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Making it as a physicist

  1. May 17, 2010 #1
    What are the chances that one will actually make it as a physicist? What I mean is, that I'm afraid that if I go into scientific physics I might one day just discover that I haven't done anything in my life. That even though I choose contributing to science instead earning money, I may just one day find out that I wasted all this time in a lab and not proving or discovering anything...
    What do you think and what is your experience? Does an average physicist make some notable discoveries in his life, or are these just the famous geniuses like Hawking, Einstein etc?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 17, 2010 #2
    if you haven't made a universe shattering discovery, consider yourself a stepping stone to someone elses future breakthroughs.
  4. May 18, 2010 #3
    Last I checked Steven Hawking, Albert Einstein, and others never made transistors, vacuum technology, space probes, or anything else. They may give the foundation for those things to be made, but they haven't made anything.

    The most likely thing that will happen to you is that you either one, become a professor and teach future physicists as you do your own research, or two, you go into industry and do some type of engineering or research for engineering.
  5. May 18, 2010 #4
    What people have to realize is that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to be like Newton, Einstein, etc. More people do research in groups. I think that like others have stated, even if you don't make a ground-breaking discovery, just be glad to be a part of something larger. Understanding a few more of the mysteries of the universe is a reward in itself. As for the chances of making a discovery like that of Einstein, or having something named after yourself, I'd say the chances are probably slim to none. But making a career out, yes very possible.
    Last edited: May 19, 2010
  6. May 19, 2010 #5
    Why do some people believe that to "make it" in physics they have to discover or prove something? Would science be where it is today if it only expected "messiahs" to come to its rescue?

    Yes, Einstein, Hawking, Newton, etc. made important discoveries but I rarely read about the people that educated them, the body of knowledge they learned from, and/or the high time investment they put into their work? Most importantly, why are their failures, false starts, and dead ends not mentioned? Were they infallible?

    How about those ancient Greeks and Indians that had a philosophical concept of the atom? These people had less knowledge and yet were able to form an educated guess in the general right direction; why is this rarely mentioned?

    Nature does not care whether or not you make an important discovery or significant contribution. Somebody is going to discover it, and that's it. Just make sure you stay on the right track and minimize your mistakes. Prof. Einstein believed in a static universe; today we would call that person an idiot.
  7. May 19, 2010 #6
    Yes. It's true that it probably does not have to be ground-braking. So if could please tell me of what nature are the researches a professor would do and how often are they dead-end?
  8. May 19, 2010 #7


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    There is also the chance that you end up thinking that you wasted your life thinking that the quest for money is what it's all about and end up old with the same underdeveloped questions you had as a 15 y/o.

    Now that's a really scary thought!

    Money to have a reasonable life is important up to a point, but enough is enough, and then I think the satisfaction of feeling that you grow your understanding of reality is worth more, which is essentially what answering and developing your own questions is about.

    What the best context to do that is, is a different question though.

    If you go professional, there surely is no complete freedom for everyone to spend all working day with your own pet questions. So for some people, I think the work in the lab is pretty much like a day in the office, I don't see one beeing more painful than the other, except the phsycological stress on trying to separate work from pleasure. Waste your time in the lab answering other peopls questions, or wasting time in the office serving your company? it's pretty much the same thing isn't it?

    Unless you grow famous enough to earn freedom to do whatever you want and still get funded, or are lucky to find the right synergy with other ppls questions and your own (the important onces to you, that you don't want to state in the state they were in as in the age of 15)

  9. May 19, 2010 #8
    Well, that sure is a scary thought and I know that money isn't everything. But there are still options like engineering, which attract me too. However, not as much as theoretical physics. And engineering isn't just about making money...

    I wouldn't mind answering other peoples questions. But I'm concerned if I really answer anything... That's what is worrying me. That I wouldn't answer anything. And I don't find teaching satisfactory enough.

    So the basic question is:
    Does an average physicist discover ANYTHING new?
  10. May 19, 2010 #9


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    I think you have a severe misunderstanding of the whole process of being a physicist.

    First of all, when you are in graduate school, the criteria for you to receive a Ph.D is that your research work MUST be something new. In fact, many physicists will start publishing papers while still in graduate school. Some universities even require such publications as evidence that the student's work is accepted to be new and substantial to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

    Secondly, to be accepted for employment as a physicist, you don't just show your degree. You have to show that you have a track record of publications (such as what you did in graduate school), and that automatically showed that you have produced new work. So presumably, you are hired for skill. So it would puzzling for you to ALREADY be a physicist in a lab, and STILL wondering if you'll do anything new. You can't be in that position without already having done new and relevant work.

    I suggest you read my essay "So You Want To Be A Physicist".

  11. May 19, 2010 #10
    My dream job is to be a univeristy researcher. I was thinking of doing a MRes in physics after a B.A. Can anyone tell me:

    A) What is the MRes course like?
    B) What is it like doing research in physics?

  12. May 19, 2010 #11
    This isn't a very good way of thinking about it. What quantifies a worthwhile discovery? Something that gets you mentioned in the news? Simply something that can be published?

    People study science and perform research for excitement. In experimental work, it is often said that a null (or negative) result is perhaps more exciting than a positive one.

    Thinking of 'discoveries' sounds rather grandiose, you could try considering 'contributions to the field' instead. Research isn't always about finding something 'new' so to speak, it can also be about finding and generating the data that no-one has bothered (or attempted) to do before. In doing so you may even turn up some surprises! If you're a working researcher for a number of years, it won't be possible for you to have a null contribution to your field - because if you do, then you won't last that number of years.
  13. May 19, 2010 #12
    Thanks. These posts really helped a lot.
  14. May 19, 2010 #13
    Discovering something new is a requirement to get a Ph.D.
  15. May 19, 2010 #14
    An average physicist will have made some discoveries. But it's rare that a physicist will make a discovery that will make a significant change in science.

    However, what is called a minor discovery today may be a great thing tomorrow. I remember reading about an Italian Chemist who did some research in the 70s about a particular type of organic reaction. His work was considered quite unimportant until someone found out that those reactions were crucial in making some of the first drugs againts HIV. So a "minor" discovery ended up saving thousands (if not millions) of lifes.
  16. May 19, 2010 #15
    Please correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't major discoveries generally the result of someone or a group of people combining the minor works/discoveries of others?
  17. May 19, 2010 #16
    Indeed, as Newton said "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants." and was it E.O Wilson who said "Genius is the hard work of many attributed to the names of a few for convenience."

    Evolution or transmutation as it was known before, was understood to have existed long before it was explained by Darwin. Even Darwin's own grandfather wrote about it, and a lengthy discussion appeared in the infamous "Vestiges of Natural History of Creation" and although Darwin's explanation of it via natural selection was an important contribution, it was also being studied by Wallace.

    Likewise the differential calculus was achieved by both Leibniz and Newton and no doubt countless others would have stumbled upon it eventually had they not existed.
  18. May 19, 2010 #17

    Andy Resnick

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    I think this thread would be more productive if people that are physicists spoke up. I get paid to do physics research, and I know of at least 2 others on PF that do as well. I'm also a tenure-track member of the Department.
  19. May 19, 2010 #18
    The requirements for a Ph.D. are that you convince a committee that you've made an original and significant contribution to the field. It's really not that hard to do something original or significant.
  20. May 21, 2010 #19
    I think he meant significant as in a cure for cancer or a water-based auto engine. Something that would revolutionized society and the science community.
  21. May 21, 2010 #20
    I'm a practicing research physicist at a government lab. Just about everything project I work on hasn't been done before. Or at least I'm improving things that have been done in the past. I doubt anything scientifically ground breaking will be done at my current place of employment, but they do great engineering.

    You have to be proactive in your career development. It would be extremely easy to become complacent and shift to a "8-5" type job.
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