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I'm not sure I want to go into the field I'm going into

  1. Mar 2, 2015 #1
    I'm in my fifth year of an honours degree in physics with a minor in math, and up until now I had planned to go into medical physics. I had looked into some nuclear stuff and thought it was kind of neat and thought, you know what, medical physics would be an interesting field. I did a little research and discovered that it also has a good rate of employment compared to other areas in physics and decided that's what I'd work towards.
    Within the last couple years I've started finding myself more interested in what I learned was called theoretical physics, but continued to work towards medical physics because I wasn't uninterested and it seemed better for job opportunities. I've also worked multiple jobs for the majority of my university career and as a consequence my marks are average (though I have minimal debt), or maybe a little higher -- I could probably get into a masters program at a decent university for medical physics based on the research I've done on entrance requirements, but I'm not even close to getting in for theoretical physics. The reason this is relevant is because I'm about a month and a half away from graduating and I'm maybe halfway done an honours thesis project with the BC Cancer agency in medical physics and it's dawned on me that medical physics just isn't interesting. It's still interesting in a general sense, but perhaps not enough such that I'd be willing to devote the next couple years of my life to it, let alone the remainder of my life.
    I'll admit that this recent year has not been fun (work caused me a lot of stress and to lose a lot of marks) and it's possible that my peripherals have been narrowed as a consequence of the metaphorical gimp suit my labs managed to slip me into in September. Unfortunately, even though I'm still choking on a figurative ball gag, I'm beginning to think that I'd want to jump ship even if I weren't chained to the radiator.
    Of course the most common (probably only) response I expect is, "don't go into it if you don't love it", which is advice I've heard a million times before, though whose merit I had never really considered until now. My problem follows from this: what on earth do I do? My consideration right now is to spend the summer working for a prof and going through as much of the Landau Lifshitz series as I can (even if they aren't the most pedagogical, I really like those books and planned to read as much of them as I could anyway) and then going back to school for -- I shudder to say it -- a sixth year, and hope my marks and theoretical understanding are better by next April than they are now. The issue I have with this is that while my marks will undoubtedly increase slightly (I'd already be familiar with the subject matter and I'd have more time to focus) there's always the reasonably likely possibility that no amount of trying will get me the marks I need, and that on a fundamental level I lack the ability to truly understand the material. This would put me in, more or less, the same spot I'm in now but one year later and $5000 further in debt. That's a huge gamble and I'm not sure I want to risk that.
    It should be clear that I'm pretty desperate for any type of advice or support by virtue of the fact that I'm turning to the internet for life advice, but I think enough of you are experienced enough to give me some ideas, and so I pose the question: is it worth it to stick around another year and spend a lot of money in hopes that it will help my marks with such a high likelihood that it may not even get me anywhere? If not, what should I do then?

    Thanks in advance for any help, I appreciate it
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 2, 2015 #2
    Regardless of your religion or lack thereof, most people discover that we are here in this life to help others. That's part of what building a successful career is all about. When I started off in college, had you told me that I would end up working at a water and sewer utility (and enjoying it), I'd have been horrified. Things change.

    You seem to have a very tight focus on what you think you'd like to do. Allow me to bust your bubble by informing you that studies in school and the working world are very different.

    There is much more to the working world besides your technical education. In fact, that's just the entry point that gets your foot in the door. You will discover some wonderful people, great mentors, appalling (but benign) ignorance, and probably some truly evil jackassery.

    The point I'm trying to convey to you is that if you think that you can manage with just a technical education and that this will magically open doors and make people want to throw money at you, keep dreaming. It ain't happening by itself. You have to bring useful skills to the negotiations table. You'll need to be able to learn and apply well past the silly word problems you may have had in a math class.

    Also be aware that after the first couple years of work, NOBODY will ask you what your GPA was, and even if you tell them, they won't care. The one and only time when someone is likely to care is when you apply for your first job after college. At that point, since they have nothing else to go on, they'll look at your GPA. In fact, if I'm doing the hiring, I'll take a more ordinary looking GPA over some high over-achiever because I know that someone with a high GPA is likely to be a very anal retentive, insufferable person. I want someone who thinks on their feet, not who reads books or plugs and chugs through equations to find answers the professor was looking for.

    At the end of the day, you may find yourself working on great things, but working around a bunch of truly toxic people. Life is too short to put up with toxic people. If you are looking for a career and the fulfillment you get from it, find meaningful work and good people to work with.

    I you can't sit down and feel like socializing with your co-workers after work, then it ain't worth staying there.

    I say this because it seems you need to consider what you're doing, why you're studying what you are, and how to get a career that is meaningful and that can support you comfortably.

    But what do I know. I'm just some guy on the Internet... :-)
  4. Mar 3, 2015 #3


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    Making the big life choice is never easy. Nobody can make the decision for you. All I can do is make suggestions as to how to approach it.

    You need to be critical and selfish about it, so far as you are able to with the knowledge you have. Think about where you want to be in 5, 10, 20 years. Think about how you will feel if you continue on your current path, or if you change tracks. Try to estimate things on your overall happiness rather than just one aspect of your life.

    Work is tough. That's why they pay you. But different workplaces have different culture and conditions. Maybe this is just a crappy place you were working and another one would suit you better. There are other places to work.

    Example: I work primarily as a contractor. It means when I work at the client's office, I work on their jobs using their equipment and resources. So, when their IT staff tells me "this is how your computer is set up" I find it completely ok. But when I was an employee (of the same company in this example) and the IT staff kept loading a new screen saver on my computer every month, it used to drive me spare. The simple change from employee to contractor made my life a lot happier. Look for changes in your working life that can decrease your stress and increase your happiness.
  5. Mar 3, 2015 #4

    Stephen Tashi

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    You should consider further whether you have developed aversions to medical physics by a sort of Pavlovian conditioning - associating it with stressful and "punishing" situations. Later you might develop similar aversions to theoretical physics. I think it's common for people who are under prolonged stress doing one type of work to develop heightened interested is other activities. For example, intense study of mathematics can lead to an interest in carpentry, bridge, assembling plastic models or even just washing the dishes.

    You could attempt to analyze why you get interested in things. (For example, why were you interested in medical physics?) A candid analysis requires admitting silly reasons. The child's thought of "I want to be a fireman" is usually based on silly ideas, but they are real motivations. I think adults ideas of "I want to be a...." usually involve irrational components. For example, I've known people who were influenced by a charismatic teacher in a particular subject and when they continued their education it became clear that the subject wasn't interesting to them under less charismatic instructors. People can be influenced by friends, rivals, historical accounts of great discoveries, television programs, daydreams etc. Take all the silly stuff into account.

    It's easy for people to say they "love" a particular kind of work and have "passion" about it. The depth of such passion is highly variable. The average sort of passion is general and somewhat passive - like "I'd love to teach at a university and do research in theoretical physics" or "I love working for General Electric and designing electrical equipment". This sort of passion isn't focused on a very specific goal ( such as "I want to find solutions to the Navier-Stokes equation" or "I want to design an electric kinetic energy recovery system for bicycles") and it requires some company or institution to facilitate matters - as opposed to "I want to design an electric kinetic energy recovery system for bicycles and I'm willing to work in the fast food industry and sleep in my car if that's what it takes". People who have passion focused on a very specific task and are willing to endure hardships to pursue it are quite rare. (Whether they are admirable or foolish depends on their goal and their talents.)

    Your personality dictates what level of passion you need to feel comfortable. When people feel unhappy and set themselves the goal of finding something they are passionate about, I think its the "unhappy" aspect of the situation that is the motivation. They can usually escape being unhappy without finding some goal that takes over their lives.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2015
  6. Mar 3, 2015 #5


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    Well, one good thing is that you've learned now that you don't like medical physics - which while perhaps disappointing given what you've put in so far, is still much better than figuring that out once you're three years into a PhD. There's value in learning that you don't like things. And I suspect you will have learned as least some skills along the way, so it's perhaps not a total loss.

    Medical physics (or other options) will always be there.* If you decide you really want to pursue something else, this is a good time in your life to do it. Trying to get into another branch of physics will be a lot harder if you are ten years down the road and have a family to factor into the equation.

    *I say this because there are opportunities for people to get into the field who have completed PhDs in other branches of physics. You still have to complete some field-specific course work and a residency, both of which are very competative, but it is still possible to get in later if you decide you want to have another go at it.
  7. Mar 3, 2015 #6
    Thanks guys, this is helpful. I'm particularly worried about deciding to go down this road and just wasting time and money without any real benefit. I also agree that perhaps I've associated the stress with the path I've chosen but I feel as though it might be a genuine disinterest just because I've been stressed in the past and didn't question my choice. I'd still like to hear any other input anyone has

    Thanks again
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