A week in the life of an experimental physics postgraduate researcher

Hello! I’m Daisy Shearer and I am a third-year physics PhD candidate here at Surrey. My project is in the field of quantum technology, so I work primarily within the University’s Advanced Technology Insititute developing novel fabrication techniques to make nanodevices that utilise quantum physics and investigating the physics of the devices I make. 

My days are made up of various activities which include experiments, coding, data analysis, writing and reading papers.  As a postgraduate researcher, no day is the same. So, in this post, I’d like to take you on a week in my life and show you some of the things I get up to each day. 


My schedule for this week

This week I spent Monday working from home. Since the pandemic started, we have been encouraged to work from home as much as we can. I spent my time analysing some of the data I gathered last week as well as drafting a research paper we’re hoping to publish soon and getting up to date with newly published papers in my field. 

As a PhD student, all of my activities are research-based so I don’t have any taught classes. I find it easiest to work when I have a bit of structure to my days. I use a schedule and outlook calendar to impose this structure and make sure I don’t forget about any meetings! 


My office at home showing data analysis in python and origin

Tuesday was probably my busiest day this week. It was another day in the home office and my morning was filled with lots of data analysis and writing. I’m currently in the middle of drafting a scientific paper for publication based on some of my PhD research so this is currently a big focus of mine. 

In the afternoon, I had a tutorial for the graduate certificate in learning and teaching which I am doing alongside my PhD. It’s great that the university offers this course for PGRs and as I’m interested in teaching, it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. In our tutorial, we did a lot of reflecting on our teaching practice and how we can bring some of the ideas we’ve been encountering in the literature into the classroom. I really enjoy having the opportunity to talk to other PGRs and teaching staff in different departments and faculty to get lots of different perspectives on teaching and learning.  

Later on, I had a session with my specialist mentor who I get to see through Disabled Students’ Allowance. She helps me manage my disability and related challenges throughout my PhD. If you’d like to learn more about disability support as a PGR, I wrote about it in this blog post


A photo of the spintronics lab showing our superconducting magnet and various other laboratory equipment

I was in the spintronics laboratory on Wednesday. Our lab is in the ATI, and it houses a superconducting magnet that can reach magnetic fields of 7T as well as having full optical access. I was doing some low-temperature magnetoresistance measurements which are a standard technique in my field for characterising quantum wells. In this case, I was trying to get an experimental value for the effective mass of electrons in my devices. To do this, I had to cool my sample down to 5 kelvin which is pretty cold!  

I’m an experimental physicist at heart, so I always enjoy lab days and collecting data for my research project. I also got plenty of writing done while my experiments were running which was a bonus. 


The plasma focused ion beam

Thursday was another lab day, but this time I was using the plasma focused ion beam. This aspect of my research is where I make the devices that I test using techniques like magnetoresistance measurements. The FIB allows me to shoot high energy ions at the surface of my sample and either etch away material or build up a layer of material. Today I was etching and investigating how different elements interact with the surface of my quantum wells. Etching material away from my quantum well samples means that I can make interesting nanostructures such as quantum point contacts. I really enjoy the mixture of materials engineering and experimental physics that my PhD research allows me to do! 


My home office again but this time in full writing and reading mode. I’m using Overleaf to write a paper using LaTex as well as tracking literature I read in notion.

Back to working from home but this time I had a reading and writing day. I find that reading and writing are inextricably linked as scientific literature informs everything I write about in relation to my own research. I spent most of the day carrying on drafting the paper I was working on earlier in the week. Being able to communicate your work is such an important skill and I enjoy academic writing as well as communicating with a broader audience. 

Saturday and Sunday

My little garden

Speaking of communicating with people beyond the realms of academia, I spent Saturday volunteering as an ‘inspirer’ at Winchester Science Centre. Science outreach is one of my main hobbies and I haven’t been able to do any in-person outreach for over a year so it was great to get to talk to people in person now that I’m fully vaccinated. Explaining science to laypeople keeps me enthusiastic about my research and is a great skill to develop. 

Sundays are always a rest day for me so I spent some time with family and doing a bit of gardening. As I’ve written about before, maintaining a work-life balance is so important throughout your PhD! Taking time for myself was a great way to recharge before the week ahead. 

Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed seeing what I get up to in an average week.