I can't find a PhD in theoretical physics after 6 months of trying

In summary: You might want to consider contacting research groups that interest you to get a better idea of what they are looking for. Not everyone is open to new PhD candidates, so it is important to research the groups you are applying to in order to increase your chances.
  • #1
guinador97
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Hi,

I am 25 years old living in EU. I am posting my experience with the objective of getting advice or opinions.

I have a bachelor in physics with a thesis on the SM electroweak sector.

I have a master again in theoretical physics with a specialization on Hadron Physics ( QFT ).

Both of my thesis have the model building part and calculations. I know advanced mathematica , moderate python and basics of C++. I have also taken a commercial course on some basic quantum computing algorithms

My problem is that I have constantly been trying to find a PhD in hep-th or hep-ph. I have tried applying for hep-lat as well. In the last 6 months, I made around 10-15 applications. I got called back only in one interview (two months ago) for which I had the feeling that went well, but they went with someone else. I also applied for internships only to face rejection. Finally, I have applied for some LinkedIn jobs with no responses.

First, I would like to ask if I am too old to chase PhD positions and if this is the reason that I (almost) never get called on interviews or get any offers ?

or is there something obviously wrong with my profile for the hep field?

I am completely discouraged from theoretical physics and I am considering to find a simple job and apply for engineering masters in order to have a better chance on landing a job . The other option I am thinking about is to levitate toward a different field either in physics or generally in STEM. Thus I would like to ask where could someone with my skills be useful in 2023 ?
 
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  • #2
guinador97 said:
In the last 6 months, I made around 10-15 applications.
I don’t know much about theoretical physics careers, but that is far too low a number for a serious job search.

I don’t know that no hits in 10-15 applications is an indication of a problem. But 10-15 applications should have been the work of 3-4 weeks rather than 6 months.
 
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  • #3
Have you talked to you past supervisors? How did they estimate your chances of getting a PhD position? I would assume the most important part of your application are their recommendation letters.

It might be helpful if you tell us what country exactly you are from/studied in so far (although I understand if you do not want to disclose too much personal information), and where you are ready to move to for a PhD (only your home country? the entire EU or some subset? all "western" countries? worldwide?).

Regarding age, for what its worth I was 25 myself when I started my PhD, and don't think that I am a total outlier (though certainly also not exceptionally young).
 
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  • #4
Dale said:
I don’t know much about theoretical physics careers, but that is far too low a number for a serious job search.

I don’t know that no hits in 10-15 applications is an indication of a problem. But 10-15 applications should have been the work of 3-4 weeks rather than 6 months.

The amount of applications I made is more than half of the amount of positions opened in the field in the last 6 months.
 
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  • #5
Dr.AbeNikIanEdL said:
Have you talked to you past supervisors? How did they estimate your chances of getting a PhD position? I would assume the most important part of your application are their recommendation letters.

It might be helpful if you tell us what country exactly you are from/studied in so far (although I understand if you do not want to disclose too much personal information), and where you are ready to move to for a PhD (only your home country? the entire EU or some subset? all "western" countries? worldwide?).

Regarding age, for what its worth I was 25 myself when I started my PhD, and don't think that I am a total outlier (though certainly also not exceptionally young).
I haven't talked to my referees so far though this will happen soon, since I got some rejections this week.

Also I would prefer to keep some anonymity , but I am in and from a European union country searching for positions only in the European Union (not even the UK) .
 
  • #6
guinador97 said:
The amount of applications I made is more than half of the amount of positions opened in the field in the last 6 months.
Then you are considering far too restrictive of a field for your applications. Regardless of your reasons, 10-15 applications in 6 months is way too few for a serious career search.
 
  • #7
guinador97 said:
I haven't talked to my referees so far though this will happen soon, since I got some rejections this week.
I would do this asap. If they think you are a strong candidate, you should discuss with them what research groups you might be a good fit for and consider contacting those directly about opportunities. Not everyone who in principle has funding available for a PhD position actively advertises this without a specific candidate in mind.
If even they don't fancy your chances, move on.
 
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  • #8
guinador97 said:
First, I would like to ask if I am too old to chase PhD positions and if this is the reason that I (almost) never get called on interviews or get any offers ?
No.

Age comes into play when you reach your thirties, but not because admissions committees will look down on you. It's more the case of getting to the stage of life where you need to get on with a career, relationships, mortgage, etc. and starting graduate school can be a barrier to those things. But again, that all comes down to personal choice.

I second the advice about talking to your past supervisors. They're in a much better position to give you a realistic picture of what your chances are and may have good advice on where to apply, or what fields you should aim to get into.
 
  • #9
I’m confused. Are you looking to get into graduate school to obtain a PhD, or are you looking to get a job that requires a PhD?
 
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  • #10
guinador97 said:
I haven't talked to my referees so far though this will happen soon, since I got some rejections this week.
This is a strange answer. Why didn't you consult them at the start of your search?
 
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  • #11
TeethWhitener said:
I’m confused. Are you looking to get into graduate school to obtain a PhD, or are you looking to get a job that requires a PhD?
I am/was looking to get into graduate school to obtain a PhD.
 
  • #12
CrysPhys said:
This is a strange answer. Why didn't you consult them at the start of your search?
I have been in contact with my referees all this time. Don't forget that I need 2-3 reference letters for a single application. The last two weeks have been harsh in terms of rejections and I see myself being in a deadend in the next couple of months.

I need to clarify that the rationale of this post is to get opinions on what someone with my skills in this particular field can do if they decide to stop pursuing a hep PhD position. The reason I presented my situation here is because the community here is larger than what I can find in my university and I (and anyone who might face a similar situation in the future) could benefit from possible guidance.
 
  • #13
What was your plan B when you started your masters degree eduaction?
 
  • #14
malawi_glenn said:
What was your plan B when you started your masters degree eduaction?
I didn't have a plan B or at least nothing more than jobs that do not require higher education. I though that by studying (both on bachelor and master) , opportunities and plan Bs would present themselves.
 
  • #15
guinador97 said:
I though that by studying (both on bachelor and master) , opportunities and plan Bs would present themselves.
So you;ve now learned the world doesn't exactly work this way.

Some numbers don't add up very well.

The US awards 1800 or so PhDs per year. The EU is twice as big, so let's say 3500. I don;t know how many are in high energy, but it will be around 20%, maybe half in theory. So taht's 350 slots. For now, lets ignore the fact that more people start the program than finish it.

So you have applied for 3-5% of these positions (it's also unusual that you don't know exactly how many) and are getting discouraged? That's really not very many.

Things are different in the US, where one applies to departments, not programs, but students who apply to 16 places are applying for thousands of slots, hundreds in their subfield. Ten or even 15 seems small compared to that.
 
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  • #16
guinador97 said:
I need to clarify that the rationale of this post is to get opinions on what someone with my skills in this particular field can do if they decide to stop pursuing a hep PhD position. The reason I presented my situation here is because the community here is larger than what I can find in my university and I (and anyone who might face a similar situation in the future) could benefit from possible guidance.
Okay, so this is meant to be a "what do I do if the PhD doesn't work out" thread.

On a cursory reading, it sounds like you have a master's degree in QFT and some basic programming skills. The bad news is that alone, that probably doesn't qualify you for much in terms of a profession. You'll need some trade-specific training.

To figure this out, it sounds like it's time for some serious self examination. What work experience do you have? If you have even experience in retail or some kind of sales, you could, for example try to get into a technical sales role... where you would be brokering multi-million dollar deals with very complex equipment. If you really enjoy the programming that you've done, maybe consider a boot camp style course that will set you up with the marketable skills that the industry is looking for right now. Or if the math is more your thing, you could look for a similar data science-type boot camp. When you couple these kinds of basic skill sets with a master's degree in physics you could very quickly become a hot commodity.

The trick is that you have to know where you want to go.

You could also look for resources to help you with this kind of thing at your school. Many universities have offices set up specifically to help their graduates find careers. Take advantage of what's available to you.
 
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  • #17
I agree wioth @Choppy that you need to assess your strengths. I made a non-trivial amount of money in and beyond grad school doing statistical consulting: where just following the textbook wasn't enough.

I still don't think things aren't quite lining up: you don't consider programming a particular strength but are considering Lattice? That doesn't really add up.
 
  • #18
Vanadium 50 said:
I still don't think things aren't quite lining up: you don't consider programming a particular strength but are considering Lattice? That doesn't really add up.
This is not true. I believe that my programming skills are good enough. I have a big anthology of codes and my main thesis' work revolves around coding and calculating numerically (i.e. mc integration on loop diagrams, and scattering amplitudes ). The problem is that the main language I used the last 4 years is Mathematica, that does not have any connection to what industry wants and for that reason I am transitioning to Python.
 
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  • #19
Choppy said:
Okay, so this is meant to be a "what do I do if the PhD doesn't work out" thread.

On a cursory reading, it sounds like you have a master's degree in QFT and some basic programming skills. The bad news is that alone, that probably doesn't qualify you for much in terms of a profession. You'll need some trade-specific training.

To figure this out, it sounds like it's time for some serious self examination. What work experience do you have? If you have even experience in retail or some kind of sales, you could, for example try to get into a technical sales role... where you would be brokering multi-million dollar deals with very complex equipment. If you really enjoy the programming that you've done, maybe consider a boot camp style course that will set you up with the marketable skills that the industry is looking for right now. Or if the math is more your thing, you could look for a similar data science-type boot camp. When you couple these kinds of basic skill sets with a master's degree in physics you could very quickly become a hot commodity.

The trick is that you have to know where you want to go.

You could also look for resources to help you with this kind of thing at your school. Many universities have offices set up specifically to help their graduates find careers. Take advantage of what's available to you.
Thank you for the reply, it is really helpful.
 
  • #20
guinador97 said:
The problem is that the main language I used the last 4 years is Mathematic
Well, no. The problem is that you think that "knowing to code" and "knowing a language" are synonyms. If you talk to the Lattice folks, they will be talking at a high level of abstraction, and how you might implement the same ideas in OpenMP, Cuda or MPI, etc.
 
  • #21
I wouldn't consider Mathematica a programming language in itself.

After 6+ months of looking for a PhD program and not being remotely sucessful, it is time to move on and look at another line of inquiry, i.e. start looking for a job.
 
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  • #22
Dr Transport said:
After 6+ months of looking for a PhD program and not being remotely sucessful, it is time to move on and look at another line of inquiry, i.e. start looking for a job.
At the very least, pursue both in parallel.
 
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  • #23
Dr Transport said:
After 6+ months of looking for a PhD program and not being remotely sucessful,
Yeah, but ten applications in 6 months isn't that many. It's like "I;ve been riding a unicycle for 20 years. I rode one 20 years ago and rode one last week too."
 
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  • #24
Vanadium 50 said:
Yeah, but ten applications in 6 months isn't that many. It's like "I;ve been riding a unicycle for 20 years. I rode one 20 years ago and rode one last week too."
No, it isn't. The OP has limited themselves to programs in the EU. So, given that they have only applied to 10, the possibility exists that they looked at the programs for exactly the thrust they want within QFT.

I remember 35 years ago when I was applying to graduate school, I only applied to about 15 schools over two years because I wanted an optics or liquid crystal physics concentration, so, 10 over 6 months is not out of the ordinary.
 
  • #25
Dr Transport said:
I remember 35 years ago when I was applying to graduate school, I only applied to about 15 schools over two years
The simple fact is that academia is much more competitive today than it was 35 years ago. 10 applications in 6 months is way insufficient for a job search in today’s highly competitive environment. Even 25 years ago I did 3 in a month, but I would recommend that my kids do more. A job search needs to be treated as a full time job and a search for an academic position is a job search
 
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  • #26
Dale said:
The simple fact is that academia is much more competitive today than it was 35 years ago. 10 applications in 6 months is way insufficient for a job search in today’s highly competitive environment. Even 25 years ago I did 3 in a month, but I would recommend that my kids do more. A job search needs to be treated as a full time job and a search for an academic position is a job search
According to post #11, OP is looking to get into grad school, not apply for a job. In which case, 10 applications in 6 months is reasonable. I only applied to 5 or 6 schools for grad school, for instance.
 
  • #27
TeethWhitener said:
OP is looking to get into grad school, not apply for a job
I disagree. Grad school is a job, particularly in STEM. It is more similar to an apprenticeship than to school. IMO, it is a job and should be treated that way.
 
  • #28
Dale said:
I disagree. Grad school is a job, particularly in STEM. It is more similar to an apprenticeship than to school. IMO, it is a job and should be treated that way.
Sure, treat grad school as a job once you're in. But would you ever pay to apply for a job? At least in the US, grad school applications usually have a $50-100 fee associated with them, so applying to 10 schools can cost hundreds of dollars. For a person in their early-mid 20's, this is likely to be a significant chunk of their total income. I'm not sure how financially feasible "just apply to more grad schools" is for OP.
 
  • #29
TeethWhitener said:
Sure, treat grad school as a job once you're in. But would you ever pay to apply for a job? At least in the US, grad school applications usually have a $50-100 fee associated with them, so applying to 10 schools can cost hundreds of dollars. For a person in their early-mid 20's, this is likely to be a significant chunk of their total income. I'm not sure how financially feasible "just apply to more grad schools" is for OP.
Apprenticeships do often include an application fee. And apprenticeships, like STEM grad school, are also based on an exploitative model of undervaluing the labor of the apprentice.

If the application fees to grad school are a financial hardship then the solution is to also apply for non-academic positions that do not have fees, not to do an insufficient number of applications. 10 in 6 months is simply insufficient. The OP is too focused and needs to dramatically expand their focus and their quantity of applications.
 
  • #30
Dale said:
Apprenticeships do often include an application fee. And apprenticeships, like STEM grad school, are also based on an exploitative model of undervaluing the labor of the apprentice.

If the application fees to grad school are a financial hardship then the solution is to also apply for non-academic positions that do not have fees, not to do an insufficient number of applications. 10 in 6 months is simply insufficient. The OP is too focused and needs to dramatically expand their focus and their quantity of applications.
We'll just have to agree to disagree. I generally counsel my students and employees that around 5-10 grad school applications should be sufficient, as long as the grad schools are chosen wisely based on each student's realistic expectations. I once had a student apply to something like 14 schools and I thought that was way too excessive (but she was also a very strong candidate and sailed into her top choice easily). Maybe I'm just getting older and times are changing. I did turn 40 recently :D
 
  • #31
TeethWhitener said:
I did turn 40 recently :D
if only I was just turning 40.......
 
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  • #32
TeethWhitener said:
Maybe I'm just getting older and times are changing
I do think that times are changing, but I am OK to agree to disagree on this. I think that us old-timers need to be careful in counseling the current generation to do things the way that worked for us. But different perspectives are valuable for the OP to hear.
 
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  • #33
Theory versus experiment might make a difference, too. At least back in my time in grad school, more than 40 years ago, there were far more students working in experimental groups than with theorists. Building parts of the apparatus, babysitting experimental data runs, writing code to analyze data...
 
  • #34
The biggest difference is Europe vs. the US. In the US, you apply to the university, and there may be dozens of students accepted. In Europe. it is much more common to have to apply for each position.

He wants to study in the EU. Fine. But he's only applied to, at most,, around half the countries.
 
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  • #35
Vanadium 50 said:
The biggest difference is Europe vs. the US. In the US, you apply to the university, and there may be dozens of students accepted. In Europe. it is much more common to have to apply for each position.

He wants to study in the EU. Fine. But he's only applied to, at most,, around half the countries.
^Yes. This.^ @TeethWhitener, discussions on this forum concerning applications to PhD programs almost always get muddled because of significant differences in the practices between the US and Europe [with the caveat that Europe is not monolithic, and even in the US there are differences among individual universities].

One major difference is that in the US, you can apply for a PhD program with just a bachelor's degree. In other countries, you need to complete a master's degree first.

Another major difference is that in the US, you apply for admission to a graduate school in a similar manner that you apply to an undergraduate school. In many (not all) graduate schools, you can't join a research group until after you've passed the qual exam. Before then, many are employed as teaching assistants. Once you pass the qual, you check out various groups who have openings and convince one to select you. At that point, you generally are employed as a research assistant. I know that since I was in grad school decades ago there have been many developments in the legal status of grad students as "employees" (including joining unions and going on strike), but I haven't followed them.

Contrast the procedure with one European university, KTH in Sweden. [I just happen to select that as an example because years ago I served as an industry mentor to a student there.] From their PhD application website (https://www.kth.se/en/studies/phd/general/how-to-apply-1.520089):

"KTH recruits only the best candidates for doctoral studies, and the selection process can be highly competitive. Prospective doctoral students apply for vacant positions, announced nine times a year: in February, March, April, May, June, September, October, November and December. To be eligible, make sure you meet the admission requirements. If you are selected, you will be employed by KTH and earn a monthly salary." <<Emphasis added.>>

So you are literally applying for employment (a job).

Furthermore, note the wording of key steps in the application process.

1. Look for a vacant doctoral position​


Doctoral positions are announced nine times a year; in February, March, April, May, June, September, October, November and December. Application deadlines may vary. List of current vacant positions

<<The link in Step 1 (https://www.kth.se/en/om/work-at-kth/doktorander-1.572201) has the title "Ph.D. student employments", and is arranged just like a list of job openings at a company.>>

...

6. Receive your employment​


When the steps above have been completed, you will be employed by KTH. Please note that non-EU/EEA citizens will need a residence permit in order to be employed and reside in Sweden.
 
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