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Programs Masters vs PhD in Physics

  1. Sep 4, 2006 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I am planning on going into industry and I was wondering what would be the difference between getting a job with only a masters in physics vs getting a job with a PhD in physics. With a masters can I only be a lab monkey? Or can I eventually start running my own research projects?

    I was looking through some job postings and it seems that a lot of them are based on how much expereince you have. Will the extra 4 years as a graduate student(after masters) be more beneficial than 4 years experience in industry?

    I appreciate any advice, experience, or information you can provide towards my questions, or about physicists in industry in general.
    Thanks. :smile:

    I'd also like to thank zapperz for his great article, "So you want to be a physicist". It's a must read. It's hard to get the whole thing, but this link is to the beginning of its reposting.

  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 5, 2006 #2
    I've recently completed my PhD program, and am also working on "breaking into" industry. I can't speak for this procedure in general, but my own experiences have been quite variable. The first question you're going to get in every interview is going to be, "Are you sure you want to work in industry?," and the second will be, "You know that industry is a lot different from academia, right?". These will be repeated randomly and often throughout the interview process, but the companies just want to be sure that you've thought about the change-over.

    Some companies are very open to bringing in people with doctoral education (good time management skills, good project-based skills, good understanding of current technologies, more mature than your average college hires, etc...). On the other hand, some companies compensate employees based on their level of education, and don't want to pay the extra X% for a PhD when a MS can do the work. Oddly, I've also hit a few hiring managers who were INTIMIDATED by the PhD, since they saw it as a potential threat to their position!

    Basically, with a PhD, you can (eventually) command a higher salary. But getting into industry straight out may be difficult for you. If you still have the option, do a co-op or internship. For the graduate school side, working with a PI having industry sponsorship is also a good way to get your foot in the door when you're finished with school. Walking into an interview with a PhD AND some industry experience will sell you better than a PhD alone.

    Good luck!
  4. Sep 5, 2006 #3


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    I've heard that masters are as useful as a B.S. and that you want to go all the way to PhD, but this is uncited heresy
  5. Sep 5, 2006 #4
    Thanks for the response.
    rjemerson, you said that they always ask you "You know that industry is a lot different from academia, right?". Is this just implying that academia is more focused on fundamental science, whereas industry is more focused on application and an end product?
  6. Sep 5, 2006 #5


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    I think one of the main differences is that in academia, you're constantly being challenged with oodles of rotating subjects, and exploring as many possible and you're expected to make mistakes and talk with your teachers and discuss how you could be better.

    In the industry (in physics) your end product is usually an article that you publish through a journal. Publishing a journal (from what I hear) is hell. First of all, you have to come up with an idea. What can you present to the world that hasn't been presented. Once you chose something to publish about, you have to research it, experiment or collect data, put it together, analyze it, then if you find out you're wrong, or that there's no conclusive evidence, you have to start all over.

    THEN, once you finally have compiled some data that actually says something new, you have to present it in a way that other (mostly scientist) readers can understand it. If you're writing skills suck, this part will be hard. Finally, after you've got it completed and edited and checked by as many colleagues as you can, you have to submit it for peer review. This is where other scientist (around the world?) look at your paper and critique it, and here, you may find that you might be wrong or that you're not really saying anything new, and then you have to start all over.

    It's a far cry from turning in homework assignments or tests and getting a score back, then moving on.

    The only thing that's barely comparable to that in academia is your thesis paper, and even thesis paper's can be sluffed. (I guess journal articles can be sluffed too, but that's a different story)
  7. Sep 6, 2006 #6
    MS Physics in Industry = Engineer

    Typically, a masters in physics in Industry will work as an engineer. We hire a lot of them for EE type work, for algorthm work and for programming. If you want to work as a physicist, get your Phd.

    However, Industry engineers are NOT lab rats. They do original work. It is just original engineering work. This is unlike the medical or government fields where you HAVE to have your Phd or you are no one.
  8. Sep 7, 2006 #7
    In this case, academia refers to someone with a Ph.D. becoming a professor. "Academia" isn't referring to being an undergraduate student, but being a researcher and teacher.
  9. Sep 11, 2006 #8
    I have always been interested in applying the newest scientific advancements to current problems, more applied physics that fundamental science. Is that what you mean I could do working in industry with only a masters?

    And yes, Academia meant having a PhD and working as a professor doing research.
  10. Sep 17, 2006 #9
    I can imagine that PhDs might discourage employers who don't have one; particularly the older ones. How common they are though; I don't know. As far as I understand, PhDs tend to imply that you were interested in academia when you took it rather than aiming for industry all along. Proper MScs tend to be in 'lab-like' subjects so it appears that you were aiming for professional lab work all along.

    Not that either degree type would make you underqualified, of course.
  11. Sep 23, 2006 #10
    Also interested in a further explanation. I want to learn the fundamental science, but work in applied physics. I want to make an end product and see my work having an impact. I do not want to be a labrat or a paper pusher. I want to actually do something useful, though not necessarily a "head of" type guy. Someone else can be my boss, I just want to do something meaningful.
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