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Worried I am wasting my time pursuing a PhD

  1. Nov 1, 2015 #1
    I'm a first year PhD student (hopefully I can retain some anonymity on this forum.) in Mathematics at a respected university. Like many grad students, I'm worried that my choice to do this was or wasn't the right one. I have been reading about PhD life on forums for years, and I told myself I was willing to put up with the long hours and low pay because it was a noble cause and I wanted to do something that would make a positive impact on the world. I did a masters in physics and I did actually enjoy that quite a lot although my thesis wasn't as successful as I would have liked. At this point I've pretty much decided that I do not wish to pursue the academic career track. It was something I would have confidently told you I wanted to do about a year ago, but now I realize that I am a mediocre Math student at best compared to many of my peers (I currently have a failing grade in a grad level physics class - I've never gotten less than a C before in my life.), and those people are the ones who will go on and get the tenure track jobs. I am basically at the point where I need to decide whether to stay with the PhD and try to scrape by for 5 years in poverty, doing research in an area I have pretty much convinced myself is impossible to find a solution to (kinetic theory and turbulence), or to try and get a run of the mill software developer job with decent pay where I can get experience coding in c++ and eventually apply for quant jobs once I've mastered the programming skills.

    I've also heard that the first year is the worst year during a PhD. What do you think about that saying?
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  3. Nov 1, 2015 #2


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    What was the reason you decided to get a PhD? Was it to get one of those tenure track jobs? If you believe that such a job is now out of reach and if that is the only reason to get the PhD, then indeed it sounds like you need to re-evaluate.

    Are you familiar with the concept of marginal costs and marginal benefits? That is how much additional costs (in both time and money) will you incur from today on, and how much additional benefit (in both money and satisfaction) will it bring. The fact that you have already spent some time and money going down this path is not a factor in the decision, it is a "sunk cost" and nothing you can do today will change it. All that matters is the additional costs and additional benefits that are at stake; sunk costs need to be neglected.

    Since you have spent some time in grad school, completing the program will not be as expensive for you as it would be for a new grad student, i.e. maybe only 3 additional years (depending on the school and program). The years you already spent don't matter except insofar as they reduce the additional future costs. So, you need to decide if the additional 3 or so years is worth the investment given the possible benefits that you expect at the end. Those expected benefits may be lower now that you have re-assessed the likelihood of getting a specific type of career.
  4. Nov 1, 2015 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    It sounds like you have decided that getting a PhD won't take you where you want to go. Fair enough. It's not a path that leads everywhere. Given that, it seems logical to get on a path that will take you where you want to go.
  5. Nov 1, 2015 #4
    It's partially a case of the so called "imposter syndrome", although I fear it may be true. I am doing terribly compared to my classmates insofar as coursework goes and I am having trouble keeping up with the assignments in my classes. I have never had these kinds of issues in my undergrad or masters work. Originally I wanted to do a PhD mostly out of what I thought was selflessness. I wanted to choose a career path that I knew would end up giving something beneficial back to the world through my work. But I've realized now that even for most academics this really isn't the case. It is only the truly exceptional academics that can say they have done that. The rest are basically there to hold up the pyramid scheme of bringing in more grad students and therefore more grants, etc. I'm obviously not one of those. I just feel like maybe my time could be better spent elsewhere developing marketable programming skills and eventually becoming a quant. If I can't give back through academic publications then maybe I can just make a ton of money and donate a lot of it to good causes. The problems I naively became set on solving as an undergrad (Navier Stokes, etc) are obviously impossible. I guess I just want to do something meaningful and I am not sure if this is the best way to do it anymore.

    Should I stick it out for the first year?
  6. Nov 1, 2015 #5


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    You should be able to find that in MANY different careers or employers. I work for a medical device company and feel that about my job. A police officer I know feels the same about his job. My martial arts instructor feels that way about his job.

    It sounds like you have a rather distorted view of what giving something beneficial back to the world means.
  7. Nov 1, 2015 #6


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    Just about everyone wants to do something meaningful.

    But "meaningful" has a spectrum of definitions. Remember that you can do a lot of good with really basic things. Volunteering to be a Big Brother for example can really make a difference in someone's life who needs a positive role model. You don't need an equation named after you to have made a positive contribution to the world.

    That said, one thing about PhD programs is that the paradigm does shift once the course work is complete. I know as I got into the course work I began to feel like I'd taken enough courses in my life. But once those are all over that's it. You have to start figuring out problems on your own. And sometimes its not the most outstanding coursework students who succeed there, because research success requires more than the skills you learn in courses.

    So if you were really looking forward to moving on from your courses, I'd recommend sticking it out at this point and work through the paradigm change. Re-evaluate in a year.

    On the other hand, if you really are starting to believe that academia is just a pyramid scheme, and with not looking forward to your research project, maybe you're a little more sure that you're not in the right place for you right now, and you're just looking for some independent validation.
  8. Nov 2, 2015 #7
    You wanted to do a PhD because you wanted to practice selflessness and to give something back to the world? Congratulations, you've found the worst reason ever to do a PhD. You should do a PhD mainly because you enjoy math very much and really desire knowing more and making your own contributions. I don't sense a great passion towards math with you, and that is bad.

    I don't think there are many PhD students who manage to make an actual meaningful contribution during their PhD. And I don't think any PhD student is able to solve Navier-Stokes. So those are again really bad reasons to do a PhD.

    And really, academia being a pyramid scheme? Maybe for some. But most professors and PhD students I know deeply care about their subject and most of all desire to know more.
  9. Nov 3, 2015 #8


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    Maybe going a bit off topic but this is an interesting point. By definition a PhD dissertation needs to be a meaningful contribution to the field or the degree will not be awarded. On the other side of the coin, the contributions are usually minor and highly focused. Only very rarely have I heard of big advances coming from a graduate student, for instance Claude Shannon first applying Boolean logic to switching systems (for his MS thesis!). Then you can also note Shannon's biggest achievements (in communication and sampling theory) came years after he had graduated with his PhD.
  10. Nov 5, 2015 #9
    I agree whole heartedly. I did not have any preconceived Ideas of what this whole process was going to be like or how hard it was because I knew no one in the field beforehand and the internet did not exist so I just had my own idealized concepts to go on. I went to college because I wanted to learn physics. I went to graduate school because I wanted to learn more physics. I was an average physics student and had no lofty aspirations as to my contribution to the field as long as it was acceptable to me and the faculty. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a poor destitute grad student and never regretted it. My stipend was enough for food, shelter and clothing, What else did I need? I still think it was one of the best times of my life unencumbered by any responsibilities except to live in the present, enjoying the camaraderie and what I was doing. I got the PhD and had no problems finding a fulfilling job using the knowledge and skills I had acquired.

    It seems in this forum a great many students have aspirations of getting tenured faculty appointment and that is the only reason you get a PHD. The problem is that the number of tenured appointments are hardly increasing and that the only positions are the vacancies produced by retirement. In addition many (most) colleges and universities are using temporary or adjunct positions to fill faculty leaving only 30% (?) of the faculty as tenured. There is a glut of qualified people out their. Look at the statistics about 740 schools grant BS's and 195 of those grant PhD's and about 60 grant MS's. How many faculty positions are open at any one time? In 2014 about 1800 PHD's where granted. How many PHD"S are in Post Doc's in a holding position bulking up there CV's waiting for an opening. So most PHD usually take industrial, private sector or government jobs with some not doing physics per se at all. So as I see it one prepares for (accepts) the possibility of a career doing at least something related to their experience or at best a research position with engineering and development in between.
  11. Nov 5, 2015 #10


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    To solve Navier-Stokes conjecture or any long standing conjecture you need more time than you have during a PhD.

    Just to get into the mindset of mathematical Navier Stokes, there's this book called
    An Introduction to the Mathematical Theory of the Navier-Stokes Equations
    Steady-State Problems

    it has close to 1000 pages, this is a start in understanding the problem, and reading this book will take you something like 1-3 years, no one guarantees that you'll publish something meaningful from reading it. You need to be modest with your ambitions, no one expects you to prove Navier Stokes or any other such conjecture during your PhD.
  12. Nov 6, 2015 #11
    Thanks guys. I've pretty much decided to stay as long as I can (assuming good progress) and to take industrial internships during the summer so that I won't be overeducated and underexperienced. when I leave.
  13. Nov 6, 2015 #12


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    That sounds reasonable.

    Remember that you always have the opportunity to re-evaluate that decision if a better specific opportunity comes along.
  14. Nov 13, 2015 #13
    This year I attended the London International Youth Science Forum. One of the guys we got a lecture from had a high level position at HSBC- and he had a PhD in engineering! So, maybe doing a PhD wont limit your job options as much as you think. Just food for thought.
  15. Nov 13, 2015 #14
    I loved my first year of grad study. I never worked so hard in my life. There was always a deadline for homework or test the next day. I remember getting in 10 (I must have been on the 9:30 am bus) everyday, and going home on the 12:10 am bus every night, for several weeks at a time. I worked through Spring break because I got well below the mean on my midterms. Despite the uncertainty in my future, I loved the lectures, the learning, the teaching, and partly the camaraderie. I think if I did not tough it out, how would I have felt if I found out I would have made it ?

    You work hard at research in later years but there is less structure. You almost never have to hand in results every single day without some breaks.

    On the other hand I saw a few students who worked hard, and were talented that did not continue or failed and could not continue. Unlike TV, life does not always have happy endings where if you work hard enough, you get what you want. Hard work and talent does give you better odds (Luck does play a role also).

    I think first-year grads are most involved in the real physics subject matter. Later years in research, you work with your tools, (computers, equipment, publishing applications, presentations, and possibly grant writing or administrative duties). Seems like if you do not like the first year, you do not like physics. I suspect you like physics and are just taking a bruising. Believe me, you are not alone. Good Luck.
  16. Nov 15, 2015 #15


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    Out of curiosity, do you know what had happened to these students who did not continue in their studies? Do you happen to know what career path these people had taken?
  17. Nov 21, 2015 #16
    I know because at least some of them work for me. Physics majors make great software engineers. The reality is though, if you get your PhD, the chances are you will come working for me also, for basically the same salary (although we tend to throw the PhDs the more interesting work). The reason you get a PhD is that you love the subject and want to play scientist for a few years before being made an adult (engineer). There is no money in it.
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