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Analysing Corporations ... and the Cosmos

Graham Smith

By the late 1990s, physics graduate Graham Smith had been in the business world for nearly 8 years as a management consultant. The work paid well, and he could take pride in his professional achievements. But he began to realise "that the business world was not going to get me out of bed for the next 20 years or so." So he decided to return to university to do a Ph.D. in astrophysics, a subject he had been interested in since his school days. He took an 80% pay cut, and he never looked back.

Smith now has a promising future in academic science; the skills he acquired in consultancy, he says, have come to good use. Business management and astrophysics may seem like very different fields, but both careers satisfy his craving to analyse complicated problems, what he calls "the technical animal in me." But a research career has provided a degree of fulfillment that his work in business couldn't match, "the enjoyment and satisfaction of always breaking new ground."

Studying Physics

Smith chose physics as his undergraduate major back in 1988 not because he "necessarily saw himself as a physicist" but because he felt physics training would keep open several other career options, such as IT, finance, and business. When he graduated from the University of Oxford in 1991, he considered doing a Ph.D. right away, a decision he still describes "as a close call."

In the end, two factors drew him into business. First was the difficulty of a career in academic science: securing funding and getting tenure. But he was also keen to acquire skills and experience beyond his scientific and technical ones. The academic role models he had encountered at Oxford didn't seem to have a worldly experience that he strived for; they had, "broadly speaking, been there, man and boy," he says. "I was basically curious about the outside world."

Entering the Business World

After conversations with senior student colleagues and family friends, Smith decided that management consultancy was a career that could combine the analytical and creative challenges he craved. But at the time, he says, it was difficult to go directly into business consultancy, at least outside the London area. So in August 1991, he joined Arthur Andersen as a trainee auditor in the northern U.K. city of Leeds. Auditing was never a long-term career goal, but, he says, "I was attracted to the idea of getting a professional qualification." Within 3 years, he had qualified as a chartered accountant.

When Smith joined Andersen as an auditor, the company had just opened a management consultancy division for their auditing clients; with 2 years of auditing experience under his belt, he jumped at the opportunity to work there. As a junior consultant, he worked with clients--mainly consumer-product companies--to address supply-chain-management issues. The job gave him the chance to "analys[e] complex business problems" and "develop solutions," he says. "Intellectually, it's a challenging activity." Watching his ideas being implemented was a "real thrill." "You’re training people how to do their jobs differently and having a real impact on their working lives. You see the fruits of your labours at a very practical level."

Economic Expectations

After 3 years of "really enjoyable" consultancy work, Smith moved on to a more senior role, in which selling the company's consultancy services to potential clients took up a larger fraction of his time. He was keen to get exposure to the company's bottom-line economic expectations and "to do something new; sell projects, learn new skills." But these new responsibilities meant that he "did a lot less analysis and worked much less closely with clients." The job's rewards diminished, and Smith felt he "didn't have the freedom to do things that I enjoyed." He has no aversion to a company's need to make profit, but "what started to wear was the harsh reality that all your day-to-day efforts are about making more profits. I think my mindset is too vocational for this to keep me satisfied for very long."

This reality, he says, spurred him "to do something different." He recalls midweek bar conversations with consultant colleagues in which he was asked, 'If you weren't doing consultancy, what would you like to do?' His answer: 'Astronomy.' Eight years after finishing an undergraduate degree, "I finally felt able to commit to doing a Ph.D."

Getting Back In

Smith did background research on astronomy programmes and spoke to the people in charge of graduate admissions to gauge his chances of getting in. Ian Smail, Smith's eventual advisor at the University of Durham, says that he was convinced after an interview that Smith would make a good graduate student. "Graham clearly had good time-management skills from his consultancy, and, importantly, he was motivated; he had to be [motivated], to be considering changing career." Roger Davies, who is now at Oxford, was also on that hiring panel. He says he expressed some concerns to Smail at the time. "I felt that he [Smith] has been out of physics for some time. I thought it could be a problem," he says. But Smail says he "wasn't concerned that he couldn't pick up the skills he would need."

Smith applied for 10 positions and was offered four; he accepted the one at Durham. His doctoral project was to investigate gravitational lensing by galaxy clusters--a phenomenon in which the mass of a cluster of galaxies acts as a lens deflecting light from a distant galaxy to a new location on the sky--using the Hubble telescope. The project, Smith says, "was a great Ph.D. opportunity. There was a lot of data available for me to analyse." He found his business experience a big advantage. "I had learnt how to organise myself. I was very focused. I wanted to prove myself."

Gravitational Lensing: A galaxy cluster (orange coloured elliptical galaxies) acts as a lens, deflecting light from a distant spiral galaxy to a three new locations: A, B and C, in the sky. Credit: The Massive Cluster Survey.

Changes and Surprises

Three years to the day after he started his Ph.D., Smith was starting his first postdoc. Was the Ph.D. experience what he had hoped for? "Yes; there weren't too many surprises. It was a lot of hard work, long hours, and travel. But I met lots of interesting people and learnt an enormous amount of new things."

And that 80% pay cut? "At Andersen, I didn’t have to think [about money] from month to month"; with his Ph.D. stipend, he did. Still, the change in lifestyle from the corporate world to grad school made his decreased income "surprisingly easy to adjust to. I didn’t go to the same expensive bars. My wardrobe was completely different."

In October 2002, Smith crossed the Atlantic to start a postdoc with Richard Ellis at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Having access to the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, says Smith, was "as good an opportunity as I could have hoped for." Three years later, he returned to the University of Birmingham to accept a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, which provides 10 years' worth of salary funding. The fellowship is an important step forward, but he isn't there yet.The fellowship "suggests that he is highly ranked" in the astronomy community, says Smail. "But, I think it is fair to say that he is still building his research reputation."

Future Plans

Smith plans to stay in academia. His current research interests are the nature of dark matter, the evolution of cosmic structures, and searching for the first generation of galaxies that formed after the big bang. At Birmingham, he is combining his gravitational-lensing skills with the x-ray analysis expertise in the university's astrophysics and space-research group. The combination will make for a powerful research strategy, Smith believes.

Smith is now at a stage in his academic career at which budgets and management issues come into play. Does this have parallels with aspects of his senior consultancy role at Andersen? "I still need to worry about money," says Smith. The difference now is that he does not have to bring in money because of profit targets but "because of my curiosity about how the universe works. That's a very different motivation."

Smith believes the skills and maturity he had starting his Ph.D. "were worth their weight in gold." Ellis, Smith's PI at Caltech, agrees. "His experience with Andersen helped him both in terms of scientific focus as well as professional organisation." Indeed, Ellis says he sees Smith as "a very interesting role model for those who go into the commercial world but get disillusioned and want to return to research. The transition is a tough one--the financial penalties are tremendous---but the benefits in satisfaction and freedom are considerable."

Anne Forde is Next Wave's European Editor, North and East.

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