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thinking of switching to another field at another school


SymmetryOfImperfection
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I'm a graduate student in experimental condensed matter physics. Over the last few months, I've found my motivation for physics decreasing substantially going from "I'm definitely doing my PhD in this" to "grabbing my MS and change fields"; now I'm not even sure I can withstand the MS.

I thought about switching at the beginning. But I decided to give this semester my all. And I did. I do homework every weekend and every day. I am at school from 10 AM to 7 PM every day, working the whole day except for lunch. I tried to do research and read papers but the classes are too much.

My grades aren't too bad. However, each and every physics assignment has been an uphill struggle taking hours for a single problem. I wouldn't mind if this was on something interesting but doing it for the Nth rigid body problem is not the greatest motivation. This sort of frustration, coupled with the realization that what I'm learning is not going to directly apply to what I'm researching, saps me of energy. My health and my research plans have taken a decline due to spending far too much time doing homework.

This is just the beginning. The physics graduate sequence is 2 years so the homework situation will not be getting better. The only grad classes I'm not dreading to take are solid state physics, thermodynamics and electronics lab. I don't get a good feeling going to other classes like math methods, classical mechanics, EM and quantum - which happens to be most of physics.

The problem is that the grad classes are so different from their undergrad counterparts; they are much less "physically" based and much more mathematical. They say its that way because they also need to train theory students. I understand that. My math is not too bad; I'm about middle of the road for physics students, having covered calculus, multivariable calculus, linear algebra, ODEs, PDEs, complex analysis, tensor analysis and group theory. However, as an experimental scientist, I can pursue similar research in other departments that have courses better tailored for the needs for those who work in the lab on materials and less heavily favored towards theory.

Also, I'm not so passionate about my research. I find that its pretty interesting, but not the kind I'd look forward going to lab for.

I'm thinking about reapplying to a materials science and engineering (MSE) program at the local state school since it would align more closely with my career goals, and the research in materials there is more applicable to my scientific interest and ability than similar research in the physics department. I believe that doing an MSE program may give a more complete understanding of materials than here in the physics program, including in research. I'm willing to call this year a learning experience and start from scratch.

However I feel sort of guilty about this, and also don't want to burn bridges. My mom is saying 2 things: 1. she told me before I shouldn't do physics but I insisted in doing it and 2. I'm running from difficulty. Am I really running away from difficulty? I felt that I faced it head on but I feel I've gotten less healthy, both mentally and physically. But it feels terrible being told that I'm a quitter, which I would be. Also, the faculty here has invested in me, I'm afraid of them shooting down not only my chances to switch now, but to do anything even after I get my MS.

I'll need 1-2 letters of recommendation from my current school. Can these be successfully obtained?

How should I handle this?

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Now that you're in a grad program and you see how much good programs invest in their students, I think you're able to understand the considerations that go into choosing which students to admit. Can you convince yet another new program that you're worth the investment and won't run away again as soon as the going gets tough? I think you need to try and be more objective about your program. You've listed all the bad things; now step back and enumerate the good things. You've done more math than you'd like to; has this hurt you or will these skills be useful in the future? Can you also get the practical training you are interested in in your program, in addition to the theoretical training? Are there advisors who you enjoy working with? Are there labs you could join that do the kind of work you want to do? Surely there were good reasons for your joining the program in the first place.

You sound like you're having some mental difficulties, more than academic ones. I think it might be good for you to try and seek out someone to help you work through your thoughts. I think you need to have a more balanced evaluation of your status in the program before you make any decisions. It's already a little bit late to reapply, though not completely so, but you should take the time to make an informed decision even if it takes another year. In the grand scheme of life and your career, one year isn't going to make all that much of a difference. Consider staying at least until you get the MS; think about what you've already done vs. what you'll do later in the program - there will be more coursework, yes, but how much? Of that coursework, how much can you take that is related to your work? And beyond courses, there are three years of research - what kind of work would you do then? We all end up taking courses we aren't interested in - the question is what other positives can attract and keep you in the program, and those mostly have to do with advising and other resources.

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the thing is that originally I wanted to do materials research. The logical choice was MSE but did not get into those programs. I picked physics as a compromise. I do not feel the analytical math has helped. My math is far too weak for real theory and I am a very bad programmer; tried twice. I also did bad in econ so no quant job plus my poor programming skills exclude that.

So I got thinking, if I want a materials job why not get a materials degree???

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