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Susanne Reffert | IPMU | Japan

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Theoretical Physics and Frustration

Theoretical physics is known to be an extremely frustrating endeavor. Already as an undergrad, I was warned against that. But why is this the case? There are several reasons, I believe.

  • Too high expectations.
    Many students who decide to do theoretical physics have in mind people like Albert Einstein or similarly imposing role models. And let’s face it, even among the most successful in our trade, having an impact like this is rare. So even those who eventually succeed in getting a tenured position are likely to have fallen short of their original hopes.
    I guess I am at peace with the fact that I’m not the new Einstein, but I can’t shake the feeling that I should be doing better than I am.
  • It’s hard.
    What we do is hard. Before we can even start to do our own bit of research, we have to assimilate an enormous amount of knowledge, consisting of very difficult physical and mathematical concepts. For each new project, we have no acquire new knowledge first. Not knowing is my daily bread. And since as a researcher, I have to constantly push the boundary of what’s known and what I personally am able to do, there is little I can do about it. It’s in the nature of the job. And yet, feeling ignorant all the time really gets to me at times. I never know enough. I seem to constantly be aiming one step ahead of myself.
  • Very little gratification.
    More the opposite. It keeps happening that you follow a lead that ultimately does not bring you further. Sometimes it’s a few days wasted, sometimes a few weeks, and once in a while even a few months.
    The moments when you have a new idea or reach a new result are few. Often, the process is so gradual that you hardly have a feeling of satisfaction at all. You spend months working on a project, but in the end the resulting paper goes largely unremarked by the rest of the world.

The result of the high levels of frustration is that many people give up at some point along the road. It’s true that the job market is not good and that there are far less positions than applicants. But I’ve seen many people leave even though they did not have to.
Others eventually get tenure, but become bitter in the process. Many (even, from my point of view, successful) colleagues seem to have an inexhaustible reservoir of complaints about all the times their work did not get the attention they thought it deserved, when they did not get invited to a conference they feel they would have been the perfect speaker for, not to mention all the jobs they should have gotten instead of someone else who was obviously less qualified.

Like everyone, I suffer from time to time from the accumulated frustration. But I try to hold on as well as I can because I believe that one of the ingredients of succeeding as a theoretical physicist is to be able to keep going in the face of these adversities.
But I try to avoid like hell becoming bitter. Of course thoughts like “How come X gets invited to speak at this conference and not I?” sometimes cross my mind. But I try to fight them. We all have our frustrations to battle with, but I don’t want to make my life miserable by harboring all these extra resentments.

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