Passing on wisdom: from those who have left physics

International Women’s Day is never easy for me. I love celebrating other women, but I see myself as too awkward and abrasive to do anything worth celebrating.

This year was especially hard, because it was my first International Women’s Day since I left physics properly and became a science communicator. I’m still in touch with my physics network; I’m so happy for all the amazing women I know pursuing their careers. And yet it still hurt knowing I am no longer one of them.

The hashtag #PassOnMyWisdom bounced around Twitter, filled with advice (not all of it good). I’m 23 and not even a physicist any more. I wondered what wisdom I could pass on.

As it turns out, while being 23 is something of an obstacle to passing on wisdom, moving out of physics isn’t. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

There is life outside your department
I don’t think leaving physics is an easy choice for anyone. Even if you can’t bear to stay, the combination of physics’ reputation as the king of the sciences and the sheer uncertainty of leaving your intellectual home behind makes it hard to seek out different ground.

But that ground is there, and often a physicist can coax the best out of it. Many physicists go into finance or develop software. Some become science communicators. Some become historians or social scientists. Right now, I’ve left physics and I’m a science writer and editor, while studying video games at the same time. When I started my physics degree, I had no idea anyone could work as a science communicator full-time – and when I finished it, I had no idea I’d end up researching video games of all things. I don’t expect every physicist to become a banker, a programmer, a sociologist or a scholar of the humanities – I make the point that physicists can and do go anywhere. There’s a big world out there and it’s waiting for you.

Physics and scientific thinking are really useful
I suspect that many of us went into physics because we found something appealing about the way physicists do things. The beauty and power in using equations to describe the big, bewildering world around us, the satisfaction of seeing a computer simulation predict something new and the tacit knowledge acquired in experimental physics are all rare and precious.

The things you learn don’t disappear; they stay, and you carry them with you. The ability to approach the world like a system of interlocking problems is valuable. You can put it to good use wherever you go.

But the way other disciplines do things is really useful, too
If you believe that physics is the most fundamental and important discipline, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that knowing physics means knowing everything, that a problem must conform to the conventions of the sciences to be relevant. Leaving physics helped me to recognise that this isn’t the case – that sometimes, using a different way to understand the world will lead to you doing some incredibly powerful things.

You’re not a failure for leaving physics
This is it. This is the big one.

Physics is seen as the “best” discipline, the one key to answering questions in other fields. It’s demanding, and only the best and brightest may stay in the field. At the same time, physics is systematically biased against anyone who isn’t privileged. Leaving physics is therefore seen as an admission of failure – of not being the best and brightest – and, for anyone from a marginalised group, a way of letting the side down.

If you take nothing else away from this piece, take this: you’re not a failure and you haven’t let anyone down. People leave physics for all sorts of reasons, and not being “smart enough” is not really one of them. Physics also has its unfair share of abusive people and toxic environments. If you’ve had to leave physics because of that, you haven’t failed. You’ve survived and protected yourself, and I am so sorry you were ever put in the position where you had to choose between your health and your livelihood.

There are many ways to do good things in the world. Academic physics is only one of them.

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