Sunday, June 7, 2009

Self doubt and selfishness.

It's time to get serious about the rest of my life. I need to register for tests and start studying in earnest, blocking out the hours a day to devote to binging on esoteric vocabulary words and learning to speed solve tricky physics problems. Once I get going in earnest, maybe this queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach will disappear.

I'll be without a stout safety net for the first time in my life. Before I even sent in my application, my state university offered me a substantial scholarship so I knew that even if they found me unworthy of a bigger, more prestigious fellowship and the other schools rejected me, I was going to be able to go to college. When I was worrying over my Teach For America application, I was reasonably certain that the graduate education program at my university would be happy to have me, even though I did let self doubt get the better of me at times. However, I've watched a decent physics student set his sights too high and get rejected by every school he applied to, plus a couple of others get a long list of rejections and ultimately land somewhere thanks primarily to faculty members talking to friends in other departments in the hopes of securing a slot in an unexpected opening.

Plus, the competition has grown more fierce since the recession makes jobs in industry much harder to come by. The top physics student in this year's graduating class initially got rejected by a school my professors considered a good fit for me last year, back before I let my physics skills atrophy, and he's a much stronger candidate than I could have been. The school in question has gone to a points based system for evaluating candidates where they look mostly at grades and scores. Somehow I don't think they give points for accomplishments like helping a fourteen year old finally master adding fractions or writing grant proposals to get a bunch of impoverished high school students ACT prep materials. And they probably shouldn't: it doesn't demonstrate physics skills.

There's always going to be a thought lurking in the back of my mind that I'm not good enough. I'm not that brilliant; I'll never be Feynman, Maxwell, Bohr, or Newton. I get by by the skin of my teeth, with plenty of difficulty and with support from wonderful mentors. My chief virtue isn't in being innately gifted, it's in continuing to plod along even though I'm not. I still worry that someday soon I'll reach material that I simply won't be able to master, no matter how hard I try, that the math will throw a brick wall in my path and it will turn out that I'm not an unstoppable object after all.

Then there's the other problem with becoming a scientist: I dreamt of my kids last night. After this last year, they are my kids. I may not have done much good, but the problem of educational inequity is now my problem in a way it wasn't when I joined this crazy organization. Trust me, if you'd spent a year in one of these schools, you'd be mad as hell too. Spending another year in the classroom may help a few kids, and that's worth doing, but it doesn't begin to touch our country's deeper educational and cultural problems. I might do a little more to help if I were more like my friends, considering careers in educational administration, counseling, or non-profit administration, like my cousin's girlfriend the social worker, like my boyfriend's mother the attorney ad litem for kids in foster care.

Yet I'd rather study science. I don't think I'd be good at any of those noble professions. I like teaching, but liked teaching college students as well, and I miss the lab. I'll probably never cure a dreaded disease or solve our energy problems, but that's okay, that isn't why I want to do this.

I don't think I'm romanticizing the job of being a researcher. Doing science often isn't glorious. There aren't a ton of eureka moments. You spend a lot of time writing grant proposals that might not get funded, plotting eighteen billion graphs to make meaning of those strings of raw data, waiting for the repair guy to get the immunofluorescent microscope in working order, aligning the optics so your laser beam hits at precisely the right angle, or analyzing why your filters have exploded and spewed your painstakingly prepared sample all over the floor again. Often, though, you do get to investigate neat things, and even the question of why the gosh darned filters are exploding (or whatever the similar problem in your lab happens to be) is an interesting puzzle when looked at in the right light. Ultimately, I can't think of anything more exciting than getting paid to be curious.


Shuchong said...

There's absolutely nothing wrong with going into a career that you'll find fulfilling, even though it might not directly relate to social justice.

Putting yourself on a career path that you enjoy and are interested in gives you a far better chance of fully developing your talents and being fully engaged in your work. I think that's what the world needs: not a ton of educators or a ton of social workers or a ton of non-profit workers (though those professions are all important), but a ton of people who are dedicated to and interested in the work that they're doing.

Good luck with the GRE studying!

Frugal Scholar said...

Everyone knows that TFA only takes a tiny percentage of applicants, so I think that can only help your applications to grad school.

Brilliance is overrated anyway--hard workers always win in the end. (Of course, to have both is ideal!)

You might want to end up doing post-secondary ed--not everyone does research full-time.

It's none of my business (and what do I know), but I think you should look beyond secondary teaching. It is not a good place for the intellectually curious and ambitious. At least, not permanently.

Frugal Scholar said...

Forgive me EC for yet another piece of advice. The real critical need in education is for teachers (college-level) to teach future teachers how to teach. In other words, if you want to do good by transforming science and math education (and boy is that necessary), you can get a doctorate in science education.

Over the Cubicle Wall said...

I saw this article a while back from my old neighborhood and thought of it when I read your post. Teaching seems to have been a good place for this guy to make a difference by doing what he loved and staying curious.

E.C. said...

Thanks for the warm wishes. I think I'll need that luck.

Frugal Scholar,
I assure you, I don't mind advice in the slightest. Your recommendation that I become a professor so that I can teach the teachers is something my favorite physics professor has been suggesting for years. I suspect you two will win out in the end.

I'm hoping to find a graduate program that's strong in biophysics and interdisciplinary research that also has at least a bit of physics education research going on as well.

lindsey said...

" Ultimately, I can't think of anything more exciting than getting paid to be curious"

- I recently had this debate about grad school as well and whether or not academia was the right choice, and came to the exact same conclusion!

I think an important thing to remember is that if you're passionate about something, it will be that much easier to find the motivation to use that passion to help others. Plus, regardless of how or when you decide to teach, as a social justice-minded professional, you'll always have the opportunity to act as a mentor and role model for others.

Frugal Scholar said...

One last thing. Re your earlier comment. It is unlikely that you can find a physics dept that's interested in physics education. The latter is the province of the School of Education. So generally you can't do both within the same dept.