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What can I do with my BS in physics?

  1. Oct 8, 2015 #1
    I got a BS in physics from MIT (high energy particle physics), and now I'm in a graduate program in physics at a mid-tier school, like top 20-ish. I always assumed I would get a PhD in physics, and eventually become a research professor, but I'm starting to reconsider. So the tldr of this post is: what can I actually do with my degree, if I drop out of grad school now?

    Things influencing my attempts to make a decision:

    1) Unhappiness: I love physics, or at least I think I do, but I do rather want a life outside of physics as well, and that seems increasingly impossible. I spend nearly all my time on school, and I think this is more or less normal(?), and I had assumed I would be content to do this for the next 5-ish years, until I get my degree. However, I'm now married, and I want a family, and I want to be able to spend time with said family, and right now I hardly manage to spend time with my husband, which frankly I find unacceptable.
    2) The transition from grad student to post doc to professor would probably be quite difficult. At MIT, there seemed to be this *assumption* that things would go well, that you would be wanted, that you would be successful. However, this is probably not an accurate portrayal of the real world, and is certainly even less true for me now that I've fallen down the proverbial ladder. It seems that it could in fact take 2 different postdoc positions before finding a faculty position, and even then, it might not be tenure-track.
    3) The two-body problem: I'm preventing my husband from pursuing his own career. We aren't willing to live apart while I finish school, and then inevitable move around from place to place until I find a faculty position. So this means if I keep going on this path, my husband will likely have to keep taking temporary jobs until we really get settled, which could be as much as 10 years in the future.
    4) Kids: I would like to have kids before I'm 30. I know some people say grad school and kids can mix...but I'm really not quite sure how. My experience with physics has been that you either sacrifice your life to it and *hope* to be successful, or you fail: end of story. I currently struggle to achieve an average reasonable amount of sleep and the minimum of adult responsibility, such as cooking dinner thrice a week and attempting to see family once a month. Introducing a pregnancy into the equation seems rather unwise.
    5) Fear that I won't actually be able to acquire a tenure-track faculty position.
    6) Desire to stay in one place, preferably near family in the Midwest. This is a biggie, even though it's apparently itemized as number 5. I've been away from my family for what seems an awful long time. And I had accepted that, as an undergrad, and gotten used to the idea of working in Geneva for a long time, and winding up settled somewhere far from my family. But I'm having trouble with that, now. I want our kids to see their grandparents more than a few times a year. So if I'm leaving academia, I'm almost certainly doing it to be near family.
    7) Love for teaching: so this brings me to perhaps the crux of the matter. I want to have a job that I love. I'm not entirely sure that I love research. I know that sounds quite stupid, as you really should love it, if you thought it was a good idea to put yourself through grad school. However, my problem is that in my area, "research" really just amounts to a lot of "counting." Write a program to count a thing, and then see how good your count was. And I've never super loved that. In undergrad, it was easy enough to enjoy it for the sake of learning new things about particle physics along the way, but it seems as though the deeper in you get, the fewer pure physics things there are to really think about and the more things there are to count, both just in counting data and in keeping track of all the things that went wrong in getting that data. And I don't dislike programming. But if I wanted to program for the majority of my career, it would have been a lot smarter to do computer science. Which I kind of wish I had done. But too late now. I like classes, and I like learning physics, because really I'm probably a theorist at heart, but unfortunately probably not quite well-enough endowed to be successful at it.
    Anyway. I like teaching quite a bit. And I think I would love to be a professor, if I ever actually got there. But teaching high school is quite a different ball game, and one I'm very unsure about entering. I have so much respect for teachers, because I thought I would never have the patience to do it and swore I'd never go that path. Teaching college students is pretty rewarding, because there are at least some students who actually care about learning and doing well. But high school could be rather the opposite, at least in my hometown, where I'd probably be doing said teaching.

    Alright. So, all of the above probably sounds like "why the heck is she even thinking about this? She obviously hates everything about academic physics." But I'm incredibly worried about making the wrong decision. I think I could get used to teaching high school, and enjoy it, if I find I can make a big difference. Which I would like to think I could do. I'm pretty good at teaching, if no one minds my claiming that as one of my few talents. But I'm worried that I'll find myself dissatisfied 15 years down the line, wondering what problems I could have solved by then, what my life might be like if I were in research. I don't like the idea of giving up the thing I've been passionate about for so long, and becoming essentially useless to it. In short: I'm scared that I'll never think about hard problems in physics again--I'm scared I'll be bored. I don't think physics works very well as a hobby--you'll (probably) never accomplish anything real.

    So, I'm sure what so many people will say is "Well, you could go into industry." And I am ashamed to say it...but...how? I know nothing. I've been focused on the path I'm on for so long I know nothing about where else to go. And even if there are places I could go...probably not in the Midwest.

    Well. That was a long explanation. I would really, really appreciate any advice anyone has on any aspect of this. I'm pretty miserable about trying to make this decision. Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 8, 2015 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    This is the ageless conundrum to have a career and to have a life too.

    Since you've invested so much time into your PhD, you need to seriously weigh your options. You could start by doing a pros and cons and score things based on importance.

    Personally, I would stay the course and get your PhD to eliminate future regrets and to show that you are not a quitter. Having gotten your PhD, you can then take a break, go to Hawaii and revive your marriage and/or even have a family and prepare for a postdoc sometime later on if thats an option or find a job in industry. For technical jobs in industry PhDs get to do applied research whereas non PhDs get to work for PhDs. Getting to do research is preferable to doing someone else's research.

    Sometimes though when I've run into these kind of problems, I've used the I-Ching to help make my decision. Its a fancy way to flip a coin. It gives you a random cryptic message that you interpret yourself and might give you the insight on which way to go. Just remember when we gain something sometimes we must give up something. Just choose the best that you can and I think your husband will be supportive of your decision.

    Other mentors will have more to say on this I'm sure.
  4. Oct 9, 2015 #3


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    Are you close to finishing your Ph.D.? If not, can you get a terminal master's degree?

    One option you might consider is teaching at a community college. Getting a master's or Ph.D. would definitely be a plus if you went this route.
  5. Oct 9, 2015 #4
    Well, it doesn't sound like you have any employable skills outside of academia & education, and you like to teach. So it sounds to me like you're going to be a teacher. Grab your terminal masters first.

    The upside is that you can do that lots of places, so your geographic inflexibility won't be as harmful.

    You can shoot for a community or for-profit college, but I would be prepared to teach high-school as well.

    As I'm typing this post I see a box at the bottom of the screen with links to lots of similar discussions. Take a look and let us know if you have questions.
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