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Stable Lame Career Vs. The Unknown

  1. Nov 18, 2008 #1
    So I'm an older guy, not horribly old but old enough that I should know "what I want to be when I grow up". I have a B.S. in Computer Science and work in the Consulting industry as an Environmental Consultant. My current job is decent, most people wouldn't complain. I get to travel on the company dime, I make decent money for only having a B.S. (in a totally unrelated field), I work in pretty low stress environments, it's decent. But I can't say that I am overly happy nor do I feel that I am challenged in any way. I feel as though my "abilities" are not being used to their full possibilities.

    About two years ago I starting debating the idea of returning back to school and working my way from the bottom up with a goal of grabbing a Ph.D. in physics, (B.S. ---> Ph.D). I've spent some very long and sleepless nights over the past two years contemplating the possible outcomes of the decisions I could set into motion. I've consulted family (who for the most part are against my ideas), I've consulted friends (whom are mostly indifferent to these ideas), I've even consulted the random Physics majors that I've run into in my travels across the U.S. (whom are always very enthusiastically supportive).

    Where do I want to go, what do I want to do, what do I hope to achieve in this? Happiness. How can I know that there will be happiness? I won't, as I am sure most of you in University or in career fields will tell me. I believe that there is a lot to still learn, do, see, etc within the realm of Astrophysics, or all Physics for that matter. For me, reading journals, research papers, books, etc on previous findings or current research never gets old. I sit back and say "wow, that's pretty awesome!" So, I enjoy it.

    With that said, I have a little under two months to make a quick decision or I feel that I will not make a decision at all. I'm going to allow YOU, random folks here at the Physics forums to make the decision for me. So we have:

    1) (Shot for the Stars, work on that Ph.D) Taking a chance with something that humbles me and makes me "feel" great passion and emotions

    2) (Be a mindless corporate drone, get that MBA!) Continuing on what feels like a lame existence in which I do not feel as though I am contributing to society other than by working and paying taxes.

    Some things to take into consideration that may or may not matter:

    1) I'm 29
    2) I live on my own
    3) I have relatively no debt, other than a car loan which is only at about $10k at this time
    4) I plan on grabbing a second B.S. (Physics) BEFORE moving on to Graduate work because I have been out of University for some time and wish to "get back into the swing of things"
    5) Local State University, while not known for Physics it does have a small department where the Physics majors normally get into top tiered graduate schools
    6) Feel free to ask me any question of relevance
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 18, 2008 #2
    You only live once. I say to go for it.
  4. Nov 18, 2008 #3
    What exactly do you plan on doing with a Ph.D. in physics? What field are you interested in?

    I'll tell you why I ask... because there is a difference between crazy and insane. If you have some reasonable idea about what sort of work you want to do, I'd encourage you to go for it. You know you'll take a paycut and are fine with it, so if you have a clear and workable plan, definitely do it.

    On the other hand, if you want to work on string theory and quantum mechanics... I think I'd tell you to go get your MBA.

    (I have a CS background and am currently finishing up an MS in physics for similar reasons. I'm just crazy. :smile:)
  5. Nov 18, 2008 #4


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    Another idea would be to continue with your present job, and learn physics on your own.
  6. Nov 18, 2008 #5


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    Why not apply for jobs that are relevant to your B.S. in Computer Science, and then go back to school later on the company's dime (assuming you can get a job in a CS field.)
  7. Nov 18, 2008 #6


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    I don't think it's advisable to have your route to the PhD planned out before you even have a Bachelor's degree in physics. Presumably you've done some physics before, but unless you've done some high level physics, you won't know whether you'll survive in a PhD programme (and even then, there's not guarantee!)

    One thing to toss into the proverbial mixer is to think about what will happen if you just get your BSc in physics and then decide grad school isn't for you: will this experience have benefited you?

    Other than that, if you've got the cash, I'd say go for it.
  8. Nov 18, 2008 #7
    Thank you to those who have replied, I will answer your questions below:

    I plan on learning ;) There are so many different specializations to choose from, I figured I would wait until just before grad school (which would come fast, most likely within a year if I can fit all the needed classes together) before deciding. If I had to decide now I would go for something in the realm of astro.

    I believe that I would be incredibly bored in the corporate business world.

    This was an idea that I through around, but I do not believe that I could devote enough time to such a thing and be happy.

    Locally, many companies in my area are not willing to shell out money for education unless it directly results in the ability to market the employee to the advantage of the company. My present company is no exception. As far as switching to a career to mirror my degree, I'm really not interested in doing that.

    I agree, and I don't have a route planned. Just the stepping stone, which is the B.S. And no, I've done no higher level physics.

    Will this experience have benefited me? I can tell you right now, with without a doubt, that it will in fact benefit me.

    The cash at this point is not even anything to worry about. I believe over all it will cost me around $10k in order to achieve the degree in the out of pocket worst cast scenario.
  9. Nov 18, 2008 #8
    I'm 37 and I am in a similar situation as you and have had the same thoughts as you - 12 years in IT, challenge no longer there, looking at a couple of more decades of the same work....

    Now I'm due to start my MSc in 2009 - preparation has been done, bank account ready, mathematics revised. So I say go for it!

    PS. When you say your family does not agree, I assume it is your parents? If you said to your parents that you would like to get married and have 10 children and work as hard as you can as a corporate drone to pay off a big mortgage, I assume they would say 'super!'. My point is that older family members do not necessarily have your long term happiness in mind when giving advice, are often risk adverse, are stuck in the 70s mindset etc.

    Another thing... as you get close to actually starting your new plan and the people around you start to see that you are 'serious' their true attitudes will start to appear. Many will be negative (but with the occasional surprising positive comments like I received from my father). Don't get discouraged. For you I recommend (apart from the obvious background study required)...

    1. Reading 'The Giant Within' by Anthony Robbins
    2. Reading 'Genius' (Feynman biography)
    3. Joining your local astronomical society, attending observing sessions with telescopes so that you can really see the beauty of the universe firsthand.

    and most importantly and obviously...
    4. Do your very best. Aim to ace each exam. You want a 1st class transcript when you start applying to grad school.
  10. Nov 18, 2008 #9
    Yes, I am single with no children. And yes, it is my parents and extended family. The family's point of view is that the economy is bad, I have job security where I am and thus I shouldn't leave my job to pursue "a calling". I disagree, I believe that now is a perfect time for a person to go to University.

    I will make it a point to read those books that you have recommended.
  11. Nov 18, 2008 #10
    i would have to agree with your parents + extended family on this one...

    i think you should stick w/ reading those physics magazines u enjoy, cuz when u get to upper division physics, it can get REALLY boring. It's mostly long tedioous math problems. IN QM, for example, you'll spend soo much time listenign to mathematical derivations, which will make u say, "WTF is the point of learning all this. Just give me the damn result so i can do the hw due on friday at 5 pm" You won't learn much concepts at all. It's just all mathematics. You won't learn how physics is useful either. You'll be limited to basic scenarios that will be itneresting for about 5 minutes. Even other students in my class feel the same way. You're gonna go through a lot of stress getting hw problems in on time, but the problem is, they're not interesting. Lots of stress to do boring stuff...sounds fun? And how hard arwe these problems?? You'll spend all your time at your TA's Office hours doing hw. You won't have time for anyhtign else. Cuz these problems are looong, boring, and hard. Many time you'll end up proving some useless mathematical relatisonhip. Basically, evereyone ends up going to cramster.com, registerign for an acc, and copying the solutions down each week.

    Plus, job opps aren't good for physics degree holders anyways. Low pay too. One of my friends who wnated to be an experimentalist jsut decided he wasnt goign to go PhD after all because he didn't think the courses so far have been interesting. It's been jsut plain boring math. And the second reason is the poor pay. I agree with him. Hard & boring work for little pay....

    All of this is probably not goign to convince you anyways. I know because i was in the same shoes as you, contemplating a change in career ( even though i mstill in undergad and havent gotten a real career liek you yet). I too spent some sleepless nights wanting to do physics, eager to, but i guarantee you, you won't learn anythign useful in physics. It's all math and really simple examples that doesn't seem worht learning.

    as for being in astrophysics research. Do you think you'll like programmign computers? Cuz thats what you will be doing ALL day. You need to analyze data u collect. You'll also build the electronics too, but once thats done, you'll be workign at the computer ALOT.

    As a disclaimer: im just an undergraduate. My discouragement for you comes from my experience in academics and research. WHo knows maybe it'll be a blast in rgaduate school. But im just tellign you my experience
  12. Nov 18, 2008 #11
    I think upper division physics can seem very pointless if you don't have a goal in mind. For example tensors can look very boring for someone just wanting to graduate but for someone wanting to do a PhD in relativity tensors will be very interesting. Cristo mentioned about planning your route. How about...

    1. Download the Cambridge Part III course descriptions. Theses courses prepare (better to say weed out) students for a PhD at Cambridge. Scroll to page 61 onwards for the Astrophysics subjects.

    http://www.maths.cam.ac.uk/postgrad/casm/descriptions.pdf [Broken]

    2. Read some of the Introductory/Companion books mentioned for subjects that seem interesting. Just read the first couple of introductory chapters to get a feel for the area. Get a list of possible subject areas together. Look out for the type of mathematics\physics used - is it quantum mechanics? tensors? fluid mechanics?
    The books themselves may mention the mathematical background assumed by the reader.

    3. For the subjects on your list note the 'Desirable Previous Knowledge' described in the pdf as well.

    4. Look at the final year physics\math courses at the university you plan to attend and match them to the areas found above. Look at their prerequisite courses and work backwards.

    5. You now have a draft plan of attack. If the plan is exciting to you then you will enjoy the courses while others are yawning. You will be able to see how the dry mathematics prepares you for the more exciting topics later on.

    6. If you didn't find any areas of Astrophysics that interested you then you have saved 3+ years. Yippee! I'd then look over the rest of the pdf to see if there are other areas that you may enjoy but you may not have thought of.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  13. Nov 18, 2008 #12
    If you were prepared to start grad school, I might say go and try it. I think it would still be a bad idea, but since grad school is payed for, there's not much to lose but time, and frankly it's hard not to lose that any way you slice it.

    However, since you have to go back for a BS, I say 2) Skip it.

    Look, physics is a tough career with few rewards. Most general areas of physics are tremendously overpopulated; do you know which ones aren't? Have you looked at them to make sure they're what you want to do? Ask yourself seriously - do you really want to spend (time to get a BS) + (4-7 years for grad school) so you can work at a temporary job making $40k?

    You think that you're making a daring decision to do something out of the ordinary. You're not. The percentage of people in their 30's still stuck in school is growing fast. You're not leaving the dull world of work, you're just changing the topic. It's an easy choice with a specified schedule and a long time frame before you have to make hard decisions again.

    Start a business. Climb a mountain. Go live some place wild. If you're bored, do something exciting. If you had a hard plan for what you wanted to do and you had to take this giant step back to get there, I'd back you. As it is, you're just hoping to take a giant step back.

    It's not worth it.
  14. Nov 19, 2008 #13
    Dear Sir,

    There is a real risk that you will take the mindless drone problem with you.

    First, wake up, then pursue your passion. If advice from B movie Science Fiction means much, In the words of Buckaroo Bonzai, "Where ever you go, there you are."

    Also, the conservation of money or the brining technology to the profit table is not such a boring endevor. Our present financial disruption is a wonderful example of financial modeling chaos in action.

    As for me,
    A.S Computer Science
    B.S. Math/Physics
    M.S. Theoretical Physics

    Now pursuing, MBA... working in the computer security and risk management area of technology companies.

    I neither feel that I am a mindless drone nor at risk of becoming one. As MBA's tend to employ/hire and fire PhDs in Physics, I can be content with my contribution to applied physics. Having already worked in the national labs, I already have a equation to my name... that has its uses in the rare world of satellite dynamics... but alas, I would have to kill everone who read the published work, and it is not really all that revolutionary to be worth risking your health. It just turns out that GPS satellites need to account for very small forces to correctly model their own positions.

    As I work in risk management. I will offer a humble bit of advice when managing the unknown.

    The following easier said than done, particulary in stochastic processes:
    --> Keep your upside potention open while limiting your downside potential.

    Or from the quantum mechanics world...
    let the in-flow of probability of measuring your target be in be greater than the
    out-flow of probability of measuring your target.

    Bordom, so long as it does not infect you as a soul, can be a good thing, Proverbs 3:5.

    Best Wishes,

    Don Turnblade
    MS Physics
    MBA candidate.... Conservation of Energy and Money...
  15. Nov 19, 2008 #14
    Then go and do it. If you get a BS and decide you are not that interested in physics after all, you can still fall back on your CS degree.

    Life is short, and there is nothing wrong with learning for the sake of learning... asssuming, of course, that you can afford it!
  16. Nov 19, 2008 #15
    While I found all of Arctific's post excellent, I think the above line is especially excellent.

    I remember one grad student who spent an entire summer taking AFM pics of a few substrates. Months, hours a day, taking pictures. Sitting at the computer, watching the lines slowly crawl across the screen. He didn't even read anything while he sat there. Just stared at it.

    It turned out later that, with a small repair, it could have been done in a tiny fraction of the time. Far be it from him to ask questions about efficiency though. He was just doing as he was told, like all good grad students do.

    5 or 6 years from now, when you're doing your equivalent of sitting, watching lines on a computer screen crawl by, you'll think back on this thread and not laugh.

    Not even smile.
  17. Nov 20, 2008 #16
    I'd recommend asking for a provisional admission to a graduate program in physics. This will let you take undergraduate courses to catch up without being confined to all the course requirements of another Bachelor's degree. In essence, you'll only have to take what you really need. Unless you're forced, I'd recommend against going for another Bachelor's degree.

    If you cannot get a provisional admission, (which usually you can get if the school isn't exceptionally high ranked) you could enter as a transient student. But then you'll have to fund your courses by means other than federal aid. However, if you can do this for a semester or two, it should be enough to get you a provisional admission in the future.
  18. Nov 21, 2008 #17
    I'd second that. That is the best advice in this thread if you can swing it.
  19. Nov 24, 2008 #18
    I would have this to add/re-iterate: the day-to-day work is not as exciting as you're probably hoping. I'll give you my personal experience. First of all, I just recently graduated with a B.S. and don't claim to know a lot about the field or careers. But I worked on nanosized microscope stuff. I was working with images of single atoms and nano-tubes...etc. Sounds exciting, right? Real, fulfilling work. Well, looking at the broad context, it is neat stuff. But the everyday work is far from interesting or fulfilling. It consisted of looking at the same images, over and over, making measurements on a computer and tons of number crunching. Looking at the picture and calling it a day is cool. Doing tedious calculations to try and find quantitative information about something you don't care about in the first place is not. Why should you care what the density of that atom in a carbon substrate is? Or what difference to you would it make whether it's an Iron or Zirconium atom? That is the sort of problems you work on, not sitting down with a thinking cap on and trying to unlock the secrets of the universe. It's more likely that you're thinking of a way to apply widely accepted theory to solve your particular, boring problem. For instance, can you use the pixel brightness in an image to determine which atom it is? So then you look closely at how the microscope works and what makes a pixel bright or dark. Then you go through texts and papers on scattering experiments and equations. Blah blah blah, a year down the road, you have a model and you've been crunching numbers and figure out that you can now make the claim that the number of protons is somewhere between 7 and 92. Work is work man. Perhaps physics is your thing, but don't hold an overly romantic view of what you're going to be doing.
  20. Nov 24, 2008 #19
    That sort of epiphany is exactly why I bailed out of the physics phd program.
  21. Nov 24, 2008 #20
    Actually, that job sounds like a lot of fun to me. The grass is always greener, you know?
  22. Nov 25, 2008 #21
    same here...except i bailed out of the major.

    i think Acid has the best post in the thread so far.

    I would also liek to add the tedium of research. i wanted to do condensed matter...sutdy materials to develop technology to benefit mankkind, that sorta thing.

    I was volunteering in a lab to work on the materials of graphite. Guess what i was doing?? I was using scotch tape for hours to peel off layers. Then look i nthe microscope to find those materials and keep it for future research. Looking in the microscope was a huge pain in the butt. Scannign left to right, top to bottom. SO i was peeling and looking for hours. Not fun at all!

    Even though i dropped physics, i'll be perfectly happy reading up on popular science magazines that talk about other ppl's discoveries. They worked years, and you can simply read what they got! What a bargain!
  23. Nov 25, 2008 #22


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    I'm a bit dense, but why?
  24. Nov 25, 2008 #23


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    Let me give you the example of what me and two friends of mine do.

    I work on the mathematics of quantum field theory, particular the rigorous side of things.
    One friend does very long simulations of how quarks and gluons work, known as lattice qcd. Another uses spectroscopy to study atoms. Each of us loves what we do and wouldn't doing anything else. I am so glad I stuck with physics.

    The crucial thing to find out is if you really have this passion. You claim to have the money and the time, so this is the real issue.

    Other posters have described how boring it is looking through a microscope to observe if something is this atom or that atom or how you have to go through long calculations in QM to derive mathematical relations.

    Those posters are correct in that if you find this boring there is no point in doing physics. What they failed to mention is that there are people who find these activities to be intellectually exciting. Figure out if you are such a person.

    You say you are interest in astrophysics. Ask yourself does slowly gathering observations and using statistics to learn things about a certain group of stars, e.t.c. sound fun to you.

    For every person in a graduate program who wishes they weren't there, there is another who loves being there. In my experience the difference is the presence or absense passion.
  25. Nov 25, 2008 #24
    Well stated. The only problem is that it's hard to find out until you experience it, and once you're in the thick of things it's probably too late to turn back. At least in his case he already has a different degree and work experience, so the b.s. in physics isn't going to hurt anything for sure. I say that if you realize the points we've all tried to make about the nature of the work and you still are interested, give it a shot. You only live once and at the very least you'll have an interesting story to tell about the day you got a hair up your *** about becoming a physicists and actually did something about it. If you're passionate enough to drop everything and take the supposed risk, you've probably got what it takes to do well. But then again, what do I know? Good luck to you regardless.
  26. Nov 26, 2008 #25
    I can already tell from what you wrote that you are not happy with the way things currently are, but are you 100% sure that physics is what you want to do?

    Before you take the plunge, become extremely specific on what it is you want to do as a job. It needs to be something you really enjoy BUT GET PAID FOR.

    Also, do not let people on the internet decide what you should do. You know yourself better than anyone. The choice needs to be one that you make and make completely. The responsibility for it should not be something you can pass off onto someone else. Be honest and clear with yourself about exactly what you want, then choose.

    Letting someone else choose your job in life is called communism, and it pretty much failed.

    Also, please DO take the plunge. It is obvious you are not happy. Find what you want to do, and do it.
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