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The Should I go to grad school thread

  1. Mar 12, 2013 #1
    The "Should I go to grad school" thread

    So my second year of university is coming to a close, with so far so good grades (hopefully straight A's both semesters), work in two labs (particle physics and computational biophysics) and rounding it out with maybe a summer research position at an REU.

    In other words I'm doing just about everything somebody with a serious interest in being an academic might do... however, the sheer hopeless odds of getting an academic job have made me seriously reconsider all this effort I'm putting in! I was planning on taking lots of hard graduate courses and push myself in research, but what's the point? Why not just bail and go into industry earlier rather than later?

    So the question is, with my physics BS, what can I do, and how can I do it? I've seen all sorts of job statistics, with about 50% of employed physics bachelors working in IT/Engineering/STEM. But that's not comforting to me; I do NOT want to be a high school teacher. I want to be solving at least somewhat interesting problems. I have some relatively serious coding/UNIX/hardware experience from my lab work which is only getting better, I will be proficient in C and python by the time I get out. How do I get employed doing something interesting, and would grad school be worth it?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 12, 2013 #2
    What do you define as "something interesting?" Thats the key question. If you want to work in IT, figure out ways to get IT relevant experience. If you want to work in electrical engineering, start networking now. Contact the engineering programs at your school about their internship programs and see if you can intern at a company,etc.

    What you should consider doing depends very much on where you want to end up.
  4. Mar 12, 2013 #3
    Is the only purpose behind going to physics graduate school at this point if I still have a vague hope of getting an academic position? Part of it is simple interest in physics; I like doing physics (especially working in labs), and I would get to do more physics in grad school. But I want to figure out how this will affect my job opportunities.
  5. Mar 12, 2013 #4
    Not as I see it. I don't get why people have such a limited idea that the only job phd graduates should be aiming for is professorships at universities. There are other STEM jobs at government labs, leadership positions at science bureaus, etc. that most people never mention. These aren't normally available to you with just a BSc. in Physics as far as I'm aware.

    By reading the threads here you already know the prospects for a STEM job with just a BSc in Physics are pretty dim without spending additional time+money retraining/getting additional certification of some sort.
  6. Mar 12, 2013 #5
    These are just as hard to get as an academic university position. Also, leadership in scientific bureaucracy usually go to people who went the academic physics route.

    There are industrial research labs if you do the right sort of phd research (think intel or other semi-conductor stuff if you studied silicon,etc), and then all sorts of totally-unrelated to physics stuff sort of jobs. i.e. I do statistical work, I have friends that do non-scientific programming, IT work,finance,etc. Most of the physics phds I know work in these sorts of not-quite-STEM rolls, using experience they mostly-already-had (programming, IT)

    My model is that people who get phds in physics want jobs where knowing physics has added value (so I would say industrial research lab, science writing, maybe grant review,etc). My assertion is that this is fairly unlikely.

    It depends on how you approach things. Getting a phd makes it MUCH less likely that you can get an intro position somewhere. This can be a really tricky problem if (for instance) you want to do engineering work somewhere. Your physics degree doesn't give you intro-level skills, and your phd disqualifies you from grabbing an intro position. Most of the people I contacted at engineering firms suggested that if you want to work in engineering your best bet is either straight after your undergrad or after a relevant masters.

    However, if you are careful to build up or maintain some relevant skills OUTSIDE of your physics degree, you can still step in to non-intro positions. This seems common enough for programmers, for instance.

    After my theory phd, I spent a lot of time retooling, and managed to get a job as a statistician/data miner. Its pretty interesting work, but my phd gives me pretty much 0 advantage, and this situation is common for phds I know (gbeagle and others have expressed similar statements for physics degree holders going into IT and programming).

    If I could do it again, I probably would do a phd in engineering, computer science, or statistics. This has many advantages
    1. you get to do research, just not physics
    2. the academic path is much easier if you do decide to try for it (its pretty common for new phds to land faculty positions in these fields. Thats unheard of in physics, where you need many years of postdoc)
    3. there are more industry jobs directly relevant to the expertise learned.
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2013
  7. Mar 12, 2013 #6
    The engineering phd sounds super appealing since some specialties are basically physics (solid state EEE for instance) :D
  8. Mar 12, 2013 #7
    Also, can anybody put a number on how many physics phd's wind up in physics permanently? 1 in 10? 1 in 5? 1 in 100? If the odds are at least 20% I'm actually kinda interested then, because the back up plan isn't horrible (ParticleGirl told me once that the odds of obtaining some reasonable, middle class living with a physics phd are pretty good). Of course it's very challenging to produce these kinds of numbers but it would be informative.
  9. Mar 12, 2013 #8
    The number of 10 graduated students per professor comes up often. This suggests roughly 10% becomes professors. I would guess that an equal amount end up in similar positions at govt. labs and elsewhere (some other "permanent physics" position).

    I think it goes without saying that you should do some sort of grad school. If your enthusiasm for research keeps up after the REU, why not do the PhD?
  10. Mar 12, 2013 #9
    I love research already; I am working in two labs, one in computational biophysics, the other in experimental particle physics. I spend more time working in the lab than I am payed to!

    I was a bit of a lousy student when I started though, my cumulative GPA is ~3.6 with ~3.6 in physics.
  11. Mar 12, 2013 #10


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    Again, if you want to do physics+engineering+possibly computational work, read this thread:


    While a lot of areas in physics may have a challenging job prospect, the accelerator physics field seems to be fairing better than most.

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