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2nd year grad school woes

  1. Nov 20, 2008 #1
    Is it normal to be bored of my research at the second year stage of a physics PhD? Or is this a sign that I should be looking elsewhere?

    I currently find my work (in theoretical physics) too much removed from real-world applications, and I have been thinking of making a switch to electrical engineering, which at least at the moment really excites me. The switch I am thinking about is not just within my university (which is certainly another possibility) but to a entirely new program at a new school where I will start over, take classes again, and be tortured by another set of qualifying exams.

    Some complications to consider:
    -1. I have no direct experience with research in electrical engineering, nor I have ever taken any courses in the subject. I don't worry whether I can "do it", but whether I have enough experience with it to know if I actually like it. In other words, I don't want to be posting here two years from now complaining about being bored with EE.
    0. Will an engineering PhD program take me seriously? I am worried about coming off as flaky -- not really knowing what I want, changing my mind constantly, no determination to stick to the plan. I don't view it this way, but I can see that someone else might. I view it as a genuine shift in my research interests, but perhaps partially motivated by the fact that...
    1. My school is very far away from home, family, friends and significant other -- I see them about twice a year. I have friends here, but it's not the same. Could something like this *cause* me to become bored of my research -- something along the lines of "why I am sitting all alone working on this mundane and esoteric problem when I could be with my friends and family and working on this mundane and esoteric problem?". Is it common for people to make career changes like this for geography?
    2. My current school is very prestigious, but at this point I feel that a main reason to stay is for this label. The quality of education is not obviously better than anywhere else. The school I am considering is well known -- at least locally -- but not necessarily one of the biggest and best engineering schools. I will be trading down, but will this really matter for my career in the long run? One thing that really worries me is having it look like I "failed out" at this school.

    Thank you so much for any insight you can give me.
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 20, 2008 #2


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    This is somewhat worrying. Of course, it may just mean that you're not cut out for academia, and that you should stick out your phd and then seek a "real" job.

    How are you even considering this if you haven't ever studied electrical engineering?! (I don't mean to offend, I'm just wondering).
    This is a different problem. I live far from my family and old friends, and a lot further from my gf, but this is just life, really. The latter is the hardest, but we still manage to see each other relatively often. As for living away from family: well, this is expected really, unless you live in the same city for your entire life. In my opinion, it just makes the time when you see your family more precious, in that you tend to not argue with them! As for old friends, again, this happens. As you go through life, you're bound to lose some friends and make new ones, even if you stay in the same place, but even more so if you travel around. I've got a lot of friends back "home" that I only really see at christmas, or some time over the summer, but again, it just makes you enjoy the time you spend with them when you can. I've also made a lot of friends here, so I think that is the key.

    If you decide to make the move, I don't think this would matter since you're planning on switching fields entirely. The main question people would ask, which may affect your career later on, is why it took you until the second year of grad school to realise that physics wasn't for you.
  4. Nov 20, 2008 #3
    I agree, but I wish you hadn't used the phrase "cut out for". It gives me a feeling of failure.
    In fact, the switch to engineering is motivated partly because, while I want to keep the door open for academia, I really think at the end of the day I probably want to work in the business world.

    Ok come to think of it, I understated the case. I have encountered many of the concepts involved in EE through my research, and briefly in some courses. But usually these ideas are only tangentially related to my work and there's no real room to delve in the engineering aspects. And of course, I have browsed through publications written by professors holding positions in an EE department.

    Is it really? I guess you have to leave the nest at some point, but my family is pretty close-knit -- and of course being in an LDR isn't easy.

    I see. Is it that uncommon for people to change their minds at this stage?
  5. Nov 20, 2008 #4


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    I didn't really mean the phrase "cut out for." I know people who knew pretty early on in their phd studies that they didn't want to continue in academia. It doesn't mean that they're not cut out for it, but that they just weren't right for it. They are by no means failures, and that's definitely not what I was trying to imply.

    Ok, so you're not entirely in the dark when it comes to EE. Have you spoken to your supervisor/advisor about this? Why not chat to someone in the EE department where you're at? These people are going to give far better advice than me!

    I think it is inevitable, but then different people have different views on life. Of course a long distance relationship is difficult, but I disagree with anyone that says it can't work. My gf lives in the US and I live in the UK, which is quite a long distance! I think you just get used to things, and we're both pretty happy, each doing our own thing career-wise, but still seeing each other as much as possible.

    I would think so. I don't have any stats, but I would imagine that most people, if switching fields, would do so between undergrad and grad studies.
  6. Nov 20, 2008 #5
    Thanks cristo for the help.

    I have definitely thought about this. But my advisor may not be very happy to hear that I don't enjoy his research anymore, so I can't and shouldn't talk to him. As for the EE here, yes, I probably should talk to someone. But I am afraid of word getting back to my advisor. This is a small place and everyone knows everyone.

    Wow, that puts my situation to shame. And we have gotten somewhat used to the situation too, but we talk and we see an opportunity for something more and we want it. We just can't get a handle on what the cost is.
    Last edited: Nov 21, 2008
  7. Nov 20, 2008 #6
    Try your hand at experimentalism. It's not exactly EE, but a lot more "real-world" than theory, of course. You should also know something about it since you were supposed to take labs in undergrad, right?
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