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BS, Physics, Radford University
Earning a physics degree is challenging under the best circumstances. Josh Carroll’s roundabout path included three deployments, a dirty library, a security van, community college, two years of nothing but math and physics classes, and countless YouTube videos.
How he got to physics:
When asked to “draw yourself in the future,” a much younger Carroll drew himself in a lab coat with beakers and a telescope. That passion for academics and science stayed with him until the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Then a ninth-grade student, Carroll’s priorities shifted, and schoolwork took a back burner. Eventually he left high school with a GED and joined the army to “go overseas and fight.”
After returning from his first deployment, to Iraq, Carroll took a job as a school janitor. He would browse books as he cleaned the library at the end of the day. “I found a book, A Brief History of Time by Dr. Stephen Hawking, and I started reading it. It retriggered my desire to know more about the universe and to understand how things worked.”
After reenlisting and being deployed twice more, Carroll went back to school. He wanted to study physics, but with only a geometry-level math education, he was far behind. The summer before his last semester of community college, Carroll took an uneventful job as a night security guard during which he taught himself calculus via YouTube videos. After that semester ended, he spent three and a half weeks learning trigonometry, again from YouTube videos, before jumping into the physics program at Radford University.
After an intense two years at Radford, Carroll graduated just shy of the top of his class. His roundabout path to a physics degree isn’t one he would recommend, but his persistence paid off. “I knew I wanted to be a physicist, and I knew there was no going back,” he says.
What he does now:
After graduating, Carroll spent six months with ComServe Wireless as a data analyst and inventory specialist before a recruiter from Booz Allen Hamilton noticed his résumé and reached out. Carroll is now a scientist and systems/electronics engineer for the consulting firm.
Booz Allen Hamilton is a global firm that works with civil government, private-sector, and military clients to solve problems in defense, energy management, health care, and other sectors. Carroll’s primary role is to ensure that computer systems and network servers interface with one another as intended. This involves troubleshooting, researching technical components, and traveling to different project sites within the United States.
“I was very much in the theoretical realm of physics, so landing an engineering gig was a bit different than what I had been exposed to through school,” Carroll explains. In physics you work with ideal situations, broad generalities, and theoretical frameworks, but in engineering you can’t do that, he says. “Things aren’t ideal anymore.” Instead of working out the orbits of black holes at a chalkboard, he’s now researching how to make sure one server connects to another server given specific constraints. “It all comes down to problem-solving in the end, but it’s a different lens.”
Booz Allen is Carroll’s first “big job” outside of his time spent in the army, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to expand his skill set and explore a career path outside of academia. He enjoys the responsibility and freedom of contract work, travels frequently, and has access to a lot of resources. But even with the perks, physics still calls. Carroll envisions returning to research eventually—maybe earning a graduate degree and working in cosmology or with solar energy.
What motivates him? “My desire to know more tomorrow, or today, than I did yesterday,” he says. “It’s the drive of being curious and wanting to contribute something to humanity that will live past me. Whether that’s helping minorly on a research project that will help keep people safe, figuring out a way to make solar energy more accessible, or putting together a thesis that reshapes how people look at the universe.”
For more of Carroll’s story, check out the YouTube Spotlight documentary Joshua Carroll: Reaching for the Stars at youtube.com/watch?v=z1zxj-axCEo.