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Physics BS - is it even worth it?

  1. May 22, 2013 #1

    WannabeNewton

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    Hi guys! I had a recent talk with my friend about my college debt / tuition and future job prospects as a means of paying off that debt and he voiced his concerns about my future financial state, concerns which hit me square in the face and brought me back down to reality - now I just can't stop worrying. My parents pay quite a sum of money per year for me to attend my current university and (hopefully) attain a bachelors in physics. Unfortunately, I also have a brother and they have to pay for his college education too so I will have to take on the debt that they will have accumulated for my education simply because it would be wrong to put the burden on them. The amount of money that will have been given to the university by my senior year (so 3 years from now) will have been about 120 grand.

    This is certainly a heft sum of money to pay not to mention there is interest which will have accumulated on top of this. I will have to have a decent job in order to actually pay this off in a reasonable amount of time (I don't play on letting my parents pay most if any of it - I want them to focus on my brother's education). That being said, the main question I wish to ask is: how good a job, in the best case scenario, can you actually get with a BS in physics? By how good I simply mean in terms of salary. There don't seem to be much if any financially lucrative job prospects for a person with only a BS in physics and this worries me greatly.

    I should note that I don't plan on getting married or having kids at any point in life so I will not have the gigantic financial burden that comes with marriage and kids. I am also asking specifically about the financial prospects of a physics BS and not a PhD because I want to be as realistic as possible; getting a PhD in physics is no joke for anyone and the chances of me failing are much greater than the chances of me succeeding statistically speaking. As such, I want to be as prepared as possible with just a BS in physics. Do you think it is possible, in regular circumstances (i.e. no lucky break with a miraculous job that is quite rare relative to the norm) to get an industry job with a physics BS that would allow, at the least, a ~120k base college tuition to be paid off in a reasonable amount of time (so that I won't be stuck with debt my entire life)?

    I am asking now because I want to make these future decisions before its too late. I am going to enter sophomore year in august and if the job prospects are bleak then it would only serve me well to change my major to something more practical (e.g. electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, mechanical engineering etc.) so that I don't drown in a sea of debt that I can never claw myself out of as soon as I get out of college. Thanks in advance for the help, I honestly have no familiarity with job prospects for anything physics related and don't know where to turn. Thanks again!
     
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  3. May 22, 2013 #2
    I think would a bad idea even if Physics jobs were incredibly plentiful.

    Based on your other forum posts you are an extremly intellegent and studious person. If anyone should be getting a physics degree it is you. However I really think 120K is far too much debt. What if you decide later you want to go to grad school (Again you seem extremely strong so while this is a bad idea for many people it seems maybe good for you)? Or, like many of my friends from math/physics if you want to get involved with a start up? You really cannot do anything like that. You need to take a high paying job right out of school if you seriosuly want to pay off the 120K.

    I am assuming you currently go to a strong school. Based on my impression of you there is a good chance you can transfer to a good but not great school on a scholarship. This would require more work and creativity on your part to get the same quality education. But I think it is worth it and it is defintiely possible. You should not be locking in your future at such an early age.

    (my response of course assumes you are very serious about not putting the debt on your parents)
     
    Last edited: May 22, 2013
  4. May 22, 2013 #3
    Just use the money that you save every year from not eating to pay off your college debt :smile:
     
  5. May 22, 2013 #4

    dx

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    Failing what? Yes it is not guaranteed that you will get a permanent academic position at a university, but in my opinion you will have no problem getting a PhD, and with a PhD you can get well-paying jobs in industry and also non-science fields like finance.
     
  6. May 22, 2013 #5

    WannabeNewton

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    This seems to be what many people have been telling me i.e. that the 120K debt is not worth it for a physics BS when there are other technical degrees one can get that will pay off the debt much faster and provide me with a comfortable life financially speaking.

    I currently attend Cornell university. I haven't looked into transferring to other schools that offer substantial scholarships as of yet (to be honest I haven't thought about my financial burdens at all - I knew I had to face them eventually but I was trying to focus on my physics education as much as possible; only recently did my long talk with my friend set me straight and bring my feet back down to earth) but if I do plan on changing majors to something more practical I certainly will not have any qualms against transferring to a university that offers me substantial money in scholarships. I am quite serious about taking the debt off my parents hands - they have done enough for me already.
     
  7. May 22, 2013 #6
    It's a very tricky situation for anybody.

    I remember my physics teacher in high school giving us his life story about how/why he became a HS physics teacher.

    Essentially, he told us that by the time he had finished his BS, he had too much debt to go to graduate school, so he took a high school position, and he's been there ever since (about 20 years, I reckon).

    From what I've heard on PF, along with what people (physics grad students) have told me on other sites, there ARE jobs in physics, it's just that you need to be good enough for a PhD, and you need to be realistic (branches like cosmology, astrophysics, string theory seem to be the worst for jobs).

    Experimental physics are apparently were the jobs are, only the top theoreticians actually find work doing theory.

    Disclaimer: I'm not in the job market, so I can only relay what I've heard/read from others in the field.
     
  8. May 22, 2013 #7

    WannabeNewton

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    While I appreciate the sentiment, I just want to be as realistic as possible. Anything can happen that could prevent me from getting a PhD and nothing is set in stone, certainly not something as difficult as a physics PhD. As such, I just want to be as prepared as possible for the worst case scenario because I don't want to ruin my life because of that 120K+ sum. If changing to something like an electrical engineering major at Cornell will save my skin then I am not against it is what I'm saying but before I make major decisions I want to be as informed as possible on what I can get out of a physics BS in terms of money. I'm hoping there are people on the forum who have gotten their bachelors in physics and gone straight into the workforce who can tell me what their prospects were and what their luck handed to them.
     
  9. May 22, 2013 #8

    WannabeNewton

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    Interesting. I can't imagine hes having a fun time paying off the enormous debt with a HS teacher salary but hopefully he's managing it.

    Indeed I have no plans to go into anything theoretical, I decided on that ages ago. If I do end up doing anything permanent in physics I would like for it to be as close to experimental as possible so that 1. I actually have a chance of getting a job and 2. I can make enough money to slave off the college debt in case I do manage to get a PhD (if I end up going that route).
     
  10. May 22, 2013 #9
    The possible alternative is changing majors but not changing schools?

    I presume you have already explored all the grant and scholarship opportunities your school offers. Also, be sure to bring these questions to your undergrad coordinator and financial aid office. They may have grant, scholarship, work study, something to ease the burden.

    Nearly all my grad school classmates that went to expensive private school for undergrad got their tuition subsidized somehow, through a combination of high performance and need.
     
  11. May 22, 2013 #10
    No college degree, no matter how good the school, is worth taking on $120k in debt. It's not even worth spending $120k if you had the money at hand.

    You'll be better off, in the long run, transferring to a state school where you can get an education nearly as good at a quarter that cost (and possibly even get a scholarship to offset that).

    As for getting your PhD: if you can make it into a physics PhD program (in the US, atleast), odds are overwhelmingly high that you'll finish with a PhD. Most schools which offer a PhD are selective about whom they let into the program, and will not admit students they do not think are likely to complete the degree.
     
  12. May 22, 2013 #11

    WannabeNewton

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    Changing schools is not out of the question. I actually haven't looked into scholarship opportunities in much detail yet because I haven't really thought about this up till now. Honestly though, if I have to go through all the trouble of garnering tons of scholarships just to pay off the tuition, I think it would be more realistic to just change schools but I was hoping to save that until people told me that things would be quite bleak with a physics BS.

    As for aimless, I understand that 120K is a large sum of money but pretty much every university I was accepted into wanted the same if not more (including various out of state public universities like UMich). The only cheap option is to attend SUNY Stony Brook but like I said I want to stave off making big decisions like changing schools until I really know that paying off 120K would be tough with just a physics BS or even with a BS in a more practical technical subject that would more likely land be an industry job. Just to personalize things, if I do get a good paying job I won't mind the 120K debt because as I said I don't plan on marriage or kids and I don't plan on living lavishly in any way. As long as the essentials are there :)
     
  13. May 22, 2013 #12
    If you want a job in physics, doing research, then you will need a PhD. A BS in physics will get you jobs - even good jobs - but don't expect that they will be in a research environment. Teaching high school, if you can stomach it, is a nearly assured job opportunity, since most high schools are desperate to find qualified physics and math teachers (as the people who go into the standard education program in college are typically doing so to avoid as much math and science as they can). Otherwise, there are jobs out there from employers who are interested in your math skills, but you'll have to look for them. During the six month hiatus between when I finished my BS and when I started grad. school (in 2006), I wound up getting a job at Total Petrochemical in one of their test reactors doing chemistry lab tech work. I have no idea what they saw in a physics major, but there you go. (The job was terrible, but that's a different story.)
     
  14. May 22, 2013 #13
    What's wrong with Stony Brook?

    I understand (and approve of) your hesitation to make your decision, but no college degree is worth the amount you would be spending - no matter whether you're attending a posh private school, an out of state public school, or whatever.
     
  15. May 22, 2013 #14

    WannabeNewton

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    There's nothing wrong with it at all but I personally find it easier said than done to just leave my university unfortunately (it's hard to just give up Cornell). That's why I wanted to make it a more extreme resort option. As I understand it, many of my friends pay roughly the same amount I do (the financial aid packages are quite uniform) but they are pretty much all in engineering - they seem to be ok with it. I only know one other person in physics on a personal level and he would end up with ~88K after the 4 years if he stays the entire time.
     
  16. May 22, 2013 #15
    Yeah. They're all getting a raw deal, too.

    The bad news for you is this: we're pretty much at the apex of the bubble in terms of college tuition costs, which means that everyone in school right now is getting ripped off. One possible solution is to simply wait; there are signs that the bubble is popping, and tuition costs might be coming back down to something approaching a reasonable level within the next few years. Then again, they might not be, so waiting is a risk. Plus, if you goal is a PhD, you can't really choose to forgo getting your B.S.

    The other solution is to just pick that one inexpensive option. The quality of education you receive there will probably be lower than what you're getting now, but not that far lower. After all, I went to a far, far less rigorous school than Stony Brook for my undergrad work and I still got a PhD.
     
  17. May 22, 2013 #16

    WannabeNewton

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    I assume this is a bad thing :smile: (haven't heard the expression before myself)?

    You're definitely right and I'm not disagreeing with you on anything. I'm just grappling with my personal priorities: do I pay the ridiculous sum just to go to a top university and get a BS in physics that might or might not get me a PhD and might or might not get me a good paying job with no PhD, do I change majors within same university to something more realistic like EE and at least know that I have a much better chance of getting a good paying job, or do I transfer to Stony Brook and have to pay much less (~20K for the two years ill be there + ~60K for the two years I'll have been at Cornell by the time I transfer, if I do choose that) and get a physics degree from there but give up Cornell?

    Honestly speaking, after your and others' advice, it seems like transferring might not be the worst of ideas because lets be honest it's just Cornell it isn't Harvard, MIT, or Caltech so it's not like I'm getting an amazing education. Unfortunately it seems in today's world, prestige is always an issue when applying to top grad schools or when getting an industry job. Staying at Cornell and doing a BS in physics seems the worst of the three choices. Maybe I can dwell on switching to something engineering related within Cornell or go to Stony brook before its too late (even if I transfer I will have already taken a ~60k blow to my future funds because of the past year and the year to come).
     
  18. May 22, 2013 #17
    Comes from card games; to get a "raw deal" is to be given a bad hand - in other words, to be treated unfairly.

    It's an old expression (a quick google search of its etymology says it dates from 1911); I guess it's more a midwest/southern thing than a northeast thing?
     
  19. May 22, 2013 #18

    dx

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    Honestly, being a PhD student myself, and knowing several others, I don't think its unrealistic at all for you to get a fully funded PhD position.

    However, if you are not particular about an academic/research career, it would be much easier getting well-paying jobs if you do engineering or computer science or something else. I know several people who got a BS in physics and went straight into the workforce. One guy I know even got hired as a computer programmer by Microsoft in London.
     
  20. May 22, 2013 #19

    WannabeNewton

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    Haha I see, quite a cool phrase. By the way, just to clarify, I'm not so worried about the cost of my current education so much as I am getting a well-paying job after getting a BS in physics. If the prospects are bleak on average then I would just switch to engineering and take comfort in knowing the prospects are much greater. The reason I'm not as worried about the cost of my education so much as getting a financially "lucrative" (I put it in quotes because I mean it in a relative way) job is because I won't have many financial burdens once I'm outside of college other than the college debt and basic essentials (food, an apartment, clothing and the likes) so if I have a good means of paying it off, it seems like it would be manageable (but what do I know, I've never had any experience with the workforce).

    While Stony Brook is great, and I'm not one to be superficial, I have perused this forum long enough to see enough threads about how top grad schools are noticeably much more favorable towards students from top 15 or top 10 undergraduate universities and this worries me greatly. It seems like if I want to do physics, I'm going to run into a large wall no matter which way I turn.

    @dx, I had my heart set on a research/academic career in physics for a while (and, given more financially ideal conditions, I would still love to do research in physics) but the issues of money have quickly and strongly changed my mind. So it would seem that switching to, to take your example, computer science would not be all that bad an idea. I would imagine a BS in comp sci from Cornell would only aid me in getting a well-paying if not lavish job. Did most of the people you know who had a BS in physics, as opposed to something else, get well paying jobs? I assume they also did things like programming or finance on the side so that employers actually wanted them correct? I would think knowing only what a BS in physics would be rather useless to most industry employers.

    By the way, thanks everyone, for the advice thus far. I really, really appreciate it. While I wish life was perfect and I could easily pursue my ideal career goal in the manner I see most fit, it unfortunately doesn't always work out that way ;)
     
    Last edited: May 22, 2013
  21. May 22, 2013 #20

    dx

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    No unfortunately. Some did, but others went into teaching and other things like administrative jobs which dont pay that well.. Just a BS in physics would seriously limit your options and it would be difficult to get well-paying jobs. Although like I said I know people with just BS getting pretty good jobs. Some learned programming by themselves, another guy took professional exams and became an actuary.

    My guess is a BS in comp sci would make it pretty easy for you to get a well-paying job. I used to live in America when I was younger, and one friend ended up going to Cornell to do comp sci, and he got a job at Google in California straight after his BS.
     
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