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First semester of grad school down, having some doubts.

  1. Jan 8, 2008 #1
    Hello everyone!

    I just finished my first semester of graduate school in physics, and I have been struggling with some serious doubts since virtually the first day.
    During my time as an undergraduate, things were fairly easy for me. Most of my peers were spending 8 hours per day studying and what not while I was able to get by with much less effort and still graduate magna cum laude, phi beta kappa. I worked in the Army Research Lab for a couple summers and also had great success there as far as writing papers and giving presentations of my research. At the time this was great, as I got to enjoy having a lot of free time and still do very well. The problem now is that being in graduate school the workloads are tremendous, and it seems that for one to be successful they must be willing to pretty much do nothing but physics! Now I am in a situation where I need to be willing to spend many hours a day doing physics. . . and it isn’t so easy.

    I enjoy doing a lot of things, and I have a lot of hobbies. I enjoy reading and writing fantasy novels (Robert Jordan, George RR Martin etc…), I have a girlfriend of two years that I spend a lot of time with, I’m close to home so I still hang out with a large group of great friends every weekend, I love watching football and mixed martial arts (the UFC for example). My biggest hobby is nutrition and physical fitness. I train a lot like a competitive athlete and spend a lot of time researching training and nutrition, being outside, and building training equipment.

    So obviously I simply don’t have the time to do all these things and be a successful PhD student. I’ve noticed that the majority of the other graduate students don’t really do much or have many interests outside of physics, and it’s frustrating! Am I supposed to just put a lot of these hobbies of mine on the back burner and let physics pretty much be my life for the next who knows how many years?

    Thus far this rant only concerns coursework (and pre-lim exams…*sigh*), I have seen a little light in this situation in the form of research. When I wasn’t sitting around bored with nothing to do, I really enjoyed my time as an intern doing research at ARL. My concentration is soft condensed matter (probably with a biology emphasis), and I hope to find a job in a government/national lab or in industry... NOT academia. This semester all the professors have been giving a seminar for the new grad students in order to help us determine with whom we want to do our research, and I feel excited and motivated when I hear these things. When it comes time for coursework however, I’m again feeling a depressing lack of interest.

    I hope my intelligence didn’t trick me into getting into something that’s going to make me hate life for the next 5,6,7 years! My boss at ARL said that if you don’t contemplate quitting at least 3 times during graduate school, something is wrong… but I’ve only completed ONE semester!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 8, 2008 #2
    I was an aerospace engineering student in a PhD program, and got out after 1.5 years. I had no intention of going into academia and was getting into the program thinking it would help me get a better job in the private space industry, which I still want to be in.

    Can you get out with an MS in physics with only another year of being in school? Personally, I saw very few openings for PhDs without years of experience in the job market when I was looking, but then again I was probably searching for different things than you were.

    Figure out why you wanted to do a PhD in the first place, and think about whether or not that is a big enough reason for getting on with it. Getting out now (with only 1 year invested) is going to be a lot easier than later on if you continue to have doubts. That, and you probably aren't making much as a grad student. If you spend a few more years getting a PhD, economically, you would have been much better off getting a job, even with an increased salary, especially if you invested your money in some way.
  4. Jan 8, 2008 #3
    All I gotta say is: if you didn't question your commitment and contemplate quiting there is something wrong. Physics grad school is hell. Plain and simple. Especially the first few years before you pass the quals.

    I am in my last semester of my PhD. Writing, trying to finish that one last project and find a job is hard. In fact, overall, grad school is completely insane. Add on to that a wife and a 6 month old son for me and life is basically sleepless, delusional and really kinda funny- but completely overwhelming at the same time. But there is a lot you get from grad school. You actually start learning some interesting physics, you start doing original research, and you are much freer than you will ever be again in your life.

    Stick it out through the quals. Most places will let you leave with a masters for free after that. And you can make your decision then. Do you really want to leave and get some software job? Cause that is what like 75% of physics BS holders do.
  5. Jan 8, 2008 #4
    What do you know? I just finished my first semester too. Congratulations to both of us!

    This is more or less my experience too. Thirteen hour work days, WAY harder than undergrad, etc. And then there's stinking Jackson E&M. Did you take E&M with the Jackson text too? I'm wondering if this is the standard "gang initiation" that all physics departments use for their first years.

    Also I'm one of those graduate students you mentioned who doesn't do much or have too many interests outside of physis. Which isn't to say that I don't have some life outside the office. I'm pretty active in my church, but that's about it. I myself live only three hours from my hometown, so I also get a few chances every semester to hang out with my friends. Reminds me of all the free time I used to have. I guess that grad school really just makes us question how much we really like physics. After all, you typically don't get rich by being in physics.

    If it makes you feel better, I briefly considered quitting in the middle of my first semester. Mostly it was seeing how hard some of the professors work (granted they do so by choice, not because they have to). We work pretty hard in grad school, and I don't want to be working this hard for the rest of my life. Of course, I did realize that getting a PhD doesn't mean I have to be a professor. And even being a professor doesn't mean I have to work all that hard.

    Lol! I'll probably be quoting you on that a few times, if you don't mind.

    Just wondering if you could expand on this. I was assuming that grad school was when I'd be the least free, since I'm hoping that things will get better after the next five years. Why is it that we're more free in grad school than we'll be in the future?
    Last edited: Jan 8, 2008
  6. Jan 8, 2008 #5
    Haha yes I just completed the first half of Jackson. Definitely a pain, it also didn't help that my prof was a complete joke. His "lecture notes" were literally a photocopy of Jackson, which he just skimmed over writing down the main equations. The best part of that class is the term paper I'm about to finish writing on negative index metamaterials.

    Thirteen hour work days?! See that's just my problem, I simply cannot motivate myself to spend that much time on school work. I struggle to make myself study for more than 5 hours a day lol, and almost never on weekends. I mean, once I get home I'm cooking, cleaning, working out, hangin out with my girlfriend. I really need to think long and hard about all this.

    Thanks for the input!
  7. Jan 8, 2008 #6
    Yes it is the standard. Has been for the last 20 years or so I believe.

    Feel free. I doubt you will find many people who disagree.

    I meant freer in the sense that you don't have a lot of other professional obligations. You are free to just do physics (mainly). As a professor you have much more teaching, committees to sit on, students to mentor PLUS writing grants and actually doing research. (SIDE NOTE: if your university offers any classes on grant writing I STRONGLY suggest taking them- this is a make or break aspect of professorhood for many people- I digress.)

    If you are a government lab or an actual civil servant for some government branch you will have so much bureaucracy to deal with you will want to flip out. In industry, you have the pressures of a real world boss, and the bottom line : $$$$

    So in that respect you don't have nearly as much responsibility and you are free to choose what you study. If you feel like spending a week or two on a research digression- you can. I don't see that happening during the next stages of a PhD's career. Just my thoughts based on observation of friends, colleagues and advisers.
  8. Jan 9, 2008 #7
    Oh yeah, there's a second half... :yuck:

    Interesting story. Since I'm doing astrophysics, I technically don't have to take nearly as many physics courses as the other physics majors. For example, I don't have to take a second semester of quantum, I can choose between taking classical mechanics and stat mech (but not both), and most of my specialized courses can be in astronomy. Problem is, I'm more interested in physics than astronomy, and my research has WAY more to do with physics than astronomy (I do experimental gamma ray astrophysics). So my advisor said that I could simply do my PhD with him, but get a regular physics degree, that way I can take all of the standard physics classes, and only take the two or three astro courses that apply to my research. Unfortunately he doesn't know that much about the course requirements of the department.

    I just found out four days ago that if I get a regular physics PhD, I'm required to take the second semester of Jackson E&M. Now I find myself seriously considering if I should just take the watered down astrophysics degree to avoid another semester of Jackson. Heck, my advisor has strongly discouraged taking the second semester of E&M! Still not sure what I'm going to do. I'm definitely not taking more Jackson this spring. Maybe I'll put it off till my second or third year.
  9. Jan 9, 2008 #8
    give me a break. it can't be this hard. you guys act like jackson e&m is a herculean task.
  10. Jan 9, 2008 #9
    Have you been to grad school? Just asking because if so, you'd be the first person I've ever met who thought that Jackson E&M wasn't the devil.
  11. Jan 9, 2008 #10
    I think that Jackson is a "rite of passage" to become a physicist. I watched a talk by David Gross (Nobel Prize for QCD) once, and he said that he defined a physicist as "someone who hand studied E&M using Jackson," and that "excludes all the engineers." The problems are legendary for the amount of time they take.
  12. Jan 9, 2008 #11
    So all the people who became physicists before Jackson's book aren't real physicists? Cool.

    It also makes me angry that people 100 or so years ago could get a Ph.D. at like 22 or so. No quantum mechanics, no modern physics (well, it was getting there, but not at the level that its taught today), etc. Those old farts had it easy.
  13. Jan 10, 2008 #12
    Yeah, dumb old farts. Having to invent that theory.....who does that 22 year old think he is inventing modern science? :rofl:
  14. Jan 10, 2008 #13


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    Isn't Jackson's E&M considered classical electrodynamic? I don't anyone could call that easy.
  15. Jan 10, 2008 #14


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    I remember a student making comments, like Poop-Loop's, before class about Gauss and Riemann and so on. I flipped out on him. The arrogance made me snap. He kept his trap shut.
  16. Jan 10, 2008 #15
    Yeah, spending eight hours on a single problem even with the help of three other graduate students and Homer Reid..."legendary" is an interesting way of putting it.

    So do I count as a real physicist if I only took the first semester of Jackson E&M? Or would this make me some sort of half-breed physicist/astronomer?
  17. Jan 10, 2008 #16
    Heh, good one :smile:
  18. Jan 11, 2008 #17
    Haha, you know Murray Gell-Mann called em "half ass-trophysicists." He also called solid state physics "squalid state physics." All in all, he's not very nice sometimes.
  19. Jan 11, 2008 #18
    The arrogance of what? They didn't have nearly as much to learn (including general eds...) as a math major does these days. They were able to jump in to cutting edge research at the age of around 20 or so.

    The grad students I know are mostly in their mid to late 20's and still in the background of their professors' research. Especially experimentalists.

    The way I see it, you can account for progress (breakthroughs, I realize progress happens every day) not being much faster than in those times despite a MUCH larger number of scientists working with much better equipment and communication technology in two ways:

    1) It's harder now.

    2) We're dumber now.

    Take your pick.

    Einstein himself said he stood on the shoulders of giants. Well today, you have so many more giants' shoulders to climb up on before you can get any higher.
  20. Jan 11, 2008 #19

    Ben Niehoff

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    Newton said he stood on the shoulders of giants; not Einstein. But your point is the same.
  21. Jan 11, 2008 #20
    Why would Newton say that Einstein stood on the shoulders of giants? Wouldn't that violate causality?
  22. Jan 11, 2008 #21

    Ben Niehoff

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    Ah, but didn't Einstein spend most of his life spatially separated from England? Relativity of simultaneity, my friend.
  23. Jan 11, 2008 #22
    Well played.
  24. Jan 11, 2008 #23
    My mistake. :(
  25. Jan 11, 2008 #24
    I don't know. . . for some reason I just can't picture Newton as being the type to like going for piggy-back rides.
  26. Jan 12, 2008 #25


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    I didn't find grad school that hard (partially b/c I had taken some of the classes as an undergrad). Ended up finishing in three & half years. First year being the most intensive.

    Hardest class imo was grad lvl stat mech. E&M was fun, and you could solve Jacksons problem sets in only a few hours if you could see the trick(s) (rather than brute forcing everything).

    Being a Post doc is much harder (ahh real world) and moving on to Assistant proffessor will be even worse.
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