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Physics Physics masters useless?

  1. May 24, 2017 #1
    I'm planning on working towards a physics masters degree. I figured afterwards I would have the option of either working towards a Ph.D. or entering the workforce, and didn't feel it was necessary to decide early.
    I was getting academic advise from one of my professors today, and he said something that surprised me. He said a physics masters degree was useless, implying that I should get a Ph.D. I'm wondering what posters here think. I figured I would need a Ph.D. to go into academics and do research, but I'm not sure if that's what I want to do. Is a physics masters degree useless outside of academics? what about industry?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 24, 2017 #2

    Charles Link

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    With an M.S. Physics degree, I think you would be much better prepared for work in the industry than with simply a B.S. Physics. Meanwhile, with a Ph.D., so much of the effort towards getting a Ph.D. can be so specialized that the extra education often doesn't mean a whole lot. Someone with a M.S. degree can often perform just as well as a Ph.D. person at the types of applied physics problems that need to get solved in an industrial setting.
  4. May 25, 2017 #3
    To OP:

    Are you in the US? I'm a PhD physicist. I worked for 20+ yrs in industrial R&D. There are always exceptions, of course, but in my experience, an MS in physics is not of much use in industry. With a physics degree, if you want a position as a lead scientist or engineer, you need a PhD. A BS in physics will qualify you for a support role (lab technician, research assistant, research associate ... whatever title HR cooks up). An MS in physics will still land you a support role. Exacerbating all this, in many US universities, the MS is a consolation prize for candidates who wash out of the PhD program. In my grad school, you automatically got an MS after completing one yr of grad courses. If you passed the qual, you went on for your PhD; if you flunked the qual twice, you left with an MS.

    How many yrs is the MS program you're considering, and does it require a thesis? The research experience gained in completing a thesis is paramount.

    Note: the situation is different in other fields such as EE, ME, CS, and CE. An MS is advantageous in landing you a lead design role.
  5. May 25, 2017 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    CrysPhys pretty much has it - there are jobs that require a BS and jobs that require a PhD. While I wouldn't say an MS is useless, from the point of view of new opportunities it opens, it's a clear third place between the three degrees.
  6. May 25, 2017 #5

    Charles Link

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    @radical negative Regardless of the degree level that you have or plan on having, I think it is important to be competitive and strive for excellence. If you do graduate studies at the university, it pays to try to learn as much as you possibly can. I can see where the advisor might be coming from=if he sees that you are willing to settle for simply being in the lower part of the middle of a group of graduate students, he's going to want to push you to try harder.
  7. May 25, 2017 #6
    Not sure where you're reading all that from. The question is, "Is a terminal MS in physics worthwhile for career advancement?" The answer is, "Except for outliers, no." If you want to get an MS in physics for your own personal satisfaction, then OK.
  8. May 25, 2017 #7


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    I disagree. I've worked in three different industries and seen great uniformity in how degrees are treated. A masters is considered equivalent to 2 years of on the job experience, a PhD equals 4 years. An MS enters at a higher level than a BS. Promotions have a requirement for years of relevant experience at the companies I've worked, so the masters definitely counts there, too. While PhD's might have more potential to rise to the highest technical positions a company has (Tech Fellow, e.g.), it is not a requirement and I've seen numerous non-PhD's holding those positions where I've worked, and have met them at other companies.
  9. May 25, 2017 #8


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    "Useless" is one of those flag words for me. It tends to get thrown around, often by younger people who've grown up with nothing but first world problems. The word is often misapplied in situations where the phrase "less than optimal" is really more appropriate.

    While I certainly would agree that one should be aiming for a PhD if one has a desire to go into academia, or lead some kind of research, a master's degree is far from "useless."

    In some cases an MSc in physics can be a professional or semi-professional degree. For example, an accredited MSc in medical physics can get you into a residency and lead to a career as a medical physicist. There's ongoing debate as to whether a PhD is optimal for people who end up doing primarily clinical work in the field, but I would argue that in medical physics the MSc is very far from "useless."

    A lot can depend on the specifics of what you learn during your MSc as well. If you pick up advanced coursework or develop skills in a marketable area that could greatly improve your employment options over graduating with BSc.
  10. May 25, 2017 #9


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    I wonder to myself if the different replies regarding the value of a MS in physics may come from whether

    (1) The degree was earned in the US or outside of the US (for example, with a few exceptions, all students intending to pursue a PhD program in a Canadian university in whatever program, including physics, are required to complete a masters degree first).


    (2) For those students in the US, whether the masters program in physics is a terminal program focused on applied or industrial work.

    [Aside: Choppy beat me to it in posting a response! :biggrin:]
  11. May 25, 2017 #10

    Mister T

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    Just look through the ads in the back of Physics Today magazine. A Ph.D. is required for almost every one. You can teach at a community college with a M.S. as that is the minimum required degree there. Otherwise the odds are very much stacked against you.
  12. May 25, 2017 #11
    Thanks for the replies. Yes I'm in the U.S. My professor also called an MS a consolidation prize. It's looking more and more like I committed myself to a Ph.D. when I switched my major to physics.
  13. May 25, 2017 #12


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    The consolation-prize idea about the Masters' degree seems bad. Could a PhD student who could not finish the degree but was granted Masters degree, later be allowed to enter a PhD program again and the "masters" degree not count against him? Would the person who completed a "terminal Master's degree" in the subject (Physics?) also have his Master's degree count against him if he wants to apply for a PhD program? What is or where is the real sense here?
  14. May 25, 2017 #13

    Charles Link

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    I think this input by @symbolipoint is a good one. I think what would often be the case is if a person receives a M.S. Physics degree and is successful with landing good employment in industry, they would not want to return to the low pay that a university graduate student typically receives as a professor's research assistant. On the bright side, good applied research jobs that are sometimes available to people with a M.S. Physics degree can also be extremely educational.
  15. May 25, 2017 #14
    Not necessarily. If you don't want a supporting role in industry with a BS, and if you don't want to spend ~5-7 yrs pursuing a PhD in physics (particularly if you're not sold on it), check what would be involved in getting an MS in a field such as EE or CS. You didn't mention what your interests are and what other coursework you pursued. Many physics students (undergrad and grad) have a secondary concentration (doesn't have to be an official minor) in a field such as EE, math, CS, or materials. Do you? That would reduce the amount of remedial coursework for an MS in another field. This is just an option for you to consider; only you can decide whether it's the right one.
  16. May 25, 2017 #15
    My experience is much like MarcusL. A MS generally enters a professional career with at least a year maybe two improved salary. Unless the higher salary is useless, the MS is not useless. I actually graduated with one students who earned two masters degrees, one in physics and one in engineering, and another student who earned a PhD in physics during the 1980's,. Both were hired by the same semiconductor firm at the same location at the same time. The student with two Masters degrees beat out student with the doctoral degree in starting salary.

    When I entered the job market 30 years ago, a Masters degree could not teach, even in any community college. It is a little better now. However, in contradiction to your earlier question: A MS is, as you put it in your question, "more useless" in academia than it is in industry.

    I would take your advisor's comment as a compliment. (S)he thinks your capable if doctoral level work

    Here is the point though. It is necessary to decide early.
    When you enter the graduate program, the clock is running on your passing the qualifying exams (usually within the first two years). You (almost certainly) will not have the luxury of completing the Masters before considering whether you want to pursue the PhD. The qualifying exams are tough. No two ways about it. The probability of a pass diminishes quickly for students who do not have a strong sense of purpose and direction.
  17. May 25, 2017 #16
    Well, that's the rosy side. But I think people who pursue a PhD in physics are primarily motivated by a passion for research, rather than financial gain.

    On the gloomy side: washing out of a PhD program is traumatic, depressing, and demoralizing. I don't have any statistics on how many students who wash out of a PhD physics program reapply for a PhD physics program at another university. Of the ones whom I've personally known, none did ... although some chose a PhD program in an easier field.
    Last edited: May 25, 2017
  18. May 25, 2017 #17

    It is not quite that bad, Crystal. I passed the quals and became a PhD candidate at one university (so I do not think this is "washing out") but I decided to enter the work force in the 1980's. I later entered the graduate physics program in another university with a much stronger physics program, many years later. I had to take the GRE's, get letters of recommendation, pass the qualifiers and the coursework, and the research. It is very difficult, but it can be done.
  19. May 25, 2017 #18
    By "washing out", I was referring to my earlier comment about universities that hand out an MS as a consolation prize for grad students who do not pass the qual. That was not your case: you passed, but chose to leave to get a job in industry instead; different scenario. Leaving voluntarily does not generate the psychological trauma that getting kicked out does.
  20. May 25, 2017 #19
    Thank you CrysPhys, And I am sorry that your experiences (which I admit is more common) with other researchers that left their programs early for involuntary reasons, did not have the same (good) experiences I did when I returned to grad study. I am happy they had success in other fields however.

    Returning to the main point of the OP. Decisions have to be made early.
  21. May 26, 2017 #20
    I have understood that this is a thread about the US now, but just to add my European perspective - as I saw this discussion coming up often, and it took me a while to understand the differences and this 'consolation prize' argument ...

    I agree. Here (in Austria) a MSc in any STEM field incl. physics is considered a professional degree. You can start an engineering consultancy (sort of 'Professional Engineer') based on any STEM degree, professional experience, and some additional non-STEM exams.

    We actually had more of a discussion about the 'usefulness' of a BSc for a while as there had been no BSc degrees until rather recently. The MSc (5 years) was your first degree, and a BSc was sometimes considered an incomplete education by employers, competing with our traditional 'technical high schools'.
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