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Do I want to be a physicist? Is it too late?

  1. Feb 25, 2013 #1

    I'll just start then I guess...
    I have a degree in computer engineering and am currently about half done with a master's in computer science. I'm certain on pursuing a Ph.D. but am not certain exactly what I want to do.

    During my undergrad I was often attracted to mathematics & physics but pursued computer engineering because I enjoyed programming and the quite honestly the job prospects were quite a bit better(this was before I decided I wanted to go to grad school). Since I was young I've always been attracted to physics, I'm a fan of some of the big names (Greene, Susskind, t'hooft, etc..) and have read many of their books. I've always been absolutely fascinated with special relativity and string theory. Some of the other portions of physics I haven't any real interest in(say like fluids, classical mechanics, ...).

    Now that I've started a Master's in computer engineering I've been thinking about what I really would like to do with the rest of my life. Right now I am working on some of the hotter topics in computer science, there are aspects that are interesting but to be honest the majority of my field I find quite boring. If I continue what I'm doing now I will surely be able to find a nice-paying position after school, but I'm afraid I will always have doubts about if I pursued the right thing or not. From what I hear the job prospects for freshly minter physics Ph.D.s are pretty bleak. I've been taking math classes every semester and while I could use some work I can hang with some of the math grad students in these classes.

    To sum it up I feel that I don't have the background to pursue a physics Ph.D., while my interests are far from the typical comp. sci. major.

    Any words of advice?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 25, 2013 #2
    This is a red flag. You seem to be interested in physics because of pop sci books and how the media presents physics. This presentation of physics is completely different from how physics studies or physics research is. It is a lot of hard work and chances are that you will find it not so interesting. Physics research is not about speculating about time travel, wormholes, teleportation, black holes, etc. While these things are covered in physics, they are completely different from what you think.

    I don't think it would be a smart idea to leave a masters in Computer Science for this. You have no idea whether you will even like physics. And even if you like physics, there is no guarantee that you will succeed (most physics students don't succeed in academia). I think you should first get some actual physics books and work through them. If you like what you're doing, then you should contemplate studying physics. Now I think you're suffering from a "grass is greener on the other side" syndrome.

    I am not trying to discourage you. But I want to prevent that you go into physics for the wrong reasons. Certainly when you're already doing a masters in Computer Science!
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2013
  4. Feb 25, 2013 #3
    With a bachelors in computer engineering and a masters in computer science, you would be a good candidate for a phd in quantum computing. There is currently interesting work to be done in designing the hardware/firmware required to make quantum computers a reality. In fact I think Booz Allen just recently got a huge grant to work on this stuff. I would imagine designing this stuff requires a deep knowledge of both computer engineering and quantum physics, so it might be a good fit for you.
  5. Feb 25, 2013 #4
    Micromass has some wise words. Unfortunately, Kaku and others have skewed the public view of "real" physics. Time travel, wormholes, teleportation, black holes, etc. are not things physicists are taking seriously. Maybe buy a elementary physics text, and see if it sparks any interest. You may be genuinely attracted to certain aspects of physics that deal with computing since you have that background, but before ever dealing with any of that, you need to find real physics fascinating. Personally, the books that inspired me to study engineering and physics were Feynman's Lectures on Physics. Now THATS real physics! - Poopsilon's message is also relevant, but before ever getting to quantum computing, you need to study study study physics - and that requires a certain passion for the subject
  6. Feb 26, 2013 #5


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    (Bolded by me) Just to echo what has already been said, but at a bit more specific level, this is a pretty good indication that you have been infatuated with the romanticism of popular physics and not the kind of physics one studies in uni. However it is still possible that you just haven't had exposure to actual physics yet. Classical mechanics is the basis of physics and easily one of the most beautiful subjects one can learn; maybe you haven't been exposed to enough of it to develop a love for it. Regardless, I don't see how one can have a truly deep interest physics without appreciating the elegance and utility of classical mechanics.
  7. Feb 26, 2013 #6
    First off, thanks for the replies everyone, a lot of great things here.

    mircomass -- First off, thanks for your advice. I understand that physics isn't about time travel, wormholes, etc... Out of all the ideas I've tossed around in my head on things I think would like to work on in the future, I have a couple that have really stuck. The first was mentioned below, quantum computing. The second is developing new models for molecular simulations of protein structures, with the goal of perhaps someday entire cells! I think that this would have great applications in the health industry.

    I definitely understand what your saying here. I don't plan to leave my Comp. Sci. degree, I'd just like to figure out what I what I would like to do afterwards. I think that exposing myself to some physics is a great idea, any advice on what I should start with? I've taken the standard university Physics I & II classes(this was 3-4 years ago already, my reply below details something that happened after then). I will search around these forums for a book to start out with, any suggestions?

    I agree, there doesn't seem to any evidence I have the passion for it. I think could be from not having studied any types of physics for a few years, back then I didn't find anything too interesting. I was a student that had an "awakening" halfway through my undergrad, I went from getting C's in all my classes to having a near-4.0 every semester, then co-authored two research papers my senior year.

    Great point, like I said above I will start working through a book or two over the next year in order to gauge my true interest.
  8. Feb 26, 2013 #7
    If you don't find the basic subjects in physics thoroughly enjoyable, you will have a big difficulty staying motivated in an undergrad degree, probably much more so in a phd. I've seen a lot of people go into physics infatuated with grandiose ideas that physics will allow you to understand the entire universe or with completely wrong impressions of what astronomy work is like, and either flunk out or slog on with very little motivation for many years to finish their degree.

    I suggest you go watch Walter Lewin's lectures on mechanics, waves/oscillations, and electromagnetism. Core subjects like that should make your hair stand on end. If not, you might not have a realistic view of what physics is.

    That's not to say everyone who does physics loves every subject equally. I found solid state physics pretty dull, but even then, here and there I found interesting bits in it that kept me highly motivated to learn.

    And btw, in many ways, classical mechanics and fluids are about as closely related to "cool" subjects like quantum field theory and extreme astrophysics as you can possibly get.
  9. Feb 26, 2013 #8
    Thanks! I will try to watch Lewin's lectures.
  10. Feb 26, 2013 #9


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    I'd like to interject and say that while time travel, wormholes, and teleportation are topics very few actual physicists spend time thinking about (but some certainly do, and I as a grad student have spent a nonzero amount of time thinking about wormholes and warp drives), black holes are an extremely active of research. Nevertheless, I think what everyone here means to be telling you is that doing research in any of these 'sexy' topics is not simply thinking around and wondering about it. All of them are connected to extremely complicated and difficult mathematics, so it can be very easy after ten pages of algebra to forget that all the symbols somehow refer to something about a black hole! This is the sense in which a distaste of classical mechanics is frightening -- if it's only the end goal, namely the black hole, that excites you, 95% of physics, which is the in between work, will completely bore you. This, to me, does not sound like a recipe for success.
  11. Feb 26, 2013 #10
    Classical Mechanics is really the archetype of most of your physics classes.

    Work through a book on Lagrangian mechanics and if you still see yourself doing physics it might be for you.

    Also try to work through a book on statistical mechanics and if you still see yourself doing physics it might be for you.
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