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Doing great in upper level physics - but really what's the point?

  1. Dec 28, 2012 #1
    Even though I'm doing really well in my upper level physics courses, I'm starting to get disillusioned with physics job opportunities, even for a PhD. From all that I'm reading, it seems the chance of getting a tenure track position is remarkably low, even for graduates from a top grad school. I'm therefore thinking of cutting my losses time-wise and going for physics high school education, which is actually in demand. Although there are claims of good job opportunities for physics PhD holders outside the field of physics (although I'm not even too sure about how plentiful the opportunities are - I am starting to suspect it may be similar to the 'physicists can do engineering as well as engineers can' myth), I don't understand what the point is of investing 6-7 years in a physics PhD when you will wind up in a job that might pay well, but has nothing to do with physics? How many quant jobs are there - and how will I know if I enjoy them? Modeling the economy writing code all day? Doesn't sound too fun, no matter how much they're paying. On the other hand, a high school teacher might be teaching the basics and pay modestly, but at least I'll be getting paid to talk about physics all day. What would be the point of a PhD if you aren't going into academia realistically - a personal Mt. Everest? Just to prove something to yourself or others? I am honestly open to hearing from others what the benefit is, but as of now I don't really see it - all I read is how saturated the PhD student population is, even in something like Physics. Are there private research labs, or anyway to do physics research outside of academia? All the companies I go to online (Intel, Boeing, etc etc) seem to be looking for engineers, not physicists. And even engineers are whining about lack of job opportunities on other boards/forums. /shrug What can a physicist do, outside of academia, in physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 28, 2012 #2
    Does there exist a private research lab employing physicists? Yes, here's an example:
    http://www.ofsoptics.com/careers/view_career.php?txtID=1&txtJobID=156 [Broken]

    Are there many of them? Probably not as many as the number employing engineers.
    Since you want to do research and you want ot be paid well for it, why not get a PhD in engineering? What does physics offer that engineering does not? Engineering graduate schools accept many undergrads from physics, since many engineering undergrads decide not to go to grad school.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  4. Dec 29, 2012 #3
    Thanks for replying BiP. How much undergrad content am I going to have to make up though? The two tracks are quite different from what I have read and heard. Even though those schools accept physics majors, surely they require some remedial coursework or at least some self-learning, no?
  5. Dec 29, 2012 #4
    Personally, I just like mathematics and I want to know more about it. A PhD gives me the opportunity to discover and learn more about mathematics. I know it will be over in a few years, but I think the experience was well worth it.

    So if you enjoy physics and if you want to know more, then a PhD will be well worth it. Later in life you will probably not have the opportunity to learn as much as in grad school. You'll get all kind of obligations like a job and a family. This makes things significantly harder.
  6. Dec 29, 2012 #5
    It all depends on what you want to do.

    If you want to maximise your earnings vs time and effort expended then you shouldn't have studied physics and should leave ASAP.

    If you really want to do research and don't care much about money, a PhD may not be likely to let you do that for life but it will let you do it for 5 or 6 years, which is about 10% of your adult life.

    Personally I would rather do just about anything other than be a high school teacher, but this is a question of taste.
  7. Dec 29, 2012 #6
    I feel like a PhD might have made sense if I had my stuff together and finished with the 1st bachelor's in physics at age 22 - but I'll be finished with my 2nd bachelor's in physics (1st in foreign language) at age 29. That's why I am strongly considering taking the 30 credits and running to get state certified - especially since teachers do well in big cities, it's definitely the highest pay:effort ratio in physics.
  8. Dec 29, 2012 #7


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    I attend graduate school at a very large public university (one of the largest in the country) with a good reputation in physics. In my time here, there have been a large number of students who worked in the more applied labs (including some multidisciplinary labs shared with engineering and chemistry departments) that graduated, did 0 or 1 post docs and went straight to work afterwards working as a staff scientist or staff engineer at a company associated with their lab. Their starting salaries were over 100k. They now do physics/engineering for a living.

    If you are interested in application oriented research and you are able to attend a top ranked (and large) graduate program, you can easily have your cake and eat it too, in terms of doing science for life and making a solid living (without having to worry about many post docs and obtaining a professorship).

    The problem is, for a lot of people, either they can't get into a graduate program with such kinds of industry contacts, or they are interested in areas of physics that aren't in large industrial demand.
  9. Dec 29, 2012 #8
    thanks zombie - hearing that is a huge relief. what kinds of applied physics areas are hot? does it wax and wane - or are the hot fields rather steady? This past term I found myself loving optics - i took a junior level optics course (although it was designed for students without griffith's E&M, so idk if maybe that's a sophomore course?) and i loved it - i certainly found it a lot more interesting than some of the chemical physics/condensed matter material i had to drag my feet through in thermo (although i did like the heat engines/fridges and stat mech sections). So applied optics is one option, but I'm sure there are many other applied fields one can enter. I just gotta start investigating what they are and how much industry there is around 'em.
  10. Dec 29, 2012 #9


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    The kinds of labs that I've seen this happen most often are involved in spintronics, photonics, nanoscale material science, and nanoscale electronics.

    There are several labs here that have spun off companies and are associated with IBM, Intel, etc. So these kinds of transfers are pretty natural.
  11. Dec 29, 2012 #10
    oh ok those fields do sound interesting!

    the kind of tier you are referring to, one that is competitive in transferring out to industry - is a state school system or a city system? i'm at cuny - idk how good the grad program is at cuny but i'm inclined to think nay. but i'm just a pessimist so i really don't know.
  12. Dec 29, 2012 #11


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    It is a state school. Check your inbox.
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