What should I do after graduation? PhD or what?

  • Thread starter jeebs
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  • #1
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Hi,
I am a physics student in England, doing my 4th (masters) year and will be finished in June 2011. I have been trying to decide what to do next and I am struggling. I really enjoy my course, I'd happily stay at uni for the rest of my life just going to lectures, learning physics and solving homework problems, but that obviously isn't going to happen. This is why thoughts of a PhD have crossed my mind - I want to carry on getting deeper into the subject because it would be such a shame to get to the end of this year and just leave it at that. I mean, I've came this far, and physics is the only thing I have ever put any time or effort into, I don't know how to do anything else. I'm hoping to finish with a 1st, if not a high 2.1.

The thing is, I'm not sure if a PhD would be the most sensible choice. I get the impression that most physics PhD's in the UK are to do with materials science, like semiconductors etc. To be honest I'm not hugely interested in that sort of area, I've had good grades in those sorts of modules but they just don't do it for me. I think my most favourite topics are particle physics & quantum mechanics, but is there really a demand for this sort of PhD? I've been reading about the basics of QFT and the like recently, and I think I'd like to get taught about that stuff properly.
Will this sort of thing be taught in many (or all) physics PhD's?

Also, if I was to stay on and get a PhD in a given area, would that really restrict me to that area in my future career options? If so, there is no way I am doing a PhD I don't really enjoy because then I'd be stuck there for life...

Anyway, one other thing has caught my eye recently. I've been getting emails advertising qualifications relating to nuclear fusion (plasma physics and so on), York university in particular seems to have a big fusion doctoral training scheme with ties to Culham etc. I remember first hearing about what fusion was in a lesson at school when I was about 16, and thinking "Woh. that is insane". I never dreamed I could ever be involved with it, but I would love to have a go at that. Is this something I could realistically pursue, or is it an area I would struggle to make my way in, if I went for a PhD in this area? Do I even stand more than a snowball in hell's chance of getting onto a course such as this? Is this the kind of qualification I'd have to get more student loans to pursue or would I likely be paid to do this sort of thing? (I am in about £35000 of student debt already!!)

Lastly, what if I get a PhD place and decide I don't like it? would it be worse to stick it out for the 3 years or to quit early?
What if I have nothing lined up at the end of this year? will it hurt my chances of ever getting onto a PhD course if I just go back home after the end of this degree and just bum around doing daft little dead end jobs?

Thanks.
 
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Answers and Replies

  • #2
fss
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I think my most favourite topics are particle physics & quantum mechanics, but is there really a demand for this sort of PhD?
Who cares? Do what you want to do, not what's "more employable." It's too late to start nursing school for you anyways.

Will this sort of thing be taught in many (or all) physics PhD's?
It won't be taught in all of them, but if you go into a program with the intent of studying particle physics then you'll get courses in this.

Also, if I was to stay on and get a PhD in a given area, would that really restrict me to that area in my future career options? If so, there is no way I am doing a PhD I don't really enjoy because then I'd be stuck there for life...
No PhD is restricting. It also depends on your point of view; a PhD with a concentration and thesis in particle physics will make you a more attractive candidate for positions that require that particular background. It won't completely exclude you from other positions.

Lastly, what if I get a PhD place and decide I don't like it? would it be worse to stick it out for the 3 years or to quit early?
At least in the US there is at least considerable personal and professional stigma for "dropping out."

What if I have nothing lined up at the end of this year? will it hurt my chances of ever getting onto a PhD course if I just go back home after the end of this degree and just bum around doing daft little dead end jobs?
Generally the longer you stay away from physics the harder it is to get back into it; especially at the levels required for a PhD. If you "bum around doing daft little dead end jobs" with a Masters' degree in physics, I'd say you have bigger problems.
 
  • #3
I get the impression that most physics PhD's in the UK are to do with materials science, like semiconductors etc.
Why is that? Even if it is true that materials is a somewhat majority subject, it will still be a very small percentage of total PhD positions. There are thousands of topics out there.


I think my most favourite topics are particle physics & quantum mechanics, but is there really a demand for this sort of PhD? I've been reading about the basics of QFT and the like recently, and I think I'd like to get taught about that stuff properly.
Will this sort of thing be taught in many (or all) physics PhD's?
To the first part, yes. With the LHC projects kicking in, particle physics is huge. There have been, however, huge intakes for the past couple of years - I don't know the particle physics field well so I can't say if this will impact on ease of jobs afterwards. The question about taught physics: in the UK almost all PhD programmes are as follows - 3-3.5 years of funding. You have to make up some small number of credits, so might take a few courses - but in general teaching isn't a big part of our PhDs. In Scotland, for instance, our PhD students can choose a few courses from a collaborative system we run between universities. Lectures are delivered via web-conferencing. So no, it won't be taught much, but what you get taught and what you can teach yourself to research are different things.

Also, if I was to stay on and get a PhD in a given area, would that really restrict me to that area in my future career options? If so, there is no way I am doing a PhD I don't really enjoy because then I'd be stuck there for life...
I've never had an industry position, but I'd say no. There is room to move around in academia too, if you make it. Otherwise, you get a fantastic skill set from a PhD - project planning, report writing, technical writing, problem solving, financial management.. if you can market yourself in the right way you'll be desirable to a whole host of work places.

Is this something I could realistically pursue, or is it an area I would struggle to make my way in, if I went for a PhD in this area? Do I even stand more than a snowball in hell's chance of getting onto a course such as this?
Of course you can go for it, and with a 2:1 or First class Msci you will definitely have a chance. I don't see why you think it's less of an option than any other subjects :smile: What you should do is email the universities you're interested in that have research in the subject areas you're interested in. Do your research and email a whole bunch, to give yourself plenty of options. If you email a specific doctor, you can say you've read about what they do (if you have!) and find it fascinating, and ask if they have any funding for a PhD student. You'll want to do this soon, as some universities hold their interviews in January.

Is this the kind of qualification I'd have to get more student loans to pursue or would I likely be paid to do this sort of thing? (I am in about £35000 of student debt already!!)
Yes, you should do some more research! The simple version of how the UK system works is that the universities apply to funding bodies asking for money to fund PhD students. So university X gets funding for Y students for, say, 3.5 years each. So, you contact university X - expressing interest in a subject they cater for. They decide you're good for it, and award you some of the funding they've been given. The basic UK student fund is a £13.5k-ish per year stipend (so it's tax free). There are other ways for universities to fund students as well, but don't worry about it just now.

Lastly, what if I get a PhD place and decide I don't like it? would it be worse to stick it out for the 3 years or to quit early?
Try to do as much research as possible before accepting a position, quitting a PhD doesn't look good. It might be worse to stick it out in that you might fail because you aren't interested in what you're doing.

What if I have nothing lined up at the end of this year? will it hurt my chances of ever getting onto a PhD course if I just go back home after the end of this degree and just bum around doing daft little dead end jobs?
I don't think gap years at any stage are as valuable as they once were. The university wants someone who is passionate about the subject and is willing to work hard to get the PhD - that's what you need to convince them of. If you say you bummed around for a year because you couldn't get a job, now you're taking a PhD as a back-bench option then you're in trouble.
 
  • #4
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I've been reading about the basics of QFT and the like recently, and I think I'd like to get taught about that stuff properly.
Field theory is very heavily used in condensed matter physics. You take quantum field theory, multiply time by i (google for Wick rotation), and then you get statistical mechanics.

Lastly, what if I get a PhD place and decide I don't like it? would it be worse to stick it out for the 3 years or to quit early?
You really need to make sure that you want to do the program before you go in.
 
  • #5
cristo
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