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Physics Keep working as an engineer or pursue the study of physics

  1. Sep 15, 2016 #1
    I’m 35 and I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and has worked some ten years as an embedded software/firmware engineer. I’m already in a senior position in charge of the whole product for a small electronics manufacturer. Everything seems fine to me, and I’m happy with everything, including the pay.



    But the thing, is I realized that the job in the electronics/IT field means constantly utilizing those existing technologies to make profits for my boss, which is the essence of this industry. We never do any real R&D from a scientific perspective. While I like science (math & physics), I did well in that two subjects when I was a student which were my favorite subjects prior to college era. I still remember the time I aimed to be a physicist as a teenager. Everything however changed under the impact of IT boom (thanks to Microsoft & Intel), and I was not exception, totally captivated by programming, thus without hesitation I chose to study computer science. I should say I studied and worked hard in IT (precisely embedded electronics system) and somewhat succeeded. But the fact that I never have a chance to study those attractive subjects like, fluid mechanics/quantum mechanics/general relativity, always reminds me that: have I chosen a wrong career, which is not the one I really love.

    My personality is typically curiosity-driven. I’m interested in anything that I don’t understand and keen to understand.

    I did like computer science/electronics, at the beginning. Since I got an understanding of the principle of digital system, I gradually found what I’m doing is no difference from an ordinary worker, which is far from that of a scientist. Yes, I like scientific research.



    If I had a chance to choose my college major again, I would definitely skip IT. Although I know my age, if I still keep my current “successful” career I may end up with the scenario – shortly before death, I say to myself, I still haven’t got chance to understand quantum mechanics. If prefer taking the “adventure”, quitting my job and enroll in the college again, I may still one day realize my old dream, although nobody can guarantees it happens (probably due to my age compared to younger peers).



    But I won’t starve to death even in the worst case, as I’m in a country where student allowance is available, though undoubtedly, I would face poverty. But I don’t care, I’m the kind of guy just enjoying reading and thinking and never watch movies or have nightlife, you know.



    It’s the time for me to check the sense of value of my life: the currently prosperous family-life but never expect any improvement in academic study, or the other way.



    Do you guys think 35 is too old to study?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 15, 2016 #2

    Choppy

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    You're never too old to study.

    And it sounds like you have a reasonable handle on the reality of the situation. Typically people in their mid-thirties have commitments that have to be factored into situations like this - a new family, spouse or partner, other dependents, mortgage, other debts, etc. On top of that, if you've been working for a while, you're probably used to certain things in life - a car, not having to put up with room mates, health care plan, eating out once in a while, etc. And even though you *think* you would be happy without them, that can change quickly once they're gone.

    You also should look into what you're really diving into. Going back for another degree is going to take years. If nothing transfers from your earlier education, it could be four years. Then what? If you want to continue your education and if you're in the top ~ half of your class, you can go to graduate school. All in all, it's not unlikely to take the better part of a decade to climb up to a PhD.

    After that, remember that most PhDs in physics leave academia. You're not guaranteed a professor position. And your age won't have anything to do with that. It's just the fact that we train roughly an order of magnitude more PhDs than are needed to replace professors. There's a good chance that after all of that, you could end up back where you are now - working in IT.

    Generally though, it's a good thing to pursue things that you're passionate about. One option is to enroll in a community college night school class to get an idea of what you're really looking at in terms of studying physics. See how that goes. Some people find that they really enjoy reading about popular science, but have a tough time grinding out endless problem sets. Others have a passion for the work and don't look back.
     
  4. Sep 16, 2016 #3
    Changing careers is always hard, but going from computers to physics is *definitely* swimming against the tide.

    I was roughly in your shoes, albeit about a decade older, when I decided I wanted to study physics. The local university had an "Open University" program, so I was able to start taking upper division physics courses after a period of self-study and review. After about a year of that, I was able to enroll in their MS program.

    After graduating, I was able to obtain a job at a national lab. However, this wasn't actually *doing* physics, but more "physics-related" software development. In retrospect, I'm not sure that having an MS in physics was relevant at all to getting the position. That said, I'm at least hanging out with physicists and making contributions to their work, and overall I'm happy with the position and glad that I decided to go back to school.

    TL;DR - Studying is definitely possible after 30 or even 40, but try to be realistic about how much of a job change you can actually manage to make. (And yes, they pay less than industry!)
     
    Last edited: Sep 16, 2016
  5. Sep 16, 2016 #4

    Thanks for you advices indeed.



    “And it sounds like you have a reasonable handle on the reality of the situation. Typically people in their mid-thirties have commitments that have to be factored into situations like this - a new family, spouse or partner, other dependents, mortgage, other debts, etc. On top of that, if you've been working for a while, you're probably used to certain things in life - a car, not having to put up with room mates, health care plan, eating out once in a while, etc. And even though you *think* you would be happy without them, that can change quickly once they're gone.”


    Yes, the sacrifice seems to be inevitable and somehow huge, I’m prepared in my mind. After all, it’s not a simple business for me (unlike changing a job), but a choice for the rest of my life. Apparently, from a financial point of view, it’s definitely a bad decision, it can be said I pursue being poor, I know many would say I got crazy or mentally disordered. What I’m facing is just as those Buddhist monks who decided to leave the family in order to get enlightened. There’s no financial incentive for me to do so. Even in the best case, say becoming a researcher or college teacher, the pay may not be as high as I have right now, sadly which is the reality of this commodity society.


    “You also should look into what you're really diving into. Going back for another degree is going to take years. If nothing transfers from your earlier education, it could be four years. Then what? If you want to continue your education and if you're in the top ~ half of your class, you can go to graduate school. All in all, it's not unlikely to take the better part of a decade to climb up to a PhD.”

    I haven’t got any offer from a college program yet, and it may take long until … what? In fact there’s no unequivocal “goal”, since I just keep studying and research in my rest of life. It’s no longer the logic like when we were about to enter the college: I wish to study a “hot” major in a “good” university so that I would be able get into a “good” company with a “good” pay – which is the ultimate goal, for most of us. Conversely, having experienced the success (perceived by most ordinary people) in my career, I rethink the fundamental reason why we study? Just for the prospect or simply say money? It was not true even at the time when I was a high school student. Having said that my original and pure ambition was largely flooded by the IT boom unfortunately (or fortunately to some others?). The position in career, reputation, wealth is no longer attractive to me, nor do I pursue them any more. Why I like science rather than engineering you may ask. It comes to the fundamental distinction between the two: science is all about uncover anything we don’t know, to better recognize the natural world, with curiosity as the incentive of everything. Isaac Newton for instance never thought about how his mechanics can be used in commercial society and make money. Engineering on the other hand, utilizes the existing theories made by scientists so that solve practical problem in real life and make money. In other words, it’s by no means engineers’ interest to discover any unknown world, they (or precisely say their employers) just focus on business alone. For instance our goal of improvements is to reduce the cost (making the PCB more cost-effective) and attract more customer (offer more features to please them), which has nothing to do with “discover the unknown world”. All the tasks we are doing are not because of our curiosity on the nature, but we make issues for ourselves, by solving which we make more money. I personality tells me I fall into the former category. I’ve spent most of my time finding out how to make more money, whereas by capability of recognizing the nature remains the same level as a student. The financial rewards may convince me that “I’m a useful a valuable person”, in the business market, which however can’t cheat my heart that I’m still illiterate (from the perspective of a scientist). That’s also one of the reason I never plan to set up my own business like many of my peers with similar age have done, simply say I’m not interested in business at all.

    “After that, remember that most PhDs in physics leave academia. You're not guaranteed a professor position. And your age won't have anything to do with that. It's just the fact that we train roughly an order of magnitude more PhDs than are needed to replace professors. There's a good chance that after all of that, you could end up back where you are now - working in IT.”



    It’s indeed a realistic case, I may still end up in a commercial world after the study. In fact I saw not few cases those who initially studied science later switched to IT course on behalf of a better job prospect, which proved two facts: it’s generally not easy for science graduates to get a “good” job in the business market, and the positions of dedicated research are limited. That partly goes back to the previous topic of why I changed my goal of career. That appears to be the nature of science as a career, just think about who paid Newton / Pascal to do research before they became well known, weren’t they crazy? I need to be prepared for the worst consequence – I will be unemployed and embrace a poor life forever.



    “Generally though, it's a good thing to pursue things that you're passionate about. One option is to enroll in a community college night school class to get an idea of what you're really looking at in terms of studying physics.”

    The concern I have is if I study part-time, I won’t be able fully devolve my effort on physics thus I may not do it well enough and meanwhile my normal commercial work is disturbed. As a result, if I do decide to study, it should be full-time. Although it does sound a good idea to read those materials in my spare time before making a final decision.



    “Some people find that they really enjoy reading about popular science, but have a tough time grinding out endless problem sets. Others have a passion for the work and don't look back.”

    I have somewhat confidence on physics study, as it’s what I did best at school. I didn’t fall in love with physics by occasionally reading general science magazines while having no idea if it fits me or not. I for instance would never think about studying economics or arts, as pretty clear those are not my area. The only uncertainty however is, because of my age, whether or not I can still do as well as a teenager, though my level of understanding should have been improved, my reaction, memorization tend to be weaker, especially under fast paces, I’m afraid. Anybody has experience on the lost capability of learning caused by aging?
     
  6. Sep 16, 2016 #5
    You don't need a career or a degree to understand QM.

    You feeling old is way less important in you being willing to sacrifice your current career, give up your current income and job security, change around your life.

    In science, all contracts are temporary, so age discrimination is no big deal. There isn't the same risk of giving an older person a permanent contract, because you aren't given a permanent contract anyway.

    I would explore your actual options. There's a lot in between physics and computer science. Can you enter a PhD program? Do you need a master? Is there some master and career that combines physics and CS? Do you really want to go through the experience of getting another bachelor in physics, then a masters, then a PhD?

    Do you want a job that you do sitting at a computer? Or do you want one in a lab?]

    Is it really the different mindset that you are after? The everyday flow of a job may not be so different as you may imagine now.

    It is true that you may end up in a job similar to your current one. Maybe one with less pay, requiring less seniority and responsibility, but with a more intellectual satisfying nature. Or maybe not. Why knows.


    Doing a new different degree isn't a trump card to happiness. If you enjoy the experience, go for it. If you see it as a sacrifice that leads to a better place eventually, maybe have some doubts if that is actually true. It may be false.
     
  7. Sep 16, 2016 #6
    Thanks for sharing your actual experience, which isn’t surprising though. It’s imaginable that if you go back to job market simply with one or two years study in physics you would most likely to be regarded as an IT guy still. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, businessmen are realistic, with the sole aim of maximizing the profits.



    Nonetheless I’ve come up with two points worth thinking:

    Is it because the study period is not long enough, say even less than that of computer science, which makes it hard to appear as a “major”. I know it’s very hard to change the image of ourselves especially when you’ve worked for long like me.

    Another concern is about the outcome, namely the academic grades. Apparently we do not go to the college just to get a degree for job since we’ve already had one, we must do it well, at least B+ average. In case we achieved that, it would be then the time to think about what’s next. But personally, going back to a business market like what you encountered may be the nightmare to me – which is the reason why I want to quit my job in that market.

    Think that you’ve ready proved to be a top student (or at least outstanding student) in physics, you may not necessarily get the chance to stay in college (we know very few places with fierce competitions), but I guess you can have a number of alternatives as long as you are outstanding: applying for further study overseas with scholarships – US, UK, Canada, Australia, for instance (I’m in New Zealand). I don’t think a top student can’t find a place to further expand his research.



    I should admit it again, the pay may eventually not match that of IT even in the best cases, and almost everyone knows about this truth. Studying science is more like the pursuit of a faith rather than a career, thus I admire those who devolved themselves to the field in a young age while I didn’t.
     
  8. Sep 16, 2016 #7


    “You don't need a career or a degree to understand QM.

    You feeling old is way less important in you being willing to sacrifice your current career, give up your current income and job security, change around your life.”



    Yes, it’s pretty easy to get books or relevant resources nowadays, the only things I lack is: 1) the time for full-time study, 2) Still hard to have a direct discussion about the questions or ideas I encountered, which is the most valuable thing a student enjoys. As a result, without the sacrifice it’s practically unfeasible to get into a real-mode of study.



    “I would explore your actual options. There's a lot in between physics and computer science. Can you enter a PhD program? Do you need a master? Is there some master and career that combines physics and CS? Do you really want to go through the experience of getting another bachelor in physics, then a masters, then a PhD?”



    I just wish to dedicate my rest of life in physics research, yes preferably with a phD degree. I thought about further study in my current field, computer science/computer engineering/electronics engineering, but eventually I do not really love them from my heart, with the reasons I’ve explained in my earlier posts.



    “Do you want a job that you do sitting at a computer? Or do you want one in a lab?”

    Almost everyone today works with a computer, scientists are no exception. Yes it’ll be ideal to do scientific research in a lab.



    “Is it really the different mindset that you are after? The everyday flow of a job may not be so different as you may imagine now.

    It is true that you may end up in a job similar to your current one. Maybe one with less pay, requiring less seniority and responsibility, but with a more intellectual satisfying nature. Or maybe not. Why knows.”

    I’ve already thought about the worst consequence, being unemployed forever. I can simply continue with the “happy life” I currently have, but never grasping the chance of becoming a scientist, is it pity? And it’s the price of being “stable”. By the way there are many other careers with worse stability in our real world, it’s fair to say engineers are generally lucky.

    “Doing a new different degree isn't a trump card to happiness. If you enjoy the experience, go for it. If you see it as a sacrifice that leads to a better place eventually, maybe have some doubts if that is actually true. It may be false.”

    I should say yes, I do seek the happiness, but in a different aspect. The happiness to me doesn’t mean, more money, higher position, or a more laid-back job, to any of which I have no interest. It’s about how my mind can become closer to that of Albert Einstein and others’, which can’t be evaluated in this commercial society. I’ve already likened my case to Buddhist monks’ practices, and I reckon in essence there’s no difference between the two.
     
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