## Theoretical Physics PhD worthless nowadays?

 Quote by arunma Yeah, that's more or less how my department is too. Most of the astro and high energy people recite the meaningless platitude "if you're good, you'll find a job somewhere." Some of the condensed matter people have actually laughed at me when I ask about employment after grad school, and only offer the advice "don't major in particle astrophysics." They've done a good job of making me kick myself for doing this; if I could go back to first year I'd certainly join the CMP group with the most practical research I could find. But it's a bit late to switch, and as you say, no one seems to have any clue how the real world works.
I'm not sure why people are down on high energy theory, in this regard. You probably could have done condensed matter blah blah blah, but who cares? It's not interesting. The condensed matter experimentalists who spent their six years wishing they were good enough to do theory can console themselves with the fact that it may be easier to get a lab monkey job in industry with their experience. (Tell that to the next CME who laughs at you.)

The point is, you have to bust YOUR *** to get a job, figuring out what your skill set is, and improving it where need-be. I think this is probably true for most people, whether they be MBAs, PhDs or anyone who's trying to find a job in a buyer's market. Sure, you could have done condensed matter experiment, but then you'd be doing that for the rest of your life, and I'd rather stick a pin in my eye. Do you really think that you can't learn what you need to? Do you think that someone with an online degree from University of Phoenix would trade places with you? Would you trade places with someone from some state university with a B.B.A.?

There are some people who don't have trouble finding a job: but these are the same people who wouldn't have trouble doing ANYthing. Most of the people (within 2 sigma of the mean) actually have to work to find a job. That shouldn't surprise you. Buy a suit. Learn how to tie a tie. Get a LinkedIn account (PM me and I'll give you my name so you can look me up).

Most people who you talk to who actually have PhD's in physics aren't working as Wal-Mart greeters, if you know what I mean. It's just a matter of getting out into the world and working for what you want :)

 Quote by Dr Transport A long story, but one that drives the point home about academics and their lack of reality.
So...are you currently working in academia?

 It’s good to see at least “theoretical PhD” is being broken down into some different categories, because it doesn’t make the least bit of sense to try to value a “theoretical physics PhD”. The area of study has tremendous impact on its value in both a subjective sense and a measure of financial value. I don’t think most theoretical physics PhDs are worthless, but I think it can come pretty close (or worse!) if one isn’t careful. If people want to argue that the kind of person that can get a PhD in physics can end up doing reasonably well in life if they keep their options open, I’m on board. However I know a few students that managed to become Dr. Soandso with no marketable skills in any line of work except teaching, and it doesn’t take very long teaching physics to realize it isn’t the same as doing physics. Unfortunately some of these people – imagine this! – went into physics because that’s what they wanted to do, and the harder they hung onto that dream, the worse things got. And after four years of reading posts in this forum that say “Yea, physics is awesome, so long as you don’t plan to do physics!” the sentiment rings really hollow. There are some areas of study in physics that don’t have any industry application and that have little to no chance of academic employment. Those PhD’s might be worse than worthless – they might represent a serious loss in net present/future earnings combined with a sense of failure and lack of personal achievements. Anyone reading this thread that is still making decisions about graduate school would do well to read between the lines and start making smart decisions now, before they end up making hard ones later. Just so we’re clear, I loved studying physics, and consider it one of the more rewarding things I’ve done in my life. Not everyone is so lucky.

 Quote by Locrian It’s good to see at least “theoretical PhD” is being broken down into some different categories, because it doesn’t make the least bit of sense to try to value a “theoretical physics PhD”. The area of study has tremendous impact on its value in both a subjective sense and a measure of financial value. I don’t think most theoretical physics PhDs are worthless, but I think it can come pretty close (or worse!) if one isn’t careful. If people want to argue that the kind of person that can get a PhD in physics can end up doing reasonably well in life if they keep their options open, I’m on board. However I know a few students that managed to become Dr. Soandso with no marketable skills in any line of work except teaching, and it doesn’t take very long teaching physics to realize it isn’t the same as doing physics. Unfortunately some of these people – imagine this! – went into physics because that’s what they wanted to do, and the harder they hung onto that dream, the worse things got. And after four years of reading posts in this forum that say “Yea, physics is awesome, so long as you don’t plan to do physics!” the sentiment rings really hollow. There are some areas of study in physics that don’t have any industry application and that have little to no chance of academic employment. Those PhD’s might be worse than worthless – they might represent a serious loss in net present/future earnings combined with a sense of failure and lack of personal achievements. Anyone reading this thread that is still making decisions about graduate school would do well to read between the lines and start making smart decisions now, before they end up making hard ones later. Just so we’re clear, I loved studying physics, and consider it one of the more rewarding things I’ve done in my life. Not everyone is so lucky.
Heh, I guess I'm not so lucky. While I'm doing experimental physics rather than theory, I feel that astrophysics is "worthless" enough (in the employment sense) that I really see what you're saying about the loss of present and future earnings. As much as I like physics, I have to say that deciding to major in it back in undergrad was probably the biggest blunder I've ever made. I hope the high schoolers and college freshmen who frequent this forum will think very seriously about going down this route, because you're basically gambling with your economic future just for the sake of satisfying intelletual curiosity.

But one thing I've figured out so far is that if you are decided on the physics PhD route, you shouldn't even think about looking outside of condensed matter.

 Quote by arunma But one thing I've figured out so far is that if you are decided on the physics PhD route, you shouldn't even think about looking outside of condensed matter.
I agree with you, but I think the competition in the theoretical CMP departments is high as well. But the numerical CMP-guys and the experimental X-ray department seem to be doing pretty good (especially the latter at my school).

 I think it's much better to find sth more employable outside of physics that you are passionate about rather than forcing yourself into CMP. I guess PhD is for people who are interested in certain field, not for people who want to do anything "scientific". Experimental CMP is very interesting field and it would be sad if it was filled with frustrated wanted-to-be string theorists.

 Quote by Rika I think it's much better to find sth more employable outside of physics that you are passionate about rather than forcing yourself into CMP. I guess PhD is for people who are interested in certain field, not for people who want to do anything "scientific". Experimental CMP is very interesting field and it would be sad if it was filled with frustrated wanted-to-be string theorists.
Actually I think I'd find CMP to be more interesting than what I currently do. "Particle astrophysics" sounds really science-ish, but I spend most of my time programming. It's not so bad, since I am doing science at the end of the day. But most of my CMP friends are setting up samples and taking actual data every day. They also get to do a lot of calculations. I can't remember the last time I actually did a physics problem as part of my research, but the CMP folks actually put their quantum and Jackson E&M knowledge to use every day at work. If I could go back to first year of grad school I'd definitely do experimental CMP, and not just because it's so much more employable.

If I stay in academia after grad school, I'm definitely going to veer away from astrophysics and go into something where I'll actually sit down with a piece of paper and do a physics calculation at least once a month. Heck, maybe I'll see if someone is willing to take me on to do CMP (assuming this is even remotely possible). Any suggestions?

 Quote by Locrian There are some areas of study in physics that don’t have any industry application and that have little to no chance of academic employment. Those PhD’s might be worse than worthless – they might represent a serious loss in net present/future earnings combined with a sense of failure and lack of personal achievements.
This statement pretty much directly contradicts my personal experience, I can say. After spending some time as a string theory grad student, I can say that my former colleagues have gone on to do lots of interesting things, some of which pay ridiculously well, some of which pay pretty good, but all of which pay more than their advisors, except, of course, for those who stayed in physics.

 Quote by arunma but I spend most of my time programming.
Marketable skill. Check

 But most of my CMP friends are setting up samples and taking actual data every day. They also get to do a lot of calculations. I can't remember the last time I actually did a physics problem as part of my research, but the CMP folks actually put their quantum and Jackson E&M knowledge to use every day at work.
That's appealing to you?

 If I stay in academia after grad school, I'm definitely going to veer away from astrophysics and go into something where I'll actually sit down with a piece of paper and do a physics calculation at least once a month. Heck, maybe I'll see if someone is willing to take me on to do CMP (assuming this is even remotely possible). Any suggestions?
Particle astrophysics would be what I would do if I stayed in academia. Man---you're not excited about the WMAP haze, COGENT/DAMA/CDMS, Pamela, Fermi, ATIC (...) ???

 Quote by BenTheMan Marketable skill. Check
Good point. I'm sure a CSci undergrad could run circles around me, but I'll still be sure to put programming on my resume.

 Quote by BenTheMan That's appealing to you?
Absolutely! I'd love to do a Jackson problem in the morning, and then go into the lab in the afternoon and see the data curve match my calculation. Stuff like that is what got me into physics (so maybe I should hate it, but I suppose I'm good at contradicting myself).

 Quote by BenTheMan Particle astrophysics would be what I would do if I stayed in academia. Man---you're not excited about the WMAP haze, COGENT/DAMA/CDMS, Pamela, Fermi, ATIC (...) ???
Personally I think WMAP is awesome. But I deal with ground-based Atmospheric Cherenkov telescopes (I'm in the VERITAS collaboration), so most of what I do is detector calibration. There's some cosmology to be done, but I only get to think about actual physics maybe once a month. As for Fermi, others in my group work on it. Maybe I'll try to get involved, it does sound pretty cool.

Don't get me wrong, particle astro can be fun. But it requires a lot of patience. The CMP guys can just go into the lab and cook up a sample in a few days, whereas I've got to wait for months of observations (and go down to take some of those observations myself) before I can get any meaningful science. Just the nature of the beast, I guess...

 Quote by Locrian I don’t think most theoretical physics PhDs are worthless, but I think it can come pretty close (or worse!) if one isn’t careful.
Personally, it's very hard for me to imagine a field of physics that doesn't have major industry application if you do a few things while you are getting the Ph.D. The fact that people aren't taught some skills that increases the marketability of their Ph.D. enormously is a problem with academic advising.

 However I know a few students that managed to become Dr. Soandso with no marketable skills in any line of work except teaching, and it doesn’t take very long teaching physics to realize it isn’t the same as doing physics.
Curiously I don't. It may be that I lucked out and went into a program that doesn't look down on people getting marketable skills.

 There are some areas of study in physics that don’t have any industry application and that have little to no chance of academic employment.
The problem is that without industry exposure, people can make totally incorrect estimations as to what those areas are. Doing radiation hydrodynamic calculations of supernova might be something that seems like it has no application, but it does, since the diffusion equations happen to be the same ones that you use in financial derivative models.

 Anyone reading this thread that is still making decisions about graduate school would do well to read between the lines and start making smart decisions now, before they end up making hard ones later.
Sure, but the employment situation outside of academia is hardly gloom and doom.

Recognitions:
 Quote by BenTheMan The condensed matter experimentalists who spent their six years wishing they were good enough to do theory can console themselves with the fact that it may be easier to get a lab monkey job in industry with their experience.
You give physicists a bad name. IMO.

 Quote by arunma Heh, I guess I'm not so lucky. While I'm doing experimental physics rather than theory, I feel that astrophysics is "worthless" enough (in the employment sense) that I really see what you're saying about the loss of present and future earnings.
Except it's not true. When I was being interviewed for my current employer, the interview questions ended up being about algorithms for general relativity calculations, because one of the hiring managers happened do their Ph.D. in numerical relativity. My boss's boss's boss's boss has a Ph.D. in astrophysics.

 I hope the high schoolers and college freshmen who frequent this forum will think very seriously about going down this route, because you're basically gambling with your economic future just for the sake of satisfying intelletual curiosity.
Again, what you are saying is just not true. There are a few things that you need to do to make your Ph.D. marketable, but if you can learn differential geometry then figuring out how to write a decent resume isn't that tough. As far as economic future, I make fairly large amounts of money, and my boss's boss's boss's boss likely makes scary amounts.

One thing that's nice about a physics Ph.D. is that you have a lot of choices. If you get a physics Ph.D. and you then want to sell used cars, you can, whereas if you get a law degree, your choice of career is fixed because you have to pay off your loans. Whether you want to make $20K or$200K is pretty much up to you, and having the choice of wanting to make money or not make money is pretty nice.

 But one thing I've figured out so far is that if you are decided on the physics PhD route, you shouldn't even think about looking outside of condensed matter.
I'm sorry to be harsh, but this is utter non-sense. Pretty much anything that requires that you deal with heavy numerical code will get you skills that are marketable. This includes N-body simulations, CFD, lattice gauge theory.

 Quote by Andy Resnick You give physicists a bad name. IMO.
meh.

Yes, I agree that you should be able to work almost everywhere with a theoretical physics Ph.D. There was even a theoretical physics Ph.D who did quite well in the show "the apprentice"

 Sir Alan's mentality hasn't changed in more than 20 years and he looks like a dinosaur. Even worse, he has a chip on his shoulder. Having left school at 16, he seems determined to humiliate publicly all those with a university education. Although he constantly claims: "I don't care if you come from a council estate or you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth," there is no disguising his delight when candidates such as Tim, a Sandhurst-educated ex-Army lieutenant, fail. "You're a total, absolute disaster!" he shouts. "Your luck has run out. You're a total shambles. You're fired."

 Quote by BenTheMan Unless you're at a top tier place (like Princeton, Stanford, etc.), you don't have a lot of contact with people who have left.
The astronomy department at UT Austin is pretty good about keeping track of alumni, and much of that is because of a single professor that has made it her job to keep track of this. The other thing to point out is that top-tier places are "top-tier" precisely *because* alumni are highly encouraged to help each other out.

Also keeping track of graduates reduces the fear factor since you end up with hard numbers about what people end up doing, and everyone that has gotten an astronomy Ph.D. from UT Austin has ended up with some decent job.

It's something that any department or school can do, which why it's surprising to me that more departments don't try to keep alumni connected or to gather these sorts of statistics. Something that helped me a lot was just knowing that so-and-so managed to get a job at a hedge fund. Now, I never was able to track down so-and-so, but just knowing that he got that job created a "well if he could do it, so can I" mentality.

One thing that puzzles me is that there seems to be a huge inconsistency in the criteria people are using for employment. The physics Ph.D. may not get you your dream job, but it will get you something decent, but because the physics Ph.D. won't get you the dream job, it's seen as useless and so the career advice is to do something else that won't get you the dream job anyhow.

Also, I don't see any conflict between being intellectually curious and making large sums of money or getting stable employment. One question that I find intellectually stimulating is to ask "so how does this money and power thing work anyway?" One reason I ended up in finance is that I found a lot questions seemed to involve this money thing, so I figured that my education would be very incomplete if I didn't learn about money. So in some sense, I'm a post-post-post-post-doc.

 Quote by twofish-quant The physics Ph.D. may not get you your dream job, but it will get you something decent, but because the physics Ph.D. won't get you the dream job, it's seen as useless and so the career advice is to do something else that won't get you the dream job anyhow.
For some people starting with decent salary after 4 years od education is much better than being a cheap labor for the next 6 years.

People do phd in physics because they want to do physics not because they want to be quants or programmers (in my country you can do MSc in econophysics or computional physics). Some people prefer lab work over programming so BSc in applied science may be better choice. If you like quant job then good for you but don't expect people to say: "it doesn't matter if I can't get job in physics after 15 years of hard work, I still can be a prorgammer/quant, I am so happy" because having your dreams shattered is always painful but it's much more painful after 15 years (phd+post-docs) than after 4.

Science is not the only one interesting field in the world. Finding sth (that you are really passionate about) outside of it, doing it during your science education and making it your part - time job and backup plan is the best thing that one can do. It doesn't have to be extremly marketable or  but if you can make a living from it then that's fine.

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