I'm having trouble deciding how to proceed in my Ph.D. and career, please help!

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Joined: Sat Mar 16, 2024 9:05 pm

I'm having trouble deciding how to proceed in my Ph.D. and career, please help!

Post by physicsuncertainty » Sat Mar 16, 2024 9:21 pm

This might be a long post, so I understand if not many read this.

Basically, physics Ph.D. applications didn't go exactly as planned. I'll try to be vague, but I attend a public school ranked in the top 50 physics universities in the U.S., towards the upper end. I personally felt that I worked very hard in undergrad, I studied a lot and kept my GPA right around my goal of a 3.8, worked as an undergrad researcher since the beginning of my sophomore year which resulted in some presentations at my university, and spent two summers at a national lab where I was published in a sub-journal (if that's the right term) of a very well known journal, as well as some other miscellaneous conference papers/abstracts. My recommenders knew me well and were, as far as I know, very complimentary. I must note that I did not take the general or physics GRE. However, all that apparently was not enough. When applying to Ph.D.s, I reapplied to my home institution and the rest were applications to schools in the top 15 just hoping one would stick. I was accepted to my home institution, but rejected from all other schools. I was especially disappointed in a rejection from a public school in the top 10 for my chosen subfield, since I was able to tour a lab there and meet the current grad students. I don't want to make any excuses for myself, but I think I was just unaware how well qualified my competition was, and how hard it is to break into these schools when coming from outside the top 15. The smartest kid in my graduating class was rejected from most of the the top schools he applied to as well, and he is genuinely the smartest person I've ever met, even more so than the people I know who ended up going to top 10s for undergrad. All this is making me question what to do next. I'll try to say this without sounding arrogant, but I feel like a very well rounded person, in that I have many hobbies, friends, and things outside of physics that make me who I am, but all these rejections are for the first time in my life making me question how far I can make it. It's just weird as well since none of the individual rejections hit me hard, if it all, they were all just kind of like "damn another one", it's just the totality of them all is getting to me.

The thing is, I really don't NEED to go to a great school to get the jobs I want in industry or the government. As of now, I want to continue with physics research as a career, but I certainly don't want to work as a professor or somewhere that requires me going to a top 15 school. I think the thing is I'm very competitive and wanted to be among "the best" at what I do, and this process is making me feel as if I'm being told I'm not, and looking at these grad admissions forums and seeing other's results are certainly not helping.

My dream career is working as a physics or applied physics researcher in industry. But after this process, I'm questioning it. Doing research these past few years has taught me that most of the enjoyment I get from research is the actual process, i.e., the programming (especially ML), experimentation, etc., rather than the results at the end. Granted, my research has been in topics I'm not too into, but it has opened my eye to other career paths like data science, engineering, etc. Plus, I'm really not sure if I want to spend another 4+ years in my college town. I really want to enjoy my early-mid 20s, and I'm not sure how many opportunities I'll have to do that in my college town.

This is all to say, I'm basically at a crossroads here and am unsure of what to do. I'm definitely not going to wait a year and reapply with a GRE score, since I'm not sure that would change anything. I've decided I'm going to take the offer at my school, but I'm strongly considering mastering out. I just don't know how marketable my physics masters would be to physics adjacent jobs like the ones I've mentioned. I also could commit and see if I can just do my Ph.D. as fast as possible, maybe <5 years if I'm lucky. I think I'm just looking for guidance or seeing what other people have done in circumstances similar to mine. It's just a little dejecting when my friends are are getting into good masters programs, finding good jobs, and I feel as if I under-performed, even though I should probably be thankful I made it into a relatively high ranked Ph.D. program at all. I really appreciate it if you've read this far. What would you do if you were in my shoes?

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Joined: Fri Nov 20, 2020 8:04 pm

Re: I'm having trouble deciding how to proceed in my Ph.D. and career, please help!

Post by Nightzeit » Tue Apr 02, 2024 2:15 pm


First off, my end goal is to stay in acadamia, so I can't give you great specific advice about your career path, but I can give you my take on your situation.

If you're interested in industry or government jobs, then you shouldn't worry much about school ranking. It does not matter nearly as much for these types of jobs and it sounds like you already have an offer from a decent school anyway.

Every year since around 2019, this process has gotten more and more competitive. I've seen it first hand, being on my 3rd application cycle, and I'm certainly not the only one who can say that. More people apply and there's less funding to go around every year. Extremely qualified people may make up a small percentage of people on the planet, but there's also only an extremely small percentage of top positions available. One school I applied to, I later found out wasn't taking on ANY new students that year in my subfield. That means for that school, I could never have been "good enough" because the acceptance rate for that subfield at that time was LITERALLY zero. Being at the top in your field is kind of like being record-breaking star pro athlete or a super famous rock star. Think of how many amatuer musicians and how many highschool athletes out there want to make it big and how many of them actually will. Most won't even go pro or get on the radio. I think being a top physicist is kind of similiar. You're probably not ever going to be The Beatles of physics, but you've just been given your first small record deal by getting into a grad school at all. So pat yourself on the back for even making it this far.

If you don't want to continue all the way to PhD and instead choose to drop out with a Master's, you've got some time to decide. Get input from your professors, they'll know best. 5 years is a big commitment. This is a decision that you need to think about, and there is no wrong answer.

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