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Three Lessons from a Failed Physics Career

Three Lessons from a Failed Physics Career

June 22, 2024 (1mo ago)

When I was growing up, I plunged head-first down a path toward becoming a theoretical physicist. I was well on my way, doing all the right things: taking advanced courses, getting into a good university, and doing research. However, the niche I chose, Quantum Gravity, turned out to be fraught with challenges for someone looking to build a sustainable career. It was nearly impossible to find faculty jobs, there was no choice in where I could live, and the salaries were barely livable until mid-30s.

While your story might differ from mine, I want to share some of the lessons I learned while unraveling my initial path toward Physics. These insights can be valuable for anyone re-evaluating their career trajectory:

1. Be Hyper-Sensitive to the Sunk Cost Fallacy

When you're just starting out, it's crucial to be aware of the sunk cost fallacy—the idea that you should continue on a path because of the significant investment you've already made.

It's essential to recognize that switching fields or specializations when you are young and developing your career is perfectly fine and often necessary to find the optimal path forward. You would need god-like foresight to choose the correct niche or specialization in high school. Embrace the idea of failing fast and don't be afraid to pivot.

2. Separate Passion from Career/Money-Making

One mistake I made was assuming that because I was passionate about physics and understanding the world around me, I had to make a career in physics. Cal Newport emphasizes that your money-making endeavors don't always need to align with your passions. In fact, mixing them can sometimes diminish your passion or have other negative consequences.

For me, the area I was interested in—non-string theory quantum gravity approaches—was extremely niche. This resulted in limited faculty positions, scarce grant money, and no freedom in deciding where to live or study.

This was a recipe for failure for someone wanting to study but also have a normal family life. Switching careers was crucial to avoid extreme financial struggles for my (future) family.

3. Pick Up Adjacent Skills Along the Way

During my physics career, while my main focus was on quantum gravity, I also became proficient in programming with Mathematica. When I left physics, I lacked a formal programming background but sought Data Science jobs.

Today, I spend most of my time in software engineering. My rapid improvement in programming wouldn't have been possible without my years of experience dealing with complex physics simulations and computations in Mathematica.

Therefore, acquiring adjacent, more widely applicable skills can be immensely beneficial.

What I Learned

Would I have told my younger self not to pursue physics? Not at all!

The skills I learned in problem-solving, math, and engineering were far more broadly applicable than I initially realized. The development of secondary skills was certainly not wasted.

If this resonates with you, I encourage you to explore your passions during your university years—it's part of what university is for. However, if the field you are pursuing has bleak economic prospects, ensure you build sufficient skills in areas that could sustain your career even if they aren't your primary passions. This balanced approach can help you navigate your career more effectively and adapt to changing circumstances.

Additional Resources:

"So Good They Can't Ignore You" by Cal Newport