Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Physics envy

Choosing where to go to graduate school was a long and difficult process, and of the many considerations that passed my mind, none seems more petty than status. There's something of a heirarchy of academic fields when it comes to the respect its practitioners and experts get, and "social scientist" ranks near the bottom of the sciences pile, to the point where many people will point at one or more of its disciplines and say "Well, that's not even a science."

Indeed, I've accused economists of being nonscientific before myself.

I was introduced to this concept in my introductory psychology class as "physics envy" - because physics tends to be on the top of the respect pile for the sciences, unless you count mathematics - and talked about it in my philosophy of science class. In fact, physicists get so much respect from "lay" people that they're almost treated as a priesthood of the modern age; listen to the questions physicists get asked in media interviews.

There's also a ladder of respect based on your school's reputation. So when I passed up going to a top-25 physics school for theoretical physics, and decided to go to a unique cross-disciplinary program at a less prestigious university, I felt a twinge of regret on that account. It felt like I was gambling the respect I could expect to get for my research against bad house odds.

A doctorate in physics from a top-25 school - nobody but the most Ivy League of snobs would dare to badmouth that. Working on an applied mathematical field traditionally occupied by economists at a school I hadn't heard of three years ago? Perhaps it's because that evaluation felt like such a petty reason that I made the decision I did. I've been known to be contrarian before.

No comments:

Post a Comment