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Physics Physics or the army?

  1. May 2, 2009 #1
    I'm 17, a junior at SAR HS. I am looking forward to a career in physics. This has been my dream for years. I excel at it in my class and am involved in various science and math activities in school and out of school.

    I am also an Israeli citizen, which means I get a draft notice to join the Israeli army for 3 years once I've finished high school. However, because I live in the United States I'm not obligated to go to the army unless I decide to relocate to Israel. If I do not join the army however, I am barred from entering the country until the age of 29. Because most of my family lives in Israel, this would be very difficult for me.

    My question: Is it feasible for me to launch an effective, meaningful career in theoretical physics if I decide to go to the army until about the age of 22, when most American students my age have already obtained their bachelor's degree and are preparing to enter graduate programs? Or should I concentrate my efforts on a good physics career?

    I would appreciate any comments.
    Thank you

    (Some additional information: Entering university at a late age is the norm in Israel. Despite this, many students who are strong in math and science enter an army-sponsored degree program after which they enter the army for shorter terms of service. But these units are very elite, and I'm afraid that I won't get into them)
  2. jcsd
  3. May 2, 2009 #2
    I don't know if this is helpful, but... does Israel have nuclear submarines?

    I do not know about much about the theoretical physics field in specific. However I do have a friend here in the United States who joined the U.S. Navy as a physicist and worked on nuclear reactors onland and on submarines for them. I believe he was getting a BS degree in physics concurrently. After he left the Navy he went into a traditional graduate school program and last I spoke to him he was on track to go into teaching.

    I can say that in in my field (computer science) there is an abundance of high-profile Israeli researchers, so in at least in this one field the draft does not seem to be an impediment to launching an overall productive career.
  4. May 2, 2009 #3


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    With respect to age, starting a few years later won't hinder you at all. In fact, in some ways, starting an education with a little more maturity can help as you are likely to have more self-discipline and be more focused on your goals.

    With respect to military service, I think that's a very personal decision that one should take very seriously.
  5. May 2, 2009 #4
    I'm not sure if they've got nuclear submarines, but they've got a very advanced air force and many R&D departments in the army. The problem is, one usually enters these after extensive testing and competition with other applicants, something which I doubt I can stand out in.

    Chances are, I'll be looking at 3 years in the army, either with a B.A or without. Otherwise, I can simply not go, although this isn't particularly desirable either.
  6. May 2, 2009 #5
    does anybody else, by the way, think that a few years isn't too terrible a waste of time?
  7. May 2, 2009 #6


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    A few years whether spent in the army or any other endeavour in my mind is not a waste of time. You will be learning different life experiences and like a poster said above me, you will be more mature to enter university with more self-discipline to study and probably in a better position to get higher marks.

    I can think of at least one person who did not go into physics straight away and that someone is Ed Witten. I think he did a degree in the arts (possibly journalism) before he started his physics degree.

    If physics is something you really want to do (ie your "calling" so to speak) then I'm sure you will get around to doing it sometime. You could also do some light learning on the side so that when things sink in you can approach them also with a bit more maturity and excel rather than having to cram your head full of ideas and being boxed in to having to go through what would seem a mountain of detail. Obviously I wouldn't advise that you do the whole thing before starting uni but doing some casual learning can also help you decide whether you want to go the full mile and settle for endless nights of problem sets and the like.

    Also with theoretical physics there is quite a lot of math involved and I would think that you would be studying math for at least ten years before you got to the stage of doing some really innovative work. Although it takes a lot less to do the actual coursework, it takes a while for math to digest into your system so that it becomes more intuitive to deal with. I find that even simple trigonometry has a whole deep set of understanding that is hard to ignore especially when you set out to understand the universe or at the very least some part of the universe like most people do (which is hard enough in its own right).

    There is a lot of connections between developments in math and developments in physics especially theoretical physics, so the math is quite important and I think if you progress down this road you will end up being a very competent (sp?) mathematician. Maybe you won't be as rigorous with your deltas or your epsilons in proofs but you'll be pretty good at applying very pure fields to one the most applied sciences.

    If you do go into the army I wish you safety so that you can come back to study what you desire.
  8. May 3, 2009 #7

    I am once again in full agreement with Choppy. Starting a studies at the age of 22 by no means limits your career options - military service is obviously a very serious step to have to go through, and if you do then the situation can be easily explained to any possible universities you might attent in the future. What I mean to say is that starting at 22 because you have a semi-obligation to complete military service with your home country, and starting at 22 because you were lazy are two wholly different things.

    I'm unaware in what capacity you will service should you decide to go for the service, but I guess it would be worth finding out if you can operate in any engineering/technological roles.
  9. May 3, 2009 #8
    Thanks a lot. This is all very helpful.
  10. May 4, 2009 #9
    What is your immigration status and how will being in the Israeli army affect that? If you are already a US citizen, then joining a foreign army could get you in serious trouble (I know you said you are a Israeli Citizen but there is dual citizenship). If you are a US resident, joining a foreign army could possibly lose you your US residence. You need to ask a lawyer.
  11. May 4, 2009 #10
    That's interesting. I never thought of that. I'm a US citizen as well, but I know many people from the Israeli army (like my father, from whom I somehow automatically gained American citizenship) that are still US citizens, so i'm not sure that's a problem.
  12. May 5, 2009 #11
    My advisor spent a few years in the army of his homeland and he turned out to be an okay physicist. There's no reason for a few years to matter.
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