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Right after school I decided to pursue a degree in physics. It went well at first but then I started to struggle with depression and other personal issues. Eventually I started to fall behind and felt overwhelmed by the coursework, I lost my passion for the field and just felt frustrated. I noticed it was time for a change, so after moving away and attending another university things were lightening up a bit.

Since I was too far behind in my coursework I was afraid of losing my financial support. Thankfully I was always good at programming, so I found a nice job to cover my expenses and switched fields to Applied Computer Science. Ever since then things are working out great. I got top grades, am nominated for a stipend, and even got the time to volunteer and participate at some minor research groups.

Anyways I feel bad for not being able to finish my physics degree. I feel like I completely wasted 2 years of my life and just don't know what to do/think about this. I do miss every aspect of physics now and secretly regret my decision every now and then.

Would it be reasonable to get my physics degree (at least finish the bachelor) when I am done with my current field? If not, how can one deal with the impression of failure and regret?

(English is not my first language, any edits are warmly welcomed)

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    Specifically for your experience, I would say there is no failure: You started a subject, lost interest and completed a degree in a field you enjoy more. Where is the failure in that? In fact, in countries that treat University as education and not a purchasable degree it is normal for large numbers of people to drop out in the first year - because they find it isn't for them. University is quite simply different from school. An no, you haven't wasted your time, because you tried something that you decided did not fit you (for various reasons) but you still gained some experience/knowledge. – DetlevCM Dec 20 '15 at 15:06
  • As you are from Germany: have you considered choosing a master that is both related to computer science and physics, similar to this one: tu-braunschweig.de/cse/information/index.html ? – magnetometer Dec 20 '15 at 20:18
  • As someone who had a similar experience (things went badly wrong during a degree, but unlike you I just moved in to working). Although I don't think my lack of degree has made my career directly worse (I am a programmer, and I enjoy that to a large extent) I do feel a bit of a failure for not having done the degree and this does adversely affect me. On this basis I would suggest that continuing the physics degree while it is still a realistic option could greatly improve your future mental well being. – Kickstart Dec 21 '15 at 12:55
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    I had a very similar experience: I took two years of engineering, left the school, studied general topics for two years, and then earned a degree in mathematics. The biggest difference is I have zero interest in going back for an engineering degree. Either physics isn't really a degree you are truly interested in, or it was just not the right time for you. Perhaps taking some physics classes in a non-degree-granting situation will help you figure out which one it was. – Todd Wilcox Dec 21 '15 at 13:22
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Difficult times occur. This is normal. Unless you did something foolish that caused your failure (and nothing indicates you did), there is no reason to feel regret.

You cannot control everything in your life. Whoever does not attempt anything, does not fail; people of action fail regularly. Failure is a central part of life, and there is no reason to regret attempting to study physics and then finding out it's not for you at this phase of your life. In fact, I actually recommend testing ones limits early, and knowing where they are makes one a more mature personality. Your current success is point-in-case.

And, keep in mind: limits may be expanded, albeit slowly. Therefore, my recommendation depends on whether your regret refers to ceasing to do physics itself (the topic!), or it is rather the failure to complete (the studies!) that you regret.

If you feel that you would have liked to do physics (the topic!) after all, perhaps you can consider reactivating your studies (or add a Master's degree as suggested elsewhere). But if it is only the missed opportunity, then I recommend to notch your physics studies up as valuable experience and move on the path where you have made progress and which clearly suits you well.

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    Wonderful answer :) – Sippy Dec 21 '15 at 16:49
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Dont worry, you can always apply for a master's degree related to the field of physics. It is nothing unusual. You should let it go, and multidisciplinarity is in expansion in any research and future career related of your interest ( assuming that you want to continue your studies).

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    This makes it sound like one can just drop out of a bachelor's program and get a master's instead. A master's in physics will be more difficult than a bachelor's, and it will assume all the knowledge one should have gained in a bachelor's. Anyone can always go back to study more physics, but it's more reasonable to start where one left off rather than two steps ahead. – user4512 Dec 20 '15 at 17:15
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    Master isn't necessarily harder than bachelor. Persons are very diverse and course plans vary a lot across countries and university. – Nemo Dec 20 '15 at 17:53
  • I am not sure on what are you pointing on? That is not possible to study master in physic and related fields to physical science with bachelor in computer science? @ChrisWhite – SSimon Dec 21 '15 at 11:29
  • Computer science and Physics are in in my opinion interconnected, @Nemo so I agree with you, depending on curriculum I am sure that OP had basic courses related to physics and if he wants to improve knowledge Master can give him a plenty of space for that – SSimon Dec 21 '15 at 11:33
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After completing school and academic degree I decided to start the dissertation. Being accustomed that everything runs its usual course, I simply chose a field which was convenient for me (location). Well, after half a year a nasty realization crept in: The interest was not enough to get me through the dissertation. Try as I might I could not muster the energy to get through. So with rising horror I realized that the normal academic career which was nearly half of my lifetime at that point would come to an end.

So I can relate to your feelings. Yes, I felt very miserable at the point and no, the rational consolations did not reach the heart. It is completely normal you feel this way and you need to give it room. Take your time.

I feel like I completely wasted 2 years of my life and just don't know what to do/think about this

No, you did not wasted your life. Only after a time the realization crept in that I simply was not ready for the task at this point. That was a sobering experience. I also realized that failure is the only way to find out your boundaries and wrong assumptions; you learn much, much more from failures than from your successes. Sorry if that sounds like good sounding pieces of wisdom, but it is true.

You did not waste your time because you are pining. If an university would never give out degrees or other forms of commendations, no rewards, no prizes, no notes...would you still have joined the course ? It seems like it. You still learned and enjoyed it, you had a good time.

Simply give yourself time, you will realize what the right course of action is.

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Academic success is measured in your best, not your worst. If you write 100 terrible papers and 1 good one people will think of you as a good scientist. Similarly if you get your physics degree after failing it you still proved that you have a high understanding of physics.

If an employer has the choice between someone who got a physics and computer science degree at first try and someone with the same degrees on the second try then the first will be valued a bit higher, but considering how many people have a physics and computer science degree it will probably never come to that.

That said, you don't need a physics degree to prove you are not a failure, you already did that with your computer science degree. My advice would be to get a physics degree for the love of physics, but not because you don't want to look like having 2 years wasted.

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    I'd like to put a qualifier on your first paragraph: I would change "terrible" to "inconsequential" or "middling" papers. If you indeed write "terrible" papers, e.g. in fields like mathematics, nobody will look at your good one. If you mess up in experimental studies, nobody will believe your measurements. However, I agree in the form that whatever number of projects failed on you and never were published or only with moderate interest, will not matter as long as you end up getting strong results, too. – Captain Emacs Dec 20 '15 at 15:33
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Your pursuits in Physics will reward you in ways you never expected. While you may not have achieved the degree, you did gain knowledge and understanding.

You can always finish the degree, if a degree is necessary for a field you want entry into. I would celebrate what you've accomplished, and know you are all that much closer to getting that degree if you should ever choose to do so.

You might want to try just one class and chip away at it over time so it won't be overwhelming.

You didn't fail. You simply need a wider time frame for your goals :)

Timothy Miltz

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  • +1 For two reasons: 1) a degree is an acknowledgement of knowledge and experienced gained, not the giver of knowledge and experience, and 2) as the OP gets older, they will realize that failure, well-handled, is an asset. – Wayne Dec 21 '15 at 14:19
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When you are in certain situations sometimes it's best to have a change of environment and that is what you did, you changed to something you are clearly very good at.You should not feel any sort of negativity towards yourself because you felt at the time that the physics course wasn't working for you,lots of people change their course.Think of it this way, had you stayed on your physics course would you have been able to cope with all the stress?Trust me things happen for a reason and I feel like you doing this new course has probably helped your mental stability so you are much calmer.You didn't waste the two years, if anything you gained two years worth of experience that you could come back to if you ever wanted to.We think the worst thing is to waste time and money but it's not the worst thing to ever let waste away is your happiness and how you feel.I'm sure the people who care for you feel the same way. SO don't feel sad be proud of your achievements because you have done a heck of a lot. WELL DONE MAN!

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    things happen for a reason -- I can't think of any comment less becoming of a physicist than this. – aparente001 Dec 20 '15 at 19:22
  • Please refer to my answer. – aparente001 Dec 21 '15 at 4:30
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If you feel a hankering to learn more physics, take more physics classes. You can start now, with one course per semester, alongside the courses you need for your major.

After you graduate, you can continue taking one course per semester if you wish, or you can take several at a time. You can take a class while working full time, if you make sure not to put in extra hours in your job, and if you arrange your schedule carefully.

You may need some more math classes. Certain math skills and the right sort of mathematical dexterity make physics courses much more manageable.

See how you feel as you go along. Let your interest in the subject matter determine how far you go with physics. In other words, don't pursue a degree just for the title and the diploma to put on the wall.

That said, if you find, over time, that it is an enduring interest and you want to keep going, probably the simplest thing would be to take the necessary undergraduate math and physics classes (and probably a couple of chemistry and engineering classes to complement the physics) as a non-matriculated student, and apply to grad school. There again -- you don't need to decide a priori whether to aim for a Master's or a PhD. Keep your options open.

It's great that you have a skill set that makes you reliably and enjoyably employable. You have your whole life ahead of you in which to study anything and everything that interests you.

My favorite undergraduate math teacher (Calculus I) went back to school to study math at the age of 50. That showed me that there are many possible paths to knowledge.

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