physics

So, What Next: Reflecting or Something Like That

Hey y’all

Some of you are already aware, but I recently graduated from university, and now I’m living that post-grad slow summer life (for the most part, anyway). For awhile, I was really unsure about what I’d be doing: I felt unprepared and didn’t have my sights narrowed down enough for graduate school, and so I was left with the sort of “what now?” feeling that a lot of physics students — around 40% actually — feel when graduating.

Post-Grad Blues (Minus the Unemployment)

Luckily, I haven’t been left alone long enough to wonder exactly what I’ll be doing in my immediate future: I was offered a full-time position with Wolfram Research as a Technical Writer (yeah, go ahead and say you saw it coming) which I accepted. As of a few weeks ago, I’ve been working! I also did a two week stint at their annual Summer Camp, teaching high schoolers about programming in Wolfram Language and pushing them to not just use computational tools — but to think computationally — about the problems they worked on. So far, I am enjoying things!

Some days though feel slower than others: With no working car, no friends in town, and by virtue of remote work, I get rather crushed by the weight of free time. I’ve never had much of it before, and I’ve been struggling trying not to get too wrapped up in my own thoughts which just kind of swim around in my head when I’m left alone; I do much better in a busier environment — either because I’m used to it or that’s just how my brain works. When I see other people going about their day, being productive, even just walking past and chatting with friends, I feel more inclined to remain focused. Like all the external stimuli help to distract any other thoughts that would otherwise remove my concentration from the task at hand.

Because of this, I have been attempting to find some ways of occupying my time during this transition state between graduation and relocation. I can’t really start up new hobbies or join organizations because I won’t be here long enough to contribute or get used to things, so I am relegated to investing my time in things I already enjoy doing but maybe got lost somewhere along the way while I was in school. One of those things being writing. However, you might’ve noticed I haven’t updated this blog recently (my last post being somewhere around late March). Since writing is my job now, getting burned out is something I’ve become considerably more worried about in the long term. Of course the types of things I write about at work are different sometimes, but my creativity is a bit sapped by the time I’m off the clock; I’ve wanted to update this blog but just felt like there was a big mental roadblock for the kinds of things I wanted to discuss.

This blog will consequently take a small shift back to what I was originally using it for: investigating cool math topics from a proof-based perspective. Rather than what I felt like it was becoming: investigating cool topics (of any kind) programmatically. Shifting back to more formal math will do a couple of things, first off, it will help to keep my life much more balanced by establishing concrete boundaries of what I write about here and secondly, it will help me stay interested and on top of fundamental math concepts for when I eventually apply to graduate programs sometime down the road.

Graduate School: A Simple Two-State System? Yes or No?

That being said, one of the other things I’ve been spending my free time doing recently is trying to break down my varying interests for what I want to pursue in graduate school: Normally I wouldn’t be thinking about all this so soon after graduating — or at least that’s what I told myself — but while I was at the Wolfram Summer Camp up in Boston, I got in touch with an old acquaintance from summer of 2015, when we were both students at the Wolfram Summer School. We had some nice discussions about my possible future, and he was really trying to sell me on the MIT physics department where he works in statistical physics, and it got me thinking about some things.

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Hanging out with my friend outside MIT. Another hobby I’ve recently come into within the last few months, mostly as a way to create physical reminders of my time in important places with people I consider important, is instant photography. This was taken with a Polaroid Sun 660 using Impossible Project film. When I was younger I used to collect Polaroid cameras and have since amassed a small collection, though I never used them. This is me trying to use them!

For a long time I shunned the possibility of physics graduate school, instead convincing myself that computer science or mathematics would be more useful for both my own evolving interests and the types of problems that will emerge as we continue to develop technology. I’m realizing now that this line of thinking — one that I subscribed to as I became increasingly disenchanted with physics academia towards the end of my five years in undergrad — was incredibly narrow, though thru no fault of my own: Every institution focuses on different areas of research, and how much of that research is involved with other disciplines varies from project to project and consequently, from university to university. What I was seeing as sort of sequestered problems, restricted to their own domain, was really not the reality of things: As science progresses, fields become increasingly dependent on one another. Every project has a diverse array of researchers who all contribute their own life experiences, skills, and attitudes towards the project. It would make sense that — as problems become increasingly complex, and as we move thru new and exciting areas of research — that we would need different perspectives with which to tackle these new problems. Having people with different backgrounds, including different disciplines, makes for a wider tool belt with which to choose the appropriate tools from.

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I was thinking about these things earlier this morning on Twitter (y’all can follow me if you want, though this isn’t meant to be a plug)

Filling a Gap: Getting Kids a Job

While I don’t pretend I had absolutely no control over my ostensible ignorance about the interdisciplinary nature of physics research (after all, APS and other national organizations have conferences which showcase all kinds of research, many of which involve the help of mechanical engineers or applied mathematicians, and even biologists and neuroscientists), I do think the department could have done a better job enlightening their undergraduate students about these things: Like I mentioned before, around 40% of undergraduates with physics degrees go directly into the workforce, mostly in the private sector. We work as data scientists, software engineers, teachers, etc, none of which preclude the opportunity to engage in research. It just takes a different form than what we’re used to seeing. But professors don’t usually know how to deal with students whose path doesn’t involve a direct entry into a physics graduate program; understandably, professors can give the best advice for what they know the best.

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The private sector remains the largest employer of physics bachelors holders. Source: AIP

Unfortunately, this results in carbon copies of said professors; I think physics departments could do better at engaging students who don’t follow traditional career paths, but I don’t know how to tackle this issue. Most of us are left to our own devices wrt networking, job fairs, and pretty much pursuing any opportunity we can find by ourselves with little outside help. We are locked out of the traditional network professors have of colleagues who are looking for students to fill openings in their group. In contrast, many engineering departments have fully staffed and knowledgeable career specialists who work with students in placing them somewhere they will thrive in industry.

I don’t really think there is much use in placing the blame on physics departments themselves, since every department is restricted by their own issues with budgets or university politics. Perhaps it doesn’t make much sense to place the blame anywhere. All I know is that there are necessary gaps to be filled within physics undergraduate programs that produce some of the most versatile types of workers to enter the job market, but who frequently struggle with looking for work.

I feel pretty lucky that this wasn’t my situation.

Weren’t You Talking About Graduate School?

Tangent aside, I would like to eventually go back to graduate school. But like my tweets above illustrate, I am no longer adhering to the “discipline first” perspective I had for these last few years. Instead, I’m embracing the fluidity of disciplines by approaching things from a “project first” perspective. My goal is to do work I find meaningful, and the more options I keep open in being able to do that, the more likely I will eventually get to do what I want to do.

What I want to do, however, is a different story. One that I am continuing to narrow down. But I feel confident, at least, that I can; I’m no longer stifled in the same way that I was before. Funnily enough, removing my linear train of thought has brought me closer to the broad area of nonlinear dynamics, which I am currently looking into as a potential fit for me.

Where I currently am in my life — graduated, about to move across the country, starting a new job — makes me feel open to so many new things. It feels only right that I continue to remain open about prospects of returning to graduate school, shifting my lens to view the possibility just a bit differently.

Like always, thanks for reading.

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APS March Meeting 2015: Impressions

I spent two days attending the American Physical Society’s March meeting in San Antonio, and wow what a time. It was all pretty overwhelming: there were so many companies, so many talks, and so many…well, people!

Day 1:

I joined in on the shenanigans on Tuesday morning: overslept and missed my first class (whoops) but eventually made my way to my bff’s apartment, where we then headed off at 11:20am to San Antonio from Austin. First step upon arrival: parking. It’s always a hassle to park in the city, and this was no exception. We decided on a parking garage with a flat rate that was close to the convention center. Anyway, so, we got there. We walked in. And we took in the smell of B.O. and science…

Registration was a breeze: if you pre-register online, you’re good to go. Highly recommend doing that, otherwise it’ll take upwards 20 minutes to be fully registered for the meeting as well as with APS.

So basically, every instrumentation company under the sun had exhibits at the meeting, and were itching to get you to listen to their product spiel. It’s worth it — the free stuff you get is awesome. The first exhibit I hit up was OriginLab, which focuses on complex data analysis and graphing software. I, being the loyal Mathematica user that I am, was skeptical of this product’s performance. Luckily, I received a 21 day trial of their product to test out and see if I like it (expect a review of that sometime in the near future; (x,t) is TBD).

Next, my bff and I went to check out the exhibit run by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); it was weird to see them in a setting like this — generally, APS meetings focus on condensed matter physics, electronics, and materials science/engineering physics. Nuclear physics is usually separate, and many nuclear organizations have their own conferences. But it was nice nonetheless! The women in charge of the exhibit talked to us about potential internships in Vienna, and had us sign up to receive notifications of when our interests coincided with an opening!

I then got a bit tired of talking to people, so I headed towards the poster session area, where every level of physicist (undergrad, grad, postdoc) was talking about their particular field of research. This was when I also ran into some peers I had met at a previous conference! It’s really cool to make friends through conferences and to see each other grow professionally.

My bff and I then decided to check out some of the talks. The first two talks we listened to were of my choosing, and were over the topic of quantum monte carlo simulations of fermion and boson. The actual physics discussed during these talks were way over my head (it assumed a pretty advanced knowledge of quantum as it pertains to dots and wells) but the mathematics was pretty easy to follow. The next couple of talks were of my bff’s choosing and were over the physics of neural systems. The physics was very elementary, in that it discussed the mechanics of active potentials that results in a traveling wave solution (I know a good deal about waves and optics; it was nice to be able to follow the physics for once!).

For the last talk we listened to, a friend of mine that came with us was giving a talk over his research. I honestly don’t remember what it was about, because it was pretty advanced stuff (and I am also trying to remember it from two days ago), but he did a good job with presenting it!

Lastly, as we were just getting ready to leave, we spotted it…the one and only…the Wolfram exhibit! It was hiding in the corner. Unfortunately, it was past 5pm so the screens illustrating the newest technologies from the company were turned off. However, I did get to speak with a couple of the representatives, and learned that Wolfram will be doing some pretty cool showcases for the upcoming SXSWedu! We exchanged contact information, and then I had to leave the conference. But not before taking a selfie:

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Day 2:

My bff couldn’t come on this day to the conference, so I tagged along with another friend and we headed over there today (Wednesday) at about 11:30am, arriving at about 1:30pm. Unfortunately, due to work constraints, we could only be there for a max of two hours. I really wanted to check out the conference today because it was Industry Day! So lots of companies would be actively recruiting physicists to come work for their company. And I’m all about that.

So, we spent the time mingling with the companies within the exhibits more in depth: first, I spotted another nuclear exhibit in the sea of hardware exhibits…Oakridge National Labs (ORNL) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)! I spoke with the woman representing NIST for quite some time; she had a lot of information to give me about internship opportunities with NIST through something called their SURF program, which allows students to get hands on experience with the latest technologies, including working at neutron research reactors (there are only a couple in the US).

Next, we visited TeachSpin which designs instruments for experiments in advanced physics lab courses. The lady representative gave us a catalog of products, and discussed some of them. Perhaps the most interesting one was the apparatus for the experiment over optical pumping of rubidium vapor — she went really in depth on the conceptual understanding (all of which is available online for free!). Apparently, this particular apparatus was considered so aesthetically beautiful that an artist decided to buy one, enclose it in glass, and submit it to a museum. Anyway, the physics she was discussing with us was extremely fascinating, and she was so engaging and interactive that I kinda wish she was one of my professors this semester!

Lastly, we visited the APS public outreach exhibit, where the rep there gave us some free science comics aimed at middle school aged children:

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Why didn’t I have these when I was younger?? I also mentioned that both my friend and I were officers of UT Austin’s Undergraduate Women in Physics, and he offered to send us a box of free supplies and stuff when we perform demos for young girls! That was really generous, and I’m really stoked at having all this cool stuff the next time we do outreach activities.

To sum it all up:

Overall, it was a really fun experience, and I’m glad I went! It wasn’t as much of a networking opportunity as I’d imagined it would be, but that is likely because of the sheer amount of people (literally thousands of physicists were there) but I received a handful of contacts to email in the near future (which I should start doing pretty soon). The talks were pretty decent, most were a bit inaccessible for me as an undergraduate, but the exhibits were fun and the free stuff…you can’t beat free stuff, seriously. Though I think the best part about the whole conference was just being able to do something different! Classes are nice and fine, but being able to mingle with people (who work in your field no less) in a different kind of setting is a nice change of pace, and getting out of town can sometimes be needed during a stressful semester!

Anyway, if you’ve made it through this long post, then I really admire your literary willpower. Thanks for sticking around!