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Appl. Phys: I love everything about her... but her Math(s)

  1. Sep 17, 2015 #1
    Sadly, I've very recently come to the conclusion that the career field I've been falling for over the past four years, is, when I get down to it, a total buttermath (Or Buttermaths for our Brittish friends). I've been trying to look past it for a long time now, but I'm just not sure I can live with it anymore!

    OK, bad jokes and chauvinistic references aside, I've managed to earn a Bachelor's degree in Applied Physics (in an engineering physics curriculum), and have moved on to graduate school at a fantastic STEM-centric university. I'm starting in two closely related fields to AP: medical imaging physics and electrical engineering, and am currently interested in developing the physical basis for the next generation of medical imaging systems.
    So, in the end, this topic is not so much about applied physics as a field (directly), but more of a question of, whether or not R&D in AP related fields is the right career choice for me. In other words, am I pushing too hard against my weaknesses, and not utilizing enough of my strengths, to be highly successful doing R&D work in industry, following graduation.

    Mathematics, unfortunately, is not my strongest subject (at least academically). Conceptual science, however, is something that I absolutely adore. In fact, I enjoy it so much, that putting up with taking the extra time to learn the mathematical tools and basis behind the science is worth it for me.
    Watching myself throughout my undergraduate career, I initially excelled in every one of my physics courses when compared to my peers. Eventually, as the mathematics involved became more complex, my performance began to diverge away from that of the rest of my class, even to the point of having to drop the "mathematical boot camp" of our physics curriculum, a turning point in our course structure. I then had no choice but to take the less glamorous path of the more "applied" vs. advanced theoretical 400 level courses. Instead of learning Lagrangians and Hamiltonians in upper level CMech, I was steered towards courses such as Industrial Systems Engineering for Physicists, and analog and digital systems.
    Also, I love writing, but being concise and succinctly apropos at all times, as is often required in technical writing, is also not a strength of mine (just look at this post!). In my "capstone" course (final senior seminar/culmination course), we were required to perform 4 well-known, but still highly rigorous and full-length research projects, starting with the background research/experimental design, and ending with a full length journal article and colloquium presentation. It's certainly challenging for anyone, but I found myself at the bottom 25% of the class, not because of the quality of my work (quite the opposite really), but because of my inability to perform the work quickly enough to keep up with the pace. If it weren't for numerous extensions, I would have failed, quite badly.

    I had the fortune of being selected as an undergraduate fellow at a major national lab, and in the end, I think I did fairly well there. Due to my advisor /PI not being the most organized of researchers, I couldn't exactly use the experience to judge how I would perform in a research environment in the future.... but the thrill of the chase in performing "real-world' research was invigorating. I wanted more! The whole experience actually left me with more questions than answers.

    My undergrad experience wasn't all so bad though, as I found that I had a strong interest and even an aptitude for electronics (plus, I love me some E&M). It actually steered me towards electrical engineering as the next step in my career.

    Now, I'm a pretty well rounded person (a lot of my friends call me a modern Renaissance man, but I'm not certain I'm the strongest example of a true master of several disciplines... rather, I would say I have a diversity of interests, spread across several aspects of life). Aptitude-wise, my performance on standardized tests (Stanford-Binet IQ, SAT, General GRE), have all shown a nearly ~1:1 split between verbal and mathematical reasoning. It's uncanny actually...
    However, as a physicist masquerading as an engineer, I find myself in a field surrounded by those who have a disproportionately high mathematical reasoning ability. Certainly, my artistic creativity and verbal strengths have complemented the skills of my peers on more than one occasion, but when it comes down to naturally following the content that I'm studying, I often find myself lagging far behind. It's painful for me really, learning mathematics, and it took a toll on my life as an undergraduate because of it. I had to take a full year off to "recover" after graduating... partially because I was so busy with what as only a PART-TIME course load, that I missed the relatively early window to apply to EE grad. programs. To be fair, I was still a bit undecided at the time.

    I've always wondered if my struggles in mastering mathematics were related to my learning style (which is quite different from most, I'm actually still trying to discover what it is exactly), or whether it is an innate aptitude problem. Basically, is it something that I can eventually conquer (given the right strategy and time) or is it a concrete barrier, meaning higher order math is something that I can never really fully grasp. Another question is, practically speaking, are those two ideas actually one in the same? If I cannot quickly learn mathematics, or find a way to do so quite soon, is it even worth pursuing further? We only live so long (and grad support funding has a finite timeline)! Of course, I'll only need to learn so much (we don't need to become the next Euclid to be great scientists and engineers), and that bar is essentially set by the level of my courses.

    So, here I find myself again in Grad School, struggling with the mathematical basis of my courses thus far. Placing another year between myself and courses like Linear DE's and Calc. 3 certainly didn't help things! Of course, some of it is due a lack of prerequisites and a differing background. Still, I can't help but notice how much it mimics my past experiences. I don't want to live like I did as an undergrad senior, foregoing everything else (sleep, exercise, responsibilities) in life just to squeak by in my courses.
    Also, I'm scared that I may have just embarked on a journey that I should have taken a bit more time to prepare for. I've always heard, " Make sure you don't just go to grad school for the sake of going to grad school!", but in my case, I didn't have much of a choice... I'm a bit older than most, so this was the golden opportunity. In the end, I do feel that I picked a field that's at least somewhat close to the right match for me (at least my best match isn't going to be, say, sociology, for example).

    Talking with researchers in industry, it looks like things don't change much after the Ph.D. It makes me depressed to think about really... I love the idea of inventing... of research... of solving truly novel complex issues... of being able to do this and (for once) be paid what it's worth to do so. I like the idea of launching a startup... of being able to contribute to a serious revolutionary idea in science or technology... but I'm not sure if I'm prepared to forego having a family, enjoying the many facets of life outside of one's profession, or for that matter, my sanity.

    There was one professor who reminded me a bit of myself... a truly wise man... and an very successful researcher in electrostatics. He would always speak of how much he loathed mathematics, and how he just looked at it as a tool... and how developing the ability to maintain a big picture concept of the problem at hand is perhaps more important than possessing specialized problem solving skills. He gave me hope. Still, I wonder, is that really the lifestyle for me?

    If I go anywhere from here, where else would it be? I'm finding that I have a natural aptitude for understanding one of my loves: fabrication. I've recently had the chance to explore subtractive and additive manufacturing techniques, and it just clicks. No pain (well, I haven't really gotten into any depth yet), and and it seems like my intuition for the subject alone could be enough to make me an expert.

    I also wonder about heading towards science writing and illustration... but those are two fields with some very limited prospects... plus, they would never afford the kind of lifestyle/opportunities to start a business as in R&D/engineering. I've had the urge to just give up on the advanced studies, and head straight into some kind of high-end technician work... some place where I can tinker with interesting stuff all day. But building a career based upon a physical ability to perform a task is a dangerous prospect... something I don't want to risk.

    So in the end, I'm looking for a way to find out what I'm really designed to do... the question has been asked time and time again by countless people (here included), but the answers that have been given (in the form of books, advice articles, career counselling, etc. etc.) are all too general to be of any real help for those of us looking for a niche in the technical fields. Sure, we all struggle from time to time, but I look at those highly functional individuals around me who have found something that's a true match for them, and I can't help but wonder if I'm struggling a bit too much. Ironically, the search may lead me right back to this very career path again, but at least I will have a good boost in confidence to help me through it.

    Any advice for a lost soul like mine?Has anyone here with a serious barrier or learning disability with regards to learning mathematics found an alternative method to learning that worked for them? Also, if you're in the same boat as I am in the career search, please feel free to chime in and add your story to the discussion.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 18, 2015 #2
    Math was my biggest difficulty also.

    I just kept working hard, and eventually I got good enough at the math to be a functioning experimental physicist who has published a lot of theory papers also.

    The more math you master, the better scientist you will be.

    My biggest strength as a scientist is approaching problems thinking like a biologist with a considerable number of maths tools in my toolbox.

    Fill your toolbox with all the math tools you come across.
  4. Sep 20, 2015 #3
    I do do math rather quickly compared to my peers - when I understand it. I'm currently an undergrad also doing an Applied Physics degree and I've discovered that physics makes the most sense to me when I learn the mathematical basis behind it - unfortunately, that sometimes takes awhile. I chose then to double major in Applied Mathematics. It's both fun and pretty harrowing, but I rely on my peers for help understanding the math, and homework help!

    It doesn't help that the research I'm doing has a huge amount of theory behind it full of math; I just don't get it, but I want enough background to get it, that way I can interpret my results better. I live with it knowing I'll learn the math eventually (hopefully!).
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