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Is getting a PhD really a good idea?

  1. Aug 27, 2009 #1
    Yeah, it's stuff like this that makes me contemplate my existence as a physics PhD student.

    http://www.straitstimes.com/Breaking%2BNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_418626.html [Broken]

    This reminds me of another PhD dude I heard about last year who drives cars for a living.


    Granted, both of these examples are in biology, but I would think that with the current demand in health care, biological sciences would be more employable than the physical sciences. That, and I also happen to know a physics postdoc (formerly in my own research group!) who is currently unemployed.

    Hmm...maybe I should hav just gone into the taxi industry right out of high school. At least that way, I could have spent the past seven years working my way to the top. Assuming it's not a single-state system, that is.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 27, 2009 #2
    That's a depressing thought and I'm going to consider entertaining such a notion to be self-defeating behavior. If someone switches their career to Taxi driver after working with the experts in their field and getting a PhD, then it must be because they realized they were not cut out for that kind of work -- not because "PhD's aren't needed." Furthermore, if they can't think of a better way to apply themselves than becoming a simple taxi driver, then this is practically proof of the point that they weren't cut out for the job in the first place. I don't care where you got your degree from or who was your mentor, coming from Stanford doesn't make you God's gift.
  4. Aug 27, 2009 #3
    Just for clarification, I was being facetious about saying that I should have been driving taxis for a living. That was more a complaint that PhDs aren't as employable as they used to be.

    Anyway, your comments are characteristic of what I usually hear (the part about them realizing they weren't cut out for that kind fo work). When my advisor found out that his former postdoc was unemployed and living in his parents' basement, his response was, "it MUST be a personal choice." But I have to ask: why would anyone with a PhD willingly drive a cab for a living? This guy seems pretty pissed off that he doesn't get job offers in his field. And my postdoc friend was also actively searching for jobs. I don't think its these peoples' faults that they can't find jobs. Rather, I have to wonder if the employability of scientific PhDs is exaggerated to some extent.
  5. Aug 27, 2009 #4
    Personally, I think that if you've gotten the education and brilliance characteristic of a PhD you should not be reliant on other people giving you jobs -- you should be able to use your intelligence and knowledge to MAKE a job for yourself, even if people aren't hiring.
  6. Aug 27, 2009 #5
    This kind of thing is one of my deep seated fears of postgrad life. I haven't even got my B.S. yet but I am still worried that I wont be able to find a good job after my PhD.
  7. Aug 27, 2009 #6
    Thats how I always thought getting a job with a Ph.D worked anyways... you would have to bring something huge to the plate. Just because you have a higher education doesn't mean the job competition goes away. I would think it gets much MORE competitive at that level since most would be bringing high quality research to the table and be requesting quite large salaries... I wouldn't want to hire someone who has been living in their parents basement for say 80k a year just because they have an education.

    I too however have thought about going to school (I will be attempting to get into med school... hopefully something in neurology.) and upon completion not finding a job. I actually had a job at McDonalds and one of my co-workers had a degree of somesort in biology... and she wanted to go to med school as well... thats what got me thinking about it
  8. Aug 27, 2009 #7


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    I sure wouldn't make big life decisions based on one (or even several) anecdotal stories. If you used that low of a bar to decide your path in life, you may end up living under a bridge.

    Be fearless and bold!

    Fearless and bold taxi drivers probably make better tips...:tongue2:
  9. Aug 27, 2009 #8
    Even if there were a shortage of jobs that hired Ph.Ds i would think by the time someone reaches that level of education, there would be plenty of jobs someone could get that they may be overqualified for, besides being a taxi cab driver. If you have good math skills you could go into finance or something like that, or you could become a teacher.
    The idea that a person with a Ph.D can't get any job besides a menial job is kind of hard to believe. I'm sure there may be a surplus of PhDs now, but it cant be that much.

    If it is true then i guess i'll have to learn how to navigate NYC's roads. :bugeye:
  10. Aug 27, 2009 #9
    1) he is happy
    2) he makes enough to eat and live

    what's the problem?
  11. Aug 28, 2009 #10


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    Depending on the field of study, you make more as a taxi driver then someone who just received their PHD. After earning a PHD, the starting salary is somewhere around 45k a year but a taxi driver can earn you 80k a year before expenses if you live in a big city. After expenses, I think it's closer to 50k. This is what I read on some other forums so take it with a grain of salt.
  12. Aug 28, 2009 #11
    My advice as a PhD student: stay the heck away from grad school and go into medicine. I'm starting to see enough unemployed/underemployed PhD stories (mostly the latter) to conclude that getting a BS in physics was probably the biggest professional mistake I've ever made. Don't get me wrong, physics is definitely a fun subject, but too many physics PhDs end up programming computers for a living, if even that. On the other hand, there's no such thing as an unemployed medical doctor (at least not here in America). From everything I've seen, medicine is the one career that is completely layoff proof; just come to work every day and you cannot lose your job, even in a recession. And if you go into the right field, you don't even need to worry about malpractice suits. Actually, these past few months I've thought very seriously about taking the medical prerequisites while in grad school and ditching physics to go into medicine after I graduate. Unlike academia, it would appear that the AMA actually takes steps to protect doctors from bad economies.

    The problem I have with this situation is that society has paid tens of thousands of dollars to educate this guy, not to mention the ten+ years of his life he spent obtaining BS and PhD degrees as well as his postdoc. He's a highly trained and seemingly competent scientist, and his talent is being wasted driving a taxi. I know I'm speaking out of frustration here, but there ought to be laws against this.
  13. Aug 28, 2009 #12


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    I think one common reason why someone with a PhD is not able to get a job is that he/she isn't able to move to a new area for some reason (usually a marriage and maybe kids).
    Most jobs that require a PhD are highly specialized and the probability that a position is available in the area where you happen to live is fairly small. I don't think this is unique to physics or academic research in general; it is presumably equally true in e.g. some specialized disciplines in medicine.
    Hence, you have to be willing to move -maybe even to another country- in order to find a job, this can be especially tricky if your husband/wife is also in academia (which is very common); i.e. the famous "two-body" problem.
  14. Aug 28, 2009 #13


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    Believe it or not, there are people who manage to get a Ph.D. who really didn't deserve it, or who barely eeked by with the minimum requirements to earn it. They tend to be people who don't have the skills to really be adaptable to switch to new areas of research or other careers if the area they got their Ph.D. in isn't well funded.

    I'm also not terribly surprised that people with degrees in molecular biology might be among those struggling. Molecular biology is somewhat like the dot coms. It had a really big hey day when everyone was hiring molecular biologists left and right, and then a big bust as a lot of them didn't make tenure (universities were using them to teach their molecular bio courses, and then sending them to the curb). The field itself also has changed. It used to be a really big field of biology, but now, the techniques are so commonplace, it's not really something that merits being its own field anymore. Rather, people in every field of biology use molecular techniques to conduct their research without the need for someone with that specialization anymore. And, the biggest problem that makes them difficult to market themselves anymore is that while people in every other field of biology learn molecular biology techniques and principles, people who study purely molecular biology tend to not have much breadth of knowledge of the disciplines of biology outside of their own field, often not even enough to put into context the work they are capable of doing. I end up calling them gene jockeys, because that's really all they know how to do. If you ask them WHY they have transfected a particular gene into a particular cell line, as in, what is its physiological relevance, they cannot tell you, they just are curious to know what that gene does without any relevance. That's not good science. So, yeah, not too surprising those people might be finding themselves struggling to find work related to their field of study.
  15. Aug 28, 2009 #14
    I concur. Reading papers in molecular science back when I was in grade 12 science I had no troubles understanding them with minimal research done... Most of the stuff was already in our textbooks.
  16. Aug 28, 2009 #15


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    PhD are just as susceptible to the pressures of the marketplace too. It is important to look at where your research is going and the current and future opportunities. Fortunately, a PhD is supposed to help you become more dynamic. It helps teach you how to do independent research and learning so that you are able to learn new fields of study. My own advisor has become more and more insistent in having us branch out. He is getting us to look to where we could apply our learned skill set in other areas of research. We do computational electromagnetics, but classical EM has been a complete theory for practically 120 years now and the increasingly lower costs of doing high density PC farms means that the high costs of developing very efficient algorithms is more than throwing brute force at simple parallel code. He wants us to start looking 10-20 years down the line and look into more up and coming areas.

    I think that this is a good lesson for all PhD's, you have to be ready to adapt. If you are not willing or able to switch research areas when necessary then you could become a highly specialized professional in a field with low demand. I do not think I would ever recommend against getting a PhD. If PhD's are having a hard time then I am sure you will find that true for all levels of professionals. But PhD is not a golden ticket, it doesn't automatically get you that post-doc and professorship in academia or a good research position in industry. You still have to compete for those jobs like in any career. However, I think PhD's do get some extra feedback if they pay attention to conferences and research papers. You can get an idea of what other people are doing and can gauge your own research and results against others in the field.
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