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Crashed, Burned

  1. Jul 29, 2008 #1
    Can anyone here would be able to extract some hope from the following scenario?

    I began my undergraduate coursework in physics in 2000 at a top-20 school at the age of sixteen, and did quite well--earning four fellowships, TAing an upper-division particle physics lab course before reaching 18, and having several quarters with straight-As. Things were really looking up, until the summer of 2002.

    I was selected for a 10-week summer research program in high-energy physics at LBNL. The work was interesting until about the third week, but then I started to lose interest to the point where I would show up for work one or two days per week. The graduate student who was looking after me got angry when we were scrambling to produce a minimally-acceptable summary of the "work" that I did in those 10 weeks, in the last week of the program.

    I started taking graduate courses the following fall, and got mediocre marks. The subject matter no longer seemed fun, and on top of that, I (naively) thought five graduate courses were going to take the same amount of preparation as five undergraduate courses. I took the qualifying examination for the master's degree the following year, and failed it, with a class rank of 26/27. This meant taking an additional six months' coursework while waiting for the next opportunity to take the exam. By this time, I had sent off 10 graduate school applications and got 3 acceptances--one from a top-10 school. This meant a small boost to morale, but the mediocre grades from my last two years doing graduate coursework still lingered.

    Fast forward another eight months: I'm a first-year graduate student at a top-10 school (not the wisest choice in retrospect; keep reading), and have chosen particle physics as a research area and a project. No more than two weeks passes by until I discover how uninterested I am with the project, not to mention the 5-to-8 year completion timetable for the Ph.D.

    My first quarter of graduate school was a disaster: the first time I've failed a course or taken an incomplete. For some reason, I decide that playing Yahoo! blackjack is more important than working on the Ph.D., and I find myself playing this and other computer games hours on end instead of studying and working hard. My second quarter was worse--I didn't even pass half my classes or make appreciable progress on my degree. But in spite of all this negative turnover, I try to convince someone to give me money to supplement my GRA funding, and succeed. A major fellowship agency decides to give me a fellowship with multiple years of support (based on my work as a undergraduate--the graduate school grades weren't released yet). Now that computer games have gotten me on the fast track to success, I would think that coasting, not showing up for classes, asking for constant extensions, and showing up for work 10% of the time would guarantee a bright future. At this point, I am doing everything to sabotage my career as a graduate student and am not thinking twice about it. What a mistake that was: A few months later, my case was brought up before the committee that selected me for the fellowship, and the fellowship was taken away.

    Another year passes, and I'm at the end of my rope. The school encourages me to take some time off, and I do. Unfortunately, the time off was spent in mostly menial jobs--ranging from breaking down cardboard boxes for myspace.com and doing reception in a doctor's office, to driving an 18-wheel truck. It was amazing how little a master's degree in physics got me at the time (your mileage may vary)!

    Fast forward another year: I'm back at school, and am "unattached," which means basically taking classes without a research advisor or project. Again, I became enamored of everthing except the coursework and research that would lead to the Ph.D., and ended up squandering plenty of time and money--thousands and thousands of dollars that I managed to save from my "better days"--on nonsense. My grades were really in the toilet and well below the minimum for satisfactory progress (a 1.7 GPA), and my first advisor had to argue the possible merits of my continuing in the program to the graduate committee. After all this took place, I was starting my fourth year as a "G1", and had almost nothing to show for my time there.

    An old biophysics professor (the oldest in the physics department) was sympathetic to my situation, and decided to let me work under him as a student. Again, my fascination with the work was short-lived, and after about three months, it was "anything but this." I wasn't making much progress, and my new advisor knew it. He (we) also knew that the school had given me four chances to get my act together, and that the school was operating at a loss, having already invested close to the tune of $100,000 in computer gaming, gas for my car, and other frivolities.

    So here I am, at the end of a terribly unproductive four years of graduate work, with little to show for it. I withdrew from school last June, my finances have been depleted, and I'm on my last hundred dollars. I still haven't been able to find a full-time job, and the ultimate kick in the teeth was when McDonalds declined my application! I've basically become the canonical example of "burnout" to several professors, some friends, and plenty of peers, and, well, that's just not how I thought things would end up.

    If anyone would care to offer some suggestions for getting out of this hole, they would be welcomed. My graduate academic record is effectively destroyed--is there any chance of returning to graduate school some time in the future?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 29, 2008 #2
    If you fail to work at physics... and actively see yourself failing to work at physics... well - why do you want to be a physicist?

    What do you want to be when you grow up?
  4. Jul 29, 2008 #3

    Math Is Hard

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    It sounds like you were shoved down this academic path before you even knew what was happening to you, with no chance to grow up and experience the world, and figure out what you wanted for yourself. You seemed to be just going along with someone else's plan. (I don't blame you; I think this happens to a lot of smart kids who get noticed for their abilities.)

    So, what do you want to do for a living? What do you care about? What do you like to do? What are you good at?
  5. Jul 29, 2008 #4
    Omg.... :surprised:

    I can't believe what I just read. This is really scary stuff my friend. My first impression is that you have screwed everything down the crapper. But I believe in something called "possibilityfields". Right now, you are in a negative possibility field for physics, I think that you should quit. You should've quit a LONG time ago. But in the meantime, when you are in a negative field for something, you are in a positive field for something else.

    Plusside: You can probably not go back to physics (at least not in that school, come on, four chances and you blew them all? on blackjack and computer games? holy sweet mother of...)
    This means that you are free to explore other opportunities. Like going into industry, (you still got a Msc) or doing related work like that. Do you got any marketable skills at all from your physics degree? mechanics? condensed matter physics? anything? lab skills? but your epic uninterest of physics maybe you shouldn't do anything related to physics at all. Maybe not even science?

    From here on, you can probably go anywhere, I think you should go to australia, pick some fruit, operate a till or something like that, get some sun, go "hide in the bushes" with some skanks. Get drunk a lot and pardeee as they say down under. Take some free time off life, then maybe you will experience something worth while.

    Negatives: Depends on how old you are, and if you compare yourself to your peers.

    You are basically "f*cked" in physics. Marketable skills?
  6. Jul 29, 2008 #5
    Give. Up.

    You are not a research physicist. You are spending time at university because you don't know what you want to do with your life. I know, because I did this.

    Go and work for 5 years. You can always go back to grad school if you want. The biggest problem you are going to have is explaining it to your parents; they feel so easy to disappoint, don't they?
  7. Jul 29, 2008 #6
    From time to time, does an interesting problem temporarily take over your mind, and you drop everything and spend hours solving it just to figure it out? (ala http://xkcd.com/356/) When you start thinking about physics or math, do you still feel that spark of excitement? (did you ever feel it?)
  8. Jul 29, 2008 #7


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    Looks like MIH is either right, or close to being right - there is some reason that you don't feel like these things are now interesting to you, even if they were before.

    Any changes in your personal situation that could have been attributed to your change of attitude? Love affaris (and I am dead serious)?

    OTOH - sounds like too early for a middle age crisis :wink:
  9. Jul 29, 2008 #8


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    MIH is on the right track. What is one's passion? What makes one look forward to the future? What does one find meaningful?

    Playing games (especially when one wins) gives instant gratification.

    Sabotaging one's academic programs sounds like a classic case of burnout. So take a break and work on finding something that is enjoyable, meaningful and satisfying.

    No - they did one a favor! One is overqualified for McD and one does not belong there.

    Either find something in Physics that inspires one, or

    go abroad, go fishing, go to the mountains, go to Alaksa or Patagonia.

    or join the Peace Corp.
  10. Jul 29, 2008 #9


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    I have to say - what surprises me here was that you got along as far as you did in graduate school. But then again, a lot of weight is placed on undergraduate performance, so if you have the marks, a department will tend to be forgiving.

    In all honesty, it also sounds like you have a serious issue with personal discipline. Just because you don't like doing a job, does not give sufficient justification for not seeing it through. I would hesitate to say you're "burned out" as that would imply you've worked too hard for too long and haven't had adequate down time to recooperate. I would suggest that somewhere along the line you've learned that the world should come to you - likely because when you were in undergrad and you were getting the good marks, it did. And maybe because you were young and fast-tracked, you had the impression that you should accomplish everything quickly and without a huge amount of effort. Now you've had a hard time learning that it doesn't actually work that way.

    If you really want to continue in physics, you likely can, but you need to solve the personal discipline issue first. Otherwise the same cycle will repeat - even if you find something you're passionate about. Unfortunately, I can't tell you exactly how to do this. In general though, the solution will involve setting and achieving a series of goals for yourself.
  11. Jul 29, 2008 #10
    Triangleman, I have been through a similar situation. Though, not to the pinnacles of acheivement as you have. I too have squandered multiples of currency on trivial things. Life became exceedingly difficult, before it got much better. My advice, no matter how bad it gets, don't turn to substance abuse. You have a good head on your shoulders, make good use of it.

    You have enough education to go into business for yourself? Maybe this is an avenue you could take and in the meantime, if videogaming is presently more alluring, you could continue playing while making money on the side. Perhaps you could do consultant work? You have all the qualifications I'm sure.

    during my 27-30 years(age), I had wunderlust, like a gypsy.I had to be everywhere and I couldn't stay in one place for any prolonged period of time. Through the years I have settled down. Recently, I have returned to school at the ripe age of 47, to finish my physics degree I started back in the early '90s. I'm fairly competent in my field, not a genius like yourself, but able to accomplish the task at hand.

    My point is this: If I can do it, you can too and as I mentioned earlier, don't seek peer pressure acceptance via substance abuse. I did and it almost cost me my very life.
    So, if physics bores you now, perhaps you ought to look at another short term career path and if it turns out you discard any of my advice, hey it's OK, I understand.

    Do some soul searching. Ask yourself, "What will bring back the joy I once had?"
    Know this: In whatever you do, if there isn't any "peace in your work" then you should probably look for another line of work. Explore or develop new passions. For the interim, why don't you consider video game programming? You like video games, right? (who doesn't)
    It's a growing industry. Program and prototype test your own game and make money!!
    Sounds like a winner too me.

    Do it soon, don't wait as long as I did to decide.
    A friend if you need one.
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2008
  12. Jul 29, 2008 #11
    Tman, Choppy has it right. Read his post.
  13. Jul 29, 2008 #12


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    :approve: I wrote a post along these lines in this thread, then threw it away, because I found that I was not being nice. But it is what I think too. "spoiled, brilliant kid" comes to mind. Many things in life have to be done, that are not very enjoyable, let alone exciting. That doesn't mean you don't have to sit down and do them. It could be that studying and getting good results was really a game for you, and that you have never been in a situation where you HAD to do something you didn't find fun. Most kids have, and learned at a pretty young age that even if they didn't like to do something, they had to it nevertheless. They learned to take on some responsibility and developed the courage needed to "finish the job". It might be that because you showed signs of genius, that during your youth, people (your parents, your teachers, your professors) never forced you in "finishing the job" in anything except the one you enjoyed so much: bringing home good results and studying. So you never met the frustration and challenge of "having to finish a job you didn't find fun".

    This has nothing to do with physics per se. It has to do with self discipline, and the courage to take yourself to the job. This is something you will have to learn sooner or later, and in your case, it will be "later". I can assure you that even a "boring" graduate job is still hundreds of times more enjoyable and passionate than what most people have to do to make their living. The cash register lady doesn't do that job because she finds it exciting. The guy at the grocery store doesn't do that because he finds it challenging. Hell, even most engineers don't do exciting and challenging stuff all the time. But they do it because it is their job, because they find some satisfaction to it, because from the different possibilities offered to them, that was probably the best compromise at a certain point etc...

    Your attitude is not of your age. I've known people who got bored to hell in their job, they quit it when they could, but as long as they were on it, they did it. I've seen people burned out after immense effort. They didn't play video games, they collapsed. What you have is more a spoiled kid's attitude. You really have to get rid of it.
    The thing you did: showing up 2 days a week, could get you in fast trouble with a real employer! You'd get fired on the spot - not laid off. And you would have serious trouble ever finding another job again. It is a totally irresponsible attitude that cannot be tolerated from someone with higher education. With such an attitude, you are entirely unemployable.

    So work on it!
  14. Jul 29, 2008 #13
    You are so right on this one. Even if the job sucks cameldung, it still must be done. Even if it's godawful boring like "graduate-study"... *smacks in the forhead*
  15. Jul 29, 2008 #14


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    I agree with vanesch that you have to work on your attitude.

    There are going to be times in any field of physics and any job, no matter how interesting, that you are going to have to do things you don't like. I just spent the last two days underneath an isolation table trying to fix the isolation system. It's not the reason I like working in the field, but it has to be done. Two weeks ago we had to do a chemical inventory/cleanup. One of the grad students I work with spilled a bottle of photoresist in the process. Believe me, that was no ones ideal day in the lab. But no one decided to skip because they didn't want to do chemical inventory. Going into work only twice a week is a sign of unforgivable immaturity in an employee or student. You need to fix that or your not going anywhere.

    It's not going to be always be fun and exciting. Get over it. With this attitude, you'll not make it in any job, let along being a research scientist.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jul 29, 2008
  16. Jul 29, 2008 #15

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    I am afraid vanesch is right - particularly in that it doesn't sound like burnout. I've seen people burn out, and it's more common to see them working 30 days a month than 1 or 2 days a week.

    When I was in graduate school, one of the first labs in the (required) lab course involved taking measurements on about 24 samples, each three hours long, over three days. Swapping a sample only took 3 or 4 minutes, but this involved being tethered on a leash to the lab for three days straight. Part of the reason they did this was to teach us the science, but part of it was to make sure that we really knew what we were getting into.
  17. Jul 29, 2008 #16
    I agree with the general consensus that the problem was entirely your work attitude. You clearly what the intelligence to achieve a lot in physics.

    I think the most important thing you should ask yourself is, now that I know what physics grad school is like, do I really want to go back? How much of me quitting was my work ethic, how much was me not liking physics.

    What do you really enjoy? Maybe you never got to find out. It sounds like you are in a very tough position.

    I would advise you to look for some kind of job, I mean you do have a Masters in Physics. You should be able to get some kind of a job, whether it be menial or professional. But think about what you want to do.

    I for one will say, you clearly are capable, but are you willing to work? Are you willing to grind it out. Mathematics and physics are cool, I love them. But being a mathematician and being a physicist is a grind. It's a lot of work. And how many are remembered 30, 40 years down the line? Do you love physics enough to deal with the grind?

    Find what you love. I understand you are in a tough tough position, but try to look for work, take it easy for a few months, maybe a year and just try to get your life back together. My gut would say the total grind of physics might what is turning you off. I guess as an undergrad you were the best, didn't have to work as hard as others and got all the glory, I mean you got into a top 10 school.

    Try looking for something you don't mind putting hours into.

    Good luck man, let us know what happens.
  18. Jul 29, 2008 #17


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    I'm somewhat mystified by the fact that you worked in menial blue-collar jobs despite having a bacherlor's degree (and, if I read your first post accurately excellent grades for your undergrad courses) in physics. Couldn't you get a decent job as a high school physics teacher? You can always decide whether or not you want to return to grad school after you have a steady source of income.
  19. Jul 30, 2008 #18
    I have to echo the sentiment expressed by others in this thread. You're not burned out, you just lack discipline. Part of being a professional is doing something that you don't want to do, even if it's boring. Also, if you do decide to go back into physics, you need to change grad schools immediately. You're carrying around too much baggage.
  20. Jul 30, 2008 #19


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    I'm a little surprised at the replies offered to him so far. Most seem to be concerned with trashing the OP's attitude in grad school and life. But the last few lines of his post highlighted that he was living on his last 100 dollars. If there's anything that's more important than succeding in grad school, it's about procuring a stable job with a steady source of income with his existing qualifications. That should be his immediate priority, instead of trying his hand again at grad school. Given the experience he went through for the past 4 years, he may not want to step back into grad school any time soon. To this end, what kind of jobs has the OP looked at? There are jobs out there which don't require much more than a physics bachelor degree, such as high school teaching as I mentioned earlier.
  21. Jul 31, 2008 #20


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    i didn't read all that crap but assume it says; i am really smart but got bored and screwed up. is my life over? answer, no. as soon as you get serious about something you will get another chance. but you better take advantage of it next time.

    good luck finding your passion.
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