Andrew James Princep, PhD

he/him/his

You can find him on Twitter: @AJPrincep

Education:

  • Curtin University of Technology, Bsc Nanotechnology (Hons), Graduated 2007
  • University of New South Wales @ADFA, PhD in Physics, 2012

Current Job Title: Keeley-Riutherford Junior Research Fellow in Physics

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I don’t remember what *first* got me interested in science, but one of the most definitive memories is being obsessed with the structure of diamond, which I found in my highschool physics textbook. I was also extremely excited by science fiction, and talk about the possibilities of Nanotechnology, particularly a famous talk by Feynman (“There’s plenty of room at the bottom”) and some influential ideas due to Eric Drexler. 

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

The most profoundly influential figure in my academic career was my 3rd year lecturer in Electromagnetism, who introduced me to a radical new way of approaching learning and aspiring to achievement. She went on to supervise me for a summer project, an honours (Australian equivalent of a Masters) project, and then my PhD. She left science due to her frustration with university policy and Australian research funding, but she is now an extremely successful ceramics artist.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

I had SEVERAL. 

I was homophobically bullied as an undergraduate – My friends and I took over the physics society and made it very clear that he wasn’t welcome in the department if he couldn’t be a better person.

 I constantly compared myself to one of my peers who seemed to be better than me in every possible way, but in the end I just sort of forged my own path and tried to focus more on what I wanted to do rather than how well i was doing things relative to any of my peers. 

When I finished my PhD I had a long period of doubt about whether to go for a job in academia or if I should go into industry, especially since jobs were very scarce in my field! In the end this decision was made for me when I was offered a postdoc position at Oxford university. 

The last, and certainly the most difficult was the profound feelings of depression and inadequacy when i was rejected from my first major round of fellowship applications. This was extremely challenging because i was sad for a very long time (i took some of the feedback very personally) and i lost a lot of my passion for physics. Eventually it was a combination of friends, mentors, life experience, and focussing on the things that made me happy outside of work that allowed me to return to normal. A couple of the things that helped were seeing some very inspiring talks, going to a conference and having invigorating chats with colleagues, and meeting some new people who had great ideas about academia. We all know academia is hard and full of rejection, but you can never truly anticipate just how hard it will hit you when the time comes, so a support network and a fulfilling life outside of work go an *incredibly* long way in this regard. 

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

I am not really sure what counts as a surprising twist or turn, in the end. Certainly one of the turns would be when I switched from being a Nanotech student to a Physicist (unofficially, and with suspicious, narrowed eyes from my incredibly accommodating course coordinator!).

After that, I think the most surprising thing that happened was my PhD supervisor was offered a job on the other side of the country 18 months into my PhD. In Australia, that means moving 2,500 miles! This was a huge change for me since it meant being impossibly far from my friends and family, and the cost of flights meant I couldn’t really go and visit them without assistance from my parents. It was a huge change for me, but in the end it was extremely rewarding – I learned to cook properly, and I learned that I have the ability to make a big group of new friends who are very dear to me even 8 years later. 

After that I think the biggest surprise (to me, at least) was getting offered a job at Oxford University. It seemed like a joke at the time, it was a university that seemed impossibly fancy and prestigious, when I had been a kid from a working class background and done my undergrad at a university that doesn’t even make it onto international lists! 

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

Most of the intermingling between my scientific and non-scientific interests is in the aspects of my work that involve outreach and activism. I give a lot of talks as an LGBT academic / physicist, and recently my passion for activism and social justice has led me to give some talks on the ethical dangers of misapplied machine learning techniques. 

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Never accept a PhD on a project that you aren’t super passionate about, and make sure it is with a supervisor and group that you get on fairly well with and feel would support you. Also it better be fully funded! 

It becomes more and more important the further into your career you get to consider how well an institution is suitable for you. Is it in a place you want to live, will they support your professional development, will they provide financial and material assistance to help your research and other work, are they collegial, and *very importantly*: Will the place eventually offer you a permanent job, or are they looking to get the credit for the most scientifically productive years of your career and then force you to move on? 

Also, be really seriously prepared for failure, setbacks, and disappointment. Experiments will fail, papers you submit will get critical feedback, jobs you apply for you wont get, and most of the grants you submit will be rejected. That is the nature of academia, and you must be able to endure this to continue – the best advice i have to help for this is to take a lot of enjoyment from hobbies outside of work, to always maintain a strong network of connections to friends and (if possible) family, to eat well, and to sleep plenty. 

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