I was asked back in September 2019 to offer some advice to new grad students starting out in physics at Syracuse. The goal, I was informed, was to offer some encouragement and prospective. This text was ostensibly going to make its way to the physics department’s website. Maybe it’s all the preach-y-ness but my opus has yet to make it to the department website! Scandal. I offer it below with only the most gentle editing. NOW GET OFF MY LAWN!
I always look for the exits when people ask me for life advice. There’s the obvious arrogance of knowing what others should do to find happiness, or whatever. Beyond that, there’s what everyone who’s ‘been through it’ should keep in mind – what worked for them, will by definition, not work for people twenty to thirty years younger (life is after all second-order chaotic–at least). There’s a great video of Richard Hamming making this very point on youtube. In 1995. So with that concession over, I can only say what I think is important – what worked for me – and hope you can understand that it’s not blueprint but anecdote. Be yourself. There are no guarantees in life.
There will be things that just seem to choose you. I was not born knowing what I wanted to do with my life were. But I knew I liked solving problems and needed a challenge to keep me sane. That’s how I ended up in physics. On my first day of college in 2005, I still wasn’t sold on the title physicist, but time is the revelator. Engineering be damned! Physics was just sexier and more… romantic. By the time I graduated from The University of Alabama in the spring of 2009, I was committed to getting a PhD.
I moved to Syracuse without knowing a soul. The first year of grad school was difficult with record-setting snow and cold. Those were hard months. Two years of fighting and qualifiers were what outdoor-enthusiast call Type-III fun – it wasn’t fun before, during or after but it’s the price of admission.
I had a great PhD advisor and a lot of support from SU through my time there. YOU ARE NOT GUARANTEED THIS.
How has physics shaped my worldview? It’s hard to say from inside my own head. Others would probably say I’m a logical person – maybe too logical based on an instant, snap pole done via text message. But let me push back! Critical thinking, curiosity and a willingness to be wrong will take you far in life if you let it. Also, when I see a hard problem, I don’t panic. I tend to think if I made it through a physics PhD there’s not much I can’t tackle if I really want to and I’m willing to put in the effort. These are the things I’ve found most rewarding about physics. YMMV.
When I graduated, I was lucky enough to get a job in quantum computing – working in the same field. This is an exception to the rule and certainly against the odds. I wanted to stay to keep working in physics but also knew it was unlikely. With professor positions few and far between, I was willing to pursue a different career path entirely. My humble opinion is you should accept this fact before you start grad school in a highly technical field. There are lots of articles out there about the status of academia. Google is your friend. You could also just ask the APS!
Two final thoughts: Find something that you’re passionate about. It’s for you to decide what your reality will be and what makes you happy. A freedom of choice in life comes with the obligation that you choose. Maintain your ability to be surprised and take people as genuine until they give you reason to think otherwise.
Two final, final thoughts: 0% of science, or really anything in life, is done alone. You need to be able to work with other people. You also need to communicate your work to others. These last two are grade-A, critical skills you will never take a course in. Please prepare yourself.
Ciao and don’t let the man get you down,
P.S. - entropy always wins.