Pursuing a physics PhD after a long break

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Pursuing a physics PhD after a long break

Post by returningtophysics » Fri Oct 15, 2021 5:09 pm

I'm looking for advice around the possibility of entering a PhD program after a 15+ year break from physics graduate work. I left a PhD program in 2006 ABD with my masters, having passed qualifying exams and completed all coursework. I never found employment in physics, and eventually ended up in healthcare, where I became a nurse practitioner and have been working as that for the past six years, as a clinician and in program supervisory roles (not research). My grades weren't great the first time around in grad school (3.5 GPA), and I only was the co-author on one paper - I left at that the three year mark due to life circumstances, not due to academic performance or difficulty doing research. I'm not interested in medical physics or biophysics - I would be interested in going back to one of the prior areas I did research in mathematical physics (quantum computing; and computational modeling of chaotic systems (either semi-classical or quantum)).

I just have not found healthcare as fulfilling as physics was, and the intellectual challenge is different/not as satisfying (and, frankly, not as challenging as I would like at this point in my career). I do have time to plan and make myself into a better applicant - I am locked into a student loan repayment contract until mid-2023, so the earliest I could start a formal program is two years, giving me time to do refresher work, study for the physics GRE (if I need to take it again...though, honestly, I'm glad my score from 2003 isn't valid anymore). 15 years out, I am not sure if I could get recommenders within physics who know my work well.

What would the expectations a program would have for me? Pass quals within a certain time frame? Retake coursework for credit or audit? What steps would I take in terms of applying given my circumstances - contact departments with research that interests me ahead of time and see how to best prepare as an applicant?

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Re: Pursuing a physics PhD after a long break

Post by geekusprimus » Sun Oct 17, 2021 11:32 pm

The situation is a little different, but I have a classmate who worked in the financial industry for about five years following his undergrad. I think the way he managed to get back in is that he started talking with people he was interested in working with and attending various workshops as his schedule permitted. I'm not sure who he got to write his recommendation letters, but I imagine five years out that any recommend writers from his undergraduate program wouldn't have carried much weight.

I think the expectations for you as a non-traditional student would be similar to what they expect from anyone else: provide transcripts showing that you've completed the prerequisite coursework and pass the qualifying exam in the same time frame as any other student (it depends on the school, but you're usually allowed at least two tries). Depending on the institution, you might not need to retake courses for credit (since they'd already be on your master's transcript), but they'd probably let you audit or observe some classes if you'd like a refresher.

I'm just a grad student myself, so maybe someone with more experience could offer some more targeted advice, but I'd recommend starting by trying to catch up on some of the literature in your research field, contacting prospective advisors, and maybe attending conferences or workshops related to your interests.

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