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Software engineer looking to study physics

  • Thread starter Dan Alpha
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I'm a 25 y.o. software engineer working in ML research. I've been fascinated with physics since at least highschool. I did not have a good time in university, and I gave up on doing a physics degree and did computer science to finish sooner (I would have dual majored). I am trying to decide if taking a multi-year break from my career to go back to school for physics is worth it to me, and how I can pull it off.

I have two questions for the community:

1) I am also trying to find programs that would be a good fit, given that I don't have a physics bachelors. What would people here recommend? For instance, the physical sciences masters at UChicago does not require one and allows students to take undergrad classes to catch up (https://mspsd.uchicago.edu/prospective-students/). I don't expect to be able to have a career in physics afterwards. If anything, I'll just go back to ML research, so I think a PhD is too much. Going back to school for just a bachelors feels like taking a step backwards, so I think a masters program would be ideal. Given the high cost of university in the USA, I am very interested to learn about good programs elsewhere (Canada and Europe).

2) For those of you with physics degrees, I am curious to hear if you are glad to have done it even if you don't use it. How important is knowing the "secrets of the universe" for its own sake to you? I feel that it is just an important life experience to have.
 
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  • #2
Vanadium 50
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Going back to school for just a bachelors feels like taking a step backwards, so I think a masters program would be ideal.
How do you intend to be prepared for a masters in physics without completing a bachelors in physics?
 
  • #3
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How do you intend to be prepared for a masters in physics without completing a bachelors in physics?
That's a good question. I did take a few physics courses in undergrad, and I stopped before taking quantum.

I see 3 options:
1) Teach myself, either while I work or full time. I could go through open courses, such as MIT opencourseware (https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/physics/) and edX. I'll take a look at what typical course requirements are for a physics BS at schools like MIT, and then select what courses I think would be necessary to go through. That would include quantum and statistical physics.
2) Attend a masters program that does not require a physics degree and allows for the opportunity to take undergrad courses in order to get up to speed (like the one at UChicago).
3) Just do a bachelors.
 
  • #4
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That's a good question. I did take a few physics courses in undergrad, and I stopped before taking quantum.

I see 3 options:
1) Teach myself, either while I work or full time. I could go through open courses, such as MIT opencourseware (https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/physics/) and edX. I'll take a look at what typical course requirements are for a physics BS at schools like MIT, and then select what courses I think would be necessary to go through. That would include quantum and statistical physics.
2) Attend a masters program that does not require a physics degree and allows for the opportunity to take undergrad courses in order to get up to speed (like the one at UChicago).
3) Just do a bachelors.
#1 is still assuming I would do a masters which doesn't require a physics degree. Difference between #1 and #2 is whether I take the physics GRE.
I could also do #1 and then decide I am satisfied and not actually go to school.
 
  • #5
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allows students to take undergrad classes to catch up
Up to three. Is that enough?
 
  • #6
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Before you embark on a time and financial consuming endeavor, first refresh you're knowledge of the physics you learned in school. If after 3 months, you enjoy it, then continue pursuing a degree.
 
  • #7
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> Up to three. Is that enough?
Is self-study enough? I don't know. I would be missing lab experience. Is that a problem?
Have you heard of anyone doing a bachelors after already graduating from another school?

> Before you embark on a time and financial consuming endeavor, first refresh you're knowledge of the physics you learned in school. If after 3 months, you enjoy it, then continue pursuing a degree.
Yes that is good advice. If I did the self-study option, I would most likely do it while working anyway.
 
  • #8
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I don't have a Physics degree but I think it's worth pointing out that physics doesn't really produce absolute truth, I think people studying it for self enlightenment are fundamentally misguided.
 
  • #9
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I don't have a Physics degree but I think it's worth pointing out that physics doesn't really produce absolute truth, I think people studying it for self enlightenment are fundamentally misguided.
Yes I don't think us mortals can ever obtain TRUTH with a capital T. Physics is just our best guess. But we've certainly discovered some startling things about the universe, and we know that reality at least behaves in these ways; e.g. time and space dilation, mass energy equivalence, wave particle duality. These are all unexpected and just crazy. Perhaps when I learned about some of this I had a feeling of enlightenment, and I recognize that seeking that feeling is like chasing a ghost. But what is wrong with pursuing something that inspires awe and wonder. Why are people driven to study physics, if not partly for that?

@Qurks what would be a sensible reason for studying physics?
 
  • #10
Choppy
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For what it's worth, the self-study route tends not to be the most reliable method if you're interested in pursing advanced education in a field. In most cases a program won't take your word for it that you know a topic. Official transcripts are the currency of academia.

And I'm not sure that I would really trust a program that would admit you to graduate studies without a sufficient background in the field. You don't need to have a bachelor's degree in the field specifically, but you need to have a bachelor's degree in which you've formally covered most of the essential material that you'll need as a foundation for the advanced coursework and research that you'll be doing as a part of the graduate degree. Examples for someone interested in doing a physics graduate degree would typically include bachelor's degrees in engineering physics or physical chemistry. If the program that you're looking at is willing to admit you with only having taken three undergraduate physics courses it would seem like they're either setting you up for failure, or they're not going to really teach you what you want to know.

Your best bet, if this is something that you really want to do, it to go back an get the physics degree.

With respect to your second question (is it worth it), there are people on either side of the fence. From a purely career-cost point of view, it can be a tough argument to make that the degree is worth it. When you end up leaving academia for a career where you're not using most of the material you've learned, that's a large opportunity cost. There are probably other more optimal paths you could spend your money and time on. But from a more academic-education point of view, most graduates tend to be satisfied with their decision to have studied physics. And even though they don't go on in physics, often what they've learned can help them in other areas.
 
  • #11
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Yes I don't think us mortals can ever obtain TRUTH with a capital T. Physics is just our best guess. But we've certainly discovered some startling things about the universe, and we know that reality at least behaves in these ways; e.g. time and space dilation, mass energy equivalence, wave particle duality. These are all unexpected and just crazy. Perhaps when I learned about some of this I had a feeling of enlightenment, and I recognize that seeking that feeling is like chasing a ghost. But what is wrong with pursuing something that inspires awe and wonder. Why are people driven to study physics, if not partly for that?

@Qurks what would be a sensible reason for studying physics?
If you like it sure but it's not religion or philosophy which are probably a better use of your time if want to go down this road. Anyway I doubt you need a degree in physics if you really want to do it, I have a different degree in my MS than BS and it took about two terms to catch up. As people pointed out though, it's not a good use of economic resources.

Why study physics? Personal curiosity I assume, I don't really know why other than that if you're not going to try to apply anything to industry.
 
  • #12
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> Up to three. Is that enough?
Is self-study enough? I don't know. I would be missing lab experience. Is that a problem?
Have you heard of anyone doing a bachelors after already graduating from another school?

> Before you embark on a time and financial consuming endeavor, first refresh you're knowledge of the physics you learned in school. If after 3 months, you enjoy it, then continue pursuing a degree.
Yes that is good advice. If I did the self-study option, I would most likely do it while working anyway.
The self studying is too see if you really want to pursue further studies in physics in a academic setting. Which will require a large time commitment, financial cost, and may hamper progression in you're current career.

Oftentimes, people say they want to do X, then after trying X for a while, they find a new Y thing they want to do...

You are a college graduate. Not sure how this is difficult to understand...

I do know of people who got a bachelors and later went to school for something else. I remember a girl who got a BA in music, and worked in the music industry. She went back to a CC, and is now attending graduate school for physics.
 
  • #13
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The self studying is too see if you really want to pursue further studies in physics in a academic setting. Which will require a large time commitment, financial cost, and may hamper progression in you're current career.

Oftentimes, people say they want to do X, then after trying X for a while, they find a new Y thing they want to do...

You are a college graduate. Not sure how this is difficult to understand...

I do know of people who got a bachelors and later went to school for something else. I remember a girl who got a BA in music, and worked in the music industry. She went back to a CC, and is now attending graduate school for physics.
Just to clarify, are you saying that physics is X, or my current career path is X?
"I did ML, but I've decided to do physics instead" vs "I want to try physics for a while, but then I will do something else instead"
If you are suggesting that I consider doing physics as a career (if I go back to school for it), I am open to that but I just don't know if I really want to. First there is the question of whether I can even get a position as a researcher in physics after graduating (I know at least that I want to work on research of some sort). I think studying physics and working on a masters thesis is probably the best way to know whether it is for me. I think I should figure out if this is something I want to do, rather than just giving up on it.

As a college grad I certainly do understand the importance of persistence. I have been persistent in my desire to study physics since I graduated. I've been waiting for the right time to do it. But the longer I wait, the more entrenched in my current career path I become, and the more irrational this decision starts to seem.
 
  • #14
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Thank you all for your perspectives on the matter. I think this summarizes what is being said here:

* @Choppy: If I want to do graduate studies in physics, I should finish the undergrad degree.
* Whereas @Qurks says I can probably do the physics MS without the BS.
* @Choppy: Going back to school and then not using the degree is a large opportunity cost with no obvious benefits career wise. But if I do like the subject matter and I decide to do it, I won't regret it, and what I learn may help in my career afterwards in subtle ways.
* @Qurks: If I am interested in wonder and enlightenment, why not study religion or philosophy?
* @Qurks: Personal curiosity is the obvious reason to study physics.
* @MidgetDwarf: Self studying is a litmus test to be sure I am ready to spend the time time and money on a degree which in the end may hamper progression in my current career.

If I go back to school at all, I will definitely try to go right into a masters program, to avoid further time and money costs.
@MidgetDwarf has a good point. If I study physics, I should think about doing physics as a career. Then this is not simply an opportunity cost for my current career. I agree that I should do some self-study first before making a final decision on this.
I agree with @Qurks that curiosity is the best reason to study physics. I do have a lot of burning questions about modern physics. I am just going to say that studying religion is not for me. I might enjoy philosophy, but my desire to do that is far less than physics.
 
  • #15
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It appears that you want to study physics as a hobby, not as a vocation. While I'm not sure why you'd want to put yourself into a graduate program to do this rather than doing it on your own, let's go along with your desire here.

The problem with jumping directly into a Masters program is not just your lack of knowledge in physics, but also your probable deficiency in the mathematics. The latter will be fatal. Granted that I may not know how much mathematics a software engineer needs to have, but I'm guessing that it is nowhere near the breadth of mathematics that is contained in Mary Boas's "Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences". And let's not forget that in many schools here in the US, Masters candidates in physics also have to sit for a qualifying exam.

Why can't you simply enroll as a non-degree seeking student, and take the undergraduate physics classes that you never had? Depending on the school, you might be able to do this on a pass-fail basis. That way, you're not "trapped" into taking entire sequence of courses, you get to learn the same thing that other students are learning, and you won't be saddled with the need to get good grades. Who knows, maybe after a course or two, you'll get disillusioned enough to want to drop the whole thing.

Zz.
 
  • #16
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It appears that you want to study physics as a hobby, not as a vocation. While I'm not sure why you'd want to put yourself into a graduate program to do this rather than doing it on your own, let's go along with your desire here.

The problem with jumping directly into a Masters program is not just your lack of knowledge in physics, but also your probable deficiency in the mathematics. The latter will be fatal. Granted that I may not know how much mathematics a software engineer needs to have, but I'm guessing that it is nowhere near the breadth of mathematics that is contained in Mary Boas's "Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences". And let's not forget that in many schools here in the US, Masters candidates in physics also have to sit for a qualifying exam.

Why can't you simply enroll as a non-degree seeking student, and take the undergraduate physics classes that you never had? Depending on the school, you might be able to do this on a pass-fail basis. That way, you're not "trapped" into taking entire sequence of courses, you get to learn the same thing that other students are learning, and you won't be saddled with the need to get good grades. Who knows, maybe after a course or two, you'll get disillusioned enough to want to drop the whole thing.

Zz.
Thanks for your input, Zz.

I am not thinking of it as a hobby. Rather, I believe studying physics would give me a solid foundation as a researcher. And I really do just have a lot of questions about modern physics that I am really curious about (@Qurks is right about that being one of the best reasons to study physics). I know plenty of people who have physics bachelors or grad degrees who don't work in physics (they are software engineers like me). Nobody has ever said to me they regret having studied it. Would you say that their degrees were also just for a hobby? I don't see why the time ordering of when I get the degree would change the answer.

> your probable deficiency in the mathematics
Ouch.
I think I have a good understanding of what math is involved in an undergrad physics degree. I took a look at this book outline: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_Methods_in_the_Physical_Sciences. Yes my knowledge about a few of the topics is only surface level, like calculus of variations, tensor analysis, and partial diffeq. I would certainly like to know more, and I am capable of doing so. I know that physics undergrads are not usually taking entire courses on these subjects either, so they too only get a surface level introduction. I took Lagrangian mechanics. I am familiar with the principle of least action. We didn't learn how to use calculus of variations to derive Lagrange's equations. That was well out of the scope of the course. We just used it. I don't think calculus of variations is typically even offered as an undergrad course.

Anyway, I have all the undergrad math requirements for a physics major, up to and including differential equations. At least this is what MIT requires: http://web.mit.edu/physics/current/undergrad/major.html

> Why can't you simply enroll as a non-degree seeking student, and take the undergraduate physics classes that you never had?
Yea that is a sensible idea. My main concern is that it will take a long time to do this while I work. I would rather just get this all out of the way quickly.
 
  • #17
ZapperZ
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Thanks for your input, Zz.

I am not thinking of it as a hobby. Rather, I believe studying physics would give me a solid foundation as a researcher.
But you are not planning on doing research in physics. You intend to continue your occupation as a software engineer! So why can't you go to graduate school in software engineering, where there is a lot of research work being done? The route to getting a solid foundation as a researcher is not the exclusive domain of physics.

Zz.
 
  • #18
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But you are not planning on doing research in physics. You intend to continue your occupation as a software engineer! So why can't you go to graduate school in software engineering, where there is a lot of research work being done? The route to getting a solid foundation as a researcher is not the exclusive domain of physics.

Zz.
Yea that would be the reasonable thing to do :P
I am not very satisfied with my current occupation. I am curious to see if I would want to do research in physics once I started studying it. What deterred me from thinking about physics as a career in the past is that it is so difficult to get a position. That is still true, so I am hedging.

Maybe my biggest reason for wanting to do this is that I feel I rushed into my current career path. I don't want to give up on physics without even trying. If I didn't have this conflicting desire, I would definitely do a PhD in ML. But I don't want to go down that route without being fully committed to it. I can't continue with this doubt about what could have been.
 
  • #19
ZapperZ
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Yea that would be the reasonable thing to do :P
I am not very satisfied with my current occupation. I am curious to see if I would want to do research in physics once I started studying it. What deterred me from thinking about physics as a career in the past is that it is so difficult to get a position. That is still true, so I am hedging.

Maybe my biggest reason for wanting to do this is that I feel I rushed into my current career path. I don't want to give up on physics without even trying. If I didn't have this conflicting desire, I would definitely do a PhD in ML. But I don't want to go down that route without being fully committed to it. I can't continue with this doubt about what could have been.
OK, this is now different than the tone of your first post. Now, you are seriously exploring physics as a possible career, not just something on the side that you take just for fun or out of curiosity. I wish you have said this clearer in the beginning and not let us run around the bushes several times before getting to the heart of the matter.

If that is the case, then I will start with pointing out to you a zeroth-order self-evaluation that you can do for yourself to see how prepared you will be for a graduate program in physics:

https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/can-i-get-a-ph-d-in-physics-if-my-bachelors-degree-isnt-in-physics.64966/

Next, based on that evaluation, you need to decide if you think you are prepared enough to apply for a PhD program (with the understanding that you will need to take remedial classes), or if you still want to try only for a Masters program to see if this is what you want to do. Not knowing your undergraduate performance, I do not know how competitive of a university that you might have a chance to get in, but you may want to contact a few and see if someone with your background might have a strong chance.

Again, there are a large enough number of physics graduate program, even those offering terminal Masters, that you can get accepted to one (unless you have horrendous undergraduate grades). The question is if you will survive program.

Zz.
 

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