Think About It! On Physics & Making Major Life Decisions

By Nicholas Zanata

WinniethePoohimageCopyrightWaltDisneyStudiosLife is complicated.

I know that’s probably an adage you are so damn tired of hearing all the time, but unfortunately it’s one that’s true. You’ll probably hear it a million more times, at the very least, so I apologize for that. It’s really the only way to summarize.

Life is complicated.

When I was an undergraduate, life was – on the surface, anyway – a lot simpler. I wouldn’t have said that at the time, but it’s undeniable in retrospect. The job was simple: go to college, get a degree, graduate. Attain a $50,000 a year job and you’re set for life, 401(k) and all.

Then reality came storming over the horizon. Like the apocalyptic horsemen of legend, they wrought havoc on my quaint ideas about the future.

I couldn’t even blame myself. I never got one of those “fake” degrees people always scoffed at – the humanities were useless, right? Physics seemed utilitarian and, from an organization like Stony Brook, was a guaranteed win! Unfortunately, of course, the truth is a lot more complex than that. I found this out the hard way. When I graduated, I didn’t hit the ground running. I stumbled and fell right on my face.

Job after job denied me for a “lack of experience.” I thought this was strange. I had followed the rulebook. I’d acquired an internship – two actually! – and I’d passed all my classes with flying colors, yet every introductory entry level position I found required five years of laboratory experience and two years of management experience. Nothing fit for a poor B.S. in Physics candidate! Having that degree simply was not enough, and that was the brutal truth I discovered when I entered the working world. It was at this moment, in my despair over the premature end of my future, that I fell into a trap. It’s a strange trap for a scientist to fall into, and those damned humanities everybody in my discipline always scoffed at would probably have helped.

I went back to graduate school, but I hadn’t thought. I hadn’t thought about what I wanted when I went back.

Before I get to this main point and ramble on with my advice, a little backstory about the academic world of physics is needed for reference. I’m not sure how other disciplines fare, but I imagine it isn’t much different – perhaps just less equations flying around.

The academic world of physics is savage. Publish or perish, as the saying goes, is the reigning ideology. It doesn’t matter what you are doing or which discipline you like most, your primary goal should always be getting your name on as many pointlessly trite papers as possible. On top of this already hyper stressful, high pressure environment is the familiar lack of funding. Physicists are constantly fighting one another for government grants, projects, and research. If you lose out because your grant proposal didn’t stack up, you’re basically screwed. In the meantime, since tenure is no longer a viable option at universities in the United States, most physicists end up teaching and lecturing – the “easy” part of the job – at their university, either part time or per diem. This is the plight of the physicist post-doc.

If that wasn’t enough to look forward to, graduate students compete with a massive amount of people attempting to reach the level I previously described beforehand, trying to get into any university at all. They are simultaneously expected to work for free or for mere pennies as they publish their name on paper after paper, hoping to reach the level of post-doc. You more or less have to do whatever your adviser says. No questions asked. The wider physics community expects graduates to shuffle directly into this graduate school environment after undergraduate. It is highly discouraged for any students to a) leave physics academically for industry or b) enter into any other kind of discipline. These things are viewed as lesser endeavors, and although it’s never said out loud, you will be regarded as a failure for leaving academics for either reason. There’s definitely some kind of warped ideological purity at work here, but I could spend an entire other article discussing just that.

This was the environment I was vying for. Of course, I sound knowledgeable now, but I only began to discover the sorry state of academics recently, after doing much personal research. I knew none of this going in, and because of my ignorance, I simply thought applying to graduate M.S. programs in physics was the ticket to my success. It’s what I’d been told over and over again for 4 years, and not once did I question it.

So I did just that, and I got into a program at City College. At no point did I ever stop to think, because my peers and advisers all pushed me to just keep doing physics, because it was the right thing to do… for some reason.

Something was wrong when I got in, though. At first, everything seemed fine. My catastrophically failing life was put on hold, and the right path was opening up ahead of me. It was all working out. No more deep existential dread! I’d finally made it!

Then… well, then the reality of it all set in. After the glamour wore off, I began to really feel the graduate school grind. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, because incredibly difficult classes were not new to me. I even enjoyed the crushing difficulty of certain classes in undergraduate. I reveled in it. Not so this time. Enthusiasm was giving way to deep frustration. My classes were interesting, sure, but I had a hard time finding the motivation to care. This problem only worsened. It did not go away, not matter how much I tried to ignore it.

After weeks and weeks of just going through the motions, chocking up all these strange new feelings to graduate school nerves, I cracked. You can only ignore the return of burgeoning existential dread for so long before a full on panic attack sets in, and that’s exactly what happened.

This is what happens when a scientist stops thinking.

I felt like I was going to die. I had been convinced this was the right path – no, dead sure of it! All of my senior colleagues told me it was. Why was I flaking now? Was I stupid? Was I not good enough? Was I simply not cut out for a discipline I had spent 4 years and thousands of dollars studying? Was it all a waste, was I a waste?

When the initial panic subsided, I tried a new approach. Ignoring it was not working, so I decided to… well, think about it. I thought hard about my life and my decisions, and what it was I wanted out of my beloved subject. I knew I didn’t want to give it up, but I also knew a new approach was needed.

Suffice it to say, after intensive introspection, I realized physics was not for me in the traditional sense. Turns out I was the heretic in the group. I wanted to go into teaching. I wanted to use my understanding and my knowledge to make a difference. I felt so certain of this new realization that, when the dread subsided, all I felt was a relieved happiness. I drew strength from my decision, strength that I felt in my gut. Like a rock settling to my core, I knew teaching was the right path. So I went for it. Heretic that I was, I went for it and completely switched gears. It was unheard of, but I knew I had to do it.

Sometimes, when I speak to my colleagues, I can still see the brief look of horror and even revulsion in their eyes when I tell them, with conviction, what I intend to do with my life. I even told one of my colleagues that going for a Ph.D. was a complete waste of time and money, and I’ll never forget the wide eyed stare he gave me. When I told one of my friends in my M.S. program that I intended to switch programs, he told me not to give up. He didn’t ask me what I wanted to switch to or congratulate me on coming to such a major decision.

He told me not to give up.

I suppose the point of all this is for me to implore you guys to think about what you really want to do. I understand the pull of academics, and of course, sometimes that path is perfect for other people. However, a lot of my colleagues and friends are simply slotted into specific disciplines because they think it’s easy, or worse, because they feel they already spent time dedicated to a certain subject, so why switch?

Thinking about it is crucial. Think think think. Like Winnie the Pooh, sitting on a log in the forest, you have to really sit down and consider what you want out of life. Don’t just “go through the motions.” Don’t just “do it for the sake of it.” Do it because you love it, and do it because it gives personal fulfillment.

So sure, life is complicated. But it’s a lot less complicated when you think.

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