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How can I discover my TRUE interests?

  1. Apr 12, 2012 #1
    I am currently a first year undergrad in bioengineering but have been thinking very seriously about switching to physics. The problem is I can't figure out what my "niche" is and I'm hesitant to switch to a field that requires as much dedication as physics without being 100% sure that's what I truly have a passion for.

    My main problem is that I am finding it difficult to figure out what exactly I am gifted in and have an innate passion for. I know that my passion lies in science somewhere but I'm not sure exactly where. I have come to the conclusion that anyone can be interested in anything that is presented to them in the right way by the right person. I believe this is the reason for my love of biology. I had a great high school biology teacher that really got me hooked on science and motivated me (I owe a lot to him), but before taking his class, biology was not especially interesting to me. On the other hand, I started reading about physics on my own and became fascinated with the subject. I feel like it was something that developed without outside influences (besides the teacher that initially sparked my interest in science and research). This leads me to believe that I have an innate interest in physics. I feel as though if I didn't study physics I would always have this burning desire somewhere in the back of my mind. I love biology but feel like somewhere deep down I really liked the biology teacher more than the subject itself. Has anyone been in a similar situation?

    As I have dipped my big toe into the waters of engineering, I have discovered that I am not so interested in the applications and design work as I once thought I was. I am much more interested in learning the framework of nature rather than how to model in CAD. This realization has very much solidified my plans to continue to graduate school. Initially, I didn't think I wanted to major in physics because I didn't think I would be good at/enjoy the math the that goes along with it. However, after calc I & II I am starting to realize that I REALLY do enjoy math a lot and I'm somewhat better at it that I suspected. I enjoy it even more than biology I would say. It seems as though it is becoming increasingly unclear to me what I am good/bad at and what I enjoy/dislike. I am almost through my second semester and although I'm very fortunate to say that I somehow maintained a 4.0, I think failure can be a good "steering wheel" at times highlighting strengths and weaknesses. At this point I am very confused and simply looking for some advice/opinions.

    Much thanks,

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 12, 2012 #2
    Actually a better title for this thread may be:

    How will I know when I've discovered my true interest?
  4. Apr 12, 2012 #3
    I think the idea of a 'true' interest is.. eh. Flawed. It's a bit like the idea of a soulmate. As I see it, we each have some broad spectrum of potential interests/people out there and which one we end up spending the most time on/with is largely due to chance and circumstance. You happened to be awakened to science at large and biology in particular by a chance meeting with a specific biology instructor, but it could've just as easily been an equally skilled instructor from another field.

    Unless you're going as far as to say that you had some a priori interest in <X Field> (by definition before you knew anything about it, thus making it innate), your interest was developed or groomed by your exposure to the field or to things that predisposed you to preferring that field. Which is a really long-winded way of saying that the best way to discover your interests is to expose yourself to as many different things as possible.

    If you haven't already, take some calc-based physics courses. You've clearly taken biology and I'm guessing you've taken chemistry as well, so check out a geology course. Become acquainted with the natural sciences and see which one piques your interest. Continue onto the advanced math courses available to you -- no matter what field of science you enter, you won't regret it. Hell, you might even consider majoring in Mathematics. Sitting in your chair it's easy enough to say "Hey, I'd enjoy that!", but it takes experience to know for sure. I'm in the same position.
  5. Apr 13, 2012 #4


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    Hey jbrussell93.

    The simplest answer I can give to your question is to try stuff and lots of it.

    But buyer beware, you'll find that it's very hard to like everything about something and usually what people will do is put up with the stuff they don't like to experience the stuff they do like.

    Doctors spend lots of time filling out paperwork, programmers spend lots of time in meetings, scientists spend lots of time making sure everything is correct over spending all their time doing new experiments (good experiments take lots of organization/management and lots of attention to detail), professors spend time trying to get money for research projects, and researchers (many at least) have to teach, including first year or other undergraduate courses, and many teachers (high school) spend a lot of their time babysitting and trying to get the class to settle down in comparison to actually teaching.

    The above is meant to highlight that many careers involve stuff that people put up with because they benefit in other ways. It's up to you to figure out what benefits you wish to seek and what things you will have to 'put up with' and you will probably have to go through a few different things before you find something, so don't despair! (Some people spend a majority of their lifetime in this endeavor).
  6. Apr 13, 2012 #5
    Just a note. I'm really starting to dislike it when people use the word "passion" with the word "physics".

    Maybe it doesn't matter.

    People often have to do things that they don't like and things that they aren't particularly good at. Try a lot of things. You'll find that you like to do some stuff and hate to do other stuff. You'll also find that it may not matter. You may be unable to do something you like. Conversely, you may be forced to do something that you dislike. I don't think that most people that work in an office do it for any sort of inherent interest in shuffling papers.

    Sure. I'm interested in physics and not football because of who my parents were. Some people with different parents are interested in football and can't stand physics.

    I don't think that anyone has an innate interest in anything. Also, that's one good reason to try to get your feet wet and do some undergraduate research. You may well find that you really *don't* like research. Most people don't once they figure out what it involves.

    If you do some physics and figure out that you hate it, that's great, since you will have no regrets. Some of it is going to be random. You may get lucky/unlucky and meet up with someone that you work well/badly with.

    Not a good sign. You'll find that a lot about "learning the framework of nature" involves some pretty nitty-gritty stuff.

    The other thing is that it's probably a bad idea to obsess too much over this. The reason people have to pay you to do something is why it's called "work."
  7. Apr 13, 2012 #6
    On the other hand, you could get "lucky" and find that people think is annoying is actually what you like about the job. For example, there's part of me that happens to *enjoy* spending hours going through computer code looking for an obscure bug. I find it relaxing, and while I'm focused at tracking down a bug, I'm not worried other things.

    Conversely, a lot of people get involved with physics because of the rush of *I COMPREHEND THE UNIVERSE*. I find these sorts of eureka moments to be unpleasant, because I've found that most of my eureka moments turn out to be red herrings. I also have this terrible, terrible fear of discovering something truly dreadful about the universe, or else messing things up in a big way and causing some sort of major social damage.
  8. Apr 13, 2012 #7
    It's one of those things that starts getting weird once you look deeply at it. One thing that's an interesting journey is to look back and try to figure out who came up with the idea of a "soulmate" and when and why.

    Similarly, I've always wondered who exactly associated the idea of "passion" with "physics". It would be an interesting topic for a research paper.

    But like any other question, that opens up another question. You got your interest in biology from a biology instructor. So where did *they* get their interest in biology from? Trying to track these sorts of questions down usually leads you to interesting places.

    But sometimes that makes things worse. Google for "choice overload" "paradox of choice" and "analysis paralysis."

    One problem when you have to make a decision is the fear that you'll make the wrong one. If you don't have any decisions to make, then you don't have this sort of fear.

    One fact that I find strangely calming is the knowledge that I'm going to die. I don't know when. I don't know how. I have some limited control over when and how, but ultimately a lot of that is out of my control. But I know that I'm going to die, and I can given get some reasonable guesses as to when, and every second that goes by, it is second that comes closer to my death.

    I find that constantly being aware of my own morality helps me focus as to what choices to make. Whether I'm compassionate or not, is going to make a big difference about what people say about me once I'm dead. I know people that seem to think that it will make a big difference in what I experience after I die.

    Whether I end up studying physics or geology or sell shoes, won't.
  9. Apr 15, 2012 #8
    Hey Josh, just thought I'd add some stuff that may help, who knows. Some previous messages of ours might contribute to what I'm saying now and a few points I'll try to make during this leviathan of a post.

    I'm a huge proponent of well rounded education involving plenty of math and science, even the likes of the trivium and quadrivium curriculum, but in a modern context, of course. I feel it helps society when people are less ignorant of the world and have better problem solving skills in their arsenal, no matter what their eventual career.

    It's great that you have such a strong interest in many areas. There's nothing wrong with exploring as many as you can. Even if you decide on a major now, it won't guarantee that you'll be working in that field when you're done, it'll just increase the odds of that happening. I've observed that many of the men and women on this forum, and many of my acquaintances end up working in fields outside of what they went to school for. Many scientists end up going into programming, finance, engineering, business, and who knows what else. Many of them probably wouldn't have predicted what they're doing now back when they were in school, especially still an undergrad.

    All I'm saying is that you can plan stuff with your education and it'll basically just act as a hedging strategy. For example, the more chemistry you take, the more likely you'll be able to win a job as a lab tech; the more you focus in pure math, the better chance you'll have at eventually landing a tenure track professorship (but odds are still low that tenured professorship will happen).

    Certain educational paths will shape the possibilities of what you can do legally, so that's something to consider. Engineers / primary school teachers / nurses / doctors / lawyers / anything "professional" will give you significantly more options than non-professional background since you should have the professional field you've been trained/certified/licensed in, as well as all the other stuff in the world that somebody with a similar skill set is qualified for.

    Even though it was nearly a decade ago, I remember how hard of a time I had deciding what I was going to pursue in college because I was very good at academics (languages, math/science, and music). I ended up choosing to study music and take every free elective I had in science and math, just because it interested me.

    I'm glad I did take as much science and math in college, it has made the switch from professional music to graduate level science much easier. I also took a management class as one of my business gen-eds. When I was making the decision to switch my focus back to science, I remembered a lecture in my management class that still sticks with me today. It was about employee motivation. The lecture spanned many theories including Maslow and Herzberg. I realized that the reason I was unfulfilled with a career in music was that being a musician was only satisfying a few tiers of 'Maslow's Hierarchy'**.

    I had the 'physiological tier' covered since I was able to take care of my basic needs. The 'social' tier was good, but I still felt that it wasn't right, mainly because the things I still desired were not really available in a career as a professional (classical) musician (job security, retirement benefits, advancement, power, reaching my full potential, etc...). According to Maslow, I was missing major components from the 'safety', 'esteem', and 'self actualization' tiers. Not that I jumped ship the moment I realized my path wasn't fitting exactly into Maslow's theory, but it was something that gave me pause.

    It is taught that any good managers are able to motivate their human resources. I definitely did not see my needs being fulfilled if I kept on as a musician, and without the means to fulfill my needs, I didn't see myself having much drive to attain musical goals anymore.

    I really enjoyed twofish-quant's:
    There is a great deal of wisdom in that, but I kinda feel that the idea is prematurely finished. There are obvious differences between careers in physics, geology, and sales, but all of them can definitely lead to career fulfillment. AND assuming you're fulfilled in that area, you'll be able to focus on the "more important" aspect of our personal, human to human legacy, which trumps how we pay our mortgage.

    Maybe it would be better to consider making a decision about academics via "hedging your bet" so that you have a better probability of finding work that will challenge you, give you opportunity for advancement, let you continue learning, and still ensure your basic needs are met. If you're happy with the 40 hours of work you put in each week, you're more likely to be happy in other areas as well.

    Not that you can't find this in pure science and academia, it's just harder these days. You may be surprised that even though you recently found that you weren't as interested in your engineering classes as you are science classes, the workplace is totally different than school. Right now, you should have all your needs met, feel pretty safe, have a decent social life (I'm reading up Maslow's hierarchy), you're advancing in school, getting good grades, and the science stuff is allowing you to achieve the "self actualization" tier.

    Not to burst your bubble, but soon enough you'll be done with school, looking for a job to take care of your physiological and safety needs, hopefully at a workplace that will allow you to fulfill the rest of the pyramid, but maybe not.

    All I'm saying is that right now, the stuff that might be boring now, could be the building blocks for the tools you'll use in a career that will give you everything you need to be happy, but simply following your current intellectual pursuits may not do the same later on due to many factors: marketability of what you studied, the current job market, competition if you stay in academia, etc...

    I guess that's just food for thought considering I followed what I was interested in (music) back when I was in college and grad school, because my needs that were completely fulfilled while I was still under the safety net of parent's medical insurance, university housing / meal plan, etc... after graduation, that dissolved away and left my needs lacking in some areas after working in the "real world".

    ** Maslows-needs-Pyramid.jpg
    Last edited: Apr 15, 2012
  10. Apr 16, 2012 #9
    I think you just have to try different things. Take intro classes in as many departments as you can. I came to college to be a creative writing major and fell in love with math. I had no idea how cool advanced mathematics could be until I took a math for non-majors class and got to dabble in set theory and logic and calculus and other fun stuff.

    That being said, yes, it is easy to decide you like something just because you have a good professor. I've worried about that a lot, because a) intro level courses often are very different from upper level courses in the same department, b) it's pretty easy to get me interested in something, and c) our math department is super entertaining. I think what it comes down to is whether you're willing to stick with your subject through the hard times and the boring ones. Because no matter what you study, it's not going to be all fun and games.

    Talk to juniors and seniors in the departments you're interested in. Ask them what the work is like, what's good and bad about the material. And honestly, picking a department because you enjoy taking courses with the professors in it isn't the worst way to choose a major. It's not the best way, either, but you've got to major in something and who knows if you'll end up pursuing a science-related career or one completely unrelated to your undergrad work?
  11. Apr 17, 2012 #10
    The concept of a "true interest" or "innate passion" is interesting. It's like we have an a priori passion, and the goal of life is to discover this passion and pursue it. I think it's more likely that we have affinities to certain areas and preferences, but that passion is largely created. You can probably pursue any of those fields and be equally happy.
  12. Apr 17, 2012 #11
    I have found my true interests, and I have found my soul mate. But I did not recognise her until we had been together for four decades. Now things just get better every day.

    Why limit yourself? Physics and Engineering are not mutually exclusive. My primary Passion is mechanical design engineering, but I have very much enjoyed learning and experiencing many other things because they make me a better design engineer.

    If you think you might enjoy something, study it learn it and experience it. Take from it what you can. Then go focus on the next thing that catches your interest. After a while you will find something that you keep returning to. Consider that may be your true interest, but keep enjoying all else that life has to offer.

    The man I admire the most is 85 years old and has finally found his true calling as a mechanical design engineer. He is good at it and is fully enjoying life. He has been the CEO of two major aerospace companies, but said that life is much better now that he has returned to his true desire.

    So take your time. Don't rush into anything. Walk life's journey and enjoy everything this life has to offer--one moment at a time.
  13. Apr 17, 2012 #12


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    I wonder if it is really a good idea to spend so much resources (your time) on learning many different subjects. Doing something right requires lots of time, and if you attempt to learn everything, chances are you'll not become a expert at any of it. If you just spend a few hours a week on a subject, there are bound to be *lots* of other people who spend 20 and because of that will be much better at it than you, despite no difference in basic ability. Consequently, there is a good chance you'd become disappointed and think that whatever you are doing, is not your "true calling", simply because other people are better at it. I do not believe in a "true interest". People like to do what they are good at. If you become good at something, you'll get to see it as your innate interest.

    I believe that if one has "talent" for everything (not rare in the least!), then one should pick two (any two, but not one or four) areas of primary interest, which have some strong synergetic effects on each other. And then study them as deeply as one can. This is a path to expertise, and to the ability to create something truely new and exciting. You'll still have a rather unique profile, because most people focus on only one area, and if not, they'd likely choose different subjects or aspects. Additionally, there is a good chance you'll be an expert in some area your peers are not, and you'd be seen as a much more productive member of the community if this other area is something you can use in your daily life.

    I can only say that this approach worked out very well for me. I've been coding since an early age, and became *really* good at it. Then I chose to study physics (instead of comp sci) with the goal of getting into theoretical chemistry---for doing simulations and hardcore numerics. And I am now doing exactly what I am best at, in an area where such domain knowledge is extremely valuable but not very common (because nowadays most theoretical chemists come with a chemistry background and tend to have a weaker physics and hardly existent comp sci/programming background).

    There are many other synergetic combinations of fields. Even of different subfields in a large field. E.g., if you do physics, it could be valuable to become an expert in both nuclear physics and solid state physics, because those fields use similar many-body techniques, but the practitioners of the fields never talk to one another. So there is lots of knowledge in either field which would be useful in the other, but no one knows that. Or you could become an expert at writing and giving talks combined with some hardcore science field. There are lots of valuable combinations. Finding such a combination and following through with it would be much more helpful than learning something of everything, but nothing really deeply.
  14. Apr 17, 2012 #13
    Einstein said that creativity is the residue of time wasted.

    I say that time is never wasted so long as you enjoy yourself and take away something useful. I once took a job in a machine shop at minimum wage and became a very good machinist. Nothing in my education has helped me be a better design engineer than that. I studied ancient Philistine architecture and learned much more efficient means of using structural material than you will see in modern texts.
    Last edited: Apr 17, 2012
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