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I no longer enjoy physics and I don't know what to do

  1. Feb 20, 2014 #1
    I've struggled a lot in the past two years about whether or not I wanted to stay in Physics. Last year I graduated with my Bachelors and immediately started at a university to get my PhD.

    I didn't like the program for various reasons, so I took "an absence of leave" because I got a research assistant position at a university in the Bay area. I applied to their Masters program and got accepted to start back up this Fall.
    I didn't want to start a PhD again, and since I already had some credits, I decided I might as well finish the last few and in a year or less at least have my Masters degree.

    The problem is, I'm no longer excited about learning or researching physics. I've held a research position for about two years on various projects, but I'm no longer enjoying what I do. I don't want to be in school anymore, either.

    I'm tired of getting paid slightly above minimum wage and looking at all the loans I owe and realizing I'll have YEARS of paying these off at my current rate. And a higher salary isn't really guaranteed in Physics.
    I still LOVE physics, but I've reached the point where I love it on a recreational level.

    I really don't know what to do. My Bachelors in Physics can't really get me a job (I tried before I accepted another Physics Research Assistant position.)
    I have some programming skills, but nothing competitive with CS grads. I've had a few interviews for programming positions, but I've been told that while they love me and my work ethic, I don't have the necessary background or skills for software work.

    I thought about going into finance since I love math, but I don't want to work 60hour (minimum!) work weeks and on weekends too. Maybe that seems lazy, but I actually love going to the gym or spending time hiking or with friends or just hanging out with my boyfriend when we have free time.

    My boyfriend suggested I look for QA jobs, but I can't seem to find anyone to call me back from my applications.

    Has anyone been in this situation before? If so, what did you do? Any advice or potential career paths would be appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 20, 2014 #2
    Just take 2 years in engineering or something, It shouldn't be that hard with a physics backround, or take some more programming classes.
  4. Feb 20, 2014 #3
    I thought about doing that, but I don't want to spend any more on my education.
  5. Feb 20, 2014 #4
    That's exactly what happened to me with math. As soon as you turn it into a job, it makes me want to puke, but I love it as long as I have complete freedom to explore it in exactly the way I find interesting, as opposed to what other mathematicians find interesting. So, whatever job I get now, there's no absolutely zero danger of them losing me to math again once I recover enough from my PhD nightmare experience because I know as soon as it turns into a job, it's going to be hell. Maybe if I could make it into a non-traditional job, but I think the whole accountability thing just ruins it for me completely. I don't want to bet on having success with it, so I want to free myself of the accountability burden completely, and only then will I be able to do math without going insane. The only solution I can see is to get some other job that pays well, save up money, and then after many years, try to switch to the work I really want to do, however little it pays. The nice things is that I am actually curious to work in some of these areas for a while.

    I'm trying to become an actuary, now. But there are two problems with that. Firstly, from what I hear, there's very little math involved in the actual job other than what you use to pass the exams. It tends to be mostly spreadsheets. The exam material is interesting to me, so far (studied for probability and passed and ). A lot of people accuse it of being just mindless stuff that you can learn by rote, but that doesn't even enter my mind because I always learn by understanding, regardless of whether the exams actually require it of you. But it does end up being quite a bit of work for a while, until you get past all the exams. Also, it can pay well (100-200K after a few years experience, and potentially more), but you are more likely to get the high-end salaries, if you put in extra effort, which would leave less time for my hobbies.

    I am going to try to do this next exam in April and apply and see what I get, but I also want to experiment with some spread-sheet projects to see if I am really okay with spending my time doing that several hours a day. I can say that it would definitely beat math research at this stage. Also, the entry-level job market seems to be tough.

    With superb career-change skills, it should also be possible to get an engineering job or something without a degree in it, so I am trying to work on those skills, which should end up being useful regardless. The trick is that you can't just apply for those kinds of jobs upfront, unless you get extremely lucky. Screening process/HR will shoot you down right away in most cases. But if you are Mr. People person who knows everyone, very persuasive, know how to sell yourself, with marketable skills to back it up, and so on, I have trouble imaging that you wouldn't be able to do whatever you want, pretty much. That's kind of the opposite of who I am right now, but that doesn't stop me from trying. Sometimes, people who have trouble with something have an advantage in that they are forced to work really hard to overcome the odds, and give it everything they've got, so they will eventually pick up a lot of things that the "naturals" missed because it wasn't enough of a problem for them that they needed to work on it so hard.
  6. Feb 20, 2014 #5
    Ah, shame you live in the "land of the free"

    I practically get paid for going to school, lol. And there is a head-hunt for STEM people here in western... I guess bummer for you :/
  7. Feb 20, 2014 #6


    Staff: Mentor

    Finish your courses and get a MS degree. With it you could teach Physics at a community college or be a tutor to others struggling with Physics. Its easy to quit when you are so close but you will regret not getting that MS when its within your reach.

    Marry your boyfriend and share the college debt. :-) (not a good reason to get married)

    I think you are depressed and just want to get out in the real world, make some money and not have to worry about studying stuff you're struggling to understand. (I know the feeling) But the MS is far more useful than a BS with some grad courses.

    With respect to programming, you have the skills to teach yourself and if needed you could take night courses and land a job as a programmer somewhere maybe a startup doing Android or Java programming. Learn about Eclipse or Netbeans IDE (I use Netbeans its a bit more complete with core plugins) and doing Maven projects. Talk with people you know who program to find out what tools they use, what opportunities exist in their company... The HR people will always prefer CS people over anyone else unless you have an inside track and can impress some hirig manager with what you know.

    I was a BS Physics major who got burned out (I worked 30 hr weeks + fulltime college) and didn't apply to grad school until ten years later. I started out in an entry position as a data clerk, got an award for writing an inventory program and was promoted to programmer. When I finally did go to school I found I had lost my physics edge and shifted to CS wanting to do computer simulations of physics systems so that may be a way for you to leverage your knowledge of physics, learn programming and have a special niche skill too.

    For computer simulations, look at the Open Source Physics website: www.compadre.org/osp and start leveraging...
  8. Feb 20, 2014 #7


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    You're in a spot where you're well-educated, but don't have a lot of career-specific, marketable skills. So your options are to either somehow pick those up, or find a position that doesn't require any. Picking up skills can be informal - by way of completing various projects in your spare time. If you're interested in programming, you may want to develop a portfolio of projects. Or it can be formal - which does mean more school.

    There are also a lot of positions that simply require a bachelor's degree, but don't require anything field-specific - a lot of government positions, for example.
  9. Feb 21, 2014 #8
    You should do some internships while you are still a student. Gives you a chance to explore some of the options, and they are easier to get than regular jobs because it's not as much commitment for the employer. That's a tremendous advantage of being a student. A lot of doors have been shut on me because I was unable to take advantage of that.
  10. Feb 21, 2014 #9


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    Engineering is a good option. You could probably degree in 2-3 semesters. Jobs are plentiful and it pays well.
  11. Feb 21, 2014 #10
    Like the OP said, she does not want to go further into debt. It is unfortunate that undergrads in the US get saddled with such insane debts for their bachelors.

    But despite this, I have to agree here. If finishing a phd is out of the question, going for an engineering degree or masters in a cognate field is probably the path of least resistence to a technical job in this situation. Much like the OP, over the past year I've found that industry/the private sector really does not welcome the typical Physics graduate these days. I don't think having a MS necessarily makes it any better, unless you did that MS in a specific discipline like optics, CS, electronics or some form of engineering and you are willing to move where the jobs are (like anything else).
  12. Feb 21, 2014 #11
    In my case I pushed through to finish my masters and that was pretty much a useless exercise. The only good thing about it was that I was still an RA so I was still getting paid for most of it. An academic MS in physics is a failed PhD and STEM employers know that.

    I dont think that teaching at a community college is a viable plan B for a physics masters. Those jobs are extremely competitive and very few full time positions ever open. When they do, PhDs snatch them up.

    (Teaching at community college was my "Plan B" when I was an undergrad, what a joke!)
  13. Feb 21, 2014 #12
    I don't think my dissertation was a useless exercise. I learned a lot about self-motivation and time-management. It also taught me that I don't want to be a math professor. The trade-off was that there was an opportunity cost of not being able to do other stuff, like learn programming or look for a job earlier. And, I got so stressed out about it that it was pretty unhealthy towards the end. I do think it's quite plausible I should have left with a masters with 20/20 hindsight, but there's no way I would have suspected that was the right choice until maybe 4-5 years into my PhD, at which point, it wasn't so clear that I should quit. At the same time, it wasn't completely useless. The subject matter was, more or less, but not the process.

    Shouldn't necessarily be considered a failure. Some people are perfectly capable of getting the PhD, but they just aren't interested enough or don't consider it worthy of their time.
  14. Feb 21, 2014 #13


    Staff: Mentor

    This depends on where you live but without the MS you wont have the graduate credits to even get in the game. Teaching at a community college is an easier option than teaching at a public school and it may reignite the OPs interest in physics while keeping the his/her physics skills sharp.

    Nothing is a sure thing but the MS will give you an edge over other candidates without one. Once you get your foot in the door the MS doesn't matter as much as your experience.
  15. Feb 21, 2014 #14


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    If you want to find a decent, well-paid position, your best choice is to pursue a second Masters degree in a cognate field with more employment prospects (e.g. engineering, computer science, statistics). The additional debt you take on may well be worth it.

    There are five other options possibly open to you:

    (1) To retrain/retool yourself in a specific career area that you are actually interested in and that is lucrative (see some of the posts by ParticleGrl about her finishing her PhD in physics, and then spending time as a bartender while retraining herself in data mining/big data analysis).

    (2) Travel overseas and teach in another country, e.g. in China or Japan. There is a demand for English-speakers to teach English and possibly other topics in those countries. The international experience could do wonders for you.

    (3) Join the Peace Corps.

    (4) Join the US military.

    (5) Pursue a professional degree program like law or medicine.

    Ultimately, it is up to you to determine what next steps you wish to take.
  16. Feb 21, 2014 #15

    Right about the time of the financial crisis I realized actually working in physics just wasn’t for me. I loved the material, but the actual work that people did every day struck me as pretty dull. I had worked on research both at my university and in the private sector, and I did not want more. I was on a PhD path, but taking the time to finish it seemed a huge cost for little return, so I grabbed my masters and left.

    On a whim I passed the first actuarial exam, got a job, and am today a credentialed actuary with a health insurance company. I find my job rewarding and (at least at this time) my skills are very much in demand. My job has its downsides, but I’m much more engaged here than I ever was in physics, and I’m genuinely proud of the work I do.

    This should not be seen as an advertisement for the actuarial profession. While I think highly of it, it has its drawbacks, some of which have been mentioned. It’s a really difficult career to get into right now, and while I find my job engaging, many do not. Some of this might be attitude, but I’ve come to believe there are some pretty boring actuarial jobs out there. You can avoid them once you’re experienced, but your first job will be a gamble.

    However, you wondered if anyone else has been in the same situation and yours sounds an awful lot like mine had been those years ago. You’ve gotten some good suggestions from others. I would focus on the ones that require the least financial investment.
    • IMHO finishing your masters is worth the work, but most other advanced degrees won’t be.
    • Skip expensive professional degrees, especially law.
    • Moving sideways and getting an engineering masters is something to consider, but be sure you know what you’re getting; having an MS and no BS can lead to unusual results.
    • The actuarial path may be hard to get into right now, but the cost of trying is pretty cheap. The exam & study materials for the first 2 exams will probably be less than $700.
    After that, consider data analysis in its various forms.
    • Learn some SAS and SQL.
    • Start building a history of employment success you can show in an interview (if you haven’t already). Even a simple clerical job that you perform well at will really help your resume.
    • You might consider underwriting positions at insurance companies
    • Or data analysis positions at banks (I get poorly chosen suggestions for “Business Analyst” jobs on LinkedIn all the time).
    Those initial jobs may be rough, but do well at them anyways. The more experience you have the more control you’ll have. I hate to say it, but geographic mobility will be very important, which can be difficult with a significant other in your life.

    Best of luck.
  17. Feb 21, 2014 #16
    Please preface everything I say with the qualifier, “For what it’s worth, in my experience”.

    I think it’s a great sign that you’ve been able to get interviews for programming positions without any real experience, sounds like you come off well in them. Most CS grads don’t really have very strong programming skills when first graduating, I think your main obstacle in competing with them would be perception. If it helps, having a PhD doesn’t seem to help much in the job market either. I was in a similar position except with a PhD, I managed to get a programming job, but there was a lot of luck with the timing of getting in, I did have the ability to take advantage once I got in, as I expect you will.

    I think your boyfriend’s suggestion of looking at QA jobs is a great one, the bar for entry is a lot lower than programming. I’m surprised you’ve attracted more interest for the latter. If you get a QA job, once you establish yourself as being thorough and such, you can probably work into programming if that’s something you want. If programming is something you want to do and you have a QA job, write a lot of automated tests.

    At small/medium sized companies there is a lot more flexibility in people’s roles. For instance around the time of a release everyone in the company can be pulled into doing QA duty, this could be an entry into QA. I’ve personally known several people that started off at fairly low level jobs and advanced to have very good careers, included one that became a director of development. As was said in a previous post, all work experience is good.

    I agree with the previous comment that teaching at a community college is not a viable plan B. I’m a little burned out on programming and would do something like that if I thought I could get it.

    You’re certainly not lazy, a work/life balance if very important. Especially for a sedentary job like programming, going to the gym is practically essential in my opinion.

    At a high level my suggestions would be: be flexible, keep an eye out for opportunities and maintain your network. Sounds like you’re doing things right to me. I do believe just getting your foot in the door is the toughest challenge you’ll face, once you’re in, there are still difficulties, but they are more straight forward.

    Hope everything goes well.
  18. Feb 21, 2014 #17
    Wow! Thank you for all of the replies and suggestions. I've been away from the computer for a bit otherwise I would have responded to everyone sooner. I've just finished reading through everyone's thoughts (with a nice cup of tea!)

    All the suggestions and encouragement really brought a smile to my face! (Even while I scrolled through more internships and jobs that I'm not a good fit for... :) )

    A friend of my mother tried to get me into actuary a long time ago (pre college.) It's something I've been considering again, but I'm trying to see if there's a way to do an internship with an actuary before starting down that career path.

    I can't teach haha. I almost died the semester I had to be a TA. It just isn't in my nature and I would be more miserable doing that than I am now. I've tutored since I was 16 and the only reason I ever stuck with it is because parents are willing to pay quite a bit to make sure their child passes algebra :D

    I think he might protest at that :P

    Yup! I've been applying to some like crazy! The Bay area has some pretty stiff competition. I keep hoping to hear back positively from a tech company, but so far zilch. Keeping my fingers crossed someone looks twice at my application.

    I'm worried most employers are going to view a Masters as a failed PhD. I could do the PhD if I wanted, the problem is I don't. I was on a PhD track and willingly dropped down to the Masters (pre qual and without failing out.)

    ^^ My thoughts exactly!

    Glad to hear I'm not alone in this :) While I know I'm not, it's comforting to hear similar tales. I have a pretty solid resume and work experiences. My advice from companies is that while I know the programming, I don't know a lot of the terms or theory behind CS. I chalk this up to my programming knowledge mostly being self-taught to line up with the research I'm doing at the time. For example, I'm currently doing some research that requires writing quite a few Python scripts. Hence, I've gotten pretty good at Python. However, if someone started drilling me on the theory of doing X instead of Y in Python, I'd look at them like a deer in headlights. I know this is a weakness, so I've been trying to learn they WHYS along with the HOWS.
    I've also started getting into Android programming because, hey, maybe I can create the next Flappy Bird or whatever the fad is currently.

    I'm not exactly sure what this is: "You might consider underwriting positions at insurance companies "
    Underwriting positions? Maybe I just haven't heard that term yet?

    I actually started considering analyst positions at banks. I haven't figured out yet how to target those positions (ie, are they advertised online, do I need to send direct inquiries to banks, etc. It's a thought that hit me last night, so I haven't looked into it yet.)

    Thanks for the suggestions and the encouragement!
    The QA was a good suggestion from him. He works as a software engineer and also does a lot of recruiting, so he ran me through the interview tests they give potential hires, and he thought I did great on the QA end. It's only been a recent suggestion, so I'm still looking for internships that target that and trying to determine how best to make myself attractive to those positions.
  19. Feb 22, 2014 #18
    Sorry to hear that. I'm in undergrad right now and it is depressing to read this sort of news. Well best of luck in your job hunt.
  20. Feb 22, 2014 #19


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    There are a lot of people out there who realised that working in physics isn't for them even if they are interested in subject. Im'm one of them. I also realised that I absoluty hate programming. I find it dull and boring. So my BSc turned out to be useless. After my BSc I went to the art school (have in mind that education in my country is paid with taxes, no tuition fee) and work hard towards career as concept artist.
  21. Feb 22, 2014 #20


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    I agree with jedishrfu. Since you're close, you should just stick it out and get your MS. It'll open up opportunities, and simply having an advanced degree may get you higher pay. Plus you can use it to insist that your boyfriend address you as "Master."

    I wouldn't worry too much about a master's degree as being seen as a failed Ph.D. Research and grad school isn't for everyone, and people leave all the time. There's no shame in that. If you're really worried about it, you can always address the point in your cover letter.

    Even if you don't want to go into teaching as a career, teaching part-time can tide you over while you look for a permanent position. And as far as full-time positions go, I've been told that having an MS vs. Ph.D. doesn't really matter as much as having teaching experience.
  22. Feb 22, 2014 #21
    No. That seems sane!

    As you love hiking, why not take people hiking. You seem to be in the perfect area to do that. I've visited the bay area and went on a "redwood tour", which wasn't much hiking, but was fantastic. I wanted to go on other trips, but they were all booked weeks ahead. So I think there's plenty of opportunity. You can practice your finance by counting all the tourist dollars coming in...
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