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Second-career physicists?

  1. Jul 18, 2005 #1
    I'm just curious if anyone here who has studied, or is now studying physics, has come from a non math/science background.

    "Why" you ask? Well (for anyone who might care to offer some advice/perspective/etc.) I have an education (B.S. and M.A.) in International Affairs and I currently work in the field. I've been very successful at it, but, I'm really just not "into" it anymore. Why that is, is a long story which I will not bore you with.

    Anywho, over the last several years, I have become incredibly interested in physics and cannot part with the fantasy of going back to school for physics. The end-goal would be a PhD (assuming I were able). The bigest problem with this is, my current educational background is not in anyway related to math or science and I would have to start all over in an undergrad program. This, it seems, would be masochistic in the least, and insane at the worst.

    What do you all think about such a drastic move? Is this "do-able" or is 27 too old to even entertain such grandiose and lofty aspirations? On the one hand, I like to think that if sufficiently motivated, I can do it, on the other hand, it seems like maybe this is just a childish fantasy I ought to ignore.

    Any advice would be most appreciated! FYI (if it matters): I am married and have no kids (don't plan to either). Thanks to any and all that reply.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 18, 2005 #2
    Do you have the option of going back to IA if you decide to bail out?

    Keep in mind that the daily grind of doing physics is often not nearly as fun as reading pop physics books. It can be and is quite tedious at times. So - be careful not to over-romanticize it.

    I don't know what your math and physics bg is (do you know trig? calc?) but I would try to maybe try to take some night classes first in math and physics before committing.
  4. Jul 18, 2005 #3
    I don't know what part of the world you're in, but in the UK lots of unversities do Access Courses, whereby you do a preliminary year, basically covering A-Level Maths / Physics syllabusses in a year. This makes an undergrad course 4 years, then assuming after that you still want to do a PhD, another 3+ years on top, you'll be 34 :) You won't be alone - there were two mature students on my undergrad Physics course, both in their mid-30s. One came from sales, the other from welding, of all things.
  5. Jul 18, 2005 #4


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    A similar question was asked a while back. Check this thread:


    As far as determining whether this is just a childish fantasy (to use your words), I would echo what juvenal said about not romanticizing physics based on the stories in pop science books. The main difference between a popular physics book and a "real" physics book is math, and lots of it. One quick reality check you could do on yourself is to take a calculus textbook out of the library, and try to work through it on your own. If you find that you are able to understand some of it, and do some of the exercises, you should be OK. If, on the other hand, you find that you are pulling your hair out, and thinking, why am I subjecting myself to this torture, then you might want to reconsider the whole idea.
  6. Jul 18, 2005 #5
    I would say another big difference is that those pop books aren't peer editted, and typically represent the smallest cross-section of physicists. I would venture to guess that at least the majority of physicists are in some way involved in condensed matter/solid state physics. Research the market and see what interests you before committing to this.

    I do know a few people that went back to school to start physics, but I can't speak for their experience.
  7. Jul 20, 2005 #6
    It's do-able if you want it bad enough and if you have the technical ability
    to slug through the mathematics. You are still fairly young.

    Look around. There's a whole world of stuff besides physics to be interested
    in. Like Medical School or acting. Or business. Why not operate your own
    pizza shop? There's lots more money in that than Physics. If you have or
    will have a family then that's a serious consideration (income that is).

    P.S. You can go into physics. But if you are not a physicist inside then
    you will hate it as well. I am an engineer. That I have a couple of degrees
    in engineering is the result of that fact, not the other way around. The
    degrees only acredited me professionally and sharpened my skills. They didn't
    make me more of an engineer (personality, goals, motivations) than I
    already was.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2005
  8. Jul 20, 2005 #7
    It's a problem of being aware of what Physics are.

    In my opinion there are some points you should take:

    1) LOVE for Mathematics, as the sole way for Physics to "speak".
    2) LOVE and complete UNDERSTANDING of the notion of Uncertainty
    3) "" "" "" "" Quantifying
    4) Understanding that Physics generate laws without knowing what will be their field of application (Maths do the contrary)
    5) Awareness of the tragic contrast between expectations and observations, I mean do not pretend to be "pure" when you do an experiment, we always try to put things into a well-known pattern (Galileo docet)
  9. Jul 30, 2005 #8
    I was intrigued by your post.
    Let me tell you briefly my story.

    I have a BA in political science. I also decided that I was greatly interested in science, but only a year after I had graduated. Now I am 25 and have been pursuing this dream for a year as a second BA thing. In that year, I have covered enough ground so that I am taking junior level physics and chemistry classes. I guess that taking many classes at the same time may well have been insane but my GPA is sky high and I am enjoying. I feel like this is what I was made to do. I should, however, say that I am very good at math and had already taken calc in college. However, I had taken math some years ago and had to re-familiarize myself.

    Even so, don't let people mislead you by saying that math is the greatest requisite for success in physics. It isn't. Math is a language, true, but you have to have ideas and thoughts in your mind before you use language to express them, right? Same with physics. It is based on elegant and beautiful ideas, or arguments if you will. If you understand these and work hard at the math, you should be fine.
  10. Jul 30, 2005 #9
    I must disagree:

    Maths can be explained in a simpler way, since their language comes from basic human logics.

    Physics do not follow our way of thinking, as a result, we must follow theirs, i. e. Maths.
    Moreover, as Galileo first understood, languages are not equivalent, cannot be used to express the same things.
  11. Aug 1, 2005 #10
    Thank you all for your insight. I think the most rational and prudent course of action would be (as suggested by Juvenal) to take a few math courses at a local JC and see how I do with the math. I was never excellent at math, but I wasn't bad at it either. I just never took anything beyond College Algebra because it didn't apply to my academic pursuits at the time. I suppose I will start with College Algebra again for a refresher and then jump into pre-calc and trig and see where it goes from there.

    My only question then is, at what point will I know I have the mathematical aptitude to go back full time? Obviously if I can't get through Calc 1 then I should scrub the idea, but if I get through say, Calc 3 and do well, is that a good indicator?
  12. Aug 1, 2005 #11
    Bah, if you begin with the idea of trying to see if you prove good enough, be sure you won't do it.

    You do it, full stop.

    Anyway, Calc 1 is much more reliable than calc 3 (I know some persons who managed to pass calc 3 without knowing anything of Calc 1-2, I cannot still figure how...)
  13. Aug 1, 2005 #12


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    Another suggestion : look at a GRE Physics exam (take one if you can) and see if anything in it looks within your reach. When I took the exam, most of it was at the level of a well-prepared high school student. If you don't think you can do about 25% of the problems (the "Zz threshold"), you might want to rethink your plans - maybe put in a little extra work, and try again.

    I take it the reason you are asking us is that you have doubts and want to find out if this is "smart".
    Last edited: Aug 1, 2005
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