1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Is a Physics PhD For me? last minute doubts

  1. Dec 14, 2014 #1
    Hey Everyone,
    So I was set. I studied and re-took the pgre. I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do in graduate school. I thought about career goals. I talked to professors and graduate students. I even submitted two apps! Two schools that I would be extremely happy to attend.

    Recently, out of nowhere, I am having doubts. Tomorrow is one of the main deadlines for a couple of my schools and I couldn't even get myself to look at the apps. I kept procrastinating. I kept looking for a "way out" or something else that would make me happy. IDK why I'm doing this. I wasn't like this before :/ I was super excited about physics PhD and research. I loved doing research in undergrad and I am very enthusiastic about physics. Many who know me know this.

    I am confident that I can do well in graduate school. I am a hard worker, love to self study and teach myself things, and I love doing research. Yet, for some reason I am feeling scared. I can't think of a better word, but I just feel scared. I am in a gap year at the moment. I spent most of this year looking for other jobs and trying to learn other things, but I kept coming back to physics. Heck, I even went and audited a QFT class for fun.

    Obviously some stupid thing is "blocking me", but I want to move it out of the way. I want to feel like I used to. Last time I did research was a year ago. I used to love waking up and going to my office to work on my research. It was fun. Even when I was stuck, I was having fun. I enjoyed it. How can I get that back? I'm scared I won't ever feel that way again :/.

    I guess this is something internal and it's not something people can just help me with. DO you think these doubts mean that I should wait another year? I wish I could have found a prof to do research with. Unfortunately, the two schools closest to me are extremely competitive with extremely busy profs. ( I emailed a few at each with no luck) :/
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 14, 2014 #2

    Vanadium 50

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor
    2017 Award

    I'm starting to worry about you too. You say you are confident, but this is the sixth or seventh thread you have posted asking for validation. I'm afraid you are going to need more self-confidence if you are going to get through graduate school. I would not expect my future graduate school to be warm and fuzzy - I would expect it to be cold, prickly and impersonal.
  4. Dec 14, 2014 #3

    I might have worded this entire thread wrong, mostly because of sleepiness. I remember my previous posts : i was initially not confident because of my pgre/gpa and next because my career goals changed. I am pretty happy with the list I have and I am confident that I can get admitted to some.

    I just thought more about what One of the poster's said to my previous thread. He asked me why I enjoyed x, y, and z.

    I thought more about that recently which is what led to my procrastination. I guess I'm not 100% if I want this anymore, but I used to be. I know people go through this in life at times in whatever field or career, but how to deal with it?

    I really did word my original post wrong. I do plan to still apply. I am just generally wondering how people deal with this type of situation? Idk what to call it honestly. It's a more of a doubt of wanting this path than a doubt of my ability to succeed in this path.

    I am sure it's a short term doubt. I have had this conversation with my prof who has went through this three times. Once during undergrad, next during grad school, and then during post doc. Now he's a tenured professor!

    Just wanted to hear more stories.
  5. Dec 15, 2014 #4
    I have the similar situation in that I know I ultimately want to to do graduate school but I have been procrastinating on the applications which are due in 11 days. I don't think I can finish them. Other dreams have started to pop up which I think I might pursue in the meantime because I know even if I go into graduate school now my spirit will not be in it. Because my spirit and mind are not there I think I better work on other things. Right now what's captivating me is the thought of being a mandarin Chinese and english translator or being a Chinese teacher.
  6. Dec 15, 2014 #5
    That's pretty cool Delong, are you going to go for it? Being a Chinese teacher? Maybe you can still apply and defer for a year. I have a friend who is in China currently teaching english. I know that's not what you meant, but maybe there are programs that interest you too.

    I used to enjoy learning a bunch of things. I would sit and teach myself group theory for physicist, differential geometry etc. but none of it is appealing to me anymore. I just want to bring that part of myself back. I need that "me" for graduate school.

    I'll take my own advice and apply anyways then maybe defer.

    Best of luck!
  7. Dec 15, 2014 #6
    I can seriously relate, going to graduate school and practicing science used to consume my mind. But now I have trouble feeling the hunger again. Ideally I would like to do both: teach english to chinese speakers and teach chinese to english speakers cause if i can then why not? I just came back from a trip to China and I'm trying to reconnect with my original culture,it's kind of become a journey of my life. I'll try to apply to at least a few low tier schools before the deadline.
  8. Dec 15, 2014 #7
    That sounds pretty cool! I sort of want to take that type of journey someday. A part of me wishes I had applied for Fulbright or the Watson Fellowship back when I was in undergrad. BTW, you may want to check out Fulbright for next year ( if you are U.S citizen).

    This is the program my friend is doing: http://www.tfchina.org/en/index.aspx [Broken]

    On the bright side, my small period of doubt vanished. I am sure it will appear sometime later in life because that's just the way it is. I'm glad I took the time to talk to "real" grown ups, haha. I have a lot of work to do now and for the next several days.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  9. Dec 15, 2014 #8


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper
    Education Advisor

    A lot of people start grad school, realize it's not for them, and leave. There's no shame in changing your mind after you get there. At least if you apply to schools now, you'll have the option to go next year if you decide to try.
  10. Dec 15, 2014 #9
    Confused about why there isn't a MSc in physics in the US. Here in Europe it is normal to get a MSc in physics, then go into business. No one gets a university-level BSc and then leaves. In fact, in my country that was impossible to do. An academic education took 5 years minimum.

    I don't get the BSc -> PhD track. How do you get a good with just a BSc?

    Don't know if it is an option to get an MSc, NA or Europe, to either delay the declension or to prepare fully for high level industry jobs.
  11. Dec 15, 2014 #10
    I think it's cultural difference. Unlike Europe, living in USA is not cute and fluffy, full of taxes that pays for social security. There is a lot of gun violence, slums (different than in Europe) and other stuff that we can't even imagine. Unlike us, in USA they don't have free education or healthcare so they aren't pampered by society. It's more or less "every man for himself" so those ppl need to find a job ASAP in order to pay for their college debt, healthcare etc. So while in Europe most ppl finish high school at the age of 18-19 or even 20 (vocational) and then go to college for 5 year (or even more if double-major) and enter job market at 23-26 pampered by tax money, in USA many ppl drop high-school or finish their education after HS because they can't afford to go further and start working at 17 or go to army (and they fight on real battlefield) so that they can pay for their education. If they go to college right after HS they finish it at the age of 21 with 200k$ debt. So they can either start working or go to graduate school (from what I understand their debt is cancelled then) because no one is going to help them or pay for them. Structure of USA sociaty is very different, economy too - try to find a job in Europe with HS degree only and BSc is not that great either + good jobs in Europe are rare - our industry is not as large as in USA so you need to have higher degree and on-job experience.
  12. Dec 15, 2014 #11


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Rika, a lot of what you said is correct but it is not the norm for someone to accrue $200k of student loan debt in the US for just a BS. I believe the average is ~20k (IIRC). Secondly, going to grad school does not absolve one from paying one's students loans. Also, usually one is paid a stipend to live on and tuition is waived in US PhD programs.

    Also, I am sure Europeans also pay taxes in order to pay for things like free education and health care.
  13. Dec 15, 2014 #12


    Staff: Mentor

    Sometimes as undergrads we suffer a kind of burnout. College starts off easy as you repeat stuff you may have learned in highschool. The second year is harder but not too bad. You study more but not as diligent as you could because graduation is still a couple of years away. Then the third year comes, your take it up a notch and you feel like you hit a brick wall.

    You can't keep up no matter how hard you try. Your grades start to drop not a lot but enough to set off internal alarms. Fear begins to set in. The fourth year you actively look for lighter courses and keep hoping for semester break to catch up on topics you don't have time for. In some cases, you study things you know and don't study what you don't know and rather than go to grad school you graduate and get a job.

    Then a few years later you think maybe I was too hasty and dream of going back but you have a family and things are different now so you dream if only...

    This is what happened to me and it happens to a lot of students. It's a kind of burnout. My excuse was I worked 30 hours per week in addition to going to school and was just too tired to keep up with all my work. I sought out the tougher course taking independent studies and struggling to impress the prof. Often my homework was praised for complete by the prof who then added but it's too late and I have knock it down a grade, sorry. I graduated early, got a full time job no more minimum wage and began my working life.

    From then on graduate work was one course at a time, admiring those students who could go full time and wondering if I could go back. I'm still wondering but things never really change. To be fair I have an MS in CompSci and 20 grad credits in Physics in courses that I can't recall ie QM, CM and Astrophysics to name a couple.

    Keep up your spirits go to grad school, and see what it's like and then you can decide if that's what you want to do. Don't let doubt take away your initial passion for science. Enjoy your life and have fun..
  14. Dec 15, 2014 #13
    Why do we enjoy certain things? Well there isn't always a rational reason, sometimes we just do, that's how we are wired. But if there is no rational reason in your case, maybe you're scared that one day you will stop enjoying it. Some people never ask themselves the question, others need a reason to keep doing things. Then the question is not too far from "what do you want to do with your life?". What is that or those things that you will regret not having done in your life when you are on your deathbed? If one of them is to be a physics researcher, then go for it.

    Note that going to grad school does not mean you will be forced to research physics for the rest of your life. At any point, whether in school or later on in your career, you can always decide to change paths if you feel like physics is not your true calling anymore.

    You mentioned that you are in a gap year. Did you spend most of it at home doing nothing much? If so that's probably one of the reasons you feel scared right now, staying home for too long doesn't help the motivation and the self-confidence. Doing a little bit of physical exercise every day should help too if you're not doing that already, jogging for a bit can do wonders to clear your mind and get it focused.

  15. Dec 16, 2014 #14
    Thanks for all the replies everyone! I really appreciate it.
    I did apply to the December 15 schools I had. Thank you for sharing your story too.Do you feel that you won't be able to go back to graduate school? An MS in comp-sci is awesome , though. I am sort of thinking about applying for that too. I am applying for PhD physics, MS EE, MS Comp SCI, and MS Finance. Just so I have all options open if another period of doubt comes crashing.

    That's very true! I would feel bad about going and then changing my mind though. Deep down I am 100% sure I want a research oriented job, but sometimes I just think about all the "what ifs". I need to stay away from certain areas in this forum, haha. There are several threads about people wishing they had done something different.

    Yes, I will definitely regret not applying for graduate school or at least not even attempting a Physics research career. You are right though, maybe getting too philosophical about "what is my purpose in life" type questions might not always be good to think about. At least in my case.

    I did apply to a lot of jobs since I was in school and after I graduated ( 7ish months ago). Funny thing is I never even offered an interview for retail jobs, but did get interviews for an entry level engineering and finance. The fact that I didn't have much coding experience didn't help, though. I now work as a tutor and I have 5 students. I make decent amount of pocket money, but I live at home. I audited QFT at a nearby university, but I did not have much luck finding someone to do research with. However, studying for the PGRE did consume some time. Now just applications consume it. Now I am trying to learn more physics as well.

    To be honest, I posted this thread because I was reading the news and just seeing what happens in the world makes me sad. So many horrible things. Sometimes I just wish I could do something to make a difference. I then wondered how would I make a difference with a PhD in physics. Anyways, I do love physics. I also just wished the world was more peaceful. I'll figure out a way to make a difference someday.
  16. Dec 16, 2014 #15
    I'll quote Carl Sagan, talking about a photograph of Earth taken from 6 billion km away (the Pale Blue Dot):

    Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

    The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

    The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

    If everyone had that cosmic perspective the Earth would be more peaceful, if everyone could see themselves as standing on a tiny rock lost in the immensity of space. Space exploration can give that perspective to the world, but it needs to happen on a much grander scale than what it is right now. We used to rely exclusively on the will of our governments for space exploration to happen, but that is about to change in the near future with private corporations such as SpaceX now getting into the game.

    If you want a PhD in physics and contribute to making the world more peaceful, maybe you can have your PhD in a field that will help improve space technologies and make space exploration cheaper and more accessible. The more affordable the technology, the more things will happen up there in space. Privately funded exploration missions. Satellites in Earth orbit dedicated to education, accessible by educational institutions all over the world and allowing kids to take their own pictures of the Earth from above. When all kids get a sense of that cosmic perspective, then eventually the world will stop looking down on each other and start looking up.
  17. Dec 16, 2014 #16
    That was a beautiful quote you posted! I agree with you about the cosmic perspective --> more peaceful earth. I don't know which field of physics would lead to that kind of career but ever since I was young, a small part of me wanted to study aerospace engineering/aeronautics. In terms of physics, I was never really interested in astronomy, planetary science, or astrophysics. I recently came across a lot of CME/material science research that potentially leads to very useful applications and technology. In addition to a PhD in physics, I think I will also apply for a couple of MS Aerospace Eng.

    Today's news made me feel even sadder about the world. Over 80 children were shot and killed in Pakistan at a school! =(
  18. Dec 17, 2014 #17
    I want to work in green alternative energies.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook