During the final year of my physics degree, I decided I wasn’t going to be a physicist.
I was going to write, teach, fight, speak—do anything BUT get a traditional job.
I never fell out of love with physics.
I fell out of love with working for someone else. I’d lived a life most people don’t make it out of. From growing up in the hood, to being an alcoholic, nothing was written in the cards for me to be successful. I had a story to share that could help other people and I wanted to share it.
Though I didn’t pursue a career in physics, I don’t regret my education.
Learning physics makes you arguably smarter than the rest of the population. However, a physics degree is NOT for everyone.
In this post, you’ll discover 4 reasons not to follow the physics path.
What a career in physics looks like
First, let’s be realistic about what physics is.
Physics is a broad education in technology and science. It’s a general path that will give you a high level of skill in most technology and analytical fields.
I initially wanted to major in some engineering discipline. As part of that, I had to take physics.
During an experiment involving projectile motion (where an object is only under the force of gravity and its initial launch acceleration), I calculated and marked where a pellet would land. When it landed where I said it would, I was amazed.
Physics looked like magic to me. I could predict, with math, how the physical world behaved. I decided that I wanted to do that.
I imagine most physics majors come upon a curiosity in physics in much the same way. Or maybe they heard of Feynman the trickster, or took an elective in high school and were enamored with the romance of a physics degree.
The problem with this is, you think you want to be a physicist but you don’t actually know what that looks like. So you get to college and when the difficulty of the coursework punches you in the face you wonder if you chose the right path.
What you do on a daily basis after completing a physics program depends on the job you take. Some career paths require hours of creating math and modeling simulations. While others involve ample time writing proposals and reviewing ideas with colleagues. In many fields, you’ll spend most of your time doing things that you didn’t go to school for like being in meetings and discussing outcomes with your colleagues.
Another reason I chose physics is that all of the highest-paying jobs and the jobs with the highest employee satisfaction have a high degree of mathematics involved. So, I figured that if I ended up using my physics degree to get a job, it would be easy to get something high paying and interesting.
Job examples for physics graduates include:
- Patent agent
- Quantitative analyst
- Data scientist
- Technical Writer
- Physics Professor
- Software engineer
- Systems engineer
4 Ways to tell if studying physics is a bad idea
Below are four ways to tell if studying physics is a mistake.
1. You hate math
I wouldn’t claim to be ‘good’ at math but I enjoyed it. I took calculus 4 times before I passed. When I chose physics, all I knew was that it was fascinating and required me to learn a lot of math (so much math that all physics majors automatically get a math minor).
You don’t have to be a math genius to get better at math. In fact, I used to tutor other students and kids to do just that. There are fundamental math concepts that, if you learn them, you’ll enjoy math far more.
Math is the fundamental building blocks of physics. It’s a common language. So if spending your life using it on a daily basis sounds daunting, a physics degree may not be for you.
2. You want to impress people
If no one knew you were studying physics, would you still pursue it?
If the answer is no, you’re doing it for likes and hearts.
People tend to look at physics majors in a state of awe and assume they’re intelligent as well. This feeling makes you feel like the coolest guy in the room. It can also trick you into following a path to impress other people rather than doing it because it generally interests you.
Learning physics is intellectually humbling. If you aren’t doing it because you genuinely desire it, discovering you aren’t as smart as your peers can put you in a dark place. This is important because you’re entering a field that is difficult for more than 99.7% of the population to grasp. You will always be in the company of intellectual giants. And if your field requires you to publish, like theoretical physics or academia, you’ll have to stand up to the scrutiny of others.
3. You crumble at the sign of a challenge
Physics courses are weed-out difficult.
Physics gives you a new way to see the natural world. You’re relearning how to think and unlearning the poor, lazy, critical thinking habits you’ve developed throughout your life.
So if you want to be successful in anything from applied physics to astrophysics to computer science you have to be willing to feel dumb a lot of the time.
When physics students start talking about changing their undergraduate degree, I often hear, “My professors don’t know how to teach.” This is their way of explaining away the difficulty.
It’s true that all professors are not gifted physics teachers but looking at your academic career this way is the same as an artist saying people don’t like my art because they don’t “get it.”
Humans reach goals when we can see a path for achievement and believe that achievement is possible for you.1 If you believe the homework sets are beyond you, your professors don’t care, or are out to get you, you’ll likely become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
4. You’re uncomfortable with its broad nature
You’ll need creativity to apply your physics degree to your desired career path.
As I said before, I never fell out of love with physics. I just discovered that I wanted to focus on my writing. However, the skills that I’ve learned from physics continue to aid me, even working for myself as a writer.
For example, physics gave me the ability to read through the science of an article that I might be using to make a point. It’s given me the mind to not fall for clickbait articles because I understand how the math is being used to mislead. But best of all, I’m able to break down complicated topics and ideas and deliver them back in such a that they are simple and easy to grasp. I credit my physics education with that ability, which is useful in any field.
Physics helped me to become a better thinker. Outside of this, I actually had no idea what I’d do with the degree. Physics is a difficult major where the outcome isn’t necessarily obvious.
Whereas a computer engineer is obviously going to become a computer engineer, there is not really a job title of “physicist.” This means that you really have to love challenging yourself and learning for the sake of challenging yourself and learning.
Even in a master’s degree program, you may not have a clear path to a field you’ll enjoy. This is why it’s important to work on yourself and get a hobby. The more you know what your likes and dislikes are, the closer you are to a fulfilling career path.
Final thoughts about ‘Should I study physics?’
Changing a degree program is difficult because of the effects it has on the next 10-20 years of your life. If you’re smart enough and hard-working enough to do physics, your guaranteed salary is likely higher in most engineering fields.
Bottom line: Physics is difficult and the path isn’t laid out for you. So, if you don’t have a compelling reason to study physics, there’s likely a better path to follow.
Gollwitzer, Peter & Oettingen, Gabriele. Motivation and Actions, Psychology of. ResearchGate.net.(2015).10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.26040-6. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323838799_Motivation_and_Actions_Psychology_of ↩