Physics dropout software engineer looking for guidance

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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
symbolipoint
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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
ZapperZ
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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?
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
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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.

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
Scrumhalf
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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.
 

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