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Physicists have been taking jobs as software engineers since the 90s. Career-wise, physics is the comparative literature of the exact sciences.



/me raises hand

Degree in physics, working software for 20 years and still feel like an impostor ... not that I remember any physics at this stage


In 1997, I met my former professor of Quantum Mechanics and he said, "I hear you've gone over to the Dark Side". He was referring to the start of my professional software development career. I'd been an amateur developer for a decade prior to that, but took a break to pursue a degree in physics.

We had a long discussion during which I told him that I'd always wanted to program computers, but didn't think it made sense to get a degree doing something I could learn in my bedroom. Physics, on the other hand, was fascinating, and could only be truly learnt and appreciated from people who'd devoted their lives to it.

20 years later, I think those years of training in physics have made me a better developer, and taught me to better see patterns in data. To prefer "good enough for the task at hand and elegant enough to be proud of" over "perfect" (which is what many of my math friends ended up seeking).


Impostor syndrome seems bogus but only because I've never experienced it and therefore can't understand it. Why do you feel like an impostor? The world is analog, not digital. There's no rite of passage that will suddenly switch you from being an "impostor" to being "legitimate". I've met EE majors who turned out to be better software developers than CS majors and vice versa.


First, a tip -- if you genuinely want to learn more about something, don't start by saying it "seems bogus". Not the best way to open up a discussion.

On to your question: It's hard to pin down the exact root cause, but it seems (in my case at least) to stem from being an outsider -- a y in a sea of x's. When everyone else doing your job has a specific attribute that you don't, you can start to wonder whether you really belong in that role. The literal feeling is, "One of these days, I'll say the wrong acronym in stand-up, the rest of the team is going to figure out that I'm just winging this Agile Scrum thing, and that will be that."

That can mean being the only physicist in a company of CS grads, or the only woman on an all-male engineering team.

Being in a job where you're always learning, received no formal training, and where the expectations are fluid can amplify the feeling, since there's no yardstick against which to compare your performance. If you're a fast learner, it can be hard to believe you've gotten as good at something as people who had years of training/have been doing it for years.


But, see, for every single person in the standup, there's something. "If they figure out that I'm not as smart", or "that I don't really understand Android", or Java, or Eclipse, or databases, or that I went to a lesser school, or...

Here's a group of people. Compared to each one of them, I know less about something. It's really easy to go from that to feeling like I know less about what I'm supposed to be doing than everyone else.

I don't really experience this, I suspect because of arrogance. I'm not sure that's really an improvement, though...


Yes, of course -- that's why it's called Impostor SYNDROME. If you think about it logically, of course you belong there, and everyone has their own foibles.



Someone's perception of their abilities is (usually) not the same as their actual abilities—that is, some people will over/underestimate themselves, which manifests as overconfidence or low self esteem. Sometimes its in a specific area too, like one person who thinks they're god's gift to programming (when they actually cause more problems than they think) but also hold the simultaneous belief that they're unattractive and un-datable to the opposite sex (the reality is somewhere in between).

> I can't understand something so it must not be real

Maybe that's a problem with you more than reality.


> I can't understand something so it must not be real

I never said that, don't twist my words. I said it seems bogus because I've never experienced it and I don't understand it. I never said it isn't real - it probably is; I just have a hard time relating to it and accepting it.


You do know what the word "bogus" means?


You do know what the word "seems" means?


Speaking personally, I used to experience alot of impostor syndrome type feelings. After doing alot of work with therapists around family of origin issues, I don't experience it anymore. I can understand if you don't get it, for me it was an issue of misperception that took correcting at the root.


> The world is analog, not digital.

While true as far as our current mathematical models are concerned, there are good reasons to expect that deep down the world's fabric is discrete. (Whether that counts as being "digital" is probably just a matter of language.)


>there are good reasons to expect that deep down the world's fabric is discrete

There are no reasons to expect one way or the other. As far as we can measure, spacetime is discrete. However we can't probe very far in the grand scheme of things. Without experimental evidence, and without a particularly strong argument one way or the other, it's useless to be speculating.


> As far as we can measure, spacetime is discrete.

Did you mean to say "continuous"?

Quoting Wikipedia [1], "physical spacetime is expected to be quantum because physical coordinates are already slightly noncommutative."

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_spacetime


Since the '40s, as the article notes. Early on, science/engineering/math problems were one of the driving forces of computing, typically with a distinct separation from commercial/administrative side — for instance, scientific machines had floating point while commercial machines had decimal arithmetic. It wasn't until the First Dotcom Bubble that the commercial culture decisively ‘won’.


Don't forget about Dennis Richie, the creator of C programming, according to Wikipedia he holds a degree in Physics and Applied Maths[1].

1- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dennis_Ritchie


There was a large cohort of early computer science luminaries, Edsger W. Dijkstra among them, who schooled for physics and went to CS when there was a glut of physicists after the end of WW2.


I was ahead of the curve - I did it in 1985. Never used any of the physics, either...

... until 20 years into my career, when I got hired by that medical instruments place that was doing 3D reconstructions of patient anatomy from a series of 2D X-rays. Then it was 3D coordinate transforms, Fourier transforms, some other calculus, plus radiation physics.

A lot of stuff you learn isn't relevant to your career - until it is.


I know a self-taught developer who was specifically getting a degree in physics because of the wide variety of fields that it could allow him to work in. If you insist on getting a degree, degrees in engineering fundamentals like math or physics are probably the best things to target.


I disagree. In my experience (and talking with classmates) finding a job as a generalist (physics/math) is much tougher than specializing in CS, finance, engineering etc. Yes, there are more paths to take, but there are generally large hills on those paths that need to be overcome first...


I don't have first-hand experience as a candidate so I can't really contribute more to the discussion. I assume that like most positions where the job isn't a 1:1 mapping with the degree, some initiative beyond just presenting the degree will be necessary and you'll need to demonstrate an awareness and competence in the field you're pursuing.

I've done a fair amount of hiring and I know that a candidate with a physics or mathematics degree who also had a programming background that was commensurate with the position would look a lot better to me than one with a compsci degree, all else being equal.

That should tell you what college degrees are worth these days, though. The candidate primarily needs commensurate background. Degrees are effectively neutral -- too widespread to penalize people for taking that route, but really not worth much extra, unless in the course of your studies you accidentally did something really interesting, but then you probably could've done interesting things without the educational institution.




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