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Have I Shot Myself in the Foot

  1. Apr 30, 2010 #1
    Basically, I'm about to be a freshman in college and turned down Rice University for UChicago, which will be ~$100k more expensive. I've planned on doing physics or math or maybe econ...but reading on these fora it looks like an engineering degree is just as good/better than a physics degree for almost everything after undergrad. Have I made a truly awful decision? I've no doubt that I like Chicago better than Rice, but have I erred?

    I'm pretty sure that I like physics more than engineering, since I like learning more than I like making things, but what good is that if I've got a Ph.D and am unemployed (as posts on this forum seem to portray as fairly likely.)
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 30, 2010 #2


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    Don't make your choices on the basis of complaints from the un-/under-employed on these forums. First of all, we've just come through a terrible recession where the economy nearly collapsed, so this has not been a typical job market. Keep in mind that you are nine (8 to 11 anyway) years away from a PhD, so the job market you face will be very different. Second, you can always do engineering as a physicist, and in general industry appreciates and rewards PhD's. Third, UChicago is a name-brand school. I wouldn't worry. Do your job (that will be to learn, explore Chicago, do undergrad things, excel in your field) and the rest should take care of itself.
  4. Apr 30, 2010 #3
    Welcome to PF. If you acquire skills that employers find useful, it is unlikely you will be unemployed. There are probably a lot more opportunities than you think there is, just keep your mind open, and you might get a job in a totally unrelated industry. That said, business hire people to build things rather than learn things. If you want a job, you need to acquire skills that business find them valuable.

    I understand your frustration, I have been a freshman before, and have worries about lots of things in choosing a career. Whether it is engineering or physics, you will get involve in both learning and building things, and in engineering school, if you desire, you can acquire a very solid education of the science and mathematics behind building things. I am not trying to persuade you to get an engineering degree, rather I am just making the point that physics vs engineering is not learning vs building things.

    If you look at college as an investment, you are investing in yourself to acquire marketable skills and credentials, as well as building your network. Whether paying $100K more is worth has to be answer by you as to whether you think you can recoup the cost or, whether it worth the premium if you think it will provide you with a unique experience/opportunity not easily measurable in monetary terms.
  5. Apr 30, 2010 #4
    It's really, really important to distinguish the academic job market from the general job market. It's hard for a physics Ph.D. to get employment as a research professor, but among the physics Ph.D.'s that I've known, not a single one is or has been unemployed in the last year, and everyone that wants one has some decent middle class job.
  6. Apr 30, 2010 #5
    Physicists can be hired as engineers, but only if they've demonstrated expertise in the specific branch of engineering. I know the job boards indicate lots of positions for physics PhD's, but each one is looking for a specific set of skills and experience.

    While in undergraduate, the best way to build skills experience that is widely respected is through corporate internships. Academic summer internships can be productive, but you might be stuck working on some "who cares" project with no well defined goal. Corporate internships have well defined goals i.e. make people money by doing something productive. That looks really good on a resume. (I increased packing efficiency by using technique x, saving q million dollars)
  7. Apr 30, 2010 #6
    Financial positions for physics Ph.D.'s usually aren't looking for things that are too specific. There is the general issue of how good are you at computers and how good are you at math, but other than that financial firms would actually prefer a good mix of people with different backgrounds.
  8. Apr 30, 2010 #7
    The only qualm I have about going into the corporate world is that (and this, for you older and wiser people, probably makes you chuckle and shake your head) I'm interested in Physics because I think it's the most important thing out there. Physics for me is investigating what reality is - what the world is really made of and how it works. I don't think I'd be looking at those fundamental questions in the working world; it seems like I'd do something more along the lines of applied math or computer science.

    Of course, all of this is likely pretty idealistic and naive.

    Also, thank you for the many responses. This forum is becoming a wealth of information for me.
  9. May 1, 2010 #8
    So is politics, marketing, law, and economics. It's a different sort of reality, but it's still reality.

    Surprisingly you do. Let me ask a very basic fundamental question that people don't think very much about. What is money? How does money behave? How do you create money? How do you destroy money? It's a pretty fundamental question, but the more I think about it, the less I really understand.

    You can try to argue that money is a concept that isn't "real" but then you end up thinking about what is "real". Are atoms real? There's this idea that you can break everything up into particles and if you understand the interactions between particles, you can understand everything. That doesn't work well with money.

    And then there is "time" which is another interesting concept.

    I've found it's useful to keep asking questions, and the thing that you have to be careful about is not get yourself in a situation where you don't feel comfortable asking a question because, "it's not your major."
  10. May 1, 2010 #9
    I'm not arguing that fields like economics or finance or law aren't incredibly complex and interesting, but I will argue that they aren't as fundamental as (what I imagine) Physics is. Namely, because those fields deal with fluid human constructs, not universal ones. At the end of the day, if I rise to the top of the heap in Economics, I've become better than most at understanding only how humans do things. Physics seems more encompassing, if that makes any sense.

    Which is honestly a reason I picked Chicago over Rice, because I feel that will give me a good grounding in many subjects and keep my options much more open.
  11. May 1, 2010 #10
    That's a common idea. Personally I would disagree with it, but one thing that you should start looking into is where this idea came from (it started with Plato).

    You are getting this from Plato. Personally, I come from a very, very different philosophical tradition in which the division between human constructs and Platonic universals is less sharp. Also I went to school in places that quite explicitly reject this idea.

    Part of the problem here is that you learn your ideas from human beings, and if you don't understand where those ideas came from, it makes it more difficult to question them. One trap that I've seen physics undergraduates set into is that because just study physics and nothing else, they don't really think about or question some of the reasons why they study physics, and this causes problems when you get into the "real world."

    One big problem with Plato's ideas is that they really aren't economically sustainable. Sure it's great to be a philosopher-king until you find out that everyone wants to be a philosopher-king and no one plows the fields.

    It does, but you need to ask yourself where you got that idea from. Usually the answer is your parents and teachers. Then you ask where *they* got their ideas from. I'm pretty sure if you follow this thread, you'll end up with Plato. At that point you can have a conversation with Plato, so see if what you think really makes sense.

    One thing that you really, really do need to do is to spend your graduate school years somewhere other than Chicago. University of Chicago has an interesting history and so what they teach and the way that they teach it will be influenced by that history. This is good, but you'll end up learning a lot more if you go somewhere for graduate school that is really, really different.

    Chicago-physics and Chicago-economics is different from NYC-physics and NYC=economics just like the pizza you get in Chicago is just different than what you get in NYC.
  12. May 1, 2010 #11
    That's actually something I hadn't thought of before. Do you have any recommendations for books, etc. to learn more about this?

    I was under the impression that almost everybody goes somewhere different for grad school? Is this not true?

    Also, could you recommend any books that give a good picture of what life as a quant is like, or is that not possible?
    Last edited: May 1, 2010
  13. May 1, 2010 #12
    Start with the classics. Plato's _Republic_. Also wikipedia has a good article on Plato. Some other people that you should read are Leo Strauss, Mortimer Adler, and Allan Bloom. Note here that reading someone doesn't mean that you should agree with them. The reason I mention Strauss, Adler, and Bloom are going to be important is that you will run into their ghosts while you are at Chicago, and it's useful to put names to the ghosts you meet.

    It tends to be true, but what I think is important is to go to a different *type* of school.

    The complete guide to capital markets for quantitative professionals by Alex Kuznetsov is probably the best book since it provides an overview of "so what is it that people do?"

    My Life as Quant by Derman is good if you read it as history and not as a description of what skills are useful now.

    Mark Joshi has a "advice" pdf on his site.
  14. May 2, 2010 #13
    Thanks for the recommendations; I'll try to read a few of those this summer.

    Just out of curiosity, what other schools would you say are similar to Chicago's "type"?

    The Kuznetsov book - would it be good for someone who truly has very little knowledge of the stock market? I know the most basic stuff and that's about it (some of the things that a stock's price reflects, value investing, and little else). I do not, for example, really have any idea of what a derivative is. I only ask because the price is a bit prohibitive, and I want to make sure this is a book I'll be able to understand. Also, one Amazon review recommends it for people who have "1-3 years of industry experience"...?

    Thanks for all the help, by the way.
    Last edited: May 2, 2010
  15. May 3, 2010 #14
    It depends on the classification scheme, but there are a number of other elite private universities in the US (i.e. Columbia, Harvard, Yale).

    The Kuznetsov book doesn't go into any of that. The great thing about the Kuznetsov book is that it's the only book that I know of that answers the question "so what do people in an investment bank actually do?" It's more about people than products. It's likely to be hopelessly out of date in about two years.

    You can go onto Amazon and look at the preview.

    If you find something else, let me know.

    Something else that's a great resource is Dommic Connor's FAQ

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
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