Physics Life


For my qualitative research project, I’ve been talking to physics students. Although I have a big pile of transcribing to do (2.5 hours of recorded goodness), I’ve begun noticing a pattern through the interviews. The pattern is a lack of confidence from the people I talked to. In my experience with physics, the culture lends itself to feeling doubtful about one’s ability; a popular phrase is “it is obvious” or “it is trivial” when it comes to things that well- aren’t obvious or trivial. My personal opinion is that statements like that are frequently covering that person’s lack of confidence in explaining the topic and/or their lack of knowledge, but I digress.

I found this article today called “The importance of stupidity in science.” Very good thoughts to keep in mind when doing research, regardless of whether it is science. Even though the article was written by someone who is likely a cell biologist, I related to it, especially the part about seeking new things to be challenged at (hence, doing dance).

Dr. Tae is featured on the front of the Chicago Reader website. I met him during my time in physics grad school; he was an adjunct professor. Because of his work on the Tony Hawk video game and his unique position of being both a physicist and skateboarder, the Reader decided to write about him.

I recommend reading about him. He is very friendly, interesting, talented guy and is very passionate about education, skateboarding, and making amusing videos.

I’ve been hesitant to write much about this, but I applied for physics education doctorate programs for fall 2010. I got into one about a month ago and still waiting to here back. For me, switching fields is kind of shocking and I suppose I’m still thinking about that. While I believe that switching fields will be positive, I’ve also been doing physics more or less for the past 10 years of my life (I took my first physics class at age 15). Not being in science or engineering has not occurred to me in this time frame.

So why am I switching? I’ve grown rather disenchanted with physics, quite honestly, and simultaneously, as result of this disenchantment, grown more interested in physics education. I love work in a lab, doing experimental research, but I’ve realized that in other ways, physics will not be able to provide me with the kind of life I want. Quite honestly, I am sad about this. Partially because I feel that I am fairly adept at and passionate about research, partially because this has been my life for a decade; that’s nothing to be flippant about. I imagine being a bit sad and in denial that problem sets and lab research are not going to be a part of my life anymore has played a role in me not discussing this much.

Today I met my prospective advisor. I thought it was nice that he wanted to¬† meet prior to anything; there’s an open house that I may attend. We talked for about a half hour. I didn’t really get a good feel for him, but I did get a feel for the humanities. I’ve been away from the humanities for quite some time. My last class in them was a philosophy class in 2003; everything else I took I believe is considered “the arts” (theater and English). I also have very little familiarity with the grad level aspect; I can pretty much tell you everything about physics grad school, but any grad school outside of the sciences, I know nothing.

The only concern right now I have is financial aid. With physics, you get a cushy deal. It doesn’t initially sound like it, but $25k or so a year, with free insurance and tuition, to be a student for approximately 5-6 years? That is pretty sweet, considering undergraduate doesn’t pay. With the humanities, the financial aid seems spotty and that there is no clear answer. The funding isn’t as strong from what I gather, even with something as important as education. I’m waiting to hear about financial aid.

I have other scholarship money, but it isn’t enough to cover both tuition and living expenses. I could conceivably work, but I want to finish my schooling up sooner than later. I’m not old, but I turn 25 this year. Schooling will take maybe 4-6 years if I go full-time. I want to start establishing my career when I’m in my early 30s, not later on. I know people do that and I applaud them for it, but I’d rather start sooner for personal reasons. From what I understand, finishing a degree when you’re older can be difficult. Not impossible, but you have more responsibilities.

If you talk to me outside of this blog, I don’t think I’ve made it much of a secret that I’m not really interested in doing physics research anymore. There is a host of reasons why (I don’t want to be locked into one specific research area for the rest of my life, I don’t know if I want to go back to physics grad school, etc.), but I’ve decided that although I think I am pretty good at doing experiments in physics, I don’t think it’s the right path for me.

So why physics education research? I realized that since I began grad school, I have spent my spare time pondering about physics education. I didn’t literally think about the broad topic, but I spent some time thinking about how best to teach labs and to address student complaints. Now that I’m teaching, I’m trying to improve things from my end. Simple things, from deciding to call all forces F with a subscript (for instance, the force due to weight became F_w, rather than the popular W for weight). During grad school and now, I’ve also began thinking about why our education system is the way it is; a number of physics grad students I know are quite unhappy there and are contemplating other career paths. I think that’s very interesting and sad. They obviously were very interested in the topic but something about how education is done made them want to quit. I don’t know how true it is that we are not producing enough scientists in this country, but if it is true, rather than merely look at captivating new interest, why not also examine why people drop out?

I’ve talked to quite a few people who have done physics education research; while part of me will be an experimental scientist, wanting to mess with equipment, I think this is a great fit for me. I do care education, I like the flexibility of the field, and it still keeps me in tune with physics.

My advisor decided I needed to update a graph that I made used Matlab. A small theoretical curve graph, nothing fancy or labor intensive. I thought that it would take 5 minutes to make the small changes. I was wrong, it turned out. Matlab became screwy after I upgraded to Snow Leopard (the latest Mac OS). It won’t let me save graphs and displays my y-axis label oddly. I had one of those midnight moments where I didn’t think it was possible to change it. I considered editing the graphic under Photoshop, since the changes were really cosmetic (a frame, a thicker line) but couldn’t figure out how to make a credible thicker graphed line.

Then walking for my coffee, I realized that all I graphed was an equation and I could redo it in Mathematica (which still functions). Solution worked. However, I learned a very important lesson: don’t upgrade until everything is done.

I’m preparing my students for the next exam, which is fast approaching. I forgot how long the semester system can be; when I was doing my graduate degree, we were on quarter system. That means we would end right before Thanksgiving. I used to prefer the semester system, but now I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s just what you’re used to at the end of the day.

Although I enjoy teaching, I could use the break myself. It’s just nice to relax, you know? Relaxing is relative, though. I finally received more edits in the mail for my thesis, so that’s how I intend on spending my time, hustling out those edits. It would be nice to have a real break, but at the same time, I’d rather be finished with my thesis than have a break break.

I’m starting to get settled more things. I think this weekend I may finally start doing yoga again. I’m starting to incorporate little dance practices for when I go back to dance class (I’m thinking next month, right before the New Year). I’m surprised that shimmy is still there and that I can still isolate muscles. I suppose muscle more really does exist.

Moving and working means I’ve been quite busy. Last week, I was keeping myself afloat best I can in life. I luckily have been able to keep myself ahead of the game with the students, but I’ve also had a mound of grading to do. Then I come home to clean, figure out how I’m getting certain items I don’t have (pots, pans, whatever) from Craig’s List or otherwise. My cats have been adjusting, as well, which has been some work; my one cat was having a hissing fit with the other two.

Last week, besides the moving stress, was a bit stressful because students like to argue grades. I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the beast, being female, or being young (or a combination), but a handful of students have mindblowingly crazy attitudes. It varies from telling me that I’m not fair for holding their grades to the syllabus, which they not only received prior to me but also we talked about when I did arrive, to being mad at me when they don’t understand what’s going on in class because they were absent and refuse to visit me during my tutoring hours. I’m not trying to be mean or harsh, but sometimes I’m astounded with the lack of accountability on the students’ behalf. I understand life is hard, but you have to take control of things. Thank goodness it’s only a handful, but they can sour things fast. I luckily have some fantastic students who may not totally understand physics, but they’re willing to work at it and not become accusative.

I’m also trying to make decisions on the rest of my life. Do I go to grad school next year (or rather, try to)? What kind of job do I want? And so on. Our work schedules for the next semester have not come out yet, which is stressful. While everyone at work insists that they keep people on as long as they can, there is no guarantee. I’m not trying to be negative or think for the worst, but the reality is I have a contract for so long. So in addition to trying to make long term plans, I am trying to keep my options open for the shorter term.

During my spare moments last week, I’ve also been exploring dance options. I discovered that the studio I used to attend offers a work-study program for dance classes, so I applied to there. I’m also looking at taking a drop-in ballet class. Once I have a feel for my job situation, I’ll likely return to Odissi classes here (or possibly Bharatanatyam). I would love to find a Flamenco class, but I a) don’t want to overextend myself and b) don’t know where one is.

A good part of me is interested in establishing a social life here of sorts; the last time I lived in the area, a bunch of my friends were here. They have either moved away, or we’ve gone very separate life paths at this point. I don’t want to go out all the time, but it’d be nice to hang out with some other people.

So that’s me in a nutshell for now. I think that I should be able to update more frequently next week, but who knows?

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