[Career] - What kind of life does a career in physics entail?

  • #1
justsomelostdude
1
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Hello! I've looked around the community, and this seems like a great place to ask the question to experienced professionals!

I was wondering what kind of life does such a career in physics entail? I'm trying to contemplate a career in academia, but I'm quite nervous on the career switch, hehe so any advice or insights would very much be appreciated!

I've read some posts around and seen other websites (such as stackexchange), and even asked some friends around about it, and they mentioned that, other than the typical grading-and-teaching, they do:
1. They do lots of research (i.e. reading recently published papers) and does lots of heavy computations for simulations (usually on multiple servers left overnight),
2. They talk a lot with, say, supervisors, collaborators, or other fellows working in the same field to discuss things such as their research progress, what blocks their progress, what new methods can they try, or even to cook up new ideas,
3. They join lots of international physics conferences to build connections (hopefully to find new collaborators to work together too),
4. They spend most of their time working on their research (including weekends and holidays),
5. They learn a lot of new things both technically and personally (say, how to solve/simulate some PDEs, how to make the code run more efficiently on several servers, how to present an idea to convince others, etc.)

However, they also felt that:
1. Most of the things they did were done simply for the sake of publishing papers and meeting expectations (they said that it's like a cycle; some party gives an amount of research grant or funding, the grant is disbursed partially to the university/research institution and partially to their research group, thus they need to do research according to this party's areas of interest which in turn will result in more grants. Once they step outside of this area and do other fields, this cycle will be cut and they were not allowed to continue, or even cannot continue),
2. Most of the things published above were typically a slight variation on what had been done before (a friend brought up the analogy that, if a research group had done some simulation on how a hydrogen gas spread, then their group would simulate how caesium would also spread around),
3. They did not feel that they are contributing towards progress (i.e. huge effort but less impact),
4. They felt burnt out

Hence I was wondering if anyone in the community can share their thoughts on it?
Some things to spark up some ideas for any reply:
1. Why did you start a career in academia instead of, say, within the industry/in a company, or starting your business?
2. What kind of work-life balance do you have? (Are you fully on your research and consulting your peers all the time, or do you also have enough time to work on other things at the sides, such as investing or building a business or alternative careers as a safety net?)
3. Do you feel that what you're doing aligned with what you had expected when you started the career?
4. Are there lots of opportunities where you work with people from other fields? (I think, the field on chaos and complexity is probably a very good example of this, but perhaps there are other fields I'm not aware as well?)
5. Did you regret doing your research/starting the career, or would you rather do other things?
6. Do you often feel burnt out? Or do you feel like something about all this seems so... not-good (?)
7. What sort of areas interests you? And why do you feel energized when you're talking about it with other people?
8. Did you start your career and knew what was coming? Or do you feel like your initial "spark" has been diminishing over the years (?)

As a background that might help:
1. I did my undergraduate studies in "pure physics with a streaming in cosmology" (some classes I took: Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics (I took QM 1 & 2, but not 3. Basically I did QM up until J.J. Sakurai), Intro to GR and Cosmology (Hobson, Efstathiou, & Lasenby) only up to Schwarzschild's solution, Mathematical Methods (Riley, Hobson, and Bence), Statistical Mechanics 1 & 2 (Blundell), and computational physics (basically Python and R, leaning more towards applying various libraries and learning how to do monte-carlo simulations and simulating simple planetary motions/3-body systems using discrete time-steps), and also electrodynamics up until Griffiths and only a bit on J.D. Jackson); I probably did more class, such as Physics Lab 1 & 2, but I forgot what they were...
2. I graduated 2 years ago, and have not touched physics since. I've been working in the IT department of a company, doing stuff related to data science
3. I took the undergrad despite knowing that it's kinda hard for pure physics graduates to get a job, but I'm going to admit that I was a bit too naive/childish (?) back then to even think about my future career, and that was why I followed my interest. But now, I'm thinking of going back to academia, hence I'm trying to consider this more carefully. I felt that, after learning about Einstein's Field Equation, something inside me sort of "lost that spark"; I'm still trying to figure out what it is exactly, but I think.. it's like that feeling when you've learnt about something you set out to do when you first started, and then once that's accomplished, you kinda don't know what's left out there.
4. Ah, and I did my thesis on complexity systems, particularly with applications on real public transportation systems (and I'm currently reading Strogatz because I thought I'd skipped on the book during my undergrad); basically, investigating how complex behaviors can arise in public transport from simple boarding/alighting decisions of the passengers in a bus

I'm sorry if the question is a bit vague (?), but any help is very much deeply appreciated! Thank you so much!
 
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  • #2
justsomelostdude said:
But now, I'm thinking of going back to academia, hence I'm trying to consider this more carefully. I felt that, after learning about Einstein's Field Equation, something inside me sort of "lost that spark"; I'm still trying to figure out what it is exactly, but I think.. it's like that feeling when you've learnt about something you set out to do when you first started, and then once that's accomplished, you kinda don't know what's left out there.
I assume by academia you mean graduate school. If you made learning an end goal then you have the wrong motivation. That spark that you mentioned is what lights the fire that burns inside of you to find out what has yet to be learned.

Academia as a career is not a nine-to-five commitment. It is there for those who want it the most and who can shoehorn other responsibilities and interests into their day-to-day lives. If you are married then the support of your spouse is essential. Deadlines occur like mile markers as your career develops.

disclaimer: Besides grad school, my only association with a true academic is my son-in-law. The reason I did not continue toward an academic career was the realization that I did not have the mental resources to see the personal benefits of such a pursuit.
 
  • #3
justsomelostdude said:
Hello! I've looked around the community, and this seems like a great place to ask the question to experienced professionals!

I was wondering what kind of life does such a career in physics entail? I'm trying to contemplate a career in academia, but I'm quite nervous on the career switch, hehe so any advice or insights would very much be appreciated!

[...]
There's a lot here, too much to reply to at once.
My perspective: after my PhD I went into industry (defense/NASA contractors) for about 5 years and then went into academia, where I have been for 15 years (gak!!!). I'm now a full professor.

Here's a couple of my thoughts in response to a few of your many many questions:

"I've read some posts around and seen other websites (such as stackexchange), and even asked some friends around about it, and they mentioned that, other than the typical grading-and-teaching, they do:
[...]
However, they also felt that:"

I generally agree with both of those lists.

"1. Why did you start a career in academia instead of, say, within the industry/in a company, or starting your business?"

The best way I can describe the difference of R&D in industry and performing research in academia is this- in industry you have to do what someone tells you to, but in exchange they pay you a salary. In academic research you are free to do anything you like, but you have to figure out how to pay your own salary. Also, there are conceptual overlaps between running a small business and building up a staffed research lab.

Personally, I decided to take the risk of academic research. Fortunately, I have been successful.

4. Are there lots of opportunities where you work with people from other fields?

Yes- but that's also true of industry (in my experience).

5. Did you regret doing your research/starting the career?

No. Definitely not.
 
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