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Physics? Without a degree?

  1. May 30, 2013 #1
    Greetings, I figured a significant portion of you are, or are close to being experts, and I greatly value your input.

    I have searched through the forum, and a few other places on the internet referring to this type of topic, but not really finding an answer to my particular question.

    I understand that a degree is a signal to other scientists and potential employers, and that getting a masters and PhD provide great opportunities to network. However, for the sake of this hypothetical discussion, if an individual could do the math, programming, physics, etc, expected of a PhD without actually possessing the Physics degree.

    A) Could such an individual get a job as a physicist?

    B) I understand that this provides more potential risk for employers since this individual does not have a formal “accredited education”. Taking this into account, could this person become a physicist if he/she was willing to work for drastically reduced wages, and or, even for free, for a designated probation period until competence can be properly demonstrated?

  2. jcsd
  3. May 30, 2013 #2
    So most physics phds (myself included) never find full time work doing physics- there just aren't enough jobs for all of us. For almost any job in physics you'll get multiple phds applying- why would someone hire you instead of one of them?
  4. May 31, 2013 #3
    I think it would be very, very improbable, mostly because:
    That's the situation right now in the US and Canada. (Maybe there are exceptions in Europe, Japan, or Australia - I don't really know.)

    I still think it's possible for a skilled person with no PhD to do physics, just not to be a physicist for a living. Some physics research, e.g. high-energy particle experiments, simply can't be done on a hobbyist budget. But some topics, e.g. quantum information theory, can be done with a computer, some software, and some way to read journal articles without going broke. Journals are weary of authors with no institutional affiliation, but some of them still read papers from unknown authors.

    Scientists with programming skills can also contribute by helping with open-source software. For example, the people who worked on SciPy were hugely important to many of the research projects in my department.
  5. May 31, 2013 #4
    Being a physicist is more than just reading textbooks and mastering old material. You have to be able to produce new material. If you can manage to produce unique results and thus relevant publications then you could probably get a job doing research. Of course the easiest way to get productive is to go to graduate school. It will take you far longer, maybe longer than your working lifespan, to do it on your own.
  6. May 31, 2013 #5
    Someone without at least a formal BS in Physics would likely not be taken seriously by other academics if he/she wanted to publish, unless he/she actually did produce something top notch on their own time like Wigner or Dirac did (unsure if he did this before he got his 2nd degree in math, after engineering). Academic affiliation is important.

    A BS in physics just barely provides enough background to read and understand current research literature (only in a few fields), and self-studying it to a minimum level of competence would probably take much longer than the length of a bachelors for most people. Not to mention you'd have no form of assessment or access to experimental setups, or the support and feedback from other academics. Reaching a level enough to actually be in a position to produce research almost certainly requires a lot of human interaction and learning from things other than books and papers along the way.

    I will repeat my anecdote: a phd who completed his thesis on quantum information theory on his own time over the span of 5-6 years, with little academic support and no financial assistance, publishing half a dozen papers. But he did have a fairly hardcore undergraduate preparation, as he completed his physics degree entirely through a distance learning university (5 years in length, which happens to have the most insane exams I've ever seen as the sole basis of assessment), so he was a lot better prepared for doing independent research on his own time than most people.
    Last edited: May 31, 2013
  7. May 31, 2013 #6


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    This is hypothetical situation that doesn't occur. You might as well consider the possibility of a broken vase spontaneously reassembled back into its original shape. We do not plan our lives around such possibilities, and neither should you.

  8. May 31, 2013 #7

    Vanadium 50

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    This probation period exists, and is called "graduate school".
  9. May 31, 2013 #8
    Put the work in and get the education. I was looking at federal jobs at national labs the other day and under requirements they have at least a bachelors in a related science,mathematics or engineering. Or you can prove your education with a certification like the FE or PE. The only problem is to actually take the FE which comes before the PE you actually have to have like 50 credit hours in engineering course work. This situation just does not seem at all likely to occur
  10. Jun 1, 2013 #9
    You got to decide, physics as hobby or physics as profession. The former doesnt need any degree but nobody is going to pay you for doing it. It is not a bad idea if you have some other means(some other degree) of paying your rent and bills. The latter requires a PhD in most cases.
    The answer to your question is a big NO you will not get a physics job without a degree unless you end up being some kind of Newton or Einstein and publish papers which cause a revolution in the scientific world. In that case it may be possible that some school award a honorary doctorate.
  11. Jun 2, 2013 #10


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    1. Even Einstein and newton had academic degrees!

    2. No one gets hired based on honorary degrees.

  12. Jun 2, 2013 #11
    How about Faraday, Benjamin Franklin and mathematical genius Srinivas Ramanujan?

    Thats because most of them already have good jobs!

    I have seen so many people with physics degrees on this forum and elsewhere who are so full of nonsense. There are too many 'educated' physicists who are outstandingly bad at physics and too many educational institutions which don't do a good job teaching physics or don't teach physics in the proper way. Looking at all these its not a bad idea at least in principle to be self educated if learning is the only objective and not getting a job. There are also correspondence courses and distance learning programs which dont require much classroom attendance.
    Last edited: Jun 2, 2013
  13. Jun 2, 2013 #12
    The real world requires jumping through hoops to achieve your goals. For scientific research that costs money and human resources, getting a formal degree in the relevant field is one of those hoops, and is in fact the easiest one to jump in comparison to the others (getting research internships, doing something productive there, getting into graduate school, proving yourself there and at the post-doc level, etc.).

    If someone can't or won't even jump through the hoop that is essentially closer to a high school diploma than a phd, why do you think an institution would hire him/her? Faraday and Ramanujan are one-in-a-million cases. One was lucky enough to get an apprentinceship under a wealthy working scientist who was crippled, the other got into research because some of his work ended up on the desk of a wealthy academic in the UK who invited him over(and he had completed at least some university studies already). Even academics who have pulled themselves out of 3rd world countries like Chandrasekhar had completed a bachelors degree and published articles before getting a research-oriented job.
  14. Jun 2, 2013 #13
    Ok, I'm going to add in a bit of my personal experience here. Prior to beginning my physics major, I had worked my way to the top of my previous field (health and fitness). I did so through self-education of business management. I was also extremely successful, and have very impressive achievements on my resume as well as excellent references. However, because of not having a degree, some companies wouldn't even look at me.

    When it comes to physics, I'm sure I could self-educate myself just like I did with business management. However, the reason I chose to go to college and start earning a degree was for the same reason that most people have already mentioned in here, which is that people just won't take you seriously. Even though I increased revenue by over 70% within the first year for my department as management (again, in my previous field), because I didn't have a degree, other businesses were wary of hiring me on when I looked to relocate. Many said the owners of the business or human resources department literally wouldn't allow them to even do so.

    One reason people require degrees is uniformity. By having that degree, they know there are certain prerequisite courses you have taken, and as such, they have a basic understanding of what you have learned. They also know through you passing those courses that you have some level of competency in them. Now, let's say you applied for a job and use the argument that you are self-educated. There are a lot of problems they would encounter, such as:

    1. Without a degree, they have no idea what else you have learned. Sure, you may know *most* of what you have to, but there might be a specific type of math you need for some code, or a certain type of knowledge you would have acquired through college that was part of a prerequisite, but you simply weren't aware you needed to know on your own. Now, they have a liability on their hands, or at the minimum, an employee who can't perform to their expectations.

    2. Liability concerns if something goes wrong. Say you made an error that somehow caused another person to be harmed, or information that was erroneous and caused other issues. If you had a degree, the company has their bases covered. However, if you have no degree, it would be MUCH more difficult for the company to defend themselves if it were something that became a matter of the courts.

    3. Experience. If you have no degree, you lack the years of hands-on experience acquired in required lab courses. Sure, you may have experience in other professions that are similar, but again, the issue comes up that there is no uniformity there. The lab work is very diverse depending on the course, and you would be VERY hard-pressed to get that same type of hands-on experience out in the world without the support of college courses.

    No matter what profession you are in, a college degree gives a company confidence in your education and background. Having gone through the process personally, if I knew then what I know now, I would have begun my college education years ago. It is just so much more difficult to even be seen for an interview, let alone hired, without one.
  15. Jun 2, 2013 #14


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    Remember, YOU brought up the Newton/Einstein as "evidence" that "... The answer to your question is a big NO you will not get a physics job without a degree unless you end up being some kind of Newton or Einstein and publish papers which cause a revolution in the scientific world..." I was pointing out that your "evidence" is highly incorrect because these two certainly had degrees.

    As for your examples, are you saying that ALL of them had no academic standing? And how far back in history do you wish to use? How about using examples that are relevant in TODAY'S world? Show me who, in the last 50 years, have achieved such a profession without a degree? Using something that far back, in which the situation is no longer even anywhere applicable is downright misleading and is an outright misinformation.

    Again, this is a response to YOUR bringing up such honorary degree situation. This means that these people already had jobs, and the "honorary degree" is irrelevant! You brought it up, I countered.

    No one is arguing about learning physics just as a hobby, but this is not what the OP is asking about, is it? So stick to the topic at hand and not go off on a tangent on your rant about the educational system. No one here is arguing that just because someone has a degree, he/she makes for a good physicist. You are incorrectly implying that we are.

    There is a difference between a necessary condition versus a necessary and sufficient condition. Getting a degree in physics is a necessary condition to becoming a practicing physicist in today's world. However, it is NOT a necessary and sufficient condition! Just because you have a physics degree does NOT guarantee that you be a physicist, and it doesn't guarantee that it makes you a good physicist.

    Learn the difference in the logical argument!

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