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Inability to gauge whether or not I like physics

  1. Nov 25, 2012 #1
    I'm curious if anybody else has felt this/ what they did to deal with it. I starting going to school with the intention of working in very theoretical physics, something along the lines of M-Theory possibly. I'm in my third year double majoring in physics and mathematics. Unfortunately, I've steadily lost interest in the subject since starting. I feel that this is because I'm not learning about anything that I was originally interested in. I maintain a high GPA and have done research, and feel like I could get into a pretty good graduate school, but I'm not sure if I actually want to or not, because I haven't taken any classes in what I'm interested, solely because it seems that my entire undergraduate career has been spent taking prereqs for the classes that I'm actually interested in taking. Has anybody else felt this dilemma and then ended up getting really excited in grad school, even though they found their undergraduate experience to be really mundane/ does anybody have any suggestions?
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  3. Nov 26, 2012 #2


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    I think most people who study physics to through this to one extent or another. You start out really enjoying the subject at the high school level, reading popular science books and you generate this idea of what life as a scientist is really like in your mind. Then you embark on the path and find the reality is a little (or a lot) different.

    In a way, it's not unlike starting to date that special person you've had a crush on for a while. When you first meet her (or him) she's smoking hot, got a perfect personality and is interested in everything you are. Then you start going out and you realize she's actually kind of dull, superficial, and you learn the definition of "high maintenance."

    In physics you start out thinking you'll be using general relativity to develop a warp-drive engine and by third year your asking yourself questions like "What the heck is a wave guide?"

    I don't know that there is any solution to the dilemma other than trial and error.

    What I figured out in graduate school though, is that if you're going to be successful, one element is that you have to have enough passion for the subject that your interest lies beyong doing only what is required or assigned. That can be hard to guage when what is assigned takes up all your waking hours, but what happens during the summers? Or Christmas vacation? Are you still atively reading about the stuff that you're interested in? Or are you so glad to be finished you'd rather do anything but more physics? While everyone has times in the latter category, if you find you're there more often than in the former, that's probably a good hint.
  4. Nov 26, 2012 #3

    If you're pursuing a topic in your spare time then you like it. I applied to math and physics grad schools and got into both programs from various schools but I chose to study physics because I realized that in my free time I was constantly learning physics and just learned the math as I went even though I studied (and I'm still studying) a lot of pure math. Sometimes math feels like I'm forcing myself to learn it but I never feel that way with physics.
  5. Nov 26, 2012 #4


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    Some very good replies here!

    If you're going to grad school, then you should make sure that you go into a topic you really enjoy. If you don't like a certain field now, then I very much doubt that you will enjoy it in grad school (at least, that is how I feel with mathematics). Furthermore, you should really go into undergrad research of some kind. It gives you an idea what research is about. And if it turns out that you absolutely hate it, then you know grad school is not for you. If it turns out you didn't like it for particular reasons, then you know those reasons and you know what mistake not to make in grad school.
  6. Nov 26, 2012 #5
    If you don't enjoy learning the prequisites my personal off-my-*** guess would be that you may not enjoy learning -and more importantly: working in- the actual field. In the end, you'll have to make the decision for yourself. But it took me a Master's (-equivalent) in HEP theory to figure that I am not really interested in the "cool stuff". And for several of my former colleagues from the mathematical physics group (possibly even the majority of them) it them took a PhD to come to this conclusion. I that sense, you are possibly to be envied.

    Just my two perhaps more-pessimistic-than-the-average-reply cents. My advice, somewhat in agreement with the previous two posters, would be going for what you actually enjoy on an everyday-basis. I did chose my PhD thesis (in Germany you usually don't apply for grad schools but directly for your thesis topic) based on (a) realizing that contrary to my ego's claims a "detached from the world"-SciFi topic is not a neccessity, and (b) toying around with the topic and actually having had fun doing so. It's been an excellent decision.
  7. Nov 26, 2012 #6


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    Just to add to what others have said, I have observed that those that seem to do well in physics (both that they enjoy it and they seem to prosper in a research environment) are those that enjoy all aspects of physics, from the seemingly mundane to the dazzlingly esoteric.

    They enjoy learning about everything
    from geometric optics to attosecond spectroscopy
    from Kepler's Laws to Einstein's equations
    from a 25x light microscope to scanning tunneling microscopes
    from simple LRC circuits to singly doped transistors
    from the 1D particle in a box to the Dirac Equation
    from the Bohr model to beyond the standard model
    from a copper block in a heat bath to He dilution refrigeration

    I'm not claiming this is true in all cases, it has only been my experience that these broad minded sorts of people tend to do very well.
  8. Nov 27, 2012 #7
    if it helps you make a decision, I just attended a seminar recently in string theory and it was completely not understandable for most people in the classroom except for maybe the last 3 powerpoint slides. the seminar is attended by grad students and faculty.

    From the math that I picked up on the presentation, it seems that string theory involves elements of group theory, relativity, and the entire rest of the standard model.
  9. Nov 27, 2012 #8
    I'm speaking from a math graduate student's perspective, as someone who does stuff close to mathematical physics. I have had the experience of learning that a boring subject could be made interesting when properly presented, although I intuitively knew from the start that it was being presented in an unenlightening and boring way. Somehow, it pretty much always seems to work out that I end up being right about the subject eventually and have the last laugh, even though it can take years sometimes.

    However, grad school in math pretty much broke me, crushed my spirit, and killed any enthusiasm I had for being in academia, partly because of the demands that were put on me, but more because I wanted to follow my own path and not the one that was prescribed to me by my adviser and the requirements of the program. I imagine it's similar in physics. If you aren't fanatical about physics, and not even just that, but doing it in a way such that you do well in the system, it's going to be fairly depressing.
  10. Nov 27, 2012 #9
    Oh, and I was also going to say, you can try to read ahead and look at some graduate level stuff and try to gauge if you might like it from that, although it's pretty hard to find out what it's like until you are in the middle of it.
  11. Nov 30, 2012 #10
    School is not like work. Even work is not like work depending on various factors, location, culture, environment, etc. Granted my experience in the Physics field may be limited, but there are a lot more people with the education than there are positions in the field. Hence, in such circumstances, there may be quite a bit of politics. Also, the funding for the research may be coming from people or entities that from your perspective are extremely ignorant of the physics and the science. Do your best to stand out, and strive for excellence, ... but regardless of what you do, the pure physics you are studying from the textbook is probably much cleaner and nicer than working post graduation.
  12. Nov 30, 2012 #11
    I agree that this is a great indication as well.

    SophusLies, may I ask how that experience worked out for you? I'm considering doing something similar but the idea of taking both the math and physics GREs and then having people from both departments write rec letters etc doesn't seem too appealing.

    Homeomorphic, do you think had you went into physics or mathematical physics, your experience would have been better? Reading your recent posts, it seems like a large part of your dilemma is the fact that you spend so much of your time on something that you'll never see being applied.
  13. Dec 1, 2012 #12
    That's hard to say. I fled from physics because the way of doing things in math was more congenial, even though I preferred physics as far as the subject matter goes. In the ideal world, I'd be happiest if someone just gave me money to do whatever I want. The reality of having to get a job and convince someone to pay me is extremely inconvenient to any scientific or mathematical aspirations I might have.
  14. Dec 2, 2012 #13


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    If you're not enjoying physics now, then going to grad school is going to be a terrible mistake. Only a tiny minority of physics PhD students end up doing fundamental physics research. Therefore it is never a good decision to enter a PhD program in physics unless you believe you'll enjoy the heck out of the process of grad school for its own sake.

    This all goes double for someone like you who wants to do theory, and triple if the goal is to do string theory, quantum gravity, etc.

    No, and I've never heard of anyone who this happened to. If anything, the reverse is more common. Many people start grad school all fired up, and then gradually realize that they hate it and want to quit.
  15. Dec 2, 2012 #14


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    Although this is not exceedingly common at my program, I know people who this has happened to. I always have been interested (but never wanted to pry) about what particularly caused this transformation. Smooth transition versus some kind of step function (ie, a catalyzing event) and such. I've also wondered how much of it is reality of the situation versus expectations, or how much is related to income, etc etc. I suppose there are many reasons as people in this situation.

    I, personally, am loving the crud out of my program, it is still early though...
  16. Dec 2, 2012 #15
    So one very important thing to realize- physics is built on physics. If you hate dealing with Lagrangians as applied to a ball sliding around on a hoop, what makes you think you'll love dealing with the Lagrangians of strings? If the quantum mechanics of electrons and photons isn't interesting, why do you think promoting them to strings will be more interesting?

    Also, grad school will likely be spent learning more "pre-reqs." How much GR have you had as an undergrad? How much field theory?

    And finally- most people who get phds in physics won't get full-time jobs doing science for a living, and the phd itself is often just consumption (no economic gain). If you don't enjoy doing it you are just wasting your time. Its like spending 70 hours a week reading a book you don't like.


    So for the people I know personally who left without finishing the transition was mostly just that they realized how bleak the career prospects were. Once you realize you aren't willing to put up with 6+ years of low pay and career uncertainty AFTER your phd, and you find out how little industry demand there is for physics. From there, you are left knowing 1. finishing a thesis takes a lot of time and effort 2. having a phd will not help your future career. Its not surprising people quit.

    One physics phd turned financial analyst I work with says that people who get science phds are people who are overly susceptible to sunk-cost fallacies.
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2012
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