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How do I be like these guys? (does major matter that much?)

  1. Oct 11, 2014 #1
    I have always been very indecisive about what I want to major in. There are so many different things that have interested me over the years. I thought I had settled on a career plan in the astronomy and astrophysics field, but then I began to research and learn about how difficult it is to get a job in that field. I have been told that even if you graduate with a Ph.D. in astrophysics, that is no guarantee you will get a job doing astrophysics. People told me that many of these people ultimately retool for a different career. These kinds of things scared me and discouraged me.

    Recently, I've come to the realization that I am very much like certain well-known individuals. Let me list a few:
    Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Bill Nye, Bill Maher, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and there are many others...

    My point here is that, like these people, I love being involved in current events and "world topics." These people are (examples) outspoken critics of religion, advocates of science, heavily involved in political topics and discussion, and frequently weigh in on world events.

    I have found that this applies to me as well. That's who I am. In high school and college so far, I've taken several classes in history, politics, religion, etc. So I did some research on these people and found that pretty much all of them produce a LOT of work OUTSIDE their actual "major field."

    Richard Dawkins is simply a biology professor, but he has written many books about science, many books about religion, has appeared a lot on television, and has been involved in political and world topics.

    Bill Nye was a mechanical engineer for Boeing, but he became a science educator through TV. He's an advocate of science topics and frequently participates in debates against fundamental religious people.

    Bill Maher is a comedian but is perhaps equally as known for his views on religion, science, and politics.

    I have settled on the fact that this is kind of what I might want to do in life. I'm not sure I want to go to the same workplace and do the same work every day for my entire life. Because I am interested in many different topics like science, religion, world events, and politics, and would ideally like to participate in them all.

    So how did these guys do it? What allowed them to become successful in this way? Anyone can decide to write a book, but how does one end up being so well-known, successful, and wealthy (like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc.)? How do they get selected to appear on television in debates, interviews, and shows?

    I've begun to think that what I major in might not be as important as what I do after that. Because these guys have all kinds of different degrees...biology, engineering, astrophysics, philosophy, English, and history. Also, I don't feel like I could be the "best astrophysicist ever." I am nowhere near as smart as the smartest people we know. I consider myself quite intelligent, but I doubt that I could be the astrophysicist "who could get any job at any university or NASA position because he's just so damn good."

    I am not afraid of controversial topics. Even though I am an introvert and think FAR more than I speak, I do feel strongly about certain topics and have always been very interested in these sorts of topics. If you look at a social media page of mine, you will find that I share things about science, religion, politics, etc.

    So how do I do what these guys did? How do I become involved in a number of different popular topics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 12, 2014 #2


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  4. Oct 13, 2014 #3
    Sounds like you're more interested in policy and politics than actual science. It's just that, if you do a science degree and you tell the graduate admissions committee or your potential employer that you want to "do everything and fight religious fundamentalists" you'll probably be laughed at. It's good to have these kinds of things as goals for later in life, but keep them to yourself until you actually develop something substantial and publishable/marketable.

    There is something about these kinds of people that just can't really be taught in any class. No one taught Richard Feynman to be the way he was, he just WAS and we all admire him because he was special. Check out Edward Teller, he's one of my favorite physicists. He worked on the ICBM missiles in the cold war, but he was also very involved in the US nuclear policy in general.

    In summary, just be yourself, study what you want, if you're passionate about a topic just pursue it. You shouldn't expect to become famous. You should do what you want to do because it's your interest. If it happens to make you famous then great.
  5. Oct 14, 2014 #4
    What people told you about astrophysics is true for any field, there's no guarantee of getting position X just because you have degree that has X in the name. That might be discouraging in and of itself, but you shouldn't pursue a field just because you have the guarantee of a job (I think this sort of reasoning trips up lots of would be engineering majors), you should pursue it because you enjoy it and you think you'll be able to give a reasonable go at being successful at it (what ever that means for you). I doubt most practicing astrophysicists are the type who could get any job at any university or NASA position because he's so damn good; that's a really silly marker of what makes a successful scientist; I also doubt such a person even exists without some context.

    I'm a big fan of the four horsemen (Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet) along with Tyson, Krauss, Nye, Sagan, Kaku, Brian Cocks etc; I actually met Tyson at a conference once. He went to the Bronx high school of science and was doing public speaking on astronomy research since then (I think that got him scouted for Harvard and Cornell) and I think he got his first chance at national public lime light when he was asked to do an interview about a large solar flare for the news in New York when he was a grad student. He has this enthralling personality and charm that just shines through whenever he talks and I'm guessing the cameras loved it so much he was asked to come back more and more and was offered more and more gigs like documentaries and such. It helps that Astrophysics (with nuclear particles and such) being the really sexy science garners lots of attention (though Tyson said astrophysics learned to take advantage of public lime light first and that the other branches could do the same thing if presented 'correctly', paraphrasing here).

    People like Maher, Dawkins, and Hitchens are controversial in the 'right' sort of way that they garnered attention from loads people with their books (I know they garnered my attention when I was on the fence of identifying as an atheist), but they did their due diligence and built up reputations in their respective fields before diving into public popularization of their ideas and opinions. That's the crux of it I think, building up a reputation in a field you can excel in but keeping a broad perspective and an open mind looking for opportunities where you could do this sort of public interaction. For example, I majored in physics and electrical engineering in school but I was also a member of the Secular Student Alliance there and we just so happened to be planning a public debate with the local Catholic club there and I said I wanted to be a debater. I was chosen to be on the three person team to go against the Catholics three person team in a moderated debate on the topic of rationality of belief in God, with X number of rounds and Q/A from the audience, no real background in philosophy except for my personal research on the subject but I held my own against the Catholic's philosophy guy, it was fun. I suggest you look into opportunities like that in your school and get involved in public outreach of science; should you school have a Society of Physics students I suggest you join them since any good chapter will be doing lots of public outreach like showcasing experiments etc. Perhaps this combination could be what get's you going, I'd look into the biographies of the guys you want to emulate and see what you can do for yourself, good luck.
  6. Oct 14, 2014 #5
    Most of these well known celebrities of science and policy are not young. They have not only learned the science, they have learned to communicate well and to put an opinion to text in an understandable, affable, and pleasant manner.

    This takes many years of study, practice, and a very careful parlay of experience and personality to get to that state.

    For example, Richard Feynman was a well known lecturer and an accomplished professor. Throw in a few interesting quirks to his personality, and then you have a celebrity. Carl Sagan did much the same.

    It takes at least a decade of mastery of the sciences, a very good writing style, and an interesting and engaging personality despite some very ignorant and ugly people. These people epitomize the Dale Carnegie personality.

    It is not an easy road to follow, but it has been done. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is one who did just that. Try using his example as a guide to how you could set such goals for yourself.
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