Am I a crazy person to want to become a teacher?
June 2, 2010 3:25 PM   Subscribe

I've taken a one year leave from a grad school program in physics. I was very unhappy in grad school, and I'm now leaning towards not going back. My next best idea is to become a high-school teacher in physics and/or math in the Boston area. Am I crazy? How do I do this?

I'm fairly excited about the idea, and I feel like it's a very important job in which I would feel fulfilled. Also, I'm pretty happy living a frugal lifestyle, so $30-40,000 a year would be just fine with me. I've done a fair amount of volunteer tutoring, which I've enjoyed.

A few related questions:

1. Am I crazy? I've heard stories all over the map about how hard it is to become a teacher now, how there are layoffs everywhere, etc, etc. I'm currently most of the way to the lowest certification level in Massachusetts, after which point I can legally teach a class. Any ideas about what's the most sensible path for me to become a teacher in the Boston area?

2. Does anyone else have experience with this kind of switch? Care to offer me your 20/20 hindsight? Will I be haunted for the rest of my life by the loss of the admittedly great opportunity I have now to become a research scientist? I've always loved the idea of being a scientist, but it turns out there are quite a few things about it I like less in practice. Teaching sounds great to me, but it doesn't give me quite the same feeling of pride as imagining myself as a research physicist.

3. I've maintained a vague fantasy of going back to a less-intense grad school when I'm older and getting my physics Ph.D. Is this in any way realistic? Has anyone started their research career later in life?

Thanks for any input. I know a lot of this is personal, and you can't really tell me what I should do, but I really feel like I need some outside perspectives on this.
posted by anonymous to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is your desire to become a teacher set in stone? Physics and mathematics graduates are in big demand in financial field as well as engineering ones.
posted by gadha at 3:55 PM on June 2, 2010

try and eke out at least a MSc in physics - that will not only give you a boost in high school pay, but will also allow you to teach at community colleges. based on personal experience (abd in pure math, 25+ years teaching), I'd say either buckle down, get your ducks lined up (find a sympathetic circle incl major prof), and go for it, or... forever hold your peace.
posted by youchirren at 4:33 PM on June 2, 2010

1. It's relatively not so bad in the hard sciences career-wise, insofar as they pretty much can't be cut for STEM reasons, and many people can't pass the MTEL. That said, times are hard all over; we're looking at 5 FT teaching positions gone next year out of one small school. Good news: my understanding is that the preliminary license is good for five years of employment, so if you can't find a job you aren't burning time off that (I think). You will have some advantage in having a better knowledge base than most applicants; I got my current job because they needed someone to teach AP, and real-life research scientist credentials helped.

2. I've done this (not physics, think one step up in size). I frequently ride or drive past my old lab, and...well, usually wave a one-fingered salute at it and grin in satisfaction. There are things I miss, but on the other hand I don't wake up dreading going to work, and I get to do all the fun things that got me into science in the first place (blowing things up, setting stuff on fire, etc). However, I had a lot of experience teaching (though not high school), and was sure it was something I wanted to do.

3. Can you leave with a Master's? You absolutely shouldn't leave without it, since the requirements are usually pretty low in most programs.

4. There are some fast-track licensure programs for the sciences for minimizing classwork later on. I don't know the details, though.

5. The Boston area has one nice advantage--every town has it's own school system. Which means more chances to get past the initial garbage bin filter.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:35 PM on June 2, 2010

Addendum: if you do become a teacher, get used to being the scapegoat for everything wrong with public education. You will be blamed by everybody from distant relatives to the President of the United States (former ones and current; probably future too).
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:46 PM on June 2, 2010

Is it the subject area or the school? Have you already looked into somehow transferring to a program that works for you?
posted by metaseeker at 5:07 PM on June 2, 2010

Finish the grad degree. Then do whatever you want. Stopping short limits your options. A couple of years you don't enjoy are small potatoes in the grand scheme of your life.
posted by kjs3 at 5:27 PM on June 2, 2010

Lots of states have programs that will either subsidize a teacher's certification up front or offer loan forgiveness programs, especially if you want to teach in math or science. One such example in Missouri.
posted by honeybee413 at 5:45 PM on June 2, 2010

When I was working on my MA in English Lit, I earned money by working in the Dean of Arts office in the summer. Almost without exception, students who weren't cutting it in the Arts were referred to the Education Faculty.

Just saying.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:52 PM on June 2, 2010

Teaching is not like tutoring, but go ahead and get your feet wet. You are unlikely to be killed by the experience, and it probably won't disqualify you from entry level science or generic BA jobs. Maybe you'll find in the academic side of education the quantitative, hands on, experimental features that attracted you to physics. If you've done your classwork, some programs are willing to let you hit the MS as a parachute, but some programs plan to just dump a substantial fraction of their matriculants. A masters degree, even not in ed, bumps your pay grade but not always by a lot.

For those who haven't been there, a physics PhD that isn't really working out can take 10 years. I wouldn't recommend doing it for completion's sake.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:45 PM on June 2, 2010

A slight tangent: you might want to look into private schools since you are within proximity of a number of top of the line new england prep schools.

Advantages vs public: 1. small classes (avg of 12 students where I taught); 2. relatively less interested in educational credentials and more interested in your subject knowledge; 3. intelligent/interested students; 4. colleagues with a real interest in their subject including working artists, authors, etc.

Disadvantages: 1. pay may be a little less though I'm not sure about that; 2. they may expect your full time involvement (but possibly you get living quarters.); 3. In consequence of "2", you might not have much of an outside life.

Above applies generally to top of the line schools.

No matter where you end up as a teacher, keep in mind that done right it takes a great deal of work and can be all-consuming no matter how deep your knowledge.
posted by Kevin S at 7:00 PM on June 2, 2010

I think the last numbered item is telling. You apparently went to grad school with the intent of getting a PhD in Physics and, like a lot of people, you found that grad school sucks. Now you're dreaming up ways to still do physics in a way that gets you out of the environment, such as teaching high school. But you still want the degree because you say you want to go to a less intense program in the future. Gosh, I hope that doesn't sound too cold because I'm actually very sympathetic to your situation.

The truth is that, for most people, graduate school is a terrible experience. That's the entire point: Make it so awful that most people quit and the department gains prestige for being rigorous and only graduating the most bad-ass students. The fact that you're miserable means that you're normal. I wouldn't hold out much hope that another department would be much different.

My first advice: If you're not sure what to do, do the thing that keeps the most options open. That probably means deciding to stick it out at least long enough to leave with an MS. Like other folks have said, if you're going to teach you probably want that degree and you'll never have a better chance to get it.

My second advice: If you really want the PhD, do it now. You'll likely never have a better situation to work on it and, speaking as somebody who had to balance graduate school and work, going back to school once you've become established in a career and adult life is a very, very hard thing to do.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:11 PM on June 2, 2010

I'm a physics grad student and I took time off. You didn't say how many years you've already done and how many are left. Two important questions to ask yourself are "why was I unhappy in grad school?" and "would I regret not finishing my PhD?" The latter question is connected to "why did I go to grad school in the first place?"
So first question, why were you unhappy? Is it typical grad school stuff like not liking the long hours, loneliness, being stuck on your research? These problems can be dealt with (though I'm not saying it's easy). Or is it something more major like you can't find an advisor or you have a crappy advisor or you are having trouble passing your quals? If your school is the one that starts with M and ends with T, I can give you more specific comments and tell you who to talk to.
Second question, would you have any regrets? I realized that I put so much effort into getting to grad school and being in grad school, that if I left my degree unfinished, I would have huge regret the rest of my life. I went to grad school to fulfill a dream and if I quit, I would risk becoming a person who gave up on something big, who didn't put my best effort into finishing what I started. Plus, I would like to do something scientific as a career, so even more reason to get the PhD.
These were my thoughts and naturally yours are probably different, but it gives you an idea of some of the considerations involved. Are there people (especially parents, family) pressuring you to quit grad school? I wouldn't listen to any of those people unless they have actually been in a PhD program. They really have no idea what it's like.
Echoing the other commenters, I think getting at least an MS would be wise, so you have something on your resume that reflects your effort and would set you apart in future job searches. There are plenty of people who have done PhDs at "later" stages of life. I had an officemate who went back to college to get a BS in physics (he already had a BS in computer science) and he started the PhD Program when he was 30-something. The chair of our department knows a woman who got her PhD in her 40s and is now working at NASA. Many foreign students have done extensive military service and are significantly older than other people in the program. Unfortunately, I don't know much about people who quit and came back. Yesterday, a professor in my department told me that he had a student who goofed off. The professor fired him, then the student tried to work for another professor and goofed off again, and then he finally quit. Sometime later, the student came back and finished his PhD, which totaled 9 years.
Have you talked to the administrative staff at your grad school? How easy is it to come back? I know you said you might want to go to a different school, but this is information worth finding out. Have you talked to other students and professors in your program? For a big decision like this, it's important to find the "right" people to give you perspective. Not knowing anything about your school or program, it's hard for me to understand why you are unhappy with grad school.
Good luck.
posted by qmechanic at 7:13 AM on June 3, 2010

My understanding of most grad departments' funding situations is that the priority for grants, stipends, fellowships, TA jobs, etc is for students of traditional age who are going to go out and make a name for the university with their kickass physics. A returning student who's been teaching high school for 5-10 years may be written off as being headed for continued small-time teaching, and not likely to go be famous and make the school look good. i.e. funding will be harder to get. On the other hand, maybe your employer would be paying tuition-matching.
For most physics programs, though, there aren't any classes that you take between the masters and PhD level - it's all research, lab-work, working for a particular professor... who you would presumably have to woo your way into their lab and be working pretty darn hard on that, on top of the reputed long-hours public schools workweek. If you want a PhD, now is the time.

I know you can't reply to these questions here, but as someone who was in grad school for some of the wrong reasons, I urge you to consider them:

You say you've loved the idea of being a research physict, and that you would take pride in thinking of yourself as a research physicist... but don't like it in practice. Presumably that's from your unpleasant grad school experience. A bad match with your advisor/lab? A project you're not into? A bad time for you personally? What would actually be different if you came back to this later on?

You're more enthusiastic about the idea of being a research physicist than the reality. Why? What is so awesome (to you - this is a personal question) about the title of "physicist"? You've been in grad school, so you know several research physicists: professors and post-docs and people from national labs. What part of their jobs do you want? What part of their lives do you want? (Hint: it's not the part where they come back into lab after dinner to start working on a paper) I'm not saying that having a PhD in physics or a job as a research physicist wouldn't be something to be proud of, but don't let the job title be too much of a carrot for you.

"Will I be haunted for the rest of my life by the loss of the admittedly great opportunity I have now to become a research scientist?" That depends. Is becoming a research scientist really honestly a great opportunity for you? You also have (perhaps unwittingly) had some "great" opportunities to join the army, to become a monk, to sell all your belongings and follow Phish... there is an opportunity to do all sorts of things in this world, and most of them you just skip right over because you simply don't want to do that. You make a choice and go with it. That's the way it is. Would you be haunted for the rest of your life by the loss of this great opportunity to become a teacher and talk to young people about science on a daily basis?

It's hard to take something that's been a goal for a while, and set it aside in fovor of something else. Do you think you'll genuinely miss doing physics research? Do you just hate the idea of "dropping out"? Do you feel like you'd be letting down the people (teachers, parents, etc) who've been encouraging you? Do you feel like you'd be losing a battle of wits with your high school nemesis who is becoming a neurosurgeon? Get a physics PhD iff you want to do physics. Getting a PhD because you said you would, or because someone else said you should, or to prove that you can, is not "success". Success is discovering what you really want from life, career, and yourself, and taking steps to do that.

Sorry to focus on the personal questions instead of answering the practical ones you raised, but the real answer for careers is, anything is possible if you know what you want. The happiest people I know have careers that they've molded around their interests, not jobs that were perfectly suited to them from day 1 - so stay flexible and open to possibilities. Best wishes with your decisions. Memail me if you want (assuming I managed not to sound like a big jerk).
posted by aimedwander at 7:29 AM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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