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Programs How much freedom in your research do you get after you've started a Phd?

  1. Oct 22, 2006 #1

    I'm thinking about whether to try for a Phd or not and am having some doubts. I have quite a few reasons for wanting to do it, most of these are quite broad and general though, and I've yet to settle on a specialism that I'm certain is right for me. I think I'd like an academic career because I love physics generally, I would be really dissapointed if my education had to stop at undergraduate level, I'd want a job where there a challenging puzzles instead of just drudgery, I think it would be a really nice working environment, it'd be great to spend my days in an instituition of learning and getting to hear about other people's research. I think I'd really enjoy teaching undergraduates as well.

    However, I must admit when I look at a lot of the research topics that are offered I'm a bit anxious about committing myself to three years focusing on just that one topic. So I wondered, do people think it's a bad idea to start a Phd if your attitude to the topic is more along the lines of "that's could be an interesting problem", as opposed to "that's fascinating and profound and will keep me awake at night".

    Also, I wanted to ask about career progression after you finish your doctorate. How much freedom do you typically have to get positions researching areas away from your specialism? Is it even possible to make quite large career jumps, say from something in medical physics to econo-physics or similiar? (The reason I ask is that there are quite a lot of diverse areas that interest me, obviously I can't work in them all at once, but it'd be good to know to what extent I'm closing down future options.)
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 22, 2006 #2
    since you would be devoting the better part of 4-7 years of your life working on your PhD project, it's definitely in your best interest to work on something that interests you. Most often specific project ideas come from the person who eventually becomes your thesis advisor. It's up to you to figure out what topic you're interested in and to find those people though.

    Career wise, most areas of physics require such a degree of specialization that people tend not to jump fields too much. That's not to say it can't be done though. How much you get involved in fields outside your specialty depends entirely on the kinds of people you interact with and get involved with. If all you end up doing is interacting with other people in your specialty, then chances are you won't have much opportunity to do work outside your specialty. If you have lots of interactions with other fields, then chances for interdisciplinary work are much higher. If you decide you're tired of working on solid state physics and want to try medical physics, you need to make the effort to climb the medical physics learning curve.

    What you do with your career is entirely up to you. Just remember that the farther you go from your specialty, generally the steeper the learning curve becomes. It also takes time to learn enough about any given field to be productive in it.
  4. Oct 27, 2006 #3
    The biggest reason I'd think of to get a Ph.D. is not for "freedom" you'd have during the process. Freedom atthe grad-student level is actually pretty limited -- because you are an "apprentice" of sorts usually funded by one advisor's grant for doing one particular aspect of a problem. Instead, the reason to get a PhD is for the "freedom" that you'd have afterwards, when whether in industry or in academia, you'd be directing a few different projects that you'd find funding for by writing your own grant applications.

    While you'd want to get the PhD in what most interests you, because you have the most flexibility as an early grad student... after the process you at least have a PhD in something, so "switching" to related problems is a bit feasible (esp. by collaborating with related fields). You can also really look for a graduate project that already involves collaboration with other groups/departments/schools... a lot of larger grants involve chemists, physicists, and engineers either at the same school or other institutions. That's something to keep in mind when applying to different graduate schools and looking for a graduate project.
  5. Oct 29, 2006 #4
    A PhD is a lot like marriage. Your freedom is limited to budget and advisor. The difference is that it is only for a finite time period.
  6. Oct 29, 2006 #5
    Don't forget that a lot of schools offer research rotations for a semester. You don't get paid for the research but you get credits typically. This allows you to sample working with a particular adviser for a set amount of time on a nice elementary problem. This can facilitate the "shopping around for an adviser" period of grad school and you don't have to commit to anything longer than a semester in most cases.

    Edit: As far as career jumps go... if you don't end up liking your Ph.D. topic as much after it is done as you did when you started you can try to get a post doc in a different field. I know a couple people who did this. For instance, one of them did his Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics on the search for the quark-gluon plasma at the RHIC. Afterward, he just could not see himself doing that for the rest of his life. So, he studied up on Medical/Radiation physics and went into a Medical physics post doc and now works at a hospital designing treatment plans for radiation oncology.
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2006
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