Energy consultant: career case study

Energy consultant

What got you interested in physics?
My mum talked me into doing physics at university. I started off doing maths, philosophy and psychology at the University of Glasgow, but I changed to physics in my first year. She knew that I was interested in physics, because I enjoyed watching the Christmas Lectures and Horizon programmes about physics. I also read books about it, but I found maths easier at school. Physics didn’t quite fit together for me and it wasn’t my best subject.

What did you study at school and university?
I studied mainly sciences, maths and technical drawing (thinking man’s art) at school, although I had a typically broad Scottish education. I found it difficult to relate or link maths to physical problems, but I got a buzz from gaining a good mark in my first year physics exam, despite not finding it easy. This encouraged me to do physics to degree level, which included a year’s exchange at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. That year sold me on physics, because the classes were small and very well taught and the lecturers and students were very enthusiastic. Plus, any problems with the exchange system had been ironed out by the person who had been on the exchange the previous year.

I had an interest in plasma physics, especially the upper atmosphere and fusion, and particle physics and decided to do a PhD in one of these subjects. Particle physics was big at Glasgow and the influence of David Saxon was key to me choosing an experimental PhD in particle physics at the University of Liverpool, despite being more naturally drawn to theoretical physics.

What was your career progression?
Following my doctorate, I became a software engineer with Data Connection in London. After five years specialising in telecommunications, I found the work intellectually challenging, but I knew that something was missing. Also, this meant that I could return to Scotland, where I thought that the energy market and technology had exciting potential, especially the renewables sector. I had an interest in energy, had a feeling that it was a sector which would develop and found a job in a quango in the energy field. This organisation ran out of funding and I and a colleague decided to set up our own business as energy consultants. Our company has recently been merged into a larger company,, and we are in the process of establishing their energy division.

What job do you do now?
I am still working as an energy consultant, which involves giving advice to the public and private sector on how the energy markets work. This advice for the public sector can them help to develop and evaluate energy policy. While the private sector can use our advice to develop strategies to best exploit the energy market.

What does the work involve day to day?
The job involves forecasting the energy market considering different scenarios for the future development of the sector. This kind of modelling is something that physicists are good at, since we are good at dealing with uncertainties and how to make decisions in the light of those uncertainties. The core day to day work involves researching and writing reports or writing proposals to gain work. I also read other peoples’ reports for research purposes and a fair bit of time is taken up with the management of the company.

What benefits does the job provide?
The job has a good deal of variety, with every project being different, although this does mean that you can’t rest on your laurels. It is interesting and challenging and I am constantly learning new things. I like the fact that we help to influence policy makers to make decisions based on evidence and we clarify the debate. I feel that we are providing a public service in that these better informed decisions will impact on everyone’s future. The job also provides opportunities to earn a living wage!

What personal skills or aptitudes do you need for the job?
You need a high degree of numeracy and an ability to focus on the important things, while sifting through a lot of data. Time management and collaboration skills are essential. Communications skills are important, especially to explain complicated ideas in an understandable way. This is something physicists are not always good at, but I am lucky enough to work in a team with a good set of complementary skills. It’s useful to have the confidence to ask questions and to admit when you don’t know something. You gain the respect of people this way and it gives you a chance to drill a bit deeper into a subject.

What has been the highlight of your career?
Setting up the business in energy consultancy was the highlight. It was really exciting when enough money was coming in to pay ourselves a salary. Winning our first big project was a real buzz, but the realisation set in that the work had only just begun!

How does your physics training help you in that work?
A physics degree helps you to understand models and also the way that science works. It also gives you theoretical agility. The hard work it takes to understand the likes of Maxwell’s equations or relativity pays off when it suddenly clicks. It also helps you to develop an instinct for solving problems and it becomes easier to see through complex scenarios. An intuitive understanding of uncertainties is another useful result of studying physics. You also learn to think critically and to ask probing questions.

Physics training is special, because you are like a mathematician who likes getting their hands dirty (or getting occasional electric shocks) and like an engineer who knows the theory behind their work.

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