Sunday, September 4, 2011

B.S. in Physics

One aspect of my résumé, my elevator pitch, my quick summary of who I am that is usually a show-stopper is, oddly enough, the opening words: B.S. in Physics. I don't know what goes through people's minds when they hear or read that. Oh, yeah, I had a course in Physics in high school, it was really hard, or maybe Physics? Like Einstein and that wheelchair guy?, or perhaps Physics? What are you doing here? - or even Physics? Hmmm, no way he's going to stick around here. Next candidate.

So let me give you some background on my education.

For as long as I can remember I was a smart kid. I learned to read at a very young age, and would use the crossword puzzle solutions in the paper as a sort of test of "word or not a word:" EPEE? Not a word! AVES? Not a word! (I still had much to learn about the obscure four-letter words that are the bread-and-butter of crossword designers.) Later I graduated to Donald Duck comic books (back when the Carl Barks stories were fresh and new, or so it seemed) and MAD Magazine (trying to puzzle out why the parody of "The Great Gatsby" didn't seem very funny; in re-reading it from my Absolutely MAD DVD-ROM a few months ago, I realized it was because it wasn't funny.) In first grade I annoyed the nuns by complaining about the "baby books" they were having us read (while I was reading authors like H.G. Wells at home); they punished me by assigning me a reader from a second or third grade class full of godawful boring stories.

Throughout grade school I was the sort of kid who skipped ahead in the book all the time, reading the later chapters that we would never cover in the course of a school year. I was in Catholic school, where the nuns were very good about teaching mathematics, but where afternoon science classes would sometimes get pushed aside in favor of art or music or, during Advent and Lent and May Crowning, additional church-based activities. What I learned about science, more often than not, I picked up on my own.

I had the good fortune to be in grade school when several important events happened: the first flights of the Space Shuttle program, the premiere of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and even the rare and spectacular Triple Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which kept my eye fixed on the dance of those two bright planets for many afternoons and evenings.

Science continued to hold my interest in high school. In my Junior year I became aware of a special program that had recently begun, an intensive program held in July and August for eighty students selected from Pennsylvania's Intermediate Units: the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences. I applied, and was one of the students selected for PGSS '84. For five weeks we lived and studied at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, taking courses and labs in Organic Chemistry, Cellular Biology, Discrete Mathematics, Physics, and the LISP programming language. It was an intense, exhausting, rigorous, grueling, and thoroughly exhilarating experience.

My Senior year was all about looking forward to college. I had to determine how I wanted to define myself through my education. A place like Carnegie-Mellon would be very interesting, but also painfully intense - though the school itself did offer many excellent programs beyond the sciences, so there would be no need for a monomaniacal focus outside of the classroom. But it was also expensive beyond my means, even with the scholarship that they offered. King's College in nearby Wilkes-Barre offered me a full-tuition scholarship, but I left my options open.

Then the University of Scranton presented itself, and I knew I had found my educational future.

The University of Scranton is larger than other regional schools, but much smaller than places like Carnegie-Mellon. It offered a major in Physics - the discipline I had decided to study - as part of its Physics & Electronics Engineering program. But more than that: I was also extended an invitation to join the SJLA - the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts program.

The University of Scranton is a Jesuit institution. To those who do not know, this may sound synonymous with being a Catholic college, or even a religious school of some sort. But the Jesuits go beyond that, with their order's dedication to the principles of scholasticism, the Liberal Arts, and the development of eloquentia perfecta. The SJLA was a program that allowed me to maintain a major in Physics while at the same time focusing my other studies on a select group of courses in Philosophy, History, Literature, and language studies.  I did some quick figuring in the course guide and realized that, with some effort, it would be possible to pick up a second major in Philosophy through the SJLA program - and with just a few added courses, I would also be able to earn a minor in Mathematics.

And on top of it all, Scranton was also offering me a full tuition scholarship. Combined with my National Merit Scholarship, this would ease the financial burden of my college education to the point that I could afford to be a resident student, rather than a commuter. I saw this as essential to the educational experience.

I chose Scranton.

For four years I worked very, very hard at my studies. But it was all worthwhile. Physics was endlessly fascinating. Philosophy was fascinating, too, sometimes in a different way, sometimes in a way that closely parallelled the rigors and strangeness of Physics. And the rest of the classes that I took as part of the SJLA program rounded me out, kept my brain growing in all directions at once, allowed me to look at everything to the exclusion of nothing.

As my fourth year dawned it was time to look seriously at graduate programs. I had already decided on my future path: I would pick up a Master's in two years and then spend the next few working on my Doctorate. I would have a Ph.D. by age twenty-seven and then roll it all into a career of writing science books for the general public.

I had chosen to focus on an area of Physics that fascinated me tremendously: Non-Linear Dynamics, popularly known as Chaos. Despite having its foundations in studies from more than twenty-five years earlier, not many schools had developed programs that focused on this field. I was in luck: one of the few that did was a small liberal arts university located just outside of Philadelphia. Its Physics graduate program was small, but very focused in the areas that I wanted to study; as a liberal arts school, it also promised the distractions and release valves that I had cone to rely upon at the University of Scranton. While I was at it, I also picked out and applied to a backup program at a major research university not far from Philadelphia that also had a concentration in Non-Linear Dynamics.

Then my first-choice grad school imploded.

I found out about it through a back-door method. As a Senior member of the Philosophy Honor Society I took part in the interview process for faculty candidates for the Philosophy department. In one case the candidate was from my first-choice school, and before her presentation I eagerly explained to her that the next day I would be going down to that school to interview at the Physics department, even though I had already been accepted. She looked at me, a bit shocked, and explained that the school was undergoing a period of financial austerity, and no new graduate students would be accepted into any programs in any department.

Now it was my turn to be shocked. I called the head of the Physics department at my prospective grad school, who had been serving as my primary contact through the entire process, and confronted him with this information, concealing my source. He adamantly denied it, and we confirmed that my visit would be the next day.

The next morning, as I was preparing to begin the trip down to the suburbs of Philadelphia, I received a call from my contact. He had received confirmation of what I had said: he would not be allowed to take on any graduate students. He apologized to me profusely, but there was nothing that could be done.

I had to go with my second choice, the major research university. And my dream of Physics turned into a nightmare.

There is a huge difference between a smallish Liberal Arts institution like the University of Scranton and a major research university. At major research universities the primary activity of the senior faculty is securing research grants. These provide the cash that is the lifeblood of the university. Rarely did these professors teach classes, even the classes that they were nominally teaching: these course are taught by graduate students, who at the same time are trying to focus on their own course load. And things like Freshman labs are taught by first-year graduate students - often on their first day on campus, with no preparation. As was the case with us.

I don't remember how many students I had. I think it was four lab classes of twenty students each, two  hours to a class, every week, on top of my own courses. There was no easing-in period, no smooth transition. We were just dropped in and told to sink or swim. The entire experience was very much like getting mugged while drowning.

In the end I couldn't hack it. I staggered through one semester and was faced with the prospect of having to pay my own way through several years of very expensive courses at a school that was not my school of first choice. I decided to walk away and try to finish off the second half of my lease with a job in one of the many industries that dotted the area. One of the more kind-hearted professors at the university steered me in the direction of a solar cell manufacturer, and with his assistance I started a job that would last for the next year and a half, and would set me on a path that continued for the next two decades.

As a parting gift I received the reviews of the students I had taught. Some of them praised my teaching abilities; but some criticized me for teaching at too elementary a level, while an equal number complained that I was teaching well over their heads. The director of the labs laughed and told me that results like that meant that, on average, I had gotten it exactly right.

Why didn't I go back to my first choice grad school? Surely their austerity program didn't last forever? Remember that this was back in 1990, and it was a different world back then. The Internet was still a tool being used primarily for communication between research groups at universities. There was no way of just hopping on a school's website and getting the most up-to-date news about their admissions program. Information like that had to be ascertained through telephone calls and messages sent through the mail. And by then I had had my fill of Physics, and wanted to see if I could make it in the world with what I had already learned.  In truth, the question of why I hadn't considered returning to my first choice university never occurred to me until just a few years ago.

So what does it mean to have a B.S. in Physics? It means that I have a mind that can grasp and grapple with difficult concepts. It means that I have studied relativity, and quantum mechanics, and know about things like superstrings and cosmology and non-linear dynamics. It means that I know Galileo and Newton and Einstein and Feynman and Hawking as more than just names in some textbook. It means that I take an approach to problem-solving that may be very different from people who have not studied Physics, who do not have the "system thinking" that comes from studying the dynamics of complex systems.

It also means that I know a lot of things that may or may not be useful in any given situation. I have tools in my toolkit that other people don't.  And you never know when those tools might come in handy. Having someone on staff with a B.S. in Physics is like having a secret weapon whose full abilities are not even known until an unknown situation arises. And how cool would it be to have one of those?


  1. "Having someone on staff with a B.S. in Physics is like having a secret weapon whose full abilities are not even known until an unknown situation arises. And how cool would it be to have one of those?"

    It would be very cool. Physics, philosophy & math prove your ability to bend your mind while remaining analytical. If I had problems to solve I would want you on my team. I might want you to come with some quantifiable skills like project management or people management so I would know where and how to place you though. Have you considered picking up a certificate in a technical skill and doing an internship or apprenticeship to make you extra attractive, a teaching certificate, or pursuing solar technology?

    As an aside, I like the nice clean look of your blog! Please consider purchasing your own domain name for added impact =)I'm sure must be available for under $20.

    I hope you'll consider blogging about problem solving and I'm very flattered that you added my blog under 'helpful blogs'!

  2. Having re-read the Richard Feynman books it amazes me how we survive in this world with less and less physics people. Everyone wants an engineer or computer person to figure out they're small problem at hand but we could really use some thinkers for the large problems at hand.