Advice For Physics Majors (a serious article, for once)

No, they didn’t kick me out — why I left, and where I went

Elvis has left the grad school

So why did I decide to leave? I wasn’t very happy in the PhD life for a variety of smaller reasons, but ultimately I realized I just wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I enjoyed my research well enough, and I like physics, but in some vague way I knew I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do. I didn’t feel the drive to go to lab on weekends, read up on extra topics on the side — in short I was coasting, which is a dangerous tactic to use in the competitive world of academia. My heart wasn’t really in it, and for that reason I decided I was putting myself at a competitive disadvantage for jobs later on, and taking up valuable space in the lab. I did make sure to leave with a masters and some research experience, just to make sure it wasn’t first-year jitters that I was feeling. (By the way, if you are considering leaving also, don’t burn the bridges! You may feel like never setting foot on campus again, but you would do well to leave on good terms. Not only for “networking” purposes, but also to be grateful — after all, your adviser probably put a lot of work and effort into helping you along.)

I’m not going to turn this into an Oprah-style self-healing epiphany, and I don’t want to try to convince you either way. But from personal and anecdotal evidence, I’ve come to believe that the PhD should really only be done by those who really love their research, who would be doing their research anyway if they happened to be multimillionares. Unlike a law degree or MBA, a PhD is not a guaranteed path to a job — in fact, it may hurt you for jobs outside your specialty, by making you overqualified and (at least in the employer’s perception) harder to train. Roughly speaking, I think a PhD can hurt you just as much as it helps you if you plan to not continue working in your research area after graduation. And so, it can be dangerous to wander your way through a PhD if you just think “its the thing to do”, or can’t think of any other job to be in, or if you’re doing it solely to improve your job prospects. Do it because you love it.

If you can’t do, should you teach?

The first order of business was to figure out what to do with my life. The initial instinct is to rush out for whatever job will hire you, but try to resist that — don’t quit to wind up selling wallpaper. For me, my two choices were to teach physics or to work in industry somehow as an engineer. I have a strong interest in physics teaching, and so I looked seriously into my options as a teacher. I’m not going to go through all the possible careers you could embark on, mainly because I’m not qualified to, but I want to put in a plug for community college teaching. It looked to me to be an intriguing, though competitive, career choice for the interested physicist.

If (like me) you leave grad school with only a masters, you don’t have the option to be a professor at a four year college, but it may surprise you that you can be a prof at a community or junior college. In addition, unlike high school teaching, you don’t need a teaching credential or any other further degrees — the only requirement is a masters in physics. To me, it seems like a really sweet deal — you get to teach four or five classes, at the college level (which means no lunch duty or detentions), at a good salary and without the crushing pressure to publish and collect grants of a university professorship. If you enjoy teaching, seems ideal, eh? Of course. And that’s what makes it an extremely competitive career. Where I was looking, in San Diego, permanant teaching jobs opened up only rarely (only a couple per year). Most of the teaching is done by “adjunct” teachers — part-timers, who may teach one or two classes at a time for a reduced salary and no benefits. The path to getting a permanant position requires you to combine several adjunct positions at several colleges, enough to patch together a full-time job and salary, and stack up a strong teaching record. Probably for years. Once a position opens up, these “road warriors” (who drive back and forth along California highways every day to their various classes) will be the first considered, but are never guaranteed a permanant position.

So if you’re interested, what do you do to help your chances? For one, getting the full PhD will help — while not required, the PhD is considered a desirable “extra”. You may need to consider moving, especially if the local job market is tight — rural areas in other parts of the country have harder times attracting qualified teachers, so you might find yourself moving to (Gasp!) Ohio. Starting to sound like the search for a post-doc, huh? Of course, take every teaching opportunity you can — be a TA in grad school, teach adjunct courses at colleges in your spare time, tutor — get as much experience as you can to build up the ol’ resume, and do the best job you possibly can at it. For me, in the end I decided not to pursue this career, considering that it wasn’t much more secure or less competitive than the environment I was leaving. I regret this sometimes, since I really have a good time teaching, but I’m going to have to get my teaching outlets in other ways (say, by writing advice articles on the web). So that meant that I had to go out and get an honest-to- goodness job in…. industry….


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