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Not sure what to do with my life

  1. Jun 27, 2013 #1
    This is my first post on Physics Forums, so hello everyone.

    My name is Jorge, and I would like some life advice. I am an incoming senior at a public high school in Miami. I intend to go to the university and major in something related to the sciences (I'll get back to this). In my sophomore year I got very close to my chemistry teacher, the science department head and AP coordinator at my school. He inspired in me the desire to become a teacher, and this stayed with me until now. I still jokingly tell him that I'm going to be the next department head, soon as he's head.

    I am currently taking Calculus 1 via dual enrollment at a community college, and I'm loving it. I didn't always like math, though, it was until geometry and chemistry where I started to see the beauty in it, and then in physics I just fell in love, to be honest. So while filling out my dual enrollment application, I wrote "physics" as my intended major (though I do not plan to attend that community college).

    I got more and more interested in physics while reading of relativity and condensed matter, so I was pretty sure I wanted that to be my major. I was bent on getting a PhD in physics and teaching the university (I know I'm still in high school, but I like to plan ahead).

    Recently, as I've been prowling and websites like these, I've been more and more demotivated to pursue a PhD in physics because of its job prospects and relatively low income. I don't think I will be very happy being a poor gradate student, spending years writing a dissertation and possibly ending up unemployed or in a career unrelated to physics (not that I'm saying all PhDs in physics are unemployed, but that's what I've been reading).

    So then I considered becoming a high school teacher as I had originally planned; the next department head at my high school. That idea also diminished because of the salary (but to be fair my chem teacher makes about $90,000 based on 25 years of experience and a doctoral degree in education). Now please don't think me vain because I care about salary. My family and I have lived in poverty all my life, and I do not want the same for my own children.

    For the past few weeks I've been looking at engineering and computer science. I'm not very sure if I'll enjoy either as much as I do physics. But could I double major in physics and either of those?

    I've considered medicine, because I got a 5 in AP Bio, but again, I don't think I could handle several years in medical school, along with the prospect of killing a patient. That's depressing.

    I've heard over and over that it is bad to assume that a degree will get you a job in that specific field. But that's exactly what I would like! If I get an engineering degree, I'd like to become an engineer. If I get a computer science degree, I'd like a job in programming.

    But fundamentally I'd like to get a job that matters to the human race. I'd like to contribute to society in some way, and I don't know how I'd be able to do that debugging code, or ....

    As you can see, my brain is scattered as I am very confused, and I have to start applying to colleges soon, and life is just passing too quickly

    Thank you for reading
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 27, 2013 #2
    Working software and machines also contribute to society. More than the average research paper, in fact.
  4. Jun 27, 2013 #3


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    You could double major with physics and computer science, this may be especially true since it looks like you'll be entering college with some college credit already. Personally, I think it's a good idea. By the time you finish a degree in comp sci or physics, you'll have a pretty good idea if you want to spend go to graduate school for Physics or go into the working field. You'll probably have an easier time selling yourself with a double major in physics and computer science.

    As for contributing to the world, you have to have a board view on this. If you think contributing to humanity means being able to point at a specific idea or project you worked on that undoubtedly helps the human race, then you might always feel let down. On the other hand, if you find meaningful work in doing jobs that are not glorified but necessary, then you'll be able to fill this criteria easier. I do a lot of statistical models. I'll never do anything that directly solves a great problem, but I find meaning in working with a team that is trying to improve public health. So with that said, my program monkeys may feel that debugging code is not meaningful and fulfilling work, but without them I could never write my reports and without my reports the biologist and public health officials would have a harder time making recommendations that effect public policy.
  5. Jun 27, 2013 #4


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    I think you're in about the same position that a lot of people find themselves in when they have an aptitude for and an interest in physics. You want to do something meaningful with your life. You want to follow your passions. But you also want a safety net because you know that spending X years of your life and Y dollars is not trivial and you want the path to leads to a comfortable life.

    Some tidbits I've picked up over the years that might help you out...

    1. As much as possible make decisions based on data over anecdotes. You can look up facts on physics employment for example and they tend not to be as grim as may be implied by reading blogs and internet forums. They're not perfect either and some people have some quite valid critiques of the data. Look them up and used them as a starting point.

    2. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to make the perfect decision now. Yes it can be tough to backtrack if you pick a direction and it doesn't work out, but tough is not the same as impossible. Most physics and engineering and computer science programs aren't too different from each other in the first year of university, so often its possible to transfer between programs without much of a penalty.

    3. Your degree won't work for you. I know it's nice to imagine that you'll end up working in the field that you study in but (a) I'm not sure the stats really support this, and (b) even entire fields can change so much these days that after a decade or so, there's a good chance a lot of the stuff you learn in university will be obsolete. (One of my first year courses involved programming in Lotus123 and Fortran77.) The good news is that knowledge is far more accessible now and in the foreseeable future than it has ever been. What people shell out the big bucks for is credentials. Once you have the credentials, learning becomes a lifelong process. I'm sure if you ask around you can find many physicists who do way more programming than physics and computer programmers who spend more time struggling with basics physics than computer code.

    4. Your degree doesn't define your contribution to the world. You do.

    I hope this helps.
  6. Jun 27, 2013 #5
  7. Jun 28, 2013 #6
    A degree gets your foot in the door somewhere. Ultimately, it is YOU who makes a job in to a career.

    I have posted this before, but I'll repeat it here just in case you missed it: There is a deep misconception about cause and effect with academic learning. People think that all they have to do is to go to college, get a degree, and then magic happens, they're hired, and someone throws money at them just because they're certified smart people.

    It ain't like that. The degree merely proves that you know enough to learn more. If someone came to our engineering staff right out of the university, we'd still be looking at nearly three years of On The Job training before they could be trusted to do the right things on a project or work-site. Some places require even more, some places might not.

    During that time, you'd have to earn your keep, so don't be surprised if you find yourself doing some unpleasant jobs in unpleasant places. But in doing this, you will also learn some fundamentals of what makes the place tick.

    I know a guy with a degree in Zoology who eventually built a career in a water utility and is now general manager for a large utility. How did he get there? He got his foot in the door, continued to study, worked in the field, and learned what made the operation tick.

    The misconception that schools and HR staff tend to broadcast to the world is that your degree defines you. IT DOES NOT. It is only a starting point. What you do in the working world when you graduate is up to you.

    So if you're not sure about what degree to get, don't worry. Study something and learn from it. If you really enjoy studying and academics, consider staying there, with the caveat that the competition can be fierce and the opportunities may be limited.

    Also note that many of the things you'll learn later in your career, no matter where you end up, are social and societal, not technical. I love learning technical things, but I also know that it is my ability to translate the technical to the real world that makes me valuable to the company.

    Finally, my degree is in electrical engineering. Here I am decades later and it turns out I am a controls engineer (I didn't fall too far away from my education). You may do something similar. But what I really want to stress the most is DO NOT STOP LEARNING. I have known some drones who left school and then promptly shut down their ability to learn anything new. They did the same damned things they were doing decades before. I guess such people have a place, but I'm just as happy not to work with them on a regular basis.
  8. Jul 2, 2013 #7
    Thank you for your responses; I think they've helped me a bit.
  9. Jul 2, 2013 #8
    I live in a third world country in a middle-class family and I think If you want to do physics it should never be for the money no matter the difficulties because to do it requires passion and curiosity seeing it as way to get money won't help you at all...If you like physics but need a job that pays you can try Marketing Managers or dentist(they can't kill patients) or Lawyer or architect and still learn physics like a hobby or something ....
  10. Jul 7, 2013 #9
    Theoristo's response reminds me of Sheldon Cooper's line in the US TV show, The Big Bang Theory: it goes something like this: "Instead of a world renowned physicist, I might have ended up a garbage collector, or a surgeon!"

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