Hi with questions

  • This has become our largest and most active forum because the physics GRE is just one aspect of getting accepted into a graduate physics program.
  • There are applications, personal statements, letters of recommendation, visiting schools, anxiety of waiting for acceptances, deciding between schools, finding out where others are going, etc.

Posts: 5
Joined: Sat Jul 31, 2004 6:07 pm

Hi with questions

Postby Capook » Sun Aug 01, 2004 5:37 pm

Hi everybody,

I'm about to start my last year of undergrad (physics major), and I'm trying to decide about graduate school. I've loved physics so much that I've always thought I'd just apply right after undergrad and then be an academic physicist my whole life. But this summer I've been actually doing some academic research, and now I'm having second thoughts. It's not that I haven't liked the research--I have. It's just that I think I would have enjoyed myself just as much doing research in industry or government. And if academic topics aren't giving me the additional satisfaction I thought they might, why not work in industry or government and make more money? So I guess my question is about the variety of physics jobs available to physicists in different fields--what can you do with what kinds of degrees and what can you make doing it? This includes B.S. degrees as well as more advanced ones--I wouldn't mind at all taking a year or two off if I could get a good job doing physics right out of college. Anybody's advice is greatly appreciated!

For concreteness, I go to Yale, and I've been working this summer with the gravity group at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on a problem related to gravitational self-force. But my interests are by no means limited to gravity or astrophysics--not having been to graduate school, I have no idea what I like best. I do think I prefer theory to experiment, but all the same I'd like to hear about all sorts of physics jobs you guys are familiar with.

Thanks in advance,


Posts: 5
Joined: Fri Jul 23, 2004 7:43 am

Postby krilvyn » Mon Aug 02, 2004 6:31 am

I think it's a great idea to take a year or two off, especially if you're like me and racked up student loans equivalent to the price of a new Corvette. However, it is tough to find a job "doing physics" with just a bachelor's degree unless you had a really good internship or co-op and they want to keep you full-time. You're more likely to be able to get an engineering or programming job. But don't be disappointed just because it's not pure physics work. It can be really rewarding to see a project go through design and development and see people actually using something that you helped to create. If you try this for a couple years, you'll make some decent money, get some real-world experience, and it will either confirm your doubts about academia or you'll go running back to college. Either way, you're better off for it. I'd only recommend going straight from undergrad to a Ph.D program if you know exactly what kind of research you want to do and you're somehow not burnt out from undergrad.

Some background on my situation as well: I graduated in 2002, double majored in computer science and physics. I had always been planning on going straight to grad school but at the end of my senior year I was really burnt out on school and had a lot of debt to pay off. The first job I had after school really sucked but the second one (my current job) is really cool, I work on software and hardware for avionics systems. But I've found that what I really want to do everyday is physics so I'm trying to go back to school fall 2005. I don't want to work in academia either, I really want to work at one of the big labs (JPL, Los Alamos, Johns Hopkins APL).

If you do take time off, make sure you don't make one of the same mistakes I did. Keep in touch with your professors! The main thing that is limiting me right now is recommendation letters because I haven't talked to any of my physics profs since I graduated.

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Joined: Mon Jul 12, 2004 2:23 pm

Postby X-Ray » Mon Aug 02, 2004 2:54 pm

Capook -

It's a small world! You're at Yale now, and Yale is where I want to be! I live in Hamden but work in NY (explains the 1.5 [h] commute I mentioned in response to your other post).

I graduated w/ a B.S. Physics in 1992. I immediately entered industry where I applied my knowledge of holographic optics. I've been in the same field for 12 years now, and I'm the Director of Technology in the second place I've worked since then.

If you want to make $$, go into industry (I'm six figure +). HOWEVER if you chase the dollar you may lose your TRUE direction. Unfortunately, I did just that. I have found that fulfilling your true desire, following your true interests, is the most important factor in your career. If you're clever, you can make it pay, too.

It took a long time for me to see where I started to veer, what my real target was, and how I could correct my trajectory, so to speak. So now I want to go to Yale and learn all I can about Biomedical Imaging. Of particular interest to me is Yale's emphasis on cross-disciplinary work - this would be between Applied Physics and Biomedical Engineering in my case.

I'd love to talk / write more about your experiences at Yale. In return, I could possibly help you avoid making (some of) the mistakes I've made!


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Joined: Sat Jul 31, 2004 6:07 pm

Postby Capook » Mon Aug 02, 2004 9:34 pm

Thanks for the responses guys.


I'm very fortunate in that my parents somehow managed to pay for my entire undergraduate eduaction, so immediate money is not a necessity for me. As for programming or engineering jobs. Computer programming has been a hobby of mine since middle school, and I worked the four of five summers before this one at programming jobs. So I've always known programming was an option for money after school, but I think I'm just plain sick of it at this point. Maybe if I could do some sort of management job related to programming or something, but I think somebody would have to offer me quite a lot of money to get me to spend more of my life typing at a computer all day. As for engineering, I don't really know what that entails exactly, but it sounds fun. Would I be able to get a good position as a physics major with no actual engineering experience? I guess I had always assumed not so I haven't really thought about engineering jobs. I'll take the GRE and ask my professors for recommendations even if I don't decide to apply this year, I think, so hopefully that will avoid the problem you're having now, if grad schools don't mind 5-year-old recommendations.


Nice to hear you have your eye on the greatest school in the whole wide world! :) I'd love to talk about all this any time. The standard for the fearless youth is AOL instant messanger, where you (or anybody else here) can message my screen name Capooky. Otherwise we can work something else out. Being clever enough to make money while following my true interest sounds good to me. The only problem is I have no idea what my true interest is! And even if I did, I'd have no idea how to even start being clever with it--I just know nothing about the types of jobs out there. Can't solve a problem 'till you know what it is.

I said I have no idea what my interests are, but on second thought that isn't entirely accurate. I have some interests, but they're very juvenille so I don't trust them. For instance, working on a project trying to develop some cool high-tech futuristic gadget like a star-trek phaser weapon sounds very cool to me. Same for working on some top secret project at los alamos, coming up with a breakthrough method of propulsion, or discovering the secrets of the universe as an out-of-touch fundamental theorist. The only interest I have that strikes me as real is not for me but for humanity--I'd like to see us exploring the cosmos a lot more rapidly than we are. But I think a life of work toward that end would just be frustrating; unless some national security or prestige issue gets the people motivated again, a life working on space exploration would just be a life of disappointment. So I feel like none of my "interests" for lifelong satisfaction are attainable, so I should just spend my time doing whatever physics makes me good money, any type of which I think I'll enjoy as a day to day occupation. (But I might not enjoy day-to-day other occupations, such as investment banking (now that would be chasing the dollar)). I have a rule that as soon I'm tempted to use nested parentheses I stop writing immediately, so that I don't put my readers through any more misery. So I'm done :)


Posts: 4
Joined: Tue Aug 17, 2004 9:42 pm

physics '03 grad now working...

Postby holovision » Tue Aug 17, 2004 10:06 pm

Hi all,
I read your messages and thought I might be able to contribute some thoughts from my own experiences...
I graduated in '03 with a physics major, an interest in grad school, but a determination to get a job for a few years first. I found it very difficult to find a physics job and ended up pursuing a job in finance instead. I've been working for over a year now and seriously considering appllying to grad school in physics, here's my advice:

Treat your senior year of undergrad as if you were planning on going to grad school even if you never even end up applying. There's a ton of stuff you can get done while on campus that is really difficult to do otherwise. krilvyn already mentioned recommendation letters, I would add the Physics GRE too. I wouldn't be shy about asking for letters of recommendation and would suggest you think about a few schools you might be interested in applying to (now or in the future) and check out their letters of rec forms. You can always just ask for generic letters of rec and keep them on file somewhere (often your school will provide that service and protect the confidentiality of the letters). But it would be better if you could tailor it to the school (I'm sure that would help your addmissions prospects). Then, the Physics GRE: take it in the Fall, you'll probably do your best while everything is fresh and this will stay on file for a while so you'll have it ready to go if you apply in the future. Even if you think you're busy on campus, there is nothing like getting up at 6am everyday for work to make you not want to study up on physics at night! Get it done while you're at school! The bottom line in my mind is get as much done as you can while at school and then later on you'll only have to worry about licking the envelope. I did not do this and am running into the same difficulties as krilyvn vis-a-vis recommendations.

Hope this helps... good luck.

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Joined: Wed Dec 22, 2004 12:19 pm

Postby dana » Wed Dec 22, 2004 12:32 pm

could anyone tell me some web-sites to find out about possibilities for phd students in the US? school pages where i could find the subjects of disertation thesis and supervisors' names and stuff. i'm not american, i am in the first year of phd program in slovakia and i haven't find many useful pages so far. thanks

Posts: 6
Joined: Wed Mar 30, 2005 10:02 am

Postby jjoseph » Thu Mar 31, 2005 10:01 am

Hi dana,

well, I think the easiest way is to go to the university's web site, pick whatever department you're interested in (I suppose Physics) and you'll get a list of the faculty. Usually each faculty member has its own web page where he/she describes the kind of research he/she does. What kind of research are you doing?


Posts: 18
Joined: Wed Apr 06, 2005 7:59 pm

finish the degree, find the kind of work you like ...

Postby Mick » Fri Apr 08, 2005 11:57 am

Hi Capook,

I say, go straight to grade school and do the ph.d., get it out of the way, and then you can decide what you want to do with your life. I took the other route, and after my BA, worked in another area, and then did the MA, and discovered the truth about a physics degree.

The truth is that a BA or MA in physics is fairly useless unless you want to either teach primary school, work as an engineer or program computers. There are virtually no jobs available in physics to someone without a Ph.D., trust me, I spent a year looking for something with my MA, and there isn't too much.

But you find research boring. It IS boring to a lot of people. But once you get your ph.d. (which I'm working on right now) you don't necessarily have to do research. You can be a scientific editor and make just as much money as a professor. You can work for the government and go in at a fairly high GS-rating, you can work for a bank, or industry, or whatever. But the entrance to these jobs is, unequivocally, a ph.d. in physics.

And if you take too much time off before realizing this truth, you might find yourself in my situation, with a wife and kids, and find how hard it is to support everyone and study and spend time with your kids. It's worth it, I wouldn't trade it for the world, but it's hard.

The ph.d. isn't the end, it's the beginning. You'll find work that you like, and it may not even have a whole lot to do with physics. Think of ex-president Jimmy Carter ... he got his ph.d. in physics and ended up with a fairly interesting job that didn't have a whole lot to do with nuclear physics -- at least not directly.

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