PhD — Is it worth it?

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  • #1
Hello Everyone,

I was looking for some expert/experienced advice on if earning a P.hD, specifically in Physics/Astrophysics is worth it. Whenever I search for the answer, I always find people mentioning the challenges of it. But no one really talks about the drawback or benefits of earning a P.hD if one is pursuing a career in a STEAM field. Also, it is still possible to start that pursuit after one had reached their thirties?


All answers are much appreciated in advance! :)
 
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  • #2
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Of course the important thing is what you want to do, and only you can answer that. When it comes to the time during your PhD, you should realize it is a long time. When it comes to what you want to do after, some options require the PhD and others don't.

In a practical sense, one downside is being poor for nearly a decade, and that feels even a bit worse while you're in your thirties. Another potential downside is an extreme pressure to accomplish something highly challenging, and possibly not even feasible, depending on what your project is. You may find yourself in very high stress situations from time to time.

Some benefits may include lots of opportunities to visit different places around the world as you attend conferences, and meeting interesting people.

You only live once (as far I know).
 
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  • #3
Choppy
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From a financial point of view there's a tremendous opportunity cost to a PhD. You're looking at ~ 6 years of your life following your undergraduate degree with relatively little income. If you otherwise spend that time earning an income inline with the medial of a STEM graduate, you've got 6 years of paying down any student debt, paying into a mortgage, building up some savings, etc. And if you think of something like retirement savings, staring that much earlier gives your money that much more opportunity to compound. When you graduate with a PhD and enter the job market, sure, you can expect a higher salary, but I'm not sure whether the median bump in salary is enough to offset those lost years of investment. In some cases it can be.

But there's more to life than money.

You also have to factor in your sense of purpose. I think a lot of successful PhDs find purpose in science. They do it because advancing the state of human knowledge is important to them. It's fulfilling in a way that doing some programming or quality control work for a large corporation is not. And it's very difficult to put a price on that.

In your PhD you're not likely to revolutionize science though. It's far more likely that you'll make an incremental contribution to your chosen field. And for many people when then realize that basically just "turning the crank of science" it can get disheartening. They lose that sense of purpose and wonder. So going in, you might want to ask yourself if you'd still feel it's worth it if ultimately you produce results that only a small group of specialists will have any interest in.

Another factor to consider is the skill set you'll develop. As a PhD, you'll learn how to conduct research and that's something you'll have with you regardless of where you end up afterward. In some cases, that can be used for invention, or for developing new ideas for a start-up venture, etc. I think that's something that often gets overlooked.
 
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  • #4
CrysPhys
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* Depends on what you want to do. There are always outliers, but if you want to be a principal researcher in physics or a physics related field, you typically need a PhD Physics (in a university, industrial, or government lab). If you're content with a supporting role (e.g., research assistant or technician), you can get by with a BS Physics. In the US, I wouldn't recommend a MS Physics.

* Note, that at least in the US, a PhD Physics can be an end in itself, not merely a means to an end. That's because any grad school that really wants you will give you full tuition waiver and a stipend enough to live on (if you're single). So you get paid to study and do research (that ideally is something you love and is satisfying in and of itself). This is different, e.g., from business, law, and medical schools, in which you typically have to pay $$$.

* You complete your PhD Physics, and then move on with your life. Exactly what to is highly dependent on a whole host of variables: your particular specialty, overall skill set, the job market at the time, how flexible and adaptable you are .... It might be as a principal researcher in physics ... or not.
 
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  • #5
symbolipoint
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In the US, I wouldn't recommend a MS Physics.
Why? What does then that MS degree mean and what does it not mean?
 
  • #6
StatGuy2000
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Why? What does then that MS degree mean and what does it not mean?
In the US, most MS degrees are typically granted to students who have completed at least the first year or 2 years of a PhD program and for whatever reason do not complete the PhD. In essence, the MS degree is considered a "consolation" degree. There are some terminal masters degrees that are distinct from this in some specific STEM fields (especially in areas like engineering or in statistics) and these terminal masters degrees are more often than not recognized as of some value to employees.

This is quite different to the way masters programs are offered in universities outside of the US. In Canada, for example, typically someone who completes a bachelor's degree in a STEM field are required to complete a terminal masters degree as a prerequisite to applying for a PhD program (with less frequent cases of direct admission to PhD programs). I believe this is also the case in the UK and many European countries, but I'm not certain about this.
 
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  • #7
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If you have to ask? No.
 
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  • #8
CrysPhys
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Why? What does then that MS degree mean and what does it not mean?
We've gone round the block several times on this, including this entire thread:

https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/physics-masters-useless.915643/

Key caveats:

* Discussion applies specifically to MS Physics in the US.

* In the US, you can apply directly to a PhD program upon completion of a BS. Completion of a MS is not required to apply for a PhD program, as is the case in many other countries.

* Basically, in the US, an MS Physics typically does not open more career opportunities than a BS Physics; whereas, a PhD Physics does.

* Even in the US, an MS in other fields (such as ME, EE, and CS) does open more career opportunities than a BS.
 
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  • #9
All responses provided much insight, were very helpful, and are much appreciated!
 
  • #10
CrysPhys
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Also, it is still possible to start that pursuit after one had reached their thirties?
I just noticed we haven't addressed this issue. Yes, it's certainly possible, but challenging. You will have been away from the grind of schoolwork, and will need to reinstill that discipline. You will have been working presumably, and will likely take a cut in income. And, depending on your family situation, maintaining a proper balance in your life will be difficult. A PhD Physics program is intense and consuming.

In my entering grad class, there were two atypical students in their thirties. Each was married (not to each other) and had a couple of kids. One had been working as a lab technician, and decided finally to pursue his dream of becoming a research physicist. He didn't complete his program. The other had put her career on hold to raise her kids. Her kids were now old enough that she felt the time was right for her to become a grad student. She did complete her program and went on to a successful career in physics. But I've always considered her an outlier (in a positive sense) in many respects.
 
  • #11
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Many folks who get a PhD in astrophysics don't end up in astrophysics research. Is that okay with you? Some who do end up in research do so without a tenured or otherwise well paying and secure job, and it's essentially a life of poverty. A minority - and in astrophysics I believe it is a very, very small minority - end up with good careers doing what they wanted to do.

Are you ok with putting in 6 - 8 years of your life and then starting over as a data analyst, business consultant, or other non-science job? Because that's the sleight-of-hand that goes on in many of these conversations; people say "most physics BS/PhD turn out fine", but they don't mention that those grads had to start over (or otherwise do significant retooling), and that they were less fine than others who didn't get a BS or PhD in physics.

What you've gotten in this thread are opinions, and I think they're largely good ones. Here's mine: getting a PhD in physics with an astrophysics focus is dumb. But of all the dumb things you can do (and I've done plenty, though not this specific one), it's a pretty good dumb thing. Life's short, and I'm not sure doing the smart thing is always the most interesting thing. So if you decide to do this, go for it. But understand that might well pay a price - maybe a steep price - for this choice. As long as you're good with that then I think you'll, well, turn out fine.

Good luck.
 
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  • #12
I just noticed we haven't addressed this issue. Yes, it's certainly possible, but challenging. You will have been away from the grind of schoolwork, and will need to reinstill that discipline. You will have been working presumably, and will likely take a cut in income. And, depending on your family situation, maintaining a proper balance in your life will be difficult. A PhD Physics program is intense and consuming.

In my entering grad class, there were two atypical students in their thirties. Each was married (not to each other) and had a couple of kids. One had been working as a lab technician, and decided finally to pursue his dream of becoming a research physicist. He didn't complete his program. The other had put her career on hold to raise her kids. Her kids were now old enough that she felt the time was right for her to become a grad student. She did complete her program and went on to a successful career in physics. But I've always considered her an outlier (in a positive sense) in many respects.
Thank you CrysPhys, your response was most encouraging. And I do take into consideration the many aspects attached with pursuing a Ph.D. in one's thirties. I also find that one advantage of doing this at my age is having a better sense of reality. Therefore, I search for more realistic solutions that will make reaching my goal more probable.
 
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  • #13
Many folks who get a PhD in astrophysics don't end up in astrophysics research. Is that okay with you? Some who do end up in research do so without a tenured or otherwise well paying and secure job, and it's essentially a life of poverty. A minority - and in astrophysics I believe it is a very, very small minority - end up with good careers doing what they wanted to do.

Are you ok with putting in 6 - 8 years of your life and then starting over as a data analyst, business consultant, or other non-science job? Because that's the sleight-of-hand that goes on in many of these conversations; people say "most physics BS/PhD turn out fine", but they don't mention that those grads had to start over (or otherwise do significant retooling), and that they were less fine than others who didn't get a BS or PhD in physics.

What you've gotten in this thread are opinions, and I think they're largely good ones. Here's mine: getting a PhD in physics with an astrophysics focus is dumb. But of all the dumb things you can do (and I've done plenty, though not this specific one), it's a pretty good dumb thing. Life's short, and I'm not sure doing the smart thing is always the most interesting thing. So if you decide to do this, go for it. But understand that might well pay a price - maybe a steep price - for this choice. As long as you're good with that then I think you'll, well, turn out fine.

Good luck.
So this is one of the reasons why I posted this thread in the first place. I don't want to be in a position where I end up broke, without the prospect of a sold career job and lost about what should I do next, but have a very expensive degree. The main reason why I am considering pursuing a Ph.D. (well, yes it had always been my passion and goal from a young age to have a career in Astrophysics) is that I first started out searching the career options for this discipline. And yes I do see a limited amount of options, but they are out there. Having said that, this isn't something I am deadset on. I once had a professor who had completed his degree in one specific branch of Physics, but had branched out and worked in other areas of Physics as well. So for now, I'm just working from the top-down, weighing my options and trying to envision where I can end up with a Ph.D.
 
  • #14
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Here is an interesting true story.

Talented Masters: Notices a subtle counterintuitive fault in a calculation in a paper. Speaks to a coworker who has a doctorate: T.M. explains the error found in the calculation.

Dr. PhD: No, the calculation is valid.

Mr. Talented Masters: Demonstrates the calculation is wrong. Verifies result by computer. Shows the result to Boss

Boss: Great work. But when you publish or present this result, be sure to work with Dr. PhD. He or She has the doctorate.

After an experience or even several experiences like that at work, wouldn't you want to go back to get your PhD.
 
  • #15
jtbell
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it is still possible to start that pursuit after one had reached their thirties?
Are you in your thirties now? Or are you finishing an undergraduate degree soon, at a "normal" age (21-22) and trying to decide whether to start a PhD immediately, or work for several years first and then start a PhD?

Also, is your undergraduate degree in physics? It makes a difference when trying to enter a physics PhD program. :wink:

Finally, you need to be realistic about the chances of getting a "permanent" research position after finishing a PhD and probably one or two short-term "post-doc" positions. I don't have statistics at hand, but there are far fewer research professorships available each year than there are new PhDs. In some sub-fields of physics, there are research jobs for PhDs in industry, but astrophysics isn't one of them.

The skills that you learn while earning a PhD in astrophysics (programming, data analysis, etc.) may be transferable to other kinds of positions (including e.g. in the financial sector). Are you OK with such an outcome?

I did my PhD (on a "normal" timeline) in the late 1970s - early '80s, in experimental particle physics (specifically, neutrinos). I enjoyed it, but I knew that positions in that field would be few after I finished. Most of my work involved programming, which I enjoyed, and I expected that I would probably end up in some kind of programming career.

In the end, I decided not to try for an academic research position, but instead looked for a purely or mostly teaching-oriented position at a small college similar to the one where I had gotten my bachelor's degree. It turns out that such positions are almost as hard to find as research positions (at least at the tenure-track level), but fortunately I was successful, and eventually retired a few years ago.
 
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  • #16
symbolipoint
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@Sheikhzaadi, the meaning of post #15 from @jtbell is that you need to be able to find a position after graduating so you can toil for your trade - Have a Employment Job. Use that to help make a decision.
 
  • #17
Here is an interesting true story.

Talented Masters: Notices a subtle counterintuitive fault in a calculation in a paper. Speaks to a coworker who has a doctorate: T.M. explains the error found in the calculation.

Dr. PhD: No, the calculation is valid.

Mr. Talented Masters: Demonstrates the calculation is wrong. Verifies result by computer. Shows the result to Boss

Boss: Great work. But when you publish or present this result, be sure to work with Dr. PhD. He or She has the doctorate.

After an experience or even several experiences like that at work, wouldn't you want to go back to get your PhD.
Thank you!
 
  • #18
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@Sheikhzaadi , there are a lot of good responses in this thread already (particularly from @Choppy, @CrysPhys), so let me add my own perspective here.

Before you decide to pursue a PhD in anything -- whether it be physics, astrophysics, or any other such field -- you should ask yourself the following questions:

1. What is your end goal? What types of position(s) are you interested in working?

2. What kinds of skills do you need to acquire to work in the types of positions identified in #1 above (whether in academia or in industry)?

Asking questions #1 and #2, doing your research in this in advance, and carefully thinking and evaluating what are your options both while you are in your graduate program, and immediately afterwards, is critical to ensuring you have the highest chance to land in a decent position afterwards.

I should also note that @Locrian gave a particularly harsh assessment of a PhD program, but I think he's overstating his case. I do not regard earning a physics PhD to necessarily a dumb decision, so long as you are willing to make sure to work toward developing a wide set of skills while in your program, actively networking with people, and working on your interviewing techniques, especially highlighting your skills developed in the PhD program (this could include research, programming, instrumentation, data analysis, etc.).
 
  • #19
haushofer
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I consider a PhD as running an ultramarathon. It can be both very satisfying and excruciating. I'm glad I did it. Had I known about the obstacles and stress however, I wouldn't start in the first place.

In my teaching job my PhD is mainly usefull to impress students with my "I dined with Stephen Hawking and performed a magic trick for him"-one in a lifetime story, adding that from then on my life went down-hill. And ended up teaching them physics.
 
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  • #20
symbolipoint
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I consider a PhD as running an ultramarathon. It can be both very satisfying and excruciating. I'm glad I did it. Had I known about the obstacles and stress however, I wouldn't start in the first place.
Now that you have some tough experience and greater wisdom, what would have been a better set of choices? For you.
 
  • #21
Are you in your thirties now? Or are you finishing an undergraduate degree soon, at a "normal" age (21-22) and trying to decide whether to start a PhD immediately, or work for several years first and then start a PhD?

Also, is your undergraduate degree in physics? It makes a difference when trying to enter a physics PhD program. :wink:

Finally, you need to be realistic about the chances of getting a "permanent" research position after finishing a PhD and probably one or two short-term "post-doc" positions. I don't have statistics at hand, but there are far fewer research professorships available each year than there are new PhDs. In some sub-fields of physics, there are research jobs for PhDs in industry, but astrophysics isn't one of them.

The skills that you learn while earning a PhD in astrophysics (programming, data analysis, etc.) may be transferable to other kinds of positions (including e.g. in the financial sector). Are you OK with such an outcome?

I did my PhD (on a "normal" timeline) in the late 1970s - early '80s, in experimental particle physics (specifically, neutrinos). I enjoyed it, but I knew that positions in that field would be few after I finished. Most of my work involved programming, which I enjoyed, and I expected that I would probably end up in some kind of programming career.

In the end, I decided not to try for an academic research position, but instead looked for a purely or mostly teaching-oriented position at a small college similar to the one where I had gotten my bachelor's degree. It turns out that such positions are almost as hard to find as research positions (at least at the tenure-track level), but fortunately I was successful, and eventually retired a few years ago.
I am in my early thirties, and I do have a BS in Physics. I am thinking exactly along the same lines as you. Whether than completing a degree and then figuring out what kind of work I can find. I am currently looking at positions, actual job titles that I cannot apply to due to the lack of the degree. So deciding on whether to stick to a certain discipline, right down to the focus of my research I am trying to refine and clarify those choices based on the employment opportunities out there. I hope that this is a step in the right direction.
 
  • #22
@Sheikhzaadi, the meaning of post #15 from @jtbell is that you need to be able to find a position after graduating so you can toil for your trade - Have a Employment Job. Use that to help make a decision.
Thanks for the clarification.
 
  • #23
haushofer
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Now that you have some tough experience and greater wisdom, what would have been a better set of choices? For you.
I don't think I've could make better choices. If I didn't pursue a PhD, I would wonder for the rest of my life "what if..." Besides that, I learned a tremendous amount of stuff, both personally and physics/mathematics-wise, which I value a lot.
 
  • #24
symbolipoint
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I don't think I've could make better choices. If I didn't pursue a PhD, I would wonder for the rest of my life "what if..." Besides that, I learned a tremendous amount of stuff, both personally and physics/mathematics-wise, which I value a lot.
I was still thinking based on post #19. You do not say exactly if you are currently doing the work that you hoped you would by this time and in the last several years. My impression is that you wanted a different outcome.

The discussion should be geared to helping the O.P. decide if Physics or Astrophysics worth his effort. My only simplest question is, will it help to find a job that he will be well suited, and likes?
 
  • #25
CrysPhys
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The discussion should be geared to helping the O.P. decide if Physics or Astrophysics worth his effort. My only simplest question is, will it help to find a job that he will be well suited, and likes?
As has been discussed in other responses, your simplest question is not enough. Suppose the job the OP likes and is well suited for is a Professor of Astrophysics at a research university. Will a PhD in Physics, with a dissertation in the field of astrophysics, help him attain that job? Absolutely. Will they guarantee that he gets that job? No. So the OP also needs to consider, in the event that he doesn't land his desired job, would the PhD experience still be worthwhile in itself? And what experience and skills would he have acquired that would be suitable for other jobs that are more available and that he would still find satisfactory (though not as much as his number one choice)?
 

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