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Advice needed--stability versus pursuing one's passions?

  1. Nov 6, 2014 #1
    Hey guys,

    I'm contemplating doing a Master's degree in materials engineering.

    I'm graduating with a petroleum engineering degree in the spring of next year. I've had numerous internships which, after some weeks of reflection, made me realize that I'm simply not happy when I'm working for other people. I feel like the work I do doesn't contribute anything to my self development, and that it's so far away from the fundamental laws of physics which is what truly interests me.

    One of the things I found was that whenever I became depressed or discouraged during my work or life, I would fantasize about materials engineering, and how I should have gone into that instead. I just keep thinking back to my second year course that was the most interesting course I've ever taken to this day.

    My idea is to pursue an academic career path, really. I guess my ideal life is to learn and research while getting paid to do it.

    My worry is that I'm giving up a $80k/year job to study something that I only have an introductory knowledge in at the moment. Furthermore, I've only ever heard of how competitive the academia route is. But at the same time, working for oil companies just drains me mentally, and makes me feel like I'm wasting my intellect and more than 1/3 of my life every single day.

    I'm very eager to hear the advice from you guys. I feel really really lost at this stage in my life. Am I just having an early mid-life crisis? Am I idealizing life too much?

    Thanks so much,
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 6, 2014 #2
    My advice: no matter what you do, do what you love. If you love your work, you will excel in it. You will get better, possibly the best. This is what humanity seeks, the ultimate expert. Money won't be a problem, at least not on the long term.
  4. Nov 6, 2014 #3
    Meh, there are lots of people who became experts in areas they loved, got PhDs, and are now adjuncts for whom money really is a problem.

    Materials engineering is a pretty good bet, so if you can get into a PhD program, it might be worth a shot. I think you're overstating the extent to which professors work for themselves, though. I'm not worried about your choice of area so much as I think the reasons you want to switch are red flags.
  5. Nov 8, 2014 #4
    I think that it is unlikely that somebody would just pay you for 'learning and research'. You have to sell yourself and your ideas in any field and any workplace, including academia. I have left academia a long time ago, this is second-hand experience from colleagues. But what they tell me about 'performance measurement', forecasting, reporting, writing applications for grants etc. is more reminiscent of jobs in a larger corporation than of the romanticized life of the lonely thinker. Not that this is a bad thing per se - I know people who enjoy that part of academic work, too!

    I second Locrian - Materials Science is not a bad choice. I was a phycisist hired as a materials scientist in my first job, doing contract research for steel industry - not sure if that was so much different ('culture-wise') from working for oil companies.

    When I started studying physics I also figured I am most interested in research and 'solving the mysteries of the universe'. Yet I was absolutely surprised to finally find out that I am actually more content with providing pragmatic technical solutions to comparably mundane problems people have right now.

    You say you are not happy 'working for other people'. This struck a chord with me as I would not enjoy working exclusively for a single employer. I run my own business - but this means I am working for different clients. For me this was the perfect choice in comparison to both academia or a large corporation; but this is really a personal choice.

    I am reluctant to give definitive advice. I found it is not that easy to discover what I actually, finally wanted - unrelated to stereotypes, marketing messages by different industries, advice by people with a hidden agenda etc. If you know enough about the oil industry and you are really sure you can make a decision based on that experience I'd suggest not only to prepare for an academic career in Materials Science but pick up as much employable skills as possible and learn about relevant industry sectors.
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