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Second thoughts on physics PhD-Engineering masters/PhD or job?

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DJeffs
#1
Dec30-12, 05:48 PM
P: 10
Hi all,

I recently started a funded MSc-->PhD graduate program in physics at a mid-top tier 2 university, and I'm having concerns regarding my future career prospects. My initial plan was to finish the PhD, but now I'm considering stopping after the MSc. I have a BS in physics and a minor in math with an overall undergraduate GPA of 3.7. Prior to graduate school, I was involved in three research projects, one of which may lead to a publication.

I'm concerned about employment after graduate school. Lately, I've felt that I ultimately don't want to become a professor. I find physics fascinating, but academic positions seem too demanding for my personality, along with the fact that they're hard to come by. I also don't like how isolated day to day work in academia seems, but this might be particularly pronounced in the group I'm working in.

The group I'm in does experimental condensed matter that overlaps with materials science and electrical engineering. Along with the fact that I find it very interesting, I chose to work in experimental condensed matter because of its overlap with other fields, and its superior employment potential (in terms of finding non-academic work related to physics). At this point, I think a job in a national lab or industry sounds most appealing.

However, I've disliked the tedious process of trouble-shooting the many problems that arise in research. I assume most people in research dislike this, but I don't know if it's too much for me, which is partly why an industry job seems more appealing (I could be completely mistaken here). Then again, I could be blowing this dislike out of proportion, as I've been diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression since early adolescence, which has made me second guess almost every career move I've made (e.g. choosing to major in physics, applying to graduate school, choosing which school to go to, etc.). I've continued to receive treatment for these conditions, but regardless, they have always clouded my judgement and made it hard to feel confident about any career decisions.

I should have the MSc by next fall, and I'm wondering if it might be better use of my time/give me more employability to leave the PhD program and go on to a masters or PhD in EE or materials science, or to just start looking for a job after the physics MSc. A couple things favoring staying in the physics PhD: A potential PhD project I've discussed with my advisor may involve a collaboration with a materials science group at my university, that would allow me to make thin film heterostructures of novel materials, make measurements using STM, XRD, TEM, and magnetic susceptometry, and have access to a nanofabrication center (I'm under the impression some of these skills are quite transferable to industry). I've also entered a program open to science/engineering grad students at my university that aides in preparing students for both academic and industrial careers. So, a physics PhD might not be too bad of an idea, but I still am not sure if/how much a masters or PhD in EE or MS would be better in terms of employability, even if the subject matter was very similar (I've heard that some industry employers toss out/disfavorably view job applications from physics PhDs, but I don't know how true this is).

Regarding research being tedious, I realize that every job has its negative attributes, so I don't know if I would dislike another job more. I obviously don't want to quit the physics PhD and find I don't like a job or a masters/PhD in MS/EE, so I don't know if quitting the program is worth the risk.

From the rather cursory job searches I've done, industry jobs seem to be somewhat routine/mundane, and at most require a masters in EE, MS, or physics. I've also really enjoyed TAing and explaining things to people in general, but I would not like to teach anything lower than university.

Sorry that this is so long and rather unorganized. Some specific questions I have:

1) Which path (continue physics PhD, look for job after physics MSc, masters in MS/EE after physics MSc, or PhD in MS/EE after physics MSc) would keep my options the most open?

2) Who can I talk to for advice? I feel that my advisor is quite biased in favor of academia, as he appears to really love the work our group does and couldn't imagine himself doing anything else. Fellow graduate students in my department seem rather pessimistic and uncertain themselves.

3) Much more generally, how does one ever feel confident about their career decisions? I have spent countless hours thinking, making pro/con lists, etc. about my future career options, and I never really feel confident. I had second thoughts about starting graduate school, but it seemed like the right thing to do at the time (it still might be the right thing). Because of this, one of my guiding principles in making decisions has been to keep my options open (another reason for choosing exp cond mat), but it seems I will soon have to start narrowing things down.

Many thanks in advance for any other advice you can offer.
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DJeffs
#2
Jan3-13, 01:06 PM
P: 10
Another option I've considered is getting a BS in MS or EE at my physics BS institution (a mid tier 2 institution). This would take roughly two years, but factoring in the cost, I don't think it would be worth it, as I think a masters in EE or MS would be better in terms of employability (correct me if I'm wrong) and cheaper anyway.
chill_factor
#3
Jan5-13, 05:22 AM
P: 887
an engineering PhD would also just be more research and just as tedious. go for the industry job.

DJeffs
#4
Jan7-13, 09:31 AM
P: 10
Second thoughts on physics PhD-Engineering masters/PhD or job?

Quote Quote by chill_factor View Post
an engineering PhD would also just be more research and just as tedious...
Thanks for the reply; I figured as much.

Another thing I've wondered about is if a bachelor's or master's degree in EE or MS would make employers view me as unfocused and all over the place. Then again, I don't think having two master's degrees (or bachelor's degrees) is *that* uncommon...?
carlgrace
#5
Jan7-13, 08:04 PM
P: 555
Wow if you think an engineering PhD would be tedious you're in for a world of hurt once you get to industry.

My most exciting, thrilling work of my career was my PhD. No where else do you get to do a ground-breaking, huge project all by yourself.
DJeffs
#6
Jan8-13, 09:53 AM
P: 10
Quote Quote by carlgrace View Post
Wow if you think an engineering PhD would be tedious you're in for a world of hurt once you get to industry.

My most exciting, thrilling work of my career was my PhD. No where else do you get to do a ground-breaking, huge project all by yourself.
Naively, I might have thought industry jobs would be less tedious, since projects would tend to be more short term (?). I can imagine them being repetitive, though.

Could you elaborate on your PhD and industry experience? What field was your degree in, and what position(s) have you had since completing your PhD? What sorts of tasks did your day-to-day work on your PhD thesis involve? What sorts of tasks does your day-to-day job consist of?
carlgrace
#7
Jan8-13, 10:13 AM
P: 555
Quote Quote by DJeffs View Post
Naively, I might have thought industry jobs would be less tedious, since projects would tend to be more short term (?). I can imagine them being repetitive, though.

Could you elaborate on your PhD and industry experience? What field was your degree in, and what position(s) have you had since completing your PhD? What sorts of tasks did your day-to-day work on your PhD thesis involve? What sorts of tasks does your day-to-day job consist of?
Well, like everything, it depends. Of course there are exciting industry jobs and tedious PhD projects.

I have a PhD in Electrical Engineering. My research was on the calibration of a particular type of Analog-to-Digital converter (ADC). It was great since I had to do everything by myself. There is no support. By everything I mean:
  • Pen-and-paper and MATLAB based algorithm development
  • MATLAB and C system modelling
  • C-language full-chip model
  • Scratch design of 24-bit microprocessor
  • Definition of custom instruction set
  • Development of Assembler and Dissassembler in C
  • Digital modeling in VHDL
  • Development of embedded calibration software in a custom Assembly language
  • Schematic digital design of calibration unit
  • Schematic analog design of ADC
  • Layout of analog and digital circuits
  • Chip-level verification using Perl
  • Design of test board to test chip
  • Testing of chip
  • Data analysis and presentation of results

As you can see that is a lot of exciting stuff. I learned so much and had so much fun doing this project I couldn't believe I was getting paid (just a little, but enough to live). This whole project took six years but the only time I would say it was tedious was during the physical circuit layout (that took a long time and you couldn't make mistakes).

Once I finished I got a job as a design engineer at a company. Now you have to understand that it is in the company's best interest for you to specialize. So, they had me do schematic analog design of circuits for an ADC for voice-band modems. Then another ADC and some front end circuits. Then I went to a startup and I did MATLAB modeling and schematic analog design for a calibrated high-speed ADC for optical communications and some front end circuits. Then I worked at a really big company doing schematic analog design and MATLAB modeling (and just a bit of digital) doing, you guessed it, ADCs and front end circuits, this time for cellular basestations. And the pressure. There was a lot of pressure to get your circuits done yesterday.

The upside is you get really good at one thing. The downside is you never learn as much as you would like about the whole system and the other blocks. And, if for some reason there is some new technology that makes ADCs obsolete, well I'm in trouble.

Now I'm back in academia where I'm working on big systems and getting to contribute to the whole project. My specialty is still high-performance CMOS ADCs, but now I do a lot of digital design, system development and block specification, software modeling, testing and system integration and the like. Work is exciting again.
Kholdstare
#8
Jan8-13, 11:25 AM
P: 390
Quote Quote by DJeffs View Post
Naively, I might have thought industry jobs would be less tedious, since projects would tend to be more short term (?). I can imagine them being repetitive, though.

Could you elaborate on your PhD and industry experience? What field was your degree in, and what position(s) have you had since completing your PhD? What sorts of tasks did your day-to-day work on your PhD thesis involve? What sorts of tasks does your day-to-day job consist of?
Believe me industry jobs can be just as tedious. Moreover you may not enjoy what you do in industry as 90% of time it wont be something you like/want to do or you have to do it in their format and in their way.
DJeffs
#9
Jan11-13, 09:19 PM
P: 10
Quote Quote by carlgrace View Post
Well, like everything, it depends. Of course there are exciting industry jobs and tedious PhD projects...
Thanks a lot for your detailed post. How did you get back into academia? Are you a professor?
phys_student1
#10
Jan12-13, 05:44 PM
P: 96
Quote Quote by carlgrace View Post
Well, like everything, it depends. Of course there are exciting industry jobs and tedious PhD projects.

I have a PhD in Electrical Engineering. My research was on the calibration of a particular type of Analog-to-Digital converter (ADC). It was great since I had to do everything by myself. There is no support. By everything I mean:
  • Pen-and-paper and MATLAB based algorithm development
  • MATLAB and C system modelling
  • C-language full-chip model
  • Scratch design of 24-bit microprocessor
  • Definition of custom instruction set
  • Development of Assembler and Dissassembler in C
  • Digital modeling in VHDL
  • Development of embedded calibration software in a custom Assembly language
  • Schematic digital design of calibration unit
  • Schematic analog design of ADC
  • Layout of analog and digital circuits
  • Chip-level verification using Perl
  • Design of test board to test chip
  • Testing of chip
  • Data analysis and presentation of results

....
I am an Electrical engineer now pursuing M. Sc. in Physics...

And I'l like to tell you that...

You rock!! I LOVE every single item in your list!! Well done man!!
mickyhcorbett
#11
Jan13-13, 11:36 AM
P: 2
Hi DJeffs

I did my PhD in Condensed Matter physics over 10 years ago in Queens University in Belfast (Northern Ireland). It was in thin film relaxor heterostructures, sounds a bit like the opportunity you are talking about.

I was faced with the same idea of working in industry or pursuing an academic career. I chose industry and ended up in aerospace software. It was a job I didn't really want but ironically it gave me knowledge and experience that has helped me throughout my career.

After that I worked in the mainland UK as a ion propulsion specialist. Plasmas basically. A bit different than material science but still physics-based. And it was great fun at times. Building rockets to fly in space!

Now I run my own company and have learned a lot of other skills like marketing and investing.

My point of all this is that you should look at your core skills rather than your knowledge. Because knowledge comes in time. Your physics skills are transferable.For example, most people in jobs don't like solving difficult problems and if you can do this but also be able to communicate what you are doing (not an easy task for techies like us) then you will find success in ANY career. You will be the Problem Solver. Whether it be at a bank, in an engineering firm, in research or whatever. And that's just one skill that you have from physics.

One thing to point out though that does get missed a lot: Physics tends to teach us logic and rationale. But it doesn't bring real monetary success.

You need other skills for that. And ultimately being happy in life also means having money. So maybe you should broaden your scope beyond just technical jobs or career options. If you don't want to train at these full time, at least spend some of your spare time learning about them. The more options you create for yourself then the more flexible and happy you'll be.

I only learned this in the last few years. If I had have learned them earlier then I would have had more control over my technical endeavours and also been able to reap the rewards and recognition. I don't want to sound too egotistical when I say that. It's just that any time spent in a technical job, especially in the UK or US, can lead to you feeling like your efforts are not being truly recognised. And you can get bitter with management and colleagues because of it.
DJeffs
#12
Jan13-13, 02:23 PM
P: 10
Thanks for the responses, everyone!

Quote Quote by ali8 View Post
I am an Electrical engineer now pursuing M. Sc. in Physics...

And I'l like to tell you that...

You rock!! I LOVE every single item in your list!! Well done man!!
What made you decide to pursue a MSc in physics? What degree(s) in EE do you have? What kind of jobs have you had? What area of EE were you working in?

Quote Quote by mickyhcorbett View Post
I was faced with the same idea of working in industry or pursuing an academic career. I chose industry and ended up in aerospace software. It was a job I didn't really want but ironically it gave me knowledge and experience that has helped me throughout my career.
How did you end up at that job (i.e. how did you market yourself etc.)? Did your PhD involve programming (It sounds mostly experimental)? Was there any directly transferrable knowledge from your PhD to the job?

What kind of specific knowledge and experience did this job give you that has continued to help you?

Quote Quote by mickyhcorbett View Post
After that I worked in the mainland UK as a ion propulsion specialist. Plasmas basically. A bit different than material science but still physics-based. And it was great fun at times. Building rockets to fly in space!
Again, was there any directly transferrable knowledge from your PhD to the job? This job does sound pretty cool.

Quote Quote by mickyhcorbett View Post
Now I run my own company and have learned a lot of other skills like marketing and investing.
What kind of company is it? Was there much directly transferrable knowledge from your PhD to this job, besides general problem solving skills, time management, etc.?
Quote Quote by mickyhcorbett View Post
So maybe you should broaden your scope beyond just technical jobs or career options. If you don't want to train at these full time, at least spend some of your spare time learning about them.
Sorry, I don't quite understand what you're getting at here.

Quote Quote by mickyhcorbett View Post
I only learned this in the last few years. If I had have learned them earlier then I would have had more control over my technical endeavours and also been able to reap the rewards and recognition. I don't want to sound too egotistical when I say that. It's just that any time spent in a technical job, especially in the UK or US, can lead to you feeling like your efforts are not being truly recognised. And you can get bitter with management and colleagues because of it.
No worries, you don't sound egotistical at all. Thanks for your thorough response!
mickyhcorbett
#13
Jan13-13, 03:35 PM
P: 2
Hi

1) How did you end up at that job (i.e. how did you market yourself etc.)? Did your PhD involve programming (It sounds mostly experimental)? Was there any directly transferrable knowledge from your PhD to the job?

What kind of specific knowledge and experience did this job give you that has continued to help you?

- For the aerospace engineering post it was purely by job searching and going to interviews. And actually my lack of aerospace engineering knowledege was a plus. It was my data analysis and logic training (maths modules - I guess you would call it a minor - for undergraduate) that helped. And my ability to learn and adapt.

- The specific knowledge I gained was the engineering process and safety critical software processes. Basically how to build really safe flight software. I still use it today in soem contracting work I do.


2) Ion propulsion - Again, was there any directly transferrable knowledge from your PhD to the job?

For the ion propulsion job transferrable knowledge was both from engineering (the process of making a product) and physics (doing plasma research and generally being stubborn until a problem was solved.). But then building space engines means you do everything a bit like what a poster said about FPGAs. Plus you are often called upon to break the laws of physics because they can't get more fuel onboard!

3) What kind of company is it? Was there much directly transferrable knowledge from your PhD to this job, besides general problem solving skills, time management, etc.?

It is a very small space technology company but I am also developing books and materials to help engineers and physicists have happier careers. Not to be caught tightly in the Rat Race so to speak, but to at least consider expanding their skill base.

4) The other skills I mentioned - they could be anything such as building websites (php programming that kind of thing). It could learning how to write sales copy or marketing messages. It could also be learning the psychology of negotiation so that you are much more effective in meetings. And it could be learning to invest in the stock market by studying guys like Warren Buffett. All this information is out there. It just takes a small bit of effort, a little risk and you get to learn a whole new set of skills. But the good thing is that the attention to detail and persistence that physics develops really helps in learning these other things.
The only difference is that you have to accept you are going to get it wrong a lot of times and learn to love failure. It's the only way to learn.

If you don't want to do these things it's okay but just know that if you rely solely on a job or an academic career for success and being paid what you are worth you may be disappointed.
phys_student1
#14
Jan13-13, 10:16 PM
P: 96
Quote Quote by DJeffs View Post
Thanks for the responses, everyone!


What made you decide to pursue a MSc in physics? What degree(s) in EE do you have? What kind of jobs have you had? What area of EE were you working in?
A couple of reasons.

First, after graduation (BSEE) I worked for three years (in telecomm. industry) and noted how in engineering your "research" or "achievements" are only "valid" for a couple of years, after which a new technology emerge and what you have done is now obsolete. Of course this does not mean that Science research is "better" than engineering one, no, it is just that I think I like the science more.

Second, I always liked Physics.

Third, I will specialize in condensed matter physics in general and Quantum Computing in specific, which is very close to EE.
DJeffs
#15
Jan13-13, 10:20 PM
P: 10
Quote Quote by ali8 View Post
A couple of reasons.

First, after graduation (BSEE) I worked for three years (in telecomm. industry) and noted how in engineering your "research" or "achievements" are only "valid" for a couple of years, after which a new technology emerge and what you have done is now obsolete. Of course this does not mean that Science research is "better" than engineering one, no, it is just that I think I like the science more.
Interesting. What kind of job were you hoping to get after the MSc?
phys_student1
#16
Jan14-13, 06:27 AM
P: 96
I plan to continue to a PhD.


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