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Can I work and take courses? Businessman - I want to be a physicist

  1. May 16, 2012 #1
    Hi Guys

    I am an young professional in the finance field. I have a bright future ahead of me and currently make into 6 digit salary at 25 years old. It will increase over the next 5-15 years when evenutally it will level off likely near the salary of a Doctor if I work hard enough. Earning this salary is not easy - you have to fight to get clients, incur possible lawsuits, manage staff, keep up to date on your profession, etc.

    I have always been interested in Physics and the more experience I gain in my field the more I think I made the wrong decision when choosing what to study in school. I have lost interest in my field - this will probably lead to me not being very successful because I am losing the "eye of the tiger", lol

    I watch MIT free lectures, watch science tv, read popular physics books, and frequent this forum. You should be grateful how exciting your field is compared to say - partnership agreements. Often I think about what it would be like to be an expert on Particle physics and how exciting that would be - Understanding something that complicated. To be honest my field can get extremely complicated as well but it's just not the same as being a scientist - I do way too much administration,dealing with staff, clients, organizing - it doesn't really fit my personality - I do not feel challenged intellectually. I read somewhere that you should never stop exploring in life...

    The reason why I am writing to ask for some advice. I am getting a strong urge to take some physics classes part time while I continue to work. Do you think this is possible - if so, how many at once?

    Im sure even if I got a dream job as a PHD doing some amazing research somewhere it would still be very hard work and some parts I would hate - am I right?

    I'm thinking if I take a few classes now this might lead to some exciting opportunities in the future to pursue a masters or PHD full time if I find out I need
    to switch to be happy. Sorry for ranting about my first world problems. I work extremely hard and I imagine that I am up agaisnt a hugeee uphill climb if I wanted to actually pursue the field - Is it even worth it? Definately not financially...

    What else should I do to learn about the field/professions before I take a few courses?

    Thanks so much for listening
    Last edited: May 16, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. May 16, 2012 #2
    I have this image of you opening these big double doors adorned with a sign that says “Physics”. . . and getting trampled by a thousand physics grads that burst through, desperate for a chance at the job you have now.

    A common complaint among tenured physicists, as well.

    Go ahead and take a few cal based physics classes. What can it hurt, really? Just please don’t give up your day job, even if you enjoy the school. The work is nothing like the school. It’s nothing like those popular physics books you mention make it out to be, either. It’s so different the words “better” and “worse” don’t even really make sense.
  4. May 16, 2012 #3

    thank you for your reply . I understand what your saying.

    What do physicists do to actually earn the money? "The work is nothing like the school. It’s nothing like those popular physics books you mention make it out to be, either. It’s so different the words “better” and “worse” don’t even really make sense. "

    What is the day job like? Are there some posts about this? ... I mean I'm sure there is a Physicist working at CERN or NASA doing some mundane, repetitive work just to earn a dollar, even though to me it sounds like the coolest place ever

    Sure my job can seem glamorous as well - read the wall street journal - but what others don't see is the tough parts of the job- Sorry for being so negative... it's not all that bad.

    I might take a few courses - it won't hurt much
  5. May 17, 2012 #4
    Full disclosure: I’m an actuarial analyst at an insurance company. I got my BS in physics, worked for a few years at a small research company and then spent 18 months getting my masters in physics before I changed careers.

    Sure, there were a few cool things in physics. Seeing a complicated device (plasma CVD reactor, for instance) come together is fun, especially the labview work. Much of the work building it was more akin to plumbing than physics, but there was satisfaction with the result. Some of the grad work was interesting, for similar reasons. I think you get an interesting insight into the way the world we operate in works through the class work and other textbook learning. I try to tell myself that this enriched my life enough to have made the work worth it, and sometimes I succeed. There are a lot of benefits, and it’s easy to overlook them. The costs, unfortunately, were large.

    But much of the work done resembles what the AFM guy I knew in grad school did. The AFM was quirky and threw up errors now and then. If you didn’t deal with them, it shut down. So you had to sit with it. AFM Guy did, for hours. Every day. Watching lines slowly drawn across the screen. He was out of classes, but he did his best to stay busy. But there’s only so much you can do in a little lab room. Line after line after line, across the screen. As a grad student or other job low on the totem pole (“research assistant”, “technician” etc.) much of the work resembles that. Which might be bearable if you weren’t also so expendable. The double shame of having a rote, boring job and being paid like it was sometimes tough to swallow. I’ve been shocked at how much a (comparatively) fat paycheck improves my life, which is one reason I sound less than approving of your career change plans. But you aren’t me, of course.

    But what about the end game, academia? The odds of your getting a position are small, but given enough time you might make it. Once you do, you’ll find that tenured scientists manage people. They spend lots of time seeking funding (think marketing) and watching over people doing often boring but occasionally important work. Most physicists in academia can best be described as being in the business of begging the government for money. Really, their jobs aren’t that different than yours, though I realize their client is. Of course their lifetime income is very different. . .

    I think there are some great jobs in physics out there. But I’m certain most people with a degree in physics don’t get them. If you decide to make this switch – which I strongly advise you against – you need to play smart. You need to recognize that there are a tremendous number of extremely smart people from all over the world competing for the same positions as you. You need to identify the few good jobs and set yourself up to get them. You desperately need to cut through all the science-is-awesome garbage we’re fed through the media (see the list of, uhh, stuff you said you enjoy reading/watching) and identify the problems in the system that have wrecked the lives of so many people. That’s the best chance for success you have.

    Good luck with whatever you choose to do.
  6. May 17, 2012 #5
    If you have enough flexibility in your work schedule, take one class at a time through a local community college (or university, if they will take you). I don't know what you studied the first time through, but you will need a fair bit of mathematics to get anywhere.

    If you don't already have it, start with the introductory calculus sequence (Calc I, II and III in the usual US system). After Calc I, you can take a calculus-based physics class. I would recommend not quitting your job and going full-time to school unless you have taken at least all the basic calculus and the first two core physics courses. By that point you should have a more realistic idea of what you are getting into academically.

    This is doable for someone working, but the homework commitment, even for one class, will cut into your personal and family time, if you can't get any time off. It doesn't commit you to a career change and will start to give you a feel for the actual tools used by physicists. If you start the journey, it is hard to say where you will end up. It is OK to change your mind as you go along.

    Sometimes, just doing something different on the side will make your existing job more bearable. As others will point out, it is not only the academic commitment to think about. Many physics PhD's are complaining about job opportunities right now. Even those who successfully get research positions do so after a lot of uncertainty (post-docs) and the pay will probably never be what you can make in your present position.
  7. May 17, 2012 #6
    I would recommend this too. I got my BS in EE and then decided to restudy/improve my calculus and physics while I had my first real job, so I took the highest level classes that a community college offered. I would recommend 1 night class a semester, and take it purely for fun first (don't work too hard for an A like I did, 40hr work week + 3 nights a week course + labs + homework + studying for exams leaves little time for personal life). If you do well in it AND enjoy it, then you might want to see what your options are to go further.

    I left off of that and did a masters in physics that I just finished last year (that level of study is still relatively basic and not glamorous like it seems when you read about popular physics). If your income is as high as you say, you really could have a nice experience going to grad school with the money you should have saved. Money can be a stress factor for poor grad students, and going to grad school with out that burden is a big advantage.

    You could also self study some textbooks, but this takes a good amount of discipline and you may get stuck often which is really frustrating (but lots of people here will help you get unstuck). Another option is to take up a hobby like electronics or mechanics, and use that to explore physics. This is fun and rewarding, and will give you a taste of what you might do as a physicist.

    I am not a physicist myself, but I know that physicists can make decent income, and if you have ambition, you can go further than where you'd get in your current career path as you laid it out. A lot of physicists have roles that are more like a really smart special engineer than the ones that are thinking about gravity or higgs particles, so they can easily do new entrepreneurial technology/math applications business. Like your job, engineers and physicists also have to deal with a lot of administration and tedious procedures not relevant to their interests, so don't think you will be escaping this so fast. Grad school on the other hand can be quite an experience that you might treasure for the rest of your life, even in the worst of times.

    If I were you, I would probably stick with the job you have and save up and plan for the future. The longer you last, the better off you are financially, which is important. If you get burnt out at around the age of 30-35, you should have a lot of money saved up to be able to comfortably leave that profession for good, and still have plenty of time for a new career. If you get burnt out sooner, then maybe physics is the right choice to switch to. If you've saved a lot and are ready to move on, you can get a bachelors in some science related field, and then get a stipend or scholarships as a grad student, and so if you have a family, they should still be supported. In the meantime, find a hobby that uses a lot of physics (electronics, physics related programming/simulation, astronomy, robotics, etc.) and just keep reading or taking courses in your free time.
    Last edited: May 17, 2012
  8. May 17, 2012 #7
    One last thing . . with your background and then becoming a physicist, it might be really easy for you to get jobs in technology/lab related professions, but it will also be really easy for you to be pigeon-holed into an administration/business role even with a physics degree because of your past financial job.
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