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PhD and Masters programs for someone who looks to work outside of academia

  1. Dec 29, 2009 #1
    I'm currently a third year physics undergraduate student at the University of Toronto --which is respectable as far as Canadian schools go. My marks are decent: 3.83 GPA of almost exclusively physics and math courses. I have recently been looking carefully at the realities of working towards a life in academia, and I think I'm coming to the conclusion that it may not be for me. The politics, and cutthroat competition, poor pay for long hours etc. etc. and I'm not sure I even have the chops to make it!

    This is saddening for me because I really do love learning physics and experimenting in the lab. Fortunately, I've read that an MSc or PhD can actually improve employment prospects for those in physics, which gives me an excuse to stay in the game a bit longer :).

    I would prefer to do experimental physics in my graduate work, and this is just as well, as it seems that theoreticians seem to be less employable. I wanted to ask if anyone had any opinions on which fields would be wise to enter from an employment perspective. I am not adverse to an engineering program that would be attainable by someone with a physics degree, and I am also not opposed to taking a few additional courses in my undergrad (perhaps staying an extra semester?).

    In addition, is there much of an imperative to do my graduate schooling in America? I am open to working and living in Canada or America. I realize my interest in particular researcher's work is probably pretty important in choosing a university, but ignoring this constraint, I am interested in the difference, and the potential effects on employment.

    I know I am asking a rather broad and unfocused question (my apologies to anyone enraged by this). Part of the reason is that I haven't come across any physics I've felt I didn't enjoy learning and doing.

    As an end note, I have already read the AIP employment statistics, and I do plan on making a guidance appointment with a career adviser in the new year (this is part of my preparation for that appointment).

  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 29, 2009 #2


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    That's a really bad reason to do a PhD.
    If you want to invest 4-5 years in better job options go to medical (or law) school - otherwise you are never going to make back the lost salary/promotion of that lost time in the workplace, even if you walk straight from the PhD into a Wall St finance job.
  4. Dec 29, 2009 #3
    My apologies if I wasn't clear, but my motivation for doing an MSc or PhD is primarily coming from my want to learn more physics. However, apart from my interests in physics, there is the practical concern of my career options. Further, this concern is not entirely motivated by money; personal satisfaction and interest also play an important role.

    As an example, I really enjoy teaching and tutoring, so teaching at the high school level is something I always have in mind (despite the not-so-great pay). Nonetheless, even if I was to decide that this was my desired career path, I would want to continue studying physics first (though in this case, I would not have to factor in career opportunities into my choice of graduate program).
  5. Dec 29, 2009 #4


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    Fair enough - it's just that there are a lot of people right now considering PhDs as a response to a bad job market.
    Your career prospects won't really be harmed, unless you end up working in an area directly related to your PhD then most people end up working in consultancy, technical project management or software.

    Knowing how to learn on your own is a valuable skill you learn in grad school, as is how to do research (both practical and literature) and how to manage your own project.
    Some employers see these as benefits, others see you as over-qualified.

    Either way unless you are going to work in a very specialized area directly related to your PhD don't expect to earn much more than graduate entrants - certainly not the same as someone who spent the same length of time climbing the org ladder.
  6. Dec 31, 2009 #5
    I sort of disagree with that, since Ph.D.'s on Wall Street typically go straight into associate rank, whereas MBA's start out as analysts. That gives you a lost salary of two to three years which you can pretty easily make up. Personally, I don't think that Ph.D.'s will *hurt* your salary prospects.

    The trouble with looking at the Ph.D. as a career booster isn't that it isn't useful for that. Physics Ph.D.'s are extremely useful for career purposes. The trouble is that getting a Ph.D. is a lot like joining the military or becoming a Catholic priest. It requires so much commitment and time, that it's a really bad idea to do it just for money.
  7. Dec 31, 2009 #6
    My standard advice is that anyone that goes into a physics Ph.D. program should expect not to get a job in an academic research position. One consequence of this is that there aren't any programs which I think are particularly good or bad at placing people outside of academia. How well you do in the job hunt depends a lot more on what you do while you are doing the Ph.D. than on the particular program you end up in.

    It's a generally bad idea to follow "hot jobs" since the hot job of today will almost certainly be the awful job of tomorrow. Do what you like. Be curious. Get good at math and computers. And then you can adapt to whatever the world throws at you. This is vague advice, but specific advice tends to self-destruct. If I tell you to wash widgets, then what will tend to happen is that things will overreact and we'll have too many widget washers and not enough jobs.

    The other thing that is helpful is if you learn how to learn new stuff without taking a class on it. If you happen to need to know or are interested in the role of technology in the British Industrial revolution, learn to use google, a library, or Amazon.

    One thing that I have found is that career advice for physics Ph.D.'s tends to be awful since people inside the physics departments often don't know about the outside world, and the outside world often doesn't know about physics departments.
  8. Jan 1, 2010 #7
    I completely agree about physics departments giving bad career advice. Your average physics professor has negligible experience outside of academia. I wasted several years in a physics Ph.D program because I didn't realize there were other options out there.

    If you're interested in real world applications of physics, I would strongly suggest going into an engineering or "applied physics" program. I switched over to Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and couldn't be happier with my choice.
  9. Jan 3, 2010 #8
    My experience was that I wasted a few years feeling ashamed/miserable/angry at myself for making decisions that turned out to be very good ones. The bad consequence of this was that if I hadn't felt ashamed/miserable/angry I wouldn't have lost a few years which I could have used to keep my professional contacts open. The image that I always had of myself was that you have this really nice wonderful cocktail party, and you show up like some beggar off the street.

    As if for quasi-religious reasons you want to get a Ph.D., you really need to keep one eye and one foot outside of academia.
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