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Physics Should I leave physics?

  1. Aug 26, 2010 #1
    I've always been interested in how does our universe work. I love lectures about our world and new technologies. However when you do your PhD about birds you observe birds. When you do PhD in physics (correct me if I am wrong) you do programming, engineering or maths stuff. Physics or "world" is only about 5% of your work. The rest is: code debugging, making lab equipment work or solving maths problems. I can't see "physics" in many research papers or in PhD studies (finishing my BSc and looking at PhD topics). I wanted to go for PhD in theoretical physics since maths seems to be the best for me. However I don't find solving maths problem very fascinating. Neither programming or working in lab. I feel like modern physics isn't very intuitive but uses more advanced equipment/computional techniques instead. Is my image of physicist work wrong? Should I go for PhD or if I don't want to do programming/engineering/maths for the rest of my life should I leave it?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 26, 2010 #2
    It depends on how much you really want to learn something about the universe.

    You learn about how the universe works by doing a lot of programming, engineering, and maths. You do not really learn anything new about how the universe works by listening to lectures.

    A lot of science just involves grunt work. Personally, I like programming computers, because you are doing something new and real, and you are finding out something that no one else has ever found out. In the classroom, you are just listening to stories. Boring in a way.

    Medieval physics is also like that. It took Kepler decades to figure out the the planets moved in ellipses, and most of what he was doing was arithmetic by hand. There's a lot of intuitive parts of physics, but you build intuition by doing lots of thinking and calculations and experiments. If you just think about how something should work off the top of your head, you are likely to be very wrong, because that intuition is based on nothing.

    Do you ***really*** want to discover something new about the universe? Is discovering something new and different about how the universe works important enough to you that you are willing to go through quite a bit of pain and agony to find out something new?

    For most people (90%) the answer happens to be no, once they find out what the process of discovery involves.
  4. Aug 27, 2010 #3
    You like programming and still it was agony? So what about someone who simply hates programming? I thought that science is hard because you need to work very hard in order to get small results. I just found out that (not looking at research topics) I would prefer to do research in humanities or psychology because tools and grunt work used there is much more fun. I thought that math in theoretical physics is used as tool - like in textbooks problems. However it's much more important in research. And there is one more think - job prospects. If I didn't find job in academia I would leave science because science jobs in industry aren't fun. I could work in finance but not as programmer.If I don't like physics research tools can I withstand "science pain"?
  5. Aug 27, 2010 #4
    If you need to ask the question, then you do not belong in physics.
  6. Aug 27, 2010 #5
    Oh come on, everyone has doubts sometimes, and it's not like studying Physics gets you in an elite club where you only get the amenities if your love for it or the careers it enables one to get into is never ever questioned.

    Psst... does it?
  7. Aug 27, 2010 #6
    Everyone is entitled to doubt and question their ability to be successful, but no physicist worth his salt should ever question his love of the field and the joy found in the processes of discovery, no matter how mundane the tasks and tools of the trade might seem when viewed in isolation.

    I wonder if you would respond the same if he were asking if he should be a professional athelete because he loves to watch competitions, but doesn't want to train and practice, risk getting hurt, or even follow the rules of the game.

    What if an archeologist questions his choice of field because he doesn't like to dig? Well, who likes to dig? But digging with the possibiltiy of discovering a fossil of an unknown extinct species? - Now that's a horse of a different color.

    Also, consider my exact phrasing. Asking a question and "needing" to ask a question are two different things. One might throw a question out to a forum because it's an easy thing to do, and can't hurt. Only the OP can answer to himself how critical the answers he gets are to his final choice. If he is smart, he will discount anything he reads here, - my comments included.
  8. Aug 28, 2010 #7
    Well for what it's worth, I'm in year four doing a PhD in particle astrophysics. In all that time, I don't think I've gotten to do even one single "physics problem" as part of my research. I probably get to think about physics once every two or three months. I probably do hardware related tasks once a month or so. The rest of my time is spent computer programming. Some people like this (but personally I hate working with computers, especially programming).

    It doesn't have to be like that though. I have a friend who worked for a theoretical nuclear physicist. He spent all of his time doing pencil and paper quantum field theory calculations (I think this is awesome, but if you don't want to do math then stay away from theory). I have several friends who do condensed matter, who spend all of their time in the lab using an apparatus to observer physical phenomena and collect data. The only computer work they need to do is use Microsoft Excel or Mathematica to plot their data, and once in awhile maybe Labview to set up an experiment. So I guess you can do a physics PhD and spend your time doing what many of us would call "doing physics." Personally I'd suggest sticking to experimental condensed matter or biophysics though. High energy or astro usually means spending all of your time on a computer.
  9. Aug 28, 2010 #8
    What can I say, I'm an intellectual masochist.

    You do have these wonderful moments when after pounding your head against the head for several months, you finally get something to work, but you do have to sweat a lot to get to those moments.

    Science is hard because there is a ton of grunt work that you have to do to get anything. Also the first three or four times you come up with an idea, it probably won't work. Also, I do think that you really need to talk to someone in the humanities before thinking that they have it easier.

    Knowledge is hard work. That's what makes it interesting to me.

    The science jobs in industry really aren't that different from what you end up doing in academia.
  10. Aug 28, 2010 #9
    Sure, but if you aren't willing to do the grunt work, then you'll get washed out.

    If you go into physics, you are going to have to put up with a lot of sweat and grunt work. Knowledge never comes easy, and if you aren't willing to put up with the grunt work, then you just aren't going to survive.

    But ultimately the question that you have to ask yourself before going into physics is are you the type of person that wants to climb mountains and run marathons, or are you would you rather be a coach potato and be satisfied watching other people do it on television. Most people if they are quite honest would prefer the latter situation, which is why there are relatively few physicists in the world.
  11. Aug 28, 2010 #10
    I realized sth. While reading books and lectures is interesting, doing research is boring or rather it's not as fun as I thought. And if industry jobs are similar then I would be bored to death. Besides physics I love graphic and game design. I have so much fun (various indie projects) and I prefer making games over playing it. I don't mind grunt work either because creating stories, writing and drawing is fun. Much more fun than doing programming/engineering/maths. I don't think that humanities are easier but I guess that tools are more interesting. Creating is as fun as answering questions so I will go for it full time ( I wanted to do this part-time) and start MSc in computer graphic and animation (game industry-oriented program) and BA in graphic design (I wanted to do this while doing my PhD). The good thing is I still can do PhD in physics afterwards so I keep doors opened.

    Could tell me sth about game industry? I have some information but I would like to know more about job prospects and other things.
  12. Aug 28, 2010 #11
    I worked in a game company until recently, so what would you like to know?

    BTW that was not in the US so the "job prospect" isn't quite relevant...
  13. Aug 29, 2010 #12
    Thank you! :) I've send PM to you.
  14. Aug 31, 2010 #13
    just out of interest twofish. In what do you have a degree in and what do you do for a living? :)
  15. Aug 31, 2010 #14


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    Yes, you should leave physics.

  16. Sep 2, 2010 #15
    End of thread.

    Seriously though, if something else interests you more... why not pursue that? It seems like physics is just the sort of thing that you do because you love it. I can't even stand the thought of engineering because even though it's so close to physics, it just... isn't. Getting a ph.d is a really hard thing to do. A lot of people don't even finish, so if you're gonna feel doubtful from the start, you'd be in bad shape already.
  17. Sep 2, 2010 #16
    Thank you for all replies. I will leave physics after BSc but I do not regret studying it. It was fun. But it's fun for me when you read about it not when I do it. Doing engineering/programming/math whole day is not for me. I just don't like it even if it's physics. Passion is not enough. You need to like this kind of stuff (lab work and other) otherwise it's not for you.
  18. Sep 3, 2010 #17
    I enjoyed my time in physics very much. If one were to look back far enough on this forum they would find I was excited about my job, enjoyed my studies and felt the career was a good choice. Then, for reasons that were only partially logical (switching to insurance right after Lehman failed was dumb), I changed careers.

    Now I look back on my time in the sciences and I’m appalled. How could I let myself be treated that way? Why did I spend so much time getting such low compensation (pay & benefits)? Why didn’t I look more carefully into “statistics” I was given about the profession (most of it is nonsense)? I like my current job at an insurance company a lot, except for when I think back on jobs I had before it. Then I love my job – until I get caught up in the present, and forget again.

    I’m a sample n=1 in a distribution with high variance. There are happy people in physics. However, know that there is at least one (and if you look on this forum you’ll find more) person who is happier outside of physics than in it. I find that through extracurricular study and hobbies I can get 70%-90% of the enjoyment I had out of physics, while enjoying the rest of my life more. It can work out well.

    But it can also not work out well. You need a plan for when you graduate. Have you been told employers think highly of a physics degree? It’s true. But they also have no idea what to do with you and what you are capable of, and most of the stock answers (“critical thinking”, “problem solving”) mean little to them. They’ll think highly of you even as they give the job to someone else. You need skills, and fast. Beware the obvious answers (nursing, medical physics, etc.) because everyone else might be doing that, too. Be smart, work hard and hope for the best.

    I wish you luck.
  19. Sep 4, 2010 #18
    Ridiculous. I asked myself that question many times when thinking about going to grad school. Now that I'm here, I know I made the right choice.

    I wasn't sure that I loved physics enough or was smart enough. Come to find out, most grad students are *not* super geniuses, but regular people. Also, spending 90 hours a week in lab isn't required, either.

    Rika, the tedious parts of physics are what separates it from philosophy. When someone asks a question in physics, the answer can usually be found either by measurement or calculation. To actually measure or calculate something, though, takes a lot of grunt work.

    However, there are also subfields which have more data analysis than others. This is where you try and figure out what is happening. You get one metric crap-ton of numbers and have to make sense of them. Still kind of tedious, though.
  20. Sep 4, 2010 #19


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    If you enjoy the process of getting a PhD, but then can't get a job that uses your PhD, at least you had a good time and maybe got some personal fulfillment out of it. If you don't think you'll enjoy the process of getting a PhD, then IMO starting a PhD program would be foolish.
  21. Sep 4, 2010 #20
    Which question are you referring to: love of the field, or whether you were smart enough? My comment was about the first question and not about the second one. I'm glad that you are now sure that you love physics and have made the right choice. Love of what you do is the single most important thing related to whether you belong in a particular field, and that is especially true in a field like physics.

    My comment is not ridiculous, but of course there are exceptions to any point of view or opinion. I accept your point that a person might not be sure they love a particular field and then might later become sure they do love it. But, there is nothing wrong with making a point in a strong way to see how resilient the OP is. If he is meant for the field then he would reject my comment as you do, but as you see, he knows the field is not for him, which was very obvious to me from his comments.

    I suspect that if I had spoken to you before you were sure of your path, I would likely have come to the conclusion that you do belong in physics. It's usually pretty obvious.
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