There’s also an aspect which is management of resources. I have to sign off big computing requests and so on, and steer people as to what they can do with our resources. I’ve had a lot of involvement with students from around the world. I hope in some cases I’ve given them good advice and that’s a nice feeling – to feel that you’re passing something on. And then there’s just making sure in general that people are on the right track.

There are things that can be a bit stressful. You are managing certain aspects of people’s work, but you aren’t their boss. They are entitled to do what they want, and I can’t issue orders. So sometimes convincing them to come round to your way of seeing something can be difficult. That’s been a challenge, but also a really good learning experience.

I know this role is only going to be for two years, and I’m pleased to say it has a huge physics element to it. I’ve learned so much physics and gained so much perspective on what the field should be doing and how things work. I’ve seen how other people run their groups, and seen how I would and wouldn’t want to run a group eventually. So it’s been a massive learning experience for me. I am looking forward to the end of it and getting back to having a bit of time, but I’ve also enjoyed solving the problems that I’ve had to solve. I’ve realised that I often can come up with a solution that leaves everybody happy, or at least causes the least amount of upset. I think it’s something that’s brought a different dimension to my job, and it’s been nice to have that for a while as well.

Can you explain your work for us?

A typical LHCb event fully reconstructed during data taking on May 9th 2016. Particles identified as pions, kaon, etc. are shown in different colours. Credit: CERN We have a universe that is made out of matter. We have a standard model of particle physics that tells you what the particles in the universe are and what their interactions are, and it says that matter and anti-matter are almost the same and should be created equally. In the lab, this is what we see, more or less, but this is not what we find in the universe. So I am faced with the universe in which I live being inconsistent with our best theory. What I want to do with my research is find the missing clue. What do you have to add to our theory to end up with the universe we live in?

I am doing that by analysing data from LHCb, looking at plots with lots of events in them and comparing different signals. I just want to see evidence in the lab that something’s wrong with the theory because we’ve not done that yet. We have it on the grand scale of the universe but not in the laboratory. I count the number of particles and antiparticles in a sophisticated way and make precision measurements. I think it will be about ten years until we are at the precision where we would see something. I hold out hope that there is an answer to why the theory is wonderful and yet not wonderful at the same time, but I have no idea where the answer is going to come from. Nevertheless I think I’m looking in a place where I might find it.

Doing research is a brave endeavour. You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know where it’s going to be found, you don’t know if it’s going to be found. It may not be in your lifetime. What can be harder about this type of fundamental research is justifying that kind of science to funding bodies or the taxpayer! Especially when there is so much other important research going on that is perhaps a bit easier to understand and has more direct consequences for society.

Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to young women considering a career in physics, what would it be?

Do something that interests you. Don’t feel like you have to do the high profile thing, if you want to do something that is slow and steady and for the long haul, then go after it. There are loads of things in research that aren’t nice, that aren’t fun, and that are stressful, and the salary is good but it’s not brilliant. If you’re going to put up with all of that, then you should have something that you really want to do, and try and focus on that. If you can do that and show enthusiasm for that, there’s a good chance that the rest of the career may fall out around. There’s no guarantee, and I don’t want to be the one saying just work hard and it will work out, because it might not happen, but you should be able to look back on whatever time you’ve had in research and think that it was time well spent.