Liberal? Who, me?

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I'm through seven days of summer madness - physics in the morning from 7:30 to 9:45am, physics lab in the afternoon from 3:00 to 5:20pm, and calculus in the evenings from 6:15 to 8:15pm (with Fridays off, for calculus). A physics test every Friday morning, a lab report (which take something like two to four hours to prepare) due every day, and calculus tests... whenever he (the professor) feels like it. Needless to say, I don't have time for much else. I do my homework between physics and physics lab; today I forgot to eat until 2:30pm, because I was trying to get the damn report done.

One might wonder why I'm doing this to myself. The answer: the prerequisite flowchart for Architectural Engineering (my major) resembles nothing so much as a diagram to invoke Cthulu. If I don't have Calculus II, Physics I and Physics I lab (MATH 1960, PHYS 2110, and PHYS 1154, on that flowchart, respectively) finished by the end of summer, I can't take the series of courses prescribed by the flowchart. Since I'm behind a chemistry course, and because I'm already taking physics and calculus this summer, I thought I'd ease things by taking Physics II and Physics II lab (PHYS 2120 and PHYS 1164, respectively) in the five week session following this one.

And you know, it's not as bad as all that. My physics professor is really awesome (which I'll get back to). All the physics tests are open-book (which doesn't quite help as much as it sounds like it might). My physics lab will be over in a week and a half (a full two weeks early). My calculus professor is out of town this week, so no class - and he's going to give us our first test as a take-home. This substantially lowers the stress. Still, those labs are a lot of work. It's all a lot of work.

And it's all because of that flowchart. You know, if you squint your eyes and tilt your head, you might notice that there aren't any electives on there. Not any real electives, anyway. You know - they kind where you elect to take something you enjoy, without the nature of the course being dictated by someone else? The "electives" they have on there all have to fulfill at least one requirement - like, for example, your social science elective has to fulfill the U.S. Minority and Racial Studies (aka how to hate yourself if you're white) requirement.

It looks suspiciously like a tech school. The only difference is, tech school kids graduate in two or three years. There's a year that doesn't even show up on that flowchart - a one year master's (which is what they sell it as, even though it's three semesters) is tacked on the end. You can't get licensed as an engineer without it. So, five and a half years of micromanaged existence.

Hey, it's what I signed on for. I knew it, going in. I'd be fine with it - if I were enjoying the AE classes.

The truth is, I'm not. At least - not yet. There's a chance that there are courses down the line, there'll be classes I enjoy. In particular, the lighting and acoustics classes in the last year, and the later social classes (microeconomics and a class on sensation and perception) look like fun. But you know what?

I'm having fun right now. In my egg-head physics and calculus classes. After struggling last semester with calculus taught in a completely incomprehensible manner, I finally feel like I get it. My professor glared at me in that "you're too smart for your own damn good" way the other day when I integrated a problem in my head. It felt great. And I sit in physics class at 7:30am - 7:30am! - and the pieces fall into place, click, click, click. I feel like I'm learning again, and the stuff that I'm learning - I can see how I can use it down the road, and it excites me.

Unlike a lot of the AE classes in my future.

That's a very long prelude to what is probably a foregone conclusion for anyone who isn't up past their bedtime. I'm seriously - very seriously - considering switching majors, to physics. I had a discussion with my physics professor today, and the things he had to say made a lot of sense - not in the generic, high school counselor sort of way, but specifically they made sense to and for me.

It's really easy to do just about anything with a physics degree. A lot of times you can say, "Lookee me! Physics degree!" and people will hire you for stuff that has nothing to do with physics, because a physics degree indicates mental discipline and analytical thought. And if you want to keep going with school - into engineering, for example - it's a lot easier to go the physics-to-engineering route than the other way around.

It's the gist of the Paul Graham "staying upwind" argument - put off specialization as long as you can. Maximize your options by learning skills and hard ideas that are widely applicable, regardless of what happens tomorrow. (Computer science hasn't always been around, but those math nerds sure had a leg up on the competition when it all started, now, didn't they?)

The question I asked my professor was, "What sort of career paths are open, with a physics degree?" He didn't want to go on and on and on, so he asked me what sorts of directions I might consider taking it. I gave him a couple of rather broad fields (sound and optics) as the things I found most intriguing, and he was off - dropping directions within those sub-fields that I'm actually interested in, myself. The fact that he narrowed in on my interests was very encouraging.

Then there's the overall advantage of having a liberal arts education. Yeah - like the title suggests, there's an instinctive flinch whenever I come within two miles of the word liberal (I once used calamine lotion that exhorted me to "apply liberally"; I itched worse after using it). Goodness knows I've done my share of putting down the liberal arts experience as, well, fluffy. My opinions on the merits of learning a broad range of ideas have changed a lot over the past few years, though; I have a lot of fun (and see a lot of value in) learning even bad ideas. (They're still ideas, and the fact that someone takes them seriously teaches you valuable things about people.)

Paul Graham suggests treating high school like a day job, and finding something you really enjoy to work at and invest yourself in. I suppose I realized at some point late in the spring that I was treating the AE stuff like a day job. And why? Because honestly, it doesn't stir much enthusiasm in me. I picked it because it seemed like the most marketable career move that I could make, limited to UNO for school. I didn't think they offered anything I could really get passionate about. I don't come home and have dirty thoughts about the Next Big Thing in structural engineering or bar joist fabrication.

But maybe physics could be that. I do get rather excited when I read about the Next Big Thing in physics, after all. (String theory? I sure as hell don't understand it yet, but it seems awfully conceptually sexy. Branes? WTF? Yum, BRAAAAANES!) And since the physics department is much less likely to invoke fascists or Lovecraft's tentacle demons, maybe I can diversify a little, learn a broader subset of Everything, and enjoy college a little.

I'm not going to let me sell myself short, based on some misguided idea that changing paths (or majors) equates somehow to failure.

I'll keep you guys posted on what I decide. I'm going to be smart and at least not make a decision until after I'm done with Physics I. (Would hate to get another week in and find out I hate everything but the basics!)

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You talk about tentacle demons as if they were a bad thing.

Wow! I was just thinking about something along the same lines as that Paul Graham article the other day: why do people bother following some of these prescriptive majors with a specific vision of a job in mind, when the entire field will have changed (or maybe not even exist) once they get there? It's not directly like, but somewhat akin to, when Henry Ford said "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'faster horses.'"

This is why I'm not the type of person with a specific "five year plan." If I were a monkey swinging from tree to tree with my sights set on a specific cluster of bananas, if I kept trying to get to them, I would likely miss out on an equally good cluster of bananas that I could reach more naturally and have more fun getting to.

For those of us who are lucky enough to have genuine talents and interests that a living can be made with (and I'm still not convinced there are people who don't), following anything other than those interests is missing out on a great opportunity for happiness.

So my point is if you enjoy Physics, you should change your major.

Have a good night.

Heh, thanks, David! I told you this in an email, but - I wrote something on this almost a year and a half ago, when I was just starting. Too bad I didn't have the good sense to listen to myself, huh?

Agile Learning

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This page contains a single entry by Erica published on June 14, 2005 11:38 PM.

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