People often ask if graduate school was worth it. I’ve made it work for me. As someone who left his field of graduate study, I wrote the following on graduate school to someone asking if it will suck out your life power, you’ll have no social life, no free time, low pay, a lot of stress etc.
I got a PhD in physics at Columbia in 2000. I helped build an X-ray observational satellite (XMM-Newton). I left the field to start a company and I don’t know anyone who enjoys life more than I do. People often ask if I use my physics education now. I don’t solve hard problems, but having written and defended a thesis, I constantly use my ability to solve hard six-year projects. Also, I think I think more clearly than a lot of people.
I’ve come to associate physics with studying nature, so over the years my physics skills and knowledge have come to relate more to perceiving beauty than solving hard problems and I enjoy seeing more beauty in the world than I would have otherwise.
The first year and a half of graduate school, which was at Penn, was brutal, mainly because I started majoring half way through my junior year in a subject many classmates knew they were doing since high school, especially the students not from the U.S. I think I had taken twenty physics and math classes undergraduate. Some students had taken double that. A classmate who had taken nineteen dropped out, so I think my preparation was just on the cusp of what my graduate program needed.
Though my social life was good in college, I didn’t know how to adjust to graduate school life, so I was a lot more lonely. By now that’s all changed, mainly through challenging myself socially and working on improving emotional awareness and skills. I wish I had worked on that area of life earlier. I could have done that while in school. On the other hand, I played ultimate frisbee and made it to Nationals, ran a couple marathons, and went dancing a lot, so I had those awesome outlets too.
I chose the subject because I liked it, never for a job. Frankly, i don’t understand why people look at the field from a vocational standpoint. If you earn a PhD in physics, you can solve all sorts of problems. The one time in my life I needed to look for a job I found one paying six figures within a couple months at a start-up. Eventually I left it because I prefer starting companies and wanted to go to business school, which I did, because I didn’t know basic business skills.
In summary, getting the PhD was brutal but rewarding. No problems paying bills in the decade-plus since. I feel like I think more clearly and see more beauty than I would have otherwise.
I added later:
I’m trying to bring the passion and respect for nature of physics to emotional awareness and leadership. It may seem like a leap, but I love it. I’m inspired in part by great physicists who left and then made great discoveries or observations in other areas, like Schroedinger and Crick (or Watson, I forget which). I don’t like all the new age stuff that shows up in this area.
and to someone who found what I wrote inspiring:
Please don’t discount the year-and-a-half of life being brutal. Over a decade later I can talk about it casually, but in the moment it was hard. As was the challenging myself later. But I think everyone going into physics expects challenges, just of a different sort.
I hope that helps people thinking about going back or continuing school.
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