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What is being a physicist really like?

  1. Mar 6, 2013 #1
    I was on another forum and someone asked what it was like to be a physicist. Pretty much all of the replies were depressing descriptions of high stress jobs that payed little which centered around doing either endless programming all day or doing boring experiments.
    I would like to be an astrophysicist, but would like to know how it is to be a physicist in any field, including astro. Do you like it? Why or why not?
    I also got from that thread that getting a graduate degree in physics is a bad idea and most who got a graduate degree get paid less and work worse jobs than those who just come out with a bachelor's. Is this true?

    Here is the link to the forum I got all this from. http://www.reddit.com/r/Physics/comments/19rusy/physicists_what_is_a_day_in_the_life_like/
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 6, 2013 #2
    No, its not true. A bachelor's in physics will not get you high pay. Neither will a PhD in physics, but its generally going to get you more than a bachelors.

    Being an astrophysicist is very, very hard. It might be the hardest field in physics to actually get paid to do as a professional. Nearly all who try fail or give up. But many who try and dont become astrophysicists still appreciate their physics education and would do it again. Others... not so much.

    Check out the "So you want to be a physicist" thread. That will give you a good overview of how physics (including astrophysics) as a profession works and what you have to do to actually be a professional physicist or astrophysicist.
  4. Mar 6, 2013 #3


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    There is a distinct difference between "wanting to be a physicist" versus "being a physicist". Those people in that forum can't tell the difference, because I see rants about graduate students, postdocs, or not enough jobs! This is not "being a physicist" as in being employed as a physicist, either in academia, national labs, industries, etc.

  5. Mar 6, 2013 #4
    - Those complaining about workload in academia often never had a job outside of academia. My number of parallel tasks, frequency of hard deadlines, frequency of emergency situations and the general working speed has certainly increased since I left "pure academia". Personal milleage may vary, of course.
    - If you don't like scientific programming or conducting physics experiments then it shouldn't take a forum thread to tell you that becoming a physicist may not be the smartest idea.
  6. Mar 6, 2013 #5
    Is there really that much programming involved?
  7. Mar 6, 2013 #6
    It depends on your field. Some are more computational than others, probably ranging from 0% to 100% of your research time being devoted to programming and numerical optimization.
  8. Mar 6, 2013 #7


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    I can tell you what being a medical physicist is like - at least for me.

    In my position I have to balance clinical and academic responsibilities. Clinically I spend lots of time checking or consulting on radiation therapy treatment plans, performing or supervising QA work, developing/reviewing procedures, administrating medical device networks, commissioning new equipment, sitting in meetings, troubleshooting and solving those problems that come up in the clinic that no one else can deal with.

    Academically I supervise two graduate students, each of whom are working on some really interesting projects. I have one course that I teach as a part of the graduate medical physics program I'm involved in. I don't have a lot of time for my own research these days, but I still managed to get some work done. Over the last year I've initiated collaborations with a radiobiology and a neuroscience group. I've also had the opportunity to be a part of developing what I believe is some really ground-breaking new technology.

    It's not easy. There is a lot of stress - particularly when things aren't working properly, and the hours are long.

    And yes, I do a lot of programming.
  9. Mar 6, 2013 #8
    It certainly has varied for me. I found being a graduate student in physics to be an all encompassing lifestyle, more than just a job. I was ALWAYS working- I found it almost impossible to step away from my research, and even when I did I couldn't switch my brain off. My (rare) vacations were often spent catching up on interesting papers, etc.

    Since leaving physics (first I worked at an insurance company, now I do statistical work at a consulting firm), I've rediscovered hobbies. I've read fiction books, and built some simple robots with my younger cousin (he is in highschool). Having a job thats a max of 60 hours a week, and is easy to step away from has been a nice plus.

    To the original post- I can tell you what being a physics graduate student is like. You'll spend long hours at a computer or in front of a pad of paper, doing math, programming,etc. Depending on sub-specialty, some of your time will be spent building experiments, but much more of it will probably be spent watching the data roll-in and doing analysis.

    Thats not to say there is no social interaction- depending on your project you may work closely with collaborators, and several times a year you'll travel to exotic locations and meet with other physicists at conferences for discussion and career networking. You'll also probably have to spend some of your time teaching, which some see as a distraction, and others enjoy as a necessary break from the potentially isolating nature of research.

    Career uncertainty will hang like a lead-weight around your neck for the latter half of graduate school and will be with you throughout your postdoc years. Its very easy to end up in your mid-30s with no real savings and making a difficult career transition through no fault of your own.

    I think being a postdoc IS being a physicist, and certainly career uncertainty is a prominent feature of the postdoc lifestyle.
  10. Mar 7, 2013 #9

    Andy Resnick

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    I have (post PhD) experience working both in industry and academia. Personally, I can't imagine doing anything other than Physics/Science and am very thankful for the career opportunities I have had (and currently enjoy). Yes: some days are better than others and stress seems to expand to fill any void, but that's true for any professional career.

    Depending on what you want to do post baccalaureate, a graduate degree is either essential or marginal.
  11. Mar 9, 2013 #10
    I work at a national lab where the working conditions are somewhere between industry and academia. It is like academia because you're expected to submit proposals and chase money to do science but like industry because you are project driven & the projects have to cover your salary. Most people work on applied physics problems because the money for basic science is very hard to get.

    I do experiments and lots of simulations. The upside is that I kinda like this work and it is possible to get involved in other stuff that interests you if you're persistent enough.

    The downside of the national labs is the crazy amount of ******** you have to deal with due to the safety, security, and oversight culture. The joke around here is we have a "Work free safety zone.". The other downside is that you tend to take on too many projects to make sure your salary is covered. I perpetually feel like I'm spread too thin.
  12. Mar 9, 2013 #11
    What kind of pay can a new PhD grad expect coming into a national lab?
  13. Mar 17, 2013 #12


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    Most new PhD usually enter such places as postdocs. So you may expect the standard postdoc rate, but this really depends on locations. Postdoc rate at LBNL will be different than what you would get at, say, JLab, due to different cost of living.

    It is very seldom that newly-minted PhDs get staff position at US Nat'l Labs.

  14. Mar 20, 2013 #13
    This is pretty much true for the physics department at my university. I'd estimate that professors, postdocs, and PhD candidates spend between 10% and 80% of our research time programming. Everyone writes some code, but the amount and complexity varies considerably depending on the specific research goal.

    For example, I do quantum information theory with big side orders of statistics and numerical simulation. I'd guess I spend roughly 40% on math/theory/writing, 35% programming, 20% reading papers, 0% doing my own experiments, and 5% on random stuff like helping others with linear algebra.
  15. Mar 20, 2013 #14
    ParticleGrl's description closely matches my own experiences and those of my colleagues.
    Partially true for some physicists, 100% true for others. I can focus on other things for short periods of time, but the research is always taking up some brain-RAM.
    100% true for every PhD student and postdoc I know. On the bright side: if you think your research topic is really cool, the boring parts are a lot more fun than they sound.
    100,000% true for every PhD student and postdoc I know, except those with wealthy (and generous) parents. This has been the biggest problem I've had, has caused the most damage to my personal life, and is by far the most significant distraction from my research.
  16. Mar 20, 2013 #15
    Is being a theoretical physicist fun? I love physics(especially electromagnetism and basic quantum mechanics), mathematics and chemistry. Most of the times, I feel like I want to become a theoretical particle physicist but when I am sleep deprived, I start to question my aspiration. I don't mind the workload since I do my best when I am stressed.

    Any theoretical physicists with opinions about the life of one?
  17. Mar 21, 2013 #16
    I think the subject itself is fun. There's a lot of boring debugging and calculating and sitting in front of a computer for hours. But overall, I think it's pretty cool.

    The politics and economics are not fun at all. I'm trying to abandon theoretical physics in favor of an industry job doing statistics and/or numerical programming. (I did apply for some postdoc fellowships, so there's a small nonzero probability that I'll still be doing physics for a few years.)

    Many people on this forum often repeat the following argument: Let ##p## be the number of people who are willing and able to do theoretical physics. Let ##q## be the number of full-time theoretical physics jobs which governments and private industries are willing to pay for. ##p \gg q \Rightarrow## we're screwed.

    Unfortunately, those people are completely correct - or at least, their argument is consistent with what I've seen as a PhD student in the US. There is fierce competition for faculty positions and admission to famous schools. Consequently, there's a lot of backstabbing nonsense in classes and graduate research, crippling financial insecurity, and a large number of qualified, motivated people leaving the subject.
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