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Physics Outlook after PhD in computational soft-matter physics

  1. Jun 14, 2016 #1
    Hey everybody,

    I am at the end of my Master's degree (Europe) and I am considering doing a PhD. My master thesis topic was mostly about a simulation in quantum optics. I find the field of quantum optics interesting and quantum physics in general fascinating, but it's definitely not where I want to pursue a PhD, if I were to do so.

    I was leaning towards medical physics recently. I found a group, which does quantitative analysis of MRT/CT/PET imaging. Using computational methods like MC simulation. I don't have a background in medical physics, but an acquaintance with a background similar to mine got a position there. I think it's not unlikely for me to get a position there, but they don't know until August if they will have any open PhD positions. My motivation with this topic is to do something more applied and to have more options outside of academia after finishing.

    Now, I have been offered the opportunity to pursue a PhD in soft-matter theory (mostly computational stuff: MC simulation, evolutionary algorithms, but of course also a lot of statistical physics). I did a project in this group a while ago and the working atmosphere is definitely good and I got along well with the professor. Because a few PhDs finished recently, the group is small right now. I was considering this group for a PhD, but it seemed too theoretical and I wanted to do something more applied. There is a collaboration with an experimental biophysics group and there might be an experimental component, but it will be mostly coding as far as I understand it. All in all it is not that different from the medical physics position. I should decide until mid-July. I am definitely interested, but I am worried that I won't have many options outside of academia afterwards.

    My first question: What are my options outside of academia after doing a PhD in this area (computational soft-matter physics), preferably related to the field?

    I also developed an interest towards earth observation and geophysics in recent months. Stuff like this: http://www.esa.int/spaceinvideos/Videos/2016/04/Rice_crop_evolution_in_the_Mekong_Delta But I have little to no background in earth observation and geophysics besides computational skills and a general physics background

    My second question: After I finish this PhD in soft-matter, would changing to earth observation or medical physics still be possible? All three heavily rely on computational methods, but of course the background is quite different.

    (The following part is more about letting some steam off, I do appreciate feedback, though.)

    I am also not that sure about doing a PhD at all. One big problem I noticed with my approach to research so far is that I get very frustrated when there does not seem to be any progress. The cause of this definitely are my expectations, which are way too high. At the same time I lack discipline: partly because I am lazy, partly due to the aforementioned frustration, which makes any distraction welcome. At some point I tend to avoid the research field due to the accumulated frustration and my conclusion was usually that this just wasn't my field and another research area would fit me better. So far I did projects in soft-matter, quantum information, HEP, and quantum optics, always scratching the surface of the topic, but not really penetrating it. This problem makes me question if I really have what it takes to do a PhD.

    Due to this problem, I have been drifting for the last year and progress on my Master's thesis has been slow. I am definitely lacking orientation and have trouble to decide on what to do after I finished my Master's. At the same time my active interest in physics has waned. I know that I am still very interested, but I have not been actively reading/studying as much as I used to and sometimes I feel like I lost touch with physics. Quite often when I am studying, the feeling that I don't understand the matter well enough and that I am not making enough progress is creeping up on me. Ironically, I have only gotten positive feedback from my profs/advisors/collaborators. I know that the cause of this whole situation is my rampant perfectionism and I have been trying to get it under control with some success, but change happens slowly in that matter.

    Thanks for reading!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 15, 2016 #2


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    I can partly answer the second question with respect to medical physics - with the caveat that my experience is in Canada. I'm not familiar with the European system.

    In North America, you can get into medical physics after a PhD in an other field, but it's a tough, competitive road. The most common avenue these days is to do a post-PhD certificate program which covers the didactic coursework for accredited graduate programs and takes about 8 months to one year. From there you apply for a residency and do your clinical training. After a couple years you're qualified to write board exams.

    With respect to the questions on frustrations in research, I think this is fairly common. Lots of students start out thinking that their project is going to revolutionize the world, and by the end, they're usually happy just to put an end to it. Research takes a lot of discipline and it doesn't progress nearly at the rate you might want it to - particularly when you're a student and you have to climb a learning curve every time you want to try something new. Tackling this comes down to self-discipline. Just like any other job in the world, you're not going to come in every morning to exciting news. Some days you just have to turn the crank, even if it seems like the wheels are just spinning.

    I think the real key to figuring out whether a PhD is for you is to look at what you do on your own time. If you just do what's asked of you, and then head home at 5:00 pm and put your work out of your mind until you have to come back in, the PhD is probably not for you. The people who are the most successful are the ones who want to read papers on the weekends, who stay in the lab because they want to figure something out, who love going to talks in their field, etc. even when the opportunity to do other things is there.
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