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Career Help! Need to Get Back to Science!

  1. Apr 13, 2012 #1

    I am hoping I can get some advice, or something to think about at least.

    Here is a quick version of my story: I have a BS in physics. I also was on the path to get a second BS in EE, but for various reasons, that did not work out. At the time, I was not ready to go to grad school, and I needed the money, so I took up a career in my backup field: IT.

    Well as you know IT is a highly marketable field, and my income quickly increased as my I gained more skills, now I have a very good job as a network engineer, and I know I can leave it and get a job in the same field tomorrow and probably get a higher salary, but there is one problem: I now hate IT. It embodies my failure, and I just can't stand it anymore. It is not what I wanted to do for a career.

    So I want to leave it, before I get stuck with it and be unhappy the rest of my life, but not sure what do. I am totally willing to get more education. It has only been a few years since I graduated, so although I am a little rusty, I know I can be in good academic shape rather quickly. I debated the idea of going to engineering school (EE), but I am not sure. It kinda depends on what I can do for a career. I love teaching, and I love research, but I will admit that I am not a genius, and I know there are limitations to what I can do. I also look at my professors and I see that they are anything but financially comfortable. And given the way colleges have been struggling, does it make sense to go to grad school for many years then spend several more struggling to finally land an instructor position starting at $40k?

    Any ideas? I know this is very vague. Should I focus on engineering and think about industry instead of academia? Where is the exciting research these days? And also, what research is in demand and not overflooded by poor geniuses?

    Thanks for reading my rambling thoughts...
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 15, 2012 #2


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    Let me ask you something. What exactly is it about IT in general (or more specifically, being a network engineer) that you hate? Do you hate the job itself, the nature of the work, the people you work with? Perhaps if you could be more specific about what it is that you hate about your current field, it would give a better idea of what else you would really want to do.
  4. Apr 16, 2012 #3
    Well it is just that I don't enjoy it anymore. I did enjoy it for a while, but it is really easy, and not very challenging. I never have to think. I end up doing a lot of helpdesk support, which is a job a high school graduate with a knowledge of computers can do.

    And like I said, this was just a backup, and I got sucked in to it because of the easy employment and decent money, but I can not see myself doing this for much longer. My title is "network engineer" but I truly think I am more of a technician. I need to do something more challenging, more mathematical.

    Thanks for your response though!
  5. Apr 16, 2012 #4


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    Thanks for clarifying what it is specifically you hate about your current career path.

    Now it is difficult for me or anyone else to provide you with a good suggestion on what you should be studying, as that would depend on what you are truly most interested in actually doing. It seems to me that your current complaint about your work is the lack of challenge in your specific tasks at hand. Are you still willing to work with computers (or more specifically in software development) if there was more of a mathematical component to it?

    If that is the case, perhaps further graduate studies in computer science or computational science, perhaps focusing your studies on scientific computation/numerical analysis may be something to consider (you already have a BS in physics and have completed much course work in EE, so it should not be too difficult for you to pursue such studies).

    Again, my 2 cent's worth here.
  6. Apr 16, 2012 #5
    I have some friends that went into IT security and they seem to enjoy their work. They all came from physics/math backgrounds. If the job is so easy then that gives you more time and energy to self study things after work. I don't see how this is a bad situation.

    When I was doing sales in software engineering I had to work some pretty long hours along with travel. The work itself wasn't related to physics or math so I self studied constantly after work or during plane trips. I saved up a ridiculous amount of money and now I'm back in school getting my Physics PhD. The good thing about doing it this way is I don't have to live my lifestyle as a grad student. Obviously, the bad thing is getting back into a school groove. Even with all that studying on my own it still doesn't compare to having a brutal problem set due periodically.
  7. Apr 17, 2012 #6
    Hi Moneer81,

    I think I understand you quite well. I have a PhD in physics and switched to IT after some years in R&D. Actually I was in IT security and I did enjoy it a lot. So I second SophusLies: If I had to pick the most attractive subject in IT I would pick security.

    Nevertheless - after about 10 years of specialization in a sought-after sub-field in IT security I started to dread the nomadic life style of the "renowned international expert and firefighter".

    So I am now in a process to reconnect to my roots actually. I am going for an MSc in energy engineering (renewable energies), I have started to work on pilot projects and I am about to close down all my IT-related activities.
    I work as a self-employed consultant and this makes the transition easier. As SophieLies I had also worked my head off in the past years and was able to save enough money in order to slow down for quite a while.

    I have selected renewable energies for the following reasons:
    - I had always preferred to work self-employed and I will continue to do so. In my home country a physics degree plus research experience qualifies you to work as the equivalent of a Professional Engineer. "Renewable energies" is a typical specialization of "Consulting Physics Engineers".
    - I can re-use basically anything I ever did professionally - including both the "physics skills" I learned in my PhD (programming controllers for devices, modelling systems) as well as my "IT skills" (think security of smart meters e.g., developing tools to calculate solar energy gains...), but also general skills such as project management.
  8. Apr 17, 2012 #7
    This is very good advice! As someone with probably similar intentions as Moneer81 I can confirm that leaving the IT sector" does not all mean avoiding computers.

    It makes such an incredible difference if IT becomes again "just a tool" to achieve a science/physics/engineering-related goal - and you are in charge of this goal - in contrast to being the guy who is in charge of making IT as such work. This is true especially for what I call IT infrastructure jobs, such as network engineering (which means nobody knows what you are doing until something breaks - I speak from experience).
  9. Apr 18, 2012 #8
    Wow thanks for the great replies!

    I agree with what you guys said. StatGuy2000: that's a very good piece of advice to think about computational/numerical analysis, as it also seems to be a relevant and demanded skill.

    SophusLies you inspire me! that is my goal now, is to focus on getting ready to go back to school. I know it can be done, and I am worried about how I can manage to stay sharp at work, manage my social life, my activities, and also get ready for grad school, all at once, but I think it can be done! Thanks for sharing your experience!
  10. Apr 18, 2012 #9
    Thanks for sharing your story! I actually have very strong interests in green energy, and my senior project was related to solar panels but wind energy is something I am very excited about as well. So I need to figure out a way to pinpoint what I am interested in and find the right program and somehow make that into a career! I would love to be a consultant, but I think that is more EE (power systems) rather than graduate physics, or maybe not? Any resources or links you can send my way I'd appreciate!

    And yes of course I wouldn't mind working with computers. I am starting to focus more on development and programming as that skill will always come handy. I am just getting tired of troubleshooting computers and networks. It is a good way to develop troubleshooting skills but the work itself is simple or sometimes, in my opinion, rather petty, especially when you work with users and in small networks (as opposed to working in large infrastructural networks.)
  11. Apr 20, 2012 #10
    Yes, it is of course true that power engineenering is more EE than physics. However I had seen job ads from companies that do modelling of the behaviour of power grids and who were explicitly looking for physicists. I do not have a link unfortunately, but it was a European company anyway. I believe if some interdiscplinary modelling skills are required a degree in physics provides a solid foundation.
    E.g. some management consulting companies are concerned with that type of modelling(McKinsey...), so one potential career could start with embarking on a trainee programme. Of course this is not a classical technical job, as consulting companies typically consider technical and economical aspects of power grids in their models.
    See the following example (delivery by McKinsey): http://www.roadmap2050.eu/downloads

    There was once a discussion on this forum if these trainee programmes are for BSCs only, not for MScs or PhDs. I can just say that in middle Europe it is not common to start a consulting trainee even with a PhD (unless you have "too many years of professional experience").

    Personally I am most interested in projects that require the combination of different energy sources. Depending on the technology used, you might need more thermodynamics and mechanical engineering know-how than EE know-how (think boilers, turbines, burning biomass...).

    I was looking for a degree programme that gives me that type of interdisclinary knowledge on top of my degree in physics (or basically on top of any type of specialization - such programmes are also chosen by EEs or mechanicals engineers).

    I agree - troubleshooting skills are valuable, but I now prefer to utilize them in my own projects only, but do not offer toubleshooting services as such (on specific types of IT systems) any more.

    Re large infrastructures: I once went from small petty networks to large infrastructures. My overall summary:

    On the one hand it can be extremely stressful: a lot people are watching you - you, the firefighter who will make it all work again, because currently 1000s of people are offline. Of course it is also rewarding and if you do your job well, you can turn into a sort of celebrity within the boundaries of your community (mine was Public Key Infrastructure BTW). I strongly believe you need to select a narrow and specific community to obtain that status.

    But on the other hand large corporations are becoming more and more bureaucratic ("compliant", dominated by legal requirements, quality assurance etc.), thus if you are a hands-on type of pragmatic problem solver you cannot but break some laws to work at all productively.
    Last edited: Apr 20, 2012
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