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Physics Life after Theoretical Particle Physics Ph.D.

  1. Feb 15, 2010 #1

    I am half way of a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics in an European university. I have started to worry about my future after learning how really difficult it is to get a position, how much do postdocs earn and how difficult it is for some to find a good job outside academy. The truth is that this worries are taking an increasing fraction of my time, so I would really like to ask you for some counseling from your experience.

    So my first question would be: What kind of jobs would I be most likely to find if I quit the academic career? I am not doing much fancy programming, just some simple numerical calculations with Mathematica and Matlab, so I know I can't count on that. What job prospects does that leave to me?

    Another worry I have is about age. Now I am 24, I will get my PhD in 2 or 3 years. I am unsure if after that I will go for a postdoc or directly to the job market. My impression is that the chances of getting good jobs decrease with age. Am I right?

    I even considered the more dramatic option of dropping my PhD and changing to an applied PhD topic, but I am unsure if it is really worth to start again. I was top of the class during school, B.S. and M.Sc., but I find it difficult to succeed in theoretical physics and I often have this idea (maybe wrong) that I would be much more likely to succeed in another area. I like my research. In fact, I decided I would like to do particle physics when I was in high school, so I was just "following the track". But now I have the feeling I would be equally happy doing another thing, and that I would maybe be more successful and have better job prospects.

    I would really appreciate your opinions. Thank you!
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 17, 2010 #2


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    The good reason to continue with your research would be that you find it so fascinating that there's nothing else you'd rather be doing with your life right now, and for that reason you won't regret the time spent no matter what. If those statements don't apply to you, then quit now. Realistically you should probably assume that you will not be able to have a career doing research; the number of PhD's granted every year is an order of magnitude greater than the number of people who can be absorbed into uni/national lab research jobs. There is also the question of whether you'd be happy with a PhD, teaching, but not doing research; that's my situation, and I'm actually surprisingly happy with how my life has turned out.
  4. Feb 17, 2010 #3
    Thanks for your reply, bcrowell.

    That's ceirtainly not my case. I find my research interesting but I think there are many more interesting things to be done, and a lot more achievable in the sense that I could find a good, interesting job. That means that, unless I change my mind for any reason, I will quit after getting my PhD. However I have already invested time in my PhD, and I think the better option is to continue and finish it (anyway I kind of like my research). However, I am not sure if getting the PhD will help me or not.

    So my question is: what kind of jobs will I be able to do after my theoretical physics PhD? I know about finance banking (and now education), but maybe other options might apply.
    Let me explain a little more my doubts: in Europe, I have heard that the job market is quite different than in the US. Recruiters are usually less flexible, and many companies won't hire PhDs because they are "overeducated". I am hearing that the situation in the US is differerent, but I would really appreciate to know about personal experiences.

    What I see around me is people thinking "I am going to do this the rest of my life" and when they realize they can't (or that it sucks), they think "whatever, I will do anything". I feel sorry for them, because they are intelligent and could have succeeded in any industry, and I don't really want to end like that.
  5. Feb 17, 2010 #4
    From a "how does this look on my resume" point of view, it looks much better if you finish up your Ph.D. on whatever topic you started it on. Whatever positives there are in switching topics are going to be far, far overwhelmed by the negative of switching mid-stream.

    It's very frequent in industry that you start on a multi-year project, and midway through, everything goes bad. The fact that you've started and completed a multi-year project (i.e. a dissertation) and were able to see it through to the end, is in some ways more important than the exact nature of that project.
  6. Feb 17, 2010 #5
    I disagree with that. Whatever you do, where ever you go, you will have bad days, or even bad months, when everything is going wrong, and you'd really, really rather be doing something else.

    I very strongly disagree with that. Realistically, you will probably not be able to have a career doing research as a professor at a research university, but there are lots of careers in which you can do research. The good/bad news is that you will run into more or less the same sorts of issues that you are running into now, but this is why being able to get through the difficulties to the point where you can ship product is considered a useful ability.
  7. Jul 30, 2010 #6
    you could finish your PhD and if by then you feel you are not happy or can't find a job, you can switch to another easier field. I am thinking about doing this. I didn't start doing research in theoretical particle physics and I really want to study it but there is only two professors working on that with their the student quit the field after graduation. I find interest in biophysics which I found much easier to learn and publish and definitely more jobs. I am planning to transfer to another university, study theoretical particle physics and get a PhD; if things went well, that it is fine. if not, I will take graduate courses in biology and try to find work as a postdoc in biophysics. It seems unreasonable, but for me I don't won't to quit particle physics unless I am sure that I can't excel in it and I don't want to take the easy way and take biophysics now (especially with a new very active professor) and then in a decade or so ask what if. I think you should finish your PhD with good spirits and take this time to see what doors will open for you; at least you got the chance to study what you wanted and if you switched fields you will not have regrets since you explored in depth what you thought was your passion.
    Good Luck
  8. Jul 30, 2010 #7
    Thank you for your comments!. The way I see things now is that if I had not started the PhD I would be quite regretful as you say, so I do not repent that decision. Also, I discovered that my field is not really my passion, and that I really have broader interests. The problem I see in staying in academia is that it is very difficult to do a good career if you don't spend almost all your life studying one very specific topic, and I now realized I don't want to do that, at least in the field I am working on.

    As for your decision, I think biophysics is a field where there is going to be much more progress and results than in high energy physics. In HEP we have been some decades without new interesting results that gave a hint of new physics, so theoretical physics has been reduced now to mere speculation. The problem is not only a lack of experiments, but the fact that all experiments are confirming the old standard model and reducing the space for new physics. LHC might change that, but that might take several years and there is the large probablity of it not finding anything really new (i.e. a standard model higgs) or conclusive. Many people don't mind at all to play with totally speculative physical models, you have to think if that is your case.
  9. Aug 5, 2010 #8
    Sorry for the late reply, I have been out of town. I agree that it became too much speculative which I don't like either. I met a lot of people that work on an array of topics like string theory, black holes and cosmology. I haven't seen a professor that works on just one specific topic. Also, it seems that a lot are trying to apply string theory to cosmology because they can't test their ideas experimentally, so I don't think that in particle physics you have to focus on just one subject. I think I will work on phenomenology since it is not speculative like string theory or extra dimensions. I hope you find your passion. By the way, I don't know about you if you like biophysics or not but I just wanted to draw your attention is that I think learning biology is much easier and I don't think the shift is difficult; I attended some group meeting for a new biophysics professor and read few papers and they were much easier to understand and learn even though I didn't take even one course in biology during college. Good luck with decision whatever it is.
    Best Regards
  10. Aug 14, 2010 #9
    came to china, and we wil be welcome to you.
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