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Opinions Wanted

  1. Feb 18, 2014 #1
    I'm not sure how I feel about this:
    My physics professor told me that I am too old for the physics program, and that I should maybe look into something else. He then mentioned that people intellectually "peak" at a young age and that those are the people that are on the cutting edge of physics research.

    I just want to see how other people feel about what he said. How do you feel about this statement?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 18, 2014 #2
    He's right, but there are exceptions. The fact he's saying this to you would indicate he doesn't see you as a possible exception.
  4. Feb 18, 2014 #3
    So you feel that you were better off intellectually when you were younger than you are now? I don't feel like this is true for me. I feel like I've gained so much knowledge over the past few years and I find it insulting that someone who doesn't know me or my background would say something like this to me (especially after I had the highest grade in the class).
  5. Feb 18, 2014 #4


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    While I believe it is true that younger minds typically perform better than older ones, I'd be willing to bet that experience and attitude can make as much of a difference as anything else. If you apply yourself I see little reason that you couldn't do just about anything you want to. You may need to work a little harder or go a little slower, but you can do it.
  6. Feb 18, 2014 #5


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    You can be as insulted as you want. Professor might be doing you a favour by having you look at your priorities. But absolutely do continue if you feel you must, or discontinue if you feel you are not up to the task. You do not mention your age, but upon graduation, there might be some difficulty in choosing your career path as some doors might be closed since you won't have as much experience behind you in your field as some others who graduated at a lessor age.
    High marks do not necessarily translate into superb success in research, although it does translate into knowing the subject matter, and perhaps better incite.

    Professor could just as well be wrong if one takes his utterance at face value. He does not know any better any specific predictions for your individual future than anyone else, even if trends might say something else.
  7. Feb 18, 2014 #6
    What kind of physics program - if they were explaining physics through cartoon flicks, then yes, you would, perhaps, be too old, other than that, physics is physics.
  8. Feb 18, 2014 #7


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    I'm in my early 30s and I already feel slower than I once was. (Im a theoretical physicist). I can honestly feel that my sharpness is slowly fading, while my experience is making up for it. But I used to go into graduate school first year or two), work really hard and do what I felt was like 8 hours worth of work, look up at its 10:30am.

    Now I get in at 8am, have a coffee, read an article and start doing some math, look up and its 3:30pm. I just don't get it. The time flies.

    I still feel smart, and I still think I have that creative edge that allows me to do this, but things are definitely taking longer.

    Having said that, I wouldn't let THAT aspect discourage you, but I wonder too if there is a bit of ageism for post-doc and faculty positions. I think there is a bias from the senior administration to try to higher not just the brightest, but the youngest. Everyone loves the super-young brilliant scientist for some reason.

    Just remember : If you're going for theory, only something like 10-25% will make it to Faculty. Its highly competitive, highly biased on who you know, and VERY susceptible to funding cuts.

    If you're going for solid state (materials), then you're much better off. There are a LOT of industry jobs, as well as National Lab jobs in the US that do materials. And while it is still cutting edge physics, I feel like there is a LOT more to be done than in particle theory. Materials, due to its determinant behavior, can be modeled, and there is an endless supply of reasons to model materials and their behavior. (I worked at a national lab doing materials modeling and always think about going back if I cant find a tenure track position).

    This also all depends on your age. If you're in undergrad/bachelors then keep in mind that you have about 5-6 years of PhD ahead of you, followed by 2 to 3, 1-3 year post docs (so usually anywhere from 4-8 years on average of working as basically an intern at different universities) while researching and trying to get a faculty position.

    That means if you're finishing your BS, you're looking at 9-14 years before getting a permanent position (if its even permanent). That's a long time to not really make any money, and not really develop any job security. You REALLY have to love the topic. And lets say you went back to school and are finishing your BS degree at 40, and you want to be a full-time professor as your goal. If you follow the normal USA path you're looking at applying to teaching positions (or research) at 49-54. They may hire you, but if there's some kid who went to undergrad at 18, BS at 22, PhD at 26-27, and finished two two-year postdocs, has the same number of papers as you, and knows some people, then your competition is only 30-31. That's a big difference in terms of potential for staying a long time and producing a lot for a University (and theres a lot of people this age, and only a few older ones).

    They'll ask themselves why they should risk hiring someone who will probably retire in a decade or two to handle grant proposals, advising students, teaching courses, having their own post-docs, traveling for conferences, writing papers, etc. By the time you really get into the groove of what the job is you'll be ready to leave.

    Gah, I know this is a long reply but one more thing: You only get one life. If you really like Physics that much then do it. A Physics career is 50% about the journey (you never feel like you're "done"). You get to learn what you love and be surrounded by people doing the same.
    If you truly have a passion for it you will never regret spending your time perusing it.
  9. Feb 18, 2014 #8


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    As long as you feel capable of doing the work and are interested in doing the work, I would politely, but firmly, tell him to mind his own business.
  10. Feb 18, 2014 #9


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    I disagree with it.

    You also peak physically in your mid twenties, but dose this mean you shouldn't try marathon running after 30?

    There are a lot of things stacked against you if you want to pursue a career in physics, but age is such a minor factor it's not worth worrying about.
  11. Feb 18, 2014 #10


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    OP, do you mind letting us know what your age is?
  12. Feb 18, 2014 #11
    So unless you're going to win a Nobel prize in physics, it's pointless to learn physics? Wow, that teacher needs to be reprimanded. Go speak to the dean or something, that's ridiculous behavior.
  13. Feb 18, 2014 #12


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    Some of the new "kids on the block" in my workgroup have learned this the hard way :devil:

  14. Feb 18, 2014 #13
    I am 25 and I find that things like staying up all night (and retaining knowledge) are way easier for me now than they were when I was younger. I had to take time off of school for family reasons and personal reasons. So the reason for me restarting so late isn't because I've been lazy.

    My plan is that after I get my BS, I was going to get my MS in biophysics, and then my Ph.D. With that being said, I want to leave that part open because there are just so many fields to work in. After my BS I want to see what field I'm interested in (keeping my capabilities in mind).
    I am not someone who is delusional about my capabilities; if I thought that I was wasting my time I wouldn't continue. I might have to work harder than others for some parts of my journey, but I am more than willing to put in that effort.

    I want to do what I love and what I love is physics (I've always wanted to be a physicist, my fascination with the subject started when I was about 7 or 8).

    I can say with absolute certainty that what I crave most is more knowledge. I want to learn everything that I can before the end of my life time so that when I look back on it all, I can say that I tried my best to understand the world around me and that I kept my spark of curiosity alive. I'm not worried about becoming wealthy or famous, what I want is to enrich my life and improve the quality of life of others in some way.

    This is why I don't agree with what he said, because how can a field who needs passionate people turn down one such person because they might be a little older than the norm.
  15. Feb 18, 2014 #14
    25? Crazy. I figured you were 35 or even 40+. At 40+ I would probably agree that one is too old to do the whole physics thing for a career. 25 is fine.
  16. Feb 19, 2014 #15
    Cognitive decline has been studied. And the data does show some kind of peak, maybe in the mid-20s if I remember right, and then gradually goes down.

    This is a bit of a dangerous truth because although it is true, taking it too seriously might impact your confidence and become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can turn age into an advantage by having more skills and knowledge.

    The most effective way to fight cognitive decline is exercise and keeping an active mind.

    Age shouldn't really matter in your case, I think. However, I think virtually everyone should be strongly discouraged from trying to have a career in physics, unless they are completely set on it, so my only objection to what he was saying was that it was based on age. Most people are not going to make it to be a professor. If you do go to grad school, you should be thinking of a back-up plan from the beginning, but that's very hard to do because grad school is so all-consuming, and the kind of job-search you have to do to make that kind of career change in this job market is a pretty serious thing.
  17. Feb 19, 2014 #16
    My understanding of the "cognitive decline" concept is that people peak in different fields at different times. Abstract thought starts to decline first and productivity peaks in early 20's for Chemistry, chess, some mathematics, 25-30 for physics, 30-40 for engineering, 45 for architecture and law, 50's for poetry, these later pursuits require people to live life where youngsters are at a disadvantage.

    I do not hold with much of this anyway. For example Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers as well as some other "cognitive" studies suggest you need a certain amount of time. Gladwell suggests 10000 hours to develop expertise in anyone (violin virtuosos, chess-grandmasters, music composers, etc).

    I grant you teens and twenties get more recuperative sleep, (necessary for clever twists of mind), better digestion, etc. but 30, 40, 50 -somethings and older have seen more, and have a greater storehouse that they can call on.

    Your goal of going into Biophysics seems possible (starting at 25 is late but why not). I assume you did not suggest you wanted to win the Nobel Prize in physics as a goal. (Nobel Prize Physics winner are usually at least middle-age, and the prize was often awarded for continuing research and or research done a generation or two ago)

    That being said, it sounds like your current physics program is small, and perhaps unrecognized or underestimated. If you have several physics faculty members, perhaps you should seek one out who is more supportive.

    Your professor said you have a disadvantage if you want to do "cutting-edge" physics research. Even if true, only a small percentage of gainfully employed physicists are doing "cutting-edge" physics research. Most physicists find their career rewarding.

    It does seem you have planned your life to get a Ph D. and currently you are working for a Bachelors. I think you should allow yourself some flexibility. A doctorate could be ten years away.

    A graduate degree in Medical Physics right now is very marketable (employable). It is a physics graduate degree (in my understanding) that is less geared towards research than many specialties. Your interest in biophysics may serve you well. (With all the developments in nuclear medicine, they are in demand)

    P.S. I think Hepth painted a realistic picture.
    Good Luck
  18. Feb 19, 2014 #17
    How much does it decline? How fast does it decline? At what point during the decline is constructive to tell someone to abandon their hopes and dreams because they'll never come true?
  19. Feb 19, 2014 #18


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    To the last, I'd say that sometimes it can be good advice. If I had a 45yr old student getting their BS, I would let them know that if their dream is to get a faculty position in theoretical physics then they're probably wasting their time. Its honest truth, but that doesn't mean you can't pursue Physics or make contributions to the field, but your career will end after grad school 99.9% if the time at that age. Sure, its POSSIBLE, but improbable.

    Its unfortunate to be in a situation where someone puts their hopes and dreams into something thats nearly impossible, but theres an age we reach where we have to take responsibility not only for our current actions but to our depth of planning in our lives. I wouldn't tell a 10yr old he cant be an astronaut, but a 65yr old with no degree wanting to go back to school to try to be one is irresponsible. (Sure, its their RIGHT to pursue it, but sometimes they just don't have the knowledge to know what is and isn't likely and they look to those in the field for advice).

    TO THE OP:
    25 is barely old for college. Even if you're a freshman in college your fellow students will be 17-19, so you're not that much older. And to be honest that 5 year age gap might be enough to actually GIVE you an edge in terms of planning and focusing. Your thought process is most likely more mature, and you can take more responsibility for your grades and exams.

    I'd also lump medical and biophysics in with materials inasmuch as they are all highly sought after at the moment (a lot of careers open) which is good. Unfortunately, you don't know what it will be like when you finish your PhD, maybe like me there will be another recession with budgets cut everywhere and way too many graduates, who knows.

    Stick with it though. 25 is nothing and these fields not only make you an expert in some very narrow field, you also learn mathematics, computational tools, statistics and general creative problem-solving capabilities so far beyond the general population that you'll be in a good situation no matter what.

    Heres a few free tips too:

    1. Grades will always matter. This is because sometimes there will be people who do not judge you based on your knowledge, ability, history or talents but on some number given to you 4 years prior as they have a stack of 3000 applications just like yours and its easy to do a "sort by GPA".

    2. GRE and Physics GRE will matter. Seriously. See #1. There may be a firewall just to get looked at. (usually 3.4-3.6 GPA, not always)

    3. Relationships are everything. Your professors can get you internships, REU's, grants, fellowships, papers, contacts, seminars, jobs etc. But you have to properly and professionally maintain these relationships. Your name must have attached to it some level of respect of your superiors. This means maintaining an independent, go-getter attitude whenever dealing with them.

    4. Always move up. Your graduate school should be more well known than your undergrad, post doc better than graduate, etc. Not just the name of the school, but also independently the names of the people you will work with. Additionally, apply for everything. Take the time to write custom cover letters for even up to 100 schools for graduate school, as well as cater your research statements to their programs. Don't be lazy.

    5. Plan ahead. Start looking at graduate schools in your 2nd-3rd year to get an idea of where the field is at the moment, and what interests you. Go to all the big schools sites and look through their research. Stay organized.

    I guess thats is, I don't want to ramble but I like to give advice or at least some experience.
  20. Feb 19, 2014 #19
    I don't remember exactly how strong the effects of cognitive decline are, but they are significant. You'd have to look more at the data to see. These studies are just based on various cognitive tests, I believe, so they are looking at the underlying cognitive functions. As I said, you can make up for this with more skills and knowledge, which would explain why there might be peaks at different ages for various careers.

    There might be alternative explanations, though. Perhaps, younger people do better because they have a fresh perspective. Maybe another case of correlation/causation confusion to some extent.

    I don't think it has much to do with the decline. It is more constructive than you'd think. It's not a case of telling them what to do, so much as just letting them know the risks. If they understand the risks and they still want to do it, then they can go ahead. Some people are independently wealthy, for example, so they might have nothing to lose. And for some people, I think pursuing a PhD with no intention of making a career out of it is a viable option, but you have to plan ahead really well to make that happen (develop career-change skills, and try to do work that gives you marketable skills, like programming). Another possibility is to aim for a specific field where it's easier to get a job outside of academia.

    And, I do sort of have a horse in this race because I have a PhD in math, but I hated the last few years of grad school and abandoned the field because it turned out I didn't like it at all, under the current circumstances. So, the dream might not be all it's cracked up to be, and even if it is, chances are, it will be hard to get past the PhD or postdoc stage (personally, I didn't even attempt to get a posdoc because I hated grad school so much, and postdoc sounded like more of the same). It's not a fun thing to have happen to you, and this sort of thing is more likely than not to happen to most people who try to get a PhD. Just telling people to follow their dreams is just wishing this upon most of them. So, it's actually destructive, to my mind, not to warn people against grad school. So, get a PhD if you have to, but be aware of the risks. And don't think that you are special, and that you are somehow immune to the realities of the job market. People who were "special" up until grad school are now just like everyone else, most of the time.
  21. Feb 19, 2014 #20
    I should add, for the record, that my own field, math, is actually much less difficult than physics to get a career in. Most math PhDs get jobs, although there is a slight over-supply. But, even in math, you still need to be prepared. Many graduate programs have a high attrition rate. In math, my warning has more to do with whether or not you will like teaching and the graduate school experience. This was a bit of a tangent, but I thought this post was necessary to avoid giving people the wrong impression about my own field.
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