Is a Physics PhD Worth It? Considering Career Prospects and Personal Fulfillment

In summary, the conversation discussed the pros and cons of pursuing a physics PhD. It was mentioned that a strong passion for physics and specific research interests are necessary for success in graduate school. The odds of continuing research after a PhD were estimated to be around 1/10, with the possibility of having a full-time research job being dependent on the individual's specific situation. Graduate school was described as being a different kind of stress compared to undergraduate studies, with more freedom and the opportunity to make friends with fellow physics enthusiasts. It was also noted that graduate students have the time and resources to engage in fun activities and hobbies. However, it was emphasized that a strong passion for physics is
  • #1
zachx
9
1
Hi,

I am a junior astrophysics undergraduate student and enjoy physics, but after researching astrophysics PhD's, I am having second thoughts about graduate school.

My impression of physics graduate school right now is that you are paid what amounts to minimum wage to work 60 hours a week for 6 years. I have read too that there is an overproduction of Physics PhD's, so you have to publish exceptional research to get a job in physics. Otherwise, you end up doing something outside of your research interests.

My other big problem is that a few of my professors have dissuaded me from physics. For example, one talked about how people who just graduated computer science are already making more money than him and recommended me to learn more about computers (along with other stories). I don't mind making less for a more fulfilling job, but it's a consideration.

To summarize:
Would you recommend a current undergraduate to pursue a physics PhD?
What are the odds that I would be able to continue doing research after my PhD?
Is graduate school more stressful/fun than being a undergraduate?
Do you have the time and resources to do fun things in graduate school and as a Postdoc (vacation, hobbies, etc.)?

Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.
 
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  • #2
zachx said:
Would you recommend a current undergraduate to pursue a physics PhD?
I don't think that's a question that can be answered in general. For some people - yes. For others - no.
What separates the yes group from the no group:
- You need to have a desire to do the PhD that's a lot stronger than just "I don't know what else to do" or "I'm pretty good at physics so I'll just continue on with it." People in the 'yes' group need to really have a passion for it - a passion that manifests through you going out an reading up on physics when you're not required to do so.
- You need to have a specificity about it. By the time you're applying to PhD programs, you should have more of an idea than "I want to do a PhD." You should have specific projects in mind that you'd love to work on, specific programs and specific potential supervisors.
- You need to have more than the 'bare minimum' grades to get in.
- You have to want to do research, not just do what you're told. You need to have some of your own ideas.
- You also need to be coming in with your eyes open - realistic expectations of the amount of work involved, what you'll be learning, and what your long-term prospects will look like on the other end.
- You also need to be able to work well with others - listen to criticism and feedback without getting too defensive.
- You also need to be able to organize yourself,

What are the odds that I would be able to continue doing research after my PhD?
If you mean eventually go on to become a professor - probably about 1/10. Technically, you should be able to do some kind of research, regardless of where you end up. But for most people it won't be their full-time job.

Is graduate school more stressful/fun than being a undergraduate?
It's a different kind of stress in my experience. Day-to-day, there's probably less stress, but a lot can depend on the specifics of your supervisor, research group and the environment around you. There are bigger events to worry about: comprehensive exams, committee meetings, candidacy exams, conference presentations, thesis defence...

You also tend to have a little more freedom, but a lot can depend on your supervisor. Some students really report in once a week and everything else is up to them.

Something else to consider is that you're surrounded by fellow physics nerds. You have the opportunity to make friends with some really, really smart and talented people.
Do you have the time and resources to do fun things in graduate school and as a Postdoc (vacation, hobbies, etc.)?
A lot can depend on the specifics of your supervisor and program, but in general, yes. When I was a grad student I was able to go on vacations. I had a girlfriend. I had a part-time job (in addition to a full TA). I did volunteer work. I had hobbies and played sports. In most cases graduate school was like having a full time job. It was a major part of life, and certainly there were times when it was all consuming. I had weeks when I was working until 1:00 am. But I also had weeks where I left the office at 5:00.

People tend to "brag" by telling horror stories of how bad their situation is. Make no mistake graduate school is hard work, and it can be very stressful. But so long as you enjoy what you're working on, its generally pretty fun. At least it was in my experience.
 
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  • #3
zachx said:
to work 60 hours a week for 6 years

If your reaction to this is "I have to work 60 hours a week" and not "I get to work 60 hours a week", you probably don't have the passion for this that you need, and it's probably best to pick something else.
 
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  • #4
Vanadium 50 said:
If your reaction to this is "I have to work 60 hours a week" and not "I get to work 60 hours a week", you probably don't have the passion for this that you need, and it's probably best to pick something else.

@Vanadium 50 , the question/concern that the OP is posing is not "I have to work 60 hours a week". It's

(a) I HAVE to work 60 hours (or more) a week every single week, no exceptions, no opportunities for other activities or breaks, leading to burnout (i.e. the whole work-life balance thing),

and

(b) I am working minimum wage work for 60 hours (or more) a week, and what do I have to show for it at the end, but ending up working in an area totally unrelated to what I had been working on before (which I could have done by studying something else), assuming I even get a job at all.
 
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  • #5
Folks should go into a Ph.D. with eyes wide open.

One valid take on the situation is "Why should I work so hard for so many years if I am not going to find employment in the area?"

Another valid take is "I am likely not going to end in a research career, so a Ph.D. is my one chance in life to do what I love for several years, and I am going to take it."

These are both valid takes. Many people will have feelings that lie between these viewpoints.
 
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Related to Is a Physics PhD Worth It? Considering Career Prospects and Personal Fulfillment

1. What is a "Physics PhD Second Thoughts"?

A "Physics PhD Second Thoughts" refers to the doubts or uncertainties that a person pursuing a Physics PhD may experience during their studies or after completing their degree.

2. Why do some people have second thoughts about pursuing a Physics PhD?

There can be various reasons for having second thoughts about pursuing a Physics PhD. It could be due to the rigorous and demanding nature of the program, financial concerns, lack of interest or passion in the subject, or personal circumstances.

3. Is it common to have second thoughts about pursuing a Physics PhD?

Yes, it is not uncommon for individuals to have second thoughts about pursuing a Physics PhD. The program requires a significant commitment of time, effort, and resources, and it is natural to question whether it is the right path for oneself.

4. How can I overcome my second thoughts about pursuing a Physics PhD?

If you are experiencing second thoughts about pursuing a Physics PhD, it is important to reflect on your reasons for pursuing this path in the first place. It may also be helpful to speak with a mentor, advisor, or therapist to gain clarity and make an informed decision.

5. What are some alternatives to pursuing a Physics PhD if I have second thoughts?

There are various alternatives for individuals who have second thoughts about pursuing a Physics PhD. Some options include taking a break and re-evaluating, exploring other fields of study, pursuing a career in industry or teaching, or simply choosing not to pursue a PhD at all.

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