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Another "should I go to physics grad school" thread

  1. Jun 25, 2015 #1
    Hey everyone! So, I am in a dilemma. I have a mathematics bachelors degree with a minor in physics, but many more course than just a minor, really it is like 2-3 courses away from being a second major. Anyways, after I received my math degree and physics minor I got cold feet about going to physics grad school because of all the negative things I have been reading so currently I am back at my university as an undergrad still but now finishing up an electrical engineering degree; I think I have 3 semesters left. Long story short I am still feeling the urge to go to physics grad school and am considering applying after I finish my EE degree. I guess the dilemma is if I should go to grad school for physics but having an unknown career once it is finished or just stick with the engineering, get a job and lie to myself by saying at least it is similar to physics. Has anyone had to make this choice? by the way, I have done physics research and am currently doing an EE internship - Boring, and I am extremely fortunate to say I will have absolutely zero school debt once I get my electrical engineering degree. Maybe I just haven't explored the different job opportunities in the electrical engineering field yet, I don't know.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2015 #2
    What sort of electrical engineering work have you done? It's a remarkably broad field.
  4. Jun 25, 2015 #3
    So what reasons do you have for not giving it a try? That it's hard?

    Will that be enough to justify it looking back on your decision in 20-30 years?
  5. Jun 25, 2015 #4
    Honestly, not much. This internship has me dealing with optimizing the production of electronics. The closest engineering stuff I have done so far is play around with some basic equation for inductance; most of it has been dealing with financial stuff. Also, @Dishsoap I guess I am worried about the job situation after. I have heard how difficult it is to get an academic position and I in no way only want to be in academics but I do want to do physics. I guess I am a little worried I will have to return to the same position I am in now once I get Ph.D.
  6. Jun 25, 2015 #5
    Which areas of physics interest you the most? Higher level engineering research can be very involved with physics (as opposed to corporate finances).
  7. Jun 25, 2015 #6
    I am interested in condensed matter and nuclear physics the most. At first I was ignorant and had the mentality that I only wanted to be theorist for some esoteric subject but now I am open to either experimental or theory. My math degree makes me love the theory but my EE degree is making me more confident in labs.
  8. Jun 25, 2015 #7


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    It's worth knowing the stats for the initial employment of physics PhDs. http://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/employment/phdinitemp-p-12.pdf

    The takeaway quote:
    I think PF can be a little overly-grim when it comes to post-PhD employment. There are plenty of things to be grim about (eternal post-doc syndrome), but it's not really as bad as all that. Further, anecdotally, the people who don't go on to do postdocs do so for reasons that aren't "I couldn't get a job" - it's more like "I have a partner/parents/children which means I can't move overseas" or "I want to start a family soon, so I want stability" or "I've seen what academia is like, and I don't want to do this for the rest of my life" or "My lifestyle doesn't support being in academia". These are all valid reasons to leave the pipeline, but if you (a) do well during your PhD and (b) live to work rather than work to live and (c) have geographic freedom, there's no real reason you can't make a go out of academia.

    Also, as axmls said, there's plenty to do in the intersection between engineering and physics - Electronic Materials Engineering, accelerator physics ...

    ETA: And if you want to do experimental condensed matter or nuclear research, an engineering degree would be very helpful, in, say detector development or the like.
  9. Jun 25, 2015 #8
    Does that mean the majority of physics PhDs becomes professional physicists in permanent positions? That is what it looks like it is saying. There are enough positions at universities and national labs to employ the majority as physicists in permanent positions?

    Because it also says that 64% are employed privately which seems to imply that these people are getting hired as physicists in industry rather than as engineers, analysts, etc. The PhDs I know from school and at work, none of them have the title or job of Physicist or Chemist. Is this where they play a little sloppy with the term and just consider them professional physicists anyway? This is what they have called "hidden physicists", right?
  10. Jun 25, 2015 #9


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    This is first job out of the PhD remember - so it's not indicative of long term careers. It doesn't say that 64% are employed privately, but that 64% of those employed privately are employed in physics. It doesn't specify the job title, but I do know people with the title physicist who work in private industry. The data says that the majority of physics PhD's (57%) have their first job out of a PhD in academia. You'll note that most of those are not permanent or potentially permanent jobs, but again, this is the first job out of a PhD.
  11. Jun 26, 2015 #10
    What kind of industry is that?
  12. Jun 26, 2015 #11


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    People I know or in general? Off the top of my head? Semiconductors, lasers, vacuum systems, materials, magnets, detectors, robotics, accelerators.
  13. Jun 26, 2015 #12
    @e.bar.goum, thanks a lot for the reply. That made me feel a lot better about situation. In your opinion what physics field/specialty, outside of accelerator physics, would you say complements my additional electrical engineering education the best? Obviously something like string theory would not. Also, when Ph.D's go into industry, is it usually just after a first post doc when they realize the academic route isn't for them or is it something much more details than that, like networking the whole time as a graduate student and maybe even doing internships at a company your first few summers of grad school up until you get assigned a research project and pass quals and all that?
  14. Jun 26, 2015 #13


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    I struggle to think of a field of experimental physics where electrical engineering wouldn't be helpful in some way. Detector development would be a good project - but that can be in almost any specialty. I wouldn't think you'd find much use for electrical engineering in theoretical physics however.

    There are so many ways people go into industry, that I'd find it hard to think of a "typical" route. And for some, it's not even realizing academia isn't for you, all the time, so much as realizing that industry sounds more interesting. I'd say that certain fields blend better with industry than others - electronic materials engineering vs string theory, for example. In the UK, they have industry led PhD's as well as the traditional route, which is another way UK students get into industry. Sorry to be non-specific. But that's sort of how it is. :rolleyes:
  15. Jun 26, 2015 #14
    Electrical engineers often do interdisciplinary research with physicists and material scientists in things like semiconductor devices, optics and optical communications, and plasma physics off the top of my head from the grad schools I've looked at.
  16. Jun 26, 2015 #15
    Okay, thanks for all the feedback from everyone, I really do appreciate it. I really think I have made up my mind on the subject and will apply to grad school after I finish my EE degree. One last thing, since we are talking about careers outside of academia, have any of you thought of or know any one who moved into the field of public policy or something along those lines? Most of the general public seems to be scientifically illiterate; including most of our senators in the US, and it seems like the country/world as a whole could benefit from having a few scientifically minded people in such positions. Thanks!
  17. Jun 26, 2015 #16


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    Sure. I even got an email from my university today advertising a course in public policy for STEM grad students. Like with anything, it's about tailoring your PhD experience for that.
  18. Jun 26, 2015 #17


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    Can you support that with data?
  19. Jun 26, 2015 #18
    Support that most of the general public is scientifically illiterate or that most of the US senate is willfully scientifically ignorant?
  20. Jun 26, 2015 #19
    All things to consider. Do you have or want a spouse and/or children? Do you want to stay put in one place, or are you okay with a nomadic existence?

    I'm an EE with a master's in electromagnetics. Part of me wishes I had majored in physics and gone to graduate school for physics. I also had 5 years of experience in the antenna industry (which involved a lot of research and design and collaboration with research scientists from Ohio State University's ElectroScience Lab), but due to various life circumstances (including but not limited to being married, having three kids, and not being geographically flexible), I currently work as an engineer for a railway consulting firm. Not exactly the place to do cutting edge research and design. But good enough to pay the bills. And it is a secure position. And more or less stress free. But not doing cutting edge research and design. Oh well. I have a dream that one day my dream job will fall into my lap, and that my dream job would not require me to move, and that my dream job would pay well and offer great benefits and be secure. In the meantime, I make the best of my current situation.

    Also, I concur that EE is a very broad field, and depending on which field of EE you end up working in, you could have lots of opportunity to scratch the physicist itch. Or you might have an EE job where you barely use your EE degree - much less do anything with physics.

    Have you considered semiconductor physics?

    If you are single, and if you have the opportunity, I would encourage you to get as much education as you can, while you can. But the real key in the long term is to find a situation doing what you love in the place where you want to be in a situation that is well funded and secure. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you can also start your own business - or join a start-up R&D company.

    Most people are not so fortunate as to end up doing something that they absolutely love. Those who do often make tremendous sacrifices in other areas of life. These other areas of life are also important (if not more important). When you have a family, making sacrifices is part of life. There are also different seasons of life. Enjoy doing research and design when you can as you have opportunity. But if/when you have kids, enjoy spending time with your kids (who you won't be able to speak to about your research until they get to be around 18 years old or older - if they go into a STEM major or field).

    I'm not sure that any of this is helpful. My apologies for rambling. All the best.
  21. Jun 26, 2015 #20
    Thanks for the response! I currently have no children and although I do plan on having a child eventually, I don't see it happening until I am at least 30. I am really considering the field of semiconductor physics which seems to be a nice route into industry. I am in a good debt free position right now and will be as well when I obtain my EE degree, so I feel like I should chase my passion for physics. Worst comes to worst I suppose I end back up in the same place I am now but at least I can say I gave it a good shot!
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