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Work that helps the world?

  1. Dec 5, 2015 #1
    Hey folks,

    I'm a third-year undergraduate studying physics. I'm getting to that point where I really have to think about what I want to do with my degree. One truth I've found about myself is that I really need my work to feel like it's beneficial to the world in some way; otherwise I just end up feeling this existential dread every time I go to work. The idea of working in industry on some pointless product sounds awful, and as much as I find research fascinating, I really don't want to toil away for countless hours just to improve the precision of some constant by another significant figure.

    So, I'm curious what you all think. What are some things a physics major could work on that would help the world? Either at the bachelor level or the PhD level. The energy crisis is a huge problem - is cold fusion a dead end, or do people still research that? Would a solar power company take a physicist over an engineer? I know people with physics degrees are sometimes hired in completely unrelated fields for their problem solving skills, I'm curious how common this is. Applying a physics degree to social work of some kind could be really cool.

    Any suggestions are much appreciated.
    Cheers! <3
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 6, 2015 #2


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    What about hot fusion? It is an active research topic.
    They'll probably look for both. The cells need various parts of chemistry and physics, making a product for a roof out of it needs physics and engineering.

    New products can help the world massively, and getting another significant figure led to things like quantum mechanics (which made computers possible, among other applications) and the world wide web (it was developed for particle physicists).
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 7, 2015
  4. Dec 6, 2015 #3


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    I think most people want to know that whatever job they do results in more than just a paycheque.

    I don't know if this will necessarily help you with making any decisions, but it's important to remember that it's not just the obvious problems that need to be worked on to make the world a better place. Sometimes its those very mundane ones that can make the biggest difference.

    As one example you could think about how a background in physics might be applied to the problems of urban design. On the surface, an urban planner may be just trying to make a city council look good for the next election. But there are opportunities to cut down on traffic commute distances or times that could reduce carbon emissions or opportunities to reduce traffic collisions, both of which could have a huge positive impact on peoples' lives.
  5. Dec 6, 2015 #4

    Stephen Tashi

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    Helping "the world" actually means helping the people in the world unless you are talking about the planet in some very abstract sense. You should consider how you prefer to interact with people.

    You can help just a few people at a time. That will lead to being personally involved with them.

    You can try to help large numbers of people. If you do that, you might do it as a member of a small group of people, so you will be involved with a small group of people where you may or may not being doing a routine job. Or you might try to hep a large group of people by acting alone or being the leader of a group of people.
  6. Dec 6, 2015 #5
    I also startet with physics with very idealistic thoughts.

    My simple plan was like follows:
    1. Understand the world
    2. Make it better

    But the more I understand, the more I get the feeling that most jobs don't do any real good.
    In the case of energy, for example, the technology to power humanity in a sustainable way seems to be already here.
    It's like science has already done its part for a better world and its up to society now to use this knowledge wisely.
    So achieving new cool things like fusion is a remarkable thing, but will it change the world? I'm really not sure.

    I know that science in general is a great thing and has been the core of all progress in this world.
    But can someone with an idealistic complex get satisfaction in doing research?
  7. Dec 7, 2015 #6


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    With all due respect, your lack of experience with real life is what is causing you "existential dread"(almost all college students get it). Once you get out of college, you will discover the one and only mandatory purpose of having a job - making money to eat and pay your bills - and the "existential dread" will be replaced with real dread.

    Particularly in your first few years of working - when your value to The World is near zero - do what is best for you and get a job that provides a good mix of pay and experience.

    If after a few years you become economically comfortable and the "existential dread" returns(it almost never does), then you can think more about helping The World in your second job.
  8. Dec 7, 2015 #7
    While this sounds quite sad.. you might have a point ^^
  9. Dec 7, 2015 #8
    I remember leaving college wanting to save the world and be involved in designing systems that would solve all our problems. Instead I design systems that make large corporations more money, oh well.
    However, I do agree with russ watters, get some years in industry under your belt, there are too many amazing things going on out there to get bogged down so young into a specialized field.

    Existential dread; sounds like a fancy phrase for "mid life crisis"
    Happy Birthday BTW
  10. Dec 8, 2015 #9


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    Let me speak personally about this. I work as a biostatistician for the pharma/biotech sector, where I'm involved in the design and analysis of clinical trials for a variety of different therapeutic areas. Among the projects I've been involved with include vaccines and new treatments in areas such as oncology (e.g. breast cancer, sarcoma), multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Even though on a day-to-day basis my focus is on applying the appropriate statistical methods in analyzing the data and applying the correct study trial design, in the end the results of my work will go into new treatments that could help people all across the world, so I'd like to think I'm making a difference out there.

    To the OP: to be able to "help the world" you really need to think about what that really means. There are ways to help without necessarily making it part of your daily job (e.g. volunteering at a local charity). If you do decide that you want to make a positive impact as part of your career, the key is first determine what your interests/strengths are and seeing how that can line up. For example, since you're a physics student, if you're considering graduate school, you may be interested in focusing on doing research in say, condensed matter physics, which lends itself to applications in areas like smart materials, which can be applied to a wide range of products that can help people.

    It's also worth keeping in mind that gaining an understanding the basic properties of the world can, even if indirectly, work towards helping the world -- after all, how can you solve a problem if you don't even have a basic understanding of the problem at hand?
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