Why go to graduate school in Physics?

I just came accross an article at The Economist entitled The Disposable Academic: Why doing a PhD is a waste of time. This has prompted me finally to write this post, which I've intended to write for a long time (like so many other posts on my too-quiet blog).

There is one, and only one, reason why you should go to graduate school in Physics or Astronomy. (This is probably true for any other field as well, but I'm going to stick to the field where I actually know what I'm talking about.) That one reason is: because you want to be a graduate student in physics for five or six years. That's it.

It is true that if you want to teach physics at the University level, or that if you want to have a career in physics research where you're leading and doing you're own research, you need to get a PhD. This isn't 100% true; you can certainly teach at the community college level with a masters' degree, and you can get a job working with a physics research group (although those are quite rare). However, for the most part, it's true. This leads many people to conclude that, because what they really want to do is spend their life as a professor at a University, they need to go to graduate school.

However, going to graduate school because that's what you want to do is similar to buying a lottery ticket because you want to be a millionaire. Yes, buying a lottery ticket is a prerequisite for winning the lottery, just as getting a PhD in physics is a prerequisite for being a physics professor. However, the fact that you've met that prerequisite is very far from assurance that you'll be able to do either. Thankfully, the chances of getting a physics professor job aren't quite as bad as the chances of winning the lottery. However, in both cases, they're bad investments.

There is a tremendous opportunity cost associated with being a physics graduate student. It's not as bad as being a humanities graduate student. For the most part, if you can get into a physics graduate school, your tuiton will be paid, and you will receive a stipend of something like $20,000/year. You may be able to make this as a research assistant— a good deal, because you're essentially being paid to do your PhD research. Or, you may have to teach some classes... which I also personally view as a good deal, but that's because I like to teach. (And, the teaching you do as a PhD student is lower stress and less time consuming than what a professor at a small liberal-arts college does.) However, there is still the opportunity cost. With your skills and abilities, you would be able to make a lot more money doing something else.

If you think you want to pursue a profession in academic physics, but you are going to view the years you spend working on your PhD as a sacrifice, then it's not worth doing it. The probability of getting that academic research job is just not high enough, even if you go to one of the top schools out there. What's more, ironically, the experience you get doing something else may well serve you better for any other job you might get thereafter, and it will almost certainly look better on your resume than the PhD will.

On the other hand, the life of the physics graduate student isn't necessarily a bad one. Yes, you will spend several years of your young life making a whole lot less money than you could otherwise. Yes, you will live the "graduate student lifestyle", meaning that you're still more or less pond scum in the hierarchy of your institution, and that you're still in training, still living the life of an apprentice. However, you do get to spend five or six years studying very interesting stuff, and performing original research. It can be a very cool thing to do. Yes, no matter who you are, you will go through moments of self-doubt where you wonder just what the hell you're doing, and you may go through periods of despair. But, overall, it can be a very fulfulling way to spend several years. That is, if you go into it recognizing that you're doing it for the sake of doing it, not as an investment in a future career that you'll have any assurance of achieving.

And, of course, to enjoy the graduate student lifestyle, you have to keep some perspective on life. If a professorial job were guaranteed, then perhaps one could stomach the idea of living several years with your life on hold, being underpaid and undervalued for working too hard. But, since that professorial job is far from guaranteed, you can't sacrifice your whole life to be a graduate student. Some will consider this heresy, will believe that graduate students are supposed to work really really hard because "your education is an investment in your future". But, again, a PhD program is today a terrible investment. Yes, you should probably expect to work up to 50 hours a week... not because you're overworking, but rather because you're inspired by your subject. But you should not, under any circumstance, join one of "those" labs where the professor expects you to work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. You need to have a life. Work hard, but keep perspective. Recognize that you need to value your life right then.

What's more, you'll need to recognize that the culture of the PhD program is a bit dysfunctional. You almost certainly will feel cultural pressure to want to achieve the highly valued research professor position after graduate school, especially if you go to a top tier graduate school. You will feel this pressure from peers, and from your institution. (They partially judge the "success" of their graduate program based on the "placement" of their graduates.) Take it all with a grain of salt. It's your life. You are decidedly not a failure if you don't get one of the vaunted research positions, and indeed there's nothing shameful about deciding that you don't want one. Try to get one if you want one, and it's inevitable that you'll be disappointed if you don't, but don't feel ashamed, don't feel like a failure, and don't feel like you're letting anybody down if you don't get one. After all, most of us, if we're honest, will admit that we're overproducing PhDs in all fields, including physics, for the number of jobs out there that Physics PhDs are "supposed" to want.

7 responses so far

  • jim says:

    Yes.

    I was a graduate student in Mathematics. I did not become an academic ( a decision arrived at after a disastrous campus interview). After graduate school, I took a non-academic position, not much higher in the hierarchy than I would have been had I entered immediately after finishing my BA. I spent my mid-thirties hustling to catch up to my age cohort.

    Nonetheless, I have very fond memories of my five years at Columbia. I learned more, I thought more, I lived among smarter people than ever before or ever since. The experience, purely as a life-experience, was valuable in and of itself.

  • Engineer says:

    Very refreshing to hear a practicing academic say these words. I myself flirted with the option of going to grad school in CS straight out of undergrad, but a little nagging voice inside me kept telling me that I didn't want it enough. Five years later with some time in the military-industrial complex under my belt, I can say I don't regret that decision. There is a world of "smarter people" as the previous commentor stated out there beyond academia, and it is possible to learn and grown technically and intellectually without putting your life on hold to the extent you'd have to if you dived straight in to grad school.

  • [...] So You Want To Be An Astrophysicist? Part 1.75: should you go to grad school? [Dynamics of Cats] [...]

  • coolstar says:

    My advice on this to students is simply to tell them that they should go to grad school if they don't think they can be happy without having gone to grad school. I think that's true whether or not one wants to become an academic (as Rob correctly says, the odds are stacked against you, in a big way).

  • Joshua Mannheimer says:

    After spending three years as a physics undergrad, I decided to go into chem e, now with three years of chem e I have decided to use those credits toward a biomedical engineering minor and finish my physics. I will be done in the spring and I have always had a personal goal in going to grad school. However, after being in school for 20 of the 25 years of my life, I am burnt out and don't think I have the stamina to go straight into grad school and be successful. For the time being I have decided to seek employment in STEM field. I was wondering if anybody knew if there is a time limit from the time you receive your B.S. and apply to grad school in which your chances of getting in diminish greatly? Thanks

  • rknop says:

    Joshua -- that's a hard question. It varies a lot.

    Anecdotallly, I've heard stories about med school admissions boards who will look down upon an applicant who spent two years in the Peace Corps after college because she is "not serious enough" about medicine. I personally think this attitude is utterly absurd.

    I've also heard in the sciences some people-- particularly older people-- say that it's utterly essential that people get their PhDs as soon as possible. This is based on the attitude that people do their best work before they're-- 30? 35? some age like that. As such, if you spend 7 years in grad school, you are eating up the amount of time you have left before your brain times out. I ALSO find this idea absurd. Indeed, the guy who used to make this argument the most (when looking at grad students at Vanderbilt) was himself well-aged and extremely productive in good research; he was his own counter example. I have my own suspicions why, if it's true, people do their best work before middle age, and I don't think it's necessarily because of cognitive ossification. However, that attitude is out there, so it will affect you.

    Even though I didn't do it myself, I would advise most people to take a year or two off before going on to grad school. I probably should have done it myself, in fact. One of my housemates in grad school, Deepto Chakrabarty, did that. (I was at Caltech.) Now, in those two years he was working as a post-batch, a research assistant with a scientific group. (The same group where I'd later do my post-doc in fact... small world.) That kind of thing looks really good if you're applying to physics grad school. Yes, some people will think you shouldn't have wasted time, but there's nothing better to do. Deepto, however, seemed to have better perspective on physics and research than a lot of us who went straight on. (And, he's a tenured professor at MIT now.)

    I've known of people who took of quite a number of years and then went back to grad school, and did well. I would say you should do what seems right for you life, and not worry about it too much. It may be that some of the more stuffy places will view you as "not serious enough", but there are lots of other places out there eager to get strong people regardless of their previous life trajectories.

    However, I'd also be wary of your having a personal goal of going to grad school. That's great, but don't go to grad school just because you had always intended to. It's entirely valid to reevaluate your personal goals. If it still is one-- then go for it. I had yet another friend who struggled in grad school, was never happy, and indeed switched graduate schools twice. However, she didn't drop out nearly as soon as she should have, and her stated reason was that she'd always told herself that she was going to get a PhD in her field. Break promises to yourself if in keeping those promises you are hurting yourself!

  • Perihelios says:

    My passion is not necessarily Physics, but Astrophysics. I cannot see myself doing anything else. I once saw myself as a poet, a writer, and even an artist, but I saw no certain future in that. I've decided that the path I take now is a single-file line to scientific success. Institutions that are of great interests to me are Cal and UC Santa Cruz. Although I am only currently in Community College, I have been doing research as to where would be the best schools for me to study and do academic research at. I have visit Cal numerous times and know the campus like the back of my hand. I am no stranger to rigorous studies. I know what it's like to test the endurance of your brain against endless hours of homework and late night studies.

    I am willing to do all that it takes to do what I love doing. I would gladly over-work myself in the field of Astrophysics. After graduate school and getting a PhD, I plan on either making a full-time career on Astronomy or teaching at an institution and doing more research. I am only 18, but I will die an Astrophysicist with a smile. Too bad the pay is little. The money invested on science programs and research is only a fraction compared to what is spent on a day at Iraq. All scientists are under-appreciated for their over-time hours. Nevertheless, my mind and passion are locked and focused on Science.

    Thank you for this article and thank you for this opportunity to say what I have to say.