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Starting a life and Self Fulfillment

  1. Dec 26, 2009 #1


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    I've gone through both "ZapperZ's "So you want to be a Physicist?"" and "The Should-I-Become-An-Engineer? Thread", and I am still having a tough time figuring out what exactly I want to do. Both threads, and many other threads, have given me a lot of insight about what each field involves, but a few things are getting in the way of my decision. The way I see my two options are as follows:

    1. Get a BS in X-Engineering, and get a job thus allowing me to really start my life (get married, start a family, buy a house, etc)

    2. Get a BS in Physics*, continue onto graduate school to get my Ph.D., do a year or three of post-doctoral work, then get a real job and start my life.

    I would truly enjoy a job in either field, but I really do not want to wait so long to start my life. However, I would simply not feel accomplished with myself if I did not get a Ph.D. in physics, and that would follow me through life. It really is a difficult decision, as I want both of those things very badly. What would you do?

    *I do realize that it is possible to get a job with a BS in physics, but in the back of my mind I know that a BS in Engineering would be a lot more appealing to employers, as I would want an engineering-related job if I got a 4-year degree. I am also very open to suggestions about obtaining a good job (engineering-related not a requirement) with only a 4-year (or even 6-year**) Physics degree.

    **Last asterisks, I promise. I have also been lead to believe that a Masters degree in physics is not very practical, whereas a Master of Engineering degree is. General insight on that is also welcome.

    Thank you very much for reading all of that, and thank you for any advice.
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  3. Dec 26, 2009 #2


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    When I was a graduate student I actually considered that my job. I didn't make a whole lot of money, but it was enough to support myself and I didn't feel like I was missing out on starting a life.

    Either way, perhaps you could look into an engineering physics program that would allow you to graduate with an engineering degree while still keeping open an option for graduate school in physics.
  4. Dec 27, 2009 #3
    One bit of advice is that being a teaching/research assistant is a "real job".

    The other thing is that you have to break free of the idea that you go to school and then you do something else. If you do anything physics related, you will be in school for the rest of your life, even if you aren't on a campus.
  5. Dec 27, 2009 #4


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    Yes, graduate study would be my job, but that's not a "job" that can support a family and pay a mortgage. Twofish-quant, I know that my education wouldn't really end, but the point is that I would be able to start my life only after graduate school. You're right that a TA/RA position isn't a "real" job (Though it would keep me alive during school.)

    Like I said, my biggest issue is if I should get my Ph.D., or if I should go for Engineering to get a job after 4 years. Or if I should find a happy medium.
  6. Dec 27, 2009 #5
    Why are you in such a hurry to "start your life"? Being in school is as much part of your life as any other. Take your time and smell the roses.
  7. Dec 27, 2009 #6
    It will support a family. As far as mortgages go, maybe you can't get one on a TA/RA salary, but that doesn't make the TA/RA any less of a job. There are people that manage to survive working at Walmart or waiting tables, and I don't think that you'd argue that they are having "real jobs" or that they haven't started their lives.

    The really nice thing about a TA/RA position is that you end up with a huge number of marketable skills but no new debt.

    Graduate school is part of your life. The reason that I bring this up is that you are probably going to have serious problems getting through a Ph.D. program if you don't think of it as part of your life.

    No. I was making the point that a TA/RA position *is* a "real job." It's a low paying job, but it's a job.
  8. Dec 27, 2009 #7


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    Oh believe me, I would take graduate school as seriously as any part of my life. The thing is, I am 20 years old and already want kids, and I want kids before I am thirty. I know this may sound very strange, as many people wait until they are at least thirty before having kids. Thank you warped biological clock.

    Maybe I've been misinformed somewhere. I thought that TA/RA jobs were for the most part to help pay tuition. Do they pay enough for rent and living expenses for two? Again with my biological clock, but I just think it would be more difficult to find someone to go along with that lifestyle. The alternative to that is to get married and get a house and kids after graduate school (age 26-27)

    Thank you for your replies, more are welcome.
  9. Dec 27, 2009 #8


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    It'd be tight, but probably possible. To some extent it may depend on where you are geographically, i.e. what the local cost of living is. A TA's salary is usually designed to be enough to pay for rent and food and a bit for other miscellaneous expense. If you're going to get a mortgage, you might wind up paying less than a typical apartment's rent, but you'll have correspondingly more work to do with things like maintaining the house.

    Maybe, if you're really smart/talented, you could try to get a national fellowship to support your graduate study. Some fellowships I've heard of offered by the NSF or DOE are easily 2-3 times a TA's salary at my university. And you don't even have to do anything for them! (Well, you'll have to do something, but it's less stressful than teaching) These fellowship programs are always insanely competitive, though.

    Don't forget the fact that if you are one of a couple, your partner/spouse should be working as well. Two incomes, even if they're not much, should be quite adequate to support your living expenses.

    To be perfectly honest, though, I really think you have no business worrying so much about "starting your life," as you say. 20 is ridiculously early. Unless you're already engaged or something, and have people breathing down your neck to hurry up and start having kids :rolleyes:, you've got plenty of time to get a PhD. Go ahead and do it, I'd say.
  10. Dec 27, 2009 #9
    I dont know if you would want to consider this, but you could get a PhD in Engineering. With this you could go directly into the workforce after attaining the degree as opposed to the years of postdoc work that you mentioned earlier that is related to physics. Also, engineering opens up a lot more careers that would go along with "starting a life" (ie more job opprotunities, higher salary, etc). You could go into industry as well with a physics PhD (just ask twofish-quant) but it is harder.
  11. Dec 27, 2009 #10
    TA/Ra positions have two parts: tuition reimbursement credits or whatever the school offers, and a living stipend. The stipend is usually just for living expenses and separate from the tuition stuff.

    Also, don't write off marriage and kids just 'cause you're doing grad school. It's doable and possible and even feasible, and a lot of the people at my school are in that position (kids+marriage and going for a phd.) Just pick a school/adviser that's open to that kind of environment, someone who'll understand that you can't show up 'cause the babysitter disappeared. I know girls who give birth while in difficult programs (masters psych, architecture, mechanical engineering); it just takes really good time management to pull it off.

    Seconding this. I've got lots of friends supporting a family on one teaching salary and no stipend, and it's difficult by around the 2nd or 3rd kid, but doable. And this is NYC, where cost of living is high, so I assume it's possible almost everywhere.

    At the end of the day, do whatever will make you happier, but don't limit yourself 'cause you think it's not doable.
  12. Dec 28, 2009 #11
    Don't worry about that. Also don't time things like relationships and kids for career reasons. One thing that I've found is that people that think that they don't make enough money as a TA to get married and have kids, also tend to think that they don't have enough money once they get a post-doc/assistant professorship/whatever.

    It's enough to survive. Also TA/RA's often get subsidized housing and tuition discounts/waivers. TA/RA jobs exists because schools need cheap labor to run classrooms and labs. It's a "real job" in that you are getting money for performing necessary services.

    It's really not. There's a reason that people in academia tend to marry each other. If you *like* the academic life, it's not that difficult to find someone else that does. On the other hand if you don't like the academic life and are doing it to get a better job (not that there is anything wrong with that), you really need to reconsider getting a Ph.D.

    Something that you have to realize is that the salaries go up, but the lifestyle really doesn't change all that much if you go the Ph.D. route. If you marry someone that has problems with living the life of a graduate student, they may not be that thrilled about living the life of an industrial researcher or assistant professor.
  13. Dec 28, 2009 #12
    I can understand that after finishing your BSc/PhD you always start as a cheap labor (I guess it doesn't matter if you work as a eng/cs specialist in industry or as a scientist in academia). When are you allowed to conduct your own research/projects/ideas? Is this even possible or if you don't start your own business or do research after working hours you will be cheap labor forever (or become manager)?
  14. Dec 28, 2009 #13
    Just because you are cheap labor doesn't mean that you aren't cheap *creative* labor. It turns out that RA's/TA's have a lot of discretion to conduct research on their own research/projects/ideas, and dissertation advisors are advisors.

    At the same time, people that are senior don't have total discretion to go after their own research/project/ideas since they have to do a lot of politicking/grant writing to get money to fund their research. If you want $10 billion to fund a super-collider, you end up in a lot of committee meetings.

    One interesting irony of the modern economy is that creative jobs pay less. Astrophysics is more fun than being a program tester, which is one reason it pays less.

    The other thing is that "cheap labor" is relative. Wall Street likes physics Ph.D.'s because physics Ph.D.'s are willing to work really cheap, but what's considered cheap on Wall Street is considered a mint by most physics Ph.D.'s. You see the same thing about outsourcing to third world countries or for that matter graduate schools.
  15. Dec 28, 2009 #14


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    I would echo TwoFish-Quant's response to this.

    You don't always start as cheap labor once you have the PhD. I know people who have parlayed their PhD work into patentable products and gone into business to do very well for themselves.

    As far as conducting your own research, there are a lot of factors at play - some of which you control, some of which you don't. It's rare at any point to have absolute freedom, but you have choices all the time - which supervisor to pick, which project to take on (or to propose your own), which post-docs to apply for, which grants to pursue etc. But if research is your goal, work beyond 9-5 is more or less a requirement (in my experience anyway).
  16. Dec 28, 2009 #15
    What about ppl working in industry?

    Yeah I come from a poor country after all. What I mean is well-paid "cheap labor" (ppl who earn much but don't do anything creative).

    And they work on their own projects and ideas?

    Do you need to sleep in your office?
    Last edited: Dec 28, 2009
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