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Thirty One Year Old Tempted to Return to University

  1. Sep 27, 2011 #1
    I spent six years at university and changed majors A LOT (mostly in the natural sciences). I was searching, but I never did find what I was looking for. When my money was running out, I changed to a major I could finish in time: English. I did a thesis and graduated with honors. I thought it would give me opportunities, but it's TOUGH finding work with an English degree. It's even harder finding anything remotely interesting to apply for. After a couple of jobs (w/ unfilfilling promotions) I ended up going into teaching (mostly so I could be in an enriching/learning environment). Unfortunately, it's not the job for me, even though my principal and other colleagues believe I'm a "natural" at it. This will be my LAST year.

    It did give me clarity, time for self-reflection, and savings though. I realized I'm much more intelligent than I thought I was, and I'm more confident in my abilities. I also understand that I need a job with limited interaction with others (people are loud). I'm only happy when I'm learning something and/or working on a project. I've finally succumbed to the idea that I should be doing research (which has always been what every single personality and career aptitude test has ever said).

    After some further self-reflection, I believe that physics was what I was looking for all along. I just don't want to make another mistake in getting a degree with absolutely no prospects and, darn it, I'm old. If I start in the fall of 2011, it will take me three years of part-time school to complete my physics BS degree (I'll have the tuition money, I'll just have to sub and tutor to pay my living expenses). I'll be 35! And unfortunately, I gather that I won't be any more employable than I already am right now. I have zero interest in finance or teaching, so what's left? Nothing really. As dismal as that sounds, it gets even worse. If I want to do research, I need a Ph.D., but I'd be in school until I'm 40! I should be saving money during my 30s, not blowing my savings and earning peanuts...not that I mind earning peanuts. I could live well on a grad student's salary, but I do need to start worrying about retirement at SOME point. I'll never marry and I don't want kids, so I don't have anyone else to depend on when I grow old.

    I just don't really know what I should do and I'm looking for advice. I refuse to embark upon this without a PLAN (something I never had when I was in school the first time). I thought about a physics/engineering dual degree, but my old university doesn't have it. Plus engineering and physics are in completely different colleges within the university. The uni does have a solar race car team and a robotics team, both of which are open to all majors. I could pick up some practical skills there. I'm not sure if that would be enough though.

    Any words of wisdom, advice, suggestions, things to think about?

    [Also...I do have an aptitude in science. I took two years of AP Chemistry and Physics, advanced to state competition in UIL science, tutored my engineer roommate through Classical Mechanics and helped my chemistry-major college bf through Electro-magnetism. For some reason, I still didn't think I was very bright. I realize now that I was not very bright for thinking I was not very bright. *sigh*]
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  3. Sep 27, 2011 #2


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    Have you considered teaching science? Possibly become a high school physics teacher?

    If that's not a go, maybe you should look again at engineering. You're right, a BS in physics is difficult to sell to the job market. Engineers don't have to "market" themselves nearly as much. If you can't get a dual degree, can you do a double major?

    I understand the age thing. I'm 47, my industry is shriveling, so I'm looking at going back to school...sigh.
  4. Sep 28, 2011 #3
    Have you considered going to school part-time? My first degree is in Psychology, but I've been studying for a second BSc in Natural Sciences (Physics) while holding a full-time job as software "engineer".

    EDIT: forgot to mention that I am 35 years old.
  5. Sep 28, 2011 #4

    Andy Resnick

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    The 'returning' students in my class consistently outperform the 'traditional' students. They are more diligent, more engaged, and set a standard for excellence in the classroom.

    I agree having a 'plan' is centrally important- not just a clear path to graduation, but some idea about what you will do (or what you want to do) with your degree.
  6. Sep 28, 2011 #5
    Nope. A definite no-go. Teaching is NOT for me. I'd consider being a TA in grad school if I didn't get an RA position though (ya gotta do what ya gotta do). I also would consider teaching at the university level after I get my Ph. D, but those jobs are slim and I'd rather get a job in the private sector anyway.

    It's the only way that I CAN do it. I'll have money saved for tuition and books, but I will need to work to cover my living expenses (subbing and tutoring). It sucks, but at least I have tuition money saved.

    Good to know. I'm spending from now until August 2012 reviewing all my pre-cal, calculus, physics, and some basic engineering so I won't be behind. I guess I'm a wee bit cautious since I've been out for so long.

    Unfortunately, I don't have enough money for a double major. I'm not even sure that I could do an engineering degree instead of the physics major. I don't have enough money for that many semesters. Maybe that bit just solved my problem. Unless I got an awesome scholarship (very unlikely), I couldn't afford an Engineering degree anyway...so maybe I should take that one out of consideration. Hrmm...things to think about.

    Please add on if anyone thinks of more stuff. This is helpful. I might have already eliminated engineering!
  7. Sep 28, 2011 #6
    If employability is one of your goals as you alluded to in your initial post I would seriously, seriously (seriously) reconsider doing just a physics BS. And even if you get your PhD, be very aware of job prospects in your chosen field.
  8. Sep 28, 2011 #7
    Yeah, that's the problem with a physics degree. It's pretty much all or nothing (Ph. D) as endgame...at 40.

    What do you mean about the job prospects though? I looked up physicist on [URL]http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos052.htm[/URL] (Occupational Outlook Handbook) and that field is expected to grow faster than average. Is this not accurate?
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 26, 2017
  9. Sep 29, 2011 #8
    Well, it could be accurate. But even if it is there are going to be some areas of physics that do not grow as fast as others, even if the field as a whole is growing. I know some areas of specialization struggle mightily to find jobs that are relevant to their education (and in areas they could not have gotten with just a BS in some other field). You may want to be really wary of theoretical areas, particularly if you want to work in the private sector.

    Also, be aware those are just predictions and I have read that the bls projections tend to be inaccurate.
  10. Sep 29, 2011 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    I strongly disagree with this assertion.
  11. Sep 29, 2011 #10


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    My two cents. I'm with Andy Resnick on this one. I work as a programmer but, the fact that I have a BS in physics is treated by my bosses and coworkers like I practically have a master's in any other field. It does tend to get you a lot of respect. Of course, you still have to do something with it.

    BTW, I studied programming when I was 37 and got straight A's - which was far better than when I was in college. Andy's right on that one also.
  12. Sep 29, 2011 #11
    I went back to school at 35 part time and finally finished the double BS in math and physics at 41 (also with no kids or wife), so it's never too late. I got a job as a health physicist right after graduation and have been in that field since (except for 2 years unemployed), getting my MS in nuclear engineering in the intervening years. When I retire I plan on going back to get a PHd.

    As for what to do, it's hard to predict the job market 3 - 5 years down the line.
  13. Sep 29, 2011 #12
    Why do you say this? I have a B.S. in Physics and had 3 job offers before I graduated. Now I do agree that if you just do the basic requirements for a B.S. in Physics, then you might have some trouble getting a job. On the other hand, if you tailor your electives correctly, then finding a job will be no problem at all.

    To Asocialkat:

    You say you don't want to teach and just do research. What does that even mean? Research in what? For who?

    I guess I've done research before but I still don't even know what people mean when they say that. Research, in my experience, is debugging code, setting up experiments, learning more statistical methods to process data, looking for math and/or grammatical errors in a report, and so on.

    To be blunt, I would figure out exactly what you do then pursue it 100%. According to your own comments, you don't have the time or money to be playing around in school anymore.

    What have you done to figure out what you want? Posting a message here gives me the impression that you're looking for help from others to tell you what to do; I would hate to have someone tell me what I should do. Unless of course they're paying me. :wink:
  14. Sep 29, 2011 #13
    To the OP...I'm kinda in the same shoes that you're in right now. I'm 33 and going back to school. However, I'm married, and I have a 2 y/o. Plus, I don't have a Bachelors degree, but I do have about 40 credit hours built up so far and a couple of technical diplomas. So I know exactly what you're feeling at the moment. I've considered the whole age thing as well...close to 40 by the time I finish my BS.

    I know you said you didn't want to teach, but you also said that you would consider teaching at a university...so would you consider teaching at a perhaps a 2 year technical college? I got a taste of this shortly after I graduated from technical school. I taught part-time during the day, and it wasn't too bad. I couldn't get a full time job with the school because they wanted me to have at least an Associates degree, but they preferred a bachelors. Anyways...I'm plan on getting my BS in physics by the spring of 2015. If I can't find an engineering type job or something decent that interests me, then I'll probably go the route of teaching for a technical school.

    I'm just throwing out another option that perhaps you haven't considered. Good luck in whatever you choose to do.
  15. Sep 29, 2011 #14
    Points noted. Thanks. I saw something similar broken down for engineering fields, but nothing really for physics.

    Hey, good to know. Thanks.

    Ha! Keep on truckin'!

    As an undergrad, I did three semesters of research within the psychology department. Mostly helping to run experiments, crunch data, or help evaluate experimental design. I thought it was great fun, but I eventually left psychology because the more I learned about psychology the less it seemed like a "real" science. I also liked doing experiments in chemistry and not creating noxious gas that will kill everyone in the lab. :p I like practical applications and seeing what I'm studying. Finding flaws in experimental design and building a better experiment is pretty intriguing, too.

    I also did a year of research writing a thesis for my English honor's program. I don't really consider that "real" research. More like just making a bold claim and supporting my argument. Just trivial liberal arts stuff really. I would equate this with theoretical work in the sciences and doesn't interest me that much (not that I'm calling theoretical work trivial for science...I'm just saying I'd rather not do theoretical work that I can see, touch, or test in some way).

    I concur. That's why I'm trying to gather lots of info before I make my final decision.

    Well, for the last month I've been searching online (and lurking here) to obtain more information about my options (and evaluating degree plans from my old college). This has already eliminated some options (example finance). The more (reliable) information I have the more paths I can rule out until I am down to one. I have little interest in people telling me what to do, but I have zero problem with learning from other people's mistakes or wisdom. Only an idiot won't ask other people's opinions before making important and rather costly decisions because he thinks he knows everything. *wink*

    Nope. No teaching unless it's a means to an end (TA for undergrad degree).
  16. Sep 30, 2011 #15
    I'm not really convinced by a sample size of one. What kind of work were the 3 job offers in? When did you finish your BS, where did you go to school, and how did you do relative to your classmates (I also notice your education says PhD, did you not take any of the offers)?

    I get the feeling that Asocialkat wants to get a degree in physics to actually do physics research. I'm skeptical anyone has gotten a job doing physics research with a BS. Most of what I have read strongly suggests that one needs a PhD to get a job in physics (unless you act as a technician in say a national lab), and a lot of stories I've read indicate it's really hard to get ANY job with just a physics BS.

    You also make no mention of what electives to take in order to get these jobs, just that you can take certain ones and get some job. I think it's pretty rare to find an employer these days who will even look at what electives you have taken, let alone factor them in when making a job offer. It's all about "real experience", and few employers count an extra class here and there as real experience.

    Asocialkat seems to indicate that getting a job after the BS is of importance. I'm just saying there are other subjects one can major in that will make it way easier to find employment after a BS if you are intelligent enough to do well in a physics major in the first place.
  17. Sep 30, 2011 #16
    All my job offers were in software because that's what my electives were in. Research physics jobs don't exist for just a B.S., that goes without saying, heck they barely exist with a PhD. When I took an elective class it was an excuse to redefine my skills. For instance, I made sure that each programming class I took had an open ended project due at the end of the semester, which I would do a computational math/physics project. Guess what I took to interviews? Flash drives full of projects.

    I'm a 2nd year PhD student now, but I worked for 2 companies after I got my B.S.(~5 years ago.) One was a startup doing computational physics work and the other was at very large company doing a "regular" software engineering job. Later through promotions I got into technical sales, where I made a disgusting amount of money, which set me up with an incredibly nice cushion to get through grad school. Because let's be honest, no one makes money in grad school.

    My classmates mostly did not care to go into industry so they never ventured out of math or physics electives, which is fine because many of them went to grad school. Like I said earlier, the degree is what you make it. If someone wants to sit around and ponder about physics all day, there's not a company in the world that will pay for that so they better get skills or finding a job is going to be impossible.

    P.S. - I refuse to answer the more personal questions of where I went and my position in class. If you want to know more then PM me but don't expect me to tell details in a public thread. Honestly, I think that's pretty disrespectful considering you didn't even introduce yourself to us. Good day.
  18. Sep 30, 2011 #17
    LOL @ 'disrespectful'. Like it matters if people know the approximate class rank and school (you could have obviously just provided the rough ranking or reputation of the school given the context of my questions in this thread) of an account on a random physics forum with 12 total posts. *Gasp* someone asking for career advice may be able to put your claims of 'easily' getting a job with a physics BS into context of where you came from. We couldn't have that now could we?

    If you really want to know what I think, I think it is incredibly irresponsible of you to state that it is easy for someone with a physics BS to get a job straight out of school to someone asking for long-term career advice when you don't put it into context of your background at the time you got all these job offers.

    In fact, your claim of it being 'no problem' to get a job straight out of school with a physics BS simply by 'tailoring your electives correctly' is so laughably bad I don't know what to say. You realize we have particle theory PhDs on this forum who are tending bar because they can't find any technical work, right?

    Edit -- Oh, and good day to you as well.
  19. Sep 30, 2011 #18
    That's fine then, I see your point. I went to Caltech and graduated with a 3.4 gpa, hardly an impressive gpa.

    I don't understand why it's irresponsible of me telling a story and how I believe that it can work easily if you do the right things. A degree is what you make it and I stand by that. If you take a bunch of obscure classes in physics (Relativity, String theory, etc) do you really think that those will of great use in finding an everyday job if things don't work out in research physics? No. Have I said that? No. If your goal is industry then learn skills that industry wants, not what your physics buddies think is neat.

    It's sad that there are PhD's that can't find a good job but was their goal to work in industry? Or was it to try to get a job that has a only the selective few will obtain, also known as a Research Professor? I'm thinking that you might have fallen in the latter, is this true?

    Don't try to twist my words and make me the bad guy. I'll say it once again because you still didn't get my point. The degree is what you make it, you want a job get skills that jobs want. If you don't want a job take whatever class you desire.

    Good day.
  20. Sep 30, 2011 #19


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    I think the fact that your job offers were 5 years ago is pertinent. In today's economy I'd be surprised at three job offers for a new physics BS.
  21. Sep 30, 2011 #20
    This is sad. Why are members of this forum not in support of physics education? Maybe the site should be renamed "Don't do Physics Forums." I was referred to this site by someone in my department because they said there are people on here that can help with Jackson's E&M problems. I still have yet to use the homework help section but as I was searching around I figured might as well see what people are saying about current physics careers, etc. I'm very surprised as to what I've found...
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