• Support PF! Buy your school textbooks, materials and every day products Here!

Think I made the wrong choice of PhD

  • #1
16
0

Main Question or Discussion Point

Hey folks. I could really use some advice as I'm in a bit of a situation...

I graduated in 2018 with a 1st in Theoretical Physics from a well respected UK uni, and at the time I was fairly sure that I wanted to pursue a PhD in HEP. I had tailored my final year MSci modules to reflect this, and I did a host of relevant modules (GR, QM/QFT, and Standard Model Physics), and I enjoyed it.

I was really lucky and managed to secure a funded PhD in particle theory, however almost as soon as I started I found myself less and less sure that it was for me. January rolled around, I absolutely tanked my exams, and it absolutely killed all my confidence and my motivation. I managed to catch up with the first term's content and I feel as though I largely grasp what's going on, but I have more exams in a month or so and my passion for the subject has totally evaporated. I've had a meeting with my advisor (who is great, I cannot fault them in any way) and they have pretty much told me that unless I perform much better in the upcoming exams, progression may be difficult. That's totally fair, and I completely understand the reasoning.

I've always had an interest in meteorology and climate/weather, and I had considered this route in third year before opting for the HEP route as I was told that it would "better suit my skills" - presumably because my undergrad degree had no Earth Science content. I'm beginning to really regret that decision.

I just don't know what to do next to be honest. Should I have a meeting with my supervisor and just come clean with my reservations? Would leaving this PhD completely kill my chances of finding another one, or getting funding for it? I've missed the deadlines for starting a new PhD this September, so I would have to wait 18 months before I could start a new one; my fiance and I aren't getting any younger, and I don't know it we can delay our personal lives for another year and half. It's not as though we can start a family on a grad student's stipend.

I just don't know what to do.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
I can imagine two factors at work here:

1. The simplest is just that human nature being what it is, we tend to like (or imagine we like) that which the world tells us we do well, and dislike (or imagine we dislike) what the world tells us we do poorly. I mean, does *every* tall person naturally love basketball? Probably not. Probably just as many of them would naturally prefer golfing as is the case among short people. But if you're told *all the time* you're great at basketball, and you are, it affects your self-image and ultimately can affect what you like. A lot of our self-esteem comes from the regard of others, and if you're of an academic mindset a lot of it comes from grades, performance on tests, and so forth. So it is possible that some of your affection for HEP came from just doing well in it, and it is equally possible that some of your present disenchantment comes simply from doing poorly on these exams. (I emphasize "possibly" because, not knowing you personally, I can only say what may happen based on what students in my experience are like generally. But you are a unique person, and only you or someone close to you can say whether these general ideas apply to you in particular.)

2. You are discovering that what it's like to work in a field is not the same as what it's like to study the field. When you study a field, you are moving from one successful insight to another. It's a beautiful edifice, built and tested long before you came along, and which all holds together elegantly. It's a lot of fun to appreciate it, like an architecture student studying a well-designed building. But when you work in the field, you're building the edifice. It's messy. There's a lot of dead ends, a lot of stupid (in hindsight) mistakes, a lot of frustrating wrong turns, backing up and trying again. It's like building a building: it's in a muddy field, there's bricks and scraps of steel lying all over the place, it looks like a bomb hit the place. So the pleasure one might get from building something isn't the same as the pleasure you get from appreciating the final thing. Sometimes they go together: sometimes you can love the final product and also love the painful process of constructing it, personally. But sometimes not. Again, only you can say to what degree this applies to you.

Either is worth thought and self-reflection and seeking the advice of people who know you well. If a large source of your pleasure in physics is getting good grades, or appreciating the final form, that may not sustain you so well in a career, where the daily grind is...well, a grind. A lot of trial and error, a lot of fumbling around, a lot of feeling stupid until every now and then you figure something out and feel smart. On the other hand, if you just love noodling around with physics on your own, don't care whether anyone appreciates it, don't really even care if it leads to something you can publish, that's a better sign for a career. Feynmann has an interesting anecdote in his "memoirs" in which he talks about feeling stuck and sterile when he got to Cornell because he felt pressure to produce something, and he only recovered his interest in physics when he noticed how a plate was spinning when he tossed it up into the air and wanted to work out the motion precisely. He had *fun* doing physics, even if he was just doing it for himself, even if he wasn't doing it well or it didn't go anywhere, and that's one reason it was a good career for him.

It's also worth pondering what else gives you pleasure, and how. Do you enjoy just noodling around with meteorology stuff? Would you do it even if nobody paid you, even if it wouldn't make you famous, even if nobody else cared? That's a positive sign for it as a career choice. But also maybe try to examine the field realistically with the idea of understanding whether it would be as much fun to do as it is to study. Just like physics, it's not the same thing, and it's worth asking how you feel about it.

And finally, don't forget to give some consideration to the thought that your disenchantment is just disappointment with the exam results, and that if you study well and successfully and pass them on the second round, you'll feel tremendously better and discover you love physics after all. You may just be feeling low because of some bad luck, and once the bad luck clears up you'll feel all kinds of better about your choices. That is, it's important to be pretty sure you're having a real existential crisis -- really questioning what you want to do with your life -- rather than just hitting a rough patch pursuing what you really do want, which you'll get through with some patience and effort.

If you want some broader insight into the general psychological issue of how people respond to setbacks, you might consider reading Carol Dweck's excellent and famous book "Mindset," which talks about the various ways in which we can cultivate a resilient mindset towards temporary failure, and the virtue of doing so is that it makes it easier to distinguish what we like and dislike for deeper reasons of our nature from what we like and dislike only because it burnishes or bruises our self-esteem.

By the way, don't assume that because you had trouble with the exams you won't make a good physicist. They aren't correlated nearly that well. I've known people who are superb on exams whose imagination is meager, and who more or less end up doing the proverbial button sorting and bottle washing, and conversely some people do poorly on exams for all kinds of technical reasons but are deeply imaginative and original thinkers who create interesting and new additions to the field. A certain level of technical competence is required, yes, and if achieving it is too exhausting for you to contemplate, the field may not be for you. But beyond that basic level, I would not assume that the level of your performance on the exams correlates strongly with how original and creative a physicist you'll be.

And one final thought: your last set of questions are centered around practicality. But the really IMPORTANT question to settle here is what you want to do, what is deeply satisfying and pleasureable for the next 50 years of your life. Practical questions should not dominate that consideration. They can be answered later, once you know what you want. Find *that* out first, give it as much time and consideration and effort as it needs. There is no more important question before you.
 
  • Like
Likes PeroK
  • #3
16
0
Thank you for the reply Chris. Everything you say definitely has merit.

As far as liking HEP because I (was) good at it, I see where you’re coming from. My 4th year modules were somewhat mixed, I aced SM and Particle but had a bit of a mare in QFT, so it was a mixed bag for me. I did enjoy all three modules, but for some reason I’m not getting the same enjoyment this time round. Possibly because I know I have not done well up to press, that is definitely possible. I need to have a real think.

I’m also worried because I *haven’t* yet experienced what it’s like to work in the field, because up to now I’ve only been studying from books/lectures. I have no experience of HEP research yet, which worries me. I think I’d enjoy it, because I enjoy filling in all the gaps in the textbook and doing the further reading to understand where stuff is coming from, playing with new maths and whatnot that I’m not familiar with, but the problems from my classes etc don’t really interest me for some reason.

Maybe I’m resigning myself too early, and I really don’t want to give up as I feel like I’ll always see myself as a bit of a quitter or a failure if I don’t fight to the last moment, but equally I really *really* don’t want to be kicked out.
 
  • #4
Actually, to be honest, when I look back at the 35 or so years of my career, what I wished I'd done much more often than I did was quit. There were times I wasted huge amounts of time and effort proving I wasn't a quitter, that I can do it, when it would have been far more sensible to stop, re-assess, and go in a new direction. Spending giant time and effort on a losing cause, on something that isn't really fun, isn't really going to pay off, is just endless amounts of very hard work for very little reward, is just a waste. It delays discovery of what you really want to do, what is really fun, what will really pay off.

I'm not saying don't do physics. By all means do it if you love it (and if you decide your discouragement right now is just a temporary rough patch). But definitely don't let fears of seeing yourself as a quitter stand in the way of making a rational assessment of where you really want to spend the coming years and decades of your life. It's nobody else's life but yours. You have to be satisfied with it, and the applause of others is no substitute for your own conclusion that what you do matters to you, seems important and satisfying to you.

Since an issue is not knowing what it's like to do the research, maybe seek out a research opportunity, even a small one. Maybe talk to some PIs and see what their life is like. How much time do they spend doing various things (writing grants, supervising students, teaching, thinking, traveling, talking) and how do they feel about it? Probably your instructors would be quite happy to have a talk with you about what it's like to do the work, and at least one should be willing to get you going on a small project of your own. I can't think of any real scientist who wouldn't be glad to help you out if you told him honestly you were trying to get a feel for what real research is like, to decide if it's something you really want to do. They're human beings, they'll understand. It would be surprising if they haven't had moments of doubt and reconsideration themselves. If you have to plow through the exams to get a chance at this, then set that as a goal, but promising yourself that after you acquire some experience doing actual research, you'll reconsider the whole thing fairly.
 

Related Threads on Think I made the wrong choice of PhD

  • Last Post
Replies
3
Views
889
  • Last Post
Replies
0
Views
1K
  • Last Post
Replies
1
Views
736
  • Last Post
Replies
4
Views
2K
Replies
5
Views
2K
Replies
3
Views
3K
  • Last Post
Replies
1
Views
2K
  • Last Post
Replies
1
Views
557
  • Last Post
Replies
2
Views
1K
Replies
6
Views
2K
Top