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I Got a Physics Degree and It Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

Remember, like, three years ago I wrote a post about how I was going to go back to school and get a bachelor’s degree in physics? Ever wonder how that turned out?

I’m a lawyer, sort of. I mean, I passed the bar and everything. But back when I graduated I couldn’t find a job because of the recession. (Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.) I decided to throw caution and responsible student loan debt reduction to the wind and pursue my secret dream of becoming an astrophysicist. I was really nervous about it. My math skills weren’t the best…or even that good. But I had to try.

So that was three years ago, and I did it! I graduated! And let me tell you something: That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Yesyesyes, I know. I took the bar exam. Getting a physics bachelor’s degree was still harder.

Not in the “going back to school in your 30s makes you feel old when you’re around all these 19 and 20 year olds” kind of way, but in the “oh my glob this shit is hard to understand” kind of way. I’m not surprised there was only one other physics student in my graduating class.

Don’t get me wrong, I like studying physics. A lot. But I’m a smart person, and it’s just an undergraduate degree. Yet there were struggles.

Over the past three years I’ve kicked myself a few times for not pursuing physics my first time around, but upon reflection, I don’t think it would have worked out. Before law school – really, before the bar exam – I never really had to study for anything. And I didn’t really study that much for things. I read over notes the night before a test, but that’s not really studying. Because I generally caught onto things quickly – and because I could string words together to make a coherent thought – I never learned to study. When it comes to teaching me to study, law school didn’t even do that good of a job, but the bar exam did. The cruel irony is that I probably would not have been a successful physics student if I hadn’t subjected myself to the bar exam (and, by extension, law school).

That’s so annoying! Do you know how many thousands of dollars in debt I am, just to learn to study so I could try to be a physicist? Many. Many, many, many.

All in all, I’m glad I did it, though. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that I just like being in school, but it was more than that. It was more intellectually stimulating than what I was used to. I was usually exhausted at the end of the day from all the thinking, and it definitely made me think I was getting less intelligent. Because, unlike when I was a baby student or my brief time as a job-having adult, there were constant challenges. No day was especially easy. There was always some question I had a hard time answering. I couldn’t find the right bit of law or, failing that, a sorta OK bit of law that I could analogize into being an acceptable answer. There were infinite wrong answers, and only one right answer.

In grade school (and middle school and high school and some college) my worst assignments were math assignments. Those always got the most red marks, the worst grades. It taught me that math problems have an answer. Two plus two will always equal four, regardless of how well you argue otherwise. As far as I was concerned, math problems had one answer. I know a lot of people find this comforting, but the idea that one small error can throw everything else off track is terrifying to me. What if I made small errors on all the problems? What if I fail? What if I’m not smart? What if I can’t do this? What if what if what if? This is what math anxiety looks like for me.

It took me at least three semesters to stop thinking this way regularly. While it’s definitely possible to do an integral incorrectly, it’s almost as important to know when you have to do an integral in the first place. The journey to the answer is as important as the answer itself. When I started seeing classes that way, the classes started to feel less foreign. I’d done this before. Maybe I’ll mess up an integral along the way, the same way I’m sure I messed up by missing small but crucial bits of logic in a Supreme Court precedent. Even though my answer may not be completely right, it’s also not completely wrong, and I can work with that. Once I realized that I’d made similar errors in the past and that I’d continue to make them for the rest of my life, it wasn’t so scary. (But, let’s be real, sometimes still really scary.)

I realize that all of this sounds kind of awful, but it wasn’t. There were definitely days where I cried in the bathroom, wondering what I was even doing. Which, again, sounds bad. And it was bad, but it was temporary. If it wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it right now. I’m just lucky that I have a partner who provides constant, unwavering support and an advisor who, if she ever doubted my ability to grasp anything, she never showed it.

It’s almost as though being so hard was what made it so fun and so worth it. But “fun” and “worth it” doesn’t necessarily translate into “energizing.” The downside of all of this is that I had less energy to care about things I cared about before. I had less energy to keep up with the news, to write, to form opinions. I ended up missing that more than I expected, mostly because I didn’t realize it would disappear. Back in my political science/law days, it was almost impossible not to be somewhat informed about the goings-on in the world because it came up in class. All the time. But when I was studying physics, I had to make myself stay informed. And when a lot of the news is so emotionally draining, I often just didn’t have the brain power at the end of the day to deal with it. I didn’t like that so much, and I never did figure out how to balance it out.

So…now what? I did the thing, now what’s next? More. More is next. Despite being the hardest thing I’ve ever done, after three years I do still like studying physics. I managed to trick a few physics Ph.D. programs into letting me in, so I’ll start in the fall. (Don’t let anyone tell you your GRE score is too low, kids.) I can only expect more dark days of questioning my life choices while crying in the bathroom and even less time for news-reading and opinion-having. I can’t wait.

Featured image credit: 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. Great article even though it made me a bit nervous. The “what if” part spoke directly to me! I started college from absolute scratch at 38 to pursue a degree in physics. I’m 40 now and starting at a university to begin to take the real courses this year. On top of that I am thinking of double majoring in CS and working full time as well.

    Do you have any suggestions?

    1. I know it’s hard when you’re a non-traditional student, but things got a lot better for me when I let myself be friends with some of my classmates. I was really afraid they would be really judge-y, but I ended up learning a lot more than I would have otherwise, I think. Plus, you find out that even the smartest person in class who makes everything look so effortless is actually struggling with the same stuff you are. For me, getting rid of my self-imposed isolation was huge.

      I was really lucky, in that I could do my job from the internet and I managed to get paid to be a physics tutor (hourly, and almost nobody came in for help so I basically got paid to study). I’m not sure how I would have handled working full time. But because my schedule ended up being so unstructured, I really had to keep track of everything and keep to a schedule.

      I don’t know if any of this is helpful, but good luck on the “real” courses. In my experience, that’s when the fun begins :-)

      1. Awesome. I just finished my BS in Materials Chemistry, and it was pretty brutal. Most people don’t realize the harder chemistry majors take quantum mechanics. The class is called Physical Chemistry 2, in depth, and it was quantum and statistical mechanics, supposed to be 2 semesters, got crammed into one.

        My tutor is getting a PhD in computational physics, he had an undergrad in physics, said the material is a combination of their modern physics and quantum mechanics class, and just as difficult as what physics majors take.

        It has quite a reputation, I ended up with a B, had a half day off every week, no time to work out or do anything else.

        Not surprised on the lawyer thing you mentioned, most people don’t understand that a STEM degree is much harder than passing law school, not that that is easier, either.

    2. Oh, one more thing. I think that if you go into something knowing it’s going to be hard and that you’re probably not going to understand it right away and that that’s totally OK, then you’re ahead of most people. A lot of people coast through high school without having to work too hard (meeeeeee) and the moment they hit an unexpected wall, they don’t know how to get over it. But I think if you go in knowing that obstacles are surmountable, it just puts you in a frame of mind to actually get over them.

      1. I don’t think most people take advantage of tutors and advisors and professors’ office hours and other optional services offered by their colleges. I certainly didn’t and when I hit a wall (quantum mechanics and, to a lesser extent, statistical mechanics), I tried to force* my way through it on my own. I think I would have been much less shy and nervous about seeking help if I had talked to the professors and teaching assistants at all earlier, when I was still doing okay. I might even still be an astronomer if I had.

        [*](Physics joke) mostly be trying to absorb the text book by osmosis because I didn’t have the energy** to really study… didn’t work***.
        [**](2nd Physics joke)
        [***](3rd Physics joke)

  2. This actually makes me feel more strongly than I expected.

    Originally, I wanted to be a physics professor. High school was really easy, I liked math and physics, and I wanted to discover new things about how the universe worked. I felt pretty destroyed when I couldn’t figure stuff out and hold proofs in my head. It made me question a lot of how I saw myself as a smart person. I did graduate, but I didn’t go on in physics. That was partly because I of how poorly I did, and partly because with some co-op terms in labs, I decided I didn’t like the academic working culture.

    Thank you for sharing. It actually makes me feel a little better about myself to hear someone who’s been through another demanding field talk about how hard it is.

    1. Oh my glob…I can’t do math in my head. I neeeeeed to write it down and spend a lot of time working on it. It took me a while to realize that this didn’t mean that I don’t know what I’m doing, I just need to do it a different way.

      This actually makes me really angry, because I’m a a slow thinker. I’ve always been a slow thinker. (Which is maybe why I take to writing much more than speaking.) I make a lot of false starts. I need to see things written out before I really start to comprehend. Just because I need to write down every step of algebra doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on.

      Ah…I guess I used your comment as an excuse to rant. Sorry.

  3. Thank you for this post.

    Back in the day, I started off as an astronomy major. But I had a lot of problems socially in college and ended up getting crushed by life (including major depression and failing third semester calculus… twice.) I changed my major and walked away from what I’d wanted to do since I was a little kid.

    I’m currently nearing the end of my Ph.D. in History. Given that the job market is so terrible right now, I’ve toyed with the idea of going back and seeing if I can finally get that astronomy degree.

    In any case, thank you for letting me know that it *can* be done, even though it was the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It’s given me a lot to think about.

    1. I mean, keep in mind that I’ve lived a very fortunate life, and that “the hardest thing I’ve ever done” is relative :-)

      I honestly hope you don’t find yourself in the same position as I did when I decided to go back to school. I was temping and really down (I can’t say I was depressed, per se, but like the crying in my cubical kind of down), and I realized that I could either take a chance on a dream or stagnate doing something I hated. So I really, really hope you don’t find yourself in that position and that you find a job you like so you don’t *have* to go back to school. It’s definitely not ideal, but it’s also definitely not impossible if that’s what you decide.

      FWIW, as a history minor for my first undergrad degree, physics is more fun :-P

  4. I am so proud to be your friend. Congrats won how far you have come and all you had to overcome to get there. You are an inspiration.

  5. Congrats! Going back to school is hard in general. And good on you for doing physics. I wish I had done physics instead of chemistry. I didn’t do it because of the math. I just worried about being with too practical or too theoretical. Ironically I didn’t stick to chemistry… I ended up getting my BSc in chemistry and then pursued a MA in sociology because I became interested in the sociology of science.

    Ended up being a policy analyst for corrections for ten years and then three years ago said wtf am I doing. Anyway here I am now at 41 just finished my first year of my PhD in sociology and I’m the happiest I’ve been in a long time. :). Yes there have been many years, life choice questions and anger (among other things) but it’s worth it. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself with 3-5 years to go. :) point is if I can do it I think anyone can.

    Good luck and keep us updated!

    1. You have to take a lot of physics as a chemist, at least I did. Did you not take Pchem 1 and 2?

      Sociology is definitely much, much easier than chemistry.

  6. Well done. I did degrees in physics and then maths when I turned forty. Now at 51 I have just qualified as a teacher and that was way harder than both of the two degrees.
    Good luck with the PhD find out something amazing.

  7. Congrats!
    I went back to school in my 30’s because I decided I’d rather teach science to high school kids than work in television. Unlike my first attempt at a degree I was actually motivated this time and had direction, and it was a totally different experience. Getting my chemistry degree was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done (turns out quantum mechanics is difficult).
    If you’re considering doing something similar I’ll echo Mindy’s comments above; become friends with your classmates and form a study group with them, preferably the ones that seem smarter than you. We spent every weekend studying together, and working on problems that puzzled all of us was very useful and rewarding.
    I got hired to teach physics instead of chemistry and I just finished my first year teaching and (luckily) discovered that I love it. Next year I’ll be teaching ALL of the advanced physics courses at my high school and (while it’s slightly terrifying) I expect it to be a great challenge which I’m looking forward to.
    (P.S. I was the the camera man and editor who produced the poor-video-quality interviews with Sam and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Eugenie Scott for this site a few years ago. Sorry about the video quality, but thanks for giving me the opportunity to meet both of them. It was amazing.)

  8. Congrats! I got my physics degree almost a decade ago, worked as a programmer for a while, and then went back to school last year, in applied math, hoping to get a PhD and become a scientist. It’s really mind-expanding, but I definitely have days where I feel like I just realized how much less I understand than I thought I did. Or problems where I feel like I only got the answer because I was so stubborn and so annoyed at the problem that I threw everything I could think of at it in gory detail.

    Still, there are those days when you realize that you can do something that you didn’t even know was possible before, or that something that was hard a year ago comes naturally now, and then it reminds you that all the confusion and frustration actually is getting you somewhere. It’s a wild experience, isn’t it?

    Also, glad you made friends with your classmates. It really made a ton of difference to me, to talk to people struggling through all the same stuff.

  9. Congrats. That was my undergrad degree 38 years ago. It was hard them. Given the advances in the field, it must be impossible today. I suppose it is like being a Marine, only those who have done it really understand. The few, the proud, the Physics BS. I went on to other things, but that education still informs my life all these years later. You will never be sorry.

    1. Should be about the same difficulty as 38 years ago for a physics undergrad. You don’t do anything cutting edge in undergrad, just the basics, so it should be mostly the same. Also, I was in the Army, despite what the Marines say, we are about the same. Their basic is like 2 weeks longer, that’s about it.

      I did a materials chemistry degree, which was as difficult as Physics, as I took quantum mechanics my second semester. There’s actually multiple chemistry degrees, from somewhat easy, biochem to super hard, materials chem and biomolecular.

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