In what now feels like another life, but really was only a few years ago, Physics was a big big part of my life. The decision to make a career switch was neither easy nor simple. Some of my friends who knew me back then and a lot of my friends now have asked me why and how I made the shift between such different fields, and surely, since I came from a field as “difficult” as Physics, Nursing must be a breeze for me. Most relevantly, I have been asked, and have asked myself, if the Physics I learned and taught has in any way translated itself to Nursing.
I found myself thinking about these questions these last few days, and Mary and I have had several conversations about this. Since I am rapidly (!) approaching the end of my program and about to enter the world of Health care as a professional, I think this is as good as time as any to put my answer down in writing. I won’t answer the why or the how I switched from the one to the other in this post, but I will try to answer the other two questions.
Is Nursing easy since Physics is hard? No it’s not. If anything, Nursing is harder. Physics was always to me a way of thinking, a way of looking at the world. Physics is about concepts and principles. Once you understand the principles and concepts, say of mechanics, or of gravitation, or relativity, or of matter, then the rest falls into place. You have to juggle some math, but if you stick true to the principles and the fundamental laws, it always works out. This worked for me as an undergrad and as an instructor, and I hope that I taught my students well enough that they stopped thinking of Physics as a mere subject and realized it was a way of looking at the world around them. Even when I started my doctoral program and was doing some really complex stuff, it always came down to the concepts, the principles, the laws of Physics. If you had that foundation down, then you were in good shape.
Nursing, I am finding, is more a way of being. Yes there are concepts, like maintaining sterility or asepsis, or the progression of the inflammatory process, or sepsis to shock. There is science, pathophysiology, disease processes, pharmacology. Then there are skills and techniques, like dressing a wound, applying a splint, inserting a peripheral line, reading and understanding vent settings, inserting a foley. And then there’s the human part of it, dealing with a person at their most vulnerable point in life, dealing with families in crisis, maintaining the human touch and the human connection while dealing with the basest of bodily functions, allowing people to be vulnerable to you as they deal with the indignities of disease and hospitalization and still feel dignified and respected. Keeping all these things at the forefront of your mind at the bedside, with the patient looking in your eyes. When I stand at the patients bedside I must assess, evaluate, analyze, think through the disease process to identify what is happening, and what could potentially happen, always asking myself “am I missing something, what med should I hold, what do I need to check, are the meds working, what are the side effects I need to look out for with the meds I’m giving, are there any red flags, is my patient getting better, what do I need to talk to the doctor about, is my patient getting the best care possible, what are all these monitors around my patient saying about her health, what is the patient saying to me… ad nauseum ad infinitum.” And as all these thoughts are running through my mind I must remain always in contact with my patient, maintaining the connection, maintaining that link that says I care, I’m here, I’m listening, because that link is my lifeline. Do I do this all the time? No. Sometimes I get so caught up making sure that I don’t make a med error or break sterile technique that I forget to assess everything. Sometimes I am so busy doing a physical assessment that I am not listening to my patient. But I am learning, and I hope getting better every day.
So the answer is NO, Nursing School is not a breeze for me. It’s the most intense thing I have ever done in my life, the most challenging, and so far, the most rewarding. And when I actually start making some money, it will be even more rewarding, just in an additional and very welcome way…
The second question is, has the Physics I learned and taught in any way translated itself to Nursing? The short answer is yes, in a lot of different ways. Like I mentioned, Physics, to me, is a way of looking at and thinking about the world, and that way of thinking, and the analytical skills I developed along the way, have popped up in unexpected ways to hold my hand and help me through Nursing School and patient care. But this post is getting long and I need to do some schoolwork, so I’ll come back to this subject later.
To answer some more direct questions:
Yes, I miss Physics, and the world of academia and research.
Yes, I miss the kind of mental stimulation that comes from grappling with a Physics or Math concept or problem and finally mastering it.
Yes, I regret not being able to finish what I started, to complete my doctoral program and be a physicist.
Yes, I miss Physics.
Yes, it still is and always will be a part of my life.
No, I don’t regret having invested such a big part of my life to Physics.
No, I don’t regret making the switch to Nursing.
If I knew then what I know now, would I have bypassed the whole Physics thing and gone straight to Nursing? Maybe. Maybe not. It would have saved me loads of time. But then I probably wouldn’t be the person I am now. Everything happens for a reason.
Marjorie M. Pamintuan says
hi, im a nursing student and i really like ur article regarding physics.Even though its one of my hatest subject coz its very ardous for me to analyze problem…
jennelyn gascon says
hi!! just want to ask..
what is the relation of physics to nursing?/
how can it help???
I don’t think there’s any direct relationship between the two per se. Like I said in my post, it’s more about the skills that you pick up in one translating to the other.
As in all fields of study you do have some cross over sometimes, like when studying the formation and dynamics of an aneurysm you will run into Laplace’s law, which will make more sense if you have some background in Physics or Math. Again, it may be easier to understand and visualize some aspects of hemodynamics with a solid knowledge of Fluid Mechanics. Many years of modeling data, looking at and translating graphical respresentations, and discussing electrical currents help my brain when I am looking at and translating EKGs, even though it’s a completely different principle.
Everything in life is interrelated and things you learn in one field will pop up and help you in unexpected ways when working in other fields. Hope this makes sense.
I ran into this article asking Google if there is another person in this world brave (or “crazy” 🙂 ) enough to make such a turn in her career. I was so happy when I found and read your post.
I’m in the reverse situation, where I work as a nurse and I want to study, work and “live physics” for similar reasons as you were.
Thus, it requires almost complete reorganization of the management of my time, energy and resources. People around me are not very supportive since they think that this is impossible and / or too difficult for me or anyone, given that physics is “harder” than nursing.
I feel discouraged and I’d love to get some advice from someone who has already went through all of this. Where to begin? What requirements must I meet to study physics? How did you prepare your everyday life to such a change? Have you studied nursing while you worked as a physicist or you were solely dedicated to nursing?
I’ll be grateful for any advice.
P.S. Sorry about my bad English 🙂
Hi Magdalene, sorry for the late reply!! So glad you found my little post inspirational 🙂 If you want to get into the world of physics, and it’s something you are really interested in, then my advice for you is go for it!! 🙂 People are afraid of change, and while they may have the best intentions for you, the fact of the matter is that it’s your life and your decision and your risk to take. Better to try and fail than to not try and always wonder “what if?”
I didn’t really prepare for the change, I just made sure I had some savings and a way to pay my way through school and dove in. You can probably continue to work part time as a nurse while you start your Physics studies 🙂 I assume you did some Physics at High School level already? If yes, then I would suggest starting at a community college or Polytechnic (depending on what country you’re in) and taking some entry level Physics courses. This is a good way to get an intro without signing up for a 4 year university degree. Usually you have to combine your Physics classes with some Maths classes – Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, etc, and probably other things to get a complete course, but your college will be able to recommend what courses to combine. Once you get your momentum going and you’re sure you want to continue to a complete career in Physics you can then transfer your coursework to a full university and go as far and as high as you want in your Physics career. Find a college near you and go in and talk to them, ask them what pathway they recommend, I’m sure they’ll be happy to help. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done.
Physics is fun and challenging and you learn a lot about the world and how things work. It’s also a way of thinking about the world, and I really miss it. I sometimes contemplate reverting back to being a Physicist 🙂
Please let me know how things go and what you decide to do, I’m cheering you on! 🙂
I’m doing an assignment on Physics in nursing and I was wondering if you could help me by answering these questions.
Other than by developing your mindset, in what specific ways do you think Physics has helped you in your nursing?
Do you think that studying physics at school would be enough to help in these ways?
Do you think that there have been any negatives of studying Physics first and then going on to nursing?
Do you think that more nurses should study Physics?
Any help would be appreciated.
This is a great article. I have been a LPN for many years. I thought getting my RN would be a good idea. I had to retake my prerequisites since I graduated with my biology degree too many years prior. I finished school last fall with full honors and a merit scholarship. I got into 3 Ivy League schools. I’ve lived physics since high school. I almost changed my major in college, I’m a Schrodinger die-hard. It’s my hobby. Nursing doesn’t interest me but I’m getting family pressure to finish my RN. That these Ivy league schools “only want my money”. The thought of doing clinicals makes my stomach hurt. I don’t think I can be successful in something like nursing if I don’t want to be there at all, even if I am smart, like you mentioned. If I had my RN, I’d only want to do data analysis, possibly research. I really want to be at Columbia University, finishing my physics degree. In your opinion, could you get through nursing school if your heart is not in it? You’re doing it to make others happy?
Hi Jen, that sounds like quite a dilemma. If your heart is not in it I would suggest you rethink things and if possible do what you want to do – Physics. There are merits to finishing your RN program, and there are non-clinical things you can do as an RN, such as research, working for industry as a drug or medical equipment sales rep, legal nurse consultant, etc. But these roles tend to look for RNs with some clinical experience. Have you had any clinicals? You mentioned you’re an LPN so you should know what the clinical environment is like. If your heart is not in it I think you will find the hands on RN work difficult to bear, because it is quite demanding on a personal and emotional level.
I wish you the very best in your decision-making. If you have a change of heart, being an RN is a great career and can be quite mentally challenging and stimulating as well (it is for me in the ER). But if you can’t bear it then don’t do it.