Dr Del Atkinson: why academia?

By Amal VaidyaDel_Atkinson1

Last week Palatinate interviewed Dr Del Atkinson to discuss the experiences he has had throughout his career. Now a member of Durham’s Centre for Material Physics, Dr Atkinson graduated from the University of Liverpool where he studied geophysics, and continued into a PhD there researching applied magnetism. He has since worked in various academic and industrial roles, which include undertaking contracts for the MOD and working for British Aerospace, before joining Durham where he now teaches at undergraduate level and supervises level four research projects.

Dr Atkinson was keen to stress the differences between the environments of working in industry and academia. “In industry you work until five or six or whatever, then you go home for the weekend and forget about work… [In academia] you never stop working. I was up until 10pm last night [a Sunday] to finish something that had to be done by lunchtime today”

Dr Atkinson also mentioned the differences in the work itself. Whilst in industry the focus was much more on fulfilling contracts and a specific output, in academia he has much more freedom to research what he is interested in. This allows him to design and work upon his own projects: “It’s not a job, but I get paid to do it… it’s just stuff that I’m interested in doing.”

The greater autonomy Dr Atkinson enjoys in academia is also coupled with a chance to work with people who he described as better motivated and with similar interests to himself.

Even though academia may offer a better work environment, it generally comes with a pay cut. Dr Atkinson’s move was no different; he gave up a permanent industrial position to come to Durham for a temporary research contract, a position that came with a significant pay cut of twenty percent. His main reasoning for the change was that he wanted a more fulfilling career, but he also spoke about other incentives: working within a successful academic institution such as Durham affords you increased job security and a path to develop and get promoted.

The other major part of working in academia is teaching, and this is another part of the job which Dr Atkinson seems to really enjoy. He says that one of the most satisfying aspects of his job is seeing “the lights turning on as physics students become physicists” during the level four projects he supervises. He seems to take pride in their achievements; so much so that he keeps the project reports from those his has supervised on the office shelf with the rest of his own academic work.

Dr Atkinson can, however, see the potential issues arising from academics spending too much time teaching. “In some institutions, teaching pressure can have a negative effect on research… [In Durham] it’s genuine research lead teaching”.

Dr Atkinson, who currently focuses on magnetic nanostructures, has had experience working with a wide variety of applied topics from archaeological dating to touch screens that can detect how hard you press. As Dr Atkinson puts it: “I’m just interested in things, I pursue it if the time and resources are available”.

Photograph: Durham University


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