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Love physics not sure if I'd like doing it?

  1. Sep 17, 2009 #1
    Hey PF one and all,

    Quick prequel, I'm a sophomore in college, physics maths double major, my arms are incredibly sore from working out right now, my parents raised me with the notion that being anything less than the absolute best was a disappointment, and I'm just getting around to learning good ole special relativity.

    I really like learning about physics. Its great. Probably the only time I've ever enjoyed schoolwork, besides doing trivial math problems, is thinking about the implications of a good physics problem set. etc. etc. point being, I really like *learning* about Physics.

    But I'm not sure if I'd like *doing* physics. My dad wants me to fulfill his old dream of being a "successful" academician, you know going to the top grad school and post doc and getting a cream of the crop professorship at the "best" school...

    I have neither the intelligence, nor the blind drive, for that kind of thing. I'm just about smart enough to appreciate the incredible beauty all around us, but I really really really doubt I could ever make any sort of meaningful contribution to the field, and lately I've lost interest in being very "successful" as far as the world or my elders define it. So I don't know if researching a single question day in or day out, or playing department politics and climbing the ladder, would be the right fit for me. I could neither make a real contribution, nor play the game...I'd much rather sit around and read a lot, than go out and spend years on one thing.

    I want to go to grad school. Not because I want a shiny degree with a "good" name on it, but because I hear they teach pretty sweet physics there...

    Besides that, I don't really know what I want. Maybe one should consider this post a rant, in which case I'm just looking for commentary. But I think I'd much rather be a rogue mind than a paper-producing machine academic or the poor soul who sits around in a cubicle tuning parameters on a constant or two...how do I approach my education and career then???
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 18, 2009 #2
    I figured I'd reply rather than leave your post stranded there.

    Parent's put heavy expectations on their children. Unfortunately, that's what they do (I realize not all parents, I'm just speaking for those that do).
    It seems that most of what this usually does is either make the child follow what they're "supposed to do" and dislike it, or rebel against it and become a "failure" in their parent's eyes in order to spite them.

    I never really had that. My parent's never checked if I did my homework or what my grades were. I received some "pushing" for athletics as I stood out somewhat in sports, but that was about it.

    My wife's family is similar to yours. From an early age, she was going to law school...that's just the way it was. She was Valedictorian of her high school, and the same for our undergrad. She was Phi Beta Kappa, founded half a dozen "societies" at school, and did everything else necessary to boost her "application" for law school.

    To help drive home the point, I proposed to my wife half way through her senior year in college (I graduated the year before). When I asked her parents for "permission" to marry her....the first....and only thing her father said was "We still want her to go to law school."

    She received a full-ride to a law school in Indiana, and we moved to the area that summer. About two weeks before school started, she told me she didn't want to go to law school (I knew....it was plainly obvious, but I didn't want to try to force her into any decision...she was getting enough of that elsewhere. lol).

    Of course, I told her I didn't care if she went to law school; I just wanted her to be happy.

    Long story long, she didn't go to law school.....even thought about becoming a hair stylist at one point....but decided she wanted to be a dentist. She went back to undergrad, went to dental school, and is now a working Dentist.

    I only tell the story because I didn't know how else to give you advice. I've never been in your situation. I just know that my wife was pressured, similar to you, and grew to dread the path planned for her.
    She was still a motivated and intelligent student, it is just hard to be motivated when it's not your decision to be a motivated student.

    If you do love Physics, hopefully you can find a way to come to terms with studying Physics because you enjoy it and not letting the pressure cause you to despise it.

    Hell....if you're a Physics major, you've had at least some coursework on the Universe. With the knowledge of how f'n big it is, and how tiny we are.....it makes it seem a little silly to live your life for your Father.

    I guess I joined you in rant, by proxy anyway.
  4. Sep 18, 2009 #3


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    You shouldn't feel compelled to live out your father's dream. If you can end up in a career that challenges you and satisfies you, that's more than many people ever get in their lives.

    I was the very first kid from either my father's or mother's extended families to attend college, so I put (perhaps understandable) pressure on myself to "do well" and wound up miserable, until I found ways to address that. I had worked full-time every summer since my early teens, saving money for college, and my parents helped as much as they could, so I felt a duty to them and to myself to succeed. Problem is, I had treated "going to college" as a goal for years and once that was accomplished, I was adrift, like a dog who chased cars and eventually caught one - now what? Well my secondary goal was to become a chemical engineer so that I could work in one of the local paper mills, but that wasn't enough motivation to make my classes meaningful and rewarding. Luckily, I had a mentor at Uni. He was Professor Emeritus of English, Oxford educated, and he ran the honors program. He got me placement into some advanced Lit courses (pre-requisites waived) and I eventually left engineering for a double major in English Lit and Philosophy. Suddenly, college was fun, and I felt that I was getting something for my money and hard work.

    If you love physics, by all means, throw yourself into it! Just remember that as you learn and gain experience, your goals will evolve, and you shouldn't feel constrained by the goals that your father projects onto you. You could eventually find yourself tracking into academia, anyway, but the possibility shouldn't blind you to other opportunities, like finding a position in a research lab working on cutting-edge problems. It sounds like you'd be happier with the latter, though.

    Good luck, whatever you decide.
  5. Sep 18, 2009 #4


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    On the other hand, if you're not sure what you want to do, why not follow this path while you decide where you're going? Sometimes you don't realize where you're walking to until you get there, but there's no point in just standing still.
  6. Sep 18, 2009 #5
    Feeling pressure to do something will always make you resent the subject. I would guess that you are still enjoying the physics track you are on, but having very normal questions about your motivation for the end result.

    Lots of people never come to terms with why they have chosen their path in life. Don't give up yet, but (as Troponin and turbo-1 have said) don't be afraid to change your mind.

    Bottom line is - if you are smart and motivated, you can do anything. If you have the willpower to get to graduate school in physics, you have the guts to do anything. Just do it for your own reasons.... :-)
  7. Sep 19, 2009 #6
    Heh...getting a professorship at any school is insanely difficult. Just today our department chair had his meeting with the grad students for this semester. When we asked him for more money, he politely explained to me how we were lucky to not have our pay cut with all of the budget cuts going on. He went on further to talk about how these days, it's uncommon for a department to even look for new professors. Basically the only time you get a new professor in the department is when an old one retires.

    I did about five minutes of searching on the APS website. According to APS, 1499 physics PhDs were granted in 2007-2008 [1]. To give you an order of magnitude idea of how many professorships are available in the US in any given year, about fifteen years ago (1994-1995), there were 400 tenured, tenure-track, and temporary positions filled [2]. There's no reason to believe that this number has risen significantly with the economy in its current state. Subtracting off the ~150 temporary positions, that's 250 tenured or tenure-track positions being pursued by 1500 new PhDs (I'm assuming that on average we graduate about the same number of students every year, and that they start seeking a job after their first postdoc). Sure, some PhDs don't pursue faculty positions, but you've also got to consider the people who are applying again after getting stuck in a second round of postdocs.

    So there you have it: 1500 physics PhDs pursuing 250 professorships. It doesn't take a physicist to do the math. If it's a professorship you're looking for, know that the odds are very slim. Don't get me wrong; I think that physics is a great subject, and I love studying it. But from a professional and economic standpoint, majoring in physics is the biggest blunder I've ever made. And going to grad school in physics only compounded this folly, causing me to become even more specialized and unemployable. Heck, maybe when I graduate I'll just keep the PhD off my resume or something.

    I hope you won't take this post to mean that you shouldn't go to grad school in physics. If that's what you want to do, go for it. Just bear in mind that in all likelihood, you'll end up programming a computer for a living, or doing some other job that has nothing to do with physics.

    [1] http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/physrost.pdf
    [2] http://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/199802/hiring.cfm
  8. Sep 19, 2009 #7
    I'm very aware of this, which is why my familial expectations and, by proxy, some of my own, as far as what a yardstick for success is...its pretty high up there.

    No worries, if that occurs, I'll just go to law school for a while and come out a patent lawyer :biggrin:
  9. Sep 20, 2009 #8
    Arunma's post is pretty good here. In the present economy things are worse. Older faculty aren't retiring for more reasons... both for their own economical security, and because department chairs might not be supportive of retirement for fear of losing a faculty line due to hiring freezes. I'd say it's even harder to find full-time or part-time non-tenured work (such as a lectureship, which I'm doing at present due to family reasons and job availability).

    I have four degrees (a BS in Physics, and M.Ed in classroom teaching, an MS in engineering, and a Ph.D. in physics) and if I had the ability to do things over again, I would have stopped at the MS. in engineering (at which point I was employed as a research engineer for the Air Force)... or stopped at the M.Ed in teaching (at which point I was teaching high school full time). Both of these degrees gave jobs that paid reasonably well. At this moment (as a lecturer at the university level), I'm still paid only what I made as a high school teacher.

    So while others talk about now doing what your parents want you to do... I wouldn't even advise pursuing a physics Ph.D for "self edification" (like I did). It felt good to learn the cool topics at the graduate level and do the cool research (for a while)... but didn't really get me anywhere useful monetarily.... and if there's a point in life where money might be helpful (such as if you decide to have a family), you might want to think about a more "professional" rather than "academic" route (not that being an academic isn't professional... to I hope people know what I mean here without being offended). I reached that point... but sadly that was after the Ph.D. rather drove me into the academic route. Thus the lectureship (which is fortunately part-time, so I can spend time taking care of my darling newborn daughter.. counting the blessings how I can!).
  10. Sep 20, 2009 #9


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    Are numbers for mathematics/applied mathematics Ph.Ds the same as this?
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