As You Look Ahead, Embrace Your Love of Learning

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As You Look Ahead, Embrace Your Love of Learning


Earl Blodgett, Historian, SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma Executive Council and Physics Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin - River Falls


At the 2022 Physics Congress festival, Earl and Marguerite Blodgett (center)—dressed as Pierre and Marie Currie—pose with students. Photo by SPS.

You have finally settled on your major and are happily working on all those fun classes. Everything seems under control. But then your advisor ruins it by asking, “So, what are you planning on doing after graduation?” You aren’t looking much farther ahead than your next semester break! Or perhaps you are a planner, and you’ve laid out every course you will take until graduation—but what’s after that? Graduate school? A job?

Wherever you are on the “planner spectrum,” this issue will be a useful resource for exploring and taking your next steps. The SPS community is great at sharing experiences and tips from diverse perspectives; you are sure to find something that will speak to you. You will hear from near-peers, recent graduate school alums, and grizzled veterans. I’m one of the grizzled veterans, with 35 years of experience mentoring undergraduate students.

When discussing whether to attend graduate school, I advise my students not to go simply because they expect to earn more money with a higher degree. That can be true, but you can also make good money with an undergraduate degree. I’ve had many students whose salaries topped mine within a few years of earning their undergraduate degree in physics or astronomy. A good long-range plan is to find a job you greatly enjoy while making enough money to support your other goals in life.

If you aren’t doing it for the money, then why spend several more years in school to earn an advanced degree? Do it only if you find it fascinating. Do it because you love learning everything you can about a subject. Do it because you can’t imagine doing anything else. Then find a program that feels right to you, where you will be supported and encouraged.

If those reasons don’t resonate with you, don’t default to graduate school. There are so many opportunities out there for creative problem solvers, critical thinkers, and logical reasoners who understand data and work from basic principles. Identify what excites you and what you love to learn, then explore your options.

Whatever you decide to do, find a balance between flexibility and dogged determination. As an undergraduate studying physics or astronomy, you know the value of determination. But don’t let yourself get stuck in a situation that prevents you from being happy while you pursue your goals.

One of my former students decided to go to graduate school in physics because he enjoyed his upper-level physics courses, had good grades, and wasn’t ready to jump into a job. He got into a prominent program, did fine in the courses, and enjoyed being a teaching assistant. However, he was not enjoying the experience. Wisely, after one year of physics graduate study he took a gap year. Not a hiking around the world gap year, not a laying on the beach gap year, and not even a working in a random job gap year. He intentionally explored other options while working part time.

His exploration included studying Latin at the University of Minnesota, and in the process, he discovered medieval literature. He found a graduate program in the field, learned Old Norse so that he could read original manuscripts of Beowulf, and absolutely loved it! He wound up with a PhD in medieval literature and embarked on a career that gives him the personal satisfaction he didn’t find in physics. Don’t be afraid to change your plans! Be flexible! The skills you learn as a physics or astronomy major will serve you well in a variety of pursuits and careers.

One of the plenary speakers at the 2012 Physics Congress was Freeman Dyson, a famously creative, respected, and iconoclastic figure in physics for decades. He accomplished much in his long and varied physics career, despite never getting around to finishing his doctorate degree. As he put it, interesting opportunities kept presenting themselves, and he never saw the need to go back for a piece of paper. He told the crowd of students that planning is overrated, because you may be reluctant to seize an unexpected opportunity.

Dyson had a flair for drama and a lifelong commitment to being contrary, but he made a good point. You do need to be flexible—don’t stick with a plan solely because you are stubborn. If you start a graduate program or job that you don’t enjoy, you can change course! Explore! Continue learning and growing your entire life, regardless of whether you get a degree or a fat paycheck. If you choose to pursue an advanced degree, do so because it’s an enjoyable and fulfilling way to facilitate your love of learning. Then all the hard work that goes with it will be worth the effort.

You can continue that learning right now by reading this issue. Enjoy!


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