I Got a Physics Degree and It Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

My Biggest Studying Mistake – The Feynman Technique
My Biggest Studying Mistake – The Feynman Technique

I Got a Physics Degree and It Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

Remember, like, three years ago I wrote a post about how I was going to go back to school and get a bachelor’s degree in physics? Ever wonder how that turned out?

I’m a lawyer, sort of. I mean, I passed the bar and everything. But back when I graduated I couldn’t find a job because of the recession. (Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself.) I decided to throw caution and responsible student loan debt reduction to the wind and pursue my secret dream of becoming an astrophysicist. I was really nervous about it. My math skills weren’t the best…or even that good. But I had to try.

So that was three years ago, and I did it! I graduated! And let me tell you something: That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Yesyesyes, I know. I took the bar exam. Getting a physics bachelor’s degree was still harder.

Not in the “going back to school in your 30s makes you feel old when you’re around all these 19 and 20 year olds” kind of way, but in the “oh my glob this shit is hard to understand” kind of way. I’m not surprised there was only one other physics student in my graduating class.

Don’t get me wrong, I like studying physics. A lot. But I’m a smart person, and it’s just an undergraduate degree. Yet there were struggles.

Over the past three years I’ve kicked myself a few times for not pursuing physics my first time around, but upon reflection, I don’t think it would have worked out. Before law school – really, before the bar exam – I never really had to study for anything. And I didn’t really study that much for things. I read over notes the night before a test, but that’s not really studying. Because I generally caught onto things quickly – and because I could string words together to make a coherent thought – I never learned to study. When it comes to teaching me to study, law school didn’t even do that good of a job, but the bar exam did. The cruel irony is that I probably would not have been a successful physics student if I hadn’t subjected myself to the bar exam (and, by extension, law school).

That’s so annoying! Do you know how many thousands of dollars in debt I am, just to learn to study so I could try to be a physicist? Many. Many, many, many.

All in all, I’m glad I did it, though. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that I just like being in school, but it was more than that. It was more intellectually stimulating than what I was used to. I was usually exhausted at the end of the day from all the thinking, and it definitely made me think I was getting less intelligent. Because, unlike when I was a baby student or my brief time as a job-having adult, there were constant challenges. No day was especially easy. There was always some question I had a hard time answering. I couldn’t find the right bit of law or, failing that, a sorta OK bit of law that I could analogize into being an acceptable answer. There were infinite wrong answers, and only one right answer.

In grade school (and middle school and high school and some college) my worst assignments were math assignments. Those always got the most red marks, the worst grades. It taught me that math problems have an answer. Two plus two will always equal four, regardless of how well you argue otherwise. As far as I was concerned, math problems had one answer. I know a lot of people find this comforting, but the idea that one small error can throw everything else off track is terrifying to me. What if I made small errors on all the problems? What if I fail? What if I’m not smart? What if I can’t do this? What if what if what if? This is what math anxiety looks like for me.

It took me at least three semesters to stop thinking this way regularly. While it’s definitely possible to do an integral incorrectly, it’s almost as important to know when you have to do an integral in the first place. The journey to the answer is as important as the answer itself. When I started seeing classes that way, the classes started to feel less foreign. I’d done this before. Maybe I’ll mess up an integral along the way, the same way I’m sure I messed up by missing small but crucial bits of logic in a Supreme Court precedent. Even though my answer may not be completely right, it’s also not completely wrong, and I can work with that. Once I realized that I’d made similar errors in the past and that I’d continue to make them for the rest of my life, it wasn’t so scary. (But, let’s be real, sometimes still really scary.)

I realize that all of this sounds kind of awful, but it wasn’t. There were definitely days where I cried in the bathroom, wondering what I was even doing. Which, again, sounds bad. And it was bad, but it was temporary. If it wasn’t, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it right now. I’m just lucky that I have a partner who provides constant, unwavering support and an advisor who, if she ever doubted my ability to grasp anything, she never showed it.

It’s almost as though being so hard was what made it so fun and so worth it. But “fun” and “worth it” doesn’t necessarily translate into “energizing.” The downside of all of this is that I had less energy to care about things I cared about before. I had less energy to keep up with the news, to write, to form opinions. I ended up missing that more than I expected, mostly because I didn’t realize it would disappear. Back in my political science/law days, it was almost impossible not to be somewhat informed about the goings-on in the world because it came up in class. All the time. But when I was studying physics, I had to make myself stay informed. And when a lot of the news is so emotionally draining, I often just didn’t have the brain power at the end of the day to deal with it. I didn’t like that so much, and I never did figure out how to balance it out.

So…now what? I did the thing, now what’s next? More. More is next. Despite being the hardest thing I’ve ever done, after three years I do still like studying physics. I managed to trick a few physics Ph.D. programs into letting me in, so I’ll start in the fall. (Don’t let anyone tell you your GRE score is too low, kids.) I can only expect more dark days of questioning my life choices while crying in the bathroom and even less time for news-reading and opinion-having. I can’t wait.

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