1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

24 years old and want to become a physicist? Too late?

  1. Dec 4, 2009 #1
    I went to Boston University. Have a BS in Economics. I don't want to go into insurance or business and want to go to physics. I took AP physics in highschool and got an A LOL. Is it too late for me to get procure a solid career in physics. I want to take it all the way (grad school, Ph.d etc). I like economics but it is not as interesting to me as physics. I was wondering whether with the pressures of life (family, financial etc) is it realistic to be able to do this. I'm will to go to school till my early 30's for this. I will need to basically re-educate to get a really solid foundation (except for math which I am pretty fluent in).

    Any stories, opinions, anecdotes, advice will be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks everyone,
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 4, 2009 #2
    No firsthand story, sorry. I went to college from age 18-22, and then straight to grad school (OK, I took one semester off because I graduated in 4.5 years, but whatever). However, I do know two grad students in my department who started grad school in their thirties. One, I believe, is in his late thirties and has a wife + 2 kids.

    As far as finances go, how much family do you have to support? An undergrad degree in physics means going to college, which means paying $$$. You already have the econ degree, so you could go to school half time and still graduate relatively quickly. Once you get into grad school, they start paying you. It's not much, but it's enough to support yourself. So if your wife works too, you can get through 5-6 years of grad school without accumulating any debt whatsoever.

    Anyway, that's more or less what I know. Hope this helps!
  4. Dec 4, 2009 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    One of my friends in grad school was 35: he got a bachelors in economics, and then an MBA, and then had a job for 10 years before he decided he hated that and wanted to be a physicist! He had to go to take undergrad courses to learn what he needed, and then he got into grad school and did fine.

    Another friend was in his 40s: he was an engineer at a local laboratory, decided he wanted to work in the R&D division, so arranged to get his PhD in physics and transferred departments at his job.

    So this is fine. Not the easiest route to take, but certainly doable if you're willing to put in the effort.

    You should keep in mind: grad school can take anywhere from 5-10 years, depending on what you do. And it doesn't pay very well! So that's a consideration.

    Ironically, I have always been a physics-nerd, but the last few years I started reading and enjoying economics! Now I can almost imagine myself going back to school for that. Almost!!

    Hope that helps!
  5. Dec 4, 2009 #4
    I have no family at the moment not even a gf lol

    thats why i'm trying to meticulously plan this because I almost got married a year ago and i'm glad I didn't. I want this real bad.

    my childhood hero was richard feynman and I read QED when I was 13 lol and had all my friends read it.

    anyways, I'm getting to see from what you guys are saying that it is possible. My dad was freaking out at me telling me it was 'too late'. He owns a business and wants me to run it :( which i'm too introverted to do honestly and just simply not interested.

    BTW if your into economics check out Paul Krugmans Blog on NY Times; i fully endorse it and if you know math you'll get his brilliant insight which always gives me a hardon (hehe).
    Last edited: Dec 4, 2009
  6. Dec 5, 2009 #5
    I'm in a similar position. I sort of randomly decided that I'd rather go to med school. So now I'm using my position as a grad student to take the premed prereqs for free (and hoping my advisor doesn't notice the organic chem book in my office). I figure by the time I get my physics PhD, I'll be just about ready to apply. I've found that a lot of people these days change careers.
  7. Dec 5, 2009 #6
    According to wikipedia Edward Witten did BS in history and he combined known string theories into a single M-theory which is a candidate for theory of everything.
    I think If any person's life isn't a function of somebody else's life i.e. his spouse or parents, then at any moment of his life he can take decision easily because his decision can only affect his life. But almost we all come to certain moment when we take decision based on scrutinizing the effects of the decisions on our near and dear ones' lives.
    So go ahead if your decision doesn't affect your beloved ones' lives or even it affects you don't care at all.
    You are still young to pursue Physics. 24 is nothing dude. You just began your life. Good luck.
  8. Dec 5, 2009 #7

    one of my best friends started with 24 and he is now 28 and
    is making his master in physics. Your question is very tough, because I don't
    know if it's wise to stop your current, practically finished education for
    a completely different path.

    Today physics is largely based on speed and gradings that holds for the
    majority of things you can do in physics (it's the same in engineering and math).
    In the 60/70's there were plenty of opportunities for physicists to leave physics (i.e. research) for several years for
    industrial work then return to research do their PhD
    or even become a professor. Indeed this is true for some of my professors
    and some nobel price winners like kroemer and veltman both theorists back then.
    But physics has become very specialised.

    Today that's different once you're out of the picture that's it, there's no return.

    Then I don't know if physics is really what you think it is, from the few things
    you are saying I guess that you are expecting a lot of particle physics and such.
    But in fact a lot of physics today is material science and there's a constantly growing
    field called biophysics.

    You also have to go through the disappointments (failed exams, probably bad gradings) it can happen.
    Another physicist friend of mine failed two major exams
    but he made it in the end.

    The question is: Is it worth for you to stop evolving in economics (which sounds very
    reasonable) and take the risk to pursue a completely new path.
    I think you're the only person who really can tell if it makes really sense, because
    if you hate your current job you will always say: Why didn't I try physics and now
    it's really to late (perhaps at 27 or something).

    Good luck
  9. Dec 5, 2009 #8
    its never too late. Also, never settlefor anything short of what you want. I know of people in their 40's who change their mind, go back to school, become something else and are happier.

    Go for it.

    The llama has spoken
  10. Dec 5, 2009 #9
    Thank you for taking the time to write me about my situation. All of you are really helping me navigate through this situation I find myself in.

    Can someone please explain 'speed and grading'?

    does that mean getting through classes with good grades fast? I don't understand.

    Governing dynamics in econ is cool and so is game theory but honestly physics has so much more of a HOLISTIC application to life (obviously subjective). It is literally studying the nature of reality as we know it; how can anything else compare?
  11. Dec 5, 2009 #10
    Of all the possible concerns, in my opinion being 24 is a non factor. More of a concern is that you want go all the way to a Ph.D. and it is possible you will go insane before then.
  12. Dec 5, 2009 #11
    I will go insane before then lol please explain.

    Is this path an intellectual ironman (insane triathlon)?

    I find the hyperbole very interesting but detail would be great lol
  13. Dec 5, 2009 #12
    Yes basically thats what I mean, its an intellectual triathlon. Depending on who you are, maybe you will love it. There may also be many days where you cry yourself to sleep because you have pushed yourself to the limit but failed to achieve what seems to be expected of you. It is amazing how completely majoring in physics can crush one's ego. In baseball, I've heard it said that the most important thing for a pitcher is how you recover from a tough game. This definately applies to physics. You will need to learn to get your ego destroyed, and then just keep on chugging.
  14. Dec 5, 2009 #13
    WOW well said. I understand exactly now. If you knew me you would know that I am not afraid to suffer (i'm also an endurance athlete). Thank you so much for the elaboration.
  15. Dec 5, 2009 #14
    It really depends on what you mean by a "physicist". If you want a tenured faculty position at a research university, then you probably aren't going to get it. The trouble with those is that there are so few of those, that you have only a one in six chance of landing one after you get your Ph.D., and if there is *anything* non-standard about your background, then you aren't getting one.

    If you have a looser definition of physicist, then it's possible. One thing that you might want to do is to familiarize yourself with the efforts to apply physics concepts to finance and economics (see Physica A and Physics Review E) for tons of these papers.
  16. Dec 5, 2009 #15
    I strongly agree with about half the things that Krugman says. Strongly disagree with the other half. Brilliantly insightful people can be wrong, and one problem with economics is that bad economics tends to cause a lot more damage than bad physics.
  17. Dec 5, 2009 #16
    I don't think it does really. What you quickly figure out is that it's hard to figure anything out so in physics you end up studying more and more about less and less until you end up learning everything about nothing.
  18. Dec 5, 2009 #17

    The thing about economics is it's really fluffy when it comes down to it. Speculation and opinions are constant, the RESULTS show credibility. How can we have such high expectations; we are only human after all.

    It is a social science that is governed by people: learned behaviors (psychology) and MOST importantly politics and the allocation of power and resources.

    In my opinion economics is much more humanistic than physics because of these things. Human nature governs economics. Human nature does NOT govern physics. Humans are not logical so mathematical predictions (like I did in university) aren't reliable.

    You like an economist like you like a politician; it's largely based on intuition.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2009
  19. Dec 5, 2009 #18
    Would you tell Einstein that?
    "The man of science is a poor philosopher". Please explain this to me.

    I hear you about figuring out anything new in physics is VERY difficult. To be original in anything would be right?

    holistic definition: emphasizing the organic or functional relation between parts and the whole

    physics definition: the science of matter and energy and their interactions

    You see no relationship between these two definitions?
  20. Dec 5, 2009 #19
    I just want to be doing something original. I'm checking out these papers ASAP thanks a lot for pointing me in this direction :))))
  21. Dec 6, 2009 #20
    I work in Wall Street. I don't think that economics is more that fluffy than physics. There are parts of economics that are really non-fluffy, and there are parts of physics are are really, really fluffy.

    Which can be quantified and understood through careful observation and scientific analysis. Also there is a philosophical belief that comes from Plato that statements about the physical world are more "real" than statements about politics and power and resources. Personally, I reject that view.

    One reason that finance and economics is amenable to physics analysis is that you've already quantified things into numbers.

    Human nature does not govern physics, but the interesting parts of physics are those that involve complex, non-linear systems in which it is very, very difficult or impossible to make mathematical predictions, and there are in fact systems where it can be mathematically shown that mathematical prediction is impossible (Lorenz chaos.)

    What you try to do with really complex systems like type two supernova or the early universe is to use mathematics to find the "basic essence" of what is going on. That's not very different from what can be done with economic and financial systems, and in fact, that's why Wall Street hires physics Ph.D.'s.

    Astrophysicists stare at a supernova and trying to figure out what are the important parts and the unimportant parts of the process. You then get an investment bank that takes that astrophysicist and tosses them at mortgage backed securities, where they do basically the same thing.

    So is physics. Mathematics is a means to develop physical initution, but it's not a substitute for it.
  22. Dec 6, 2009 #21
    Pretty much. You have to realize that Einstein (like Newton) came up with a lot of brilliant ideas, but he also came up with a lot of ideas that were just totally wrong. One reason you get your ego crushed in physics, is that people have this idea that if you are brilliant, then you can figure out everything, but nature sometimes has other ideas. You can be brilliant, but you can also be wrong.

    But that doesn't matter. In theoretical physics it's better to be wrong in interesting ways than right in boring ways.

    No. Being original and innovative is pretty easy. If you give me about an hour to think of new and original ideas about a topic that I've been thinking about, I can come up with about two dozen new ideas. That's the easy part. The hard and painful part is turning a new original idea into something useful. That takes months if not years.

    Creativity and innovation is important, but it's somewhat overrated. What you will be spending most of your time doing as a graduate student is staring at a computer screen or in a research library trying to get something to work. One reason I like working in a corporate environment is that it keeps me from being *too* creative and innovative. If I just sit around and think of new ideas, I get nothing done. What you have to learn to do is to take one or two of the hundred ideas that you get, and work to develop that one.

    I'm not sure what your point is.
  23. Dec 6, 2009 #22
    In sum, thanks to everyone that has offered their two cents. I have taken it all into consideration(twofish especially). Adieu
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2009
  24. Dec 8, 2009 #23
    Still breathing? Not senile yet? Yup, then I think you should be good.
  25. Dec 8, 2009 #24
    Yes, but that's Edward Witten.
  26. Dec 10, 2009 #25
    Too late? No! I started when I was 23, though I have 3 more semesters left to go for my BS. I think rather than hurting me, it has given me an advantage. Consistently I'm in the top of my class for grades & being able to solve the tough questions. Being older has given me more maturity & the realization that I simply have to do a bit better to prove myself. The problem many older students run into is having to work outside of school. I do as well, but certainly not full time. I also have a friend who is in his 30s who is very successful as well. So yeah, it's never too late. If someone tells you it is, prove them wrong.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook