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Programs Reconsidering the PhD

  1. Jun 22, 2011 #1
    I'm less than a month into a PhD in theoretical physics and am already seriously wondering whether it's right for me. Any advice would be hugely appreciated. Here are my (hopefully relevant) thoughts... apologies in advance for the length :)

    - It's very difficult to stay motivated to focus on research 8 or more hours a day, every day. I know I'll be taking courses come fall, which will break this up some, but I suspect when courses are done, it will be all research all the time until I'm finished with the PhD.
    - I love math & physics and ultimately want to teach at the college level (but not do research). I know adjunct & community college salaries tend to be dismal, but I also understand that it's next to impossible to get a decent full-time teaching position without the doctorate. I don't want to move around a bunch, either (which I understand is necessary as a postdoc).
    - I'm pretty sure that I'm not looking for a tenure-track position. The job security of tenure would be nice, but endless proposals and publications aren't for me. I just want to teach (but not live in near-poverty while doing so).
    - I have a Master's degree already. I had to take a year off for personal reasons before starting the PhD and was unable to get a job during that time, so no employment experience either. I do have 1 year of teaching experience at the school where I got my Master's. As a result of the time off, I feel like I've changed a lot and forgotten many things, and it's very difficult to get back into the routine -- even though I loved school and did extremely well as an undergrad/MS student.
    - It's also my first time living far away from home, so homesickness may be a contributing factor, and I certainly don't want to make a career decision based on that.

    What should I do? I want to teach college-level and earn a decent living (though I don't care about amassing wealth). I'm not sure that I can do computational research all day, every day for the next 3-5 years, though. I have no interest in experiment or industry. But, given that it's so very early in the PhD, I'm not convinced that I should just walk away... Would colleges even consider hiring me to teach, after a year of unemployment and an uncompleted PhD? I don't want to come across as unreliable.
    I should add that I like my advisor and the general atmosphere just fine.

    I've got undergrad loans to pay back, too, so finances are a concern there.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 22, 2011 #2


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    If people weren't hiring people with unemployment histories in this economy..... :rofl:

    All I can really throw in here is that even if you teach with a MS, you're not going to be living anywhere near the poverty level. I mean it's not a freaken job at McDonalds!
  4. Jun 22, 2011 #3
    It's actually easier than it sounds. You start up working on a problem or doing some grunge work, then before you know it, it's the evening, and you wish there were more hours in the day. Also the frustration and dead ends are why research takes a lot of time. You have an idea, work on it non-stop for two weeks, then at the end, you figure out it doesn't work, so you toss that idea and start with other one.

    Time passes very quick.

    If you want to teach, then you can get a full time job and teach as an adjunct or at University of Phoenix. You know those signs for community colleges that say "our instructors have real world experience." It's because they don't pay a living wage, and you can't live off an adjuncts salary.

    However, if you view community college teaching as "paid charity work", then it works out pretty well.

    That's trivially easy to do. Get a job doing something else, and then volunteer as an adjunct at a local community college or University of Phoenix. Now if you want to earn a decent living *by* teaching at the college level, then that's different.

    True story. I was at a supermarket, and the person bagging my groceries was telling the person next to them that they had to take a day off because he needed the day to teach his class at Austin Community College.

    One other thing is that teaching is like research, you really need to do it to find out what it's like. You'll find that you spend a *lot* of time doing babysitting work, and that most students are not terribly interested in the material, and there is no way that you can make them interested in the material if they don't want to be.

    The other thing is that there are high-glamour/high-status teaching jobs, but the things that have high demand are things that are low-glamour and low-status.

    Probably not as a adjunct.

    University of Phoenix requires that their instructors have two years work experience and a current job before they consider your application. A lot of community colleges have similar rules. They reason for this is that they know that you aren't paying you a living wage.
  5. Jun 22, 2011 #4


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    What about teaching high school? or do you not consider that real teaching.
  6. Jun 22, 2011 #5


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    I did a first year teaching practicum while I was enrolled in an education unit at a high school.

    Now I was lucky because I went to a selective public high school.

    To tell the truth it was crazy. I've never seen children so polite, so enthusiastic, so respectful: i thought i might have been in the twilight zone.

    During my prac I spoke to experienced teachers and they basically said most schools are the complete opposite of this one: in other words a lot of your energy is spent on crap like getting the kids to sit down and shutup and to even pay attention at least half the time.

    I'm happy with my choice to become a statistics major, and I'm glad I got exposed to teaching, even if the environment was the best that it could be (and that experienced teachers have to work their guts out to get).

    If you can put up with the kind of crap that goes with high school teaching, then kudos to you. It's not intellectually demanding, but its demanding in so many other ways.
  7. Jun 22, 2011 #6
    That's certainly real teaching, but I've also heard that high school teachers don't make a decent wage either. Plus, my state's been making cuts to education right and left, and I understand the situation is similar across the country. And I'm not sure I can put up with the crap that goes with high school teaching, as chiro said.

    I do have a year of actual college teaching experience, plus a bunch of TA experience, and teaching college-level courses is definitely something I can see myself doing for the rest of my life.
  8. Jun 23, 2011 #7
    I've discovered that most schools would rather hire an education bachelors than a physics masters or phd. The issue is largely one of pay- phds and masters get paid more, and there is a funding crunch. Maybe when the economy turns around more, things wil get better on this front. Or maybe your state has a thriving private school market.

    The problem is that a lot of this work is done by adjuncts who do not really make a living wage. Generally, a school only has one or two classes available for the adjunct, and it only pays $1500-$2000 or so per class (not per month, total). A friend of mine with a history phd adjuncts at 5 schools in NY to get a full class load, which cobbles together about 24k a year, a good chunk of which is spent on insurance and the commuting between 5 part time jobs.
  9. Jun 23, 2011 #8
    And there is the skills issue. A lot of high school teaching involves babysitting and burger flipping, and that's the type of thing that Ph.D.'s are either skilled at or interested in doing.

    In particular, high school teachers have very little control over what they actually teach, and they are required to cover the topics in the lesson plan. They also have to deal with parents, disciplinary issues, and students that aren't that interested and have other issues.

    But it's great if you view it as paid charity work.
  10. Jun 23, 2011 #9


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    They do. Oddly enough I was looking up the jobs at our school district. The pay was from $40k-$60k, certainly a decent wage. It's a decently funded district, however.
  11. Jun 24, 2011 #10
    Depending upon which state you are in, you also muht have trouble at the high school level. States such as Ohio split up their sciences. You can get licensed to teach physics, chemistry, bilogy, or earth sciences, depending upon which classes you have taken. You can also get licensed to teach more than one, but ironically don't need as many classes in each subject. For example, to get licensed for all four, you only need about 5 -6 specific classes in each subject. This means someone with a physics degree who hasn't taken a lot of the other classes (and could only be licensed to teach physics) isn't as marketable as someone who has a liberal arts degree but has taken all those classes.

    This was my stuation and the reason I decided to take my current job rather than finish up my M.Ed. With a masters in nuclear engineering and the M.Ed., I would be near the top of the pay scale, but oly teaching physics. COmpare this to someone who has a B.S. but is licensed for all all four subject areas, and you can see why my decision was easy (not to mention SB5, but that's another story).

    I did teach as an adjunct for two quarters, and yes, it doesn't pay well, they prefer PhD for their permanent positions (which pay decently), but a permanent position takes a long time. Most community colleges would rather have adjuncts since they don't have to pay benefits, but hire a limited number of full time instructors.
  12. Jun 26, 2011 #11
    Thank you all for your perspectives. I'm looking into other options now, at the very least, and I have a few things that seem promising...

    ...It's a big, scary step (leaving graduate school is so permanent!), but I think that in the long run, this is much better for my overall emotional & physical well-being.
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