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Need Advice on Physics Graduate School

  1. Dec 13, 2011 #1
    With graduate school applications due soon, I'm looking for some advice on where to apply and what to do after I graduate. I have a strong academic background with a high GPA from a good school. I am a bit light on research and work experience, but my professors seem to think that this won't matter too much. My complete profile can be found here: http://www.physicsgre.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=4274&p=38859#p38859

    I think that I will try to set myself up for the best career I can after I graduate. My most important criteria are salary, free time and helping society in some way. I am pretty flexible and pragmatic about these criteria though.

    The two main options seem to be PhD programs and jobs. My default would be to apply to the top 10 or so applied physics PhD programs, since that is my undergraduate field of study. I have one job offer from John's Hopkin's Applied Physics lab that pays 66/year and will pay for a masters degree from Johns Hopkins. I'm really know how good this offer is because I don't have other offers to compare to it.

    I'm looking for input on which options are best and how to evaluate them. I'm looking for some sort of plan that will end with a good career. Are there any particularly promising careers for bright young physicists? Are there any particularly good career fields to move into after a PhD? Are there any particularly good fields to specialize in like medical physics?

    tl;dr: What are particularly promising career paths for a bright physicist?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 14, 2011 #2
    I'm sure you understand that you have a strong profile as far as numbers go. You would have a chance at any graduate school you chose (of course just because you have the grades to get in somewhere doesn't mean you will).

    If you are unsure whether or not you would like to continue your education, then I would recommend that you do not. $66K right out of college isn't bad at all, but, as a rule, don't take your first offer... make sure you shop around. Like I said, you have a good profile, so just put an application with any company you'd like and so what if you don't get the job.

    A PhD won't help you too much as far as making money in the long run. You will spend about 6 years of your life making ~22K, and if you decide to forego industry and get a post doc, you'll be making less than 66 even then. PhD is what you do if you just can't get enough school/physics and don't care about the huge financial hit you are going to take.

    That said, if you do get a PhD and do decide to go into industry, you will make good money. However, the fact of the matter is that if you are leaving academia, you'd make more money if you took a job out of college and started working your way up through the payroll (possibly letting them pay or schooling as well).

    Edit: Also, although SC is great, I don't think it will help you ever on a application. Sadly if it does anything it will probably be someone who loses respect for you because they don't understand gaming.
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2011
  4. Dec 14, 2011 #3
    If those are your criterion, you are likely better off not getting a Ph.D.

    It's not that there aren't good jobs for Ph.D.'s. It's that you will likely make more money, have more free time, and do more to help society if you do something else. Unless you are an obsessed intellectual masochist, there's no point in getting a Ph.D. In some ways, it's like joining the Marines. Yes, it may be good for your career, but that shouldn't be your main reason for joining, because it's not worth it.

    The big three for astrophysicists are investment banking, oil/gas, and defense (i.e. designing hydrogen bombs).

    One good and bad thing about physics is that you are dealing with the mysterious forces of the universe, so there is a good chance that you will end up in a job that could destroy the planet in some way. It's also likely that you will end up in job where there are tremendous moral issues that you have to sort out.
  5. Dec 14, 2011 #4
    Strangely enough, I know someone that got an interview at an investment bank because he was a champion starcraft player. In investment banking, people do look for hobbies that indicate discipline and accomplishment.
  6. Dec 14, 2011 #5
    I come from a program where getting a PhD is pretty much the default. The undergrad program is fairly similar to what a PhD program would be like, with exposure to a lot of challenging and time consuming coursework and exposure to a lot of academic culture.

    In the end, it seems like a PhD is a good investment if its possible to set up a salary of ~120/year out of school and a bad invest if it sets up a salary of ~80/year. It seems like it might be possible to land a good career after a PhD by signing up for specialty programs (like medical physics) or preparing for a certain type of job. At this point I'm kind of wondering, so what's the best option available after a PhD?

    The mysterious force of the universe idea is what attracted me to physics in the first place. I'm also starting to realize that ethical concerns arise in most careers related to physics. Big picture and long term I'd like to contribute to society in some way.

    Yeah, I'm not sure whether or not to include this on my resume. On the one hand, I'm the President of a club, which is my most substantial extracurricular involvement and on the other hand no one knows what Starcraft is and there might be some anti-gaming sentiment. Worth including?
  7. Dec 14, 2011 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    Grad school admissions committees care very little for extracurricular activities like "Starcraft club President". They figure it won't matter what you use to enjoy back when you had time for a hobby. :grumpy:
  8. Dec 14, 2011 #7
    That doesn't make any sense to me, and in any event the job markets are too unpredictable to determine starting salary.

    That turns out to be a bad strategy. The problem is that if you job markets are prone to flooding. For example, if there are 100 jobs and 90 applicants in the entire world, then things are good. But if there are 90 jobs and 150 applicants things are bad. You have to realize that the number of Ph.D.'s that graduate are low (1000/year) and the jobs markets are small. (I doubt that there are many more than 50 or so jobs in the world with HEP.) So if you specialize in something that everyone else is specializing in, then you can end up easily in a glut.

    The other thing is that applications to physics are not obvious. It's not obvious that astrophysics is close to oil and gas exploration. In fact, I didn't know this until I started job hunting.

    Graduate school, no one cares. Resume for an industrial company. Definitely. Also people that I know in computational astrophysics are massively pro-gaming. It turns out that all of the technology that is used for modern high performance computing is because of gamers. There are not enough scientists and astrophysicists for a company to afford to spend tens of billions (and yes they must spend tens of billions of dollars) to design and produce the next generation GPU engine.

    However, if you have a hundred million gamers each willing to spend $1000 on a new graphics card, that's the money you need. If people stopped playing video games and did something more "useful" then funding for computational engines would suddenly freeze up.

    One thing that would be *really* impressive is if you started not just playing games, but doing things like level design and coding. There are non-trivial algorithms involved in these sorts of things which are heavily used in computational physics.
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