"So, what do you study?", they ask. Oh dear. If only they knew that using this as a conversation starter would probably lead them into trouble. "Condensed Matter Physics", I reply, then pause to receive nods or some sign that they know what I'm talking about. Instead, I receive a blank face.
Ideally, I would explain the following. Condensed Matter Physics (CMP) aims to understand condensed states of matter like solids and liquids. They're "condensed" because their particles are close enough together that they interact strongly. Strong interactions can lead to incredible behaviour. For example, when liquid helium is cooled below 2.17 Kelvin (-271 °C), it becomes a superfluid which can climb out of its container; it appears to defy gravity! This is thanks to its particles moving together rather than bumping into each other. Now that's teamwork. Considering that much of our world consists of solids, including semiconductors used in all modern technology, developments in CMP influence our lives more than you might expect.
But that's not how I react to their blank face. Actually, I relate CMP to something more familiar: "Well, CMP is like Nanoscience. There's a lot of overlap between the two subjects." This gives me the nods I was looking for and leads to questions about the science of tiny things which I'm welcome to answer. I realise that this indirect approach isn't as helpful for CMP to become better known. Yet, I assure you, it's not out of laziness. It's just that I have a natural tendency to make conversations brief. Expressing myself in writing, on the other hand, feels more comfortable. I have more time to think, not rushed by the pace of the world. So, here's insight from my first semester as a postgraduate which I couldn't tell you with the same clarity in person.
I'm studying CMP in a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) based jointly in Bath and Bristol. CDTs admit students in cohorts of about a dozen per year, and I couldn't be happier with mine.
The cohort structure provides many opportunities for teamwork, although we haven't yet tried to defy gravity together. If I were in a conventional PhD without cohorts, I might worry about feeling isolated and alone. Sure, someone doing a conventional PhD may have a close-knit research group, but it's still not the same as being part of a student cohort like how undergraduate studies felt. Our cohort is well supported by approachable academics, too. In fact, our CDT coordinator has shown such patience in dealing with any of our problems, both academic and personal, that he's almost like our babysitter!
We get double the support because the CDT is a joint venture between Bath and Bristol. Both cities have their pros and cons. I prefer our office in Bristol because it's more spacious and has a better layout, but Bath does allow 24/7 access. As for access in Bristol... it's not as forgiving.
After 7:15 pm, Bristol's physics building has what I call a lockdown for undergraduates and first year CDT students. On one night, as I was leaving by 7 pm, I was surprised when my card wouldn't unlock any doors; I was locked inside my own physics department. Little did I know that on Fridays, lockdown happens earlier at 6 pm. In this situation, we're advised to call security. Too bad this was the one night when I didn't have my phone. Other escape plans also had problems. My last resort was to break an emergency exit door, but I was reluctant to make any alarms go off. Luckily, a senior faculty member eventually passed by. He mentioned that a few years ago, someone locked inside an upper level jumped out a window and broke a leg. Maybe he was spreading a rumour to scare me from getting locked inside again. Regardless, I was thankful that he let me out. In the weeks following, I pushed the CDT to give better access, and I hear that there's now a plan to delay lockdown back to 10 pm. Future CDT students: you're welcome.
My first semester involved plenty of new experiences, yet my next promises to be even better. As part of my CDT placement, I'll be doing research in the Netherlands for six weeks—I'm excited and scared at the same time! It's as far out of my comfort zone as I can imagine, but that's exactly what I need to become a better me. I won't be alone either as I'll have a project partner from my cohort who considers herself a loud introvert. We'll be partners in crime. If you liked reading this blog, follow us to the Netherlands where we're bound to find more trouble!
If you are interested in knowing more about the CDT in Condensed Matter Physics then please follow this link: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/physics/cdtcmp/