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Considering leaving science, HELP

  1. Jan 10, 2013 #1
    Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    I'm currently a junior studying math and physics in the US and I've been trying to figure out what I want to do after I finish my undergraduate degree. So far I've done 2 REU's, one at an observatory and one in mathematics, and honestly I didn't enjoy them at all. I felt like I had no clue what I was doing during both REUs and felt pretty useless both summers. I'll admit I've been depressed since I started college (and I still am, about school and personal things) so I'm not sure if this has affected the way I feel about research or if I just haven't found a good field to work in. Overall, my REU experiences has led me to think that I probably shouldn't be doing research or getting any kind of PhD anytime soon. I've been considering industry work such as:

    Mechanical Engineering or Materials Engineering: I'm not really a hands-on kind of person. I like the theory stuff but I've always hated labs. Also engineering sounds a little dull if you're not doing research.

    Biostatistician: Industry work in clinical trials sounds boring.

    Epidemiology: I'm pretty sure this invovles reseach (again not sure how I feel about it) and you have to get a PhD for this.

    Software Engineering: Most of the work sounds dull, plus I don't like the idea of staring at a computer screen all day

    Because I'm not very good at hands-on stuff I've been looking at more quantitative jobs. I'll also admit that I'm very burned out from school. Even though I am still doing well in my classes, I kind of just go through the motions to do well. I'm not sure if this means I should look outside math/physics stuff i.e. chemistry or bio stuff or abandon the sciences all together. I don't really want to go into business, actuary science or really anything to do with money. I've been looking at fields such as optometry or speech pathology but I'm very introverted, so I'm not sure I could handle dealing with lots of people everyday.

    Just want some advice on whether I should consider leaving science after I graduate (I'm almost done with my degress so I'm not dropping them). Also if you've dealt with depression or being burned during school, I'd like to hear about your experience dealing with it and how you made important decisions while having it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 10, 2013 #2


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    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    To the OP:

    Before you make any decision on whether to change your major, I think you need to deal with your depression. Many colleges and universities have psychological or psychiatric counselling services available to their students, so I suggest you should make good use of them.

    Regarding your REU experience, an undergraduate student isn't really expected to know anything off hand. The key thing is whether or not you actually learned something about the research field you pursued, and also on whether the professor you worked with was impressed enough with your work that he/she can give you a good recommendation if you decide to pursue graduate school.

    As far as burn-out is concerned, depending on how close you are to finishing, I would suggest taking anything from 6 months to a year off from school (you can do this while you are still enrolled in your school as of this moment if the college/university permits this, or after finishing your current degree but before applying to graduate school). During that time, you can either spend some time working or travelling, or maybe simply relaxing and contemplating. That break should give you some time to reflect on what you may want to do.
  4. Jan 12, 2013 #3
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    Thank you for replying!

    I've gone to the guidance counsellor's office a few times and I didn't find it too helpful. I think I just need a change of scenery.

    Taking time off isn't really an option, I'm so close to finishing both degrees. I'm thinking about studying abroad for a semester next fall as well as taking time off after I graduate. But with taking time of after school I'm having a hard time deciding what to do, doing an internship or something. But I'm even having a hard time deciding on an internship for this summer, I really don't want to do anything.
  5. Jan 14, 2013 #4
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    Yeah, I think StatGuy is right when he says deal with depression first. The thing is that when you're depressed everything sucks. Nothing feels like something you want to do, and life itself becomes an enormous effort.

    I was depressed for my first few years of college so I can relate to the feeling. For me, doing physics was part of how I rebuilt my self-esteem.

    As far as you needing a change of scenery - while there is a lot to be said for having a new context to allow yourself a fresh start, beware of any expectation that it will be a quick fix. Changing the way you think is the most important thing you can do for yourself - it just happens to be easier to do that whilst also in a new environment. I think studying abroad is a great idea. Just make sure you're doing the work to climb out of the depression hole while you're at it.

    For me, it was realizing just how much of my inner monologue was negative, and my inability to let go of what I was convinced were rational judgments of myself.

    Whatever you think you know about yourself when you're depressed, you're wrong.

    I can also relate to feeling useless at an internship - I sort of do myself. Just do the best yo can and realize that the people who hired you weren't nuts - they're just offering you exposure to new things and they know you're not an expert. Being surrounded by PhDs is intimidating, for sure, but you can't let it bother you too much!

    I hope that any of that made sense or was remotely helpful. All based on personal experience of course.
  6. Jan 14, 2013 #5
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    if you dislike hands on work then chemistry is not for you. much of chemistry is hands on work in the lab (including physical chemistry) and even theoretical chemistry has alot of empirical models; that's why they separate between ab-initio (from theory only) models and empirical models which are fit to observations. you're either gonna be in the lab or programming.

    if you don't like labwork and don't like programming then may i suggest business? you say you don't like it but have you tried?
  7. Jan 15, 2013 #6


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    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    On top of what I said earlier about dealing with your depression, in almost any job (whether in academia or in industry) you will have to work with or deal with other people, so I would definitely advise you to work on your introverted nature. Consider taking a course on public speaking, join the debating team at your school for a year, or becoming a member of Toastmasters -- something that will involve meeting with other people and speaking.

    One other thing to the OP -- I am a statistician who had been working in both the health-care and the pharma industry and I can tell you that the work is not boring! You can PM for more details on what I do or have done in this role.
  8. Jan 15, 2013 #7
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    The goal of every job seeker should be to find a job that sounds boring, but isn't. Let the competition's ignorance weed them out before the game even starts. (Edit: Maybe "a" goal, not the "the" goal. . .)

    I wasn't working last night at 7pm because of some evil deadline; I sat down at the computer and realized I would enjoy continuing a personal project I started at work more than I would enjoy playing computer games. (Unfortunately I don't make that decision all the time ;) )
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2013
  9. Jan 15, 2013 #8
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    I want to thank you all for responding. I am definitely going to try and tackle the depression problem first, I can barely think straight sometimes because of it.

    ThereIam: I was actually using physics and my other coursework to push my other problems to the back of my mind. It worked until I completely burned myself out. I'm trying really hard to not get my hopes up that studying abroad will fix "everything" but it's hard not to romantize the whole idea of doing it. I've even gone back and forth about going, convincing myself that I won't enjoy it and won't make any friends because of my introvertness.

    chill factor: I actually am looking into business stuff. I'm hoping to shadow someone who's in sales and trading to get a feel for the business environment, but I'm not expecting much from it. I never thought that business would be interesting.

    StatsGuy2000: In terms of introvertness, if I'm working, I generally don't have a problem giving talks or talking to people about the work. It's mostly trying to make friends that kills me.

    Locrian: It's quite hard to find a job that isn't really boring if its descrption makes it sound boring, how do people even decide to apply for the job? I guess this is where internships are a good idea. Even if it's boring, you're only there for a short period of time.
  10. Jan 15, 2013 #9
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    As a young man who is very experienced with depression/anxiety/irritability/BSofLife, I say your number one priority is to figure out why you are depressed. This will provide the most insight into your problems and will eventually lead to you seeing which actions you take. Dont ignore it, it wont go away.

    In the context of your post, it seems like the things you have been doing are not up to your expectations. Is it that you really don't like math and physics or you are just dissatisfied with the applications you have experienced? Also remember that just because you aren't good at something doesnt mean you cant get better or cant enjoy it. For example, I had a job working for an electric company basically maintaining the equipment and grounds. Quite frankly, I was absolutely terrible. I don't know why my boss didn't fire me. Still, I enjoyed the work and learn A LOT in those 3 short months. I believe that job helped me establish my worth ethic.

    I recommend the following course of action
    1) Get help for depression
    2) Analyse your expectations - why do you have them? Are they realistic?
    3) Investigate alternatives - learn about your other options but do not commit to anything
    4) Once in a better state of mind, make decisions. Do not rush!!!! DO NOT RUSH! and again...DO NOT RUSH!!!!!!!!!! This step should come naturally, not because you feel pressured.
  11. Jan 16, 2013 #10
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    I do feel a little dissapointed about my studies. For one, I thought I'd have some vague idea of what I want to do by now, but everything in science just sounds like too much hard work with little utility. That's how I feel about my classes and that's how I feel about getting a job in that's related to science. In all honesty I partly want to leave science just so that I can do something easler. Again this all could be tied back to the depression I've been dealing with, so I'm definitely going to try to work on that before making any kind of important decisions.
  12. Jan 20, 2013 #11
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    I'm in my first year and sometimes have a feeling of voidness. Sometimes math becomes so frustratingly difficult, cumbersome, or non-intuitive that you begin to question whether it is all worth it.

    When that happens, I would either:
    - Do something to relax, i.e. sports, music, meditation. Talk to friends but only if these friends actually serve to relax you rather than agitate you
    - Read a psychology textbook to understand your inner weakness
    - Read a sociology textbook (or memoir) to understand that you are not alone
    - Read a law textbook because law is like watered-down math that has nothing to do with math
    - Watch TV/movie/anime

    Avoid doing anything directly related to your major during times of frustration. If you are a math major, this includes things such as chess and sudoku which are still remotely related to math.

    On the other hand, when my mental state is "in the zone", that's whhen I study heavy subjects like math, physics, EE etc.

    All this only applies if the source of your depression is frustration in mathematics. If the source of your frustration is on other personal issues, then my advice does not apply.

  13. Jan 20, 2013 #12
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    Sounds like graduate school would be a nightmare for you, then, if you are already burnt out in undergrad. At the end of my undergrad (was a math major), I felt like I was the king of the world. Grad school destroyed me. So, while it's not impossible for you to make a comeback, graduate school sounds very, very risky. Actually, maybe being burnt out already could have some advantage in that you have already had to deal with it.

    In all likelihood, graduate school would just be delaying the problem because it's hard to get a faculty position in physics.

    In math, it's easier, but only if you are "good" at teaching (good is in quotes because it's not actually being good that counts, but whether the winy, unmotivated students don't complain about you to much). Since I am not "good" at teaching, I do not qualify for academic jobs in math. I can relate to not wanting to do most of the jobs that you could get in industry. It took me almost a full PhD worth of mathematical torture before I was able to realize that maybe something like actuarial work wouldn't be so bad. I think you shouldn't be so quick to dismiss those options. I think it's somewhat liberating to realize that you can let go of your dream to have the perfect job because, for one thing, probably most people don't like their jobs that much, and for another thing, maybe what you thought was a dream job is actually an unbearable pain in the rear.

    For me, I concluded that being a math professor would be awful. The only way for me to do science or math and maintain my sanity is to make money until I don't have to have a formal job anymore, and then I can do whatever I want without having to answer to anyone.
    You don't have to worry about bosses, competition, tenure, students complaining about you and trying to get you fired (not because you were slacking off or unreasonable, but simply because you aren't good enough for them), etc. All of that stuff makes me sick.
  14. Jan 20, 2013 #13
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    Yeah. As a teenager and as an undergrad it is hard to get a conception of what it really is like to be a professor. You dont think about the grant writing, faculty meetings, and committees and other non research related activities you need to do. I realized spending so much time doing those other things would not be exciting therefore professorship's are not for me.

    You dont really know what a job is like until you ask many people what it is like at that specific job.
  15. Jan 20, 2013 #14
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    Actually, it turns out I hated research as well. However, I am not sure if it's that I hate research, so much as that I hate the particular research that I am doing. It is a bit unexpected. I was initially interested in the subject, and I don't find it mathematically ugly, which is often a big stumbling block when trying to read papers, go to talks, and so on. It's just that I need to be completely free to do whatever research I want and not even worry about whether I produce something. Sort of a struggle to understand what math and physics are all about, rather than just focusing on some very narrow question. If I feel like doing graph theory Monday, physics Tuesday, applied math Wednesday, I want to be able to do graph theory on Monday, physics Tuesday, applied math Wednesday, etc. Whatever I feel like doing, wherever my curiosity leads me. But you can't get away with that in academia. You won't get tenure. You are expected to be a specialist and you are expected to continually produce "new" results, even if they are silly results.
  16. Jan 24, 2013 #15
    Re: Considering leaving science, HELP!!

    Bipolarity: I'm not particularity frustrated with math, in fact I'm a math major. I'm just disappointed about not being excited about math or physics anymore. If read an interesting article about involving any science, I get all excited about it, but as soon as it's actually time to put in some work, I really don't want to do it. If it's for a class, I'll suck it up just to do well.

    homeomorphic: I agree with your comment about grad school being a nightmare, that's why I'm taking time off once I graduate to clear my head and think things through. I think maybe this burnout is a sign that I should be considering other fields of work.

    jesse73: I also agree with your comment about not really knowing what a job is like until you talk to people and visit the work environment. I recently went to job shadow at a bank firm and I thought it was going to be terrible, but, I was completely surprised that I liked it at all. I didn't quite understand exactly what they do (to much finance jargon thrown around) and it didn't seem as interesting as physics, but I felt like it was something I could do without hating my job. The people there were also all really friendly. I have this constant battle in my head with choosing a career I'm "passionate about" and just having a job I can tolerate and doesn't make me miserable. But I'm afraid that if I'm not passionate about my job, I won't work as hard because I won't care.
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