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Starting engineering career after PhD in physics.

  1. May 29, 2014 #1


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    If someone has a Bs in electrical engineering (or pretty much any engineering field), can he spend ~ 6 years pursuing a PhD in physics and then continue his career as an engineer ( in other words, get jobs that require only a Bs in engineering) just in case no good physics jobs are available?

    Would not being a fresh graduate be a considerable disadvantage? Would the PhD not go well with employers?
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  3. May 29, 2014 #2
    It's probably possible, but is it really worth doing a PhD in Physics to take on a BSc level job in Engineering? If you're going to be an Engineer, might as well do graduate studies in Engineering instead. Just I am afraid that you will regret wasting 6 years of hard work for nothing.
  4. May 29, 2014 #3


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    The opportunity cost of what you're suggesting is just staggering. And it will be the gift that keeps on giving because you'll never catch up.
  5. May 29, 2014 #4
    Still, you might be just as if not more employable than a PhD with a physics undergrad degree.
  6. May 29, 2014 #5


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    Plus, engineers are meant to be practical people, If I read a job application like that, it would give me a strong impression that you didn't score highly on practical common sense, however brilliant your academic performance was.
  7. May 29, 2014 #6
    Entry-level engineering is definitely a lot better than the other options most physics PhD's have in industry. Using your logic, no one would do a physics PhD seeing as the only jobs most graduates seem to be qualified for are entry-level programming jobs and entry-level data mining. You certainly don't need a PhD in physics to get these jobs.

    The types of people who do physics PhD's are the last to worry about things like opportunity cost. If opportunity cost is the first thing on one's mind, then they should be the last person to do a physics PhD. PhD's are not for people who care about trivial things such as "catching up".
  8. May 29, 2014 #7


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    No, using TheAustrian's logic no one who did not want to be a physicist would get a physics PhD. Seems reasonable to me. Sounds like the OP is looking to scratch an itch. A very expensive itch.

    That's BS. Look at all the posts where people are depressed because of their meagre job prospects they have after pouring their blood and guts into such a difficult thing as a PhD in physics. They most surely are worried about such trivial things.

    And of course opportunity cost is not the FIRST thing on anyone's mind. But someone smart enough to do a PhD in physics should also be smart enough to think through the consequences of their actions.

    I think PhDs are for all types of people who get them for all types of reasons. I would imagine only a small portion of PhD holders are romantic dreamers who don't worry about trivial things like "catching up". In my experience physics PhD students are more sensitive than most to falling behind because their field is so competitive.
  9. May 29, 2014 #8
    Pretty sure OP wants to be a physicist, seeing as those were in his own words:

    So, he's basically using engineering as a backup, and its definitely a much better backup than the typical jobs that most physics PhD's end up with. It's a completely understandable concern, and if it's a "very expensive itch" for him, then it's equally an expensive itch for vast majority of PhD's who will not be employed as physicists (physics professors).

    You contradict yourself. If physics PhD students are already well aware of the grim job prospects that face them once they finish, then they should have expected this from the start and had a solid backup plan? The fact that it appears that most do not, suggests that most are, indeed, romantic dreamers and are in for a rude awakening.

    Opportunity cost is always high for any PhD. If one is thinking about the PhD in terms of a cost/benefit analysis, then no one can justify doing the PhD as it will always yield a poor ROI. IMO, it's best to think of the PhD today as not career training or for something that will help you get a better job and hence "catch up", but rather as a "stint" where you pursue your passion in academic bliss for sometime and then start considering a realistic career in something completely unrelated. Usually this will involve either further education in a completely discipline, or they can jump into a different field using the skills they picked up in the PhD (though these options are drying up with the proliferation of relevant credentials). This will minimize the disappointment and depression that many befall many PhD graduates as soon as they realize they're not very employable.

    I can't discredit this since I don't have any hard data at hand, so I don't know if this is the case. However, seeing as you admit that there is no shortage of PhD grads that are depressed about their experiences with the job market, I'm not really convinced that this is the case. Anecdotally, senior physics major and graduate students around me are extremely delusional about this topic and don't want to hear any of it when I bring it up. Reality is going to hit each and every one of them like a freight train doing 100 mph once they defend their thesis.
  10. May 30, 2014 #9


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    Thank you everyone for your wonderful replies. Dragoon is mostly right, I want to become a physicist but due to the lack of well paying jobs in the field I am using engineering as a backup. Further advice on this will also be helpful.

    Edit: judging from all your excellent advice, i think that i would be better off just pursuing my grad studies,in engineering and limiting physics to a hobby.
    Last edited: May 30, 2014
  11. May 30, 2014 #10
    If you do well in engineering and choose the right subfield maybe you can use and "do" physics as an engineer. Some engineers do use physics (I hope, I'd love to use/do a little physics as a prospective engineer). Some engineers even do research.
  12. May 30, 2014 #11


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    Can you give a few subfields as an example? Electronics, perhaps?

    Also, isn't there a subfield in Physics that might prove useful if I do a PhD in Physics after engineering. I'm sorry but I've been really really obsessed with physics ever since my freshman year in high-school 5 years ago. It's my dream to get a PhD in Physics even if I get nothing out of it. :/
  13. May 30, 2014 #12
    If your school has a department of engineering physics, or to a little lesser degree Material Science Engineering you can do a lot of work with a great overlap with physics. Otherwise some universities fold this kind of work (solid state device physics, solid state materials physics, etc.) into their Electrical Engineering departments.

    If your itch relates to things like quantum mechanics and crazy quantum spin stuff that's definitely an itch you could probably scratch in an appropriate engineering department. If it's more string theory and standard model then you will likely not find much of an overlap.
  14. May 30, 2014 #13


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    Even as a backup plan, I don't think it would work. I've read many posts from people who have PhDs in physics who said they'd love to get some engineering job that requires only a bs in engineering, but can't because the PhD makes them overqualified. Even if you left the PhD off your resume, there's going to be a 4-6 year gap of no work experience you're going to have to explain to someone.
  15. May 30, 2014 #14

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    From people with a BS in engineering? Please post some links.
  16. May 30, 2014 #15
    Hi interhacker,

    I did something like this but with hindsight I consider it just the accidental results of a gradual shift in my interests and succession of jobs, as in any career. It would not have made sense to plan it that way.

    Working for my PhD in applied physics was a job - and the university happened to be my employer. Though I had planned to stay with academia initially I realized quickly that I definitely didn't want to do a post-doc (because of the nomadic life-style).

    After a stint in a research center I transitioned to IT security, and started my own business together with my husband who is also a physicist. But when I did my PhD before I really had thought I would work for some R&D department - had I been fond of IT security earlier I would have probably studied computer science or discovered my 'self-learning hacker's attitude' earlier.

    Then after many years in IT we wanted to work with technology more tangible again and we started some engineering side project that grow into research... and I did another degree in energy engineering. I still do IT security, and there are some interesting intersections between the different things I am working on.

    I am very happy with the way things have turned out but I think the main reason it has worked is because I have been running my own business since a long time. It is hard to communicate this weird combination of things I am doing (as I realize on writing this summary) though it makes sense to the people who know me and I have always got any client and project via endorsements and people who had worked with me before.

    I believe if you do something unusual that does fit into the typical categories (the ones HR people use) you are much better off with starting a business of your own. But I would rather not advocate doing this immediately after having finished your degree but based on work experience and a personal network.
  17. May 30, 2014 #16
    This advice was given to a friend considering pursuing a PhD in high energy theory: if you can see yourself doing something else, then do that. IMO that applies more generally, to physics as a whole. In other words, only do physics if you feel very compelled to do it. If this is an option for you

    then I’d suggest doing that.

    I also wouldn’t phrase it as “just in case no good physics jobs are available”. Depending on what you consider a good physics job, one not being available should be the expected case. I'd think of engineering as the primary plan with a physics job being the exceptional case.

    I don’t know and I’m just speculating so take it for that, but it seems plausible to me that if you do get a PhD in physics specializing in condensed matter experiments might useful for engineering, especially EE.
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