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Can I be a physicist?

  1. Aug 5, 2014 #1
    I am a Highschool graduate. During my senior year I took an PRE-AP class in Physics. I wasn't too confident about taking the class because one, I never took any type of AP class, and two I was great at the math part in my sciences I already took (Chemistry and Biology) BUT I wasn't so great at understanding the math behind it.

    Until I took my Physics class. From the day I started through the last day of my class. I understood the math, the math behind the problem, AND I LOVED IT.

    Now coming from my background I wouldn't call myself smart but I would call myself dedicated and extremely hardworking. So if a subject would get difficult in class, I would make sure I had it perfected, no matter how long it took.

    The first semester of the class about 35% of the people taking the class dropped it to go into a regular physics class. Out of the about 40 people total taking the class. I was in the top 10% for grades. Which I made an 88 for the year. Also, I got an award from the school for being the year's most significant in science. Which I think they gave it to me because they were surprised how well I did in the class and how intriguing it was for me.

    So, my question is. Do I have a shot in becoming a Physicist? Can a person with more dedication then brains make it?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 5, 2014 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Welcome to PF;
    Yes to both questions.
  4. Aug 5, 2014 #3


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    In my experience, success in academia is far more about passion and dedication than raw brains. You need some brains (and it sounds like you have it), but brains alone are not sufficient. You also need to really, really, really want to do physics. Some would describe the average physicist as more than a bit obsessive.

    See also: It's 7:30 pm, and I'm still in my office, and so are both of my supervisors.

    ETA: Further thoughts: Physics in as an undergraduate is entirely unlike physics in highschool. The business of actually doing physics is entirely unlike either undergraduate or highschool physics classes. However, an undergraduate degree in physics is a useful thing, even if you never become a physicist.
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2014
  5. Aug 5, 2014 #4
    It sounds like Physics is for you!
    Don't worry if you have difficulty with it at first, I used to get U grades on my physics tests, once I started revising (which it sounds like you're motivated enough to do) my grades improved dramatically.
  6. Aug 5, 2014 #5
    In b4 the storm of dissuading comments.

    I have to say this is about right. It may well be a selection effect, but almost universally I have found that all of those that remain in academia for a long time are extreme workaholics by most societal standards and have a very high tolerance for menial, grinding repetitive tasks and troubleshooting. It also happens to be people who are extremely geographically flexible and are willing to drop everything to go where the work is.

    Now being like that throughout school, university, grad school, and so on won't guarantee you anything. Success is also largely dependent on luck, having picked the right topics in grad school and having met the right people that either need your expertise or know someone who does when you're fresh out of a grad program or post-doc. It also depends on how narrow of a window you use to constrain "success". Ie: some are convinced that the only worthwhile possible outcome of a full physics PhD track is becoming a tenured associate prof at a top 20 R1 university in their own state/country, every other option being paramount to failure or ignored outright.
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2014
  7. Aug 5, 2014 #6
    IMO this is an important point. If you define being a physicist that narrowly then I believe your question is roughly analogous to one of your classmates that is very athletic and is willing to work hard asking if he has a shot at playing professional football for a living.

    Obviously a broader definition of being a physicist, improves the chances of becoming one.
  8. Aug 5, 2014 #7


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    Yes. All of this. People ask me "oh, where do you want to do a post-doc?", to which the only reply is "wherever in the world I can get a job". Because even if you pick the right topic, at the right school, with the right supervisor, and publish a goodly amount of papers, even getting that post-doc is dependent on luck. Then, you've got to do it all over again in 2 years or so. Repeat ad-nauseam. And that's if you're lucky. Academia: You can't be in it for the money or the job security.

    I think it's crucial to acknowledge that most people who get PhDs don't get to be academics, which is a hard thing to face, as a PhD student who wants to be an academic, but hey, so it goes.

    And yet, there's nothing I'd rather do with my life, so there's that. Doing physics, for me, the best kind of fun. But then again, I'm a "extreme workaholic by most societal standards and have a very high tolerance for menial, grinding repetitive tasks and troubleshooting".

    Not so long ago, I was talking about this with my supervisor, who said that the lab was like a family, because who else are you going to spend your Sundays with, chasing electronic noise with, and find it fun? (Noise chasing being the second most frustrating job in an experiment, second only to vacuum leak chasing).

    But hey, if all of this sounds good to you, go for your life!
  9. Aug 6, 2014 #8
    I want to dwell on this for a bit. I have also observed (and heard directly from advisers, also corroborated with many threads here) that a significant fraction of late stage PhD students grow tired of research and tend to doze off or lose interest in their (science) job search at the time where the need for being extremely proactive and flexible is the greatest, which tends to nip their research careers in the bud altogether. There is a book on this topic that I am halfway into reading (per someone's recommendation here on PF), but I do not remember the author or title, I'll post it when I manage to find my kindle! FWIW, every single phd I have met in person that is either leaving research (academic or gov't lab, permanent and soft-money) or is already out of it has done so willingly.

    For the longest time I have heard that the less competitive jobs that fall under the strict definition of "academic" - adjunct prof - are terrible, dead-end paths and pay unliveable wages. I have recently found out one of the graduates from my grad program is an adjunct at a big name land grant school and earns as much as any post-doc and still manages to conduct research and attend conferences in his field, despite the heavy teaching loads. He has recently been offered a tenure-track position elsewhere heading his own research group, all this without ever having gone through a single post-doc.

    In my research group, we have one post-doc that went straight for a finance job for a year immediately after graduation, and later came here. He isn't even done with his post-doc and he soon will be leaving for a tenure-track position in his home country.

    Both come from a field that is extremely industry-irrelevant and consistently gets the "there are no jobs" seal of disapproval here.

    So it goes to show one can't believe the blanket statements thrown about so easily on internet forums about job prospects or what avenues commonly taken are actually like. None of it seems to come from first-hand experience and on occasion does strike me a bit as intellectually dishonest. Then again I am sure some will contest that I have a conflict of interests with my argument, as I am just starting out in grad school myself and am in it for the long run.

    For the OP or anyone in a similar predicament: you have to find things out for yourself. Go to the sources of info (AIS/APS job statistics is about the best you can do, with all its flaws), realize that there are no end-all be-all authorities on any topic, and compare what you find to your own observations and conversations with people in the types of job you want. After all, if you like science, this kind of behavior should come naturally to you and should be a fun process.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
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