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Looking for direction

  1. Aug 14, 2016 #1
    Hello all- I'm looking for some general advice and thought this would be a good forum. I fell in love with physics after my sophomore year of undergrad. As a Psychology major who hadn't even taken a math class since my junior year of high school, the Physics department cautioned me against radically redirecting my courses; however, I went against their advice and took as many Physics and Mathematics classes as possible in my final two years and ultimately graduated with a Physics minor. Now that I have graduated, I'm at a loss for what I should do going forward. The only thing I want to do is to return to school and continue studying Physics but I still need to take multiple classes before I could even be considered for a PhD program. At the same time, I have immense pressure to start working. I though a happy medium would be trying to find a lab technician job. Even though not directly physics related, I feel that it might be a good way to boost my scientific credibility? I've submitted my resume to countless sites but I keep hearing that online submissions are lost into a vast vortex of doom.

    As you can probably tell, my inclinations are altogether vague. I feel I have this deep passion for Physics but no real concrete direction going forwards. I tried reaching out to professors in my university department but had difficulty getting any insight or even developing substantial connections (as a female trying enter into an all male department, I always wondered if the chilly atmosphere was real or in my head). At best, one of the professors I did manage to connect with suggested that I continue studying Physics and eventually go on to graduate school. While this suggestion really underscores my own feelings, I'm terribly lost in translation at the moment.

    Does anyone have any input, advice, personal stories that might help me? I would love to hear any input about the best ways to find lab technician jobs- or any other suggestions.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 14, 2016 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Welcome to PF;
    Your dilemma is basically this: fish or cut bait.
    Continue study or start working.

    The solution set is pretty much the same. There are no "right" answers and nobody can tell you what is best for you.

    In my post-grad year, there were mostly women and teaching staff were about 20% women. One of the women post-grads (this so rarely comes up that it feels odd to make the distinction: she was a collegue!) was already published and the envy of everyone there. However, she got a job offer breeding horses ... agonized for a month over what to do but decided her passion was with horses so she left. The main trouble was about liking physics and she had not done everything she hoped to in that direction. These sorts of decisions require courage (and it would have been just as brave to got he other way) and I hope you can get support whichever way you go.

    The attitude you get will vary from college to college and it may well be that there is a coolness towards women entering the department. It may not be to the point of a conscious bigotry but more what people are used to. However, there is also a coolness just to newcomers: the unknown quantity. Some departments are very warm and open, it varies.

    The best way to get a prof interested in you is to try find out what their research is about. Post-grad is all about the research - see if your college has research programs and what catches your eye. Profs are usually happy to talk about this and warm to people who listen with interest.
  4. Aug 14, 2016 #3

    Fervent Freyja

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    I figure most of it isn't bigotry or sexism, but more like a real fear of women... Wonder why?

    Everybody deals with being a stereotype. Young men in my region are discriminated against because of their gender.
  5. Aug 14, 2016 #4


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    Psychology and Physics do not overlap too much. Doing well academically in Psychology and maybe using it in the real world may have value, but its value goes un/under-appreciated among those people accomplished in Physics. If your undergaduate degree were something somewhat different, for example like Linguistics, the overlap with Physics could be greater.
  6. Aug 15, 2016 #5

    Simon Bridge

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    I remember a male colleague confided he was uncomfortable with women students, especially consulting in his office. Part of this was because he felt attracted to them and was also concerned that if he was too approachable it may expose him to sexual harrassment accusations. He felt his feelings were unprofessional and to some extent outside his control so overcompensation ensued... there was fear and anxiety there fersure.

    I had a similar thing with a woman I knew - every time we were talking physics she had this excited jiggle and I found my eye constantly drawn to her breasts, which was disconcerting and at odds with my self image. I got concerned that she'd think I was a sleaze or something and, remembering the other guy's experience, just asked her about it as one person to another. I mean, we are scientists right? We should be able to handle this stuff. Turned out she was totally aware and realised the issue and we were able to deal rationally. The awkwardness of the interaction went away and it was fine and I didn't peek at her breasts so much now I wasn't worried about it. (It's like that exercise where you try not to think about the elephant.)

    I have also been in a situation where the gender balance is reversed and women are the norm - and there the situation is reversed. I've seen men blatantly discriminated against (ie. education, child care, pre-school, nursing - though not so much now) and marginalized. I think there is a sort-of tribalism and the "different" can be perceived as a threat to the group norm. (I've got good at being the honorary woman in some of these groups - and I think many women successful in male-dominated situations often do something similar.) I don't actually know if all-male groups are like that to women - since I'm part of the priviledged class it will probably be harder for me to see this stuff ... however, I have seen all-white groups treat non-whites quite badly so my judgement can't be totally impared.

    I don't know how many men in acadamia are actually scared of women. I think that would depend on the department and the individual how that would play out. I don't know of any studies looking into this - though there are lots on the dearth of women in stem fields which usually slate some sort of systemic sexism ... which I suspect oversimplifies what is happening. My experience of NZ University physics departments is that anyone different from the norm in the department is strongly encouraged on the grounds that a different POV is a valuable thing. How to encourage more post-grads from a more diverse group is a common discussion topic among teaching staff ... I think there is general agreement that the department being full of crusty middle-age white men does not help.

    In a nutshell: humans are complicated.
    Perhaps the takeaway for jaquelineg here, in terms of the coolness reported, is to take a step back and consider there could be a number of things going on and none of them insurmountable. (I'm guessing "coolness" is an understatement.) Perhaps find another woman student and compare notes, or find a woman staffmember?

    It may be neat to hear from women academics and their experience of joining a male-dominated field.
    It may just be due to the general discomfort people feel around psychologists though.
  7. Aug 15, 2016 #6
    Taking into account the fact I know nothing and have no experience whatsoever, being an art school dropout. I would offer these thoughts based on what you have said. First, if your passion for physics is so strong you should certainly not give up on pursuing it. The result of your passion, if you truly have the intellect to excel at the math and the concepts involved (something I would never have, math makes my head hurt) But if you are actually so driven about it than perhaps you do in fact have an important contribution to make somewhere along the way and you owe it to yourself and to the world even maybe to keep at it.

    secondly, your psychology degree should actually come in handy with figuring out the coolness you are experiencing. I haven't studied that either, but it seems to me that most people hate change. Perhaps it is only a stereotype and has no basis in reality, but the idea comes to mind that an all male bunch of science heads may not be very comfortable around a woman because of the most basic aspects of human social needs, which is a thing that many people have no mastery of at all, Of course I could be completely wrong, maybe they are all a bunch of super confident swinging lounge lizards for all I know. Or neither of those extremes. In any case, I think Dale Carnegie had it right. People love to talk about themselves. The quickest way to get people to like you is to be interested in them. It helps even more if you actually are interested in them. Compassion and an open and curious mind can go a long way. Think the best of others and they might think the best of you.

    Now get cracking. We need those time machines, stargates and perpetual motion machines like yesterday already.
  8. Aug 15, 2016 #7


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    You would have studied personality traits as an undergraduate Psychology student. Do you share important personality traits of successful Physics students?
    You made a Physics Minor with your undergad. Psychology degree, so this came with at least the type and amount of Mathematics necessary for an undergraduate degree in Physics; so maybe you have enough of the necessary traits, and possibly enough of the motivation for Physics. You may still need to review all of the necessary Mathematics, and go a bit further, but if you have the time, then earning an undergraduate degree in Physics should still be possible.
  9. Aug 15, 2016 #8


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    Hey jacquelineg.

    I would suggest you get help from a careers counselor or someone who has more experience with job hunting in your particular area (i.e. lab work).

    Depending on the field, academia can be small where personal networks are more important than a raw CV and/or "resume".

    If you can find someone who can go through your resume and brush up on those components then you will have a better chance at understanding what those employers are looking for, what to do about interviews and preparation, and understanding the culture of where you will be working and the environment of people you will be working with.

    Academic positions do often place an emphasis on your academic resume and any sort of academic achievements but it is not the only thing to consider.
  10. Aug 15, 2016 #9
    Thank you all for your input. It is quite wonderful to be able to have an online community where you can access so many people with informed advice. One thing I am specifically interested in is whether a second degree program would benefit me? I was told I really needed only three more classes at my university in order to apply to graduate schools (Class Mech, Stat Mech, and Quant I) and I've taken Mathematics through O.D.Es and Nonlinear Dynamics; however, at the cost for 3 classes at my undergrad university I could take and entire year of classes at an in-state school (the insanity of paying for prestige is 20/20 in hindsight). In 10 classes I figure I could retake a course I received a C+ in (decided to take linear algebra as my first math class in four years, whoops!), finish the requirements, maybe take a comsci course, and take even more mathematics.
    Do any of you have any insight into second degree programs? UMass Amherst offers one... I'm not sure how the admissions process is, I was planning on speaking to someone on faculty in the next couple of months assuming I would try for admissions next September. How would a graduate program value a second degree? I assume the major concern is GRE Physics score and completing the requirements, but worried I wouldn't be taken as seriously as a candidate
  11. Aug 15, 2016 #10
    Hello Jacq - welcome. I perhaps read through too quickly - but I did not see anything about how you feel about Psychology? -- There are some types of jobs that would involve both, like human factors of design, the right employer may support your continuing ed in Physics, while being valuable to them now in finding the cross over areas.
    Also physics is quite broad - what aspects of physics have captured you r interest the most? -- Is this more like research type endeavors, or some other application that have more commercial appeal.
  12. Aug 15, 2016 #11
    Widadct- I'm definitely interested in theoretical modeling (specifically GR but I don't have any formal experience to say concretely) or chaotic systems. I'm also interested in battery related physics on the commercial side.
    As for Psychology, I'm not altogether interested. When I began college I didn't have anything specific I was passionate about but rather settled into Psychology because of a vague interest. I like the idea of finding an employer in the meantime to bridge the gap- do you have any specific fields in mind?
  13. Aug 15, 2016 #12
    Some kind of biophysics technology?, like maybe the sort of communicating devices that people like Stephen Hawkin need?
    The only other idea I can think of would be AI research and development, but really we have not got very far with that.
    Mainly because we don't really know what intelligence is anyway.
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2016
  14. Aug 15, 2016 #13


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    Sounds like you already know what you want and need to do. Find a school that will allow you complete a second undergraduate degree in physics. Working as a lab technician certainly isn't going give you any scientific credibility, at least not the kind you need to apply for graduate school in physics. You should do this as soon as feasible.

    You do have a concrete direction, apply for a second undergraduate degree in physics. The chilly atmosphere is most certainly in your head, being a woman is actually going to be an advantage for getting into both a second undergraduate program and eventually physics graduate school.

    There is no real bias that I've ever noticed, unless you don't pull your weight. Then there's certainty equal opportunity scorn from everyone, regardless of gender. Further, icy responses are pretty normal for everyone who doesn't have a physics degree talking about how much they love physics to random professors they might not even know. Physics department professors probably get several of these types of calls weekly.

    Stop looking for work, and start applying to schools.

    If for whatever reason you desperately need work and do not wish to do the above, check your university website for job openings. Almost every research university normally has a few openings for lab monkeys or tutors. They also like hiring alumni. This won't help you get into physics graduate school though, only the above will.
  15. Aug 16, 2016 #14


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    Without a physics or engineering degree or any relevant work experience, it's not terribly surprising that you aren't getting job offers. Continue in school and check out student internships for the summer. (Physics and engineering department counselors can point you to them, or just start googling.) Our company brings in numerous students each summer and, if they are good, generally hires them when they finish school. They aren't paid a lot but they work on real problems, and this is one activity that really will upgrade your resume.

    Also there are numerous organizations devoted to fostering and mentoring women in STEM (in engineering, for example, there are such groups at our company, one sponsored by our state government, and within the IEEE from local chapter through international level.) Try contacting the APS as well as local university counseling offices.
  16. Aug 16, 2016 #15
    I suggest you look for a "bridge program" in physics. I'm not sure how many are out there, but they seem to target women and minorities who didn't get quite enough preparation during their undergraduate degree. Two examples I can think of are Fisk-Vanderbilt: http://fisk-vanderbilt-bridge.org/program/description/ and Princeton which has one for both physics and astronomy: https://www.princeton.edu/physics/graduate-program/bridge-program/. Both programs seem like they could be a great fit for you.

    On a side note, it seems that many male-heavy departments are now trying to make a strong effort to recruit and retain a more diverse population of students and faculty. While we haven't reached balance yet, I have hope that you will be able to find a place where you feel welcome. I'm a Ph.D. student in astrophysics, and in the past two years my department accepted slightly more women than men into the graduate program.
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