Dr Rachel Sparks, Physics and Astrophysics (2007)

Degree: BSc (Hons) Physics & Astrophysics (Keele University)
PhD Physics (Lancaster University)
Graduated: 2007 (PhD: 2012)
Emplyment: Research Fellow at Tomsk State University, Siberia (Russia)

Since graduating from Keele University with a BSc (Hons) 2:1 in Physics and Astrophysics, I worked within the NHS, assisting the integration from analog to digital systems in radiography. I then went on to study for my PhD at Lancaster University, in the area of molecular electronics. I completed my PhD in 2012 and moved to Adelaide in South Australia where I worked as the Executive Officer for the Centre for NanoScale Science and Technology at Flinders University. This management role was a new exciting challenge, which gave me the opportunity to work across many areas of science and also with local industry and government.

I am now working as a Research Fellow at Tomsk State University, in Siberia (Russia), studying a topic similar to my PhD, investigating potential molecular electronic devices.

Main responsibilities in current job

My current role is a research only position, this enables me to focus solely on exploring the theory behind molecular switches, with the eventual aim of creating a fully operational device that can be implemented into new technology. This job also allows me time to forge new collaborations with other research groups across the world and to attend conferences to present my work and meet like minded researchers.

Previously I have been involved in undergraduate teaching, I found this to be a rewarding experience and is definitely something I would like to do again in the future, once I have fully established my research career.

Which skills are important for your job?

Self motivation is a major factor in my job, there are no strict timetables or lectures to attend and you define your own working hours. The flexibility is a great thing but you have to enjoy what you do and be focussed enough to get the research done.

A background in physics is essential, including a BSc & PhD. For my current research the required components are a good understanding of computational physics, quantum mechanics and condensed matter theory. In the future I also hope to bring in some of my astrophysics knowledge to expand my research area.

To be successful in research you also need to be an excellent communicator in both written and oral forms. A key measure of achievement in research is your publication record, you have to be able to portray the research story and indicate why your research is current and exciting. This also applies to giving talks at conferences, you have to advertise yourself and your research, in order to gain exposure and future success.

Highlights of your job

The main highlight for me is being able to learn new exciting things everyday and to meet amazingly intelligent inspirational people (and get paid for it!!).

As I mentioned previously flexible hours are great, you should work when you mind is most functional but you do have to push yourself. And when you have a deadline, this can sometimes reach the extreme, in some cases sleep is not an option.

Travel – since I embarked on my PhD journey, I have seen more of the world than I ever thought I would. I have attended conferences all across Europe, in Japan, Australia and Russia. It also works in your favour if you work in different countries, this builds your network and enhances your research experience.

How did you find your job?

My current role as a research fellow was actually pure luck, we moved to Siberia because of my husband’s job at Tomsk State University and they actually arranged a meeting for me with my current supervisor, unaware that his research area is an extension of what I was studying for PhD. He offered me a position straight away.

In Australia I simply applied for the job via the university website but my PhD was more of a battle. I applied to several universities across the country and Lancaster came out on top, in terms of research subject, project funding and research group reputation.

It does get to a certain point in research where it seems to depend more on who you know and not necessarily what you know. That is why networking and attending conferences is an important part of the job.

Advice for people thinking of studying a PhD:

DO IT!!! It will be the most challenging thing you will ever do but it is totally worth it in the end and opens up so many doors for the future.