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Starting my PhD in cosmology -- question about my career prospects

  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

Hello all,


Next year, January I will start my PhD in Cosmology. Salary is fair and I don't have to pay the tuition fee.
I always loved the idea of doing a thesis about Cosmology.

My master's degree was about computational physics where I had to learn how to program in C/C++, Fortran, Matlab, etc. When I finished my master's I had my first job, it was about software development where skills in C++ and a good knowledge of Linux were a requirement. Although I enjoyed the work because I really like to program, my goal was to study Cosmology and having a PhD degree. I was so focused on this goal that I did not renew my contract and I left the job this year to study Cosmology while applying to PhD positions.

Fortunately, I will start my PhD in Cosmology next January. I already know the supervisors, the work plan, etc.

I am so exciting but lately, I started to get some doubts about my future. And the reason for this is that I feel I am doing a PhD because I am passionate about the area and not because of my future career. I don't really find the academy life very attracting. It was never in my plans to be postdoc after PhD. I would like to have the experience of being a postdoc, but for just 1 or 2 years. Is it really worth it to do a PhD because I think Cosmology is so passionate?

I don't even know why I didn't question myself before, I guess it is the anxiety that is making me question my future?
Anyway, this is a rational question. I will spend 4 or more years (I am 26 years old atm) doing something I like, which will be a very rewarding and satisfying experience. I also know that a PhD is a PhD. It gives you skills that will be very useful for any job. I know that my area, which will involve analytical and numerical methods will also give me skills that any IT company will consider. But I will be 30+ years after finish my PhD. I don't have a family, I don't even plan to have a family yet. And where I live it is pretty common to have the first "decent" job in the late 20s.

I just would like to know your opinion about this choice. Choosing to follow a PhD because you find the area very passionate but knowing that you will not make a career out of it. And knowing that I will have to start everything again (looking for jobs just like I did after my Master's) after finishing the PhD.
 
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
Following your passion is very important and very fulfilling! You should be able to transition back into the job market without any problem, so you really have nothing to worry about. As you say, the experience will leave you with the necessary skills...
 
  • #3
Grinkle
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I agree with @alantheastronomer .

On the other hand, I will add that you already have the skills you need to have what you call a decent job, and if you go back to programming after you finish your PhD, I very much doubt you will earn more than if you had stayed working for four years and gotten raises in those years, especially since your degree won't be directly related to your work.

So, do what you find fulfilling, and do it because you find it fulfilling. You aren't closing any (career) doors, imo, by getting the PhD, but you aren't opening any, either, assuming you plan to return to computer programming at least.
 
  • #4
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@alantheastronomer
Yes, it is my passion and that is why I chose to follow it. I really want to study and do a thesis in Cosmology.

@Grinkle
I know that PhD will not open more doors to any job (despite having a PhD is a requirement that we see more often in job opportunities).
Yes, I plan to go to something related to computer programming. I don't mind to work on areas where mathematics is present. But not sure if there are many jobs that use mathematics on a daily basis.
 
  • #5
I think you're wasting your time for the wrong reasons.

The truth is you'd probably be just as happy doing experimental quantum optics, computational materials science, machine learning, or some other more practical and well funded discipline. Likely you don't view those subjects as being as deep or profound as cosmology, but this is actually totally false. Each of those and dozens of others ultimately press upon significant questions. If you designed new superconducting devices, say, that could ultimately facilitate better experiments, with vastly greater probability of employment in a job closely related to your thesis. Smarter machine learning algorithms can have massive trickle down effects on everything from cancer to astronomy.

Indeed, the intellectual entropic barriers to producing actually useful knowledge in cosmology (or high energy, number theory, philosophy of consciousness, or quantum gravity, etc) are so enormous that even if your career takes off you'll likely never produce anything except a very high h-index, whereas merely developing a new growth method for one material is a real contribution to human knowledge. The main takeaway is that you are as likely to discover something in cosmology working as a cosmetologist as working as a cosmologist.

TL;DR: You'll probably have more fun doing something else, and you'll do work just as significant/deep. Only pursue it if you're on some kind of incredible fast track, like getting into a top program with an extremely well known adviser who will open all the right doors, and even then, I'd consider other options.
 
  • #6
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I think you're wasting your time for the wrong reasons.

The truth is you'd probably be just as happy doing experimental quantum optics, computational materials science, machine learning, or some other more practical and well funded discipline. Likely you don't view those subjects as being as deep or profound as cosmology, but this is actually totally false. Each of those and dozens of others ultimately press upon significant questions. If you designed new superconducting devices, say, that could ultimately facilitate better experiments, with vastly greater probability of employment in a job closely related to your thesis. Smarter machine learning algorithms can have massive trickle down effects on everything from cancer to astronomy.

Indeed, the intellectual entropic barriers to producing actually useful knowledge in cosmology (or high energy, number theory, philosophy of consciousness, or quantum gravity, etc) are so enormous that even if your career takes off you'll likely never produce anything except a very high h-index, whereas merely developing a new growth method for one material is a real contribution to human knowledge. The main takeaway is that you are as likely to discover something in cosmology working as a cosmetologist as working as a cosmologist.

TL;DR: You'll probably have more fun doing something else, and you'll do work just as significant/deep. Only pursue it if you're on some kind of incredible fast track, like getting into a top program with an extremely well known adviser who will open all the right doors, and even then, I'd consider other options.
This is absolutely the most important point you can read, OP. Everyone in physics should have a love for fundamental physics (particles/cosmology), but the demand for physicists in those fields is much lower than something like condensed matter. While that might discourage you from getting into a field like that, you have to understand that breakthroughs in surrounding fields are what enable the more fundamental fields to make new discoveries. LIGO discovered gravitational waves because laser physicists were able to build lots of coherence into their system, the James Webb Telescope will make discoveries because of cutting edge optical systems, and the list goes on. The point is that understanding those peripheral systems deeply still give you a bridge to the fundamental physics beneath because the scope with which they are applied helps you realize how the universe responds to them.

As a personal example I hope to help advance the field of quantum computing because the promise of that technology would enable a higher rate of progress in every scientific discipline around the world. I can be involved in building that bridge in order to get there. All I have to do is cross my fingers that my creativity will deliver at the right time based on all of my experience up until that point, then we'll know at least one way to keep thousands or millions of qubits coherent at very low rates of error.

You need to be more aware of opportunities that exist now where you can really contribute important work. If you are extremely attached to cosmology then maybe you could work on developing dark matter detectors, which could involve extensive subatomic physics or electronics training, things that would carry you after your PhD. Odds are if you bang out a thesis for a PhD in theoretical cosmology, you'll be finished with cosmology and have to work in another field.

I say figure qubits out instead so that AI can finish science for us while we sit back and drink beer.

<3
 
  • #7
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@Crass_Oscillator
Likely you don't view those subjects as being as deep or profound as cosmology, but this is actually totally false. Each of those and dozens of others ultimately press upon significant questions.
I know that the others have significant questions. But I prefer theoretical cosmology. I have to tell you that what made me become interested in physics was wondering about the Universe and not computational physics or optics. Funny that I considered to do a PhD in machine learning where I could play with the math. But as I told you, I always wanted to do a PhD is cosmology.


Indeed, the intellectual entropic barriers to producing actually useful knowledge in cosmology (or high energy, number theory, philosophy of consciousness, or quantum gravity, etc) are so enormous that even if your career takes off you'll likely never produce anything except a very high h-index, whereas merely developing a new growth method for one material is a real contribution to human knowledge. The main takeaway is that you are as likely to discover something in cosmology working as a cosmetologist as working as a cosmologist.
Yes, this is true. I have already a knowledge of how theoretical areas work. I know that I will not win the nobel price in this 3-4 years PhD xD.
I am doing the PhD because I want to have the opportunity to study cosmology and hopefully give a small (really small) contribution to the area. What makes me question my choice is the future. I have 100% that I will not follow the academy because 1st, I don't want to be a Professor, 2nd, I don't want to be a researcher that doesn't have a decent salary.

So doing a PhD 4 years just because I like cosmology is wise?
And you made a good point. I can also have fun studying doing a PhD in machine learning. And I know that machine learning would be more important to my future than cosmology.

Thank you for making my mind a mess again :biggrin::biggrin::biggrin:.

@Marisa5


LIGO discovered gravitational waves because laser physicists were able to build lots of coherence into their system, the James Webb Telescope will make discoveries because of cutting edge optical systems, and the list goes on. The point is that understanding those peripheral systems deeply still give you a bridge to the fundamental physics beneath because the scope with which they are applied helps you realize how the universe responds to them.
Yes, I am aware of that. I like theoretical cosmology because I like the math of QFT, General relativity, ... and the Universe always made me wonder. This is why I want to study it and do a thesis about it.


Odds are if you bang out a thesis for a PhD in theoretical cosmology, you'll be finished with cosmology and have to work in another field
These are not the odds. This what I am thinking to do. As I mentioned above I don't like the academy career. I want to finish the PhD and then go back to some job related to computation like programming. Sometimes I wonder if I will get a chance in areas like data science or machine learning with an Astronomy degree. If it is better to forget the idea of doing a PhD in cosmology and try other areas like machine learning?

I guess I am the one that has to answer these question.
 
  • #8
Don't let these two make you doubt yourself! A PhD in cosmology, especially if it's computational, is complex enough to qualify you for a multitude of positions in computer science, if that's what you're worried about.
 
  • #9
CrysPhys
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I just would like to know your opinion about this choice. Choosing to follow a PhD because you find the area very passionate but knowing that you will not make a career out of it. And knowing that I will have to start everything again (looking for jobs just like I did after my Master's) after finishing the PhD.
(1) You don't want to live a life of regret. Years from now, you don't want to look back forlornly and say to yourself, "If only I had ...."

(2) A PhD is not necessarily a means to an end; it can be an end in itself. For one period in your life, you pursue research that you love, in as much depth as you desire. At least in science and engineering, you generally receive sufficient financial support that you do not need to take out loans.

(3) You appear to be mature enough to be making this decision with clear vision. You're not a starry-eyed kid with dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. You're well aware that your proposed PhD program may not have a long-term financial pay-off. And that's OK.

(4) Even if you were to pursue a PhD in a field with more industrial opportunities, there's no guarantee of a long-term career anyway. The job market is so turbulent that it's more likely that you will be faced with several career changes in the course of your life (and I'm speaking as someone who did make several career changes, even with a PhD in experimental solid-state physics).
 
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  • #10
CrysPhys
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The truth is you'd probably be just as happy doing experimental quantum optics, computational materials science, machine learning, or some other more practical and well funded discipline.
I disagree with this. You are happiest pursuing what you are intrinsically interested in. Early on in life, I became fascinated with the growth of single crystals. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that organic materials were a more practical and well-funded discipline than semiconductor materials. Would I have been just as happy doing organic synthesis than semiconductor crystal growth? A resounding, "No!"
 
  • #11
StatGuy2000
Education Advisor
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(1) You don't want to live a life of regret. Years from now, you don't want to look back forlornly and say to yourself, "If only I had ...."

(2) A PhD is not necessarily a means to an end; it can be an end in itself. For one period in your life, you pursue research that you love, in as much depth as you desire. At least in science and engineering, you generally receive sufficient financial support that you do not need to take out loans.

(3) You appear to be mature enough to be making this decision with clear vision. You're not a starry-eyed kid with dreams of becoming the next Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson. You're well aware that your proposed PhD program may not have a long-term financial pay-off. And that's OK.

(4) Even if you were to pursue a PhD in a field with more industrial opportunities, there's no guarantee of a long-term career anyway. The job market is so turbulent that it's more likely that you will be faced with several career changes in the course of your life (and I'm speaking as someone who did make several career changes, even with a PhD in experimental solid-state physics).
@CrysPhys , while I generally agree with you about not living a life of regret, the key question would be whether that PhD you earn will not cripple your ability to be able to transition into other career fields. I am well aware from your posts that you've made several career changes, but one could argue that the skill sets you acquired with your PhD in experimental solid-state physics made that transition from different career fields easier.

Whether a PhD in cosmology (as the OP is interested in pursuing) will provide the same skill sets to allow for just such an easy transition is an open question to me. Although, to be fair, according to the post, the OP does possess skills (namely software/programming in the Masters program in computational physics) that employers would be interested in.
 
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  • #12
CrysPhys
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the key question would be whether that PhD you earn will not cripple your ability to be able to transition into other career fields.
A PhD in cosmology will have a negative impact on a transition to some careers (such as a research technician, because the candidate would be overqualified and employers would figure that the candidate would jump ship once something better came along). But for transitions to many careers (e.g., IP law, technical journalism, high school teaching, finance, private tutoring, ...) the PhD in cosmology will either have a neutral impact or possibly a positive impact (depending on what the OP does for his thesis work). The impact on a further career in software depends on a lot of unknowns (including what the OP does for his thesis work). Sure, some employers may toss his resume in the trash, but the OP has options such as starting his own software consulting business [which one of my colleagues did after getting laid off for the N-th time]. The key is to be open to a variety of careers [many of my colleagues weren't], and to identify those that leverage your skills and experience (so you end up doing something more than flipping burgers or washing dishes).
 
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  • #13
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A PhD in cosmology will have a negative impact on a transition to some careers (such as a research technician, because the candidate would be overqualified and employers would figure that the candidate would jump ship once something better came along). But for transitions to many careers (e.g., IP law, technical journalism, high school teaching, finance, private tutoring, ...) the PhD in cosmology will either have a neutral impact or possibly a positive impact (depending on what the OP does for his thesis work). The impact on a further career in software depends on a lot of unknowns (including what the OP does for his thesis work). Sure, some employers may toss his resume in the trash, but the OP has options such as starting his own software consulting business [which one of my colleagues did after getting laid off for the N-th time]. The key is to be open to a variety of careers [many of my colleagues weren't], and to identify those that leverage your skills and experience (so you end up doing something more than flipping burgers or washing dishes).

Some people say that having a good programming portfolio is going to increase a lot the chances of getting a job.
I am thinking to do some courses online about programming/computational skills. Like web development, data science, machine learning.
I really don't know if they are going to boost my CV and give me leverage but I guess it is better than nothing.
 
  • #14
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I switched degrees for my masters for monetary reasons and I am glad I did since I found out I didn't really like my initial interests as much as I thought. For purely personal reasons I would say do cosmology since the tech sector has enough competition and I would prefer to compete with less qualified people, :smile:.
 
  • #15
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I switched degrees for my masters for monetary reasons and I am glad I did since I found out I didn't really like my initial interests as much as I thought. For purely personal reasons I would say do cosmology since the tech sector has enough competition and I would prefer to compete with less qualified people, :smile:.
So following a PhD in cosmology is a bad option in your opinion.
I have always heard that here in Europe there are many tech companies that cannot find people to fill their positions. Sometimes it seems that the competion is not that big as people say.
 
  • #16
Grinkle
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So following a PhD in cosmology is a bad option in your opinion.
If your priorities are your career as a programmer, its a bad idea, or at least not likely to be the optimal approach.

You know this. No one can give you a better answer.

If your priorities are to spend a few years doing a research project in cosmology, its a great idea. Only you know your priorities.
 
  • #17
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If your priorities are your career as a programmer, its a bad idea, or at least not likely to be the optimal approach.

You know this. No one can give you a better answer.

If your priorities are to spend a few years doing a research project in cosmology, its a great idea. Only you know your priorities.
Spend a few years doing a research project in cosmology is my priority.
Career and money are not my priorities at this moment.

Anyway, it is very unlikely that I will be a homeless guy after PhD. And If become one I will not regret my choice xD.
 
  • #18
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Spend a few years doing a research project in cosmology is my priority.
Career and money are not my priorities at this moment.
Then why ask us? You have your answer.
 
  • #19
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Then why ask us? You have your answer.
To be honest I guess I am a little bit anxious :biggrin:. Maybe when I start my PhD I will stop thinking about the future and I will focus on the present.
 
  • #20
f95toli
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@CrysPhys, but one could argue that the skill sets you acquired with your PhD in experimental solid-state physics made that transition from different career fields easier.
Possibly,. But that will very much depend on what type of career you are looking for as well as where you live.
If you are in the right area I suspect t would be relatively easy to find a well-paid job with a PhD in cosmology with heavy dose of of programming/big data; the combination should make you quite attractive for the banking/finance sector. That said, with a a PhD in experimental solid-state you are more likely to end up working on something at least tangentially related to the topic of your PhD. Hence, it also depend on how you want to "use" your PhD.

However, don't even try doing a PhD in an experimental field if you only like theory (or vice versa); they can be very, very different in terms of what you do on a day to day basis.
 
  • #21
CrysPhys
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But that will very much depend on what type of career you are looking for as well as where you live.
And on the state of the job market (locally, nationally, and globally) in a particular field at the time you complete your PhD work and are seeking employment.

If you are in the right area I suspect t would be relatively easy to find a well-paid job with a PhD in cosmology with heavy dose of of programming/big data; the combination should make you quite attractive for the banking/finance sector.
Perhaps at the present; but don't forget the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008.

That said, with a a PhD in experimental solid-state you are more likely to end up working on something at least tangentially related to the topic of your PhD. Hence, it also depend on how you want to "use" your PhD.
At least for me when I got my PhD in the early 1980's, I readily got a job in a major industrial lab in R&D of optoelectronic devices. But that came to a screeching halt during the semiconductor meltdown of the early 1990's. I considered returning to the field at the end of the 1990's when there was actually a shortage of people with my skills and experience at the maximum inflation point of the Internet Bubble. Fortunately I didn't, because the Bubble burst just a year or so later in the early 2000's, with attendant massive layoffs.
 
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  • #22
As an addendum to my previous post, there are many who have switched fields via a post-doc or industrial post.

The demand for, say, computational statisticians working on biology is enormous, and they seem to like theoreticians trained in physics (a biophysics/computational biology group at my current university just hired a couple string theorists, for instance).

So, there are other ways to have your cake and eat it too.
 

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