Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

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CloudEntanglement
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Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby CloudEntanglement » Fri Jun 06, 2014 3:18 am UTC

I've found that I want to pursue a PHD in physics. I am confused as the route to take however. Should I apply for a masters program and then do a PHD? Or is it advised to go straight from undergraduate to a PHD program. My situation is also a bit more complicated than that. I've found a research interest in quantum computing however and am committed to it. I've figured XKCD forums would be a grand place to ask for this piece of advice.

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LaserGuy
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Re: Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby LaserGuy » Fri Jun 06, 2014 2:34 pm UTC

In some places, you might not have a choice. Some universities require you to have a Masters before you get a PhD; others basically don't give out Masters in physics at all and just dump everyone straight into a PhD program. In some places, you apply to a Masters program, then can transfer to a PhD after a year or so. In my limited experience, regardless of what options you choose, the total time to finish with a PhD is about the same. So it doesn't matter that much from a pure timing point of view.

Personally, I think there is significant benefit to doing the Masters first. Most importantly, it gives you an out if you decide you don't like grad student life. A two (ish) year commitment is not so long, whereas a PhD, especially straight from undergrad could easily be five or six years, maybe longer (I know people who have done 8+ year PhDs in physics). If you decide you don't like research, or don't like working eighty hour weeks for well less than minimum wage, or don't like the particular field that you've chosen, or don't like your supervisor, or whatever, you have much lower sunk costs in a Masters program. You also get a taste of what it is like to write/defend a thesis, maybe get a publication or two. And when you do decide to go for a PhD afterward, you'll have a much better idea of what you are looking for.

It depends too, on what you want to do with your degree, I suppose. If you're looking to get into the private sector, you might not need a PhD for your ideal job and it might be better to just get the Masters and save on the opportunity cost. If you want to go into academia, you obviously need a PhD.

Newt
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Re: Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby Newt » Fri Jun 06, 2014 4:13 pm UTC

I'm going to second LaserGuy's suggestion; many people who think they want to do grad school discover it didn't suit them as well as they thought it would. I'm a Phd dropout myself, although not in Physics; I do, however, have many former physicist colleagues who either left their Phd or academic pursuits altogether because they a.) didn't really enjoy it or b.) couldn't find a good academic job. Silicon Valley is full of ex-physicists now working as data scientists.

CloudEntanglement
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Re: Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby CloudEntanglement » Fri Jun 06, 2014 4:17 pm UTC

Yeah, my career choice aiming towards being a professor and conducting research in the future. The problem is I have limited physics knowledge other than everything that I've taught myself (which is substantial). I am in my senior year of Electrical and Computer Engineering and found electromagnetism just fascinating. Is it common for ECE undergraduates to pursue a masters in physics? If so, where can I supplement my education as to prepare for the PGREs and where I can take free online classes for physics? Better yet, how do I get into a masters program for physics with an ECE undergraduate degree? Thanks for the response btw. I am very good at math so learning the math isn't a problem and I have a very good feel and intuition for understanding physics concepts. Also, would I need any research for getting into a master's program?? I will probably have around a 3.2 cum GPA and took a look at the PGREs, I'm confident I could get a score of above a 700. Where does that place me generally? I have some biomedical research under my belt, nothing physics related because my college doesn't have a physics major haha...

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Re: Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Jun 06, 2014 4:29 pm UTC

It depends on the program and why you want to do it. Many STEM programs you enter to pursue a PhD, and after your qualifiers, you are 'awarded' a Masters. Choosing to stop at this point, and take your Masters, is generally viewed unfavorably. Some programs treat their Masters program as a chopshop for cheap (i.e., better than free!) research techs, or as feeders into their PhD program if a students grades are poor.

But what do you plan on doing with your PhD? As with all things, your best bet is talking to people in the programs you're interest in applying to, students and/or faculty alike.
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CloudEntanglement
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Re: Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby CloudEntanglement » Fri Jun 06, 2014 4:45 pm UTC

I want to be a professor in academia while also pursuing research interests. That is my ultimate goal. Being a professor, does that grant me permission to keep reading math and physics articles/papers/theorems all day haha??

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Izawwlgood
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Re: Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Jun 06, 2014 4:50 pm UTC

Then maybe you should talk to some professors and ask about their research and their jobs, and how they got there. Particularly, what the expectations for the program are. Some programs may be different. You can also talk to the students and find out what they did to get there. You can also talk to the contact provided by the application with any questions.

Being a professor kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiind of means you'll do a lot of reading. But not because you'll have the free time to do so.
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Jorpho
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Re: Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby Jorpho » Wed Jun 11, 2014 4:58 am UTC

So... On the basis of finding electromagnetism "fascinating", you have "found a research interest in quantum computing" to which you are committed? Those are very different things. Also, the math can get pretty ghastly indeed. (I remember there was a time when I thought I was very good at math. I had no idea what was coming.) I expect you'll probably need to know how to code, too.

If you need a starting point for the sort of stuff people study and the relevant curricula, may I suggest https://uwaterloo.ca/institute-for-quantum-computing/ ?

Rococo
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Re: Question for pursuing a PHD in physics

Postby Rococo » Tue Sep 23, 2014 5:50 am UTC

That's what I do!

It might be useful to know what country you are in. In the United States, unlike many other places, graduate physics programs are almost always PhD programs, which are taken after undergraduate. There is typically no option for a masters, other than quitting partway through the program.

There is nothing wrong with going to physics graduate school after studying engineering, particularly if you went to a school without a physics program. Of course, you should try to do well on the physics GREs, and hopefully have some good letters of recommendation too, from school and your biomedical work. From what I understand, many departments look as much or more at the regular GRE score as the physics ones, so try to do well on that as well. In general, physics grad school programs are very competitive. Your GPA will probably look on the low side to many programs, although of course this will depend on both the school you are coming from and trying to get into.

CloudEntanglement wrote:I want to be a professor in academia while also pursuing research interests. That is my ultimate goal. Being a professor, does that grant me permission to keep reading math and physics articles/papers/theorems all day haha??

Except for when you are teaching, advising your graduate students, applying for grants, traveling and giving talks, serving on academic committees, serving as a peer reviewer for journals, and working on your own research (and maybe more things I'm forgetting). If research itself isn't your main interest, you would probably be looking more for a position at a small, liberal arts school or community college instead of a big research school. In those cases, of course, you'll be expected to take teaching seriously. In general, if you don't like either teaching or research enough to make it your full time job, professorship isn't for you. No one will ever pay you just to learn in and of itself.

Like I said, if you're in the US you can't really apply to a masters in physics just to test the waters. But it is a good idea to have some idea of what this world is like before you dive into a grad school program. If you're near an area with a good university, you might be able to get some kind of temporary position with a research group. A talented EE student would probably be welcome in many experimental groups, and your biomedical research might make it possible to get into biophysics. You might consider trying to find out if any of your former professors do any collaborations with physicists, and use this as an in. If you can find any position along these lines, I would strongly recommend that you try this before deciding if you want to do grad school, for all the reasons that other people mention and also because it will make your application stronger.


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