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Specialise or stay general?

  1. Feb 22, 2014 #1
    I started university two years ago, aged 30. I'm now 32 and have achieved minors in math and physics. I really want to focus now on theoretical/mathematical physics (I'm particularly interested in particle physics and cosmology) but I'm concerned that, given my age and the nature the field, it might not be the wisest path. If I go on to do honours and a PhD I'll be 38 by the time I finish and, from what I've been reading in these forums, it might be an additional 10+ years of post-docs etc. before I have a secure job with a decent income… and that's if I'm a good physicist, which of course there's no guarantee I will be.

    So, rather than filling my third year of undergrad with units aimed at specialising in theoretical particle physics and cosmology, I'm considering taking a more general approach and gaining a major in a more mainstream field of physics as well as a major in applied mathematics. That way I can choose to do honours in either of these fields and probably find an industry job relatively easily after that.

    I feel like I'm coping out on my dream a little if I take the later option, but I am married with a daughter and I am genuinely concerned that if I do go down the PhD route, I may be shooting myself in the foot financially.

    If anyone feels they can either alleviate my concerns, or tell me that they are indeed warranted, please do. I'd be particular interested in knowing what kind of prospects I might have as a 38 year old, having just finished his PhD in theoretical particle physics and looking to commence career in academia.
     
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  3. Feb 22, 2014 #2

    Choppy

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    In my opinion staying general through your undergrad is better. It keeps more doors open. You specialize in grad school.

    And it's a good idea to have a backup plan. I would not be too concerned about your age. Rather, the prospects in general for a physics PhD looking for a permanent position in academia are slim. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that it's just a matter of being "good." Most PhD graduates are very good. Most are very hard working. Most are very intelligent. At that point the process of who gets in becomes much more stochastic. So it's a good idea to have an escape plan... even if you're the best thing since sliced bread.
     
  4. Feb 22, 2014 #3

    analogdesign

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    Choppy gives good advice. Being specialized with a BS can be a hinderance to your career prospects and being general with an MS or Ph.D. can also be a hinderance (although I'm not sure a general Ph.D. is possible... although I have seen a few "jack-of-all-trades" Ph.D programs).

    Have you considered engineering graduate school? I work with Ph.D. experimental physicists and cosmologists (I'm a Ph.D. engineer) and I personally find my work much more interesting and fulfilling than I perceive theirs to be.

    When you are practicing at a high level, Engineering is quite like "Very Applied Physics" to coin a phrase.
     
  5. Feb 22, 2014 #4
    That all seems like very sensible advice and gives me something to think about.

    I haven't considered engineering, although there are a number of students doing BSc/BE double degrees at my university and doing physics majors for their BSc. I've often thought that these guys will have really good career options. Not sure why I didn't think of it before, but it's definitely worth giving some thought.

    As an aside, if I chose to stick with physics, but look for a job in industry rather than academia, would a PhD provide a significant employment advantage compared to an honours degree? i.e. would it be worth the extra four years studying if I didn't plan to go into an academic career?
     
  6. Feb 22, 2014 #5

    analogdesign

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    I can tell you at my workplace we hire engineers with BS, MS, or PhD degrees or Physicists with PhD degrees (very rare to hire a physicist with an MS). Why is this? I'm not sure, but I suspect an engineer with an MS will have a lot more specific knowledge about how to design mechanical or electronic systems and software than an MS in Physics, so why not hire the engineer? There is brutal competition among PhD physicists so it seems an MS in physics would put you at a significant disadvantage either way. It wouldn't be a path I would choose to go down.

    If you can get yourself set up in an internship where you show yourself valuable all bets are off. That first job is the toughest.

    In all honesty, if you want a Ph.D. but don't plan on an academic career, study Electrical Engineering or Materials Science. Many of the projects overlap very much with projects in physics (especially in the areas of condensed matter and EM).
     
  7. Feb 23, 2014 #6
    Thank you very much for all your advice. It has clarified my thinking a lot.

    I've decided that I'll compete a double major in physics this year, which will take 6 out of my 8 units. With the other two I'll do computational math and complex analysis. My course requires me to do an honours year next year, which I'll do in physics. Between now and the end of next year I can decide for certain about what direction I want to take after that, but at least this path leaves both academic and industry paths open.
     
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