Help me sort my life out? (aka: 'To PhD, or not to PhD?')

In summary, the conversation discusses the speaker's uncertainty about pursuing a PhD in theoretical high energy physics due to a lack of interest in potential career paths such as academia, programming, and finance. They also express interest in using their skills and wanting a job that aligns with their interests. The other person suggests that a PhD may be a good option, but also mentions the possibility of exploring other career paths outside of traditional mathematics and physics jobs. Ultimately, the speaker is struggling with finding the right career path for themselves.
  • #1
BenAHMS
2
0
Hey all,

I'm wondering if anyone here can help me try and get things straight in my mind about what I'm going to do next. I'm currently studying Part III (the courses in QFT, Symmetries, Strings etc) and already people are starting to talk about PhD applications, since it seems to be assumed that if you're on Part III you're probably going to do one (fair assumption!). However, I don't know if this is the path for me. While I'm certainly very, very interested in what I'm studying I don't know if I have the right mindset/attitude for postgrad research. In my mind, doing a PhD in this area is only going to be advantageous if I want to go into academia, and I'm not sure this is what I want. If I plan to do the PhD and get a 'normal' job afterwards, I might as well not do the PhD and get a 4 year headstart!
On the other hand, I haven't yet managed to find a job that appeals to me. The careers offered to mathematical physicists tend to revolve around programming, mathematical modelling, finance and so on, which aren't the areas of my subject that I enjoy. I'm not a programmer or a computational mathematician, my mathematical interest lies more in algebra and group theory. Similarly, I'm not a laboratory scientist, I'm a theoretician, and there don't seem to be any non-academic careers for physicists whose specialty is quantum field theory and the like.
So do I just have to accept that if I want a 'real job' I'm going to have to sacrifice my specific interests, and that if I pursue a PhD in theoretical high energy physics I'm confined to a career as an academic? Or have I got it all wrong? I've been grappling with this issue for about a year now, have made pretty much no progress whatsoever, and in all honesty it's driving me slightly insane. Any words of wisdom or advice would be greatly appreciated.

PS: I'm not implying anything derogatory towards academics when I say 'real' job, it's just easier than writing 'non-academic job' each time :)

tl;dr: Is a PhD in theoretical high energy physics only worth doing if I want to be an academic? Are there any 'real' jobs that involve interesting maths/physics (quantum field theory, group theory etc)? Should I just quit it all and tour the world playing my guitar?!
 
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  • #2
As far as I’m concerned, if you’re going to get a PhD in something highly theoretical but don’t have any interest in computational physics, programming, finance, lab work or working in academia, then I can think of only two jobs you’ll be qualified for when you leave: pre-college education and customer service (ie “Would you like fries with that?”). Maybe someone else can fill in some other possibilities.

Your post reads to me like “Hey, I don’t want to work for a living, what should I do?” As long as you don’t want to work for a living, a PhD is not a bad route. It’ll fill in the time until you really do have to work for a living. As long as it won’t bother you watching your friends and family members around your age buy houses and cars and go on vacations and spend the money they made working for a living, then I’d bet you’d be pretty happy. And, unlike traveling the world playing your guitar, getting a PhD leaves you with a PhD in the end.

Actually, it might not be impossible to do both – get a PhD and still spend quite a bit of time traveling and playing your guitar. You sound like you’re in Europe somewhere, so you can do a lot of traveling on a little budget.

I want to add one more thing: most of the things you listed that you don’t have much interest in you also know nothing about. I’ve found in my life that many times – but not always – as I learn about something I become much more interested in it. You don’t actually know if you do or do not like many of the things you’ve decided not to pursue. Keep an open mind.
 
  • #3
Hey,

Thanks for the reply. I didn't mean it to sound like I don't want to work, that's not true. I just don't know what career I want to go in to. I want to do something that uses the skills I've learned, because they interest me, but I can't seem to come up with anything that does, except a PhD. As I said though, this only seems necessary if I want to be an academic (which I don't think I do). My problem is finding a job that suits my interests.

I understand what you're saying about getting more interested in things the more you learn, but I have taken a couple of courses in programming, and participated in a summer research project that had a strong element of software development in it, and although I found the initial problem solving interesting, I didn't enjoy the writing of the code, and subsequent debugging. Similarly I have taken courses in mathematical modelling, statistics and so on, which are representative of the mathematics used in the other careers. It seems to me that mathematicians and theoretical physicists are shoe-horned into these roles in the job industry (I attended a science careers fair, and was amazed at how little variety there was) and I don't think they fit me very well. Perhaps I need to open up to things outside of the traditional maths/physics job market, and look elsewhere?

But yeah, the problem isn't that I don't want to work, it's more that I don't know what work I should do!
 
  • #4
I agree, it would be unfair to suggest you don’t like to work – you’re doing well in school taking hard classes, and that requires a lot of work. However, I still think you’re not thrilled at working for a living, which is a very special kind of work, and it’s a lot less fun than school. Jobs that pay the bills well do so because there’s some element that reduces labor supply enough that people can demand those wages, and that element is often something that makes them less fun than typical college grads would like. There are lots of people who would kill for the kinds of jobs you have a shot at getting but aren’t considering; they may know something you don’t about the world we live in today.

It does sound like you aren’t interested in the jobs mathematicians/statisticians/physicists typically do in the private sector (though I do wonder if you’ll change your mind when you see what the other jobs are like), so another possibility might be sales. If you’re a good salesman and can understand technical specifications, then lots of people can use you. Few people have both. Look at corporations that deal in technological or software goods. This is a job for someone who is comfortable in lots of social situations.

In the US there’s demand for people skilled in extracting money from the government. Writing grants is big business. (Recently I tried to find some volunteer work where I live and discovered there’s tremendous demand for volunteers to write grants to get money so someone can start a volunteer program, which I found a bit amusing and a bit disturbing). People with masters and PhD’s are often hired for this, though I think the pay is poor. Also in the US, patent/IP work is a possible route. Those may apply less to you, but there may be something equivalent.

Like I said, a PhD isn’t a bad place to spend the time, assuming it doesn’t cost you anything. I would strongly recommend against a second undergrad degree – I’ve talked to lots of people who actually view that with some suspicion if they aren’t done at the same time.

I think I’ve run out of use to you, so I’ll end by saying best of luck and I hope things turn out well. Maybe you could update this thread some day in the future and let us know what you chose how everything went.
 
  • #5
I totally understand you, but I think what you really need is to learn more about work options. You might now think that you don't like to do programming, or finance, or whatever. But have you asked yourself why you don't like them?

One thing that you will learn is that knowledge is not the same as research. You might enjoy learning about particle physics, but the actual work of research is quite different. Also, you might dislike the idea of working in e.g. programming, but then you might like it.

One thing that I have discovered about myself during my PhD is that it will be difficult for me to continue working in "blue skies research", since I need a well-defined goal to be motivated. However, not many years ago I had the impression that I would never do anything that wasn't research, and more specifically in my field!
In that sense I think having gone for PhD is a good idea, since if I had gone directly to wherever else I would have certainly repented all my life!

On the other hand, I don't think it is a very good idea to go for a PhD not being fully motivated from the beginning. Getting a PhD often involves very though times, and you will need to be motivated to get through these moments and continue working.

One advantage you have in the UK is that the PhD usually takes "only" three years, being given a deadline.

Anyway, quoting Socrates: "Whether you marry or not, all the same you will repent". (and deciding to get a PhD can be similar to marrying).
 
  • #6
BenAHMS said:
Should I just quit it all and tour the world playing my guitar?!

On a serious note, all I can say is that it's something you have to feel for yourself.

On a lighter tone... that seems to be exactly what Brian May (Queen guitarist) did:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_May
 
  • #7
BenAHMS said:
if I have the right mindset/attitude for postgrad research. In my mind, doing a PhD in this area is only going to be advantageous if I want to go into academia, and I'm not sure this is what I want. If I plan to do the PhD and get a 'normal' job afterwards, I might as well not do the PhD and get a 4 year headstart!

First of all to get rid of a major myth. A Ph.D. is *extremely* useful for jobs outside of academia. There is a strong market for Ph.D. physicists. The thing that you have to consider however is that the skills that people are looking for outside of academia are only somewhat different from the skills that you'll need in academia.

Having said that. A Ph.D. in math is likely to last for seven to eight years. That's enough of your life so that you should do it for the sake of doing it. A Ph.D. shouldn't be seen as merely a stepping stone to another job. It is a job.

So do I just have to accept that if I want a 'real job' I'm going to have to sacrifice my specific interests, and that if I pursue a PhD in theoretical high energy physics I'm confined to a career as an academic? Or have I got it all wrong?

What do you define as a "real job"? Being a research assistant is a "real job".

tl;dr: Is a PhD in theoretical high energy physics only worth doing if I want to be an academic?

You shouldn't do the Ph.D. primarily for career reasons. One good analogy is that it's like joining the Marines. Being in the Marines will help your career, but it shouldn't be your main goal for enlisting.

On the other hand, if you like math and physics, doing the Ph.D. let's you do math and physics for a tenth of your life.

Are there any 'real' jobs that involve interesting maths/physics (quantum field theory, group theory etc)? Should I just quit it all and tour the world playing my guitar?!

One good thing about science and math Ph.D.'s is that you *can* get the Ph.D. and then roam the earth. Something that is extremely important about math and science Ph.D.'s is that you can get out without being in debt. If you get a law or medical degree, you can't quit it all and roam the Earth because the banks will be after you.
 
  • #8
BenAHMS said:
Thanks for the reply. I didn't mean it to sound like I don't want to work, that's not true. I just don't know what career I want to go in to. I want to do something that uses the skills I've learned, because they interest me, but I can't seem to come up with anything that does, except a PhD.

One thing that you have to accept is that there is a demand part of the equation. "Dream jobs" just don't exist, and so a lot of life involves making do with what is available. I suspect that there just *isn't* a job out there that ends up being exactly what you want, so you are going to have to make some decisions about what you really want to do.

Being a tenured professor at a major research university is a really nice job, but your chances of getting something like that if you get a Ph.D. is about 1 in 10, so you really should go into your Ph.D. with the knowledge that there is a 90% change that you won't get a tenure track position.

It seems to me that mathematicians and theoretical physicists are shoe-horned into these roles in the job industry (I attended a science careers fair, and was amazed at how little variety there was) and I don't think they fit me very well.

The reason for that is that it's a "warm body problem." Think about relativity. Once Einstein thought of relativity, then he wrote it down, and there wasn't a need for a second Einstein to rediscover general relativity. For these sorts of problems, you just need one brilliant genius to do the work, and then you are done.

There are problems that aren't like that. Cleaning toilets for example. It doesn't matter how brilliant you are, you can only clean one toilet at a time, so if you need lots of toilets cleaned, you just can't hire one brilliant toilet cleaner, you need to hire lots of people. Debugging code also falls into the "cleaning toilets" category. I don't care *how* brilliant a programmer you are, you can only debug so much code at one time, so if you need code to be debugged, you are going to hire lots of people, and unlike the cleaning toilets, you have to hire lots of people with a lot of specialized skills, which increases the salaries that you are willing to pay.
 

Related to Help me sort my life out? (aka: 'To PhD, or not to PhD?')

1. Should I pursue a PhD?

The decision to pursue a PhD is a personal one and should be based on your interests, career goals, and personal circumstances. Consider the time commitment, financial implications, and job prospects after graduation before making a decision. It may also be helpful to speak with current PhD students and professors in your field to get a better understanding of what to expect.

2. What are the benefits of getting a PhD?

Earning a PhD can open up career opportunities in research, academia, and industry. It also allows for a deeper understanding of a specific subject and the opportunity to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in your field. Additionally, some PhD programs offer funding and stipends, making it a financially feasible option.

3. What are the challenges of pursuing a PhD?

Pursuing a PhD can be a long and challenging journey. It requires a significant time commitment, often 5-7 years, and may involve financial sacrifices. The research and coursework can also be mentally and emotionally taxing. It is important to have a strong support system and a clear understanding of your goals to persevere through these challenges.

4. How do I decide on a PhD program?

When deciding on a PhD program, it is important to consider the research interests and expertise of the faculty, the resources and facilities available, and the overall reputation of the program. It is also important to consider the location and cost of living, as well as the opportunities for internships and collaborations. Visit the campus and speak with current students to get a better sense of the program's culture and fit.

5. What are the job prospects after earning a PhD?

The job prospects after earning a PhD can vary depending on your field of study and career goals. Graduates can pursue careers in academia, research institutions, government agencies, and industry. However, it is important to note that the job market for PhDs can be competitive and it may take time to secure a job after graduation. Networking and gaining relevant experience during your PhD can increase your chances of finding a job in your desired field.

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