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Fears of Graduation and Life

  1. Aug 6, 2014 #1
    I will be graduating in the Fall with a degree in physics, but I am afraid. Before now, I had a plan to go to graduate school. However, I've been reading around these forums that people with PhD's in physics are broke, cannot find jobs, and the field of physics seemingly oversaturated so much so that people are trying to find jobs outside of their field. This is scary to me as I was dead-set on going to graduate school for physics, but I am afraid of becoming homeless after completing a PhD.

    That is scary, but also from my own experiences as a physics major. Computational physics seems to be taking off more than any-other field, and the professors here keep mentioning to new freshman that they should probably minor in CS along with physics (much of our junior and senior level courses are based around computational analysis of physics situations), but I only have one CS course which was an introductory level course.

    In the midst of going through this degree, I was happy, now that I am about to graduate, not so much. IT seems like it was a waste of time almost as yeah, I know some physics and can solve a plethora of problems, but what else can I offer? Most of my research has been in physics and nothing computational outside of class projects.

    Thanks for any advice given!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 6, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Stay fearless, go to grad school and get some CS classes under your belt too.

    Package and extend your computational projects up so you can place them on your resume and you can bring them to an interview and show them what you know.

    By extend I mean go beyond what was required for your project in a CS sense like if it was in MATLAB convert it to Java and Open Source Physics library or something similar, run it on a PC and/or a tablet... use some CS tools like Netbeans, Eclipse, Maven, Ant... to develop and build it...

    Companies understand you have a BS degree in Physics but when they see the projects listed and if they are of sufficient interest to thier business they may be inclined to interview you then you have to be able to convince that you know the tools of the trade.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
  4. Aug 6, 2014 #3


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    Remember to make decisions as much as you can based on data rather than anecdotes.

    It's true that academia is extremely competitive. Odds are that you will not become a professor if you complete a PhD.

    It is not true that you are likely to end up homeless or broke.

    Computer programming is only one possible avenue to pursue after a PhD. It tends to be popular because a lot of physics PhDs do a fair amount of programming, the field has historically not been as credential-based as other professions, and there is a relatively high demand for people with programming skills who can also understand higher level mathematics and modelling scenarios.

    But there are other dimensions to consider. You could pick up some professional qualifications during graduate school. What about getting a project management certificate, for example? If your PhD involved a fair amount of 'project management' type of work, then these could go very well together.
  5. Aug 7, 2014 #4
    If you want to find a job in industry some planning has to be undertaken to frame your experiences as much as possible to a type of job. Unfortunately, a lot of HR is automated and just not having an applied degree will auto screen you out of the process because your degree is not Physics or something else. So you really need to liven your profile with projects that contain the right keywords. Ideally you would pair your degree with something applied so you have some coverage. Targeting small and mid size firms without such large and rigid HR departments would be my approach.

    A lot of that can be rectified with an MS and physics gives you a solid enough background to jump into a more applied discipline.

    It is very tough and brutal world, which requires a lot of practicality in one's thought process. You are very young with plenty of runway to rectify and calibrate your career. Network,Network, and Network. Also remember education never goes to waste, you will find ways to leverage the physics you have learned no matter what road you take.
  6. Aug 7, 2014 #5
    I knew a guy who use to run the operations division for our water utility. He had a degree in Zoology. He's now general manager for another water utility in the region.

    How did he get from zoology to water utility management? It's a lot of hard work and the willingness to pick up projects that nobody else wants to touch. You can do it too. Starting with a degree in Physics is good. Now you should seek some entry level positions somewhere where there is room to move up in the organization.

    Why entry level? This way you'll get experience from the bottom. Your degree will validate you as you start moving toward more responsibility. It will not stop you from getting in to management. HR people often look for a degree when you have about three to five years of experience, but they tend not to care as much what the degree was for because you have recent experience in something else.
  7. Aug 7, 2014 #6
    You mean listening to people who hang around Internet forums and complain about how hard it is might not be a good strategy?


    -Dave K
  8. Aug 7, 2014 #7
    Basically no one goes homeless after a phd, what they do discover is that they might not have a job in physics. Why do you want to get a physics phd? If you end up working in insurance or finance after your phd will you consider that time wasted?

    If you go to get your phd, you are talking about spending 6-10 years at a university working toward it. Thats plenty of time to take some CS courses and work on your programming skills. And most likely, you'll have plenty of practical programming exposure as you do your work.
  9. Aug 7, 2014 #8


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    Might want to "flare" out to engineering of some type if you are going back to school for a few more years.

    Not too many homeless engineers. Just sayin.
  10. Aug 7, 2014 #9


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    Some PhDs are in areas other than the area in which they did their research/dissertation/PhD program. Still many more are practicing in physics or engineering.

    It is a tough job market all-around.

    Yes, computational physics is important in various areas, particularly in modeling and simulation, and some basic research in condensed matter and various thermo-mechanical systems. There is a lot of computation in energy related fields.

    Some CS/IT would be useful. We have a forum in those subjects. Learning program languages, e.g., C++ and/or modern Fortran, particularly object-oriented programming would be useful, as well as languages like python, and operating systems like unix/Linux.

    Be diverse in one's study. Take the theoretical and applied physics courses, and perhaps some engineering courses, especially if they involve programming or numerical methods/analysis.

    I would give the same advice to an engineering student.

    Look for some good mentors.
  11. Aug 10, 2014 #10
    I'm a senior in the same position as you. I've decided to embrace the non-mathematical world and did a summer internship as a management consultant at a big firm. It wasn't as bad as I thought because I got to solve problems as a consultant and met some very interesting people.

    My advice would be to keep yourself open to opportunities. Passion is something that you discover and it can change over time.
  12. Aug 10, 2014 #11
    Most people in the US without any degree at all don't become homeless. Most high school drop outs dont become homeless. I think your fears are overblown.

    Most people I see complaining about their post-PhD prospects are comparing the work, time and money invested compared to the returns. None (or very, very few) are actually "broke". If you can complete your PhD you should be able to find some job to avoid being homeless. I only got an MS and I was able to land a restaurant job and avoid homelessness. As I mentioned above, people who don't even complete high school can do this...
  13. Aug 11, 2014 #12


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    The OP is obviously exaggerating when he/she is expressing his/her fear of homelessness after a PhD. I suspect what he/she is worried about is landing a decent-paying job after a PhD and avoiding poverty (at least poverty as defined in the US).

    Afterall, even looking at your own example, you may not be homeless, but I would imagine that your pizza delivery/restaurant job hardly pays well off for you not to be poor. And when most people who study physics in university thinks about employment after graduation, they would not be thinking about working in pizza delivery/restaurant/waiting tables/bartending/retail.
  14. Aug 11, 2014 #13

    jim hardy

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    That's natural enough.

    Industry expects you to learn on the job. The degree just a credential to establish that you're a good learner.

    If academia is what you want, go for it - i can't advise you on that path because i went into industry dealing with the everyday problems of operating machinery.
    I worked alongside several physics majors whose excellent understanding of the very basics had equipped them very well for practical work.

    Nuclear reactor Engineering is a pleasant blend of burly mathematics and practical mechanical engineering principles. A physics major with real world plant experience and some management courses under his belt can do well in the nuclear power field. One course in Reactor Physics might be worthy of consideration, if you have time. My advisor let me apply it toward a EE degree....
  15. Aug 11, 2014 #14
    If I didn't have friends or family to keep me off the streets, I would actually be homeless right now, with my math PhD. Of course, if it came to that, I'd probably find a way to be a truck driver or come up with some other solution, in terms of a job that requires no big qualifications. I suspect there are a few homeless PhDs out there, but they are only a tiny minority.

  16. Aug 11, 2014 #15
    Far from it actually. I don't consider myself poor at all. I've never missed a rent payment or bill, never gone a day without eating and I can afford electronic toys and vacations.

    One of my fellow grads did just that, and he is doing quite well for himself. I don't know what he makes, but he has a big house and lots of toys. This is just one way that people from physics can make above average pay - they go into a different field where their work ethic above average smarts pays.
  17. Aug 11, 2014 #16
    Forget about physics defined as in the textbooks. Physics is everywhere in your life. That's not just a meaningless slogan, but reality: there is physics in traditional industries for physics majors such as telecom and semiconductors, true. But there is also physics in pharmaceuticals, chemicals and steel. There is physics in finance. There is physics in sociology. Physics is what you want it to be - apply the tools you learned, and see the physics.
  18. Aug 12, 2014 #17


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    This is a very important point.

    It's easy to get caught up in the idea that your career should follow directly from your education, and frustrated when it doesn't.

    But your education isn't just a key to opening doors. It's an accelerant for once you're in - allowing for faster mastery of the skills in the field and faster advancement through the ranks.
  19. Aug 12, 2014 #18
    I know what you're saying, but it doesn't justify the hours and hours and hours of studying very specialized, domain-specific stuff that you end up never using. A PhD in computer science would serve the same purpose, yet be much more relevant to the job, if you end up doing software development, instead of physics. So, I think there's no way of getting around the fact that it isn't worth it for most people, except in so far as they value the knowledge for its own sake.

    Another thing is that really, people should not trust the education they are given to prepare them for the job market. Extra effort is required on their part if they want to be ready. But often no one tells you that. So, personally, a lot of my regret has to do with not being prepared. I probably regret that more than the PhD. But the problem is, the PhD actively prevented me from preparing because my dissertation was so hard that it was very hard to do anything else. So, it was really a hindrance.
  20. Aug 12, 2014 #19

    Vanadium 50

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    Homeomorphic, I am surprised you're arguing with Choppy and not agreeing with him. Would you not now be better off had you taken that advice earlier?
  21. Aug 12, 2014 #20
    I think the disconnect happens when people think of college as vocational training, rather than an education activity.

    I’m just one data point (also, in general, with something like this I’m not sure how I’d separate causality from correlation), but I’m fairly confident my physics education didn’t have any positive impact on my career (software development), at most is was very small. However, I did really enjoy my time in physics.

    As previously stated, I think being flexible is very important.
  22. Aug 12, 2014 #21
    Well, I can somewhat agree and that was part of my post, which was to not trust your education to prepare you (or open the doors for you). But it doesn't follow that you should just plunge into a degree, 90% of which you will not really use. I am really not sure that learning all about 3-manifolds for my qualifying exam gives me any extra transferable skills that I didn't already have when I got my bachelor's degree. I think there's a stronger case to be made for the bachelor's degree because that's when I learned how to learn, and the material there was a bit more practical.

    I'm not sure what it would mean to "take that advice earlier", but I'm thinking if I did, I just wouldn't have gone to grad school, and that's the whole point.

    People say "don't blame your degree".

    Okay, I don't blame my degree, I blame my incompetence in job-searching and lack of preparation, but why the hell would I want the degree if it doesn't get me a job, then? I'm not saying the job is the only point of the degree, but if you are going to come out and admit it doesn't really help to get a job, that's not really helping your case, if you want to convince me to get the degree. All the more reason to get a degree that does help more, even if you still have to do a little more work to prepare yourself.
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