PhD Uncertainty

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PhD Uncertainty

Postby dragonmustang » Thu Jan 12, 2012 12:24 am UTC

Hi, I'm pretty new here, but I'm looking for some advice.

I'm currently finishing up my bachelor's in physics with a specialty in astrophysics, but I'm also enrolled in my school's dual bachelor's/master's enrollment program. This basically means that my bachelor's takes four years, but during that time, I start taking graduate courses that count for both my bachelor's and master's degrees. I'll finish my bachelor's in May, then start full-time graduate study in the summer, and I should finish my master's sometime in 2013.

After this, my plan's a little hazy. I know I want to get my PhD, but I don't know if I should stay at my school to get it, or if I should go elsewhere. The problem is twofold: First, I feel like if I stay where I am, I'll keep getting pushed in a research direction that I'm not necessarily that interested in. Second, there are some major political issues in the physics department at my school that I'm not entirely sure I want to deal with while I'm attempting to get my PhD done. These are most likely unavoidable, as I have technically already associated myself with one of the major causes thanks to my undergraduate research job and senior project, as well as my proposed master's thesis. I know there are probably department politics anywhere I go, but these are pretty severe- the optics group is pretty pissed at the direction the physics department is heading (both in research positions and courses offered), and the solar physics group is the cause.

Research-wise, what I'm doing now and what I will be doing for my master's is in the realm of solar physics. I'm not all that interested in solar physics- I'd like to get more into observational astronomy/astrophysics. I'm not really sure what specifically I'd like to study, I just know I'd prefer to look at something further than the Sun. My current research adviser says there's more research money and opportunities in solar physics, and that I can always get my PhD by doing something in solar physics, then switch over to something I'm more interested in afterwards. However, due to some of the politics in the department, I think some of her advising me towards solar physics might be motivated by the chance to recruit a PhD student- she's currently applying for the newly-opened tenure-track position, and this could give her an edge.

However, I'm fairly well-established where I'm at. I've got a good research job that's giving me good data analysis experience (not to mention earned me co-authorship on a paper), and my proposed master's thesis involves a NASA project that actually seems somewhat interesting. I like my adviser, the city, and the other graduate students as well.

Can anyone point me towards any statistics on where research money is being spent, or maybe give me some ideas on what interesting topics are being discussed in astrophysics/astronomy? Recommendations on good grad schools in this area are also welcome, as are any suggestions on how I should handle the situation (leave, stay, ect.).
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby KestrelLowing » Fri Jan 13, 2012 1:43 am UTC

The general thought is to not do your grad studies where you went to undergrad. Sometimes it's seen as a "cop-out". Now, this isn't necessarily true and you can easily combat that with specific things in your resume/whatever.

Frankly, it seems as if your only reasons for staying are social reasons - and those are damn bloody important, but they aren't academic reasons. All your reasons to go away seem to be academic. To me, this seems as if you should leave. Grad school is way more focused on school than undergrad (note that I'm still in undergrad, so I don't have personal experience - it's just what I hear across the board). Also, it can be a very good thing to move outside of your comfort zone - remember how much you grew as you transitioned from your life in high school to your life at college?

But, I obviously don't know all of your situation, so I could be completely off base here!
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Jan 13, 2012 2:04 am UTC

To start, what do you want to do, and does it require a PhD? No? Don't get a PhD.
Seconds, when considering your graduate program, 'quality of life' is a HUGE factor that should not be ignored. That said, staying at the same institution you did your undergrad work at is... not common. If you can justify it, academically, then great, otherwise, look elsewhere.
Thirdly, why don't you ask a professor for advice?

There are 'political issues' in every department in every school. You won't escape those, period.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Jorpho » Fri Jan 13, 2012 5:12 am UTC

dragonmustang wrote:The problem is twofold: First, I feel like if I stay where I am, I'll keep getting pushed in a research direction that I'm not necessarily that interested in. Second, there are some major political issues in the physics department at my school that I'm not entirely sure I want to deal with while I'm attempting to get my PhD done. These are most likely unavoidable, as I have technically already associated myself with one of the major causes thanks to my undergraduate research job and senior project, as well as my proposed master's thesis. I know there are probably department politics anywhere I go, but these are pretty severe- the optics group is pretty pissed at the direction the physics department is heading (both in research positions and courses offered), and the solar physics group is the cause.

Research-wise, what I'm doing now and what I will be doing for my master's is in the realm of solar physics. I'm not all that interested in solar physics- I'd like to get more into observational astronomy/astrophysics. I'm not really sure what specifically I'd like to study, I just know I'd prefer to look at something further than the Sun. My current research adviser says there's more research money and opportunities in solar physics, and that I can always get my PhD by doing something in solar physics, then switch over to something I'm more interested in afterwards. However, due to some of the politics in the department, I think some of her advising me towards solar physics might be motivated by the chance to recruit a PhD student- she's currently applying for the newly-opened tenure-track position, and this could give her an edge.
You seem to make a thoroughly compelling case to Flee.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Andromeda321 » Fri Jan 13, 2012 7:10 am UTC

I'm not quite sure what you're listing here that makes it sound like a compelling reason to stay honestly. Life is too short to be spent doing research you don't want to do and in politically unpleasant conditions to boot, so why would you stick around when you could just leave?

Sure you could do switch topics later once you had a PhD, but it would actually be a lot more difficult because the point of a PhD is to be an "expert" in your little sub-field so you won't be as competitive (and most postdocs come from networking within said sub-field, so you'd be at a detriment if you were trying to switch to another one). WAY easier to do at the MS to PhD level, plus as I said I don't see why you'd spend years doing research you don't want to do in the first place. It's hard and crappy enough even when you love and are passionate about what you're doing, trust me.

Beyond that, I am also of the very firm opinion that it's best to go to other institutions while you can just to see how other places do science, as you'd be surprised at how trapped into a particular mindset you can get. I speak from experience on this by the way- I did my BS and MS in physics at a very good physics department but left because the research didn't excite me, and I've learned quite a bit even these few months into my PhD about different ways of doing things. And honestly I am so glad I did! Plus I mean if your department is so desperate to keep you there you could always apply to their PhD program while also applying to other institutions doing things you are interested in (you can always write professors there who sound interesting to inquire about their funding situation if you're concerned) and if nothing else pans out just go back there. No biggie, happens all the time.

But as I said, unless there's some extreme issue at hand here like you being the sole caregiver for a disabled relative or a two body problem or who knows what, I'm not entirely certain why you're having an issue resolving this one.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby dockaon » Fri Jan 13, 2012 8:53 pm UTC

Don't do your graduate work in a subfield just because it's easy to do. You have to excel to get a job doing research in physics. You're going to spending countless hours working on your thesis and to have a decent shot a job, you have to go above and beyond that to impress people and stand out from the hundred other people applying for the same job. Very few people can do that when they're not passionate about the subject. I made that mistake as a graduate student and I'm no longer in physics.

The idea that you should study something for your PhD and then change fields afterwards is stupid. Yes, it's possible to change fields, but there's no reason to waste 4 to 6 years of your life on mastering a field and hoping you get the chance to leave it. Right now to get into the fields you're interested in, you're competing against students who know as little as you do. After your PhD, you'll be competing against people who've spent 4 to 6 years becoming a world-class expert in some aspect of that field. Maybe you're good enough to beat them, but you're basically giving them a half-decade headstart.

It might make sense, if you were close to your PhD, but when you haven't even started it's such a bad idea that I doubt the good intentions of your professor. Which is something you have to be wary off. It's very easy to be exploited by a professor who cares more about advancing their career than treating you decently.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Jan 13, 2012 8:58 pm UTC

To be fair, doing PhD work in a subject doesn't marry you to that branch of a field forever. I'm not suggesting doing your thesis on, say, neurogenesis, and then switching to astrophysics, but swapping around is pretty common.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby epigrad » Tue Jan 17, 2012 3:19 am UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:To be fair, doing PhD work in a subject doesn't marry you to that branch of a field forever. I'm not suggesting doing your thesis on, say, neurogenesis, and then switching to astrophysics, but swapping around is pretty common.


Yeah, but that's a lot of Solar Physics on a CV. Its common, but if they're looking for someone to fill in X sub-specialty, its going to be an uphill battle against people who have publications there.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Izawwlgood » Tue Jan 17, 2012 3:41 am UTC

I was responding to this:
dockaon wrote:The idea that you should study something for your PhD and then change fields afterwards is stupid.

But I suppose it calls for the clarification of 'changing *sub*-fields'. I'm certainly not saying people get a PhD in History and seek out post-docs in a Genetics lab, but the post doc in my lab did her work on yeast genetics, and certainly isn't doing that in our lab.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby dockaon » Wed Jan 18, 2012 4:22 pm UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:I was responding to this:
dockaon wrote:The idea that you should study something for your PhD and then change fields afterwards is stupid.

But I suppose it calls for the clarification of 'changing *sub*-fields'. I'm certainly not saying people get a PhD in History and seek out post-docs in a Genetics lab, but the post doc in my lab did her work on yeast genetics, and certainly isn't doing that in our lab.


Sure, people do change fields and it's a perfectly reasonable thing to do. My point is that starting to do your PhD work in a field you know you don't want to work in is stupid. You're spending years working on something you're not interested in for no good reason. Funding for graduate students in physics and astronomy is not something to worry about. If a program accepts you, you're going to be able to get funding (not necessarily in your first choice of field or group, but worse case you're in the same position as now).

There are always exceptions. If it was an opportunity to work with an incredibly prominent professor (a Nobel laureaute or something), it might make sense. If you were already far along in your degree program. If the techniques of the field could be applied in an innovative fashion to the one you really wanted to work in (although in my experience the techniques you use have a far greater impact on your enjoyment of research than what you're studying). But I see no reason to think that doing research for a non-tenured solar physics professor is going to make it easier to suceed in observational astronomy than doing research for an average observational astronomy professor.

Apply to schools that have people doing what you want to do and can support students, be upfront about what you want to do in your application, and do it. Don't compromise for no real reason other than it's easier.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Andromeda321 » Fri Jan 20, 2012 8:18 am UTC

dockaon wrote:
Izawwlgood wrote:I was responding to this:
dockaon wrote:The idea that you should study something for your PhD and then change fields afterwards is stupid.

But I suppose it calls for the clarification of 'changing *sub*-fields'. I'm certainly not saying people get a PhD in History and seek out post-docs in a Genetics lab, but the post doc in my lab did her work on yeast genetics, and certainly isn't doing that in our lab.


Sure, people do change fields and it's a perfectly reasonable thing to do. My point is that starting to do your PhD work in a field you know you don't want to work in is stupid. You're spending years working on something you're not interested in for no good reason. Funding for graduate students in physics and astronomy is not something to worry about. If a program accepts you, you're going to be able to get funding (not necessarily in your first choice of field or group, but worse case you're in the same position as now).

There are always exceptions. If it was an opportunity to work with an incredibly prominent professor (a Nobel laureaute or something), it might make sense. If you were already far along in your degree program. If the techniques of the field could be applied in an innovative fashion to the one you really wanted to work in (although in my experience the techniques you use have a far greater impact on your enjoyment of research than what you're studying). But I see no reason to think that doing research for a non-tenured solar physics professor is going to make it easier to suceed in observational astronomy than doing research for an average observational astronomy professor.

Apply to schools that have people doing what you want to do and can support students, be upfront about what you want to do in your application, and do it. Don't compromise for no real reason other than it's easier.


I 100% agree. I mean geez, if it turns out you didn't get accepted anywhere else it sounds like this prof would always be happy to take the OP, so why not at least try? You could be pleasantly surprised, and options are always nice.

I also say this as someone who spent 5 years working for a prof who I liked but whose research didn't excite me, so after my Physics MS I switched to straight up astro. Best decision EVER, and while I'm sure I could've switched to my sub-field I now love it would've taken more than a few post-docs to get to this research!
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby SU3SU2U1 » Sun Jan 29, 2012 5:12 am UTC

Another question you need to consider- if you do a phd and then end up unable to find a job where you do any physics and end up working for a bank/insurance company/management consulting firm/etc, would you be happy with that outcome? If not, for the love of god, don't do a phd. Thats the most likely outcome!

If you would prefer engineering type work to working in management consulting, or for a bank, then get a masters in engineering and move on.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Bryce1 » Thu Sep 19, 2013 12:33 pm UTC

What topic I choose for my PHD thesis in management? or project management?
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Jorpho » Thu Sep 19, 2013 1:37 pm UTC

...Dude, I cannot comprehend why you decided to bump a thread from a year and a half ago to ask that question. I comprehend even less as to what sort of advice you expected to get from strangers on a message board on the basis of this limited information. Why don't you, you know, talk to people in your department?
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby P13808 » Sun Sep 22, 2013 2:31 am UTC

The better question is someone choosing a topic for their PhD who expects anyone to be able to answer his question with no information. He also used terrible grammar. And is also apparently a painter. Okay. :arrow:
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Wed Oct 30, 2013 6:52 am UTC

Bit of a bump, but I figure this is sort of relevant to what I want to say, so rather than give it a new thread…

I studied chemistry as an undergraduate and recently graduated. You know the stereotype of the liberal arts graduate who goes to grad school because they couldn't decide what career to join? I'm kind of the opposite: trying to go to the work world because I didn't decide what I wanted to study grad school-wise.

I really should have taken notice of how burnt out I was junior year, even though I wasn't under a killer course load that year, I should have noted that my passion wasn't in the undergraduate research (inorganic) I was doing and I wasn't putting forth the effort I would have liked with my P Chem (which I did enjoy) (mostly because combo of naturally lazy + first girlfriend I really liked being around). However, I was too stubborn (to myself) and too shy (to everyone else, especially advisors/mentors) to admit further serious (at least synthetic) chemistry study wasn't for me. I really should have looked at jobs for when I graduated much earlier, but I was still under the delusion that I'd go to grad school immediately after graduation, so I didn't (although decided fairly early last fall that immediately going to grad school wasn't going to happen).

The second part of this is that I rediscovered my love of physics. Reading about astronomy and relativity was some of the first things that got me interested in science, but a lackluster freshman physics class + two great chemistry teachers made sure that I didn't consider physics when thinking of which major to choose. My university's calculus physics classes didn't do much to change that fact. However, because I enjoyed P Chem, I ended up taking modern physics, then QM. In all honesty, if my scholarship covered another year, I would be getting a second major in physics now.

I know I still would like to try graduate school, but I have no idea where my passion is, and don't see any obvious way to explore the different physics/astronomy subfields to see where I'd like to specialise in without paying tuition again (ain't nobody got money for that!). I'm planning on taking the GRE soon, while the school is still somewhat fresh and am wondering whether to take the chemistry (since I studied that) or physics (since that's what I'm interested in) subject test. I don't plan on actually starting anything for a couple years (want to pay off car first). My big worry is that if this does happen and turns out well that I'll get as burnt out with physics/p chem/whatever I end up with as I have in undergrad.

Anyway, it's ranty, but if you have some advice to give, that would be much appreciated.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Jorpho » Thu Oct 31, 2013 1:47 pm UTC

cjmcjmcjmcjm wrote:I'm planning on taking the GRE soon, while the school is still somewhat fresh and am wondering whether to take the chemistry (since I studied that) or physics (since that's what I'm interested in) subject test.
I know very little about the GRE, but it doesn't seem to make much sense to take a subject test in an area you haven't studied.

I don't plan on actually starting anything for a couple years (want to pay off car first). My big worry is that if this does happen and turns out well that I'll get as burnt out with physics/p chem/whatever I end up with as I have in undergrad.
Just how far did you get in QM? Wavefunctions and atomic orbitals? It gets really ugly really fast, especially since teachers tend to not be as experienced in teaching the more complex subject matter and the textbooks take a nose-dive as well.

But most importantly, jobs in Physics per se are pretty hard to come across. Do you like the idea of staying on campus forever and maybe becoming a profeessor?
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Izawwlgood » Thu Oct 31, 2013 2:11 pm UTC

I would suggest having a clear cut idea of what you want to study and why before you apply. An application that reads 'I've done decent on the subject test for physics, but am not sure what I want to do in your program' looks phenomenally worse than an application tat reads 'I'm interested in the research of [professor at the organization] and have always wanted to combine [this subject matter] with [something pertinent to the professors research]'.

My advice is don't apply or go to grad school to find your research passion. You'll obviously have flexibility with specifically what you study, and applying isn't committing to a singular research group by any means, but grad school is not for 'just because'.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Fri Nov 01, 2013 4:06 pm UTC

Jorpho wrote:
cjmcjmcjmcjm wrote:I'm planning on taking the GRE soon, while the school is still somewhat fresh and am wondering whether to take the chemistry (since I studied that) or physics (since that's what I'm interested in) subject test.
I know very little about the GRE, but it doesn't seem to make much sense to take a subject test in an area you haven't studied.

I don't plan on actually starting anything for a couple years (want to pay off car first). My big worry is that if this does happen and turns out well that I'll get as burnt out with physics/p chem/whatever I end up with as I have in undergrad.
Just how far did you get in QM? Wavefunctions and atomic orbitals? It gets really ugly really fast, especially since teachers tend to not be as experienced in teaching the more complex subject matter and the textbooks take a nose-dive as well.

But most importantly, jobs in Physics per se are pretty hard to come across. Do you like the idea of staying on campus forever and maybe becoming a profeessor?

We definitely covered wave functions, I believe we covered atomic orbitals (I'd have to go pull out my notes to double-check that). We ran low on time at the end of the semester. I also covered atomic orbitals (but with less maths) in P Chem 2.

Maybe it's just because I've read too many books on the Manhattan Project and played too much Half-Life, but I would like to work in a government lab. I also think my view is rather romanticised at the moment. I know that physicists and mathematicians are employed by finance firms. I wouldn't have much respect for the work I'd do there, but it makes a pretty penny.

I'm just not sure how to find a specific research passion now that I'm out of school.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Izawwlgood » Fri Nov 01, 2013 4:12 pm UTC

cjmcjmcjmcjm wrote:Maybe it's just because I've read too many books on the Manhattan Project and played too much Half-Life, but I would like to work in a government lab. I also think my view is rather romanticised at the moment.
I mean, what is your view? What are you interested in?

If you want to get a PhD in physics so you can eventually go work for a finance firm, I think you're making it strikingly more difficult for yourself. It's not an unreasonable path, assuming you're really interested in physics and then decide you don't want to make a career out of it, but it seems a silly way of getting to the 'make money in a financial firm' destination.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby doogly » Tue Nov 05, 2013 1:52 pm UTC

You should definitely take the physics GRE if you intend to apply to physics programs. If you think it would be significantly better you might also want to have the chem score around to report? The physics GRE is not too too important for most applications, but if you have a variant background then it becomes more so. Since your physics coursework isn't what most applicants would have, the GRE is the best way to signal that you've picked up what you need.

There are some programs where chemistry prep is a definite boon, and if you specifically reference such profs / groups in an application then that can go a long way. A lot of that would be in condensed matter, but also in stuff like galactic chemistry / astrobiology. Such an interesting field! In a lot of biophysics too.
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby cjmcjmcjmcjm » Fri Nov 08, 2013 4:44 am UTC

Izawwlgood wrote:
cjmcjmcjmcjm wrote:Maybe it's just because I've read too many books on the Manhattan Project and played too much Half-Life, but I would like to work in a government lab. I also think my view is rather romanticised at the moment.
I mean, what is your view? What are you interested in?

If you want to get a PhD in physics so you can eventually go work for a finance firm, I think you're making it strikingly more difficult for yourself. It's not an unreasonable path, assuming you're really interested in physics and then decide you don't want to make a career out of it, but it seems a silly way of getting to the 'make money in a financial firm' destination.

I'm not entirely sure where I was going with that. Maybe more so that if I burn out of academia, I know of alternate career paths.
doogly wrote:You should definitely take the physics GRE if you intend to apply to physics programs. If you think it would be significantly better you might also want to have the chem score around to report? The physics GRE is not too too important for most applications, but if you have a variant background then it becomes more so. Since your physics coursework isn't what most applicants would have, the GRE is the best way to signal that you've picked up what you need.

There are some programs where chemistry prep is a definite boon, and if you specifically reference such profs / groups in an application then that can go a long way. A lot of that would be in condensed matter, but also in stuff like galactic chemistry / astrobiology. Such an interesting field! In a lot of biophysics too.

Most of my physics classroom experience was with the super-boring calculus physics course, physical chemistry, and modern/QM, so I know there are large gaps in my current knowledge (see particle, nuclear).
I have a friend going for her PhD at Caltec in some type of astrochemistry field. IIRC, her research has to do with amines (but it's been a long while since I've talked to her). I shouldn't let the attraction of those radio telescopes distract me (since most people don't work with them).
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Re: PhD Uncertainty

Postby Jorpho » Fri Nov 08, 2013 6:28 am UTC

cjmcjmcjmcjm wrote:Most of my physics classroom experience was with the super-boring calculus physics course, physical chemistry, and modern/QM, so I know there are large gaps in my current knowledge (see particle, nuclear).
Very few people care particularly about nuclear physics these days. Or at least, it's a very expensive field to do research in and it is correspondingly difficult to get a placement in an appropriate lab – not unlike those radio telescopes.
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