1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

27 year old Physics undergrad needing advice

  1. Jan 18, 2015 #1
    Have a personal question for those familiar with the field. I am an "older than usual" undergrad student who is very interested in physics. At 27 years old I have fallen in love with understanding the world through physics and mathematics. I will be declaring myself a physics major this semester (Undergrad) and I plan to give it my all, make the necessary sacrifices, and eventually work towards a doctorate. I would appreciate some insight from the members of this site. What am i up against? is my situation really that rare? should i rethink my decision? any feedback is appreciated. Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 18, 2015 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    What is it going to cost you? I don't mean in dollars nearly as much as in time, family life, health, etc. What other options do you have if you do not do this? Do you already have a degree in finance, or biology, or ....? Your question really cannot be addressed with so little information.
  4. Jan 18, 2015 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    If the issue that you're worried about is the fact that you're 27 and a few years older than your classmates - I wouldn't worry about that too much.

    The biggest issue that you're going to face if you go on to graduate school is that by the time you get into your thirties, most people are looking at settling into permanent relationships (marriage) and starting a family at that age, and this is very tough to do when your earning peanuts as a graduate student and spending all your waking hours in a lab. Figuring that out is the big challenge. And while I can't say there absolutely won't be any other challenges, that's the worst of them.
  5. Jan 18, 2015 #4
    Thank you for your response. I did not have the opportunity to go to college after high school but I now find myself in a position where college is an option for me. I would be a full time student/ full time worker but as i said, I am extremely motivated and looking forward to this challenge. I am lucky enough to have a family that fully supports the idea of me committing myself to a long term education this late in life. As for other options, none outside of school, but i can pursue a degree less strenuous and demanding than physics but the passion would not be there. At the end of the day all i know is how eager and determined I am to learn, but there is still the uncertainty of the practicality of my decision.
  6. Jan 18, 2015 #5
    Thank you, I appreciate your response. I am already settled down and have my own little family which luckily enough supports me incredibly. Up until now I have not thought about how different school will be between undergrad-grad-phd, so I thank you for that thought.
  7. Jan 19, 2015 #6


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I puzzle a bit about folks who, while just getting into a BS program are at the same time committing themselves to a PhD program. There is a long road in between, and a PhD is not necessarily the best option for everyone. Why do you want a PhD? The only real reason to do this is if you want to teach. The PhD is a teaching degree, but there are lots of other non-teaching job possibilities.
  8. Jan 19, 2015 #7


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    Re: age bias, which is clearly part of the issue here. Yes there is age bias when it comes to hiring profs. Everybody wants to hire Sheldon Cooper.

    But there have been people who have started their academic programs a little later and gone on to make important contributions. Read up on Milton L. Humason for example. The important thing is, how much do you desire it? How hard are you willing to work at it? And how badly would you miss it if you did something else? A PhD could easily require 4 years (possibly more) of 60 hour weeks. With very little income and expenses for tuition and books and other things. You have to love the work to attempt such a thing. If you do love the work, there is plenty of it to love.

    If you do love the work, and the scare stories about the work and the poverty don't scare you, I would say go for it.

    Have your Plan B ready though, in case you find you cannot progress in academe. That means, add some industry-saleable skills along he way. That means any of a bunch of things. For example, any kind of technical ability like building instruments, repairing lab equipment, designing same, etc. Or any kind of software development skills. Or the ability to calculate something transferable to industry such as chemical processes or geology or radar or any of a bunch of other things. Pick what your "job related" skills will be based on what area of academia you will be in. But be sure to have them. They look good on an academic resume as well, because universities want to teach those things also.
  9. Jan 19, 2015 #8


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    This is inconsistent with my experience and I've been on several hiring committees.

    One thing that is considered, although never officially, is that when candidates are within about ten years of retirement, the question comes in as to how much they are willing to contribute vs. how much they're hoping to ride out the position for the next several years. In such situations it's up to the candidate to demonstrate his or her potential.

    There are much more significant issues that come into play that make issues like the candidates' age, even if it is a potential issue, simply noise in the background. The more significant things in my experience tend to be:
    How will this candidate's interests and skills mesh with the interests and pursuits of current faculty?
    How productive is the candidate likely to be?
    How much external funding is the candidate capable of bringing in?
    How does the candidate gel socially with current faculty?
    What evidence of teaching excellence does the candidate bring to the table?
    Will the candidate be a good mentor for graduate students?
    And in my case there are always questions about clinical skills, experience, and how the candidate will balance academic responsibilities with clinical and administrative ones.

    In my experience very few hiring committees are actually looking for a "Sheldon Cooper" (which I interpret as a scientist who, although productive in a particular field is difficult to get a long with, can't teach, would be a horrible mentor, berates the research of others, etc.)
  10. Jan 20, 2015 #9
    A PhD is risky because it's such a big investment, and one that is known to give very modest returns for the whole time you are doing it, and an uncertain payoff at the end. Some people end up not even liking it when they get there because doing research is, in my opinion, a fundamentally different activity than studying physics in classes. So, there's another issue of not actually having tried the work that you are planning on doing. You can try some undergraduate research to see if you like it, but I'm not sure if that is quite the same thing, either.

    As someone on the pessimist side, I won't ignore all the success stories, but my point has never been that it is sure to be a bad decision, but that it is hard for it not to be a huge gamble. All the people who give the "yes, you should absolutely get a PhD, no questions asked" advice may be giving the right advice in many cases (the problem is, it's almost impossible to predict which ones), but the existence of people like me shows that many of those people that you are giving the advice to will end up like me and get screwed. Unemployment (actually, underemployment is the bigger risk), may be rare, but it becomes more of a serious risk if you do something less practical, and if you do not have excellent job search abilities. It can be very difficult to find a place for yourself. You become sort of an exotic bird who doesn't really fit in anywhere. Some place may grudgingly take a chance on you, but that doesn't mean you really fit in. You might not have much flexibility in places to live and you might have to dig a bit to find a job with some rare employer who happens to have the money and inclination to take you on and train you into a job that you don't yet know how to do. Having a plan B in advance can help, but if you are spending most of your waking hours in the lab, where is that plan B going to come from? It can be challenging to devote the proper attention to it. This is why you should probably put some time and thought into the plan B, very, very early on and make good use of all your summers. And another thing is to have a plan B that's not too far from plan A. That will make it more doable, plus it will make what you did more meaningful. It kind of sucks to put so many years into something, and then not really use it. So, that's a concern, even if you do get a good job.

    You can always just bail out and try to become and engineer, either by changing majors, or if you finish the BS physics, get a masters in engineering. So, from that point of view, it wouldn't hurt to try. The full PhD can take 10 years. That's a pretty huge chunk of your life. It would be silly not to be extremely careful what you do with it.
  11. Jan 20, 2015 #10
    By the way, unemployment isn't rare if you are talking about people who are just graduating (15-30%):


    So, this illustrates the point that it is usually very difficult, if you are not well-prepared, to get a job with a PhD in physics. Most people overcome this difficulty, but it is difficult. If you're socially awkward, like me, it might not be so easy to overcome these difficulties, though.
  12. Jan 20, 2015 #11
    Why do so many engineers say this? It makes them look ignorant. I work with several science and engineering PhD's and none of them are teaching. The PhD is a research degree, not a teaching degree.
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2015
  13. Jan 21, 2015 #12


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I suppose I'm just an ignorant engineer then, at least in your view. It is true that the PhD is a research degree, and it is also true that there many PhDs who are not teaching. That said, however, the original intent of the PhD, as I understand it, was to prepare teachers and assure that they would be able to keep up with their fields.

    You can do research with a BS, an MS, or no degree at all if you are capable. Try getting a teaching job without a PhD.
  14. Jan 21, 2015 #13
    Its easy, or at least quite possible, to get a teaching job without a PhD. A large portion of my graduating BS class did that. A PhD is not a teaching degree... This is the first time in my life I have ever heard it described that way. Most my PhD professors were poor teachers. My research professors barely taught at all. Most my community college teachers had PhDs and they did a decent job.
  15. Jan 21, 2015 #14


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor

    There are huge numbers of teachers in the US that do not have a PhD. Many teaching jobs, even at colleges, only require a masters degree.
  16. Jan 22, 2015 #15
    It's not rare at all, I returned to University after 10 years out, I'm currently in my final year at 35. You do have to make some sacrifices (unless you have money) I had to give up my rented flat and move back in with my parents, not ideal but it beats staying in a dead end job. As far as other students go as long as you focus on the work and are friendly then theres no real issues, there are plenty of mature students out there. Just have an open mind and be willing to listen. There;s no need to worry at all seriously. Good Luck!
  17. Jan 31, 2015 #16
    I was 27 and back in college, wondering if I should aim for a physics PhD or not.

    Here I am five years later, BS in hand and in grad school.

    It's totally doable but do this first: read every article, forum thread, and blog post about the poor academic hiring market, how hard it is to get a job doing physics research, how much time and dedication it takes, every horror and sob story, etc. Consider your options if you *don't* go to grad school (engineer, programmer, analyst, etc) and how much money you could make. Look at graduate stipends and apartment rents for grad schools you're interested in.

    If this still doesn't scare you off, then go for it.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook