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Physics I am now a PhD, but feel lost about myself and Science

  1. Feb 22, 2017 #1
    Hi All,

    Please bear with me, you can skip to the LSS (Long Story Short) line if you do not want to go through the wall of text. But the complete story carries important information regarding my demise :).

    After a painful 7 years, I managed to obtain my PhD in Physics. My Thesis and Publications are Biophysics related, I decided to take that path 4 years ago assuming there would be more career options in that field. Being such a naive person, I was stuck in the lab of one of the most peculiar PI I would imagine, lost in the dark, with minimal advice, I managed to work with a couple of my own collaborations and carved a path to my graduation coming up with my own project and publications.

    When I look back though, I knew much more Physics when I started the program, hours of experimenting in the lab, and years of redundant work seriously hampered my analytical and critical skills. I learned batches of information in Biological and Polymer Sciences, none of it would count as a complete grasp of the topic. I performed a lot of coding but all partial, simple things. And performed data analysis which is in no way impressive. All those experiments in the lab but I do not know a wide spectrum of lab techniques to expand one's capability. I became expert on utilizing a specific experimental technique ,a painfully stressful one, which as a bonus applies to a dying field. On top of all this, any advice from my PI is now out of question, I won't provide details but it is health related, I doubt he would provide sound advice anyway but still.

    Now I am in a state of limbo, a total mixed bag of knowledge but an expert in none, trying to find a position for myself so that I can graduate (F-1 Student, so I have to find an optimal time to activate my OPT), and have to accomplish this in 4-5 months. The labs/people who work on research topics I am genuinely interested in are mostly looking for experts in biological sciences, (e.g. molecular biology, bioinformatics, systems biology, genetics, medicine (maybe not in this category but still) etc.) not biophysics. I know that I have the potential to learn and make it work, but even the terminology in the job description is quite alien to me. I can start expanding my knowledge now, but we are talking about vast fields here, it is an unrealistic expectation for me to accumulate sufficient knowledge in a very short amount of time.

    You must say, surely you can find a job, come on! Honestly yes, I can find "a" job in "a" lab. But I am done with that, and I will tell you why in the next paragraph. I am an ordinary person, with ordinary intelligence, not even remotely close to a genius or highly intelligent by any meaning of the word.

    However if I learned something during my 7 years of grad school, it is that 95% of science is about faking it, it does not take a genius to see that, and I cannot do it, I cannot stand it either. I am not talking about faking data, I am talking about stretching the implications and results of one's work. I like honesty and simplicity in scientific work. I am talking about all those conferences, poster sessions, where all those people enthusiastically try to sell their research, elaborating a single set of data over 20 pages. All those grants which has the word cancer and Alzheimer's pasted all over the place even if you are actually working on buckling properties of PET, just to appeal to institutions. Fitting 8 parameter equations to straight lines and talking about the excellency of the fit. PI's forcing their grad students to see something that is not there in the data, or measure a quantity which is measurable, but not with any meaningful uncertainties, or where one measures something and it is not at all what you have claimed to measure. All those "let's try" approach to experimentation. "Let's try" measuring this w.r.t to that in this condition, then we will find something that explains the data and refer to anything that barely resembles our findings, we will show a special effort to connect our findings to some big topic and BAM! We are now making 50000 people read our 30 pages of none-sense, where we could have simply published it as "We measured this w.r.t that in this condition", and saw this (in a brief page, or paragraph), and saved everyone's time. Or better yet one could have come up with a project, with a purpose, to begin with. That is why I do not have the desire to find "a" job in "a" lab.

    ------------------LSS (Long Story Short)-------------------------

    Anyway, I want to go to a lab with a purpose. Some lab, I do not know where yet, and for topics that interest me, I do not enough to skim through one's work and immediately see a purpose there. Even if I do, I ask myself, why would they hire a biophysicist who turned out to be a jack of all trades and retrain them to make an expert out of them, when there are "probably" experts out there who are far better candidates.

    Of course, Europe is another option, but I would prefer to stay in the US. Returning to my own country is also out of question due to sensitive reasons.

    I would greatly appreciate any advice, or your experiences on such matters.

    Edit: I am aware that this demise is mostly my own fault. I did not think my career through. I made the naive assumption that I will do my PhD in a lab and everything will turn out to be fine. I did not do career hunting early on, I did not think about my future and what is next. Just wanted to make it clear, regarding my mindset.


    Last edited: Feb 23, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 23, 2017 #2


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    If you are a Jack-of-all-Trades then you are a useful person, very hard to find. You might eventually be able to hold a senior position for a technology company and you might also teach people who need your help. Do not let your psychology get on top of you - your sub conscious is the most powerful part of your brain and you need to set it the task of making you happy again and bringing about change. Best wishes. D
  4. Feb 23, 2017 #3


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    Wait, do you have your PhD or not? If you do, then what are you graduating from in 4-5 months?

    1. With that kind of attitude, why would you want to stay in science anyway?

    2. Nice generalization there from someone who hasn't spent enough time actually having a career in science. And you are accusing others of over-inflating insufficient data set?

    3. Maybe the "faking it" occurs a lot in your field, but in my field, it can be spotted rather quickly from across the country.

    4. Look at the "template" for any kind of funding proposal from various funding agency, be it DOE, NSF, NIH, etc. These proposals REQUIRE that the applicants describe a more general and wide-ranging implication of that work if it were successful. In other words, you have to describe not only why it is interesting, but also why it is IMPORTANT! So one HAS to look at the bigger picture on how what one wants to do may contribute to a bigger effort! You may think it is stretching the truth, but those people who dole out the money want to know how what you are doing is of any importance!

    To me, the bigger obstacle in your landing a job has less to do with your knowledge and capability, but rather your attitude.

  5. Feb 23, 2017 #4


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    Does the janitor who cleans the lab after you leave have "purpose"? No one can give you "purpose". That's something you need to decide for yourself what is a worthy use of your time/talent. But I will say that we have seen a lot of people coming out of college with noble but naive idealism about "purpose":

    1. The primary purpose of a job is to make money to buy food/pay rent. Any broader "purpose" is a non-essential nice-to-have only. Don't let a vague quest for "purpose" leave you starving and homeless. And don't let an inability to find that "purpose" depress you. Sorry to be a bubble-burster, but finishing school and getting a "real" job is when the harsh realities of life replace the idealism of childhood. It's painful. And necessary.

    2. Whether in the quest for "purpose" or for another reason like lack of confidence or narrow or unfocused (opposites) interests, people often cast too small of a net. You have skills/qualifications with broad applicability: cast a wide net.
  6. Feb 23, 2017 #5


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    While I largely agree with the advice that russ states above, I can at least understand why people coming out of school (in particular those with graduate degrees) have idealistic views about "purpose". Namely, they want to work in a stimulating, interesting job which they would like, even love -- not a job that will leave them bored or depressed. In their minds, most jobs out there that they see are either boring or depressing -- who would possibly want a job like that, which they know they will hate?
  7. Feb 24, 2017 #6

    Thank You for your kind words, as russ_watters stated, casting a wide net is probably what I should aim for.


    Technically since I defended I have a PhD, officially I do not since I did not go through commencement. I found your post very defensive. Agencies requiring the applicants to describe a more general and wide-ranging implication of that work if it were successful might actually be the core of the problem.

    @russ_watters @StatGuy2000 @ZapperZ

    It seems like my use of the "purpose" translates into something like finding the purpose of the universe, or discover the secrets of nature in a mind blowing way. I do not mean that, let me explain. I had unrealistic expectations from doing a physics major, maybe even pursuing a PhD in Physics at first. Now I do realize that the primary purpose of a job is to make money to buy food/pay rent. In that regard I would have been better off attending that MedSchool, way better, but that is in the past.

    You see, maybe I should have used honesty, directness, clarity instead of the word purpose. The answer to what type of research is interesting is a personal matter, but research statements and publications could be more honest. A chemist might be working on a new type of compound to damage bacterial cell walls, it does not have to be the future replacement of antibiotics; one might be analyzing data on a certain galaxy, it does not have to be the center for new physics or where we go next after earth; one might be studying DNA packing in vitro, it does not have to be the key to unlocking the next generation gene therapy method using viral capsids; one might be studying self assembly of strands in various conditions, it does not have to be the key to future for producing internal micro-surgery capable nano-robots.

    When I look at scientific literature in the 50's-70's, the articles are more brief and to the point. You might argue that it has to do with the lack of computational support and due to the lack of people involved in the sciences compared with today. But, you see, I believe this is actually the time to be more brief and to the point given the sheer amount of scientific production. How many uncited, and even unread articles are out there? How many Haruko Obokata cases are out there? Why can't we publish something like, "hey, I tried this, here are my measurements, but I can't put my finger on what is going on", or, "we measured this and here are the implications (really solid ones)" why do we have to publish so much, and stretch the implications of our work so much. It accomplishes absolutely nothing, and instead hampers everything.

    Anyway, I rant about this too much and it is becoming off-topic,


    "people often cast too small of a net. You have skills/qualifications with broad applicability: cast a wide net."

    Here is one advice I am going to take. I see that it is impossible to carve a predetermined path for oneself, decorated with very interesting research topics, which will all turn out to be alright and I will have so much fun at every step of the way. And that I will have to put a lot of effort into my search.

    Thank you all for replying, and listening.

  8. Feb 24, 2017 #7


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    Because the funding climate has changed and the competition is much, much harder than it was 60 years ago. Nowadays EVERYONE has to motive why what they are doing is useful, everything has to have an impact (the word every scientist learns to hate). It is extremely hard to get funding for curiosity driven research and even people who work in e.g. particle physics, astronomy etc. often have to justify their funding by claiming (sometimes with some justification) that some of what they do will have spin-off effects that will somehow "benefit society".
    I don't believe this is in any way limited to science or academia; being able to "sell" what you are doing has -whether you like it or not- become an important skill irrespective of what you do for a living.
  9. Feb 24, 2017 #8
    I feel your pain. Somewhere there is a famous quote to the effect of "The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil." Sadly, science is a human endeavor, and the scientists are not any more immune to this evil than humans in any other profession.

    Just because others do not resist the temptation doesn't mean you cannot. You can BE THE ONE WHO IS DIFFERENT.

    Earning a living while being an honest scientist can be a challenge. My personal approach has become to separate what I do to earn a living from the science I care most about and love the most. This was the approach of Newton and Einstein with their most famous works.

    At different times in my career, I've paid the bills by being an engineer, being a teacher, and by being a consulting scientist on defense related projects. My wife (also a scientist) and I also earn considerable income by serving as expert witnesses in court proceedings. All those things can pay pretty well and can also leave enough time to be an active scientist who publishes good research and also helps improve the status quo by serving as a peer-reviewer for grant proposals and journals. I aspire for my long term impact in science to be the quality of research I've published and by the quality of scientists I've mentored and trained. 100 years from now, no one will care how much I was paid to do it.



    In addition to exercising the power of peer review with grant proposals and journal articles to police bad science, colleagues and I are also more vigorous than most in PUBLISHING comments and critiques when we read bad science. Your service in this area is not compensated, but much appreciated and of great value.

    If you see something (bad science), say something. If you remain silent, you should not complain about the downward spiral.

    One of my most productive DoD collaborations came about because I wrote an absolutely scathing and thorough peer-review on a bad journal article. The senior scientist on the project realized I was right and that my review was exactly what the younger author on the paper needed to hear. It took him a while to realize that either my wife or I must have been the (anonymous) peer reviewer, but as soon as he did, we were invited to a prestigious DoD laboratory to give invited talks and begin collaborating on some important projects.
  10. Feb 24, 2017 #9
    One thing to note for those outside of biophysics is that the field, from my limited experience (and computational biology/biology in general), is corrupted by extremely perverse influences, more-so than other disciplines of physics.

    Take molecular dynamics simulation (MD). MD is of fundamental importance, because physics simulations are ubiquitous in industry and experimental labs for interpreting results, predicting the outcomes of new designs and experiments to avoid implementing things that don't work, and guiding the next set of experiments/designs. However the field is dominated by papers where the simulations, which as a technology are far from mature, are forced to try and pertain to something of interest to structural biologists. Grant writing is overwhelmingly forced in the direction, and the field is dominated by, in some cases, outright nonsense. The technology simply isn't there yet on numerous levels, and fundamental problems approached with quality mathematics/computer science/physics are severely neglected, as far as I can see.

    This may have colored the OP's experience in a way that is distinct from those who do other sorts of physics.
  11. Feb 24, 2017 #10
    We've seen this more broadly in a lot of blast physics and injury biomechanics where nearly every computational paper or research proposal wants to claim experimental "validation" when what they've really done (or intend to do) is a million miles from any real validation.
  12. Feb 24, 2017 #11


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    At the risk of getting off-topic, I'm curious if the perverse influences of this nature is becoming more endemic across the various fields of physics (and more broadly in STEM), and if certain fields are more immune to such influences.
  13. Feb 24, 2017 #12
    I think this is a fascinating topic that might deserve its own thread, but to add my two cents, for your first question I believe the answer is definitely yes. Now and days with ubiquitous computing power and many wannabe/ex-theorists, attempting to "apply" theoretical methods from computer science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics to problems industry and governments actually care about is an epidemic.

    Data science/big data nonsense is the crowning cherry on top of the bullhonkey mountain this phenomenon has built.

    Of course, there is useful data science and useful computational work, but there's also a lot of pathological science generated by people who just want an excuse to play with mathematics or computers rather than accomplishing anything useful.

    For the latter part, if there are crystal clear (or relatively clear) experiments/feedback to reality, I think the discipline will be able to weed a lot of it out. This keeps a lot of physics clean, but economics, biology, social science and so on are quite vulnerable.
  14. Feb 24, 2017 #13


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    From your reply above, it does strike me that you are being overly dismissive about computational methods and about big data. While as a statistician I have reservations about "big data" and "data science" -- the former is more of a buzzword for large datasets, and the latter is essentially a combination or application of machine learning, database administration, and statistics -- I do concede that statistical and computational methods can and do provide important insights that could further advance many areas of science.

    Again, this is a discussion that deserves a separate thread.
  15. Feb 24, 2017 #14
    Can a mod move related posts to a new thread, perhaps entitled "The state of computational/theoretical/statistical methods in industrial and applied careers?"

    Briefly, I am currently pursuing a career in computational methods for a bit of background. I completely agree that computational methods are powerful and vital; what concerns me is that the region of problem space to which these methods can effectively be applied is actually currently much smaller than the space to which these problems are being applied.
  16. Feb 25, 2017 #15
    I think the broader question at hand is "What can scientists do to better protect integrity in the scientific process?"

    If I understand the OP properly, that lack of integrity is the root of their frustrations and disillusion.

    And in science (more than other fields), professionals (and amateurs) are uniquely empowered because both the method and process support error checking and correction, because it is data driven, experimental, and subject to open communication.

    Peer-review is one important aspect. How many peer-reviews have you performed in the past year? Are you calling out colleagues when they publish errors and exaggerations, or are you letting them slide? Are you hoping they will grant you the same "professional courtesy" if they spot your mistakes?

    Publishing comments on errors that make it into print is another important aspect. If errant interpretations, exaggerated claims of validation, errant data analysis, or fraudulent data make it past peer-review and into print, any scientist who notices has a duty to bring it to the attention of the same audience likely to be reading the original work.
  17. Feb 27, 2017 #16
    Probably true.

    But how can you really know, for sure, before trying?

    I routinely run into successes in areas I never thought were particularly amenable to learning & optimization. It's been humbling enough so I think twice before declaring a problem intractable with those methods.
  18. Feb 27, 2017 #17
    You can't know without trying.

    That being said, academic funding seems to move in surging currents down particular pathways, and to get on the raft, people will shoe-horn their favorite methods into "applying" to the problem du jour, and bizarrely, funding favors people who work on whatever it is that is generally considered to be "the way forward" or "the thing to try" even if it hasn't really been tested yet.

    Business does exactly the same thing often times.
  19. Feb 27, 2017 #18
    Wow, this topic really did get out of hand :),

    Anyway, Thank You all for your input regarding my future path. I haven't the power alone to change how the entire scientific community progresses, but I will try to stay on top of things and survive at the same time. I disregarded that fact when I was younger but rich parents would REALLY be useful if one attempts to pursue science AND not be misarable.

    I agree with Dr. Courtney here, but I believe most of the issue arises not because of the character of the scientists, but due to the current publication/funding cycle based merit system. This is not only in Physics. Scientists are forced to produce too much. I know PI's at certain national institutes who shelve paper drafts only to release them for publication during inspection/review cycles so their funding will not be at risk. Many graduate students, post-docs, maybe even professors brimming with confidence until you catch them at an honest moment, and they spill out their severe misery and insecurity. They are not working on problems they really want to work on, not enough time and space to stimulate their thinking.

    Anyone has the right to argue that I am not advanced enough in my career to truly understand it, but I have seen quite a lot including funding drama, department drama, inter-collaboration drama, suicides, post-docs used as technicians, undergrads given priority over graduate students, crying people, starving people, overwhelming anxiety among students and many more. I mean come on PhD has become synonymous with Misery in any field, in fact I see some pride in scientists who say "Well, the life of a Scientist is miserable".

    Somehow the process of:


    Turned into:


    Adapt meaning, given the money, tools, collaborations I have what can I publish. The purpose has become production/publication rather than problem solving and thinking ahead. "I analyzed this problem because I believe it might lead to so and so, or it might solve this issue" has become "I analyzed this problem because I could publish it". This might sound contradictory with what I supported early on, that is publishing results without over-analyzing them, but you see if one is not forced to publish people will only publish when they are content with their work, simple or complex.

    Long story short, sciences are slowly transitioning into a business from sheer intellectual endeavor (slowly w.r.t what? I cannot really scale that), and scientists are becoming big, and unfortunately, cheap data analysis machines for the industry.


  20. Feb 28, 2017 #19
    Hi guguma your story really spoke to me and I haven't spoke on this forum for a few months but your story moved me enough to speak out. I feel that I can relate to your struggle specifically about how to feel that what I'm working towards is meaningful. I have tried to get into graduate school for the past three years with no success but your story proves to me that the numbing trek through apparent meaninglessness does not end upon acceptance.

    More broadly I have pondered about the co-existence of science and economics and challenging myself to view economics as more fundamental. From a scientific standpoint science has a brief existence while economics has existed since the beginning of humanity.

    I agree with you that being rich would help science in all aspects. I volunteered at a lab for six months with no pay so that I could get a recommendation letter to get into graduate school. But I learned later that six months was not enough time to produce a paper which would have guarantied my acceptance into a program. But there was simply no way I could have volunteered intensely at a lab for absolutely no payment for indefinite time. I cut myself off at six months and picked up a job and unfortunately the folks at the lab decided they couldn't use me if I was devoting to a job at the same time.

    This to me is the unfairness of trying to do science where I slave away under someone else with no promise of it all being worth it eventually.

    I am no longer trying to get into graduate school but shooting for a master's degree instead. I'm not sure what I'm doing and I'm faced with uncertainty constantly but I feel consoled that getting into graduate school wouldn't have changed that as your post proved to me.
  21. Feb 28, 2017 #20
    Certainly the pressure and the definition and assessment of merit in the system play a role in creating the temptation to publish incomplete work and work whose importance is exaggerated and where the conclusions are not always well supported by the data.

    But regardless of what is creating those temptations, giving in to those temptations IS a character issue.

    Just as shipping bad automobiles is a character issue for companies that intentionally do it, knowingly shipping a flawed product is always a character issue, regardless of the pressures that produced the temptation to do it.

    And in science, the published work IS the scientific product. If it knowingly exaggerated or flawed (or the known problems or limitations are not explicitly acknowledged and discussed), then the scientists publishing it have the same character problem as any businessman shipping products that do not meet their specifications.
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