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Grad School or Career?

  1. Jul 27, 2011 #1
    Grad School or Career?!?!!

    Hello all. I am currently an undergrad student majoring in math and physics. I am experiencing extreme ambivalence currently so hopefully someone can give me some advice.

    I am a quite good student, especially in physics. My GPA is >3.9. I am a senior and will be graduating in 2012. I am currently attending an REU program which I am enjoying a lot but I fear that it is not representative of what I will experience if I choose to go to grad school. I am doing research solid state physics. I find this research very interesting, especially making things in the machine shop, fabrication center, and doing analysis like SEM and AFM. This seems to suggest going to grad school.

    On the other hand, I find my interest in the physics I learn to be diminishing with time. What I enjoyed about Mechanics and basic E&M and Stat Mech was the way they helped me to understand the physical word. As Physics topics become more focused however the math becomes more complicated and the concepts more abstract, which detracts from my enjoyment of the material. This seems to suggest going to a career out of undergrad.

    My opinion has been swayed by teachers who say that I am very good at physics and should continue and the people I do research with me who say that it is a good career move and intellectually fulfilling. I think I enjoy the "engineering" (fabrication and testing) end of research more than studying the underlying physics of results.

    I fear that I will get into a PhD. program and not want to even continue classes because of lack of interest. Additionally, I fear that if I go straight to a career I will regret not pursuing my education further.

    Any advice/suggestions?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 27, 2011 #2
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    Consider other research areas maybe? Many have commented here on accelerator physics, a very practical field where it seems you'll make heavy use of classical EM concepts daily.
  4. Jul 27, 2011 #3
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    I would say go get a career. Go see what is out there and what interests you. You can always go back to school. Just try and find your passion!
  5. Jul 27, 2011 #4
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    The math only gets harder as you keep going. However, from the sounds of things, you might enjoy the experimental side of physics.
  6. Jul 27, 2011 #5
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    If you enjoy engineering more, you should consider getting a master's degree in engineering, possibly mechanical or chemical engineering. You should speak with some people in engineering departments and see what you can find out. The doubts you're having about physics grad school sound very similar to the misgivings I had about it, but I went ahead and got the physics PhD anyway. Now I really regret it.
  7. Jul 27, 2011 #6
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    I agree. But why do you regret it?
  8. Jul 27, 2011 #7
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    A combination of factors.

    The work - I hate the work. The research problems you come across fall into roughly three categories: already solved, extremely difficult to solve (so difficult that people have been working at it for years and not made any real progress), and uninteresting. The majority of the physicists in condensed matter spend their time working on problems in the third category. Research fads come and go in the community, which to me is a sign that the community is desparately seeking something solvable that hasn't been done before. And most of these topics don't even have the slightest glimmer of hope that they will someday be useful for anything other than publishing papers. Of course you can't know whether something is going to give useful results going into it, but some things definitely are lacking in promise. (NaCoO2 superconducts at 4 K? Give me a freaking break.) Years of that

    Physics has been very destructive to my creativity. Nearly every creative idea you have will fit into one of a few categories. Either it's wrong, someone already thought of it, someone already thought of it and it's wrong, or it will take years of writing code to see if it's at all useful. My outside-of-research creative endeavers have all seriously suffered because of the creativity-suffocating nature of the thought processes I developed in getting my PhD.

    The people - I hardly ever interact with people. Each week I spend the entire time working by myself, with maybe a conversation or two with a coworker. On top of that, most of the people I interact with are the nerdy, boring stereotype of theoretical physicists. I can't stand watching the big bang theory because those kinds of people are just boring and uninteresting. And then there's the gender disparity, which even though I have a rule of keeping my dating outside of my work, I find it depressing nonetheless to hardly ever be working around women.

    The career - The career path sucks. I don't want to move across the country every 2-3 years until I can land a job that I don't really want. There is no non-academic backup plan either - there are a negligible amount of industrial physics jobs. The ones I've interviewed for have plenty of candidates to choose from.

    The pay sucks. Don't give me that crap about "if you only care about money..." because I don't. But I do care about how I live my life. I want to buy a house. I want a yard for my dog, and room for a dining table. You can't do that while postdocing. Not that it's impossible, although one really has to stretch the finances to make it work. But there's no point - you know you're going to lose your job in a year or two and have to sell because you will be moving across the country. And in this market, you can't count on selling a house quickly. A newer car would be good too; my car is 20 years old this year. That means that at the age of 31, it's legal for me to bang chicks that are younger than my car. Of course, I try not to let them see my car first. And everytime I go anywhere for the holidays, I am constantly in fear that this is the trip my car will break down on, leaving me stranded in just above freezing weather in the middle of nowhere.

    Don't think I'm bitter because I failed. I didn't. I got my PhD, I'm in a postdoc, I've published in PRL, I have a paper accepted to Nature Materials, I have a PRB that is racking up citations steadily at a rate of about 10/year, among others. I have a good relationship with my advisor. By any usual measure up to this point in my career I've succeeded.
  9. Jul 27, 2011 #8
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    I can second DaveyRocket's opinions of a career in theoretical physics. I didn't do condensed matter, I did high energy but I'm running into the same issues. I genuinely loved studying physics, but the intense job competition has killed the ability for researchers to work on tough problems- if you can't guarantee publications quickly, its career suicide. This leads to doing a lot of "busy work" churning out papers that your heart really isn't in.

    I decided not to take a postdoc, because I think its a dead end career move for most people. Even still, I can find no industry positions, despite hundreds upon hundreds of applications. The phd makes you overqualified for lots of things, but at the same time no one will hire you simply because you know physics and can do research, which is the core of the phd. The core of the phd program will probably not help you get a job.

    I'm currently bartending and make more than any of the postdocs I know. According to the APS salary numbers, I make more than the bottom 10% of physicists. I could have done this without a college degree, let alone the phd. If I could do it again, I probably wouldn't.

    Also, if you are a woman- any sort of maternity will quite probably kill your career dead. This means if you want a career in physics and a family, you should look into freezing your eggs while in grad school, and maybe holding out until you get lucky and land tenure. Either that, or have a significant other who can both bring in cash and be a primary care taker, have children in grad school, raise them in poverty, and uproot them every few years as you postdoc all over the world.
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2011
  10. Jul 27, 2011 #9


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    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    The masters degree in engineering would be very helpful. I sympathize with particle girl's conundrum. A phd is widely regarded as overqualified for many entry level engineering jobs. I won't mention the reasons [which are not difficult to imagine]. A BS or masters in engineering, however, is fine. You need not mention you also happen to have more advanced degrees in your resume. Is that disingenuous? Perhaps. But, so are employers claiming you are 'over qualified'. A job is a job. Not everyone insists on 100k+/yr to start, even if they are worth it. All I'm suggesting is play to the level of the competition. You can always sidebar your advanced degrees during the interview, if it appears advantageous. The point of a resume is to get you an interview, not a job. The interview is what gets you the job.
  11. Jul 28, 2011 #10
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    Just to give you another perspective. One weird thing is that people are different, and while I doubt that my experiences are really that different from ParticleGrrl or daveyrocket, I do react in a very different way to them.

    I have a weird personality in that you can get me tremendously interested in just about anything. Like most people I entered the field as a young lad with the dream of understanding everything about the universe. It became very quickly obvious that this was not going to happen, so I've settled for putting years of work into an effort in order to understand *anything*.

    One thing that helps a lot is that I try to have enough exposure to different fields so that I can find how one thing in one field is connected to something seemingly unrelated in another.

    Physics and business has been very useful in making me *productively* creative. My problem is that I just come up with too many ideas. If you sit me down in a room, I can come up with a ton of creative ideas. That's not the problem. What I really need is the discipline or some external force to tell me to work on one or two of those ideas so that I can get something done.

    I spend my entire day talking with people. While I'm typing in this web browser, I have a chat window, and e-mail window open, and I'm usually having about three conversations at the same time. There's a good mix of people that I end up interacting with.

    One other thing that I like about my work is that you end up with playing very different "roles." Sometimes I think I'm Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory. Other times, Gordon Gekko. Other times, I've felt trapped in a Dilbert cartoon. Just this morning, I had to play "emergency computer paramedic."

    My career path seems pretty cool. The big catch is that I've been forced to live in a few major cities, but NYC is a really interesting and exciting place to live in. Money is not a problem, but the most interesting part about my job is that I'm watching history unfold.

    One thing I like about my job is that you can actually feel the earth moving. As the earth turns, you see markets open across the world, and markets close, and you can feel the world turning.

    One of the weird ironies here is that by traditional career standards I'm a total failure. I got my Ph.D., but I have no publication record. I applied for a few post-docs, but it was pretty obvious that I wasn't going to get them and so I didn't try pretty hard. The other odd thing is that I think of myself as a physicist doing science, but many people would think I'm delusional at thinking that.
  12. Jul 28, 2011 #11
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    Yes you do. The first thing that employers will do when they look at your resume is to look at the dates and see if there are any gaps. If you have a Ph.D. and only mention that you have a masters, people may assume that you were in jail for bank robbery or something like that.

    Now you need to mention the Ph.D. You don't have to mention it loudly. I have a resume in which I mention that I have a Ph.D. just to make it clear that I wasn't in jail for armed robbery for five years, but it's not emphasized.

    It's possible for people in other fields to not mention they have Ph.D.'s. For example, I know of some geologists that don't mention the Ph.D. for some jobs, but they can get away with it because they did their Ph.D. while they were employed, so not mentioning it doesn't leave a gap.

    This also won't work. If the employer estimates your market value at $100K, and you are asking for $60K, they likely will not hire you. The problem is that either you don't know that you are worth $100K in which case the employer will question your competence, or you do know that you are worth $100K in which case the employer will expect that once you get the job, you are going to ask for a raise pretty quickly.

    If an employer thinks that you are overqualified, the thing to do is not to try to convince them otherwise, but to get leads from them for jobs they think you are qualified for.

    One other thing about this issue is that you shouldn't get the IMHO incorrect idea that more education makes you harder to hire. The economy stinks and its hard for anyone to find a job. You might have an employer say "no thanks, we aren't hiring Ph.D.'s right now, we'd prefer people with a masters in engineering", but before you think you'd be better off with a masters degree, you have to realize that they have a huge stack of resumes from people with masters degrees and most of them will not get hired.

    True, but having a resume gap is often the kiss of death for getting an interview.
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2011
  13. Jul 28, 2011 #12
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    It actually is.

    Typically the classes last for only two years, at which point you never have to take a formal class in anything in your career unless you really want to. A lot of the learning takes place in seminars and you can choose which ones to go to and which ones to skip.

    So do I, and that helps a lot in getting through graduate school. What you'll find about results is that you won't get very many. You'll be constantly fighting #$@#$@# machines to get any #$@#$#@ results. So unless you have some sort of masochistic urge to beat the #$@#$#@ machines until you get something, you aren't going to get very far.
  14. Jul 28, 2011 #13
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    I don’t think anyone thinks you’re delusional! We just think you’re completely, unequivocally, incontrovertibly, and undeniably wrong. ;) Words have meaning, and all that.

    Having said that, there is a valid point to be made that many of these jobs, while their subject matter may differ, result in very similar work. A substantial portion of engineers, physicists and financial professionals get out of bed, go to work, sit at a computer, go to occasional meetings, and go home. I’ve always been baffled by people in this forum who were willing to take huge salary reductions for the pleasure of working “in physics”, as if it’s really all that different from loads of other jobs that offer more financial and job security.

    Ultimately though, I’m the beneficiary of that, so I’ve come to terms with it.
  15. Jul 28, 2011 #14
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    To the OP:

    Working in a lab after my BS was tremendously helpful for me, and I’d highly suggest it. If you can get a job that gives you real lab experience I don’t see much downside. It could turn into a great paying career, but if it doesn't you can still go back to school. Grad schools I talked to seemed to look favorably on my time in the private sector and I feel strongly the reference from my boss helped me get in. Now, I gripe about that job a lot; the pay stunk, and I was at the bottom of the ladder with just a BS. But it was better money than grad school and it really helped me get my life together. Just buy some books of grad qualification exam questions and work some now and then to stay frosty on your academics.

    Having said that, every month you spend unemployed *and* not in school is a disaster you should avoid. IMHO, the right choice is to both apply to jobs and grad schools and then picking your favorite choice, just so long as you don’t end up empty handed.
  16. Jul 28, 2011 #15
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    Thanks to DaveyRocket, ParticleGrl and TwoFish for discussing their experiences in this thread. I hope more peolpe will chime in.
  17. Jul 28, 2011 #16
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    Daveyrocket, the things you mentioned are things I think about every single day and I am an undergrad in Physics. People tell me "you never know" but actually seeing someone post something I often think about, its scary.
  18. Jul 28, 2011 #17
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    Well just remember, "you never know" isn't an argument about anything because it applies equally to everything. It doesn't matter what you choices you make, you will always be able to say "you never know." The best you or anyone can do is to gather whatever information you can and then make an educated guess as to what will be best for you.
  19. Jul 29, 2011 #18
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!


    At that point I go to the library and study politics, philosophy, and history. Where do words get their meaning? Who decides what means what and where and do they get their power from?

    I've been very heavily influenced by Marxist critical theorists who argue that words are defined via political and social processes (Jacques Derrida or Pierre Bourdieu). Just as a though experiment. Suppose I'm able to raise $10 million and donate it to Harvard to start a center for financial physics, and I get about a dozen of my Ph.D. friends and then start a professional society and peer reviewed journal devoted to Financial Physics.

    At that point I'm pretty sure that my definition of physics will win out. Of course, there will be some "old school" people that will argue to their graves that what I'm doing isn't really physics, but then my Center for Financial Physics will teach a new generation of people for which it's natural to think of what I'm doing as physics.

    Now you might look at me and say "you're crazy, you can't possibly raise $10 million, because to do that you'd have to have friends that are rich investment bankers that.... oh... but you can't possibly start a professional society because to do that you'd need a large number of Ph.D.'s that want to be physicists and that's impossible because ..... Oh wait."

    And then there is the what I think of as professor. Maybe I can't convince you. Maybe I can't convince anyone else. However, when I was 16, I had this dream of what life would be like as a professor working in a research institute, and I'm willing to bet that my current situation is a lot, lot closer to my dream than the situation of Daveyrocket or ParticleGrrl.

    What baffles me is that people are still willing to do this after the pleasure is gone.

    But this is where reading Marxist critical theory is useful. The Marxist analysis says that society is divided into classes and to understand how society works you need to understand the interaction of classes. Critical theory is all about the very subtle ways that the ruling class uses to exercise control over the ruled, including defining words.

    So if you've been brainwashed into thinking that you MUST get a job in physics, then the person or people that define what physics means turn out to be extremely powerful. By defining or not defining something as physics, someone can make you do or not do certain things and think or not think certain things. Personally, I prefer to keep control of my life, and part of keeping control is to be able to at least in my own mind, define words the way that they are most useful to me.

    One other thing that baffles me is that the reason I got attracted to academia is because people were talking about the "life of the mind." You get to think big thoughts, play with big ideas. Think about the deep important questions of the day. I get to do that where I am, but if you get a job at a university, and you can't think big thoughts, then whats the point?
  20. Jul 29, 2011 #19
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    One thing that bothers me is that we are supposed to be thinkers. It really bothers me when people that are supposed to be the worlds greatest minds start being unable to do basic math and come up with arguments that show an obvious refusal to *think*.

    Give me all of your money. I'll take half of it and then bet the rest on number 17 roulette wheel in Vegas. There's about a 39 in 40 chance that you will lose all of it, but you never know. You might make roughly 20x as much money.

    Now let's forget about money. Give me ten years of your life.

    The funny thing is that once you start thinking, it's sort of fun.

    Also, the big thing that I'm trying to figure out right now has to do with the disappearance of the middle class. The thing that I find alarming is (and you can see this in the stories that we are telling) is that you have people that make totally insane amounts of money, and people that are getting shoved in the dirt. Something is very seriously wrong, and I've been thinking a lot about what needs to get done about it.

    One other fun question that I often ask myself "who brainwashed me?" I want some things. Who taught me to want those things? Two of the important people it turns out are Gene Roddenberry and Arthur C. Clarke. Both of them wrote stories about what the world is going to be like in the future. Well the future is here, and we aren't flying to Jupiter.

    But since the brainwashed me enough to think that the world of Starfleet Command is something that we should be working toward, I've been thinking a lot about how to make that happen, and it turns out that a lot of things that seem like science and engineering questions aren't science and engineering questions.

    How do we build a spaceship to Jupiter and colonize the moon? That's not a science question. It's a question about money and power. Once I figured that out, I figured that it would be go somewhere that I could do post-post-post-doctoral work on the money and power thing which is where I am.
  21. Jul 29, 2011 #20
    Re: Grad School or Career?!?!!

    Why do you think people tend to get brainwashed to work in physics?
    I think most physicists do physics because they like to think about the world (naively said). And of course, they probably were heavily influenced by many people through their lifes (as nearly anyone), but I doubt brainwashing is required to make you interested in physics. I guess curiosity is an innate property(?) of human beings (since it isn't surprising that animals are curious from biological/genetics point of view).
    Moreover, it doesn't seem to me like physicist tend to care how the physics are defined. Many physicists are quite an interested in many other areas of human knowledge. And the fact that they have chosen physics as their career isn't too surprising either. (For example considering that many children interested in science do believe they can figure out the world.)

    (Well, I know the quoted sentence doesn't infer that you believe people get brainwashed to work in physics, but I think you were slightly infering that thing in some other post if I recall correctly.)
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