Random Asides

I Heart Physics

Do you have any idea what I’m doing right now? I’m sitting here in the physics study room my university – in the middle of June – writing this post. Before that I was reading ahead in my general physics textbook. Tomorrow? Tomorrow I start teaching myself multiple integration. I’m not in summer school. I’m just doing these things because I want to.

I’m always someone who liked school, but never to the point of creating my own study plan for the summer. I liked sleeping in, staying up late, and generally doing nothing during the day, just like everyone else. When I was in school the first time around, I never felt compelled to do read political science texts or do legal research during the summer. Never. Not even once. I mean, I did study abroad one summer. But if I could have gotten the money to do that without help from federal education loans, I probably would have just gone to have fun, not study.

I’m sure you don’t remember, but last July I wrote about why I’m abandoning the legal track and pursuing my secret childhood dream of becoming an astronomer (or astrophysicist, depending on the day). It was a scary decision to make, and I was really worried. I was betting a lot on this. What if I wasn’t smart enough? What if I didn’t have the will power to stick with something I wasn’t naturally good at? What if I’m too old? What if everybody in my classes are the worst? Or, worst of all, what if I hated it? If my childhood dream became my adult nightmare, I had no idea what I would do.

It turns out that I didn’t need to worry that much. (Although, most of my classmates can be the worst, with a few notable exceptions.) Did I spend my fair share of study breaks crying in the bathroom because I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of all eight bajillion integration methods? Yes, yes I did. Did I tell my advisor that that last physics test didn’t feel very good so I should probably just give up and try to be lawyer? Mmmhmm. Did I say I was bad at math in front of not one, but three female math and physics professors, and have they ever stopped nagging me about it? Yep, and nope. (The latter I’m actually grateful for.)

I never said I wasn’t a glass-half-empty person. But I’m not worried about whether I made the right choice anymore. Because despite the stress and being broke all the time and crying in the bathroom, I’m having a really good time.

I don’t blame you for not believing me. Crying in the bathroom doesn’t exactly sound like fun. And anyone who saw me work through my infinite series homework or debugging code would probably think I was the most miserable person in the room. At any one time, I may have been. (I mean, Jesus Christ, infinite series. WHAT ARE YOU?) But that misery is nothing compared with what I feel when I finally – FINALLY – figure out what the hell is going on.

I don’t know if this is something most people have experienced before, but I certainly hadn’t. At least, I hadn’t on a daily basis. And let me tell you something. It’s like crack. Or, now I imagine crack to be. I want to feel that way all the time, and if I have to do calculus problems until midnight to get that high, then I will. It’s exhausting and I barely have enough energy to do my actual job that I get paid money to do. But it’s worth it.

Could it be that this is the first time I’ve loved what I’m studying?

A couple of weeks ago I helped with a week-long day camp for middle school students. We learned some programming basics, talked about the moon, and had some university representatives come in and give their spiel. One day the guy from university career services came in to give advice on choosing a college major. He gave the same trite advice I’d gotten years ago. Follow your passion. Find out what you like and do it. I always thought this was terrible advice. Following your bliss is great and all, but we don’t live in a fairy tale. Shouldn’t some real-world cynicism, some practicality, get through the rose-tinted glasses?

I went to law school because I was trying to be practical. I believed the conventional wisdom that you can do anything with a law degree. (That’s not true, by the way.) It wasn’t that I didn’t like what I was studying. OK, there was a lot I didn’t like, but there was a lot of interesting stuff, too. However, there was never a day that I looked forward to going to class. I didn’t leap out of bed in the morning, ready to lean about estates and trusts or employment law. I do leap out of bed at 5 in the morning for calculus and physics. Sure, part of me wants to sleep, but dammit there are parts of this chapter on Gauss’ law I don’t understand and someone needs to explain it to me!

There are people for whom my experience is foreign. They are the ones who enthusiastically defend civil liberties in court or draft corporate merger documents or write legislation. We need those people, but they aren’t me. I wish it hadn’t taken me three years and $100,000 to figure that out, but in the end there is only so much you can change. (THANKS, OBAMA.)

There are times when I’m still very nervous about the future. Even after I’m done with this degree, I still need to get into a grad school. What if no one accepts me? What if, at the end of all of this, I’m right back where I started, except with even more debt? Maybe those are bridges I can cross later. Maybe right now I’ll just continue to have a good time.

(I’m sorry for the navel-gazing and you probably haven’t even gotten this far. But there’s just one more thing.

I’ve slogged through a year of being so far outside of my comfort zone that the earth may as well have been shaking under my feet. I’ve felt off-balance and out of my depth. If not for a support system that I seriously don’t deserve – my partner Chris, my family, and my poor put-upon advisor – I could have easily teetered some place very dark. They saved me a million times before I was strong enough to stand on my feet. Thanks.)

Featured image credit: the mad LOLscientist via Flickr


Mindy is an attorney and Managing Editor of Teen Skepchick. She hates the law and loves stars. You can follow her on Twitter and on Google+.

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  1. This is what I miss about being a physics undergrad. My current work has its own rewards, but there are sometimes when I really miss the focus, frustration, and eventual triumph (at least sometimes…) of throwing myself into a problem set for six to twelve hours. It sounds like you’re just starting to get into the really fun stuff!

    I hope you can find a good study group of people who will challenge but also respect you. I had one and it was absolutely invaluable for me. My experience was that, especially once you start getting to the more advanced level courses (Junior-level mechanics and E&M, QM, stat mech / thermodynamics, etc.), everyone has slightly different talents, and at least at my school, we were encouraged to do our homework in small groups in order to take advantage of that. I learned almost as much from my study group as I did from my professors.

    1. I hope I can find a group, too. Although I’m generally a misanthrope so we’ll see what happens :) So far is mostly been me hand-holding my classmates hands through work and energy problems. (No judgment. Glob knows I need my hand held at least as often as I don’t.) Respect will also be key. I had a three person lab group last semester. On person was gone, so it was just me and this guy. He fell asleep while we were doing the lab. I say we. While *I* was doing the lab. He just took the data and left. Luckily, when I sat down to do the calculations (without my partner, because he had left), I realized that our measurements were a bit wonky, so I had to do the lab again. I had to stay a bit later, but I had better data so I’m calling it a win for justice.

      1. Ugh, yeah, the “labmate from hell” is all too common. I did find that once I got to the upper level courses, my classmates were mostly only people who were really committed to the subject, as everyone else switched majors. Hopefully that happens with you, too!

        I did also want to add, regarding your worries about the future: even though I’m not doing physics any more (I also studied biology and ended up staying closer to that, going to grad school in neurobiology), I have never had any regrets at all that I did. The physics curriculum absolutely transformed the way that I see the world, such that when I drink a cup of miso soup and watch the distinctive way the particles clump and settle after stirring, I can’t help but think about the statistical mechanics at play, and wonder if maybe my miso soup is a model for a stellar nursery. And the skills and intuitions for quantitative reasoning have been invaluable for me in pretty much everything I’ve done since. I’m certain the astronomy/astrophysics curriculum is the same.

  2. Great Post, particularly this: “I do leap out of bed at 5 in the morning for calculus and physics.” That’s a great feeling and hopefully it takes you far,
    In terms of your questions on Gauss’s Law, I’m no expert in physics (math/cs are my areas), but the stackexchange sites are always my first looks for help. (stackexchange for programming, http://math.stackexchange.com/ for math questions, etc). I see they have one for physics as well – http://physics.stackexchange.com/.

    Hope that helps, and hope you stay excited about physics!

  3. You mention that you are concerned about getting into grad school or finding a job after you graduate (now or then).

    May I suggest that you consider studying all the things you’re studying, but rearranging your major/minor? I did this and it’s worked well. Instead of majoring in the specific discipline I was most interested in (plasma physics), I majored “nearby” in something that had similar requirements but could stand alone as a job credential (math). I did well enough to get into grad school (one year away from my PhD now, yeah!) in plasma physics and the fact that my major was not exactly the same field was really irrelevant. I had covered more than enough physics as a minor and often times physicists are more concerned about your math chops anyway.

    I would imagine that if you’ve taken most of the important astrophysics courses as electives or for your minor, and majored in math, you’d be a shoe-in for grad school in astronomy/astrophysics. And a math major is quite literally a degree that lets you do almost any job (that’s worth doing, heheh).

  4. I did sort of the opposite to find school which was challenging and brought me joy… I started as pre-med and switched to chem-engineering after my first year. I was good at it, the work came fairly easily, but it wasn’t fun. My senior year (with a 3.8 gpa) I switched majors to film/video. It was hard, hard work, and as I’d been paying for school on my own I was also struggling financially. But I’m endlessly glad I changed majors – dawn in the editing room sucked but the results of my work made me proud in a way that chemistry and applied differential equations never could.

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