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Is it possible to choose between two passions?

  1. Mar 24, 2014 #1
    I'm currently coming towards the end of my first year in university and I have found that there are two things which I particularly like : quantum mechanics and statistics. With the way things are in my university, these subjects are mutually exclusive after first year (if I do one I won't be able to do even one class of the other). However I cannot decide between them. When I'm studying quantum mechanics I feel I want to do physics, with or without a double major in pure maths. When I'm studying statistics I want to instead do mathematical sciences (a combination of maths, applied maths and statistics; you cannot do any of these three on their own).

    I know there is some statistics used in physics but it's quite elementary, and doesn't require a deep understanding of the concepts. If I had to self-learn one of them, I would prefer that to be physics because then I could be led solely by curiosity : not being limited in what I can learn if I want to learn more and not being forced to learn more if I'm not interested. With statistics, I don't experience this desire for more when I'm learning it, but I am SURE that anything new will be fun.

    I'm also interested in it from a philosophical standpoint - it's only because of statistics that we can infer something about a system while not knowing everything about it (from a limited number of observations). That's why it bothers me when the analysis of scientific experiments isn't statistically rigorous or if I don't understand the theory behind it.

    Ultimately, it's physics and preferably QM that I would like to do post-graduate research in. I know if I didn't do my undergraduate degree in it my chances of doing research would be much worse. But after doing mathematical sciences I reckon that I could always do research in mathematical physics, which I have heard is more of an area for mathematicians than physicists, and I would not mind that. Sorry for the long post but I had to make the situation clear. Any advice?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 24, 2014 #2
    If your absolute desire is to do research in physics, then you need to study physics for it. Studying mathematics or stats will not cut it. That said, getting a job as a physicist is very tough. Many bright people study physics and end up dropping out and doing something else. Getting a job as a statistician is much easier.

    So yes, you're in a tough spot. Either you go for the employable statistics job, or for the much less employable physics job. There is always a chance that you can get in a good physics grad school as a math major, but I wouldn't rely very much on it.

    Now, statistics is used in physics (and other sciences like biology) all the time. For example, you have statistical mechanics. And experiments need statistics in order to analyze and present the raw data. And I wouldn't say that statistics is 'the very basics', it can go pretty deep.
  4. Mar 24, 2014 #3


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    I concur with Micromass. While it's useful to know statistics and to learn advance techniques, if you don't have an intrinsic desire to be more employable with less than a PhD, or don't care about robust parameter classification and want to focus more on the application of techniques, then go for physics.

    I have found that people who have a PhD in computer science or physics were more than able to learn (and sometimes reinvent the wheel) statistical techniques they needed easier than someone with a PhD in Statistics to learn the necessary physics. While, I personally am fond of statistics, statistics is such a broad field that if you are interested in using it in science, it would behoove it to study a science field with it. If that cannot be done, then it probably would be better to learn the science then pick up the statistics on the way. Otherwise, your more clear cut career path is towards economics and business with correction models and QA/QC products.
  5. Mar 24, 2014 #4
    I think you might find that working in academia isn't exactly like that. There's so much pressure to publish that that becomes the priority. You are sort of free to learn what you want, but unless it ties in directly with something that you can publish, it will come at a cost. Rack up too many of these costs and you will come up short on publications (limited in what you can learn if you want to learn more). So, you aren't really free to pursue your curiosity as you wish. You are rewarded for finishing things you started, even if you lose interest in them (i.e. you are forced to learn more if you are not interested--well, maybe not forced, but certainly pressured to).

    Personally, I was completely lost in grad school (in math), despite being very successful in my undergrad and despite what a lot of my professors said about my abilities and how I had a bright future. When I ponder why I didn't do very well, I am now concluding that the number one thing was that I was too curious about things that didn't contribute to my research.

    There is only one way to really pursue your curiosity freely (well, aside from a few very competitive grants and positions, like MacArthur fellowship or something, but to get one of those, you have to really thrive within the confines of the system, first). That is to be independently wealthy and that is now my goal.
  6. Mar 24, 2014 #5
    Couldn't agree more.
  7. Mar 24, 2014 #6
    Tenure is another way, but it takes a long time and a lot of work to get there. And more generally, if you get ahead of the game and get established, that buys you more freedom. But if you don't want to have to run the academic gauntlet to get there, being independently wealthy is pretty much all there is.
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