Possibilities of a Career in Physics/Engineering

  • #1
Taniwha
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I live in the SF Bay Area. I graduated in 2019 with a B.S. in Engineering Physics from UC Berkeley. My college experience began with me failing to actually sign up for orientation, and then contracting tonsillitis which lasted my entire first semester. The combination of these two things resulted in me becoming extremely socially isolated, a trend which I maintained through the rest of my time in school. During my freshman year I worked as a clean room assistant at Berkeley Lab, but was fired because I could not give enough time to the job and handle my class workload. The jump in difficulty from HS to Cal Engineering was expected, but I was unable to manage it properly, and due to poor time management and social isolation, my grades suffered. I was dismissed after my third semester, when I failed my engineering statics course.

I managed to get readmitted a year later, and continued on to graduate, obviously. However, I continued to not ask for help and not make friends and not attend office hours. I took many more classes than I needed to, graduating with 150% more units than necessary, constantly overloading my schedule. I decided to take physics or math courses as electives instead of things in the social sciences. I did that mostly because I found the topics interesting, but also because in the college of engineering there is a higher unit requirement per semester. I developed severe anxiety and depression which only furthered my social isolation. All of this resulted in a graduating GPA of 2.1, one friend, and one job experience.

After graduating I worked as a research assistant with a postdoc who had invited me to help him, however I did not contribute anything of note, and a few months into being involved I suffered a traumatic personal event. That event resulted in nearly 3 years of both medical recovery and legal issues. As such, I only began seriously looking for career options again in the spring of 2023. I am extremely grateful that my parents are both willing and financially able to support me living with them for so long without a job, but it is becoming more and more depressing and upsetting that I can't support myself.

My lack of internships, recent employment, technical experience, network, and GPA appear to be an insurmountable obstacle to anyone thinking I would be a worthwhile hire, both in STEM and out of it. I get no response from 90% of the jobs I apply to, and the rest are a no. I have gotten only a handful of interviews. Jobs that my family or friends have tried to help me get have fallen through in the same way. If I apply for jobs that don't require college degrees I am told I am overqualified. I gave up on the idea of grad school long ago when my faculty advisor basically told me I would be unable to get into any, and asked why I even wanted to, given how hard undergrad had been. Also I believe my 2.1 GPA makes my chance of admission statistically zero.

I want to work doing something involving physics or applied math or engineering, what can I do to make that possible? Is it even? Have I completely ruined the chance I was given at having a career doing any of these things? I'm sorry if I sound alarmist or defeated, but I have been thinking a lot lately about just giving up on the idea of being a part of STEM completely, and as you have probably figured out, I am bad at asking for help.
 
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  • #2
You got into Berkeley, so you have demonstrated potential. From your write-up, you have demonstrated little technical achievement, poor judgement and poor communication skills. This is not a question about remaining in STEM, but of finding a path to a happy life. You mention depression multiple times; this is an urgent problem and needs to be addressed with treatment. You need to work on yourself in order for you to succeed.
 
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  • #3
The advice you have gotten about graduate school is sound. It's not in the cards now. (And IMHO this is probably to your benefit)

You need a job. Not the perfect job. A job, Hold it for a year, think abut what you do and do not like about it, and then shoot from there.
 
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  • #4
Frabjous said:
You got into Berkeley, so you have demonstrated potential. From your write-up, you have demonstrated little technical achievement, poor judgement and poor communication skills. This is not a question about remaining in STEM, but of finding a path to a happy life. You mention depression multiple times; this is an urgent problem and needs to be addressed with treatment. You need to work on yourself in order for you to succeed.

I have been in treatment, psychiatry and psychotherapy, since 2015. I currently see two different therapists every week. I completely agree about working on myself and I have been doing just that, potentially unsuccessfully, through development of practical skills, teaching myself thing like automotive repair, woodworking, metalworking, horticulture. I appreciate the consideration, but I am not posting here for psychotherapy advice, I am asking specifically about the technical aspects of developing a career doing something science related, and what can be done to increase the chances.

I also agree with what you said about not demonstrating good judgement or communication skills. However, I don't understand the little technical achievement part. Do you mean that I have little to show that I am technically capable? I would understand that at first glance, and if you mean how I will be perceived when presenting myself as a job applicant, I think I get it.

But personally I think I have technical ability; in my mind the degree I completed is itself the achievement. Everyone at Cal said that same thing, "You got in here, so clearly you're smart." For every one of my upper division physics classes, whenever I looked online for people doing similar work, the only stuff I found was graduate classes at places like MIT. I took five classes that were at least half populated by MSE/ME or chemistry PhD students. Grade deflation is a known fact at Cal, and I was told to expect a full GPA point lower than at another school. Professors regularly tought way outside the scope of the class in order to teach us about their research.

In upper division I completed the following courses: Quantum Mechanics 1 & 2, Electromagnetism and Optics 1 & 2, Solid State Physics 1 & 2 as well as a special elective course in advanced solid state, Statistical Mechanics, Engineering Mechanics 1 & 2, Continuum Mechanics, Optical Engineering, Real Analysis, Complex Analysis, Linear Algebra, Nuclear Chemistry, Quantum Computing, and Physics Intsrumentation Lab.

I know that doing college by yourself and without help is the incorrect way to do it and is nothing to be proud of, but I also know that accomplishing all of the above by yourself and without help is incredibly difficult - I was told that it would be impossible by my professors and advisors.

All of this being summed up with a 2.1 GPA feels like an oversimplification and misrepresentation of my technical ability.

Vanadium 50 said:
The advice you have gotten about graduate school is sound. It's not in the cards now. (And IMHO this is probably to your benefit)

You need a job. Not the perfect job. A job, Hold it for a year, think abut what you do and do not like about it, and then shoot from there.

It isn't in the cards now, but could it be? I want to participate in science more than anything, I've wanted to do so since I was a child, and as far as I can tell you can't really do that without a graduate degree. I know people go back to school after long gaps, but is that unrealistic with something like physics or engineering? Will my GPA forever inhibit me, or will at some point it be less important?

I've recently moved in the direction of "just get any job" but like I said I keep getting told I am overqualified for lower level positions or things outside of STEM. Do I somehow convince people I am not? I intend on following your advice here but to be honest "You need a job." is not a lot to follow. I know I need a job, I am asking for advice on what types of things I could aim to do that would satisfy this need while also helping me move toward STEM. Are there none of these things? Does having any job really make me a better candidate for a scientific one, or graduate school?
 
  • #5
Taniwha said:
It isn't in the cards now, but could it be?
Maybe. Maybe not. But it is not in the cards now, and you need to decide what you will do now. And right now, the worst thing you can do is not get a job because you are waiting for the prefect one.

You can worry about "later" later.
 
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  • #6
Taniwha said:
Grade deflation is a known fact at Cal, and I was told to expect a full GPA point lower than at another school.
Taniwha said:
graduating GPA of 2.1

According to
https://pages.github.berkeley.edu/OPA/our-berkeley/gpa-by-major.html
the average physics GPA for Engineering Physics for 2018-2019 was 3.27 with a std deviation of .52. You were over 2 std deviations below the mean.
 
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  • #7
Taniwha said:
All of this being summed up with a 2.1 GPA feels like an oversimplification and misrepresentation of my technical ability.

But if you simply submit your resume to a job post, that's one of the key metrics that the employer will go by. No HR staff member or hiring manager will take the time to familiarize themselves with the grading system at Berkeley, or wade through the details of your backstory.

There are some options to bypass this issue. One is to start your own business, such as private tutoring or computer troubleshooting/service/repair. Since you have no track record, you'll need to get your foot in the door with substantially lower rates. E.g., if the going rate for experienced private tutors in your area is $100+/hr, you charge $40/hr. If you do a good job, your reputation will grow, and you can up your rate.

A second is to get a break through a personal connection. It's been several years since you were at Berkely. But worth a shot to reach out to your previous professors for an opening as a lab assistant.


Taniwha said:
I've recently moved in the direction of "just get any job" but like I said I keep getting told I am overqualified for lower level positions or things outside of STEM.

I realize that job markets vary a lot with locality. I'm in suburban NJ. Many employers are still having a hard time filling low-level jobs. E.g., the director at my ice rink can't get enough people to work as front-desk receptionist/cashier. Every time a new skater or parent of a new skater drops in, she asks, "Are you looking for a job?" And the owner of the pizzeria I go to has cut hours because he can't get enough help. Neither of these people would turn you down because you graduated from Berkeley ... as long as you're willing to do the work.
 
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  • #8
Taniwha said:
Grade deflation is a known fact at Cal
I would not go there.

Are you arguing that you were graded unfairly? By a dozen or more different professors? If not, this argument will not fly. If so, the next question is "did you follow the university's appeals process?" and again, if the answer is no, the argument won't fly. Did you take the PGRE and demonstrate excellence? (90+ percentile)? If not, this argument won't fly.

Taniwha said:
Professors regularly tought way outside the scope of the class
So you got more than you paid for. Most people would say that's a good thing.

I would not charge up this particular hill. I see no universe in which you come out ahead.
 
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  • #9
There are a lot of things others said that are true/good advice, but it may help to hear from someone with some similar experience, if not quite as severe. It's 25+ years ago, so the details may not be relevant anymore, but the general guidance should be.

I got kicked out of the Naval Academy for failing out of aerospace engineering, but finished a mechanical engineering degree elsewhere. My GPA wasn't very good. I got my first engineering job in part because just being accepted into USNA showed I was smart/had potential. I didn't think that made sense, but who was I to argue? It was a small company and the pay was below average for the field. But that was all I needed to launch a well above average career for my field. There's more to it than that though:

My first "get a job, any job" was working as a temp while going to my fallback college. I also did an unwanted Navy enlisted stint to pay back my time at USNA. It's not hard to be a good worker and establish a reputation for it. Show up on time, wear a clean shirt, don't talk back to your boss, etc. Keep your head down and do your work. You'll know you're doing it right when you start getting awards and permanent job offers, which you can parlay into recommendations for a job you really want.

I don't think "you're overqualified" is a thing, it's probably just an excuse. One of my neighbors was in his 40s when he was laid off from an engineering job and he worked at Lowes for the next 20 years, rising into management. Such companies/jobs take all comers, especially in today's job market. You think McDonalds cares that you're not going to stick around more than a year when they know the 16 year old they just hired is graduating and leaving next year? I think it's more likely you are aiming too high than too low.

"I have gotten only a handful of interviews" tells me the opposite of what you think it does: your resume isn't holding you back. In the current job market, a handful of interviews should yield a job offer. I think it's likely your "get a job, any job" problem is more an issue of how you come across as a functional human than it is about your resume. Ask your therapist about this. A prospective employer needs to rapidly get a rapport with you. They need to figure out in a half hour if you're someone they want to spend 40 hours a week with for the foreseeable future. I know it's hard when your past is an anchor, but it's much more important that you come across positively as a person when you interview. Own your past, but don't dwell on it. Show you learned from it.

Also, you can try volunteering. Volunteer work is just a job that you don't get paid for, so they will take anyone. But you can put it on your resume and get references from it.
 
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  • #10
russ_watters said:
Also, you can try volunteering. Volunteer work is just a job that you don't get paid for, so they will take anyone. But you can put it on your resume and get references from it.
And I'll also add: Volunteering can be an effective means for personal networking. Staff who run the volunteer organizations, as well as fellow volunteers, can be a source of job leads. Personal referrals can bypass the resume logjam.
 
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  • #11
russ_watters said:
I got kicked out of the Naval Academy ... I know it's hard when your past is an anchor
I saw what you did there.
 
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  • #12
Vanadium 50 said:
Are you arguing that you were graded unfairly?
No, I never felt unfairly graded. I was trying to explain that I felt/feel like I did display technical ability. I was under the misconception that Cal gave out significantly lower grades, various professor and advisors told me this. The link @Frabjous posted above shows that is clearly not the case, and it isn't hard to find more data supporting that Cal does not deflate grades. I don't know why I never thought to actually check for myself.
Vanadium 50 said:
Did you take the PGRE and demonstrate excellence? (90+ percentile)?
No. Should I try to? I studied for the physics subject and I still think I could perform well. I was under the impression that a good GRE score was relatively unimportant on its own, so never proceeded.
Vanadium 50 said:
So you got more than you paid for. Most people would say that's a good thing.

I would not charge up this particular hill. I see no universe in which you come out ahead.
I will try to look at it that way. And yeah I don't want to charge up that hill, it is not why I'm here, and I don't want to die up there. :rolleyes:

CrysPhys said:
But if you simply submit your resume to a job post, that's one of the key metrics that the employer will go by. No HR staff member or hiring manager will take the time to familiarize themselves with the grading system at Berkeley, or wade through the details of your backstory.
I don't present my GPA on my resume because it is so low.
CrysPhys said:
A second is to get a break through a personal connection. It's been several years since you were at Berkely. But worth a shot to reach out to your previous professors for an opening as a lab assistant.
I will do this. I have avoided asking any of them for assistance or opportunities because I am intimidated and feel like they will think I am an incompetent moron.
CrysPhys said:
And I'll also add: Volunteering can be an effective means for personal networking. Staff who run the volunteer organizations, as well as fellow volunteers, can be a source of job leads. Personal referrals can bypass the resume logjam.
I will also look for volunteer opportunities. I haven't been sure how to best go about it, should I just cold contact organizations?

russ_watters said:
"I have gotten only a handful of interviews" tells me the opposite of what you think it does: your resume isn't holding you back. In the current job market, a handful of interviews should yield a job offer. I think it's likely your "get a job, any job" problem is more an issue of how you come across as a functional human than it is about your resume. Ask your therapist about this. A prospective employer needs to rapidly get a rapport with you. They need to figure out in a half hour if you're someone they want to spend 40 hours a week with for the foreseeable future. I know it's hard when your past is an anchor, but it's much more important that you come across positively as a person when you interview. Own your past, but don't dwell on it. Show you learned from it.
I know that I make people uncomfortable. I have difficulties with basic social interactions, like small talk, but find discussing complex issues or arguing with people to feel extremely natural. Generating rapid rapport like you mention has been a problem, and I will tend to avoid interacting if I don't have to. These things really hurt me in school and since then, so I try my best to work against my natural tendencies in this regard. I have worked on my social skills in therapy in the past but will try to focus more on it as I am sure you are right about me not seeming like a functional human. I don't really feel like one.

I appreciate all of the input so far and I am trying to figure out how I can best put it in practice.
 
  • #13
Taniwha said:
I have worked on my social skills in therapy in the past but will try to focus more on it as I am sure you are right about me not seeming like a functional human. I don't really feel like one.
Here's the thing about that: if you fake it well enough it will become true.
 
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  • #14
Let me say for the third time what you need to be doing:

 
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  • #15
Taniwha said:
I will also look for volunteer opportunities. I haven't been sure how to best go about it, should I just cold contact organizations?
Yes. Many organizations have websites with "How to Volunteer" information and contacts.
 
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  • #16
Taniwha said:
No. Should I try to? I studied for the physics subject and I still think I could perform well. I was under the impression that a good GRE score was relatively unimportant on its own, so never proceeded.

<<Emphasis added.>> But the PGRE score won't be considered in isolation. It will be one factor among many that feed into your overall evaluation. A stellar score on the PGRE could at least partially offset this other factor that, considered in isolation, is a weighty negative:

Taniwha said:
All of this being summed up with a 2.1 GPA feels like an oversimplification and misrepresentation of my technical ability.

So you need other factors to provide a better representation of your technical, and non-technical, abilities. If you don't provide other factors, what are you left with?
 
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  • #17
Vanadium 50 said:
Let me say for the third time what you need to be doing:


I think you underestimate how difficult people who suffer from mental health issues have in seeking employment. Have you personally ever been diagnosed with depression?

Perhaps neither of us are best equipped to provide the OP advice.
 
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  • #18
I don't think sharing my health history on the forum is something you should be asking me for.

"The perfect job" is a subset of the category "job". I take the OP at his/her word that these issues are behind them, but if not and they are stills severe enough to preclude them from taking a job, there is no point in trying to find the perfect job.
 
  • #19
The OP may want to consider enlisting in the military. With a degree in physics and assuming a high ASVAB test score, there are plenty of technical / engineering / physics roles that can be pursued. From Nukes in the Navy, to meteorology in the Air Force, space systems in the space force etc.

If the OP wanted to be an officer, there are actual physicists in the Air Force (I’m not sure if the GPA would exclude them though).

A tour as enlisted would provide a lot of the soft skills that make someone more generally employable as well (showing up on time, communicating with bosses, executing and managing work product etc). So, after 4 years, other employment prospects would be improved as well
 
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  • #20
Vanadium 50 said:
I don't think sharing my health history on the forum is something you should be asking me for.
My question to you in this thread was intended to be rhetorical. I did not expect you to share your health history, only to point out that you and I both may not be qualified to offer advice in areas which we personally have not had direct personal experience.
Vanadium 50 said:
"The perfect job" is a subset of the category "job". I take the OP at his/her word that these issues are behind them, but if not and they are stills severe enough to preclude them from taking a job, there is no point in trying to find the perfect job.
Exactly my point. But my reading of the OP's thread is different from yours. You are taking the OP at their word that their mental health issues are behind them, and thus are able to work. I'm not so sure about that.
 
  • #21
StatGuy2000 said:
I think you underestimate how difficult people who suffer from mental health issues have in seeking employment. Have you personally ever been diagnosed with depression?

Perhaps neither of us are best equipped to provide the OP advice.
I don't think any representation was made as to the difficulty of the endeavor. The advice is still sound. Getting there is a more difficult question and much help (perhaps medical/pharmacologic) may be required.
 
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  • #22
My first "Any Job" was sweeping the floor and making home deliveries from the local drug store. I lasted a few weeks --- but boy, what a learning experience!

I progressed from there and eventually ended up as an independent consultant/project engineer. Somewhat like you, I am not a 'people person', I'd much rather handle the technical stuff.

The volunteer idea that @russ_watters suggested could be a decent early endeavor, but perhaps after one or two paying jobs. At some point though you will have to actually do something.

Come to think of it, you are doing something by asking here for tips!

I also remember that after graduation I was rather lost, and resisting the doing -- so you are not alone on that aspect!

Hang in there @Taniwha, you got this!

Cheers,
Tom

p.s. You got our attention. Please keep us updated on your efforts, good, bad, or indifferent.
 

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