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I'm in the third year of my physics PhD, and although I have done very well in courses and passed the written candidacy exam, I have already switched research advisors twice and all three times I couldn't make myself productive in research. I'm planning on doing a Masters now but even that is taking some effort, and at this point I just want to leave.

I truly enjoy learning about physics, taking courses, solving problems, reading (good) papers, and the initial stages of learning the jargon and ideas of a sub-field, but after that when it comes down to business and I have to focus on the real research I'm supposed to be doing, I feel like all joy and curiosity I have towards the subject is sucked out of me.

To me physics is a very personal subject. It's an intellectual detour from work. It's like therapy to me. Give me paper, a pencil, and one good textbook introducing some ideas to play with and I'm like a kid on a playground.

Trying to make it into a career, however, means I'm not free to truly explore and examine topics. Any organic thought process or line of questioning I have is immediately crushed under the weight of the research I'm supposed to be doing and the judgement of my peers/advisor as to whether or not I'm just wasting time.

I went into a PhD solely because I really loved the physics courses I took in engineering, not because I had a career plan. Meanwhile most of my peers and professors treat courses like a nuisance that must be overcome to get credit and focus on the work that they really want to do.

I'm at a bit of a loss of what do for work now. My goal for an ideal living situation would be a modest but livable income at a relatively simple minded job that doesn't follow you home so I could spend some leisure hours studying and playing with ideas. However, it seems like most jobs that use my only assets of engineering and physics knowledge demand too much active attention to allow one put serious effort towards other pursuits simultaneously. Can anyone advise a good career path for this situation?

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    Interesting. At least for me, exploring and playing with ideas is research. However, you do have to bring them to a decent conclusion, which requires hard work and lots of questioning (preferably driven by oneself) if the conclusion is actually any good. Perpetually toying with ideas is not achieving anything in particular. – Jon Custer May 2 at 4:03
  • Right, but you don't just get free reign over ideas to play with. There are a ton of constraints with grants and peers that you need to introduce intermediate results to and explain every intuitive flight of imagination that you might not be able to clearly articulate at first. I'd be much more comfortable being allowed to truly freely explore what I want and scrap what doesn't work without having to explain my thought process until I finally reach a conclusion I think is worth writing about. – Connor Dolan May 2 at 4:07
  • You need solid intermediate results to know you are getting anywhere in particular. Why is it not fun to go in a direction somebody else cares about? Is it somehow less interesting than heading off in a random direction? What if you found out your random direction was important to somebody else - would you quit following it because of that? – Jon Custer May 2 at 4:12
  • It's not that somebody else cares about it, or that I want to go in a direction I see as completely random. I believe I have some intuition in some small scopes about which avenues of research will be fruitful and which ones will not. Those intuitions could be wrong, but it feels very unnatural to force myself to commit significant effort to research something I'm unsure or pessimistic for when I think I'm catching a glimpse of a better idea. I also think I require a large amount of time alone to process ideas, and having to touch base too often cuts that short. – Connor Dolan May 2 at 4:22
  • You might want to specify your country, because PhD studies can be at least three to five years long and candidacy exams are foreign to many academic systems. – Tommi Brander May 2 at 7:12
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Consider teaching as a career. You don't have to do research then, but you do have to the understand the material. If you like learning about the material then this would suit you well; you might even be able to convey your love for the topic to future students.

Potential problem: chances you'll need an advanced degree to be able to teach at university level. With just a Bachelor's degree you can still teach at high school level and below.

Alternatively, consider publishing/science journalism. These two fields don't need you to do research too, but your output in both improve if you understand the material.

Potential problem: it's possible the physicists you'll be speaking to consider publishers a scam, and you by working in one are complicit in the scam. You'll have to decide for yourself if you can put up with that. Science journalism is relatively benign in this sense, but you'll be forced into confronting how something you find so wonderful, so interesting, and so amazing can be considered by others to be boring and pointless.

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    Regarding potential problems of teaching as a career, some universities offer teaching only positions – user2768 May 2 at 8:49
  • To add to this answer: Many professors also teach part of the time, because only researching 100% of the time can take lots of energy. But still, they keep something like 10-20% of their time for research (that can be together with a group of PhD students or alone in the office). Sometimes, this time they have for research is even fixed in the contract of a teaching professor. Of course that always depends on the country and university, but it is possible to do both without loosing motivation from doing one thing all the time. – Dirk May 2 at 15:16
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Ignore the "must" and enjoy doing physics.

The worst that can happen is that you are going to enjoy the next couple of years, and then leave to take a decent position in the industry.

The focus on deliverables can be curiosity-crushing. Purely as a career, academic research is a poor choice: long hours, lots of competition, little pay compared to qualification. The real reward is figuring out how the world works; don't forget that.

So, play with physics, enjoy; most likely nothing of public value comes out. However, if you do figure something out, do take the bother to write it up, maybe it is not that bad?!

An advisor's perspective: I want to add that the above is not the most common advice that doctoral advisors (myself included) give to their students. It is because the advisor does not get to share the fun, but has to deal with any negative consequences. Yet many of the somber professors that surround you did the same in their youth.

  • Right, but I don't even know if I can get away with that for the next couple of years. My advisor wants results, and my peers are similarly too focused on reading software documentation to get their simulations to work to engage in any "fun" ideas. I don't sense any passion or spark in them for the work they do, it's all just endless debates about dry technical issues. I suppose it's a sign of immaturity on my part but it also makes me constantly feel at odds with my advisor and peers. I'd much rather research for free with zero constraints. – Connor Dolan May 2 at 16:16
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Physics is a particularly special field in that it is extremely-old and there are many very old research niches that still continue. At the same time it can be super-broad, with physicists also doing research in very different fields that may be only analogous to physics problems, like network science and neuroscience. My guess is you simply haven't found a topic you like yet. Every area in physics was probably great fun to think about when it was brand new, but by this point research questions in many areas may be down to extremely-small increments that require a ton of work to get to in some sense (else they'd have been resolved already). I'd suggest seeking newer areas to work in.

Others have mentioned teaching as a career. However, in some ways teaching is farther from the enjoyment of taking courses than research is. In my opinion anyway. The goal of teaching is not to learn or to explore topics you like (we all push for those aspects as much as we can, but it's the tail trying to wag a dog). The goal is to get ideas that you understand thoroughly, through to someone less "smart" than yourself. And do figure out how to do it with some small fraction of the amount of time you'd like to use to address this challenge. Further, at the college level, the research schools, who's concern is overwhelmingly in hiring top researchers, not good teachers (ironically), have the best students. A more realistic job for someone who doesn't do research will be at a lower-ranked school with a mix of scholarship winners but also lots of poorly-prepared/poorly-motivated students who can be far less fun to deal with.

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