One of the big perks of the academic career path is sabbatical -- a year or half-year without teaching, where you often travel to a different location and often focus on some big project or perhaps a totally new subject. My path to tenure was pretty quick PhD (5 yrs), post-doc (2 yrs), and assistant professor (6 yrs), but it was stressful and felt like a long slog.
Actually, let me be explicitly grateful to NYU, because my first year as an Assistant Professor I took a visiting position for the Spring semester to LAPP, a lab in the beautiful town of Annecy, France close to Geneva, Switzerland. That was right before the LHC started (and before the magnet incident that set us back a year and at a reduced energy of 7 TeV). During those months I focused entirely the ATLAS MissingET trigger and finishing the prototyping for the Higgs search (produced by Vector Boson Fusion and decaying to taus, the subject of my PECASE award). Basically, it was an extension of my post-doc research lifestyle. Three years later, I was able to take Goddard leave for one semester. I arranged with Nima Arkani-Hamed to be at the Institute for Advanced Study, which is unusual because it is a theorists paradise and there are essentially no particle physics experimentalists there. But, it was close to NYC, intellectually stimulating, and as Nima says in Particle Fever "you have no excuse not to think". Well, that's true if you aren't in the middle of the Higgs search in the spring of 2011, when we were preparing the results for summer conferences that would exclude most of the Higgs mass range, leaving only the small hole where we eventually discovered the Higgs. I ended up spending all of my time at the Institute in remote video conferences or dealing with the crisis of the day -- hardly a time to think.
Well it's a new year: we have discovered the Higgs, the LHC is currently in the last few months of a two-year shut down to upgrade to higher energies, I just graduated two students ( James Beacham and Sven Kreiss), and I just finished a two-year term as convener of the ATLAS Statistics Forum. I spent most of the early summer trying to clear my plate so that I can take advantage of my sabbatical. I arranged with my long-time friend and colleague Daniel Whiteson to visit the University of California-Irvine (UCI) for the year. Southern California is a huge departure from New York City, we are in a small house and I've replenished my vitamin-D level.
I feel like this is the most intellectual freedom that I've had since graduate school. Sure, I still have various responsibilities and on-going projects, but they seem manageable and I have some time to think.
I remember as a graduate student when I was trying to decide between theory and experiment and the conflict I felt between pursuing my more speculative ideas and my main research. It was a typical risk vs. reward trade off, I felt my main research was important and innovative, but it was relatively pedestrian compared to the idealized world where all my crazy ideas worked out. So either out of maturity or cowardice, I pushed the speculative ideas to the hobby-queue. I remember the strategy, or the excuse I made to myself, was that if I went on to get tenure that I would have time to develop these other ideas. However, I wasn't completely naive, I knew that there was a huge risk that I would never find the time or the courage, or that I would loose the creativity of my young mind.
The reality that followed is a bit of a hybrid. Definitely, the hobby-queue has received less and less attention as my career has progressed and family has grown. Many of my speculative ideas turned out to either be horribly flawed, or completely worked out 50 years ago. On the other hand, many of my best ideas have found their way into my mainstream research. And some of my most profound ideas are still gestating.
I see this sabbatical as a chance to finally give birth to some of those ideas. Just last week I gave an informal talk to a group of mathematicians, statisticians, machine learning researchers, and physicists bringing together various ideas I've had about Information Geometry in the context of physics. I've been thinking about that topic for years and even have had a paper mostly written for years. After that talk, I feel like I can finally take that initial paper to completion.
It's also a time for me to think about "What's Next?" both in terms of my research at the LHC, research in particle physics more broadly (i.e. other experiments), and in terms of my career (for instance, the relative weight I put on physics vs. statistics/data science).
I hope to blog a bit more during this time as well. So far it hasn't worked out that way, because I've actually been doing some work (and you have to apply for funding even when you are on sabbatical).
Meta-comment: So this post is a bit more like a diary entry that I had planned, but I'm sticking with this tone to contribute to the discussion going on around the academic career path. I've taken interest in this discussion recently for a few reasons. In the context of the ATLAS experiment, I'm constantly talking with students finishing their PhDs or post-docs that are facing a difficult academic job market asking themselves if it is worth it. Of course, there are a ton of blog posts and cartoons that mock the PhD → post-doc → un-tenured professor → tenured professor career path, and a few that provide thoughtful criticism. I also specifically think about this issue in my work with the Moore-Sloan Data Science Environment, which has a Career's working group tasked with the challenge of establishing a new academic discipline in an area that is experiencing enormous brain drain due to compelling opportunities in industry. But as I write this, the intellectual opportunity element is more compelling to me than the job market and career path issues. In particular, I find myself thinking about a close friend from my graduate school days that has written strong criticisms against the current academic environment as disincentivizing high-risk, high-reward thinking. He certainly has his points, but right now I'm enjoying and taking advantage of the opportunity my sabbatical has to offer.