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Physics as a hobby vs. as a career

  1. Feb 25, 2015 #1
    This is a curiosity of mine that I'm hoping someone can answer. Currently, I'm about to enter a University as a chem major due to the lack of a physics major (will still probably take a physics minor). I've always been interested in physics, but I'm afraid that as a career I would end up homeless and without an actual job and not being able to study something that I'm interested in.

    My question is, how feasible is it that a person will make any significant contributions to physics if they aren't pursuing it academically, getting a degree, and finishing graduate school. I haven't ran across any examples of some random guy who studied theoretical physics in his basement while working at Mcdonalds and revolutionized science.

    I feel drawn to physics and math, as if I have some duty to contribute something that could change the playing field or our views of the Universe. But I'm fully aware that almost EVERYONE feels this same exact way and the odds of actually delivering a theory like Einstein are laughable.

    What do you believe is the end-point for a hobby in physics? As in, the point where you can no longer learn due to lack of resources or lab equipment, lack of motivation, or pure inability to grasp the material without the proper academics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 25, 2015 #2
    In physics many people are using their whole lives to research physics but they aren't contributing anything at all.
    Look at all people working on string theory. All of them may be contributing nothing at all.
    It is very hard to actually be sure you made a significant contributions. It is not something you can do as a hobby.

    Look at the LHC. It has how many people working on it? 10,000? How many co-authors does a typocal CERN LHC paper have? About 2,500 or so?
    The days of Einstein are long long gone. Einstein didn't even have any citations.
    Ok, not everything is as crazy as HEP.

    Donno what that thing about being homeless and being a physics graduate is. Are you from the US? Here no one is homeless, except people with mental problems/addictions, and physics graduates have some of the best opportunities on the job market.

    Actually a big difference between understanding the work of others, and contributing something yourself. The first is so much easies. To understand the end results, you only need to know about 10% of what was actually going on. Like interpreting data, alternative models/theories, mathematical quirks, thinking of new methods to test, thinking about the far-reaching implications, etc.
  4. Feb 25, 2015 #3
    Only about 25% of the homeless have mental issues (though many develop depression while on the street).* Also, almost half have a high school diploma and around 5% have a bachelor's degree. 1 out of 3 people with a job are 1 or 2 paychecks away from being on the street, and 45% of the homeless do have a job.

    Are you likely to be homeless with a physics degree? No, I agree with you there. But don't make up facts.

  5. Feb 25, 2015 #4
  6. Feb 25, 2015 #5


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    I suspect the OP is not actually worried about becoming homeless, rather, he or she is simply worried about marketing a bachelor's degree in physics in a competative job market - since the majority of the education is focussed on academic skills.

    To this I would argue that the data seems to indicate that physics graduates tend to do quite well in terms of starting salaries and obtaining jobs after graduation. Marketing oneself with a physics degree is not always easy, and in fact can be a lot more difficult than with an engineering degree becaue the latter is a professional degree. But difficult and impossible are two different things.

    As far as a physics hobby goes, the OP is correct in that making a substantial contribution as hobbiest is going to be incredibly difficult, particularly if one is not trained up to the PhD level in the first place.

    That said, it's also import to remember that the goal is not to "change our view of the universe" but simply to explore. Amateur astronomers have made quite a few significant contributions to the field - nothing that has flipped the astronomy world on its head (that I'm aware of), but significant contributions none-the-less.
  7. Feb 25, 2015 #6


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    The first major obstacle is journal access. More and more stuff is becoming freely available these days, but you need affiliation with an academic library to be able to read prolifically still and in the forseeable future.

    Second would be professional interaction. Rarely is anything accomplished in a vacuum. You need to attend conferences, seminars, speak with colleagues etc. to keep up with what problems people are working on, what's been done, what's coming down the pipe, etc. and even to have your own ideas challenged. It saves a lot of time an effort to have a colleage point out a flaw in your thinking over lunch than to have a journal referee refuse the article you spent the last six months working on because of it.

    Third (and these are not in order of importance necessarily) is dedicated time. As an amateur you need to be able to support yourself. So you need a job. Then you need to handle your life outside of that job. The spare time left over is what you can dedicate to a hobby. For many people this is only a couple of hours per day, if that. And larger periods may not occur at regular intervals. You can be a lot more productive if you have even two hours per day, every day dedicated to working on a project. It becomes a lot harder to be productive if you have to figure out what you did the last time every time you sit down to work.

    Fourth, perhaps along the lines of the third point, is pressure to produce. As a professional, you have this, and it makes you work on a project even when you don't want to. It makes you stay late to run one more simulation. It makes you check the cases of your problem that you're pretty sure won't lead anywhere. It makes you read that sixth manuscript draft when you really just want to put it down. As a hobbiest, at some point you have to wrestle with the question of what to do when your project is no longer fun.
  8. Feb 25, 2015 #7
    I got a PhD in math, and I learn physics as a hobby, although it's on hold right now because I'm starting up a new job as a software developer, so I probably won't be doing any physics for at least a few months until I can get some momentum going there. After doing the PhD, I lost any interest in making any "contributions". What I am interested in is trying to understand things on a deep level and conceptualizing. I don't care about being on the cutting edge. The use of this is that I can then teach people who can then go on to come up with actual contributions. This is basically what high school teachers do, but because I'm not good at that kind of teaching, I plan to try to mentor some people and make websites. This sort of thing IS a contribution, though. Not only that, but I can contribute probably hundreds of times as much by doing this than I ever could as an actual mathematician/physicist, where my contribution would very likely be negligible.
  9. Feb 25, 2015 #8
    By the way, from what I've heard chemistry is way worse than physics in terms of job prospects--not that I recommend physics, either, unless you have thought it through very carefully, have a plan, and know how to sell yourself.
  10. Feb 25, 2015 #9
    This guy knows what's up. So many people say "I'll make huge contributions to physics and math!", but for the majority of people education is probably the greatest contribution you can make. Not to say that you have to be top tier genius to make significant research contributions, but education must NEVER be underestimated.

    In my opinion, it takes a very specific type of person to be a great physicist. The person has to be very smart, have access to education so as to be able to utilize their talent (ie not in a third world country), be a hard worker and be willing to sacrifice the vast majority of their personal time to work. You have to love doing it so much that you can spend however much time you need, in spite of personal restrictions. Obviously not all researchers are like this, and it is by no means necessary to make considerable contributions, but if you don't love doing it you won't be really, ACTUALLY really good at it. Period. A very smart man once said that in order to do great work, you must love your work so that you don't think of it as real work.

    If you like research, then do research. But one should never do research because one wants to make contributions. You do it because you love to do it, and for no other reasons.
  11. Feb 25, 2015 #10
    Part of my thinking is that maybe under different circumstances, I could have made contributions. Supposedly, I was a promising student, and maybe that would have been true if people thought about and communicated things in a more intuitive way. As it is, all that was in store for me in academia, or at least along the particular road I ended up going down, was a recipe for getting burnt out, trying to do things my own way because not enough people thought like I did. Some of the very best mathematicians and probably physicists are so far ahead of the game that they can actually get away with this--swimming against the stream, as V I Arnold said of himself. So, as I see it, my job is to make it possible for people who think like me to survive where I wasn't able to and not face as many of the difficulties that I faced. Some people are busy charting new territory, but not enough people care about getting people more effectively through all the jungles and swamps that you have to get through in order to get to that point.
  12. Feb 26, 2015 #11
    Tell Ramanujan that.
    I dont know where you're from (I asume US), but you dont need ideal conditions to be able to have access to education. In fact, I know of people who come from regions of Mexico that could well qualify as third world and still made their way to university.
  13. Feb 26, 2015 #12
    When I said that, I meant in a third world country such that you wouldn't have access to education, as is the case with many if not most third world countries
  14. Feb 26, 2015 #13
    Yes, I understood what you meant, and it's where I disagree, I dont think "third-world country" should be equated to "no access to education". It is indeed more difficult there, but to make such a claim and even use "i.e." is a mistake, I think.
  15. Feb 26, 2015 #14
    personally I wouldn't try to make a difference in the physics world, it is HARD, go make some money and treat physics as a labor of love.
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