Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into industry?

  1. Jan 26, 2012 #1
    I'm double majoring in Physics and Mathematics at a small liberal arts college, with a minor in Philosophy. I'm on track to graduate with honors next Spring. (Currently a junior)

    I'm starting to seriously consider what I should do when I graduate in a little over a year. I was initially planning on going for a Physics PhD in Optics or something heavily computational. But the financial risk of a Physics PhD is seriously scaring me, as are the job prospects of just a BS in Physics and Math. If all goes according to plan, I will likely be married soon after graduation, and take on my girlfriend's heavy student loans and her a low paying job.

    Googling jobs, reading posts here on PF, etc has gotten me very pessimistic about my earning potential. My resume will be fine, but it seems that jobs with a BS in Physics are either insanely difficult to get, or are menial coding jobs with a very low ceiling with limited career potential. Graduate school would put me further in debt, without necessarily opening up too many more options.

    Do I look for a job immediately when I graduate? Do potentially high-paying jobs even exist for Physics/Mathematics majors at the BS level?

    Should I go on for a Masters or PhD in physics? Will the six or seven years of working for little pay result in a higher paying job later on? I would absolutely love teaching physics, and I really enjoy the academic environment, but I'm a bit put off by the politics, grant-writing, and huge saturation in the market.

    What about a masters in EE? Is an MSEE employable if I don't have a BSEE? Could I even get into the program?


    Two REU positions at Top 5 Physics schools, and hopefully another this year.
    Two years of TA experience (teaching labs, grading, etc)
    Brief design work with a professor for a defense contractor
    Lots of programming experience
    ~3.8/3.9 gpa

    I'm just lost and I want as financially secure a future as possible... any advice?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 26, 2012 #2
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    Try finance or insurance. Take an actuarial test or two, etc. Apply for entry level engineering positions you seem qualified for. Basically, apply to as much as you can, and see what comes back. Find alumni from your department and contact them- its much easier to get a job if you have that sort of in.

    Probably not. 6 years of deferred income is a fair amount of money, and you aren't likely to start much higher than someone who didn't get a phd but instead got 6 years of experience on-the-job.

    Most phds don't get academic jobs, and most people who teach physics don't make that much money. Thats just the nature of the world.
  4. Jan 26, 2012 #3
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    A master's degree in engineering seems to be a decent strategy for someone with a physics bachelor's. There seem to be a decent number of engineering jobs out there. Another thing to consider might be getting a master's degree in computer science.

    A PhD in physics (or most any field, I'd wager) is an investment that is unlikely to pay off financially when you consider what other options exist for how to spend that six years of your life.
  5. Jan 27, 2012 #4
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    There are two separate questions here.

    If you worry that you are going to be poor after getting your Ph.D., then you shouldn't worry too much here. Everyone that I've know that has gotten a Ph.D. has managed to get some decent job after they've graduated. Some of them have nothing to do with physics, but I don't know anyone with a physics Ph.D. that has been in huge financial difficulty afterwards. One good thing about Ph.D.'s is that you leave the program with no debt, and a lot of student loans end up deferred, so that you can take whatever job pays the bills.

    If you are wondering whether a Ph.D. is a good financial investment. It's not. You'll end up making money more quickly if you get a job with a bachelors or get a masters. The cost of losing six years of work doesn't make up for the loss *if you don't care about getting the Ph.D.*.

    So the basic question, is the Ph.D. worth it to you for the sake of getting the Ph.D.? It's not going to kill you financially to get one, but if the Ph.D. has no intrinsic value to you, then there is also no point in favor of getting one.

    Ph.D. programs tend to let you end up with less debt than going in. In my situation all my student loans were deferred while I was in the program, and I didn't incur any new debt. The "bad news" is that once you get out, you'll be looking at more or less the same set of jobs that you are looking at with a bachelors. Menial coding jobs end up paying the bills.

    With the Ph.D., probably not. Masters might open some doors. Again, getting the Ph.D. is worth doing if you want the Ph.D. It's sort of likely deciding whether or not you want to have kids or getting married. Financial considerations will enter into the decision, but it's a bad idea to make the decision solely or even mainly on financial issues.

    Open a separate mutual fund account. Set up an auto-debit so that at the start of the month, money gets moved into the account automatically, and don't look at the account or touch the money. One thing that's been my experience is that there is surprisingly little correlation between financial security and general income. If you don't have good saving habits then if you make 2x income, your expenses will go up 2.1x.

    The other piece of advice is vote.
  6. Jan 27, 2012 #5


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    I concur...get a part time job...and go for the masters in EE. There is a high demand for quality EE's and making $70,000 a year in USA wouldn't be too far fetched 5 years down the road after you graduate.

    Electrical is fairly simple. V=IR and P=IV

    Good luck!
  7. Jan 27, 2012 #6


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor

    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    I'd recommend this path also. If you have a good background in physics, an MSEE is fairly straightforward, and you should be able to complete it in 1-2 years. This is what I did, and had no trouble finding high paying jobs in industry (although that was a few years ago...)
  8. Jan 28, 2012 #7
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    A masters isn't a waste of time, but the utility depends upon where you go in industry. Right now, HUGE opportunities are opening up for electric utilities with the smart grid. I would strike while the iron is hot.

    Oh, and another thing: any decent undergrad knows that your "simple" assessment of electrical engineering is nonsense. You be sure and tell yourself that while sweating through circuits and signals classes.
  9. Jan 29, 2012 #8
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    But as with other huge opportunities, there are reasons why they are huge. One reason power grid lacks people is that you can take a fresh out of school person with no formal certification and have them debug code or build cell phones, but you do *not* want someone that you are 100% sure is competent anywhere near the power grid.

    Also timing is everything. One reason I think you should research getting into power grids is that this is absolutely the first time that I heard someone mention it, so that if you spend two years, there you might still get in at the right time. If *everyone* is telling you to get into power grids, then you've missed the boat, and should look for something else.
  10. Jan 29, 2012 #9


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    No, I stand by my statement. I have bachelors and PE just like you. V=IR and P=IV. Don't over complicate things. Shoot...50% of the PE test is even V=IR. You can get through 75% of your college classes with that info alone....lol. Sure there are a few more things..but not really. Take op-amps for example. You can solve any school problem with ohms law. You can solve any circuit with ohms law. Then you are going to say...what about AC....good point. V(w)=I(w)*R(w). w=omega....whoopy. And yes it takes a bit of knowledge and experience to set up the problems....but in the end......V=IR. Next.
  11. Jan 29, 2012 #10


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor

    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    I can only speak from my own experience but having just a BS in Math or Physics can seriously limit your marketability, so I would definitely recommend that you pursue either further graduate studies, additional study in a professional program (such as actuarial science) or other forms of post-graduate training.

    In which field you should pursue your graduate studies in will depend very much on what your interests and aptitude. Since you are already set to complete a BS in Math/Physics with honours, you are not in any way bound to pursue graduate studies in the same field. Some fields to consider graduate studies include Computer Science, Statistics, Electrical Engineering, Applied Mathematics, or Operations Research (all of which, from my understanding, have good job prospects for those with MS or PhDs), as well as Physics.
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2012
  12. Jan 30, 2012 #11
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    To add to this (or maybe clarify, depending on what the author intended), taking a couple of actuarial exams is an easy way to open up a few new opportunities. It is a bit tough getting an entry level actuarial job right now. Furthermore, actuarial work is often different than people expect (it is a business job, not a mathematical one). I'll also mention that actuarial studies and exams aren't well known outside insurance and so don't mean much to most HR departments.

    However, the cost of materials and tests for the first two exams is significantly less than even a single college course and passing them can be done while working full time. It's a small cost that opens up new doors, even if they're tough to walk through.

    I would advise against university graduate studies in actuarial science unless unemployment is the only alternative.
  13. Jan 31, 2012 #12
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    There are also similar certification programs in project management (CAPM) and certification programs in risk management (PRM), financial planner (CFP), financial analyst (CFA), or risk manager (PRM). It's also pretty straightforward to become a licensed broker (Series 7) or real estate salesman.

    None of these will magically change your career, but they have the advantage of being cheap and for the people on this group, easy. Since people reading these groups generally have few problems with math or school work, spending a few hundred dollars for books and taking tests is pretty easy.

    Curiously you have to be careful with certifications in CS. The only certification in computers that's really career helping involves being a network engineer. Oddly if you put that you are a Microsoft-certified software engineer or software developer or Oracle certified Java developer, that is a *negative* sign, and will hurt your resume.

    The reason for that is that certification tests are often "read books, memorize these rules, take tests." That works well for licensing real estate brokers were you have to just learn what the laws are on real estate, but it works badly with programming since if you could summarize everything into a set of rules, you'd have the computer do the work.
  14. Jan 31, 2012 #13
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    Also this gets to the one reason why I think career advising in universities are so awful. The best job advice for someone with a bachelors in physics may be "take the insurance licensing exam and sell insurance" or something like that, but if a university gives that sort of advice, people that are "career-oriented" are going to ask "so why did I major in physics."

    The answer that I'd give is that you studied (or should have studied) physics because it was cool, but you have to avoid starvation, don't limit yourself to physics in looking for jobs. I have a lot of sympathy for people who are graduating now, because I'm scared and worried about my future career prospects because of the horrible economy, and if *I'm* worried about my future, I can't imagine the worry that people that are just graduating have.

    If it's depressing to be looking for work, it's also not that much fun to be an employer. You end up going through tons of resumes with very, very good people that you'd love to hire, but just can't, and whenever you have an interview, you should know that the person on the other side of the table is also in fear of losing their job.

    One thing that helps me a lot is to read about the Great Depression and even talk to people that lived through it to think about how people got through that. Also, I'm coming to the conclusion that we are all in a "no win" situation and that if you just muddle through and take whatever you can to keep from starving, you are doing pretty good.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2012
  15. Feb 11, 2012 #14
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    I'm really wishing I had done some type of Engineering or Computer Science right now rather than Physics. At least I see jobs requiring those degrees. I could pretend that jobs are out there for me and have some hope. I only see physics degrees required if they are masters or phds.

    Right now, I'm day-dreaming about grad school for electrical or mechanical engineering or computational science.

    I don't know.

  16. Feb 11, 2012 #15
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    The grass is not always greener in engineering. Engineering does not offer much room for creativity. And even if we do get comfortable salaries, we often have to suffer the leadership of people with the intellect of a gnat.

    If you can stand having the lifestyle of Dilbert, you too can be an engineer.
  17. Feb 12, 2012 #16
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    One thing I cannot understand is why people find the situation for science grads to be so dire. Would one's situation be any better if they had majored in say, Anthropology or Russian Studies and Literature?

    In my country, if one is an arts or science major, they can only teach. That or do some kind of professional program, like one for accounting. Business-type jobs are only for people with business/finance/management degrees, engineering jobs for people with the specific engineering degree and so forth. Everybody is stressed out to "get a career", meaning that everybody in the physics/maths classes are the people who couldn't get into engineering, medicine, finance or law and haven't gotten weeded out (yet).

    My understanding is that in Europe and the States, anyone with a degree qualifies for so-called "graduate jobs". Could the OP not apply for such business-type roles? It shouldn't be too hard to pick up some basic accounting and learn the lingo. Maybe try get an internship in a bank or some place else?
  18. Feb 15, 2012 #17
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    One thing that's different about those fields is that basically all the students there know that the job hunt will be tough for them, so they'll spend a lot of time as undergrads specifically searching for jobs. Science students tend to assume that they'll find a job easily- even if it's "just" an engineering job- and throw themselves 100% into their studies, then get a nasty shock when they graduate and realize how impractical all the stuff they've learned really is.
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2012
  19. Feb 15, 2012 #18
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    In the US, we do our best to hide the realities of the science/math market so that people who COULD have done engineering, medicine, finance or law INSTEAD chose science or math. Which is probably to their long-term detriment.

    I've heard countless professors tell math/science students that "there is always a job in industry" and "you can always find work doing engineering." No one says "hey, what do you hope to do with this degree?" and "if you want to be a liberal arts college professor, getting a phd in CS or econ will be a much better approach than a phd in physics," "if you want to work in a technical field, you're much better off with an engineering degree",etc.
  20. Feb 16, 2012 #19
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    I suppose one reason I view things a bit differently is that I don't think that I was ever strongly misled about job prospects. Yes, you had the bogus NSF projections, but I think I got pretty good information from the people around me that they thought those projections were wishes more than anything else.

    One other bit of good advice that I got was not to focus exclusively on physics.
  21. Feb 16, 2012 #20
    Re: Do I have better (reliable) earning potential in grad school or direct into indus

    I don't think it's been to my detriment. Also, things can change very quickly. One thing that I remember was talking to someone in the class of 1957. In 1957, the US was in recession, and they were seriously worried about getting jobs. Then Sputnik got launched and the world changed. The big thing that impacted hiring in my college career was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1987, when I was a freshman, people assumed that the Cold War would continue indefinitely, and as the Soviet Union fell, it became increasingly obvious that all of the hiring projections that assumed Cold War were bogus. And then someone came up with this thing called the World Wide Web.

    I remember the first time I ftp'ed the source packages from CERN, and thought to myself, this could be interesting. So I spent the next few weeks teaching myself web programming, and I had to teach it to myself, because there were no courses or books on the topic. Turned out to be useful.

    I don't think it is. If you get a Ph.D. in economics your chances are getting a tenure track position is quite high, but it's extremely hard to get into an economics program, and there is a "tier structure" that's vastly worse than anything I've ever seen in physics. Also, with some rare exceptions, as far as this "finding out how the world works" thing, economics academia is a lot more broken than physics is.

    The other thing is that all of this involves projecting ahead ten years ahead with all of the attendant risk and feedback mechanisms. If physics becomes a totally dead letter, then there *will* be a shortage in a decade and a half. Something like that happened with petroleum engineering.

    I'm not.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2012
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook