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Are you happy being a Physicist?

  1. May 21, 2012 #1
    This question goes out to all those currently making a living doing physics.

    I just finished up my junior year with a 4.0 GPA, I'm currently on my third research project, and right now it seems the default course of action is to go to grad school, get a PhD and pursue a career in Physics.

    I have one major hesitation though, and that is whether or not I'm really going to be happy if I choose a career in Physics. I know that to really be successful in any field, you have to devote most of you time and much of your energy to it, there is the constant pressure to publish, to secure funding, to meet department expectations etc...

    It seems like as much of a rewarding experience as it can be, a career in Physics requires a lot of sacrifice. Are successful physicists really happy people? What about the unsuccessful ones?

    I know many of the great Physicists had troubled personal lives, and sometimes I see hints of this in my Physics professors whom I've gotten to know a bit. I work very hard right now because I want to get ahead of my peers, but I don't want to live my life like this forever. I want to make decent money and be successful, but I also want a family, I want to travel and have new experiences, I want to live in the mountains and grow a garden... basically, I want to be able to earn money, but I don't think I'm willing to go into a career that demands more of me than that. I don't want to be wealthy, I want to make enough money so that I can live my life freely, and I don't want the burden of responsibility always tying me down.

    That being said, would you, the successful (or not) physicist recommend a career in physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 22, 2012 #2
    This is not the default course of action- the default is get a phd, then do some postdocs and bounce into something outside of physics. There aren't many jobs where you get to physics for a living, far fewer than there are qualified physicists.

    Asking a physics professor if they think physics is a good career is like asking a rock star if its a good idea to drop out of college and start a band. Its not a representative sample of phds.

    Define success? And define physicist? If a physicist is someone who makes a living doing physics, than there aren't any unsuccessful physicists- if you actually land the fabled full-time job where you get to do physics, you are a success.

    The people who leave physics earlier typically move much faster into the economic markers of adulthood (stable job, starting to save for retirement, able to support a family, < 10 year old car, house,etc) much faster than the people who stick it out for half a decade as a postdoc before winning the tenure track lottery.

    I would say a career in physics will dramatically DELAY your ability to accumulate responsibility, not hasten it. The life of a grad student/postdoc is fairly bohemian- you travel all over the world (generally working in one country for only two or three years). If you have no family to support, etc and don't need to save fo the future, etc it can be a fun way to live.

    Most people I know who left physics after their phd (myself included) did it because we chose responsibility in one form or another over chasing a dream. I chose to start a family over ending a relationship (or living in a long-distance relationship for several years). A friend had parents who had lost savings in the downturn and chose to leave physics for the more lucrative field of business consulting so that he could support them, etc.
  4. May 22, 2012 #3
    When I decided to leave physics I was also at the end of my junior year. I am quite different from most people here because I've left not because of job prospects but because doing research turned out to be too mundane and too boring for me. It almost killed my whole interest in "how does our world work?" stuff.

    To tell you the truth I'm still relived that I have left physics and found perfect field for me with much better job prospects. My current field isn't as lucrative as finance, it's hard to get in and it's for passionate and dedicated people. And yet I'm happy because (unlike in physics) if you work really hard you will get stable job with resonable income. I'm still beginner in my field and yet I have prospects that I would never have in physics. That should tell you a lot about job prospect factor in physics career.

    So more or less doing physics for career reasons is terrible idea. In most fields (mine is no exeption) "success" means "to do sth different, better and worth of mentioning". In other fields it means to "earn a lot of money" and in physics it means "to get a job". Do you get it now? You want to get into field in which success is defined by getting a low-paid but permanent job. If being an average physics is equal to being a rock star or a CEO I prefer to be a CEO. So summing up:

    1. You probably won't get a job as physicist anyway. So you are going to waste 7+ years of your life only to do sth different and probably boring for you (programming, finance) <- say hi to ParticleGrl

    2. If you are lucky enough you will be successful which means getting low-paid job in academia. You won't buy your house in the mountains with that and you probably won't win Nobel Prize. Physics is a field where you attain no money and no glory. If with equal amount of energy and talent you can be a rock star, NBA player or rich enough to buy your own island (ok maybe not that rich but still :P) is it worth it?

    I'm sure you can find another field with better job prospect which can be as interesting as physics for you. Switching fields now is still better than doing PhD and then being a code/excel mokey for insurance company or bitter scientist fighting for survival and grant money.

    But no matter which field will you choose success requires a lot of hard work, dedication, passion and time. Which means if you want to have a lot of free time for traveling or your family it is safe to forget about "big success" and just land good 9-5 job. If you want to be successful then you need to work (maybe not day and night) hard and it probably won't get any better until your 30s or 40s when you will have strong position in your field.
  5. May 22, 2012 #4
    Most people don't ever get that rich. Even most athletes don't ever get that rich. There's more professional football players than there are pro players in the English premier league and there's even more players who don't play professionally and need a second job to support themselves (probably). Even *in* the top flight (EPL, La Liga, Serie A, etc), it's only a minority who get the most amount of money.

    The point is money shouldn't be the *only* driving factor. There's a point where you gotta draw a line and be content because once you start playing the "who gets paid more?" game, you'll lose. There will always be someone who gets paid more, who's better looking, who's got a nicer car and who's in a better situation than you. Don't worry about them. Figure out how to land in a good place for you. Maybe in a few years', when the time comes for me to choose between going to grad school and not going, my perspective will change but right now, I do think there is a thing as "enough money".

    OP, from what I gather, the actual process of doing research is not very different across a few different fields. Since you seem to be interested in conducting research, how about going for a PhD in another quantitative discipline that has the potential to be more financial viable? Say, something more computational or economics or (bio)statistics? I hear that there's more money to be made there and that there are more faculty positions in these fields. Apparently there's more funding in these fields and also because people tend to go to industry, which means that there's less competition for faculty positions - one doesn't even need to do a postdoc before getting an assistant professorship. The way I see it, physics or bioinformatics, I'm still doing applied math. If doing one over the other means that it'll make things more favorable (perhaps more money or more free time) in the long run, then I don't have a problem with it.

    Note that the above is only based on what I've *heard* from other people on forums such as this one and a the grad cafe. In case you share the same opinion, do look into it. There's also the possibility, no matter how small, that everything can change in 4-10 years, when you graduate with a PhD. Maybe the Earth will risk getting covered by water and more $$$ gets pumped into space (is escaping to other planets viable?) and oceanographic (if we can't escape, can we live under water somehow?) research, which means that even people who have technical backgrounds that are close to engineering, get hired. Twofish says that during the dot-com boom, people who could code were getting picked off the street. (figuratively?)

    Now, it's unlikely that what I described happens. But if the financial crash happened a few years ago, and before that 9/11 and the dot-com boom happened, then I suspect that something big - it need not be the end of the world, just anything big - may happen in a few years and that could be a game changer for everyone.
  6. May 22, 2012 #5
    i guess the fact is: don't go into particle physics and high energy astro because they're surprisingly unemployable? i thought the name would've told you that?

    try to get interested in materials or leave physics i guess?
  7. May 22, 2012 #6


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    Cheers, less competition for the rest of us :P
  8. May 22, 2012 #7
    I was exaggerating little bit :P My point wasn't "don't do physics because you won't be rich". My point was "don't do physics because you will end up poor or bitter or both".

    Indeed there is a thing called "enough money" and it's when money allows you to live comfortable life without worrying about financial issues.

    Amount is different for every person but i think 20-30k is not enough for everyone. I don't live in US so it's hard to tell but from what I understand 50-70K is decent amount if you live in big (but not in N.Y.) city.
  9. May 22, 2012 #8


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    One outlook I would strongly caution against is the notion of "I'll be happy when..."

    I find my job (medical physics) extremely stressful at times, but in general, I'm happy. I was happy as a student. I was happy as a post-doc and then as a resident. That's not to say I wasn't stressed, or worried about money or job opportunities or exams over those times. I absolutely was. But I still managed to be happy for the most part.

    Would I recommend a career in physics?
    Well, it's worked out very well for me, but there's no guarantee that it will work out the same way for everyone else. It's kind of like recommending a specific pair of shoes. If you're a size twelve my experience in my size tens isn't going to mean much.
  10. May 22, 2012 #9
    Thanks for all the replies so far.

    Basically it comes down to this: I enjoy doing physics, but I'm not in love with physics. I think it'd be great to have a career doing research in Physics, but I'm not willing to sacrifice my personal life or give up other dreams I have to be successful. I'm not prepared to pour my heart and soul into physics, because I don't have that kind of passion for it.

    I'm naturally a hard worker, and I'll work hard in whatever I end up doing, but I do not want a career that demands so much of me that it takes way from family and the ability to pursue other things in life. For some reason I get this impression that Physicists are under these enormous work loads and often put their careers above their family and personal life. Am I way off or is there some truth in this?
  11. May 22, 2012 #10


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    There's some truth to it.
  12. May 23, 2012 #11
    What things, besides physics, do you have in mind?
  13. May 23, 2012 #12
    Assuming "career in physics=job in academia." That's not the default action. Most Ph.D.'s do not go into academia, and unless the earth is threatened by space aliens, that's not likely to change over the next 10-20 years.

    Now a lot depends on how you define a "career in physics."

    Well that's easy. Since the decision is going to be made for you, and since it's very likely you *won't* get an academic position, you have nothing to worry about here. :-) :-) :-)

    Worrying about whether you will be happy being into physics academia is like worrying if you will be happen being a professional baseball player or winning the lottery, and the curious thing is that your odds of becoming a professional baseball player (albeit in the minor leagues) or winning the lottery (albeit not the jackpot prize) is considerable higher if you have a degree.

    Define success. Seriously.

    One thing about the "rat race" is that you are doomed to failure. Once you master one level, they just bump you to the next level, and at some point, you are going to fail. And then you die.

    Define success.

    Then do what I did and go into industry after you get your Ph.D.

    Beware of the golden handcuffs. One of the paradoxes of finance is that the more money you have the *less* free you are, since the bargain you make with your employer is to trade your freedom for their money.

    The other thing is that you have to make some decisions. If you want a family, then you *WILL* have lots of responsibilities and you will have substantially less freedom.

    But those are general life decisions.

    I'd recommend going into your Ph.D. realizing that you aren't going to stay in academia. Also, your Ph.D. *is* your career.
  14. May 23, 2012 #13
    Curiously I've stayed in research because I *enjoy* mundane and boring work in moderation. I find it calming and relaxing, and it keeps me sane. Everything is falling apart around me so I kick up the source code and spend a few hours finding the bug.

    That's not true. It's hard to get a stable job in physics academia. It's not particularly hard to get a stable job with a physics Ph.D. One reason I encourage people to *give up* looking for an academic position is that the world looks a lot brighter once you do, and knowing that you are *doomed* in academia, is actually intended to get more people into physics.

    It's not a waste of time. You learn to do research. You learn that 95% of research involves dealing with boring, stupid problems.

    Define success. From an academia standpoint, I'm a total washout. From the "what was your gross income last year" standpoint, I made really, really scary amounts of money. My standard of success was to "live life like an adventure" and I won really big there.

    This is actually why I think that "defining success" is important.

    Hmmmm.... Depends. Getting my Ph.D. was one of the best decisions in my life.

    And luck. The main thing that helped my career was that I graduated in 1998 right at the start of the dot-com boom.

    Define "success".

    Also in technical positions in the United States, there is no such thing as a "9-5 job". One funny thing is that factory workers in China have a *LOT* better overtime protections both in theory and in practice than most technical people in the US. All the stuff that you hear about exploited slave factory workers in China is nonsense since they have much better employment protections than most technical US workers.

    Personally, one reason I like my current job is that it's a "9-7:30 M-F job" which is **much** better that other positions I've had in the past. I worked at a small startup in which we had two weeks in which I was sleeping in the office most days and working 3 a.m. (The reason for this was that it was a database application in which you had to run the end of day parts at night.)

    The other thing is that I like "hard work." I find it relaxing and soothing.
    Last edited: May 23, 2012
  15. May 23, 2012 #14


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    I would consider being a statistician to be a technical position, and my work thus far (in the health care/pharmceutical sector) have generally been "9-5 jobs", give or take a few hours during key deadlines. So you are not quite correct in stating that there are no "9-5 jobs" for technical people -- it is really sector-dependent (now I'm based in Canada, but technical positions in Canada don't differ significantly from those in the US).

    That being said, what were your typical hours when you were working in New York?
  16. May 23, 2012 #15
    This is totally, totally false.

    Particle physicists and high energy astrophysicists find it difficult to find jobs as tenured university professors. It's not hard to find a job in defense, finance, and oil and gas, and one reason it's not hard to find a job is that defense, finance, and oil/gas problems are more or less the same as astrophysics problems.
  17. May 23, 2012 #16
    NYC 9-7. Finance is highly variable. The technical people curiously work a lot less than the sales/marketing people that work insane hours.

    Texas was crazy. It was at the end of the dot-com, and because everyone thought that they would be gazillionaires with stock options, people worked some insane hours. One it became more and more clear that there wasn't a ton of money, people started showing up less.

    One irony is that it turns out that "flex-time" is a bad thing. It might seem like a good thing that you have non-fixed working hours, but once you do, the company will try to squeeze more hours out of you.

    Big companies tend to have more stable hours than small startups. In small companies, the company is your family, so there are elements of a "family" or "cult" which gives you social pressure to work long hours.
  18. May 23, 2012 #17
    Something that makes my situation interesting is that "academia is family." Pretty much everyone in my family has a post-graduate degree, and graduations end up being social events as much as weddings and funerals.

    One weird thing was that it wasn't until junior year in college that I realized that most people don't get summers off.

    I don't think of physics as a career. It's my life. My wife has a Ph.D., and my kids are typical "tiger cubs."

    In my situation, it's not a career/family/personal life issue. Physics is my life. Curiously because physics is my life, it turns out to be better that my career *isn't* physics. My career is just the way that I make money, and if someone else offers me more money, then I'll leave. I'm not totally in love with finance, and if someone offers me more money to do I don't know pig farming, I'll do pig farming.

    Physics is more like something I'm married to, and I'm not going to leave my wife if someone offers me more money to do so.

    One thing about the physics community is that it's a small tight-knit community with weird culture and practices that don't make since to outsiders. It's better to think of physics like joining the priesthood or joining the Marines. Joining the Marines is good for your career, but that shouldn't be your *main* reason for signing up.

    Something else that is interesting is that "happiness" isn't very high on my list of life goals. Again the Marine analogy comes up. You can ask a Marine whether they are "happy" and they'll probably look at you as if that's a stupid and irrelevant question, because in the Marines "personal happiness" turns out not to be that important a goal. (Morale is, but that's different.)
  19. May 23, 2012 #18
    That's not true. Everyone that I know with a physics Ph.D. makes either decent or in some cases totally absurd salaries. I don't know of anyone outside of academia that would be considered "poor".

    One funny thing is that because physics warps your mind, you don't find making large sums of money to be particularly pleasurable. I don't think money really matters. It's social approval. In some societies, money==social approval, but it doesn't work that way in physics.

    In fact there isn't. What happens is that as your definition of "comfortable life" changes. I think that I probably worry as much as if not more about financial issues now than I did in college. There is some interesting neuropsychology going on, and I think it has something to do with how addiction works.

    One thing interesting about addicts to heroin is that they don't derive any pleasure from heroin, but they feel miserable without it. This is because their brain receptors change. I think the same sort of neuropsychology happens in your daily life. Once you are used to traveling in business class, your brain rewires to consider it "normal."

    It makes sense when you realize that people aren't after money, but rather social status or social approval.

    You standards of "decent" will change a lot. Also a lot depend on who your social peers are. If you make 25K, but everyone you know makes 20K, you feel rich. My guess is that most college students estimate what is "decent" based on how much the richest people they have standard social contact with make (i.e. college professors). The trouble is that once you reach level X, you see level X+1, and then you feel poor.
  20. May 23, 2012 #19
    Keep in mind your own words there about "who your social peers are." I must say that I DO know many people with masters and PhDs (some in math, some in physics, some in music) who ARE "poor". I think it depends on where you are. You might not know any, but that doesn't mean they aren't out there. I don't know many people who make as much money as you probably do (most likely just a few doctors I know), and I don't live in New York (but do live in a big city). I doubt we'd ever associate with the same people, go to the same restaurants, travel to the same places for recreation, be active with the same social clubs, etc... it's totally different social circles.

    I'm "poor" and I tend to run into and associate with more "poor" people. Being well educated, I also generally associate with intelligent and well educated people. When those two populations intersect, and you live in that social circle, you find that there are a decent amount of science PhDs who are struggling, underemployed, and unemployed.

    Both of our statements really have nothing to say about the overall status of PhDs, since both sets of people we are talking about are small portions of the total population, so I really don't want this post to make a huge deal about that ... I just wanted to highlight that you (and me too) should avoid gross generalizations based on our limited social interactions.
  21. May 23, 2012 #20
    Exactly. But the fact that we are both physics Ph.D.'s and *don't* associate with the same people, go to the same restaurants, etc. etc. is a bit scary.

    I don't know of any science Ph.D.'s that are struggling, underemployed, or unemployed.

    I know of a few humanities Ph.D.'s in that situation. Part of it might be that the Austin, Texas economy is pretty decent, and so all of the UT Austin graduates that I know of have been able to get jobs, and the all end up in suburbia.

    It could also be an age issue. My peers mostly graduated in the "dot-com" era when jobs were plentiful. Even after the crash, people that worked for a dot-com that blew up were able to get marketable work experience.

    Also, I *feel* poor, because I see a social strata of people above me (i.e. my bosses boss) that makes a ton more money and has a much better lifestyle than anything I can afford. It's really scary.

    Sure, but it's important to compare notes.

    But once we start comparing notes, then you can start making generalizations. One generalization appears to be geography is important. There's a bit of self-selection since I seem to have less resistance to moving than most people. Moving is painful and difficult, but in the end I grit my teeth and did it.

    Also what *really* worries me is generation gap. I know that the situation for people that graduated in 2008 is worse than 1998, the question is how much worse is it. It doesn't seem that bad, but that might be because Texas isn't in bad shape economically speaking.

    Something that really disturbs me is that it wasn't supposed to turn out this way. After the Soviet Union fell, we were supposed to move into a world of plenty, and in 1999 people were talking as if the dot-com boom was permanent.

    One thing that I noticed is that a lot of the books that are young adult fiction (Hunger Games) are about worlds in which adults have royally screwed everything up and that people are killing each other just to survive. It's really scary to think about *why* this sort of fiction is popular.
    Last edited: May 23, 2012
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