Physics dropout software engineer looking for guidance

In summary: I make very good pay, but I am constantly having urges to go back to school and get a BS in something (probably physics again, although I am open to other options). I have always been fascinated by science, but I have no idea if returning to school and completing a degree is a good idea or not. Help?
  • #1
poobar
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TL;DR: I seriously screwed up when I was in my undergrad physics program and ended up essentially dropping out. Several years (and 'careers') later, I ended up becoming a software engineer. I make very good pay, but feel an itch to return to science. I feel an urge to to return to school and complete my BS, possibly pursue a Masters, and get into research. I need help figuring out if this is a good or bad idea. Help?

Long version:
Background: A little over ten years ago, I began college in a physics program because I liked high school physics (probably mistake number one). I was pretty immature and not really ready for college at all. I suffer from ADD (yes, really - diagnosed) but I do not take medication because I have philosophical objections to it.

Right off the bat, I failed Differential Calculus because I spent too much time drinking/smoking/fooling around (freedom from parents - wooo!), despite having taken and passed the corresponding AP course in high school. In any case, I continued with my physics education and got good enough grades in the introductory courses, although it is worth mentioning that I, like many of my peers, did make use of solutions manuals, on occasion (not all of the time though).

As the courses got harder, my grades got worse. I never really seemed able to 'grok' the more complicated concepts, at least in a mathematical sense. By the time I got to intermediate E&M, Stat Mech, and Intro to Quantum, I basically had zero understanding, but the illusion of understanding by being able to replicate and understand isolated mathematical snippets (hope this makes sense).

My life also was shaken up by the termination of a serious relationship, and that only made things much much worse for me. By the time I entered Junior year, I was basically failing at least one course per semester, and barely scraping by in the others. I had no understanding of anything, nor did I have the ability to simultaneously catch up on everything I was missing from years prior while and pass the courses I was currently taking. I was completely screwed, and it was my fault.

I limped on like this for a year, taking and retaking courses, suffering one humiliating defeat after another (Example: I got a D in Intermediate E&M on my first try. I decided to take it again to try to get a better grade and ended up with an F... ). In what was supposed to be my last semester, which was already a semester past the usual 8, due to my first semester Calc failure, I anticipated being able to just barely scrape by with Ds, and graduate. It didn't happen, I failed half of my classes, got an incomplete (which eventually turned into an F), withdrew from another, and got a D- in the one remaining. My GPA was less than 1 for that semester.

I had already withdrawn from the university (standard protocol for graduating seniors) and I did not find out about my grades until everything had been set in motion, i.e., housing cancelled, financial aid ending, etc. At this point it was too late to return for yet another semester, and I also did not want to return because I was miserable, depressed, lacking self-esteem, and self-confidence. I just wanted to be done.

So, I walked across the stage at graduation, but I did not really graduate. I got a medal, and some other stuff that people who really graduate receive. My parents and everyone in my life believed (and most still do, save the few I have told) that I graduates with a BS in Physics. Of course, I could not get a job in physics, or science, or anything that required a degree because a) my transcript was absolute garbage, b) I had no degree, and c) I had zero self-esteem.

I ended up wasting a year and a half trying to invent cool things (hyper-efficient power generation, micro hydro turbines, etc.) but of course, I could not make much progress as a broke person from a broke family, working in my bedroom. I ultimately went to work the night shift in a UPS warehouse, where I did very well and was singled out as a strong and intelligent worker. From there I went to a day job with FedEx, where I was also given extra responsibility due to strong performance.

At the same time, I was taking classes for welding (something I had always wanted to learn), and from FedEx I moved to a full-time gig doing production welding. The job was terrible, but I was climbing the ladder slowly but surely. From there, I was accepted into a trade union working in heavy industrial settings. Again, I was noticed for being a hard worker, but also being a smart worker. In this job, I made a lot of money each week, and I was finally able to begin to save. The hours were absolutely terrible (7 days a week, 12 hours a day until the job was done) and I realized that I did not want to spend the rest of my life doing this work.

So, I left that job also, and became severely depressed without any direction in my life. Through a stroke of luck (talking to a friend), I learned about programming boot camps. I had always been interested in programming, and had some experience with Python and Matlab from college. I decided to pursue this avenue (mostly because they promised high-paying jobs), so I enrolled in the boot camp. I did well, and three months after graduating, I had my first software engineering job. About a year after that, I ended up with my second software engineering job, which is where I am still working.

I like software engineering, but recently I have been yearning for something different. Software engineering can feel very restrictive at times. There are a lot of arbitrary standards (style guides/idiomatic code for example) which seems to stifle creativity and non-conventional approaches. When I go to the book store, I almost always walk out with a math book, usually one of those super-cheap lecture books on some advanced topic (just can't resist for a few dollars) because I would love nothing more to find the time some day to just learn tons of math for the sake of mental exploration.

I just finished reading A Brief History of Time and I read a mini-biography of Stephen Hawking before that. Theoretical physics is really interesting to me these days. I know that these types of offerings are designed for mass-consumption, and do not convey the rigor and complexity of the underlying mathematics, but I am still interested. I have been rediscovering my love of science and have been reading some more academic publications as well. I have been working to rebuild my knowledge, but I struggle to find the time and energy to make serious progress after a full day of work. I also have a very extreme approach in that I feel an obligation to do every single problem in a textbook.

The Question: With all of the above in mind (okay if you didn't read it -- I don't blame you), I am trying to figure out my way forward. I think that at heart, I am a scientific researcher-type. I really love learning new things, understanding the fundamentals of how things work (gets me in trouble at my job because I spend too much time down rabbit holes), and knowledge just for the sake of knowledge.

I want to learn math & physics again, but I just don't have the time/organization/ability to do this without some sort of framework. I feel a strong urge to return to college to finish my degree, potentially pursue higher degrees, and start a new career in a science/physics-related field, if not just becoming a full-time researcher (or even professor/researcher). However, I make very good pay as a software engineer, and there is definitely good job security for me in my current field.

I look on the state payroll listing sometimes, and I see that my salary currently as a software engineer with only two years of experience is higher than some of the physics professors at the school that I attended. One of my concerns is that it just might not be worth it or feasible in the end to do this. I can accept a lower initial income, that rises with experience, but I am also starting a family, so this is a real constraint, unfortunately.

I don't know if this is just a 'grass is greener on the other side' type of thing, but I strongly suspect it is not. In any case, I am looking for feedback and advice on what to do. Apologies for the incredibly long and rambling post. You have my utmost respect if you made it this far! Thanks :)
 
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  • #2
Too long and windy to read all what you wrote, but you are smart - smart enough to take fast, tough instruction and then become a software creator (or as you describe, maybe software engineer), so you are likely smart enough to earn your hoped-for degree in Physics or something closely related. If you can give the time to it, and not do as much employment work for a FEW years, then (1) you can very expectedly study hard and earn your degree, and (2) the computer programming skill will be one of your subject-matter and academic strengths.
 
  • #3
poobar said:
TL;DR: I seriously screwed up when I was in my undergrad physics program and ended up essentially dropping out. Several years (and 'careers') later, I ended up becoming a software engineer. I make very good pay, but feel an itch to return to science. I feel an urge to to return to school and complete my BS, possibly pursue a Masters, and get into research. I need help figuring out if this is a good or bad idea. Help?

If your goal is to be a practicing physicist, which is what I assume to mean when you said "... get into research...", then you will need a PhD.

So then the question becomes, are you willing to go through however many years it will take to get an undergraduate degree, spending on average 6 years to get a PhD, and then maybe 3-4 years of doing a Postdoc? Even after that, you will have to compete with other candidates for the small number of research/academic/etc. openings. Are you willing to do that?

Zz.
 
  • #4
symbolipoint said:
Too long and windy to read all what you wrote, but you are smart - smart enough to take fast, tough instruction and then become a software creator (or as you describe, maybe software engineer), so you are likely smart enough to earn your hoped-for degree in Physics or something closely related. If you can give the time to it, and not do as much employment work for a FEW years, then (1) you can very expectedly study hard and earn your degree, and (2) the computer programming skill will be one of your subject-matter and academic strengths.

Yeah, it is really long and windy, but thanks for the response. It is encouraging to hear this kind of thing. Having a computer programming background definitely could prove to be helpful after attaining a degree in physics. Are you saying that I should consider being a part-time student for a few years, while still working as a programmer? That is something I have considered.

ZapperZ said:
If your goal is to be a practicing physicist, which is what I assume to mean when you said "... get into research...", then you will need a PhD.

So then the question becomes, are you willing to go through however many years it will take to get an undergraduate degree, spending on average 6 years to get a PhD, and then maybe 3-4 years of doing a Postdoc? Even after that, you will have to compete with other candidates for the small number of research/academic/etc. openings. Are you willing to do that?

Zz.

Hmm. That is a pretty serious commitment. In all honesty, I'm not 100% sure, but I am at least willing to give it an honest shot. Maybe after undergrad I will have found a path, or maybe I would want to continue on with a masters or PhD, and I would just take it one step at a time. I want to at least give myself the opportunity to find out.
 
  • #5
This is a life-changing decision. Nobody can answer this for you. You say you are just starting a family. Have you discussed this with your partner? Let's say you are making $100K right now. Can you imagine living on a half or a third of that income? Does your partner work? Is he/she capable of supporting your family while you are studying? You are going to be making next to nothing at least while getting a B.S., and maybe a pittance if you can leverage an assistantship in grad school.

Here's a simpler first step to consider. Can you complete your B.S. coursework and get your B.S. degree while retaining your current employment? I would strongly urge you to somehow make this happen.
 
  • #6
wow, I'm 20yro from Brazil and I currently am in the end of my second semester as a physics undergrad (actually entered college in the first semester of 2020 but due to the pandemic my uni canceled it) and your story resonated a lot with me.

I chose physics because I loved it in High School and in my first semester i ended up giving up on all modules but one - calculus I, I initially was supposed to take Mechanics (90h), Calculus I (90h), Experimental physics (60h) and Mathematical foundations of physics A (60h), and this last one was something special because i found it so difficult that it pratically depleted my self steem, its like a mix of linear algebra, all of calculus I and bit of C. II - and now I'm barely scraping by taking only 3 modules (E.P(60h), Mec.(90h) and Linear Algebra (60h)).

I'm thinking of changing to a Software Engineer, because it has more jobs oppurtunitys and higher paying salarys, so I'm basically being pulled by the "programming boom" that's happening here. Well, just wanted to let my frustration out a bit
 
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  • #7
It's amazing that it takes only 3 months to become a software engineer, but one can spend 7 years studying chemistry and physics and wind up going nowhere with it. Sorry, personal anecdote.

Your personal story almost sounds like a flex. You're already in a great position in life. Congratulations. Unfortunately, to be a physicist, you'll probably have to go down the academic route. I would start school online while keeping your job, and knock out all of the pointless general education courses and take some remedial mathematics classes. I found college algebra and precalculus to be beneficial in taking before going into calculus, but all of this cost a lot of time and money. In a perfect world of infinite cash, I would choose to take at least precalculus before any physics or high maths class. Depends whether you forgot how to do math or not, like I did when I went back to school. So, those lower level courses were vital for me, and maybe they were worth the extra couple of thousands of dollars. Still trying to figure that out.

I received a job offer to be a research physicist after my master's degree. From what I understand, that's pretty rare, but it can happen. They reached out and offered me that job about two years after I earned my master's degree. But by then, I had already moved on. So, I ended up not accepting the offer. Strange how life happens.

A bit about the position, the salary was 40 or 50K, if I remember correctly. It involved research for the United States Army. The research had something to do with testing how electrical equipment responds to high doses of radioactivity. It required a top secret security clearance. No idea why they offered me the job. Seemed like they offered every physics graduate from my school a job randomly at that time. I guess they randomly really wanted local physicists. Funny, because I had applied for jobs and internships at the same place years ago and didn't get a response. Random things just happen. It was a descent job, but even after like 5 years of working there, I think the salary maxes out at around 70 or 80k. Some kind of government thing, where you're given automatic raises but there's a max.

I think we often have an idealized expectation of what science research is. When I first started learning the physical sciences, I really fell in love with it, but once I started working in labs and it kind of became a boring job to me and I started seeing my student loans piling up, that spark of love was quickly extinguished. I liked just learning about math and the physical world. I didn't like conducting experiments or entering data into spread sheets.

Just thinking out loud.
 
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  • #8
Gabriel098 said:
wow, I'm 20yro from Brazil and I currently am in the end of my second semester as a physics undergrad (actually entered college in the first semester of 2020 but due to the pandemic my uni canceled it) and your story resonated a lot with me.

I chose physics because I loved it in High School and in my first semester i ended up giving up on all modules but one - calculus I, I initially was supposed to take Mechanics (90h), Calculus I (90h), Experimental physics (60h) and Mathematical foundations of physics A (60h), and this last one was something special because i found it so difficult that it pratically depleted my self steem, its like a mix of linear algebra, all of calculus I and bit of C. II - and now I'm barely scraping by taking only 3 modules (E.P(60h), Mec.(90h) and Linear Algebra (60h)).

I'm thinking of changing to a Software Engineer, because it has more jobs oppurtunitys and higher paying salarys, so I'm basically being pulled by the "programming boom" that's happening here. Well, just wanted to let my frustration out a bit
If you are struggling that badly in your first year of physics in undergrad, then yes, it's good to look at your other options. What programming languages have you used in the past, and what is the most complex program that you've written so far? What attracts you to Software Engineering?

Zap said:
It's amazing that it takes only 3 months to become a software engineer
If you are referring to coding boot camps, that's quite different from a 4-year degree in Computer Science.
 
  • #9
poobar said:
Background: A little over ten years ago, I began college in a physics program because I liked high school physics (probably mistake number one). I was pretty immature and not really ready for college at all. I suffer from ADD (yes, really - diagnosed) but I do not take medication because I have philosophical objections to it.

Right off the bat, I failed Differential Calculus because I spent too much time drinking/smoking/fooling around (freedom from parents - wooo!), despite having taken and passed the corresponding AP course in high school.
Parts of the story resonate with me personally and from the experience of others I've known.

I was diagnosed as having ADD as an adult, and it seems I've compensated since I was in elementary school, probably with coffee, academics and athletics. Most young folks are immature into and sometimes through college. It sounds like cognitive therapy (as opposed to medication) would help. I more or less did it by myself. I ended up migrating from physics into nuclear engineering, and so far I've had an interesting and rewarding career. Most of my physics classmates ended up in fields outside of physics, while a minority stayed in physics through a PhD program. One interesting anecdote, back in the mid-1970s, the physics department was anxious/desperate to find someone (preferably a physics student) who could program (assembly language) a micro-processor; I don't know if they tapped students from the computer science/engineering department.

With respect to welding and software engineering, both are compatible from the standpoint of developing software for welding control, welding diagnostics and welding analysis. The latter is a subset of computational physics, which is a growing area in applied physics. There is a lot of work in developing methods using density functional theory and molecular dynamics to determine material properties and how they behavior in a variety of intended environments, and then there are mesoscale and engineering scale modeling and simulation systems (e.g., ANSYS, ABAQUS, COMSOL, . . . ).

From one's experience, one might look into programs on computational physics, or engineering physics, as opposed to theoretical physics, although one could look into high energy physics and/or astrophysics. I worked for a company whose philosophy/mantra was "Linking Theory with Practice". We blended theory (from condensed matter physics) into to models (and simulation) of real world problems, from very small objects (e.g., cardiac stents, atomic lattices) to large structures (e.g., bridges, dams, containment buildings, submarines, geological structures). We developed computational physics methods and then applied them to engineered or natural systems.

One should look into programs at one's employer to see what opportunities one might have with respect to continuing education or returning to university.

The faculty in the nuclear engineering program encourage students to go graduate school and pursue a PhD as quickly as possible, since some students were trying to decide if they should work in industry for experience, either after undergrad or MS degrees. One professor in particular indicated that as soon as someone starts working, earning a good salary, and ostensibly getting married and settling down with a family, returning to grad school becomes very difficult (but not impossible). Some colleagues left for careers after undergrad, others after MS degrees, but a minority did complete their PhD programs. Since one has already left school, the challenge is to return to school in a program one will find rewarding, and expecting to complete.
 
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Related to Physics dropout software engineer looking for guidance

1. What led you to drop out of physics and pursue a career in software engineering?

After completing my undergraduate degree in physics, I realized that I was more interested in the practical application of scientific concepts rather than the theoretical aspects. I also found that I had a natural aptitude for coding and problem-solving, which ultimately led me to pursue a career in software engineering.

2. How has your background in physics influenced your approach to software engineering?

My background in physics has provided me with a strong foundation in analytical thinking and problem-solving. This has been extremely beneficial in my role as a software engineer, as I am able to break down complex problems and find efficient solutions.

3. What challenges did you face transitioning from physics to software engineering?

The main challenge I faced was learning new programming languages and technologies. While I had a basic understanding of coding from my physics coursework, I had to put in a lot of effort to become proficient in the languages and tools used in software engineering.

4. What advice do you have for other physics dropouts considering a career in software engineering?

My advice would be to embrace your background in physics and use it to your advantage. The analytical skills and problem-solving abilities you gained from studying physics will be valuable assets in software engineering. Also, be prepared to put in the time and effort to learn new technologies and stay updated in a constantly evolving field.

5. How do you continue to incorporate your passion for physics into your work as a software engineer?

While I may not be working in a traditional physics-related field, I still find ways to incorporate my passion for physics into my work. For example, I have worked on projects that involve data analysis and simulations, which require a strong understanding of physics principles. I also enjoy staying informed about advancements in physics and how they are being applied in the technology industry.

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