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About career path to Phd, Professor

  1. May 6, 2013 #1
    I am currently a year 2 uni student in University of Sydney. I want to continue my career as a physicist and work in University while doing my research. I am wondering
    1) How good does your academic record need to be in order to do Phd?
    2) Does it cost less or more comparing to bachelor degree?
    3) Is there lectures or is it just personal research on your own for 3 years?
    4) For your research does your university provide facilities for your experiment and data?
    5) After Phd how do you get to work in Uni and how difficult is it?

    I am an international student and studying abroad is very expensive as the government does not subsidy my fees, me and my family might not be able to afford my Phd so I might have to go back to my country :(
  2. jcsd
  3. May 6, 2013 #2
    1) Very high, the minimums for financial support depend on the country and in general more is expected of you if you're foreign.
    2) In Europe and possibly the US, a masters costs less than or equal to the tuition costs of a whole bachelors degree. I've seen it range from 4000€ in some cheaper EU countries all the way to 10's of thousands of dollars in the US. Nobody in their right mind pays for phd tuition, you get paid a stipend to support yourself generally.
    3) Depends on the university, most require some form of coursework. American universities effectively require you to complete a whole masters worth of coursework(while getting paid in exchange for teaching/research duties). Most European universities only accept people with masters degrees for a phd position.
    4) I would hope so...
    5) This is a murky area. In general one would hope to do about 6 years worth of post-doctoral contracts in universities or government facilities to have a chance to compete for permanent employment at either type of institutions later down the line.

    I know a prof at U Sydney, they are really strong in many areas of physics. You should look around and try to get research experience while you can.
    Last edited: May 6, 2013
  4. May 6, 2013 #3


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    I'll answer these for the US.

    1. You need a minimum GPA of 3.0 on the 4.0 scale, but even lower ranked schools can expect a high GPA in many cases. Aim for a 3.5 or higher. They also require the general GRE and the physics GRE. If English is not your native language, you'll need TOEFL scores as well. You will hopefully have gotten some research experience as an undergrad, since that's the nature of the PhD.

    2. Physics PhDs in the US are funded - they'll waive your tuition and pay you a small stipend in return for teaching classes and doing research for them. It won't cost you money.

    3. Most PhD programs in the US admit students with bachelors degrees and allow you to earn the masters en route to the PhD. You'll spend a few years taking the masters courses, possibly doing a masters thesis and/or qualifying exam, and then proceeding to the PhD work (mostly research, another 2-6 years after the masters).

    4. You need to design an experiment or research project around what the school has access to, or find another way to get access to the equipment you need. Don't expect them to just buy it for you.

    5. We're producing more PhDs than we need to teach college. Every faculty job in the US gets hundreds of qualified applicants. But there are other jobs out there with a PhD in physics besides teaching, and most pay better than teaching.
  5. May 6, 2013 #4
    Its equally important to realize that most of these jobs don't strictly require a physics phd, and it won't be much value added (if a job listing says "any quantitative phd" they clearly don't care about all the physics you know). Odds are high that if you aren't getting a job with a traditional university or lab, you won't really use any of the skills your phd developed again.

    A phd doesn't totally 0 out your employment prospects, but you are undergoing highly specialized training for jobs that are VERY hard to get, so its likely to be a (potentially very fun) complete waste of your time. If you have quantitative skills there are much more lucrative things to study.
    Last edited: May 6, 2013
  6. May 7, 2013 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    You've gotten a few good answers regarding what level of effort is required to earn a PhD. My question for you is- what do you intend to do with it? In other words, what is (are) your long-term career goal(s)?

    It's vitally important to consider this, or you risk wasting 6+ years of a very productive stage in your scientific career.
  7. May 7, 2013 #6
    But generally you cant even get a career in science without a PhD... You risk wasting 6+ year of a very productive stage in your life, which could be used for something other than science.

    Its hard to envision a situation where somebody can be a more productive scientist in their 20s by skipping grad school. Im sure there is an outlier out there, but...
  8. May 7, 2013 #7
    Exactly; if you want to go into a serious scientific career, a masters is the bare minimum, with a PhD very much preferred.

    If you don't go to grad school, most physics majors end up working as engineers for defense contractors, etc. Or even something more unrelated with any math/ computing skills they may have picked up.
  9. May 8, 2013 #8
    Look at AIP's statistics for employment for physics BS majors. Most who stop at the BS level never work in STEM fields.

    So yes for a STEM job with a physics degree, a masters in a scientific or engineering field is a bare minimum, gathering from what I've found during my recent job hunt. This is for industry of course, for anything more R&D-based a phd is expected.

    Might have been different/easier in the past for just BS holders but the world is a very different place now. You might be able to get away with it if you have plenty of experience using TEM, AFM, etc. microscopy or optics lab work though, but obviously all of this is irrelevant if you have good & useful contacts.
    Last edited: May 8, 2013
  10. May 8, 2013 #9
    I'm in a US physics PhD program, and I agree with everything eri said.

    Agreed again, with a footnote: while you're doing PhD research, you can also learn things which many employers do care about. For example, I've used NumPy, Bayesian inference, and autocorrelation of time series in recent job interviews. I learned that stuff during my physics PhD program, though it wasn't taught in any of my classes.

    I don't like it, but this is also true - sometimes in extreme and ugly ways. Some of the most capable researchers in my program are unemployed. Many (but not all) of the high-profile jobs and research positions went to serial cheaters who stole last year's homework from the smart kids and copied it, then got hired for purely nepotistic reasons.
  11. May 8, 2013 #10

    Andy Resnick

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    Yes, but that's not really my point. It's fairly straightforward to earn a PhD- complete a project and write it up. The key is to select a project that will enable you to gain future employment, and that is *far* more important than the piece of paper.

    For example, if the OP is interested in academic research, the project must provide a pathway to independent research. 'Independent' does not mean working alone, it means having a research program sufficiently different than your advisor so that you are not competing with him/her.

    If the OP is interested in industry, the project must provide specific skills that industry is looking for- perhaps that means mastering a specific measurement technique or proficiency with specific data analysis methods.

    This is the trap some people fall into- they earn a PhD without any thought of what to do next; their project is of little interest to anyone other than their advisor (and themselves) so they are not a competitive candidate in a job search. They move from one post-doc to another, unable to progress further until they switch fields entirely.
  12. May 8, 2013 #11
    I'm actually surprised this happens in US academia, judging by the attitude towards "academic incest" that seems to prevail in the US, effectively encouraging people to move around to different universities. Where I come, from nepotism is rife even as low as getting teaching jobs at public schools as well as funded phd positions, but I happen to think that's in my people's genes.

    On what Resnick brings up: it's also possible to select a project that you think/other people claim will pick up and offer lots of job opportunities and have it completely backfire. Recent funding cuts on HEP in the US is resulting in a significant drop in graduate enrollments for departments that typically had more, and I'm willing to bet more than a few were encouraged to go into this field years ago.

    I was told I was wasting my time with my physics degree when I started, stating I should've gone into construction work and make big bucks instead. 2 years later the building/housing bubble burst in my country and most people who did this for years (from brick layers all the way to civil engineers) now can't get a job.

    Personally I happen to think a little bit of "optimistic blue-sky passion" for the subject you pick should play at least some role in your decision for schooling. If you don't get a related job, at least you won't have spent over half a decade working in a field you don't like and having a miserable time.
  13. May 8, 2013 #12
    That's still far better than not getting a PhD though. So they have to switch fields... I'm not crying for them. People who stop at the BS have 12.5% unemployment one year after graduating. And those that are employed certainly don't get to choose any field, they are teaching high school, doing help desk IT or some kind of non-specialized engineering/technician.

    Getting a PhD, in any field at all, is a better career choice.
  14. May 8, 2013 #13
    And people who get a physical science phd face a ~30% unemployment upon graduating (http://www.theatlantic.com/business...rket-for-young-scientists-in-7-charts/273339/), longer term data is harder to get, but ~10% or so of biology phds are out of the labor force after 5 years, with another 15% in postdocs (I'd be surprised if the median bachelors degree holder doesn't out-earn a postdoc after 5 years, considering I out earned postdocs bartending after 1 year).

    I was in hep theory for exactly this reason- most of my department thought the LHC coming would lead to a surge in interest and hiring, and that it was a great time for grad students to enter the field. Science is a tremendously uncertain career, and you can do your best to manage some of the risk, but a lot is going to ride on factors totally outside your control.
    Last edited: May 8, 2013
  15. May 8, 2013 #14
    I think there's a big difference between 12% unemployment one year after graduation and 30% upon graduation.

    According to that article, it's 27% unemployment for American citizens, permanent residents and unidentified combined (which is likely to include significant portion of foreigners, since approximately half of physical science phd's are foreign born and thus have harder times getting a job visa).

    Doesn't say anything about phd's getting a jobs or postdocs abroad for both foreigners or nationals either, would these be reported? Also a question for you: when you took up a job tending bar/restaurant (I forget) after finishing your phd, would you have responded honestly as "employed" to a survey like this? Because from what I've gathered, some people with higher degrees have a really bad stigma about being underemployed and would rather say "I can't find a job" instead of "I have a job but I want one that uses my education". I've seen that choice of vocabulary here quite a lot.
    Last edited: May 8, 2013
  16. May 8, 2013 #15
    Its self-reported (well, actually if you read the NSF survey, its often adviser reported), so I expect that phds who have a job abroad would report employed, but it depends on their preference.

    I would respond employed, in practice I never saw the survey so my adviser probably filled it out, and I have no idea what he put. Which underscores that the unemployment number for phds is a pretty meaningless number- as a bartender, I was in a potentially permanent position and my salary was smack in the middle of what you'd expect a recent phd to be making (though a tad low for a phd in a permanent position- it would probably be in the second quintile).
  17. May 8, 2013 #16
    This is sound advice, but what I was trying to underscore was the fact that one can't really trust statements of future employment prospects even from authorities in the field. They can't predict funding budgets, much less world economic status, and in some cases don't know a hoot or are going by job market realities that were true when they graduated decades ago.

    I had an otherwise knowledgeable registrar from my university (who happened to be a physics graduate who was good friends with most of the academics) say to me: "you should try Caltech" with regards to postgraduate study. This assessment was based on the fact that one student from my university once got in years ago (and that K. Thorne paid our uni a visit), but I go to a no-name university out in the middle of the Atlantic, so this is highly unlikely to happen less I was publishing something by my junior year. Clearly some people don't mean harm but can make wildly unhelpful and poorly researched suggestions.
    Last edited: May 8, 2013
  18. May 8, 2013 #17
    Thank you all for your suggestions:)

    I read through all of them and they helped a lot!

    I am not sure what field of physics will I get into, I am interested in most of them...

    What I really want to do is become a lecturer in Uni and continue my research on physics:)

    but I know it is very hard to be employed my uni's :(

    anyway thank you to all of you:D!
  19. May 8, 2013 #18

    Andy Resnick

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    Both of these statements are true, a good coping strategy is to take ownership of your own career, for example by having both short- and long-term career objectives.
  20. May 9, 2013 #19


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    ParticleGrl, according to the same Atlantic article, graduates with an engineering PhD face an approximately 40% unemployment rate upon graduation (a higher unemployment rate than graduates with a physical science PhD) -- a claim which seems to contradict your earlier posts about engineering students you are familiar with all having little problem finding employment.

    I would also add that whether a bachelors degree holder will outearn a postdoc after 5 years will depend critically on what specific degree he/she holds, how long after graduation did it take until the degree holder found employment (there are many people who were unemployed for up to a year or more after graduation), and what starting salary the said bachelor's holder starts out with. There are no doubt other factors at work which I haven't considered.
    Last edited: May 9, 2013
  21. May 9, 2013 #20
    You provide a good list. I’ll offer up a few additional factors to consider:

    • Comparative salary increases
    • The BS and PHD holder max salaries
    • Mortality, morbidity and disability differentials in chosen professions
    • Differences in (non-salary) benefit levels
    • Likelihood of future unemployment/career upset
    • Level of debt each graduates with
    • Discount rates used
  22. May 9, 2013 #21
    I feel tempted to say she sees the glass as as 10% empty rather than 90% full. I understand people are unhappy with their outcome especially if they were given poor advice (I seem to have hit the nail with HEP prospects), but I don't think we need to twist the facts and make it seem much worse than it actually is. It is bad and hard, yes, but it's not like dropping everything and tending bar while hoping for an acting career in Hollywood or being a street/unsigned musician hoping for a record deal to fall out of the sky.

    As a BS holder, I may be wrong but I don't think I would ever outearn a postdoc in 5 years without some higher degree or a great deal of nepotism involved. Modus' assessment that a phd in any field is better than no phd is certainly true for a physics major with no specific industry-demand skills, like work-related programming experience, TEM operation, etc. that in my experience are rarely taught in an undergrad program. This is of course assuming he/she gains any of these during a phd.
    Last edited: May 9, 2013
  23. May 9, 2013 #22
    I would strongly disagree with any statement or implication that ParticleGrl is twisting the facts or making it seem worse than it actually is.
  24. May 9, 2013 #23
    I was referring to the job prospects of a phd in general, not job prospects in academia where the difficulties are often understated. But maybe I see it this way as I'm a bachelors without much in the way of job prospects right now, wishing I had got into grad school.
  25. May 9, 2013 #24
    Since the conversation has turned financial in nature, let me clarify something:

    The only correct method of comparing two different careers (or any two different financial choices) is to compare the net present value of the two expected financial results (inflows and outflows), discounted appropriately.

    This may be hard to believe, but there have been people on this forum that compared two different careers (that had different educational time periods) by comparing median salaries. That’s spectacularly wrong, and is the reason why I’m posting the above clarification.
  26. May 9, 2013 #25
    I'm not sure I understand, are you saying the financial investment in getting the degree has to be factored in when assessing outcome?

    What about people who get their degrees entirely on scholarships and stipends, effectively graduating with 0 debt?
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