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Uncertainty with regards to a science career

  1. Jan 11, 2013 #1
    For two years now, I have been on PF. I spent many of those months checking PF - largely the academic and career guidance forums - just about every other day, and I learned a great deal about academia, and careers in science and engineering.
    A few months ago, when I posted in the Mathwonk's thread, he told me to "stop jumping around the fire and to try something", and rightly so. I didn't quite realize it then, but all I had been doing was accumulating information (data, anecdotes, opinions) - not keeping logs or anything, but I remember most things I read - about science education. From careers to textbooks used. And the worse part is I wasn't really doing anything myself.

    The primary issue is that I don't know what I like. I've tried learning some pure math, and while I could do it, it wasn't really my cup of tea. I do find math interesting, and I would indeed like to know what happens "under the hood", if you will, but I didn't really *enjoy* doing the work.

    I have a very short attention span, and I tend to work in short bursts, and on rare occasions, for hours in one go. Often, it's the thrill that comes with working so close to the deadlines that gets me going. I hate that everything could fall apart at any instant, but it makes me feel somewhat "more alive", and I keep at it. I'm completely burnt out in the end, and I need to crash for a day or two, but on some levels, I enjoy it.

    I say this because I feel that while I am generally curious about just about everything I see or hear of, the main reasons I seem to be at all interested in math and science is because I get kicks, not so much out of the subject itself, but more so out of the challenging work. But that can be a serious problem. Science takes a lot of hard and consistent work, and with my spontaneous way of working, I can't see how I'd ever make it work, in any career, let alone science!

    Even then, I don't know if I do *love* science. I like the way physics is done. I can't quite explain it, but it's not the same as chemistry or biology. I am also interested in how the human body works, and every now and then, I contemplate biomedical research or something along the lines of that, but I can't imagine not doing something that requires math. Math as in math methods, not pure math.

    Further, I really wasn't kidding when I said I found most things interesting. I find the way milk mixes with tea fascinating. The research questions that the people at say, Cornell's Theoretical and Applied Mechanics group look really cool! So does the computational biology/neuroscience research at NYU. (Nava Rubin's, more specifically) Probability is another thing I really like.

    But it doesn't stop here. While I can learn most things with relative ease, the only thing I consider myself good at, is writing fiction. Not good in absolute terms, but rather having what it takes (in part due to that being the only thing I did on a semi-regular basis over the past few years) to be good/great. I am also very curious about history, philosophy (ethics, metaphysics), and literature in general.

    I also think that I'm afraid. Genuinely afraid of giving my all, and then failing. At least, I seem to be so on a subconscious level or something. Paradoxically, I think that it is better to attempt to do something grand (for e.g, trying to write the next great novel and getting it published, or trying to figure out a creative way to make use of science PhDs outside of academia), irrespective of the potential outcome.

    I took a gap year to try and figure things out, and while I am in a much better place emotionally, I still have near-zero direction with what I would want to do in college. I do like academia, but I don't know how to make it work. I thought perhaps applied math/statistics with a second major (or just lots of courses) in philosophy or one of those "interdisciplinary approach to XYZ cultures" majors would be a logical choice. That said, I don't know if that's what I want.

    I apologize for the lengthy post, but I figured more would be better than just "Hey, I dunno if I wanna do science. Help plz. Ok, thanks, bye."
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 11, 2013 #2


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    Have you thouht about science journalism or technical writing? Or translation if you have the language skills?
  4. Jan 11, 2013 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    I think this is probably the strongest argument against a scientific career. As a scientist, things fail all the time. Your job would be to fail, and fail, and fail again, and eventually something good will come of it. If you are tempermentally unsuited for a job that involves falling on your face, picking yourself up, and repeating ad infinitum, probably science is not the right career choice.
  5. Jan 11, 2013 #4


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    Maybe what you must do is just pick something interesting and TRY making progress in it. Have you done that yet? One course in each of various subjects might possibly show you what is interesting or might not. If you had several different kinds of courses, then you may be able to identify something INTERESTING TO YOU. Pick what is interesting and keep going for a while with it.
  6. Jan 12, 2013 #5
    Yep, I could be good at technical writing or translation, but it wouldn't be enough for me.

    That, I can get down with.

    And from what I gather, experiments that did not output the desired/anticipated results is still valid research, yes?

    By failing I meant (for instance) not being able to finish the PhD. At all.

    I will try.
  7. Jan 12, 2013 #6

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    Yes. But experiments that just plain don't work are not very interesting. I'm not talking about a good measurement with a surprising outcome. I'm talking about spending a good amount of time in the state where the measurement itself is rubbish, and the next step is not obvious.
  8. Jan 12, 2013 #7
    "Yep, I could be good at technical writing or translation, but it wouldn't be enough for me."

    I'm not trying to discourage your desire for meaningful work in a fulfilling career. Far from it. I think such things would do so much to increase the stock of human happiness much more effectively than merely paying people more to do jobs they aren't in any way emotionally invested in.

    Nevertheless, it is not the case that you need to get paid to do something to do something.

    What I mean is, there seems to be some sort of pernicious lie that 'professional' = 'good' and since we use 'amateur' as antonym to 'professional', 'amateur' must mean 'not good' or 'bad' or some such.

    So you think 'Well I like X'. But you can't/don't get paid to do X. So lots of people will tend to think you aren't any good at it. And maybe you think that about yourself too. Surely, if you were any good, you could get paid to do it, right? People who really are talented actors don't work in church halls in front of 20 family and reluctant friends, do they? Not as adults! And really talented musicians don't play in subway tunnels on their off days and work stacking shelves in the day, do they?

    Well of course there is not enough money for enough jobs to let everything who loves a thing be a professional at it. But that's all it means. You don't get paid for it. But - the reality of standards of living notwithstanding - monetary value is not the only value. You seem to clearly understand that. So maybe you are expecting too much from your job?

    Not that you should give up, at all. But if you enjoy doing maths, but only as and when it suits you, well then you would probably hate having to apply maths methods for 40 hours a week, every week, year after year, no? But if it was 'just' a hobby for you...

    Meaningful work in a fulfilling career is very important. But you're more than your job and there will almost certainly be other things, even if it doesn't seem so now, that will validate you and enable you to flourish, than your job. A partner, kids, being a good sibling/son/daughter, friends, hobbies, community work, charity work, pets, enjoying literature, music etc.

    So yes, just pick something. Anything. And give it a bash. It's not all or nothing. You can change job. You can change career. You may find the sort of fulfillment you seek outside your job, in time. Otherwise - as you found by taking a gap year - you will just end up drifting.

    Good luck.
  9. Jan 12, 2013 #8
    My advice would be the following: From your broad list of interests pick two fields that seem the most appealing to you (make sure at least one of them has some degree of employability. You don't wanna do Philosophy and English for example) . For example, Physics and Writing. Math and Biology. Computer Science and Chemistry. Something of this sort. These two you will have to choose for yourself. Once you've done so, double major in those two things in college and devote a solid amount of time to each and try to make progress on each. You'll have to work hard, but by the end of your second year, you would most likely have a preference for one of those fields over the other. Make that your priority and start focusing on that for your last two years and pursue that for your job or graduate studies.

    I know someone like this who started out with Physics and Linguistics, pretty much equally interested in both. While enjoying it, after his second year, he ended up dropping the Linguistics major and started focusing on physics and math instead. He does pretty well. I also started out with a certain degree of uncertainty about my second major (look up my old threads), the first one being math. Now I'm focused (well, for the most part at least) and have a good idea in my head of what I want to be doing.
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2013
  10. Jan 15, 2013 #9
    Isn't Mathwonks advice still pretty sound?

    Doesn't matter how much you analyse it, if you don't know what you like, you have to start trying some out.

    Ultimately no one can tell you what it is you like. But for what it's worth, for someone who seems to be curious as to how stuff works and who can't see themself not using maths... a hard science is a pretty good starting point! so too is maths. You can try these out and see if you like them. If you don't, ask yourself why and go try something else out.

    The short attention span thing might be because you don't yet have a tangible goal that you are working towards. And by this i mean something a bit more profound than an assignment hand in date/exam.

    Just re-read your post and you seem like a classic INTP peronality type. not that you came here for that :)
  11. Jan 19, 2013 #10
    Thank you all for your replies.

    I have thought more about this, and I believe that I have a clear idea about what I want. I am more interested in cognitive science and behavioral economics, than I am in physics and math. And there is no shame in that. That feeling used to bring me down. Like, if I didn't do physics, because I can do it, I'd be a loser. But I'm starting to get used to that idea now. If I don't like physics, that's okay.

    I've realized that writing, social sciences and humanities are where my strengths lie. I can do well at science, but there are very few fields that I would absolutely love to study in depth. And that's not physics and math.

    I've come to terms with that idea. When I feel like learning math and physics, I can study calculus from Apostol, Algebra from Artin and mechanics and E&M (Berkeley Series and Griffiths), at my own pace. It's okay if it takes more than 6 months. I will enjoy it better if I learn it at a pace that I am comfortable with, and allow each idea to sink in, and appreciate it all.

    One other thing that caused me to worry is that I would get rejected from every US college I apply to. And a US college is the only way that I would be able to to do as ahsanxr said. But I realized that I could still apply to France and study math, humanities and social sciences for two years, before applying to a grande ecole to study either politics, literature, stats, or commerce. There's also public colleges in India, where I can choose 3 subjects to study, which include math, stats, economics, history, politics, and literature. So, I could still study the humanities and social sciences, along with math.

    Again, thank you for everything. I have a clearer idea now.
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