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Physics Theoretical Physics PhD worthless nowadays?

  1. Apr 1, 2010 #1
    I have heard from many sources that getting a PhD in theoretical physics (relativity, string theory, cosmology) is a trap. The US trains twice as many PhD's as there are jobs available. Also, there is tough competition and only a 1/4th of PhD's get tenure at a university!

    The point is I'm in my 2nd year of college as a physics major and am wondering if I should end at a B.S. in Physics and apply to medical school. I really do love physics and can see myself doing research on theoretical problems (relativity, string theory) that interest me, but not at the expense of constantly being jobless and having to relocate every year or so.

    Also, what sort of a factor does race/ethnicity of a physics PhD student play in getting hired? Is there affirmative action in post-doc/research positions? Does it also depend on which institution you received your PhD? i.e. (Caltech PhD > UC Irvine PhD?)

    I am mainly quoting this site. http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html" [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 1, 2010 #2
    Hogwash. There aren't enough tenured academic positions to go around, but everyone I know with some sort of theoretical physics Ph.D. has been able to get some sort of decent position somewhere.

    Then get your Ph.D. and go into industry. You'll need to pick up some skills like programming along the way, but that isn't too difficult.

    Universities have a preference in hiring underrepresented minorities, but that doesn't change the picture that much because underrepresented minorities are well.... underrepresented (i.e. there are too few to make much of a different in hiring).

    What matters with academia is less your institution than your dissertation advisor.

    The problem is that he is talking about physicists that stay in academia. If you don't insist on working in academia, then life is quite good. Without too much trouble you can get 80K-90K working as a computer programmer, and if you want to get the big money, you can go into investment banking. Starting salary for Ph.D. level people in investment banking is about 130K, and the typical salary with five years of experience is 250K.

    Among all of the Ph.D. physics people I know, people have a variety of jobs, but no one is flipping burgers.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. Apr 1, 2010 #3

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    Which is 10 years old.

    Of course not every PhD gets a job cranking out more PhDs. But the number of unemployed PhDs is very small.
  5. Apr 1, 2010 #4


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    I might also add that a PhD isn't job training. It's not like you jump through a few hoops, write a thesis and BANG - here's a nice academic job that you can relax in for the rest of your life. The PhD is your education. It's up to you to figure out how to translate the skills that you've learned in the process into something marketable - and lots of people do this very successfully.

    If you're interested in physics problems - just because you can't (get paid to) work on cosmology problems, doesn't mean you have to drop physics altogether. What about fields like geophysics or medical physics? What about getting into condensed matter or material science and taking on a project that's likely to lead to a patenable process or product?
  6. Apr 1, 2010 #5
    I ask about affirmative action because I am Black myself.

    Do you think this would help my chances in putting me in a good position to launch my research career in (relativity, string theory, etc)?
  7. Apr 1, 2010 #6
    It would help slightly, but the jobs are few enough in academia. that it's hard to get a job no matter what your ethnic group is. In industry the jobs are plentiful enough so that it doesn't make that much of a huge difference.
  8. Jun 12, 2010 #7
    If you like to think, like to know why things work or don't work, like to discover, don't like routine technical work (something a robot can do, but not always, so don't get me wrong) do not even consider going to medical physics as Choppy mentioned. Med phys field will waste your talent. Even you could land the job, you will be very bored.

    You might be better-off to get your physics degree in B.Sc. and then go get an MD.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  9. Jun 12, 2010 #8
    Even if it did put you in a slightly better position, I wouldn't rely on it. If it does so happen to help you, then lucky you! But try to focus on things that are actually in your control (grades, getting a jump on research, etc).
  10. Jun 14, 2010 #9
    Anyone facing these questions should check out Steve Hsu's blog. Here are a few relevant posts:


    I will say, Steve's opinions are a bit pessimistic when it comes to this question.

    If you are fortunate enough to get to study String Theory at a major university, and you complete your PhD, this says something very important about you to employers. Of course, this can be proved other ways, as wel, without the huge opportunity cost.

    Opportunity cost is a good way to think about it: your degree may end up costing you on the order of a million dollars, not out of pocket, but in future earnings. The question is, is it worth a million dollars to have a PhD in physics? Steve Hsu would say probably not, I would say I wouldn't sell mine for ten times that :)

    As far as affirmative action, I don't know. I mean, it definitely can't hurt for you to be (say) African-American when looking for a post doc, as physicists themselves tend to be more liberal. At the end of the day, though, you still have to do good work. The best people don't always get the best jobs, which is a fact of life, and as much as physicists like to think they live in an egalitarian meritocracy, this is categorically NOT the case.

    Race may or may not be an ultimate factor in getting a post-doc, but it probably will be a factor if you apply to grad school. What I've noticed is that most students at the top programs and students at the second tier programs aren't that different intelligence-wise. (There are specific exceptions, of course. I only want to make a broad statement.) What you will see is many more women and minorities in top tier programs---this has to be due to some sort of affirmative action, as the quality of students (in my opinion) is not that drastically different. In other words, if you are a good student, but not a great student, and you're a woman, you are more likely to end up going to a better grad program. This has been my experience, at least. And realize that race or sex is certainly not a free ticket to a PhD---you still have to be better than 99% of all of the other undergrads applying for grad school.

    I want to be very clear on this point, so I will restate it again: there are a pool of qualified applicants to physics graduate programs, whose qualifications carry some distribution. Some are more qualified than others, in terms of GPA, GRE scores, and undergraduate research. It has been my experience that the race or sex of the applicant can have some bearing on the admission to a specific program. Note very carefully that I haven't expressed an opinion on this subject, and I've only tried to relate my experiences :) So take it as you will.

    Finally, to end the politically controversial section, I'd say you should always get the highest pedigree that you can, in the chance that you leave physics and do something else. For example, I go to a (high) second tier grad school, but my advisor is a world expert in his field---he essentially invented it. I chose to come here specifically to work with him. Irvine is the same type of program---high second tier, low first tier. For example, I think Jon Feng is there. He is a world class guy, and you may meet him and find you have a great rapport with him. And if you stayed in physics, he would get you in the proper circles. But if you want to leave physics, you may be handicapped by the fact that you are coming from a place that isn't a top 5 program.

    So if you have the choice between CalTech and UCI, and there's even a CHANCE that you might leave physics, you should strongly consider CalTech.
  11. Jun 14, 2010 #10
    Except that it isn't. Personally, I don't think that you are going to end up making less money with a physics Ph.D. than you would with a law degree or MBA.

    We really, really need to end this notion that somehow getting a physics Ph.D. means a life of poverty or even substandard income since it just ain't true.

    For physics Ph.D.'s, pedigree matters a *LOT* less outside of academia than in it. From the point of view of someone on the outside, if you have a physics Ph.D. then you are a brainiac and it matters little of you got the Ph.D. from Harvard or North Podunk.
  12. Jun 14, 2010 #11
    Hmmm maybe I didn't make myself clear. While you won't make less, what are the chances that you'd make significantly more?

    The average Physics PhD takes, what...6 years? The average MBAor, say, Master's degree in quantitative finance or something, takes 2. So right out of the gate you have to make up for 4 years of income that you'll never have a chance to recoup. Now suppose the MBA student who took a job just invested his first four years salary less the $25K that we get as physics grad students over the course of his working life, say 40 years. A million dollars seems like a reasonable estimate to me.

    Anyway, this is the only point I'm trying to make, which I may not have made clear. You won't live a life of poverty, that's for sure. But you will be costing yourself money in the long run, which is as objective a way as any to think about your decisions.
  13. Jun 14, 2010 #12
    It's really hard to tell because there are so many variables. One is that there is a huge range in salary between the top MBA schools and the mid-ranked ones, whereas the different in salaries between top ranked Ph.D.'s and mid ranked one's isn't huge. You are likely to make more money with a Harvard MBA than physics Ph.D. from North Podunk University, but you are likely to make a lot more money with a physics Ph.D. from North Podunk than an MBA from North Podunk.

    But I think the bottom line is that the amount of money that you can get with a physics Ph.D. is comparable to what you'd get if you got an MBA even given the opportunity cost.

    Also, I've never seen a situation in which someone is deciding between an MBA and a physics Ph.D. and agonizing over salary return. The usual situation is that someone would rather to into physics, but has gotten the (mistaken) information that they are likely to make more with an MBA.

    Which gets flattened by the fact that you aren't in debt after the Ph.D. and you are qualified for jobs that MBA's aren't qualified for, and some of these jobs pay more.

    The nice thing about a physics Ph.D. is that you can get a job making $150K after you get out, *but you don't have to* if you don't want to. You aren't in debt, so if you want to be a beach bum, you can be one. People with MBA's end up with golden handcuffs.

    And my point is that you aren't. If you look at it from a dollars and cents, there is no reason not to get a physics Ph.D. Since the financial aspects are comparable, it boils down to life choice. The thing that has to be made absolutely clear is that you can make a hell of a lot of money with a physics Ph.D.
    Last edited: Jun 14, 2010
  14. Jun 14, 2010 #13
    One thing about careers advice is that it is one area in which looking at the averages is often irrelevant. If you hate managing people, then going out for an MBA is likely to be a bad idea, and it's likely that going out for a physics Ph.D. is a seriously, seriously bad idea if you happen to hate math.

    Personally, I like *both* the technical and the management aspects of the corporate world, and given that, it makes sense to get the physics Ph.D. first. I think I have enough work experience so that I now have the equivalent of an MBA, and MBA skills are something that you can get "on the job." If you really need a piece of paper with the words MBA on them, it's not hard to get one since there are tons of part-time MBA programs out there.

    Physics Ph.D. skills are something that you can't get on the job if you don't already have them so it makes since if you want both Ph.D. skills and MBA skills to get the Ph.D. skills in school.
  15. Jun 15, 2010 #14
    That depends very much on the industry and the specific individual.

    An average PhD physicist in industry will probably make as much or more than an average MBA.

    But a top MBA is likely to make a lot more than the average Ph.D. And a Ph.D. who succeeds in top management will make what other executives make, many of them MBAs, and a lot more than the average Ph.D.

    You may be told that the company has two ladders, a technical ladder and a management ladder. This is probably true. But there are fewer rungs at the top of the technical ladder and the technical ladder is not quite as high as the management ladder. A Ph.D. in a technical area can go up either ladder, and can switch ladders more easily than others.

    The politics on the management ladder is considerably more intense than on the technical ladder. It is also worth remembering that is the people on the management ladder who determine who goes up a rung on either ladder.

    But basically in industry your salary will depend more on you and what you contribute than any diploma that you may have. A Ph.D. is not a particularly good career decision on the basis of anticipated salary. Get one if you are compelled to do so by interest in a field, but not because you think it is the road to riches.
  16. Jun 15, 2010 #15
    I'd very strongly disagree. A physics Ph.D. is a very, very good career decision on the basis of anticipated salary. On the other hand, you really shouldn't make decisions solely on the basis of anticipated salary. If you hate doing physics, then you will find getting the Ph.D. a living hell, and then whats worse, you'll find yourself doing work afterwards that involves doing things that you hate.

    On the other hand, don't *avoid* getting a Ph.D. out of the mistaken idea that it's going to hurt your earning potential in comparison with say, getting a law degree or getting an MBA. It won't.

    The other thing is that just because you have a Ph.D. doesn't prevent you from learning things that are not related to technical issues. If you get a Ph.D. and have no interest in learning about organizational politics and dealing with people, then you are going to end up with a decent well paying career, but it's not going to be spectacular. On the other hand, it's alright to just want a nice job that pays well, and then go home and put your energy into something else. One of the important things that you will have to decide is what "success" means for you.

    If you really do want to climb the corporate ladder or create your own corporate ladder, then you *will* have to learn a whole set of skills involving people and politics. These aren't part of the standard physics Ph.D. curriculum, but having a physics Ph.D. doesn't disqualify you from learning those skills.
  17. Jun 17, 2010 #16
    twofish-quant, I really appreciate the advice you give out here. Would the points you're making regarding what you can do with a theoretical physics PhD more or less apply to a pure mathematics PhD as well? I've done a lot of programming already (I was into programming well before I came to like math), and that's sort of my fall back that keeps me from stressing too much about the future.
  18. Jun 17, 2010 #17
    There are few companies that have any idea what a PhD mathematician is, and hence any appreciation for the degree will have to come from what you demonstrate to them that you can contribute. Mathematics is not widely understood, except by mathematicians themselves.

    So, if you use an education as PhD mathematician to develop deep insights and put those insights to use so that you can make substantial contributions, it will be of benefit to you. If not, then it will not. But except in the minority of organizations a PhD in mathematics will not open many doors. That same comment applies to a PhD in physics, but perhaps less so, as people usually have the impression that they understand what a PhD physicist does (even if that impressin is wrong). Management in the larger companies is dominated by engineers, accountants and lawyers.

    On the other hand if you put your advanced education to use, it may well enable you to see things that others miss and thereby enhance your objective value to the organization. And it is that value that is the basis for how the organization perceives you and what happens during your career.

    I tell you this as a retired aerospace executive, with a PhD in pure mathematics, and an MS in engineering. Been there, done that.
  19. Jun 17, 2010 #18
    For me it's very difficult to learn stuff from an "applied" point of view. So if my goal were applied math or engineering I'd probably still be on the same path. I just can't stand when a class or subject is taught from a high-level perspective where you need to just take on faith a huge foundation of material.
  20. Jun 17, 2010 #19
    You never need to take it on faith. Just go and research the background yourself.
  21. Jun 17, 2010 #20
    That's rarely feasible. E.g., some undergrad (non-pure math) course invokes Fourier transforms: if you want to go and research the background you're going to need to go study Harmonic analysis, but first you'll need measure theory, and before that undergraduate analysis. In other words, you'd be probably still be researching the background long after said course ended.
  22. Jun 17, 2010 #21
    I agree.

    When you are asked to take a lot on faith, I take that as an indication that the person who asks that of you does not understand the material himself.

    I don't call that a high-level perspective, I just call it hand waving. Sometimes that which is being described during the hand waving is correct, and sometimes it is not.
  23. Jun 17, 2010 #22
    You picked an interesting example, a pet peeve. Some of the hand waving with regard to Fourier transforms and Fourier series is necessary, because what they are telling you is false, particularly with regard to convergence of Fourier series. They do not, in general, converge as nicely as many engineers and scientists have been led to believe. I have seen text book statements that are just plain false.

    It is even more difficult to prove a false statement rigorously than it is to wave your hands and convince the naive but skeptical.

    The only reliable way that I know of to handle the situation that you describe, is to do what I did. But leaving engineering to go get a PhD in pure mathematics is rather extreme, and more of a commitment of time than one might reasonably expect from the average student. It is, however, effective.
  24. Jun 17, 2010 #23
    Well, I'm glad to hear it's effective, because it's not far off from my motivation either.

    Fourier analysis is interesting in that respect, because I've never found anything as tedious as having to do that stuff in a rote way without any clue what was going on. Trying to "play around" with those integrals in any sort of non-thought out way just seems to lead to a nightmare explosion of symbols. My friend is doing some research on that this summer, and I'm going to some seminars to hopefully cut through some of the fog that remains.
  25. Jun 17, 2010 #24
    There are of course lots of books, good ones, on harmonic analysis, but I am particularly fond of the following two:

    Fourier Analysis on Groups -- Rudin

    An Introduction to Harmonic Analysis -- Katznelson

    Both are graduate level books, and there is minimal overlap between the two.

    If you can find an old Dover Edition of Katznelson's book it is MUCH cheaper than the very slightly updated new hardback edition.
  26. Jun 17, 2010 #25
    Twofish-quant, I know it's been a couple months since you posted this. But perhaps you (or someone else) can help clear up some misconceptions on my part.

    I too have always been told that there are far fewer academic positions available than trained PhDs. Here's a graph from the American Institute of Physics which says that in the past few years, we've been training between 1000 and 1400 PhDs per year in America:


    Now this data says that in 2005, there were about 1100 new physics PhDs trained in America. However, this table says that in 2005, there were 324 faculty positions available:


    Obviously we're averaging over all majors here, such as condensed matter, high energy, space physics, astrophysics, etc. Nonetheless, in the class of 2005 this leaves 1100 people competing for 324 jobs. Now obviously I know that in the best physics tradition, I'm making some simplifying assumptions here. People applying to 4 year colleges will be able to compete seriously without doing postdocs, but people applying to state universities will have to do postdocs. Nonetheless, you can see why I'm worried.

    My own informal polls (i.e. talking to my friends at the bar) suggests that most physics grad students want to pursue faculty positions rather than go into industry. Indeed, for virtually all grad students outside condensed matter, it's very difficult to find an industry job that involves doing the same research one did for his PhD. And every time my department has done a faculty search, it consideres quite a few candidates, for just one position.

    These statistics make me worry about my prospects as a physicist. I really don't want to end up being a computer programmer or financial analyst, but since I'm an astrophysicist, I'm not really sure where I could get a permanent industry job that involves doing actual physics (I know, it was my mistake for not doing condensed matter when I had the chance). After glancing at these stats, I had all but given up hope on getting a tenure-track academic position. But now you're telling me that the general interpretation of this data is wrong. Could you elaborate? If I have a good chance of getting a faculty job, I'd really like to know.
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