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Physics or Data Science? Background in physics & psychology!

  1. Jan 18, 2016 #1
    Hello Everybody!

    At this point of my life, I'm facing a dilemma which might seem a bit unconventional, or even strange: Should I apply to Data Science Master's programs or Physics Master's programs? I'm in a state of constant confusion and can't make my mind to pick one of these paths. Any advice or opinion is extremely welcomed!

    To make my case clear (and hopefully less strange), let me give you a brief background of myself. Back in high school, I fell in love with physics after taking the very first physics class. Although, I always enjoyed math since elementary school, physics was the area I was fascinated with. So without a second thought, I decided to study physics in college. It was not a nice start though. Because of multiple reasons I did not focus on my studying during the first two years. So I did poorly in most of my basic and introductory courses. But finally I could overcome the hard situation I had, and put a lot of effort in my studies over the last two years in physics. My efforts paid off and I got excellent grades for all of advanced courses in my major (solid state physics) in the last two years. So, my transcript shows an average performance overall, with a poor start and a very strong ending. After my graduation, I started to work as a physics teacher in a private high school for a couple of years. Although I really enjoyed physics and was good at it, I was hesitant to apply and enroll in a PhD program. As a young Middle Eastern woman, I was very much involved in social issues and politics. I was constantly thinking and reading about human behavior in social context. There was a deep thirst inside me for understanding human mind and psychology, since I believed that to be the window to the causes of many of our social issues. Finally, I made my mind and moved to the US to study social neuroscience in a master's program in a top tier university. I have recently got my MS degree in psychology. My initial plan was to enter a PhD program in social neuroscience, but this is not what I want to do any more. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy my new major as much as I expected. To be honest, my interest in social topics went away after I turned social studies into my main career. It was not intellectually challenging and stimulating, and the methods of studying human brain in social context sounded somewhat fishy to me. In addition, the job prospect for graduates of social neuroscience seems horrible. To make a long story short, I decided to switch back to a quantitative major after lots of struggles and thinking (Well, it's not easy to admit you'd made a wrong decisions--even to yourself!).

    I have got two options now: I can apply to a physics master's program to brush up my physics knowledge, and then continue to a PhD in physics. Alternatively, I can apply to master's programs in Data Science and start working as a data scientist after graduation. I know for a fact that getting a degree in data science is a safe plan as it leads to well-paid positions in data science. On the other hand, I think physics would be much more interesting for me and I will enjoy more if I build a career in physics. The only problem with my physics plan is that I see many of the graduates of physics end up in data science positions in the job market. So I think to myself "why not studying data science in the first place if I am to end up in a data science job?" My question is what are my chance of ending up in a non-academic job where I do physics and not data science if I get a PhD in physics? (non-academic because I think my chance of getting a tenure track position is really slim because of my age. I'm 32 now)

    Well, this is my story guys. I really appreciate any helpful advice or information. Thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 18, 2016 #2


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    To the OP:

    Since you had contemplated pursuing a MS in data science, why not consider pursuing a MS in statistics? A MS in statistics should give you more than sufficient preparation for careers in data science if that is the route you wish to take, as well as opening many more career doors for you (I presume you would have to take at least some statistics courses as part of your research methodology when finishing your MS in psychology, and your background in physics should give you more than sufficient mathematical background).

    To your question regarding non-academic physics jobs after a PhD in physics, this would depend very much on the particular research field within physics. Others have reported that those who have a PhD in condensed matter (solid state) physics have found employment in places like Intel or work in areas like materials science. I've heard similar stories where those who have finished a PhD in optics ended up working in engineering related work. There are additional threads about those who work in areas like accelerator physics and medical physics.
  4. Jan 18, 2016 #3
    Thank you StatGuy2000. I actually considered MS programs in stat as well. I totally agree with you that a master's in Statistics will be much valuable. And yes! I had courses like regression, multivariate analysis, and causal inference in my Psych program. So I think I am somewhat prepared for a Master's in stat.

    Regarding the placements after PhD in Physics you mentioned, do you know where I should look into to find such graduates on the web? I'd like to talk with some graduates and ask more detailed questions from them. Thanks again!
  5. Jan 18, 2016 #4


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    I actually highly advise against going to a Masters of Data Science at this point in time. Why people who have masters in physics, engineering, math/statistics, do well in data science is because they usually have experience taking real world scenarios and translate them into mathematical frameworks, or they know a lot of about the assumptions built into each model. I have yet to interview a candidate in a Data Science program that has been more hirable than someone with a plain old statistics degree. Their knowledge of data validation is weak, and their knowledge of statistics is typically no greater than that of an undergraduate. Plus there's also the fact that a statistics degree offers you more flexibility and a greater breadth that cannot be fit into a program that tries to mix three fields together.
  6. Jan 18, 2016 #5
    Thanks for your response MarneMath. I totally get your point. In fact, that was one of my concerns when searching for MS programs in data science. I am more for the programs that give students flexibility to take many courses in either statistics or CS. So on my list, there are two statistics programs and two data science programs which allow for a lots of electives in Statistics. After having an unhappy experience in an interdisciplinary field (social neuroscience) I'm very cautious about programs that try to mix different fields together!
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