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Perplexed about my future education and career options

  1. Jun 17, 2012 #1
    So right now I'm working a job that I dislike. Of course it's only temporary, the goal being to allow my wife to finish school and save up enough money in order to allow me to enter graduate school with a minimum amount of debt. Up until this point I was bound and determined to get a Ph.D in physics, I figured I have plenty of work ethic (I work around 80 hours a week as it is) and perspicacity to get me through. So despite some of the things that I've heard, I figured I would just figure out the whole "job thing" after I was done. However after reading articles like this one: link I've begun to rethink the whole endeavor entirely.

    My question is, with my current education (a bachelor's degree in physics) can I perhaps pursue graduate coursework in fields like statistics, computer science or engineering? I wouldn't mind doing some more undergraduate coursework if it meant future happiness and success . Like most everyone in physics forums, I love doing math and physics (I do it pretty much everyday), and I guess at this point just want to find a career in which I can solve difficult problems and/or possibly do a bit of research, etc... I would love to hear from people who have either gone down the Ph.D path and have some pearls of wisdom to share or people who have decided to change fields entirely and how they feel about it now.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 17, 2012 #2
    I too read this article, and managed to scare myself out of majoring in physics. I've only just begun my engineering degree, but this particular article (as well as some others) definitely put things into perspective for me, and I soon realized that I would much rather have the security of an engineering degree over pursuing my immediate interest in physics. Sorry, I can't really give a perspective yet but I too am interested to hear from others.
  4. Jun 17, 2012 #3


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    Hey grindfreak.

    For statistics, in my country you have to often have a bachelors with a solid major in statistics to pursue masters programs as many of the courses build on the upper undergraduate subjects.

    However there are some Masters programs out there that don't and they all have different prerequisites. Some have a prerequisite of having all the calculus and linear algebra requirements and a full year of probability and statistics under your belt. Some require all the calculus and linear algebra but not the probability statistics intro year, but these are usually graduate diplomas and they need to be done to get into a proper Masters program.

    I don't think you will be able to get in computer science or engineering graduate programs of any kind without a recognized bachelors or in special cases, the right work experience. There's just way too much specialized stuff you need to know.

    How much statistics and probability have you taken? (Include any formal courses, or courses that make use of these things [in which case state what specific things were covered]).
  5. Jun 17, 2012 #4
    As far as math is concerned I started out in calc III (I passed the AP test for both calc I and II) and took differential equations, linear algebra and modern algebra as well. As far as statistical coursework is concerned, I don't have any formal coursework per se (not the most promising answer I know), but I studied statistics and probability in mathematical physics and in thermodynamics/statistical mechanics as well as in my personal studies.
  6. Jun 17, 2012 #5


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    Specifically though what exact things did you do?

    I don't think you will make into a masters program that requires formal statistical coursework, but it would be better to know the specifics of what you did in your physics courses since they might take that into consideration in letting you into a masters or equivalent.

    Also personal studies are often hard to quantify in terms of equivalence for course credit, but if its related to work experience, then it can become easier to quantify and also for some establishment of credibility. The underlying thing really has to do with credibility with respect to having some basic minimum standard.

    Given though that its physics, I think you are in a better position than you think since the actual nature of your background regardless of classes is something that can taken into consideration for these kinds of programs. Having an undergraduate degree in physics, engineering, and computer science is a lot better than having one in say journalism when it comes to the uni deciding whether you will be able to get through the masters and fulfill the requirements.
  7. Jun 18, 2012 #6
    As in occupation? Right now I work in the oilfield doing field geological work(and in the near future possibly some more advanced things like mass spectrometry) for oil companies. Not really related to anything I've mentioned above I know, but I guess I should get more specific about my concerns:

    I REALLY want a Ph.D in physics. It's all I've really been thinking about since I've graduated and have practically been studying everyday in order to give myself the best chance for success upon entering grad school. However, most of the stuff I've read lately by people who have either done the Ph.D and are now in an endless cycle of low paying post-docs or have even found their way into an assistant professor position have said that any prospects of any future employment for physics Ph.D's are bleak at best.

    Now I don't really care much about money, that's why I chose to study a physical science after all. But after 10 or so years of hard work, I would like to at least be making the salary I had when I was teaching high school math. So I would like to know first hand if it really is that horrible, or if people are perhaps exaggerating a bit. I don't mind holding a position at a smaller college, but even small liberal arts schools apparently receive around 150-180 applications for a single tenure-track opening. As far as industry is concerned, I certainly wouldn't mind doing something there, but I'm afraid there aren't any "official" positions for the likes of us.

    Which brings me to the idea of switching fields. As I stated earlier, I know I'm not the ideal candidate for entering graduate school for engineering, stats or cs. But If I need to, I could even go back and take some undergrad courses, or even get another bachelor's. Engineering is probably my least favorite at this point. I think I would enjoy it, but I feel I think like a physicist so I'm not sure about it. I think statistics wouldn't be that hard to get a bachelor's in, since I think I only lack the formal statistics coursework and not the basic math. I love computers and programming which is what brought me to think about cs. Of course I would probably have to get some more coursework under my belt to even think about grad school.

    In short, I'm looking for direction. Everyone on these forums seems to know the minds of physicists, even those of fledging ones like myself. I'm open to any suggestions, especially from those who have been in my boat before.
  8. Jun 18, 2012 #7
    I've been considering going in the direction of geophysics. I love the idea of being able to work outdoors in the "field" as you say. What do you dislike about your job anyway?
  9. Jun 18, 2012 #8
    Well, now is most definitely the time to get into the oil business if you're thinking about it. Probably the worst aspect of my job is the hours. I work, on average, 12 hour shifts from 6 in the morning and 6 in the evening. There is no time off in general, unless you ask for it. I'm also not a fan of the oil field people or my work environment. I don't really care for geology as a whole, paleontology interests me, but I have nothing to do with that for the most part (other than what little fossils come out in the cuttings while drilling). The one good thing about it is that the money is good and is also the reason why I've been sticking it out until I find whatever career path I want to take.
  10. Jun 18, 2012 #9
    Interesting... What is the work environment like? Are the people you work with the "stereotypical" geologist type?
  11. Jun 18, 2012 #10
    there are definitely jobs for physicists in the industrial world, but they're probably going to be in the areas of physics most physics grads aren't interested in (theoretical particle astrophysics is unsurprisingly not very employable; if it was, and everyone got to be a high rolling Wall Street quant, then it'd make quants lowly paid; they're not).

    optics, materials, and software relating to such is probably the most applicable fields of physics, but if you want a PHD in Physics to do theoretical particle astrophysics then please don't think of the employment.
  12. Jun 18, 2012 #11
    jbrussell93 - It really depends on how high you go I suppose. If you're going to be going to grad school for petrophysics or geophysics you stand a chance of going straight into a desk job. However you'll probably be doing what I'm doing right now, since it's pretty much the standard introduction to the oilfield. The environment is field work like I said, you'll be working on an oil rig catching samples of the drill cuttings and figuring out the lithology, then plotting it on what they refer to as a "log." It's tedious and a bit boring, but it will help you in getting acquainted with the rig and it's operation.

    chill_factor - I am more interested in theoretical course work, but I was leaning towards statistical mechanics and perhaps non-linear dynamics. Regardless of the field though, I definitely want to get as much real world experience as possible while I'm there.
  13. Jun 18, 2012 #12
    Maybe that isn't something I would be so interested in after all. I guess I imagined it as doing geophysics research but actually making money. I guess I'm more interested in geophysics in academia than in an oil rig. Being able to work outdoors would be a huge plus for me though. I hear that there is a lot of quantitative "desk work" and even traveling in exploration geophysics (I'm not sure if you consider your current field exploration geophysics). Have you ever looked into that sort of thing?
  14. Jun 18, 2012 #13


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    To chiro,

    I don't know in which country you pursued your degrees, but I have known people from Canada (where I am from) and the US with undergraduate degrees in physics successfully pursue graduate degrees in statistics, computer science or engineering. Of course, this would depend on what specific course work was taken during the undergraduate degree, but a physics degree provides similar levels of training to statistics, CS, or in specific fields of engineering (especially electrical).

    To the OP,

    As I have stated above, you are certainly able to pursue graduate studies in statistics and CS with a BS in physics (depending on what skill sets you have acquired at this point). My suggestion would be to follow up with the heads of the departments for CS or statistics for a number of colleges to see what further coursework you may require prior to enrolling to a graduate program.
  15. Jun 18, 2012 #14
    jbrussell93 - Well, if you follow the academic route, then yes you would probably be able to do what you were talking about. Plus a lot of the geologists/geophysicists/petrophysicists collaborate with oil companies on certain projects as well. But no, I'm really not interested in doing it myself, the way I ended up out here is a bit of a different story altogether.

    StatGuy2000 - What do you do right now with your stats degree? I've kind of fallen in love with probability and statistics and am very much interested in what the employment outlook for statisticians is. I would love to stick with physics of course, but from what I've seen and heard, actually find a job where you will perform physics is tough. So if stats grads actually do jobs that involve math and stats on average I would be very interested in pursuing it.
  16. Jun 18, 2012 #15
    (This post will consist of a few lengthy emails that I've sent to and from the author of the article mentioned above, and a few emails I sent to another physicist to get another perspective.)

    Coincidentally, I saw this article a month or so ago, and decided to email him about some concerns I had with it.

    This is the email that I sent him (forgive me of my stupidity):

    I'm not one for formal emails, so I apologize ahead of time if the format of this offends you. Basically, I'm 16 years old, a citizen of the United States (as apparent by the end of my email. Did you know that because the U.S. created the internet, and along with it email, we're the only country that doesn't have to put what country we're from at the end of our email addresses?), and I read the article which I referred to in the subject of this email. As you can imagine, it didn't exactly pop the bubble that is my growing curiosity in science, and more specifically physics, but for now it has definitely stopped any more air from being pumped into it. Now, in this brief (article? paper?) that you wrote, you weren't discouraging brilliant young minds to completely neglect science, but to just not go as far into the education system as they may have previously wanted.

    I'm not going to question you, seeing as how you're a professor of Physics, and I'm a high school student taking AP Physics (had to make myself sound smart somehow), but aren't you essentially asking for the smartest scientific minds to just shrug off becoming a legitimate scientist with a PhD and the ability to conduct experiments and make scientific advancements, to just become computer engineers, doctors, and lawyers, which would leave the less intelligent students to fill up those jobs in the science community as PhD's? I feel like addressing the problem at its core, which is the flaw in the education system or even the scientific community and grant system, would be a far more beneficial use of time and energy as opposed to telling people to just quit becoming scientists.

    I'm looking for reassurance that, if by some amazing odds, I ever had the opportunity to pursue a career in physics, should I even try? Do you think this whole situation will ever be resolved, and if so, by the time that I would be applying somewhere for my doctorate? I just don't want for science to become obsolete.

    I'm losing track of where I was exactly trying to go with this email, I just mainly want some answers. I constantly see videos of scientists wanting for a scientifically literate public, but should the public just stick with being literate, and leave science to the geniuses in an attempt to narrow down the field, and potentially create better results if only the best of the best of humanity was working together?

    If you took the time to read this, thank you. I thank you even more ahead of time (much like I apologized ahead of time for the format of this email) if you take the time to respond.

    - A Science Lover (can't trust the internet these days, so my name stays hidden)


    This is his response:

    Unfortunately, the career problem has already driven most of the truly
    talented out of science. Talent and hard work do not guarantee success
    in science (it is not a meritocracy); luck and falling into a community
    that supports its members count as least as much. Most decisions
    (funding, hiring) are made by average members of the community, who
    are mostly not extraordinarily talented, and who are in little hurry
    to acnowledge merit in their competitors (this begins after graduate
    school; people want talented students, but award funding to their

    People are entitled to consider their own happiness and personal lives.
    Strength in pure science does not guarantee a country success, either;
    consider the UK, for example.

    J. Katz


    I responded again thanking him for the response, and stating how it's a shame that this is even an issue.

    Obviously, this is discouraging to somebody who wanted to pursue a career in Physics, so I found another physicist (astrophysicist and professor at Wyoming) who was willing to respond to my concerns. I won't be showing the whole email, because some of my questions were irrelevant to this topic. Here is an edited version of what I sent to him:

    .... In addition to you hopefully responding to that, I would also like to know your thoughts on the current position that science is in, in regards to the bias in choosing graduate students for PhD's. I recently read an article by Dr. Jonathon Katz, a professor of Physics, about the deteriorating situation in science and how, at this point, those who are smart enough to know better are just stopping at a Masters in Physics or any other branch in science, and are settling for the safer jobs as engineers or computer programmers etc. His main complaint was that this is leaving either ignorant (I'm using that term lightly) foreigners to take the PhD's, along with unaware, less intelligent Americans filling up those spots. His article was very depressing to somebody like me who is aspiring to find a career in this field, so I emailed him about it, but he was still set firm on the notion that the field in general isn't what it used to be, and that those of mediocre intelligence are gaining ground in the field by having the power to grant grants (pun intended?), and that the problem of finding careers is driving out the most intelligent people from science. .....


    This was his response:

    As to Dr. Katz's views...he sounds cynical and burned out to me. And if you were to believe what he said, you should jump into physics with the best chances to excel ever! I don't think it's quite that easy, but it is true that physics grad school is dominated by foreign students. I'm assuming you're an American based on your email handle. That can be an advantage headed to a PhD degree. No department has to worry about your visa issues, language issues, or citizenship (as some grants don't allow funding of non-US citizens).

    The way I see it, you should go for whatever career you really want to have, and only look at alternatives after giving it your best shot. Perhaps not the most practical in some circumstances, but we only get one life and do you want to spend it following your dreams, or following someone else's opinion about what is practical?


    Mike Brotherton, Associate Professor of Astronomy


    Essentially, you guys need to stop letting one person's opinion corrupt your view of Physics. If you like it, pursue it. Had you not read Dr. Katz's article, but instead found something that Dr. Brotherton posted, what would you be doing now?
  17. Jun 18, 2012 #16
    Well honestly I would be in the same place that I'm currently in because the first 2 years basically overlap for physics and engineering... But I get your point. My problem is that I still need to get deeper into the course work to figure out if i truly want to devote my life to this subject. At this point, I'm not going to pretend that I'm any different than the average person who is majoring in physics and goes on to graduate school only to find that there aren't many jobs where you can actually do physics. I would rather go to graduate school in an interesting field of engineering and still basically be guaranteed a nice job if academia doesn't work out. Besides, there is plenty of overlap in many areas of engineering and physics. This is only my way of thinking and my opinion.
  18. Jun 18, 2012 #17
    Thanks for the very intelligent post AnTIFreeze3! I'm definitely still considering grad school for physics (I have to go back to school for something regardless), but I still have time to weigh my options before applying anywhere (hence the reason for this post). I just really wanted to get some opinions in order to get a better feel of what direction I should head. But believe me, when it comes down to it, the choice will definitely be mine and not based on the sole opinion of a disgruntled physicist.

    JbRussell93 - Don't let my personal opinions on the oil field sway you. From what you're saying, even if you didn't go the academic route, you would at most work about a year in the field before landing an office job with an oil company. But if you went the geophysics or petrophysics route and perhaps got a masters and/or Ph.D to boot, you could probably forgo even the field work, since it turns out geologists are generally not that great at math. Also, since you mentioned engineering, petroleum engineers do quite well for themselves out here.
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2012
  19. Jun 18, 2012 #18


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    I'm in Australia.

    We do have graduate degrees that allow non-majors to jump into statistics, but it depends on the situation.

    For example if don't even have a calculus background, then you will need to do a length 'diploma' before you can do a real masters. If you have say a background in engineering, physics, or something related but don't have a proper statistics background you might have to do only a few courses before you can do the Masters related coursework.

    For some proper masters degrees, you will have to have a full undergraduate major in statistics with all the inference, GLM, experimental design and other subjects without exception (and some may even explicitly say a minimum average mark for these subjects).

    I know that with Biostatistics, they encourage applicants from a wide range of fields and the introductory subjects are equivalent to 1st year university mathematics in the form of Calculus I and II, but in another masters they assume you have a full major in statistics in which you jump straight into survival models.

    The financial math courses assume that you have done a lot of undergraduate mathematics and have gone well in it.

    In short, it depends on the degree itself (i.e. the masters).
  20. Jun 19, 2012 #19


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    I work as a statistician for a health research organization, where I am involved in the design and analysis of clinical trials, as well as providing analyses of health-care data from contributing hospitals to inform on best-practices. I had previously worked for > 4 years as a biostatistician for a large pharmaceutical company, again in the design and analysis of clinical trials.

    As for employment outlook, here in Canada (where I live) it is pretty good, especially in the field of business analytics/data mining, finance and to a somewhat lesser extent in biostatistics (I get calls from recruiters informing me of opportunities, and when I occasionally peruse job sites out of interest, I see many wanted ads for statisticians or those of similar skill sets).

    From what I understand, the situation is fairly similar in the US (with more opportunities available for statistical jobs related to the pharmaceutical/biotech industries and contract organizations specializing in services for pharma/biotech).
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