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A depressing story/considering ALL options

  1. Jun 22, 2014 #1
    Hi all,

    This is, for me at least, a devastating story, but I might try to re-build my life in my early thirties and possibly go back to physics after more than 12 years out.

    I got into one of England's best--and indeed, world's best--universities to study physics way back in the halcyon days of 1999. I never really wanted to go to England, but it was by far the best school I secured a place at; the peers who I admired from high school got in to Ivy league schools and the like and I didn't want to be in the US if not at an equal university.

    My first year was great: like the other English universities, it's meant to be a filter year, and I did really well, especially on the mechanics course and Math methods (they're fairly specialised at an early stage over there). That was pretty consistent with high school.

    Then came my second year. This was a perfect storm. A combination of what I could only describe as ridiculous family bulling--I ended up living with a semi-alcoholic relative, not being able to afford a place of my own--and my own loss of stamina, not to mention interest in "extra-curricular" activities (drinking, etc) meant that I barely scraped through with passing these courses. This quickly snowballed into the third year; I was severely, unbelievably depressed and in the end, I barely got a degree after three years. So I was 20 years old with a fairly useless BSc in Physics, albeit from a spankingly good school. The trouble is, it took me a while to figure out just how useless my degree was.

    Basically, I was a fairly cocky kid and I managed to talk myself into all sorts of jobs, sometimes jobs I had the flimsiest qualifications for. I'm not saying I didn't have fun: I actually did some amazing jobs that other people would have counted themselves lucky to have. Over time, I also got a graduate certificate in Analytical Chemistry from night school. Although it was something I did almost casually, this was important--I managed to get on to a master's degree programme in applied physics. It was kind of a research methods course, and it gave me the chance to do a project with some funky imaging applications.

    The main reason I did a master's in physics was to convince myself that I could, and that my underperformance during the BSc days was out of my own volition. This kind of backfired. Since completing a master's six years ago, I can't stop thinking back to how much I would have loved to work that hard during my undergraduate days. It goes without saying that in the intervening 12 years, I have actually learned what it means to have a work ethic. Today, and for the past year in particular, I have this nagging feeling that I wake up with every morning. I keep wondering how I allowed myself to mess up so bad, when I could have dug my heels in and transferred to another school or switched majors, or whatever. Hindsight is, of course, 20/20.

    What I'm considering doing at the moment is going straight back to get a whole new undergraduate degree. I should probably be able to start this in the Fall, with some courses taken during the evening at my local university. I would love to be able to take those courses and transfer them, possibly with the help of GREs or something, to a better ranking university, and from there continue with a whole new BSc.

    I have a couple of questions here:

    1. If I manage to get a BSc in physics in my mid-30s, how likely is it that a graduate school would look at an application from me?
    2. I've been trying to find places that allow students to study for a second baccalaureate degree. They seem few and far between, but any suggestions are more than welcome.
    3. For those of you who are academics in physics departments: what else can I do at this stage to make things better?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 22, 2014 #2
    Just to clarify: Are you trying to get a second bachelor's degree in physics, after having completed a bachelor's and master's in physics? I don't think you'd be allowed to take another bachelor's in physics just because you didn't do as well as you'd have liked on your first one. Also, if you did well on your master's degree, then in a sense you have already redeemed yourself for the poor work you did in your bachelor's program. In fact, you should be qualified to apply to PhD programs right now. Everyone has regrets, but there's no point in trying to repeat the past to make up for the mistakes you did in the past. A much healthier attitude is to move forward in the present and re-invent a better future for yourself.
  4. Jun 22, 2014 #3
    To be fair, repeating a BSc in the same subject sounds like a waste of time to me. Why not pick up another Master's degree? It'll cost roughly the same and take much less time. If you do well in your MSc, then nobody cares about your BSc degree's results.
  5. Jun 22, 2014 #4


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    It's not clear how a 'fairly useless' BSc in Physics can now be magically transformed by taking a Master's degree in the same subject.

    Also, how many degrees do you currently have? Your original post rambles around quite a bit.

    Do you consider the Physics degree useless because you weren't able to get a job as a physicist or because of some other reason?

    I'm not aware of any reputable institution which allows for degree mulligans. If you've got the degree, that's what matters. If you picked the wrong subject to study in the first place, no amount of 'do overs' is going to fix that.
  6. Jun 22, 2014 #5
    By the simple fact that a lot of jobs (in Physics) require a Master's degree as a minimum entry requirement.
  7. Jun 22, 2014 #6
    I think this is a sign of poor mental health. Rather than an issue with your degrees, your issue is a lack of ability to cope with and manage the inevitable hurdles and failures that life has in store for all of us. I think you should move on rather than back. Mental health counseling is probably in order. Nothing you do now can turn back the clock, thinking that way will never get you anywhere good. Life is filled with diverse options, don't pigeon hole yourself into the same old idea for years and years.

    I do understand a bit where you are coming from. I wanted to do a PhD, but could only complete up to a masters. Its depressing, its hard not to think about the past and the lack of opportunities and recognition of hard work sucks. I think I have done the right thing in that I am moving on, taking my experience with physics as a life experience and exploring new directions. Right now I am studying engineering and applying to all sorts of different jobs. Life is too short to let regret consume you.
  8. Jun 22, 2014 #7


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    Yet, the OP was apparently able to gain employment(s) of some kind, if you decipher his post.
  9. Jun 22, 2014 #8
    Thank you so much to the people who replied. I have been able to get a lot of very different jobs, but these have been in fields totally unrelated to physics.

    About the uselessness of degrees: I guess basically I just wasted a three-year opportunity. I could, I imagine, find a place to take me in as an MSc student, and try to take it from there, again, but one thing which bothers me is that there is a lot of stuff which I never learned properly the first time around. For example, statistical mechanics.

    Also, I want to apologise for the "rambling" nature of my original post: this is a function of the way in which I still, after all these years, find it difficult to speak about my undergraduate experience. It has caused me no shortage of anguish, grief and down-right self-hatred.

    Finally, about the wrong choice of degree: I actually wish that I believed that. Truth is, there are very few other things I wanted to be in life than a physicist.
  10. Jun 22, 2014 #9
    Many thanks. I'd be curious to know: supposing I did find a university which took me on as an undergraduate for a second baccalaureate degree. This would probably be an institution nowhere near as good as where I went the first time, I'm guessing--but the internet does turn up some interesting results.

    Let's say I applied to doctoral programmes in my mid-thirties, with good GREs and a better GPA, but the doctoral program noticed that I had had these two BSc degrees. How would that work out, do you think?
  11. Jun 22, 2014 #10
    This is also an interesting trajectory. How and where did you get into engineering? Did you go back for a BEng or straight into an MSc? Thank you so much for your thoughtful post; I really appreciate it.

    I have indeed considered therapy for a long time no, but this is actually much easier for me, to speak anonymously on the internet.
  12. Jun 22, 2014 #11
    I'm sure this is easier, but that is not necessarily better. I think you can appreciate the difference. There is a stigma in society about it for sure, and that keeps people from going when they should. Seeing a mental health counselor doesn't mean you are crazy. Like physical health, everybody has their ups and downs with mental health and like an occasional visit to the doctor a visit to a mental health counselor is a great form of maintenance for your mental health.

    I originally got into engineering because I wanted to apply for some internships that required the applicant to be a student. I choose electrical engineering BS because it seemed like an area that my physics education and research might give me a head start in. I'm still working on it now with about 2 or 3 years left to go, depending on if I can get an internship or not.

    Keep your mind open to other options and try not to let your regret consume you. Easier said than done, I know. But conscious awareness of this conflict is the first step towards subconscious peace with your life path.
  13. Jun 23, 2014 #12
    I wouldn't say anything about "magical transformations": having put myself through the works for this, I am actually now sitting here contemplating going back to do an undergrad when most of my peers are beginning their second postdoc position. It's not nice, but it might be the only I have left to salvage what I thought I would be.

    If I thought a second Master's would help, I would have gone that route. I could also switch fields: I have loads of experience in writing jobs and some IT skills, and so there are a lot of other things I might do, but I actually really like physics. I was a stupid kid for about 1.5 years of my life, and don't want that to just sink me forever. I also don't want to keep this regret into my 50s, I want to get this out of the way.

    About degrees: I have the BSc, and a Postgrad Cert in Chemistry, which I only took in order to apply for a Master's in physics at another institution. Now, there I did well, and got a Merit.

    Again, thanks for all of your insight. I actually do appreciate it, despite how tough it is.
  14. Jun 23, 2014 #13
    I have been biting my tongue, but have to ask why you think that science might be the best career for you? I don't mean that in a derogatory way, but it seems that you gain a lot of pleasure from doing other kind of work and personality is a very important factor. I LOVE physics but could never have considered it as a job. Perhaps something related but equally fast moving and people orientated might be considered too?
  15. Jun 23, 2014 #14
    I think your problem is you seem to be trying to keep up with the jones. You said you only went to the school out of the states because your friends got into ivy leagues. Now you're talking about your peers that are doing postdocs. You can't keep living in the shadow of others. Step out and make your own way. In my opinion it makes zero sense to go and get another bachelors in physics when you already have one and a masters. I think you should just get a masters in a field you're good at and have experience in. Not only will it be easier end less expensive but it will compliment your skills. That's my $.02
  16. Jun 23, 2014 #15
    You make a very good point, and it would probably be easier for me to find work in another field than in physics or science more generally. As in, even if I were to become a physicist, I would only ever be a mediocre physicist, at that, whereas I guess I could be higher ranked in other fields.

    In the past 3 or 4 years though, what has become more apparent and not less, is that I just don't enjoy anything as much. I spend a lot of time going back to the Feynman lectures and trying to solve questions from problem papers I first saw 10+ years ago.

    It helps, also, that I have learned to have a backbone and a work ethic, something which I just did not have at 17-20.
  17. Jun 23, 2014 #16
    The thing about where I went to school is a part of the story, I guess--if I had gone to the US, I would have had an extra year at university, I could have lived on my own, and not to mention the reduced stress of exams at semester instead of the end of the year.

    What I should mention as well is that I grew up in neither of these countries, and I had a very complicated financial situation which meant that choosing to study in the US would only have made sense if I had gotten in to something like an Ivy League school. Again, it's one of the things I wish I had enough clarity to see at the time, but didn't.

    Finally, the question of complementing skills. Yes, there are many reasons to just bury this and move on towards something else. The thing is, I have never felt that I had a kills problem. One of the most gut-wrenching experiences I ever had, and also a slap in the face, was when my old undergraduate adviser emailed me back after a request for a reference. His response still rings in my ears: that I came to university as an above-average student, but left with below-average grades because I just crumbled. I know that he wouldn't say it lightly, and I know that my technical/mathematical skills were never lacking. It's true that they are probably a lot more rusty than when I was 17, but I have seen people tackle undergraduate degrees in their mid 30s and I need to know if doing that would get me back on to the path of becoming a scientist.
  18. Jun 24, 2014 #17

    I just don't see how getting another bachelors degree in physics makes any sense or how it will benefit you. It's not a question of if you can do it, but why would you? You're probably off trying to get into a graduate school program for a masters and then doing well and moving on to a phd in physics if that's what you want. Maybe even take a few upper level courses over but a whole bachelors in the same subject makes no sense
  19. Jun 29, 2014 #18
    anonymousDEFO, from everything that you've said it sounds like you simply have to do this for good or for ill. The question is, what the right approach?

    If you think back to your undergraduate days and realize that terms were only 8-10 weeks each, that half of the summer term was lost to exams, and that you actually did a pretty good job in your first year, maybe its fair to say that you could fill in the gaps in your knowledge with private study rather than by repeating an entire bachelors degree? You might need to adapt your study approach, say focus on memorizing a bit more (flashcards), perhaps even hire an online tutor, but you should definitely be able to get yourself back up to standard.

    After that you could join a physics masters course based on your up-to-date capabilities and more recent academic references (perhaps if you do start to work with a tutor then he/she could also act as one). If you complete a well respected masters course, perhaps a two-year option with a little more depth, then there is no reason why you wouldn't be in a good position to get onto a PhD afterwards.

    I guess you shouldn't be under any illusions about the prospect of stepping into an academic career in physics after that since its very unlikely to happen. But then the main problem is not specific to you or your age, but simply the fact that opening are too scarce anyway. So after you PhD you'll need to create your own opportunities somehow, but it sounds from your work experience that you might be quite good at finding an angle to do that. If you feel you have to do this then there's no need to worry about the longer term until you're already well into your PhD.
  20. Jul 6, 2014 #19
    Percival, if you don't mind, would it be possible to send you a private message on this point? I think it's part of the protocol here to ask in public first. Cheers!
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