what it takes to get a phD in physics?

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larry burns
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what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby larry burns » Sun Sep 26, 2010 8:50 pm

Hi all! I graduated last year with my BS in physics and math. I am kind of confused about my choice to do physics in grad school, even though if I get my phD I probably wouldn't want to go into academia. I would like to do research in a government lab. I am comfortable with those theoretical and abstract concepts, and doing computational but not experimental work. Luckily, I heard that theoretical physicists with strong computational skills can easily find jobs in industry. But I want the job to involve physics and/or engineering, so I don't want to work as a programmer or in WS

My favorite physics class was quantum mechanics, one reason being that it used alot of linear algebra, which was also my favorite math class. I also liked statistical mechanics, though we barely covered it in my thermo class. However, the physics I enjoyed the least was thermodynamics and E&M. I discover that I am not interested in alot of the concepts in Griffith's E&M, such as problems involving circuits, solenoids, inductance, etc. As a result, I've had doubts of going into grad school for physics, and even related areas such as EE. I heard that Jackson's E&M is the toughest grad course in physics, so thats worrying to me.

My 2 undergrad research projects dealt with materials modeling and a little solid-state physics, and I enjoyed both projects. I haven't looked too much into the more theoretical areas, such as string theory, HEP, astrophysics, etc, since I want to have more employment opportunities after I finish my phD. Although I liked my applied math classes, I tend to have a preference for the physical aspects of problems. I didn't take any physics electives, but solid-state physics, lasers, and quantum optics look interesting based on what I've read about it.

As of now, I'm thinking about applying to phD programs, and physics seems to make the most sense as they offer a greater variety of areas that interest me than engineering programs. But it seems that I can't shake away this feeling of doubt. I don't know if I like physics enough that I'm willing to suffer through a phD program and end up dropping out. Is it normal to feel some doubt? or do all physics phD students know that they love physics so much that they can't imagine doing something else?

geshi
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby geshi » Sun Sep 26, 2010 10:19 pm

http://www.cs.unc.edu/~azuma/hitch4.html

That's a well written article about grad school in general. It is written by someone who did their PhD in comp sci, but I think a lot of the lessons in it are applicable to other fields. There are numerous articles that will come up if you search "should I get a PhD?" For example:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jaylemke/guidephd.htm

Anyway, enough link spam. For me personally, I knew there was nothing else that interested me nearly enough to deter me from getting a PhD. That being said, I sometimes have doubts. Some days I roll out of bed, "Ugh, I don't feel like working today." I think that's a part of life, unless you're one of those people who rolls out of bed every day spewing sunshine and rainbows from all orifices of your body. I think I'd consult some, "Should I get a PhD?" guides if I were you. Obviously ones that directly talk about physics would be more relevant for you, but the general ones are still good to look at.

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HappyQuark
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby HappyQuark » Mon Sep 27, 2010 11:47 am

geshi wrote:http://www.cs.unc.edu/~azuma/hitch4.html

That's a well written article about grad school in general. It is written by someone who did their PhD in comp sci, but I think a lot of the lessons in it are applicable to other fields. There are numerous articles that will come up if you search "should I get a PhD?" For example:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jaylemke/guidephd.htm

Anyway, enough link spam. For me personally, I knew there was nothing else that interested me nearly enough to deter me from getting a PhD. That being said, I sometimes have doubts. Some days I roll out of bed, "Ugh, I don't feel like working today." I think that's a part of life, unless you're one of those people who rolls out of bed every day spewing sunshine and rainbows from all orifices of your body. I think I'd consult some, "Should I get a PhD?" guides if I were you. Obviously ones that directly talk about physics would be more relevant for you, but the general ones are still good to look at.


I was quite intrigued by something that was said in the second of the two links posted above

"There are PhDs and PhDs. As with any commodity, there is a market and differential value on that market. PhDs from prestigious research universities are worth more. PhDs earned under the supervision of noted researchers are worth more still. Both these conditions matter far more to the value of your degree than does the intrinsic merit of your dissertation (unless it is truly exceptional). By and large U.S. PhDs are worth less than European ones (and are easier to get). In Europe, PhDs from older universities are worth more than those from newer ones (this is also true to a lesser degree elsewhere), except in technical fields."

It was always my understanding that Universities in the U.S. , in stark contrast to our grade school system, were far superior to most other countries.

geshi
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby geshi » Mon Sep 27, 2010 8:57 pm

HappyQuark wrote:It was always my understanding that Universities in the U.S. , in stark contrast to our grade school system, were far superior to most other countries.


That may depend on the subject. That was a very general article written about PhDs. It was not directly about physics, so I'm not really sure. Just because something is written by someone who supposedly has knowledge doesn't make it true either ;).

A blurb about the author, "Jay Lemke (Ph.D., University of Chicago) is Professor in the School of Education, Department of Educational Studies, at the University of Michigan and Co-Editor of the journal Critical Discourse Studies."

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grae313
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby grae313 » Wed Sep 29, 2010 3:49 pm

larry burns wrote:As of now, I'm thinking about applying to phD programs, and physics seems to make the most sense as they offer a greater variety of areas that interest me than engineering programs. But it seems that I can't shake away this feeling of doubt. I don't know if I like physics enough that I'm willing to suffer through a phD program and end up dropping out. Is it normal to feel some doubt? or do all physics phD students know that they love physics so much that they can't imagine doing something else?



Don't let Jackson scare you away from grad school. You only take a year or two of classes and then it's all research. Honestly I'm not that excited about learning new physics anymore, but my lab work is fun and I get to use what I know to solve new and interesting problems every day. So yeah, you can get sick of physics and it's not necessarily a disaster. Look at the research going on in different programs and if some of it looks really interesting and exciting and if you know you'll enjoy working hard in a research environment, you would do fine in a PhD program.

As to whether or not the degree is worth the time spent, that's another debate and something you'd have to decide for yourself. But to the people that constantly warn others away from this path, I think that is only warranted if your goal is high level academia or theoretical physics in academia. I get recruiting emails from investing firms all the time looking to hire physics PhDs to work on quantitative modeling and you can start at $200k or more. Industry hires the majority of physics PhDs and you can do good physics research there for good pay. The financial viability of the degree is only questionable if your goal is academia, IMO.

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HappyQuark
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby HappyQuark » Wed Sep 29, 2010 7:38 pm

grae313 wrote:
larry burns wrote:As of now, I'm thinking about applying to phD programs, and physics seems to make the most sense as they offer a greater variety of areas that interest me than engineering programs. But it seems that I can't shake away this feeling of doubt. I don't know if I like physics enough that I'm willing to suffer through a phD program and end up dropping out. Is it normal to feel some doubt? or do all physics phD students know that they love physics so much that they can't imagine doing something else?



Don't let Jackson scare you away from grad school. You only take a year or two of classes and then it's all research. Honestly I'm not that excited about learning new physics anymore, but my lab work is fun and I get to use what I know to solve new and interesting problems every day. So yeah, you can get sick of physics and it's not necessarily a disaster. Look at the research going on in different programs and if some of it looks really interesting and exciting and if you know you'll enjoy working hard in a research environment, you would do fine in a PhD program.

As to whether or not the degree is worth the time spent, that's another debate and something you'd have to decide for yourself. But to the people that constantly warn others away from this path, I think that is only warranted if your goal is high level academia or theoretical physics in academia. I get recruiting emails from investing firms all the time looking to hire physics PhDs to work on quantitative modeling and you can start at $200k or more. Industry hires the majority of physics PhDs and you can do good physics research there for good pay. The financial viability of the degree is only questionable if your goal is academia, IMO.


On a somewhat related note, I'm not too nervous about my financial well being with a physics PhD because even if I don't make it as a scientist, I know a Nigerian prince who left me a couple billion dollars and all I have to do is give him my bank information and social security number so he can wire me the money.

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grae313
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby grae313 » Thu Sep 30, 2010 10:47 am

HappyQuark wrote:On a somewhat related note, I'm not too nervous about my financial well being with a physics PhD because even if I don't make it as a scientist, I know a Nigerian prince who left me a couple billion dollars and all I have to do is give him my bank information and social security number so he can wire me the money.


If this was, by chance, a jab at the validity of the recruitment emails, they are from well-known firms and they often have representatives on campus trying to recruit students. The recruitment emails are forwarded from the physics department secretary.

If this was unrelated, :D

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HappyQuark
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby HappyQuark » Thu Sep 30, 2010 12:40 pm

grae313 wrote:
HappyQuark wrote:On a somewhat related note, I'm not too nervous about my financial well being with a physics PhD because even if I don't make it as a scientist, I know a Nigerian prince who left me a couple billion dollars and all I have to do is give him my bank information and social security number so he can wire me the money.


If this was, by chance, a jab at the validity of the recruitment emails, they are from well-known firms and they often have representatives on campus trying to recruit students. The recruitment emails are forwarded from the physics department secretary.

If this was unrelated, :D


It was unrelated. I know better than make any sort of jab at the resident "all seeing eye" of the GRE forum.

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twistor
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby twistor » Thu Sep 30, 2010 1:01 pm

HappyQuark wrote:
grae313 wrote:
HappyQuark wrote:On a somewhat related note, I'm not too nervous about my financial well being with a physics PhD because even if I don't make it as a scientist, I know a Nigerian prince who left me a couple billion dollars and all I have to do is give him my bank information and social security number so he can wire me the money.


If this was, by chance, a jab at the validity of the recruitment emails, they are from well-known firms and they often have representatives on campus trying to recruit students. The recruitment emails are forwarded from the physics department secretary.

If this was unrelated, :D


It was unrelated. I know better than make any sort of jab at the resident "all seeing eye" of the GRE forum.


ya... fuckin' Sauron...

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grae313
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby grae313 » Thu Sep 30, 2010 2:11 pm

HappyQuark wrote:It was unrelated. I know better than make any sort of jab at the resident "all seeing eye" of the GRE forum.


Good thing, I was seconds away from banning you. :P

RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH

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WhoaNonstop
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby WhoaNonstop » Thu Sep 30, 2010 3:23 pm

grae313 wrote:
HappyQuark wrote:It was unrelated. I know better than make any sort of jab at the resident "all seeing eye" of the GRE forum.


Good thing, I was seconds away from banning you. :P

RESPECT MAH AUTHORITAH


Scaryyyy... Definitely not applying to Cornell now... ;)

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twistor
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby twistor » Thu Sep 30, 2010 5:10 pm

Do people still watch South Park?

I found that it stopped being funny once the novelty of cartoon children swearing wore off.

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grae313
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby grae313 » Fri Oct 01, 2010 4:14 pm

I don't watch TV (I don't have or want cable), but I know some people who like SP.

larry burns
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby larry burns » Fri Oct 01, 2010 7:03 pm

geshi wrote:http://www.cs.unc.edu/~azuma/hitch4.html

That's a well written article about grad school in general. It is written by someone who did their PhD in comp sci, but I think a lot of the lessons in it are applicable to other fields. There are numerous articles that will come up if you search "should I get a PhD?" For example:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jaylemke/guidephd.htm

Anyway, enough link spam. For me personally, I knew there was nothing else that interested me nearly enough to deter me from getting a PhD. That being said, I sometimes have doubts. Some days I roll out of bed, "Ugh, I don't feel like working today." I think that's a part of life, unless you're one of those people who rolls out of bed every day spewing sunshine and rainbows from all orifices of your body. I think I'd consult some, "Should I get a PhD?" guides if I were you. Obviously ones that directly talk about physics would be more relevant for you, but the general ones are still good to look at.



after reading that , I think that I have the work ethic necessary to get the phD, especially after my research work in materials modeling. The problem I'm having is just which programs to apply to. It seems like I can't find my fit.

Don't let Jackson scare you away from grad school. You only take a year or two of classes and then it's all research. Honestly I'm not that excited about learning new physics anymore, but my lab work is fun and I get to use what I know to solve new and interesting problems every day. So yeah, you can get sick of physics and it's not necessarily a disaster. Look at the research going on in different programs and if some of it looks really interesting and exciting and if you know you'll enjoy working hard in a research environment, you would do fine in a PhD program.


its mostly Jackson, but not just Jackson. Some of the concepts in physics can get too abstract for my liking, which is why I doubted majoring in physics alot during my undergrad. Of course, I enjoyed some of those challenges. But the idea of working on practical and hardware stuff in EE was even worse, so thats why I didn't think engineering was for me either. Its just that I hope that E&M isn't used too heavily in condensed matter, lasers or optics

As to whether or not the degree is worth the time spent, that's another debate and something you'd have to decide for yourself. But to the people that constantly warn others away from this path, I think that is only warranted if your goal is high level academia or theoretical physics in academia. I get recruiting emails from investing firms all the time looking to hire physics PhDs to work on quantitative modeling and you can start at $200k or more. Industry hires the majority of physics PhDs and you can do good physics research there for good pay. The financial viability of the degree is only questionable if your goal is academia, IMO.


$200k?! I knew physics phDs make good money in wall street, but they can START with THAT much?! I thought it was just 100k or 150k at most. Not that this will affect my decision. I just need to make enough money to make a living

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noojens
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Re: what it takes to get a phD in physics?

Postby noojens » Sat Oct 02, 2010 4:16 pm

I think top-notch consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, Accenture, etc. might hire PhD consultants around $150k. It's quite a competitive process to get into those firms, though, with 4-5 rounds of interviews, mock consulting projects and so on. If you're thinking about that route, invest a lot of time in developing good communication skills, as those are probably just as important outside of academia as your research abilities (if not more so). I think the six figures mark is the ballpark salary most industry firms hire PhD researchers at, though of course this varies by industry, location, cost of living, your awesomeness, etc. I don't know what quantitative finance jobs there even are anymore, or how much they might pay. Not something I'm interested in.

Anyway there are some anecdotal numbers for you, your mileage may vary.




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