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Master's Degree?

  1. Mar 18, 2008 #1
    Hello all,

    I'm a university senior about to graduate with an Honours degree in Physics with a minor in Math. I know lot's of people write on here asking for advice, so I will give it a shot and hope for an enthusiastic response...

    I've applied to do a Master's degree in Physics and I have an interview next week (2.5 hours long with 4 faculty members!) to determine whether I'm accepted or not.

    I love physics (learning it, solving problems, inquiring about things) and I'm a pretty good student (not spectacular, but ~3.0/4.0 overall, ~3.2/4.0 Physics at a mid-size school), though I don't work as hard as I probably should.

    I'm a bit torn about my options . I'm pretty sure I don't want to go into academia. From what I know, you work your butt off for 5 years to get a PhD, then another 3 years as a post-doc, then another 5 or so years as an non-tenure track professor, before getting job security at 35 (after you move to 3 different universities, or something crazy like that).
    Also, writing grants , administrative duties, the "publish or perish" philosophy, and 60 hour work weeks don't appeal to me. Like I said, I love physics, but it is by no means my life.I've also had some bad experiences with professors who are very arrogant, and I have no desire to join their ranks.

    My other option would be to become a high school teacher. I was initially planning to do a 2 year prep course for physics teachers ( I didn't have great teachers in high school, and sometimes I find myself thinking of ways I could teach the material better) but I extended it to an honours degree because I liked it so much. Anyway, if I choose to do that, I could be working within 2-3 years, and make a nice salary as well (I live in Canada, so I could make ~$80,000/year in a few years). The money isn't all that important, but it would be nice to not have to worry about it.

    My only qualm with high school teaching is that there aren't many opportunities to learn new things. You can learn new methods of teaching, but it would be difficult to keep abreast of new research findings.

    So basically my issue is this...Do I do a masters degree, learn cool things, and then have minimal career options, or teach high school, be happy enough, but not have the chance to learn or do research?

    If there was a way I could mix the two, like teach high school physics, and then do a research project in something that interests me on the side, without worrying about publishing or grants, I would choose that in a second. Unfortunately, that's not the way the world works...

    I'm sorry, this post is a bit long, but any advice you could throw my way would be appreciated. Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 18, 2008 #2
    Wow, sounds like they pay high school teachers pretty well in Canada... is the Master's degree not applicable towards teaching positions in Canada? I.e., you'd still have to do the 2-year teacher program if you wanted to teach high school? In the US, you can teach at community colleges with a Master's degree, is that an option up north? Why is it that you feel your career options would be more limited with a Master's degree? Seems like there should be plenty of jobs for someone with that qualification (there certainly are in the US, if you feel like doing some immigration paperwork).
  4. Mar 18, 2008 #3


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    A PhD doesn't only lead to a research career. A MSc is generally only useful if it is in a specific area that you are looking for a job in. Having said that, an 'extra' degree might eventually help further up the promotion ladder.

    Canadian friends complain about schools being dominated by union seniority rules and most permamnent posts being blocked by senior staff not retiring.
    But most countries are desparately short of science teachers, at least in the UK you get extra grants/tution repayments and are pretty much assured of rapid promotion.

    On the downside, teaching of science is suffering in schools, not quite as bad as Tenessee yet, but....
    See this blog from a UK teacher http://www.wellingtongrey.net/articles/archive/2007-06-07--open-letter-aqa.html
  5. Mar 18, 2008 #4
  6. Mar 18, 2008 #5
    In Canada, you need a Bachelor of Education degree to teach high school in general. With my qualifications (in addition to a B.Ed), in my province I would start out making $52,000 a year, and by the 15th year teaching, be up to $80,000(it goes up a certain percentage/year). Other provinces may be different, but I know that my province is ranked 5th or 6th in average annual teachers salaries.

    As for community colleges, we have a few of those, but there aren't as many as in the U.S, and as far as I can tell, you need a PhD (it's hard to find information)....how does it work in the U.S?

    What sorts of jobs could one get with an M.Sc..actually, let me be more specific...what sorts of SECURE jobs (i.e not sessional lecturer) could one get with an M.Sc?
    Last edited: Mar 18, 2008
  7. Mar 18, 2008 #6
    Oh, I thought you meant an $80,000 starting salary. Although $52,000 isn't bad for a high school teacher starting salary, as far as that goes... but suffice it to say that I'd expect to be making *way* more than $80,000 after 15 years at a Master's-level job.

    It varies from state to state, and even from city to city, but my intuition is that a Master's is generally sufficient (you may also need some teaching credentials). The rub is that it can be a bit difficult to get your foot in the door (the good classes and times are all given to people with seniority), but it's supposed to be very secure once you're established. Plus, you'd be teaching at a somewhat higher level (freshman physics vs. high school physics, basically), which would presumably be more interesting.

    Oh, plenty of things. Physicists do more than just research and teach, you know. There are plenty of tech companies out there that need people with Master's-level knowledge; exactly what companies would depend on exactly what you specialize in in grad school (solid state physics, E&M, quantum, acoustics, whatever), but physicists are generally very employable. In particular, the defense industry hires boatloads of physics Masters every year, if you're into that sort of thing. Look around a bit; there's plenty of options besides teaching and academic research.
  8. Mar 18, 2008 #7
    So would it be possible for a high school teacher to do original research, or collaborate on a research project? Or would on just have to do quantum mechanics in their own time?
  9. Mar 19, 2008 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    Someone with a MS on physics is unlikely to produce useful research by working in isolation, period.

    What I have seen is that obtaining a MS is not cost-effective; the cost associated with 2 years of full-time study (as well as lost time 'on the job') is more than the benefit- the salary differential is too small, and promotion differential is also too small.

    Now there are always exceptions- the lab manager at my graduate institution had a BS in physics, worked in industry/government (Redstone Arsenal) for decades before taking the university gig, earned his MS while running the undergrad physics labs, and developed some truely awesome senior-lab projects: cavity electrodynamics (using microwaves instead of visible light) and sonoluminescence experiments. However, like it or not, he never got the respect from the faculty that we (the students) thought he deserved because of the lack of formal training.

    So, if you like experimental physics there are opportunities for you working in the laboratory setting- maintainance of equipment, for example. And one could argue that a well-chosen MS program will indeed make you more competetive for a job like that. The side benefit is that you have free access to discarded equipment- I've seen CO2 lasers made from pieces/parts that were considered trash.

    As to the few comments you made in your OP regarding the track to 'job security at 35'... frankly, I wish it were as easy as that. The whole concept of tenure is being re-examined in the face of declining budgets.
  10. Mar 19, 2008 #9
    If you want to do physics research, you get a PhD. That's what PhD's are for. If you're not prepared to get a PhD and go into academia, then you're not prepared to do physics research: they're the same thing. That said, I don't know where you get the idea that your only options are academic research or teaching. There are tons of jobs for physicists out there, using their knowledge of physics to develop new products and technologies, or assisting researchers in other areas with the physics aspects of their work, or etc. It's a big world, and there's plenty of stuff to do besides physics research.

    That said, I can't really comment as to whether the benefits of a Master's outweight the costs. But it's often the case that you need a bit of specialization and grad-level background to get your foot into the door.
  11. Mar 19, 2008 #10
    There are physics research jobs outside of academia. And there exists master's degrees that require the creation of a thesis (not quite as research-oriented as a Ph.D., but still research-oriented).
  12. Mar 19, 2008 #11
    This is so absurd its comical.
  13. Mar 19, 2008 #12
    This is silly, too. What would have made it reasonable is to say a new employee without a PhD may have trouble producing good research. The idea that someone with a Masters and 15 years of experience can't do research is crazy.

    This obsession people have with a PhD is weird. A PhD is several years of very hard work in a unique environment. The suggestion (which I see here regularly) that there is no way anyone else could put in a number of years in a different setting that resulted in a similar outcome suggests a distinct lack of imagination.

    I'm surprised at this, it isn't what I found. What I found was that a Masters was a reasonably cost-effective improvement (in adjusted lifetime earnings) over a BS (though maybe only a small one), but that a PhD was a real loser. I'll certainly admit it depends on a number of factors that are difficult to predict.
  14. Mar 19, 2008 #13
    Not only that, but a master's degree program can be a part-time endeavor. I know several people who are working on/have gotten their M.S. part-time while working full-time. An advanced degree, no lost wages, and in most cases, the company paid for the tuition and books. No better cost-effectiveness than that!
  15. Mar 19, 2008 #14
    The benefits of a PhD are harder to account for; in purely monetary terms, it probably is a loser as you say. But a PhD can be required to do certain types of work, and can give you greater control over exactly what kind of work you do (even if you don't get paid much more to do it). How much value you place on these factors varies greatly from individual to individual, though. That said, if you're making career decisions in purely monetary terms, you probably wouldn't be in physics in the first place.
  16. Mar 19, 2008 #15
    You could say the same thing about a Bachelor's degree, or formal schooling in its entirety, and although you'd be right that it's *possible* for someone to end up as a physics researcher without any formal education at all, it would still be very poor career advice. Not everyone can be Ramanujan, and that's why we have universities. There's nothing magical about a PhD, but there IS a reason why it's considered essential to a research career.
  17. Mar 20, 2008 #16

    Andy Resnick

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    Obtaining a PhD simply means that a person has initiated and completed a well-defined project. The process of obtaining a PhD involves *training*. Someone with a MS simply did not recieve that training. Someone working in industry over 15 years receives training (one would hope), but a new hire does not have that training.

    The OP had hoped that a MS would be sufficient to do research in "Quantum Mechanics". This statement alone is evidence that the OP is unlikely to produce worthwhile research.
  18. Mar 20, 2008 #17
    This is true, but only in a governmental and university setting. In the rest of the world experience can substitute. I'm happy to admit a PhD has value. What I'm arguing with everyone about is the implied amount of value it is being given.

    One thing I found in my recent job search: there are a few people hiring PhD's in physics out there. However, they are looking for people with exactly the research experience they are hiring for. Meanwhile, if they are not looking for a PhD, they are often wary of hiring them because they'll be paying a lower wage, creating an increased possibility the employee will leave when something good pops up. It is very common for people to find their PhD something of a hindrance once they have it.

    If you have a PhD in organic electronics, I know (or knew of a week ago) a place that's hiring. One place, and only for those with that area of expertise. A PhD largely entitles you to work in the area you studied as a grad student and a few very closely related ones. Changing can be difficult because your qualification only applies to your thesis topic and they may be unwilling to pay you a PhD salary when they could get a masters who is seen as equally competent.

    That hardly sounds like a lot of control to me - you can only apply for a very, very specific set of sub-specialties. On the other hand, you have a lot of power to choose your PhD thesis topic area, so as long as you are comfortable choosing what job you'll be applying for 4-7 years in advance, I suppose that represents a lot of control.
  19. Mar 20, 2008 #18
    But who said anything about "purely?" There is no reason one couldn't choose physics because they love it, and then allow monetary terms to be one factor in their decision making within it.
  20. Mar 20, 2008 #19
    All true, but you've forgotten the most important aspect: a new hire with an MS or BS is unlikely to be hired into a job that will train them to do research. Not all "training" is equivalent; people in PhD programs are trained to do research, whereas people in MS/BS jobs are generally trained to do other things. If someone wants to hire a researcher, they hire someone who has proven research experience. While this isn't necessarily a PhD, there IS a vicious cycle that prevents people without PhD's from getting research experience. After all, you're not going to want to pay someone to spend three years learning to do research and producing basically nothing when there's an applicant with a PhD that's already made that investment in himself and so is ready to rock. There are ways around this obstacle besides simply getting a PhD, but they're the exception to the rule, and certainly do not represent a reliable career path I'd feel comfortable recommending to someone.

    Anyway, this is becoming somewhat tangential. All I really wanted to convey with my earlier comments about PhD's and research was that the OP stated he was turned off by the idea of getting a PhD, getting grants, publishing and working long hours, and that this is pretty much the definition of a research career. Which is to suggest that perhaps a research career wouldn't suit him. That you could theoretically pursue a research career without getting the PhD doesn't really change this; if anything, it's MORE work to do it that way, and so would presumably be even less appealing to the OP.
  21. Mar 20, 2008 #20
    True but, again, there is typically no reliable path to obtaining the relevant experience besides getting the PhD. I'm sure that my current employers would happily hire someone with no formal education at all, provided they had great skills demonstrated by extensive experience. However, since no employer will hire someone with no education or experience, it's very difficult for a person with no education to acquire the necessary experience. It's not that it *can't* be done, but that it can't be counted on as a career path. I've known brilliant engineers who never went to college, and excellent researchers with only Master's degrees, but in every case the career path that got them working "above their educational level" was a fluke (urgent job openings created by wars, momentum from classified knowledge, that kind of thing). And for every one of them, I've met a hundred people whose educational background exactly matches their job. In light of this, I'd say that it's poor advice to tell someone they can have a PhD career without a PhD. If it were the kind of thing that could be done reliably, far fewer people would pursue PhD's.

    It's true that specialization narrows the field of potential employers. But this is equally true of specialization obtained through work experience. As you advance, you trade mobility for higher pay/better work/etc., PhD or no. The only difference is that the opportunity costs associated with getting the PhD are much larger (since you aren't being paid squat while working on it), and so the incentive to find high-paying, relevant work is much higher.

    That's still more options than not having the PhD, in which case you can't apply for any sub-specialties at all, and instead have to content yourself with jobs for people with general skills. Of course, getting such a job doesn't amount to a waste if you don't have the PhD, but the fact remains that there's still fewer jobs you're qualified for compared to someone with a PhD.

    Indeed, and it bears mentioning that someone who chooses a thesis topic in an area that they wouldn't want to work in for the long haul is asking for trouble.

    However, none of these are the types of control I was referring to. What I was talking about was the character of the work that you'll be doing on the day-to-day level, not how many different employment options you have. With a PhD, you generally get much more leeway to define the direction and scope of the work you're engaged in, while BS/MS jobs are typically defined for you by management. This difference gets less pronounced as you advance, but I'm not convinced that it ever entirely goes away (unless you start your own company or something like that). To put it concisely, a BS/MS jobs consists of "solve this problem for us," while a PhD jobs amounts to "tell us what problem you're going to solve."
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