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Math Looking to get PhD in maths/physics, but end goal is in business

  1. Feb 11, 2013 #1
    I'll give a summary of the issue, then put it into questions.

    I've wanted to 'do physics' for as long as I can remember, but have recently become somewhat (Though not totally) disillusioned. Aside from physics/maths, I really love making effective plans and guiding them to fruition, as vague as it sounds. So I imagine I would enjoy working in a business atmosphere where I can collaborate with people to reach an end goals. So, I have come to think my 'ideal' career will be one where I am in charge of a company that is based around research and the developing/marketing/selling of what we produce based on said research. I would imagine to run any kind of company, I'd need a working understanding of finance; this doesn't appeal to me in the same way the wonders of the universe do, but it doesn't put me off, either.

    Thus, my ideal career path would look something like this: Studying physics (With plenty of mathematics in this duration), work in a finance sector whilst accumulating experience (Something like accounting?), start or become head of a company that partakes in research and the use of that research.

    So, for the questions about this:

    - Am I being naive in thinking I can work in the business world, yet still be within close proximity of the science world? Perhaps I am missing something, or it just doesn't really happen?
    - If this is a possibility, how would I get there? As in, am I correct in thinking that starting in, say, accounting, would give me the required experience, or set me on the right path?

    Provided the above questions are answered as I hope, then the main question, which is rather more open-ended:

    I would very much like to do research into physics/mathematics (I'm a first year undergrad, so I do not know what yet, but my current interests are EM, and gazing starry-eyed at GR). How would getting a PhD in physics/maths affect my career? Would I be disadvantaged due to being over-qualified, advantaged due to being more qualified/having further proven my mathematical abilities, or something else?

    For what it's worth, I think I'm very naive with regards to the 'real world', so if I am missing out something obvious, feel free to let me know.

  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 12, 2013 #2
    First I think you can nix accounting. What do you know about it? I appreciate the accountants I work with and think it is a good career, but there is nothing remotely mathematical about it. There's very rarely even any problem solving at lower levels. The only interesting jobs occur as you move up and look a bit like law (working through regs/law/case law to make decisions) or sales (selling comany services). I could be wrong about your interest, so if you've researched it, let me know.

    Reading your post I think the particular area won't matter as much as the job you're in. What's important for you (I think) is getting some responsibility. I think you need to pick something, nail it to the wall, and either work in a small start up or move up fast at an established company until you are working on projects that are interesting.

  4. Feb 13, 2013 #3
    I know very little about what is involved in accounting, I think. When I was about 15/16, I did an NVQ in accountancy, so I have a superficial familiarity with it (I don't think this'll give me an advantage - I have forgotten most I learnt - but I didn't hate it). Essentially, my interest in finance (I don't have an interest in accounting in particular, but it just seems to be the field that jumps out, seeing how many people at my current university/course do that job) is i) I would be working with numbers. Whether it's mathematical or not, it would still remain orderly, even if not enthralling. ii) It would give me experience in how financing works in a business - where the money goes, and comes in, and how it's dealt with. I think this part would be crucial to starting/working in my own business, and I would have to learn it at some point. So, if there are any finance positions that would be better (The criteria being the two I've listed, though I'm not against people proposing others), please feel free to let me know. As I say, I do think I'm quite naive in this area, so even if you feel like you're pointing out the obvious, you are likely to be helping.

    I am not really sure your second paragraph helps me much. What I think you're trying to say is that what I should be looking for is a role where I can have responsibility, and that I need to get that role however I can. If I'm wrong, could you perhaps elaborate? Or if I'm right, what can you say further, taking into consideration the above?

    Further, that doesn't address the issue of what happens when I get a PhD for this kind of role? Note, I want to do a PhD purely out of interest. My curiosity here is simply so I would know what to expect, rather than to see if it's the route that'll make me most employable.

  5. Feb 13, 2013 #4


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    So I'm not exactly sure what the point of this is. Are you asking if (i) it has been done or (ii) it can be done or (iii) is this a good idea?

    I personally do not know if it has been done or can be done, i.e. someone doing a Physics PhD "for fun" while having an intention all along to go into business. The physicists that I know of who are now in business or owns businesses didn't start out with that goal. They got into it after being physicists, have the financial resources to do it, or simply climbed up a corporate/management ladder. Read, for example, how Bill Foster did it.

    I've always said that Physics is simply too difficult to try and do for the wrong reason. You might be enamored by the romanticized idea of physics, but I can tell you that the first time you encounter an E&M problem out of Jackson text, and you spent nights and nights trying to solve a problem that will probably require a dozen pages to write down its solution, your desire to continue the grind will easily fade away if your motivation is out of whack.

    Last edited: Feb 13, 2013
  6. Feb 13, 2013 #5
    I'm not asking a specific question. What I'm trying to do by posting here is to probe the field, if you will. I want to know, as much as I can, what kind of situation I will find myself after I get a PhD in physics/maths, then try to go into business. I'm pretty sure this is going to sound childish, but if you've played Deus Ex: HR, then I want to be working for a company like Sarif industries. I want to make people's lives better; to run faster, heal quicker, jump higher, that kind of thing. My desire to go into business is that I feel the running of such a company is too important to be left to people who are in it for money. I doubt my goals are in any way more noble than others (I don't really subscribe to that), but I would want to make people's lives better, rather than buy myself a big house.

    As for motivation, it's purely because I enjoy physics. Physics and maths are what keeps me going through the day, whether that's right or wrong. I seem to find myself in the lucky position of being good at something I like doing, so I pursue it.
  7. Feb 13, 2013 #6


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    This is pretty vague.

    To be literal, the "situation" will be "You have a Ph.D in Physics/Math". Period.

    Of course, this is putting the cart waaaaaay before the horse. It is NOT a given that you will end up with a PhD in those areas, no matter how much you think you are good them (self assessment is often not a very good ruler).

    Your ability to "go into business" depends a lot on external means at that specific moment that are beyond your control.

    BTW, take a quick look at the Career Poll 2 that I started. Check how many of us actually ended up in the career that we envisioned by the time we finished school. At some point, reality bites back.

  8. Feb 13, 2013 #7
    Please note that getting a PhD isn't actually my goal. I would only be doing a PhD so that I can do some research in a field that I enjoy, not to get the qualification; I can go into business without it, I know that. What I want to know is how it affects me if I do get it. As per my original post, it's possible that I apply for finance jobs and they look at my CV, see I have a PhD, and turn me down for a reason something along the lines of "Well he clearly wants to get a job at a uni, but can't. He'll leave here as soon as he gets an offer".

    On top of that, it would, of course, to have just some general advice about the path I am looking to follow.

    Further, I have already checked the career poll. I have no doubt that there will be many things that steer me - or completely throw me - off track on my way to a particular end point, but that is no reason for me to forsake analysis of the path I plan on taking to get there. For example, if I can find out from this discussion that it's not viable, then I can make other plans. At the very least, having plans will give me direction, even if I end up at the wrong place.
  9. Feb 13, 2013 #8
    Accounting should, in theory, help you understand where the money flows and how. However, working as one (or getting a degree in the subject) would be a terrible price to pay to (maybe) learn this. My suggestion would be to buy a cheap used book (from abe books or something of the sort) on accounting to learn the terminology and then just ask probing questions when you’re faced with complicated cash flows. Whatever business you start will likely have fairly straightforward cash flows, unless you’re starting an insurance company. By the time they get complicated, you’ll have hired accountants to work for you.

    There are, in my opinion, interesting jobs in finance. Quantitative analysis, such as it still exists, is a field that would likely interest you much more. I enjoy my work as an actuary. Many statistics(ish) jobs straddle the line between business and research – cat modeling, data mining, etc.

    Fair enough. Let me leave you with the following thought: I’ve come to believe that the variance in how interesting and rewarding jobs are is much greater within fields than it is between them. Make sure you're looking for the right kind of work, not just the right field.
  10. Feb 13, 2013 #9


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    I don't think that would be a problem. The other direction is true: some consulting firms really look for PhDs (topic does not matter).
  11. Feb 13, 2013 #10
    What about looking for areas that involve both math (including stats) and business?

    A prime example is operations research (aka management science). You can also do quantitative finance. There is also actuarial science.

    You can look at other areas of finance such as corporate finance or risk managament. Marketing research is another good area.
  12. Feb 13, 2013 #11
    I wonder how statements of purpose work for cases like these in grad physics program applications?

    I guess it could be a first exercise in bending the truth. A great business skill.
  13. Feb 14, 2013 #12
    The same way as any other, and they shouldn't have to bend the truth.
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