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Physics PhD's: Would you do it over again?

  1. Mar 13, 2014 #1
    As I'm nearing the end of my junior year, I'm starting to seriously consider whether I'll attend graduate school for physics in the upcoming years. I enjoy physics and doing research in physics, but I also don't want to be unemployed years down the line or the only employment option available is remaining an eternal post-doc. From what I've read on here and numerous other forums, it would appear that many (perhaps a majority) regret pursuing their PhD's in the long run and would have rather wished to pursue physics as a hobby and do something more "practical".

    So, my question for those with PhD's or currently pursuing one: If you could go back to the time you were finishing your undergraduate, would you do the PhD all over again? If not, what would you rather have done differently?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 13, 2014 #2
    Adding a poll would make this thread even better.
  4. Mar 13, 2014 #3
    Shouldnt there be a pursue a different major as undergrad option?

    Different majors have different expectations of what you need to be minimally employable.
  5. Mar 13, 2014 #4
    That could be a topic for a different thread/poll, one for people who enter the workforce with just a BS. It's probably been done already, but I'm not sure. I'm certain we already know the overwhelming answer for that for physics bachelors though. I think this topic deserves its place, as there's at least a dozen physics phd's who post regularly here.
  6. Mar 13, 2014 #5


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    Heck yeah!

  7. Mar 13, 2014 #6
    No question I would do it all over again for a couple of reasons. I started learning general relativity as an undergrad, I loved it and kept wanting to learn more, without a PhD there would have been an empty feeling in my life. Also, grad school was the best time of my life, I wouldn’t want to undo that.

    If I hadn’t felt so compelled to do it, then I probably wouldn’t do it over again. It cost a lot of money being in school without a full time job and putting off starting a career. It’s also kind of frustrating not being able to do what I like. I’d imagine the job market depends a lot on one’s specialization. The advice I was given when I started research (theory, using pen and paper) in grad school “if you can see yourself doing something else do that”. Like I said though, there is probably a huge variation depending on what you specialize in. It also probably makes a big difference depending on how extroverted you are and how well you market yourself.
  8. Mar 13, 2014 #7

    George Jones

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    I would do it again.

    As an undergrad, I quit school, and I thought that I would be able to pick up lots of physics as a "hobby". After some time off, I realized this wasn't going to happen, so I went back to school.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2014
  9. Mar 13, 2014 #8
    But it is still relevant because Physics is a double down major which means it is not BSc terminal.

    However if you are just a junior you arent in enough to really be committed to any major outcome. You could easily change to EE , CS , engineering physics, or material sciences.

    Would I have done Physics PhD again. Yes. Would I have done the physics route as a whole possibly not. I would of done CS or less likely materials science which are not majors which can be BSc or Masters terminal.

    I believe the older posters decisions had an easier time as far as getting jobs as generalist because it is earlier along in the trend for specialization and predates application tracking systems and expanding networks where employers can much more easily find specialist.

    The trend towards specialization is only going to continue as we become globalized and employers can draw from an even bigger pool.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2014
  10. Mar 13, 2014 #9


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    Absolutely I would do it again - even if I was faced with today's economy.

    Pursuing the gave me the opportunity to actually do research. As an undergrad I was doing book exercises. I did okay at that, but it wasn't until I reached graduate school that I really began to dive into a problem and make progress on it that no one else had made before (even if it was only in very incremental steps).

    I think the actual "doing" of research is one of my true passions. The PhD has opened a lot of doors in that respect. I think even if things would have turned out differently, had I not been able to do anything else, given the choice between nothing and something I would still go with something.

    Also, pursuing the PhD was probably the biggest challenge I could pursue at the time. Had I not done it I would have always wondered if I could have.

    One analogy that comes to mind for me is judo. I love the sport. The big 40 is coming up for me (still off in the distance but I can see the roadsign) and I know I'm never going to win an olympic medal. My best hope is to maybe compete in the nationals at the "veterans" level one day (for which, arguably, all you have to do is show up). But I still go because I enjoy it.
  11. Mar 13, 2014 #10
    To all those who answered they would, how many of you have permanent jobs working as physicists in either academia or industry? Do you feel your the majority of your colleagues and or former classmates in graduate school feel the same way (assuming you have kept in touch with any of them)? Do you acknowledge that you may possibly be the exception to the rule and the average physics PhD, in fact, regrets going to graduate school?
  12. Mar 13, 2014 #11
    You should realize that self rationalization is important for daily living. Of course there is going to be some friction against thinking that something you spent 5+ years on was not worth it. You arent going to get a completely unbiased answer because that isnt how people work.

    There is also little point in regretting something you spent a lot of time on because you cant turn back time. It is easier to make an alternate recommendation to someone else than regretting one's own action.
  13. Mar 16, 2014 #12

    Hmm..I think phd is the best way to prepare for a research-based career, and if i have the choice, I would definitely do it once and twice.. I just like being a phd student!
  14. Mar 16, 2014 #13
    Pick the wrong specialty, and the phd doesn't open up any research jobs at all. I think you underestimate the pain of finding something you truly enjoy and then having the opportunity to pursue it taken away.

    What if you never get that research based career, and all that time spent preparing is just time wasted?

    For my part, given a choice to do my phd again, I would not. I would have self taught some things after undergrad and jumped into my current career or something similar.
  15. Mar 16, 2014 #14
    I think the only reason you should ever do a PhD in physics is for the love of it. It makes no sense on almost any other measure. If you are good enough to get your PhD, then you could make much more money doing something else. On the other hand money isn't that important once you have over a certain threshold, and you will still do just fine after getting your PhD; it's not like you will be homeless.

    So for me, yes I would do it again. I think learning physics makes you a better human being :p.

    I am going on to do my first postdoc soon, but to be honest I will not relentlessly pursue a career in physics beyond that. If it just seems to work out on its own, then great, I am very happy for people to keep paying me to do physics. I'm not going to work myself to death for it though.
  16. Mar 16, 2014 #15
    You are taking away the carrot while the person is still on the treadmill.
  17. Mar 16, 2014 #16


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    I would do it again. I teach physics at a community college, and I love my job.

    If that's your worry, then it's not a realistic worry. Very few physicists end up unemployed.
  18. Mar 17, 2014 #17
    Am I taking the carrot away? Or are they jogging for only an illusion of a carrot?
  19. Mar 17, 2014 #18


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    ParticleGrl, would you think you could have landed into your current career by self-teaching yourself some things after undergrad in physics alone, as opposed to self-teaching yourself with a PhD? I ask this because many statistics and "data science" positions frequently require applicants to have at least a masters degree in some quantitative field.

    Perhaps for those considering a data science career, completing one's undergrad in physics and then pursuing a MS or PhD in a different quantitative field (statistics, applied math, industrial engineering, operations research, computer science) may open career doors.
  20. Mar 17, 2014 #19


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    I have a permanent job as a medical physicist. Just about all of my former graduate class mates are working in the field and seem quite happy, so I suspect they would do it over again.

    To be honest I don't think I'm the exception to the rule at all. Even the former class mates outside of medical physics that I've kept in touch with who left academia seem happy with the choices they've made.
  21. Mar 17, 2014 #20


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    Given what you know now, and assuming that you still want to do a PhD in physics, would you have (i) chosen the same field of study and (ii) if you do, would you have made a more conscious effort to prepare for a backup plan?

    You have to admit that the area of physics and the specialty that you had picked have had a very poor rate of hiring during the past decade! Even those who went into experimental particle physics, the ones that get hired are the ones who specialized in instrumentation and detectors, i.e. they have other useful abilities that make them attractive beyond just academia.

    Physics PhD's do get jobs! But there are also Physics PhD's who don't, and can't find a job that is commensurate with ability/knowledge. The question now is, in what areas are those, and did they also do anything else in particular.

    My take on this has always been that everyone needs to go in with their eyes wide open. If you KNOW that you are going into a very competitive, low-employment area (particle physics theory, anyone?), and you are hard-headed and resolved to study this, then make sure you make extra preparation for the strong possibility that you will not end up in that field, or even in physics! That is all any one of us can do on here. Present the reality, and it is up to the individual and his/her comfort level if the risk is worth taking.

    And in case people have missed it, the latest Obama Administration budget proposal for DOE Office of Science has a BUDGET CUT of 6.8% for High Energy Physics. This is after a miserable funding for HEP from this fiscal year. So while the overall budget for DOE Office of Science and NSF remain relatively flat, HEP continues to retract! And this is all before the US Congress, who have not been in any kind of a spending mood the last few years, get their hands on the budget proposal!

    So draw your own conclusion on whether there is going to be a lot of new hiring if you are majoring in high energy physics. You may still be a student, and you may think you are immune to the ebb and flow of politics and the economy, but you are not.

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