thoughts

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.