1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Grad School Pessimism

  1. Nov 5, 2013 #1
    So I'm currently an undergrad physics major, and looking to pursue a Ph.D in physics. I was recently talking to one of my friends, who is a grad plasma physics student, about his research. He seems to like physics a lot, but when I talked to him he said his research is boring. I replied with something like, "Oh, well I am going to do interesting research," and he said it is all boring unless your making discoveries in your research.

    I don't know if the field just isn't right for him, or if he's right. I guess my question is do you agree?

    I love physics. Granted, I still have a lot to learn, but it's so interesting and fun. I like talking about a variety of subjects, but if someone even mentions physics I can talk to the point where they regret knowing me. That being said, I don't want the subject I love to become something I have to do to make a living. I just don't want the passion to die. I want to love what I do.

    My lab experience is minimal for physics, but I am making progress in getting more. So far I like it. I would like to do something in theoretical physics (Nuclear, Particle, Condensed Matter, Optics).

    So, what do you think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 5, 2013 #2
    Enjoying to talk about physics probably doesn't help that much for enjoying actually working as a physicst. Liking lab experience seems a bit more relevant. For pen&paper theory the feat to look for would probably be liking to do homework exercises. Computer experiments, which is what many people in "theoretical physics" departments do nowadays, is more towards the lab experience side in my experience (which is having liked labs, having liked computer experiments, almost never having done any homework).

    Having the feeling of not getting any results sucks everywhere, not only in physics or in academia or in research (waiters liking their job probably want to see satisfied clients). If your threshold feeling of getting results is making groundbreaking discoveries, PhD time will probably suck (and academia time after the PhD will probably not exist due to bad performance during the PhD). If your stimulus threshold is lower, things look better. I got quite a lot of solid results during my PhD, measured in terms of publications as well as, and more importantly for the emotional state, in terms of what I experienced as a results. None of these results I would call a "discovery". Just the result of solid craftsmanship.
    Which brings me back to the labs: Of course, you are not making discoveries in the labs. You are not even doing something no one has done before (which would make it research). For me labs were doing something that I was more or less trained for, liking it, getting a result (which everyone knew what it would be) out of it and enjoying to have the result. If that is somewhat similar for you, then don't worry about not liking research. Or if you are a weirdo who likes doing homework. You could still hate the group, the boss, the working conditions in academia, the city you live in, the payment, the pointlessness of academic research, the low amount of attractive men/women in the field, ... of course :biggrin:
  4. Nov 5, 2013 #3
    I find a lot of pessimists in grad school because smart people tend to feel like they're automatically entitled. People think that when you graduate from a world class institution with a Phd, you should automatically be able to land a 6 figure job. Maybe it is true what a lot of old people say-- we've been coddled too much our whole lives and have been told we are special. Reality check--99% of us in grad school aren't all that special. We will work on projects that no one cares about. Most of the time you'll be spending learning new techniques you've never done before and spending lots of time on experimental optimization. Big discoveries really do require a bit of serendipity. It's all good though, just learn the techniques amd vocabulary that will enable you to become a highly trained specialist even if you do research no one will ever care about. You need to put on the hard work even if it is mundane or boring. The best managers at companies can manage their employees well if they themselves have been there and done that. And the best managers are the ones that end up making better salaries.
  5. Nov 7, 2013 #4
    That's a good post. However I am curious, what in your opinion is the reason to become a highly trained specialist, if you are unlikely to get a job related to your speciality? Wouldn't it be better to spend time gaining marketable skills (that are usually unrelated to physics)?
  6. Nov 12, 2013 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    That is a very good question, as physicists I know are highly, highly skilled in a specialty where they don't have great odds in getting a related job. I think it is mostly passion and commitment which are things I respect. Most physics students these days know how tough a field it is (both to succeed academically and to get a related job) but they go to grad school anyway. It is much easier in Engineering because there are more jobs available in the different specialities. Even then, though, most engineer Ph.D.s don't do in grad school exactly what they end up doing in work.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook