Should I go into Physics?

  • #1
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Hello. I have posted a similar thread many years ago.

I am finishing my EE undergraduate degree in about 6 months and am thinking of doing of a Masters in Physics. I have had a discussion about it on the forum. It is challenging to switch fields but it seems doable to me at the moment. However, I went through a lot of posts in the Career Guidance section and it a physics career at this stage does not make rational sense for me as my financials aren't exactly stellar (and there is a possibility that my parents maybe dependent on me later in life). In addition, statistics show that a significant portion of Physics PhDs don't end up in Physics so that adds a lot of uncertainty.

But something tells me that I might regret not going into physics. I know at this point this seems like a life advice question but any help will be greatly appreciated. I would love to hear from people who have pursued Physics PhDs but are now doing something else or who have transitioned to Physics from a different field. Thanks!
 

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  • #2
CrysPhys
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To: OP. In another thread, you mentioned that you can get funding for your Masters, including remedial coursework. Assuming you can get full funding for your entire PhD program, I'll give you the same advice that I would give to someone in the US in the same scenario (essentially along the lines of, "I have a passion for physics, but I'm not sure I can make a living out of it"). This is advice that I've given here a couple of times before (in different forms, with different emphasis).

A PhD in physics can be an end in itself, not merely a means to an end. That is, the education and skills that you acquire, and the research that you perform for your thesis, can be rewarding and satisfying in itself ... for those who are driven by passion (as you appear to be). Then you move on. If you plan to stay in India (particularly if taking care of your parents in the future is a responsibility you plan to assume), then you need to assess what the future career opportunities in India are afterwards. And while you are in grad school, pick up the education, skills, and experience that will help make you more marketable.

As for me (in the US), I spent 4 yrs for my undergrad degree and 7 yrs for my PhD degree (here it is common to enter a PhD program directly upon completion of a bachelor's). My stint in grad school was rocky, but the research itself was satisfying and kept me going. My concentration was in solid-state physics. Upon graduation, I was hired into a major industrial R&D lab, working on optoelectronics devices. All was good for ~ 9 yr. Then there was a major industry downturn, and I transitioned to careers as a quality/systems/network engineer. I worked through more industry ups and downs for ~15 yrs; and then I got tired of the angst of weekly rounds of layoffs, and transitioned to a career as a patent agent in a law firm.

So, I spent 11 yrs in school preparing for a career in physics that lasted only 9 yrs; not a good return from that perspective. But the education and skills I acquired definitely contributed to my success in subsequent careers: I had both breadth and depth that allowed me to zig-zag through crazy times. And the satisfaction and reward of my PhD research were not lost.

Note: I could have extended my career in physics if I had been willing to make some personal sacrifices, which I was not. Even in the midst of an overall industry downturn, there usually is some hiring going on, if you are willing to relocate. But I had just recently bought a new house, my wife had a stable job that she liked, and I had a young daughter who was my number one priority. In contrast, one of my colleagues wanted to stay within his specialty, and he did: but over the course of ~10 yrs, he moved to 5 different states, with his wife and kids in tow. Another colleague relocated, separating from his family for two years (the job market was too unstable for him to commit to moving his family). For me, my family was more important than my career, so I stayed put and changed careers to what was in demand locally at a given time: all the while leveraging my physics background.
 
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  • #3
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@CrysPhys Thanks for answering!

I've often heard and read about physics PhDs eventually working in industry and software. I am into software as well. How difficult is the transition though? Like even currently, I feel like I have to do extra coursework to catch up with my friends who majored in computer engineering/computer science.
 
  • #4
CrysPhys
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@CrysPhys Thanks for answering!

I've often heard and read about physics PhDs eventually working in industry and software. I am into software as well. How difficult is the transition though? Like even currently, I feel like I have to do extra coursework to catch up with my friends who majored in computer engineering/computer science.
* I can't answer your question from first-hand experience, because I was never interested in transitioning to software.

* A lot depends on how much software experience you acquire during your PhD program. A colleague of mine got his PhD in physics, concentration in high-energy particle physics. His program was initially directed towards hardware development, and eventually taking measurements. With limited access to accelerators, however, his program timeline was going to be way too long. His advisor gave him the option of analyzing existing data; which he did. His thesis work involved writing a lot of complex software. When he graduated, he had no problems getting a job as a software developer. But he soon grew bored with it, went to law school, and became a patent attorney.

* But, regardless of which field X you transition to, I think you have the wrong perspective. You'll drive yourself crazy trying to compare yourself with candidates who explicitly got a degree in X, and feeling it's hopeless you'll ever compete. Much will boil down to local supply/demand in X at the time you complete your PhD. That's several years away. As I've reported several times before, the job market can invert from a shortage of candidates in X to mass layoffs of workers in X within an interval of less than two years (and that was pre-pandemic). In the early 2000's, many US companies were off-shoring software development as well as coding to India; then they pulled back. I haven't kept up with what the current cycle is; and who knows what the cycle will be when you're looking for a job.

* So what you need to do is leverage the skills you've acquired (what value do you have to offer an employer in field X that a candidate with a degree in X does not have), be flexible, and adapt to the local job market at the time you graduate. E.g., there are many jobs that depend on analysis and modelling. I know physicists who transitioned to network simulation, analysis, and architecture; and others who went into financial analysis and modelling. The physicists I know who got into deep trouble during hi-tech downturns were those who were unwilling to transition to something else.
 
  • #5
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I have known friends who went from a physics doctoral program to a EE doctoral program, (mainly because at the school, plasma physics was placed in the EE, not physics). He passed the doctoral qualifying exam in physics, and then had to pass one in EE. He had great determination to change. I believe I also remember a EE that went to a physics masters. He helped me design a circuit in some research I did in experimental physics.
Seems like a EE would be a greater advantage in the physics lab, (experimental physics), rather than theoretical physics, assuming the EE was in a area like circuits, maybe communication. My background in control theory helped me in a theoretical area, although the actual thesis was in interpreting results from experimental physics.
Perhaps, you can tell us why you want to study physics; what area, experimental vs theoretical; atomic, nuclear, high energy, biophysics, general relativity, astrophysics, meteorology, geophysics, etc.

I am happy with my post-academic career, although I no longer publish even sporadically, at best occasionally. I do mostly computer modeling of physical systems. I read physics, sometimes I have to apply the solutions to different problems which are not treated in the textbooks, and develop algorithms and computer programs to test these solutions, and apply them to aerospace systems. I wear several hats, between EE, Aerospace Engineering, and Physics. I know some others battling in academia with post-docs, assistant professorships and eventually tenure.

I wont lie to you, if I could get a position (this late in life) to a university in say the top 40-80 in the US, I might take it. However, I see younger physicists of good ability slugging it out to achieve success, and I congratulate them, but I don't envy them. I am paid as much or more, although this might be an unfair comparison, because they are younger and are in early/mid career, rather than mid/late career.

I believe physics is where you find it. You do not have to do research necessarily. Strangely, my first publication has been cited more than any subsequent ones, although it was not my best work. But that is my story, what about yours?

Perhaps, you can tell us why you want to study physics; what area, experimental vs theoretical; atomic, nuclear, high energy, biophysics, general relativity, astrophysics, meteorology, geophysics, etc.
 
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  • #6
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Perhaps, you can tell us why you want to study physics; what area, experimental vs theoretical; atomic, nuclear, high energy, biophysics, general relativity, astrophysics, meteorology, geophysics, etc.
I was interested in astrophysics since I was kid and not just in a pop-sci way. I was reading elementary university level textbooks. I enrolled in a Physics program. But since the end of high school I was in a bad place mental health wise, which carried over into university. I felt like I couldn't keep studying for so many years and then I changed to EE. Now that I think of it, it was more about the mental state I was in (not to mention that the university was horrible).

Anyway, fast forward to today, it is the only thing that truly excites me. There are other "cool" things I guess but none as exciting as this. But as I mentioned, I don't want to make impulsive choices anymore.
 
  • #7
bob012345
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I was interested in astrophysics since I was kid and not just in a pop-sci way. I was reading elementary university level textbooks. I enrolled in a Physics program. But since the end of high school I was in a bad place mental health wise, which carried over into university. I felt like I couldn't keep studying for so many years and then I changed to EE. Now that I think of it, it was more about the mental state I was in (not to mention that the university was horrible).

Anyway, fast forward to today, it is the only thing that truly excites me. There are other "cool" things I guess but none as exciting as this. But as I mentioned, I don't want to make impulsive choices anymore.
This answer addresses the possibility that your going into physics might ultimately lead to a doctorate.

Being truly excited about physics is a big part of it but also you must ask yourself honestly how good are you at physics? I mean how natural does it come to you? Can you think physics or do you just get by in the subject?

When I was in graduate school in physics pursuing a PhD, I noticed two kinds of students. One group got decent grades, did the work but it was work to do it and to understand. The other, only a handful really, were just naturals. I believe physics is a unique field that to advance in requires people who flourish and are really good at it. In the end I realized that wasn't me even though I could do very well on tests and get good grades in advanced topics (and ultimately even pass a PhD Qualifying exam). So I completed a masters in physics, couldn't get a decent job offer and defected to EE for another masters and did well. I still love physics and that's why I'm here but I left the field to those who could think and do physics like pros.

One last point. Do you read journals on your own? Naturals soak themselves in current topics through journals and self learning. From your comment above perhaps you do. That would be a good indicator.
 
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  • #8
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This answer addresses the possibility that your going into physics might ultimately lead to a doctorate.

Being truly excited about physics is a big part of it but also you must ask yourself honestly how good are you at physics? I mean how natural does it come to you? Can you think physics or do you just get by in the subject?

When I was in graduate school in physics pursuing a PhD, I noticed two kinds of students. One group got decent grades, did the work but it was work to do it and to understand. The other, only a handful really, were just naturals. I believe physics is a unique field that to advance in requires people who flourish and are really good at it. In the end I realized that wasn't me even though I could do very well on tests and get good grades in advanced topics (and ultimately even pass a PhD Qualifying exam). So I completed a masters in physics, couldn't get a decent job offer and defected to EE for another masters and did well. I still love physics and that's why I'm here but I left the field to those who could think and do physics like pros.

One last point. Do you read journals on your own? Naturals soak themselves in current topics through journals and self learning. From your comment above perhaps you do. That would be a good indicator.
I understand the type of people you're talking about. I had a couple of classmates like that (who pursued Physics). Well I wouldn't say that I am a genius or prodigy. Generally, I do manage to gain mathematical intuition after spending time with the subject.

I don't read a lot papers, partly because I generally lack the prerequisites to understand it fully but I do skim through them sometimes to know what is happening in the field (read papers about LIGO, phosphine on Venus etc.)
 
  • #9
CrysPhys
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When I was in graduate school in physics pursuing a PhD, I noticed two kinds of students. One group got decent grades, did the work but it was work to do it and to understand. The other, only a handful really, were just naturals. I believe physics is a unique field that to advance in requires people who flourish and are really good at it. In the end I realized that wasn't me even though I could do very well on tests and get good grades in advanced topics (and ultimately even pass a PhD Qualifying exam). So I completed a masters in physics, couldn't get a decent job offer and defected to EE for another masters and did well. I still love physics and that's why I'm here but I left the field to those who could think and do physics like pros.
<<Emphasis added.>> To me, this perspective is too harsh, severe, and bleak. Physics is comprehensive enough to accommodate a distributed population. If by "flourish", you mean win the Nobel Prize, publish ground-breaking papers, become a tenured professor at a top-ranked university, or become a celebrity media commentator, then, sure, few will flourish (but this holds true for any field). But if by "flourish", you mean completing a PhD dissertation that is personally satisfying and fulfilling, then moving on to something else (e.g., physics R&D in industry, non-physics R&D in industry, software development, engineering, manufacturing, business, finance, teaching at a lower-ranked university, teaching at a high school, ...), then many more will flourish (or at least have productive, satisfying careers).

The OP realizes that his long-term career may not necessarily be as a research astrophysicist, and has asked about a Plan B. So he is grounded in reality. It's better to go for it; rather than not go for it, and look back years from now with regret, with the plaintive sigh, "If only I had ...."

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: "It might have been!"

-- From "Maud Muller" by John Greenleaf Whittier


Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are 'It might have been'.

-- From "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
 
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  • #10
bob012345
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If by "flourish", you mean win the Nobel Prize, publish ground-breaking papers, become a tenured professor at a top-ranked university, or become a celebrity media commentator, then, sure, few will flourish (but this holds true for any field). But if by "flourish", you mean completing a PhD dissertation that is personally satisfying and fulfilling, then moving on to something else (e.g., physics R&D in industry, non-physics R&D in industry, software development, engineering, manufacturing, business, finance, teaching at a lower-ranked university, teaching at a high school, ...), then many more will flourish (or at least have productive, satisfying careers).
I meant the latter. There are many levels of success. Not all singers are Pavarotti but all good singers can carry a tune. In my case, even though I could appreciate the music in general (do well in courses) and even fill in a missing note here or there (do homework and tests), I concluded I really wasn't prepared to compose original works (do theory) or perform works (do experiments) at a professional level. But every person has to decide for themselves.
 
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  • #11
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If by "flourish", you mean win the Nobel Prize, publish ground-breaking papers, become a tenured professor at a top-ranked university, or become a celebrity media commentator, then, sure, few will flourish (but this holds true for any field). But if by "flourish", you mean completing a PhD dissertation that is personally satisfying and fulfilling, then moving on to something else (e.g., physics R&D in industry, non-physics R&D in industry, software development, engineering, manufacturing, business, finance, teaching at a lower-ranked university, teaching at a high school, ...), then many more will flourish (or at least have productive, satisfying careers).
Yes I agree. But wouldn't you say that being average as a STEM researcher (particularly in pure sciences) is harsher than being average in say engineering?
 
  • #12
CrysPhys
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Yes I agree. But wouldn't you say that being average as a STEM researcher (particularly in pure sciences) is harsher than being average in say engineering?
If you're asking me whether I think that getting a PhD in physics is harder and more demanding than getting a PhD in various other fields, then the answer is yes. If you're asking me whether I think that pursuing a career as a research physicist is harder and more demanding than pursuing a career in various other fields, then the answer is also yes.

But we seem to be going in circles now. You want to pursue a PhD in physics (concentration in astrophysics) to satisfy your passion, correct? Once you have achieved that goal, will you then be content to move on to something else as a career if circumstances dictate, or will you be devastated if you cannot pursue a career as a research astrophysicist? From your various posts, I thought you had this issue settled. But if you still have doubts, then you should resolve them before pursuing a physics PhD.
 
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  • #13
hutchphd
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One thing that should also be said: The knowledge you get studying Physics is durable and comprehensive; the physics I learned 50 years ago still stands me in good stead. I see no reason why this will change. Other subjects not so much.
 
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  • #14
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If you're asking me whether I think that getting a PhD in physics is harder and more demanding than getting a PhD in various other fields, then the answer is yes. If you're asking me whether I think that pursuing a career as a research physicist is harder and more demanding than pursuing a career in various other fields, then the answer is also yes.

But we seem to be going in circles now. You want to pursue a PhD in physics (concentration in astrophysics) to satisfy your passion, correct? Once you have achieved that goal, will you then be content to move on to something else as a career if circumstances dictate, or will you be devastated if you cannot pursue a career as a research astrophysicist? From your various posts, I thought you had this issue settled. But if you still have doubts, then you should resolve them before pursuing a physics PhD.
Yeah. Might as well just go for it. Thanks for the advice!
 
  • #15
bob012345
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Yeah. Might as well just go for it. Thanks for the advice!
I wish you great success in pursuing your physics studies then.
 
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  • #16
Yeah. Might as well just go for it. Thanks for the advice!
You could ask persons who have achieved gaining phds in astrophysics or engineering, or in other fields of the sciences to help you. Or mathematicians who have achieved gaining a phd in math. They would know and could help you i think. Ask them for advice if you want.
 

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