Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Great Divide (Theory v. Engineering)

Anne has been in town again this past week, which is nice as always. Last time, I didn't have a chance to talk to her about grad school, careers, physics, and all that jazz- so I've tried to step it up a notch. Some of you may or may not know this, but I personally feel like my 3 years in physics grad school was a 100% complete waste of my time. The degree didn't increase my job prospects, salary, or knowledge. It didn't increase my network of people in business. It didn't really get me much better at teaching (though I have to admit it did on certain levels). None of these very important career skills were encouraged- actually I'd say that they were discouraged for the sake of research. Sure I got much better at solving 4 dimensional partial differential equations using tensor notation (I'm not joking here), but does that really do anything for you besides massage one's already over-blown ego? 

I suppose it does if you are planning on going into the blossoming and ever increasing field of high-energy particle physics, or maybe if you are studying the Big Bang, Inflationary Theory, and Black Holes- but I've never really been interested in that fringe theorizing. Here's the thing about physics that seperates it from philosophy- experiment. Something goes from being a mathematical theory to a physical principle through the mode of experiment. YET, the theorists typically get all of the glory and experimentalists get all of the money (read- funding).  

The one thing that I keep coming back to is the fact that theory, experiement, and engineering are inseparably inner-twined. They all work together in this great big community to create the Next Great Thing- the problem is that professors chest bumping and inflated egos always get in the way. The theorists yell, "It's all about a good Theory!" The experimentalists yell, "You've got to test it to be certain!" The engineers yell, "You better build the damn thing first!" The thing that I find remarkable is that very few people realize just how depenant each group is on the other groups. The theorists think up shit that no one has thought of before, the experiementalists think of ways to make that made up shit into some kind of physical reality, and the engineers actually take metal and bits of glass, put it together and turn the machine on. 

Anyway, here's a great blog from a Stanford professor who seems to get it. 

Oh and one more note along the career lines and why you shouldn't go into science grad school: I make ~$10k less than the bottom 25% of dental hygenists (country average, not Bay Area). My degree = 7-8 years, their degree = 2 the math. 


Jeff said...


Matt Fate said...

I'm thinking of getting a degree in theoretical engineering.

Lisa said...

"I personally feel like my 3 years in physics grad school was a 100% complete waste of my time."

So, I guess all that time and energy I put into helping you study for the quals was a complete and utter waste of MY time. Gee, thanks. :-\

Jesse said...

Ok, ok fair enough. Not 100% complete waste of time. There was actually many things that were great. I got to meet great people like Lisa. Through her I was introduced to Burningman. It was a challenge and I learned what I didn't want to do with my life. Yes, there was many things I got from the experience, and I should have been more clear.

I think that wrt my career, it was mostly for naught. I suppose that is really what I was commenting on, because without any given event in one's life- who know where you'd end up right? I just wish I had spent those career years (not personal years) working towards something like engineering, medicine, or something with a defined career path rather than a cliff at the end.

Also, Lisa, please note, that this has been a rough month, and I am full of extreme emotions right now, so I'm not really thinking clearly. 100% waste of time is an exaggeration, one for which I am sorry, as I am grateful for your friendship. I do appreciate all of the energy you put into me, and trying to help me get the most out of grad school.