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I want to be practical but it is so boring!

  • Thread starter Tensor_law
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Main Question or Discussion Point

I am a high school senior preparing to choose what i shall study at a tertiary level.

For many years i have had an interest in mathematics and theoretical physics. When i was younger i read brian greene, hawking and Randall. Yet i am now well aware that the theoretical aspects of science are not exactly as romantic as portayed by the aformentioned authors. I used to dream of unifying the laws of physics and solving great mathematical hypothesis and conjectures, but i have come to the conclusion that is unlikely.

Previously i was very interested in studying QED and string theory, but am aware that academic positions in these areas are somewhat limited. Whats more it is unlikely that i would get a tenure track position as the odds are against me.

Despite this, i would still like to study science at university. This led me to consider engineering. When i explore the career options for engineers i find myself bored and uninspired. I like mathematics and physics for their beauty not their practical uses in fixing machines.

I hear that many science phds become quants, but why not go into finance in the first place, in effect getting a better job? I would rather manage people, then sit at a computer and code, i would rather be a ceo or financial adviser than a physics phd sitting in the basement. Yet i still yearn to understand the universe at its deepest levels. I want to "understand the mind of god" as hawking would put it. So should i go down the academic route even though job prospects are not that great, living my life as a poor dreamer. Or do i choose another field of study, such as economics or law? which i admit would not be as fun as unravelling the secrets of the universe, but better than sitting on a computer or fixing machines and electrical systems.

Make no mistake i love science, theoretical physics exactly, and feel let down that i will never understand the universe like witten does!
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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You really don't know enough physics right now to know what's boring and what isn't. If you enjoy using quantum mechanics, condensed matter can be interesting if you know what it's about. Same with solid state physics. Same with engineering, same with numerical simulations of various kinds (which is most fields in physics). You think they're boring because they aren't sitting around thinking about the universe all day. It's fine to think about the universe, sure, but not everyone can do it and those aren't the only interesting problems to solve.

But of course your opinions will change as you learn more about different fields in physics. Just remember to keep an open mind. I thought condensed matter was boring, but only when I made an effort to learn about it (because I reminded myself how much I love to learn), it turned out to be rather interesting. What's better is that it's practical and you're helping solve real problems that will help people here and now, which I think is pretty respectable.
 
  • #3
chiro
Science Advisor
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I am a high school senior preparing to choose what i shall study at a tertiary level.

For many years i have had an interest in mathematics and theoretical physics. When i was younger i read brian greene, hawking and Randall. Yet i am now well aware that the theoretical aspects of science are not exactly as romantic as portayed by the aformentioned authors. I used to dream of unifying the laws of physics and solving great mathematical hypothesis and conjectures, but i have come to the conclusion that is unlikely.

Previously i was very interested in studying QED and string theory, but am aware that academic positions in these areas are somewhat limited. Whats more it is unlikely that i would get a tenure track position as the odds are against me.

Despite this, i would still like to study science at university. This led me to consider engineering. When i explore the career options for engineers i find myself bored and uninspired. I like mathematics and physics for their beauty not their practical uses in fixing machines.

I hear that many science phds become quants, but why not go into finance in the first place, in effect getting a better job? I would rather manage people, then sit at a computer and code, i would rather be a ceo or financial adviser than a physics phd sitting in the basement. Yet i still yearn to understand the universe at its deepest levels. I want to "understand the mind of god" as hawking would put it. So should i go down the academic route even though job prospects are not that great, living my life as a poor dreamer. Or do i choose another field of study, such as economics or law? which i admit would not be as fun as unravelling the secrets of the universe, but better than sitting on a computer or fixing machines and electrical systems.

Make no mistake i love science, theoretical physics exactly, and feel let down that i will never understand the universe like witten does!
Its good that you at least contemplate that science isn't as "romantic" as its played out to be.

I think you'll find that every job/career is not completely enticing and engaging. Every job has its parts that people hate and despise and basically if you go into a job and can handle the stuff you don't like then its a good indicator in my view.

If I were you I would try and find someone with enough experience to tell you what the careers really like. If after a realistic assessment of that particular career you still want to do it, then its probably something you can add to your list.

Also I just want to add that there is plenty of opportunities to research and add to science that don't involve "understanding the universe or god". There is a lot of science out there that is simpler and is still very good in terms of usefulness by other scientists, theoretical or applied.

Its hard enough unravelling the secrets of the universe when we have literally thousands and thousands of problems in every area of science that does not have an answer or even a method of finding an answer.

Don't set yourself up for disappointment: find out the realities of what you want to get into.
 
  • #4
Pengwuino
Gold Member
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Wait a few more, take a few physics courses, talk to faculty and other students and see what it is like. You aren't even in a position to judge what scientific careers are really about.
 
  • #5
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Hi Tensor,

I speak as a graduate student in electrical engineering.

Did you know that the great theoretical physicist Paul Dirac (one of the founders of quantum mechanics) started his career as an electrical engineer? It's always possible to switch fields later, so don't feel that you're signing your soul away to whatever program you choose for your bachelor's degree. Just think of your bachelor's degree as "basic training"; all you really need to get out of it is a sufficiently broad set of skills to help you in whatever career you choose after that. Real specialization occurs when you land your first long-term job or enter graduate studies.

Concerning academic positions, I wouldn't worry about that right now unless you've made it your sole goal in life to become a professor for whatever reason. The competition for professorships is brutal for every scholastic discipline, even outside of science. It's good to dream, but the probability of landing a professorship is really low. My university had 300 candidates applying for ONE opening in our department a few years back. Have some alternative career plans in mind, even if you decide to pursue the academic path.

String theory... I'm not a theorist, but from what I know, it has generated practically no experimentally verifiable physics since its inception, although it has produced a lot of neat math. I would be very, very wary of entering this field.

Actually, I think a certain type of engineering program might be *perfect* for you, so long you enjoy, or at least don't mind building stuff and doing experimental work. Many universities offer Applied Physics programs, such as Stanford. I myself graduated from Engineering Physics at a Canadian university (UBC). You'll get to learn fundamental physics AND how to apply it towards the crafting of useful technology (at the cost of not going into quite as much depth as a vanilla physicist or engineer). You just might find yourself surprised; engineering design can be every bit as beautiful as fundamental science.

And if it the whole thing blows over and you hate your program, you can bail into something else at the end. My friends in Engineering Physics ended up all over the place, some as programmers, bankers, graduate students in physics, graduates student in engineering, graduate students in math, graduate students in finance, law school... I think I even heard of medical school in one case. Oh yeah, and some of them actually went on to work as engineers.

Summary: don't feel too intimidated by your choice of bachelor's program. Choose something aligned with your strengths and interests; if you're math and physics are in fact your strengths, I would recommend you pursue your dreams in science. But just keep in mind that flexibility is paramount and you should at every point in your career keep a few back-up plans in mind.

Sincerely,

icwchan
 
  • #6
1,199
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Do what you're interested in! You've only one very short life. If you are eventually forced out of physics because you don't want do programming or experimental work, and there are no other options, *then* you can move into that corporate, people-facing job. Or teach physics?
 
  • #7
Vanadium 50
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The is the first message I have ever read that suggests that it's easier to become a CEO than a physicist!

Let me echo and amplify a few points. One is that you don't know what a theoretical physicist does, and reading popularizations may be less helpful than you think. The other is that you are many years away from having to make a decision. Go to a good college with many strong programs and take the time to explore. The field you want to study may be something you have never even heard of.
 
  • #8
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II hear that many science phds become quants, but why not go into finance in the first place, in effect getting a better job?
I got my Ph.D. in astrophysics rather than finance because I find astrophysics cooler than finance. I would have done the Ph.D. even if it turned out that I couldn't use it to get a job, because I think that astrophysics is worth studying for the sake of astrophysics.

Now by some quirk of nature, there are people that are willing to give me insane amounts of money to use those skills, and if it happens that I get money for doing astrophysics like things, I'm not going to say no.

I would rather manage people, then sit at a computer and code, i would rather be a ceo or financial adviser than a physics phd sitting in the basement. Yet i still yearn to understand the universe at its deepest levels.
Give up.

The universe is much too complicated, and I don't think it is *possible* for one human being to understand the universe at its deepest levels. Give up trying to understand *everything*. If after spending several years at something, you understand *anything* you are in good shape. And trying to understand *anything* involves a lot of grunt work.

There is a big difference between watching a movie, and making a movie. The second act requires a lot of boring grunt work.

I want to "understand the mind of god" as hawking would put it. So should i go down the academic route even though job prospects are not that great, living my life as a poor dreamer.
If you can't stand doing boring stuff than academia is not for you.

Or do i choose another field of study, such as economics or law? which i admit would not be as fun as unravelling the secrets of the universe, but better than sitting on a computer or fixing machines and electrical systems.
Don't decide now. Take a few physics classes, get involved in undergraduate research, and once you have an idea of what physics really is like, you can make a better decision. You may find real physics tremendously non-fun. You might find it's a blast. Hard to tell.

One problem is I have is that "sitting at a computer or fixing machines and electrical systems" is *HOW* you unravelling the secrets of the universe.

Make no mistake i love science, theoretical physics exactly
I don't think that you do. You've fallen in love with an image, but that image really has not much connection with real theoretical physics.

and feel let down that i will never understand the universe like witten does!
I don't see any reason to think that Witten or Hawking deeper understanding of the universe than you do.
 

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