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To grad school (for physics) or not to grad school?

  1. Jul 24, 2013 #1
    Hey PF!

    So I just finished my undergrad degree in Astrophysics, and I'm interested in going back to get my PhD. I really love physics, and I don't mind the kind of grind and time that it would take to be a successful PhD student. I'm not looking to get higher paying jobs after I get my PhD, I really just want to put myself in a position to have a more exciting career in physics or physics-related industries. I'd be really interested in becoming a researcher, or maybe even a professor.

    My problem is that I just don't think I did well enough for myself in my undergrad career to be able to have a very fruitful graduate career. I've already talked to a few guys with PhDs in Physics about grad school, and one thought it would be worth it for me to do, one was wary of the kind of opportunities that I'd have, and the programs I could get into, and one generally believed that grad school for physics was a scam and wouldn't really recommend it for anyone.

    So, I don't know what to think. I graduated from a UC with about a 3.2, and my Physics GRE score was just around the 50 percentile. I plan on retaking the GRE, but I'm not sure I'll do much better, if at all. I know these numbers wont get me into a top-notch program, and I'm wondering if trying to get a PhD in the first place would be worth it to me at all. Many people have suggested getting a Masters in Engineering, but I'm not really sure I'd be interested in that at all.

    What do you guys think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 24, 2013 #2
    Grad school is a big commitment. You're going to have to work for many years on the same or related problems. The only way to do that (if you want to remain sane) is to absolutely love the subject you're working on. In particular, you must like research somehow.

    In your post, you're mentioning going to grad school to get better job opportunities. For sure, you will get a lot of better opportunities than you have only with a bacherlor in astrophysics. But I don't see many other motivations in your thread. So ask yourself why you want to do a PhD. Did you ever do research? Did you like that somewhat? Do you think you're going to like working for many years on the same thing? These are the most important questions right now.

    If you don't like research, then you can still do a terminal masters in physics or engineering (or something else). This will still give you better job opportunities, but it wouldn't involve much research.
  4. Jul 24, 2013 #3
    Yes, I did do some research, and had to do a thesis as well, so I did spend some time researching one topic, and I greatly enjoyed it. It was kind thrilling to become adept at one subject in particular. I'm sure that it would have been less thrilling had I worked on a problem that I wasn't super interested in.

    But then, that's another issue of mine: I'm not really sure what I would study. I really love astrophysics, and most of my research focused around that, and I'd love to continue down that path in grad school, but it seems like it could be a dead end unless I were really capable of getting an actual research position for astrophysics which seems...competitive, to say the least, and my credentials really aren't that impressive at this point. I'm also really interested in nuclear physics, which may be more broadly applicable, I don't know. Question being, is it more advisable to simply pick a field that most interests me, or should I also factor in more practical/realistic considerations?
  5. Jul 24, 2013 #4
    You should take both into consideration. Picking a field that is unpractical, is of no use. You'll be left with a PhD and not many job opportunities. Picking a field that is uninteresting to you is perhaps the worst thing you can do in grad school.

    So if you think you'd enjoy nuclear physics, then that would be a good career option. You don't need to enjoy it as much as astrophysics, but that's ok. What matters is that you won't go crazy because you hate your research.
  6. Jul 26, 2013 #5
    Good to know. Thanks for the advice!
  7. Jul 27, 2013 #6
    The advice I always give regarding going for a PhD in physics is "if you have to ask, don't."

    Job wise, you will assuredly be better off going to grad. school for engineering, or economics, or anything else with direct application to the business world. As the quote goes, "a PhD trains you for exactly one job, your adviser already has it, and he's better at it than you are." There are some physics disciplines where this isn't the case and the job prospects are better - but, if you're only doing this for the job prospects you shouldn't be in physics at all.
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