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The Perseverance of a Physics Major

The day had finally arrived. Years of dreaming and planning were flashing uncontrollably before my eyes and a feeling of disbelief persisted in my mind. But it was a beautiful day. I was on my way to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in physics.

Was I prepared to attend graduate school? Did I need to prepare? How? Although one may end up choosing to study physics, mathematics, or any other scientific discipline for many reasons, there comes a moment at which it suddenly becomes a necessity. When did I decide to study physics? I cannot say with precision, but it was definitely at an early stage. After that, a concern for preparation, in the academic sense, became almost irrelevant. When you love what you do, making the right decisions for continued education are much easier.

The Undergraduate Years

When applying to graduate school there are a number of "official" requisites one must fulfill. First, if you want to study physics, you'll need to take the physics Graduate Record Examination (GRE), in addition to the general GRE. Second, almost every university requests that applicants send two or three letters of recommendation and a personal statement. As for the GRE, preparing to get a good score is important. However, if you are doing what you are supposed to, you should not have many problems. Practice like a boxer by taking as many preparation exams as possible, and you should obtain a good score.

One of the most important aspects of my undergraduate education was the opportunity I had to do research. This allowed me to not only learn some interesting physics, but also to obtain better letters of recommendation. When you conduct research with a professor or other senior scientist, she or he will be able to assess your skills (e.g., communication, problem solving, and interpersonal), thus giving them the chance to write a strong and supportive letter about your abilities as a potential scientist. Another positive aspect of doing research as a "kid," at least in my experience, is that you obtain a wider perspective of the field. This, in turn, can help you figure out where to go to do your graduate study. Moreover, it helps you to write a more effective personal statement.

This, of course, is only one way to do things. In fact, I know many people who did not participate in undergraduate research and have done well in their scientific careers. The only invariant is that you have to be in love with the stuff, and be willing to work hard.

The Graduate School Experience

Some of my classes in graduate school were difficult, but so what? I was there to learn and work hard. Sometimes you might have a problem with a professor; sometimes you might feel that you are losing time; and then later you might feel that you are not good enough or that you don't have what it takes. These are all common issues that we have to face. I don't think there is a unique recipe or solution to these issues. In my case, I can happily say that all those late nights in my undergraduate years that I spent chatting and discussing with friends about science, working out problems that had nothing to do with any class, and above all, those persistent dreams of becoming a scientist, were more than sufficient to prepare me. So, I was prepared. Or was I? What I was about to find out surprised me immensely.

Life as a Scientist Outside of Science

As it turned out, I immediately realized there were certain "problems" more difficult to solve than the homework assignments. They were not related at all with anything academic and I could not quite understand them at first. These problems involved interactions with society. The kind of life I had chosen had become, in some way, something I had to explain. How does one describe the very personal and abstract pleasure of doing science to somebody? How can you make someone else understand that there is nothing else you desire to do but science?

Now, when you try to explain these things to the people you love, like family and friends, it can be difficult. They often seem perplexed by your arguments and explanations, which can become something of a problem. One day my mother asked me, "So what are you actually going to DO when you FINISH?" How could I explain to her that I would never "finish"? So, I proudly said, "Well, I will do research and try to learn a bit more about nature, and at the same time I will teach physics and work with research students." My mother replied with a sigh, "So after all those years you pretend to be away, you will become just a teacher?"

Of course, another beautiful topic of discussion was the issue of money! This can be summarized in the following axiom:

The one that is good in school and receives a university education will necessarily have more opportunities in life than the others (the word "opportunities" in this context should be directly identified with economic success).

But there is a corollary:

If, in addition, someone pursues higher levels of preparation and dedicates his/her life to knowledge, then, economic success is intrinsic.

You can now easily imagine the looks of disbelief when one tells people what the average salaries of scientists are! Well, I found out that these "forced" and uncomfortable explanations became more and more frequent with time, and I found them to be very distracting.

Yes, and then there are other personal problems. Not unique to scientists, but you must be prepared. One never knows what can happen to family or to friends a couple of days before a quantum field theory examination!

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, I would like to provide some suggestions for those students who might wonder if they are prepared for graduate school and what to do if they feel they are not. Here is a (partial) list of things to consider:

  • First and foremost, you need to develop a very strong love for good coffee, preferably espresso. I can't stress this enough.
  • Try to talk as much as you can with people close to you about the things you want to accomplish. Do it with passion.
  • As I mentioned before, if you love what you are doing, you don't need to be told to study. Perhaps instead I should comment that you are supposed to do it yourself--don't expect to learn anything from any class. I have met some people who struggled in grad school because of this.
  • If you are suffering too much (because of grades, a professor, etc.) it is very likely that you are doing something wrong. Think of yourself as a professional, and act accordingly.
  • You don't owe anything to anyone. If things don't work out in a class, or if the thesis is not coming out the way you expect, these are things that affect you and not your advisor, your ex-advisor, etc.
  • Stop putting unnecessary pressure on yourself!
  • And of course, have some fun.