A different question

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butsurigakusha
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A different question

Postby butsurigakusha » Sun Nov 25, 2007 4:55 pm

Although I am nearly certain that I am going to go to grad school, I still have second thoughts sometimes. Especially when I hear about how hard and stressful grad school is, and when I see some of my friends going out and getting jobs programming and stuff, I sometimes wonder if I am making the best choice.

So my question is, does anyone else here ever have these thoughts? How certain is everyone of this choice?

Just curious.

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quizivex
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Postby quizivex » Sun Nov 25, 2007 6:26 pm

@ butsurigakusha

I've had these thoughts all the time. Coming into college, I loved science, and certain images came to mind when I imagined what a career in science would be like... I thought of NASA, outer space, discovery channel shows and really cool pictures in my HS textbooks.

I get here and everything was different. I'm in a demoralizing academic environment <deleted for anonymity>. The science instructors were not like the dedicated, expert instructors I was used to in HS, but they were old, weird and completely detached from reality, and with a few exceptions, could not teach as well as HS instructors... I'm well aware that this happens at most schools, not just the lame ones like I'm in.

I couldn't find much relief by turning to the textbooks. Deranged roomates and other problems kept me from focusing. However, the textbooks were not what I expected either... They were dry, rigidly formal and seemed not to be written for people starting with a "general physics" background, but instead for those who've been studying physics since age 4.

"It can be shown by combining equations 3.24 and 3.11 and invoking arguments from classical statistical mechanics that the oscillator described in section 3.2 is equivalent to the one in Ingleflitzech et. al but that would be beyond the scope of this book."

(Anyone who can remain interested after 4 years of that is incredible).

Aside from genuine interest, why else would we do physics, in grad school and/or in our career?

Our counterparts in medicine and law will be making 5x what we make. People who went into business, who will graduate 6 years before we finally finish our PhD (if we finish it), will still make much more than we do. Sure maybe we'll make 100k someday... once we're 55 years old and grey haired and finally have tenure.

They'll have more of a social life too... It's a major loss being isolated from women as we are. No offense to anyone, but I, being a white American male, don't enjoy feeling like an outsider in the country I was born and raised in. I feel culturally out of place in a physics dept. So many physics grad students have spouses and kids and are a generation older than we are...

Being beaten to death in grad school is not something I'm looking forward to unless there are other things that make it worth the challenge. I'm hoping that I end up somewhere that's nice enough to undo the negative impression I've developed of the physics life.

So yes, you're not alone in having second thoughts.
Last edited by quizivex on Mon Jan 14, 2008 5:55 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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will
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Postby will » Sun Nov 25, 2007 7:14 pm

Grad school is hard and stressful, but you like physics because it's hard. Being a businessman or a doctor or a lawyer is stressful too, and probably (for us) not half as fun as being a physicist. As for a social life; it's what you make it. If you're the kind of person who makes time for spending with your friends, you'll continue to do so. Not to mention that it's actually pretty nice to relax and have a beer with someone who likes discussing space-time geometry or quantum entanglement, and you'll meet a lot more of those people than you knew as an undergrad.

To quizivex, you've seen the problems; now it's our job to fix them. Have you ever thought about writing (or at least reviewing and putting into use) better texts? Being that professor that undergrads are lined up down the hall to work with?

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Postby quizivex » Sun Nov 25, 2007 8:00 pm

I think there are a bunch of good texts. Many of the general physics and modern physics ones do a good job as I found when I reviewed for the GRE. Griffith's E&M and the first few chapters of his quantum text are well done, and he uses a disarming informal tone that I very much appreciate. A lot of the math textbooks we used were great too...

The problem is that most undergrad programs stick with the "accepted" book and refuse to look for a better one. Everyone uses Kittel's Solid State for the sake of obeying the convention even though most students (and the faculty that use it) think it's a disgrace. Also, Thornton-Marion's pedantic tone in the mechanics book is as repulsive as the fact that it's does a lousy job of bridging the gap between general physics and introductory mechanics. That half-assed chapter on the calculus of variations, which needs a course of its own to be learned properly, does not prepare a student to understand the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formalisms.

But again I've found that every topic is covered very well in at least one source. For instance, I was always confused by the difference between phase and group velocity. Most books simply write it as omega/K vs d(omega)/d(k). But with some effort I found a text that gave a lucid, cohesive description of what they are and how they are used...

So I think nothing I could write would be any better than something else that's already out there... it's just a matter of making a cooperative attempt within the physics community find and agree on the best possible resources for all of the physics topics and make sure they are used in undergrad physics programs.
Last edited by quizivex on Mon Jan 14, 2008 5:57 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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will
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Postby will » Sun Nov 25, 2007 9:29 pm

That's what the part in parentheses was for. I've had plenty of teachers who rejected the standard texts in favor of better books, and they haven't lost their jobs over it. Rather, I'm suggesting that you are less out-of-touch than the teachers you had a bad experience with, and while you don't need to fix the entire establishment, you, individually, could make the experience of countless students better by teaching mechanics out of, say, Hand and Finch (and they didn't even pay me to write that!) instead of Thornton.

I guess the point of that digression was just to say that I think improving the undergraduate experience for students interested in physics is a pretty rewarding motivation to stick around in academia, despite the obvious, painful shortcomings.

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grae313
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Postby grae313 » Sun Nov 25, 2007 10:05 pm

Hm... I love my physics department. My professors are awesome and the lectures are challenging and engaging. I've made very close friends with some of my peers here, we go skiing, camping, hiking, swimming, and sneak into the physics clubroom to drink and watch movies on the projector some Friday nights. My professors all know me by name and care about my future. In fact, after the weekly seminars the professors and students usually go out for a drink together. I didn't use Marion for mechanics so I can't comment on that, but I certainly didn't mind Griffiths.

Is this really rare? quizivex, it sounds like you wound up in a shitty department.

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butsurigakusha
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Postby butsurigakusha » Sun Nov 25, 2007 11:38 pm

I don't think it's too rare. I have really enjoyed my undergraduate physics experience. But I am at a department where there is slightly more emphasis put on teaching than on research, and I think most of the professors here could have chosen to go to more prestigious research schools, but chose not to.

My wavering is not result of a bad undergraduate experience. I am more worried by some of the things I read and hear about graduate school, and careers in physics. It is probably the case that the few who have terrible experiences are more vocal, so what I have seen is not a representative sample. Of course, talking to professors is not really a good representative sample, either, because in this case we are only talking to the ones who were able to get faculty positions.

Anyway, here are some of the negative images I have:

graduate school is 6 or more years of hell, in which you are treated like a slave, often doing laborious, mundane work, and grad students are often extorted by their advisors into working for them longer by threatening to not allow them to get their phd

more and more, those who complete the phd are required to work several post-doc positions, I have heard as much as 3 or 4, up to 12 years, before finally getting a full time faculty position. But then they have to try to get tenure, so it still is not quite a permanent job.

Those who chose to pursue a career in academia will be extremely limited in their choice of living location, as there are a limited number of faculty openings each year.

Now, I am not trying to discourage anyone here. I am actually hoping that someone will come and tell me that it is not going to be that bad, that these fears are overblown.

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will
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Postby will » Mon Nov 26, 2007 2:43 am

It seems like some people are convinced that getting a Ph.D. in physics is a death sentence. If your advisor is a complete jerk, get a new one! Few people have a truly hellish experience with grad school, and the ones who do, it's because they let it happen. As for faculty jobs, if it doesn't work out you can still do awesome research in industry. It's not so bad; you make more money, have a bit more choice in location, etc.

All in all, a life can be spent worse. :)

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quizivex
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Postby quizivex » Mon Nov 26, 2007 6:43 am

@ grae313, will

Ok I guess a lot depends on the school you go to. My school is hell, but I figured some of the issues observed here were ubiquitous. Maybe that's not the case.

I'll save the stories for a later time, now I need to find something to say for this personal statement. I'm at a brick wall, clueless.

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Postby twistor » Mon Nov 26, 2007 9:09 am

quizivex:

I can honestly say I empathize with your plight. I too have seen how bad it can be. My university is an intellectual wasteland located in an urban wasteland. The physics department is apathetic to the needs of students, many of whom are foreign. The instructors are often foreign educated themselves and seem to have little understanding of what American education really consists of. It's very disturbing when your QM professor refers to things he expects you to know from "grade-school calculus"....

Though there are few women in the typical physics department, I don't feel isolated from them. This, I fear, is a personal choice that comes from low self-esteem (perhaps) rather than physical isolation.

For these reeasons I have decided to forgo the typical graduate school path in favor of applied physics. Our society simply does not reward the hard work and dedication that goes into a physics degree. I would much prefer to exit graduate school with a marketable set of skills than become an expert in a small, specialty field with no applications in the real world.

So, aside from genuine interest, which faculty apathy, poor teaching, and dense textbooks have recently murdered, I can see no reason to go into physics. Unless you get your highs solely from intellectual pursuits, it isn't a particularly rewarding field. And let's face it, most of us wanted to be Hawking or Penrose anyway, and that's just not going to happen. The hard reality is that 99% of physicists are working in dank labs in run down shit-holes of universities where there are underpaid and underappreciated and grow more embittered by the day. They feel the world doesn't appreciate them for the 76 scientific papers they have written in the specialty field of XYZ and that students don't of the present generation are lackadaisical.

But that's just my opinion, and some of the reasons I'm no longer going into pure physics....

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butsurigakusha
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Postby butsurigakusha » Mon Nov 26, 2007 1:59 pm

Here is an article related to the discussion of physics undergraduate programs. Thought some people might be interested. Interestingly, I found out that my program was one of the visited programs mentioned in the article for having a "thriving" undergraduate physics program. So maybe my positive undergraduate experience is atypical.

http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-56/iss-9/p38.html

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Postby tnoviell » Mon Nov 26, 2007 3:38 pm

No, you will most likely not make $100k/yr as a physics professor ... very rare unless you move beyond the professor part and more towards administration.

Yes, graduate school is hell, especially the first year. The majority of students have thought about quitting at one point or another.

Yes, you are treated like a slave, pretty much regardless of your advisor. Your advisor may only make you feel better about it.

I am a current Ph.D student, and I can tell you out of the 10 people in my class, there are 3 that absolutely can't stand it and are seriously considering quitting, 4 that love it, and 3 that are neutral towards it. The ones who love it are the most determined people I've ever met in my life.

So, get your Ph.D if you really, really want it. You should have no doubts in your mind about it. If you have doubts, I would seriously consider sitting down and thinking about your life and what you want to do.

If I could do it again, I would take at least a year off and get my mind right. But that's just me. Do what feels right for you - that's what matters most. If you decide to enter grad school and don't like it, just quit, there are plenty of options out there.

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Postby will » Mon Nov 26, 2007 3:59 pm

If you decide to enter grad school and don't like it, just quit


I think that's something that doesn't get said enough; probably because it carries the connotation of "giving up." It's not. Grad school is a job, and just like any other job there's a wide spectrum of feelings you can have about it, however there is no (good) reason to stay in a job that makes you miserable.

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Postby tnoviell » Mon Nov 26, 2007 4:07 pm

It does. When people say "I want to leave graduate school," most will respond with a resounding "Don't just give up." It's foolish to me, really, because in most scenarios I believe people go through just to get the title. Once you get the title, you may find that the prestige isn't truly there, nor will the money, especially in academia. You can make more money with a BS in physics coming out of college than with a Ph.D in physics coming out of graduate school. Most high paying positions with a Ph.D are for people with years of experience with that degree.

There are people in my program who are extremely dedicated and want it, the others are just there because they say "what else am I supposed to do?" I've heard it all.

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twistor
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Postby twistor » Mon Nov 26, 2007 8:02 pm

Where are the high-paying jobs for someone with a BS?

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Postby tnoviell » Mon Nov 26, 2007 8:25 pm

You can certainly start off making 50-60k with a BS in industry doing engineering or programming...give yourself the time it takes to get a Ph.D, and assuming you get a Masters on the road in your industry career you'll probably be making some good bank.

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twistor
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Postby twistor » Tue Nov 27, 2007 2:17 pm

I've seriously considered forgetting to whole nonsense about graduate school and just going into the labor force. I knew there jobs in engineering and probably programming, but I didn't think there were many and I figured competition would be fierce against actual engineers and programmers.

But do we agree there are essentially no physics jobs for someone with a BS?

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Postby quizivex » Tue Nov 27, 2007 7:03 pm

@ Twistor

Thanks for that post, it's important for others to see that more than one person is dissatisfied with their experiences, and thus that the problems in physics really are ubiquitous... not just complaints from a few frustrated students. Good luck with applied physics.

It's very disturbing when your QM professor refers to things he expects you to know from "grade-school calculus"....


I'll bet he referred to those things in grade school level english, lol.

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Postby tnoviell » Tue Nov 27, 2007 8:13 pm

What do you consider a "physics" job? All my friends that didn't go to graduate school and that got their degree in physics now have a job in an engineering industry. There are alot of opportunities.

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Postby schmit.paul » Wed Nov 28, 2007 9:28 pm

It's definitely correct that physics ph.d's can branch outside of physics and make some real money doing related (to varying extents) work. As tnoviell said, there is use for physics majors in industry in engineering and programming positions, and the same companies also have use for physics Ph.D's. On the other hand, one often-mentioned career path for physics Ph.D's (though not on this thread as of yet) is finance. Now, it seems like a lot of seemingly unrelated work to put yourself through in obtaining a physics Ph.D just to go into finance, but consider the fact that physics grad students (especially experimental ones) have an understanding of mathematics, statistics, data analysis, and rough model-building that surpasses that of a typical finance MS student by orders of magnitude (a couple finance MS students live on my floor, they were reviewing Calc. I coming into the graduate program, just for a matter of comparison). Lets not forget that while you are building your math/statistics skill set, you could actually be doing research you enjoy and making a significant contribution to your field while you are a graduate student. I'll repeat what my current research adviser told me: in physics, the first-tier students often get tenured faculty positions at good schools; the second-tier students will either go into industry or become researchers at national labs; the third-tier students will go into finance, and they will make 10x as much money as anyone in the top two tiers. My adviser said they encourage students who want to follow that path to do so, and they only hope that that student will maintain a certain passion for their original field and eventually funnel some of their exorbitant earnings back into scientific research.


I've heard a lot of "slave-driving" references, but this is not always the case. If you pick an adviser that treats you as such no matter what you do, then you need to switch advisers. My impression I've gotten thus far is this: your ambition and tenacity will largely determine the way in which you are treated by your research adviser. If you come in willing to do whatever it takes to gain an up-to-date understanding of research in your chosen field and are not afraid to bring up ideas and discuss them openly with your adviser, he/she will pick up on it and push you in the right direction to make your graduate career what you want it to turn out to be. But if you simply choose someone who's work you're "sort of interested in" and wait for them to tell you what to do, then that's all you are going to be to that prof: cheap labor. If you don't allow yourself to go into this sort of negative feedback loop where you define yourself as a slave, and in doing so you give the impression that that's all you want out of your graduate experience, then you can really enjoy yourself and make strides towards impacting your field significantly.

tnoviell is also right that grad school must be a sober and pragmatic decision, because it will soak up a chunk of your life, and by todays standards you will be undercompensated for the amount of effort you might be putting into it. But let's not forget a few things: you will be underpaid, but you will also get to do something that most college grads would kill to do--stay in college, for free. In fact, you'll be paid to do so (though not incredibly handsomely, but you'll also still be living like a student for some time, so the money is sufficient). You will have a unique life experience should you continue to pursue scientific research, particularly in the academic setting. Namely, you will be one of the few members of your larger peer group that will not experience the typical 9-to-5 daily grind that defines life for so many people in our society. While most people avoid defining themselves by their job, as it truly is nothing more than a way to ensure continued sustenance and survival in between the few moments of recreation life affords, you will quite possibly take pride in your career, defining yourself by your passion for discovery and the utilization of your time for the greater good, not just to draw a paycheck. So perhaps some of this is whimsical, and I will certainly concede that scientists should be paid more (as should teachers), but I think those of us who willingly put ourselves through the academic ringer are providing ourselves with opportunities to experience life in ways that not many people will ever have a chance to experience.

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Postby brothermalcolm » Thu Nov 29, 2007 7:15 pm

I like this thread. It's going to deter alot of ppl who've got second thoughts from applying.

Ok, seriously now, I sometimes feel like I've made a fated decision: the decision to take physics from highschool level to uni level. I had no idea I would end up struggling all the time. Now I'm sold to the struggle, I simply want to get to a point where I can contribute something back. I don't think I would mind being worked like a slave everyday because it's all gonna be part of the experience. The important thing is to get paid to do it and not get demoralized. Yes, I totally agree with the people who said gradschool is like a job. You can choose to quit it after you've done it for real and decide that you can predict what it's like to do it for the rest of your life. At undergrad you simply can't tell yet - most of us are still miles away from at least having seen all the stuff they wanted to see as a freshman (which for me is probably more theory). Isn't that so? Have no doubts about it then, if you've always felt like you can make a contribution on the front line.

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will
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Postby will » Thu Nov 29, 2007 11:13 pm

Something that might be interesting to think about is to consider grad school as an entry level job in physics. If you do programming or engineering, ultimately you might make more money than a professor. Right away? Working a full time job (in programming it might be a 60 hour week if you want to stand out), you'll make only a little more than your peers in school on a 20 hour a week teaching assistantship (and I never met a TA that actually worked 20 hours a week). Yes you'll have homework and studying eating up your time, but if you haven't given up yet, you obviously enjoy it at least a little bit. And sure, the engineers get to take off their ties at 5 o'clock and put the day's work behind them, but do you really want your life to only occur between 5pm and 9am? People say grad students don't get to have any social life (something I entirely disagree with), but I think anyone trying to get their start in any industry has a whole lot of buckling down to do. Physics students actually make out pretty good. =)

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Postby tnoviell » Thu Nov 29, 2007 11:55 pm

Graduate school experience varies from person to person, but I can only give you my observations, as I am a current graduate student.

The people who are enjoying it knew, without question, that they wanted a Ph.D. There wasn't a shadow of doubt. They have sheer determination, and there is no other option in their mind.

The people who are not enjoying it are the people who were kind of ... "well, this could work." Undecided is an okay word to fit the description. With doubts in mind, the absolute insanity that is the week, and I mean insanity, can mentally destroy you very quickly. I don't know how to say this, but if you are to proceed forward, there are no days off. Some people take easy routes out - they're assigned, say, a problem set from Jackson, and they copy the solutions they found online. They will be crucified on qualifiers without ever seeing it coming. To proceed forward you must work 7 days per week, with science on the mind constantly. It's not only your profession, it's your life style. Scary thought? For some.

It depends what you want out of life. If you know you want to be in academia without doubt, then I would highly recommend graduate school. If you are in doubt, I would suggest you take a year off to sit down and think, while getting a 9-5. Get to know yourself, what you want, etc.

That's just my suggestion - take it with a grain of salt.




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