Advice For Physics Majors (a serious article, for once)
A few years ago I was a physics major at Ohio State, with plans to apply to physics graduate school to complete a PhD. I did a few things right, and lots of things wrong, and would have benefitted from some advice from someone who went through it. So, as a public service to repay all the goofing off I did in physics classes, I’m putting into print the advice I’d tell someone majoring in physics and wondering what they’re going to do with themselves. This advice is mainly geared toward people interested in majoring in physics, already majoring, thinking about continuing on to grad school, or thinking about leaving grad school.
First, a disclaimer — this little essay represents just my opinions, with my bias and interests. I don’t promise you anything, of course, so do your own due diligence. Plenty of people develop a career in physics in much different ways than I have, and I’m sure many people would disagree with my comments. It’s also been a few years since I went through it, so my advice is getting progressively more and more out-of-date. But the web isn’t exactly bustling with advice for this narrow career niche, and on the theory that some advice is better than none, I’m going to give it my best shot. Some advice is surely too obvious, some points you might disagree with. But this essay collects the key points that I needed to hear back when I went through physics educaton.
My brief history: I was science-inclined in high school, and knew pretty early on I wanted to work in physics. I did a B.S. in physics at Ohio State, at first concentrating in astronomy, then moving to biophysics. I had first planned to work in theory, but changed very late my last year to experiment. I applied to a bunch of biophysics graduate schools, and went to UC San Diego’s physics department. At the time my plan was to finish the PhD, become a professor, and settle into a life as a researcher and eccentric-but-entertaining physics teacher. After doing two years, including basic coursework, a fair bit of research, and the department qualifier, I decided instead to leave with the master’s degree and get a job in industry. I’ve now been in industry for a couple of years, and I’ve settled into a career I really love. What I’d like to get across here is a couple lessons I learned — some stuff about how to apply and get into grad school, industry vs. academia, what classes helped me, and what I would do differently.