I'm currently beginning my 2nd semester of a dual Msc/PhD in Physics in the top university of my home country, but lately I've been struggling with self-doubt and uncertainty about the job prospects and whether research is actually for me. Lately I don't feel the motivation to wake up early and work in my research 24 hours/day, and I know that if I keep like this I'll end up as a mediocre graduate student, so I've been really considering if research life is for me.

Some background

Since I was in high school wanted to do my undergraduate studies in high energy physics, but since the option wasn't available in my city and I didn't have the money to move to another place (student loans don't exist in my country) I enrolled in engineering physics at my state university. Being one of the top 5 students, I was invited to due a joint Bsc/MEng degree abroad in France, so I accepted since I was excited to try new things and get the chance to live in Europe for two years. I sucessfully completed my Master's courses abroad, came back to finish my Bsc, and graduated with the highest possible honors while publishing 3 scientific papers on the run (6.5 years). Therefore, doing a PhD in Physics seemed like the natural continuation of my career, and everyone was expecting me to go and become a renowned scientist in my discipline one day. I even got full support on recommendation letters to apply for studying abroad again.

While I got accepted to several joint Msc/PhD programs abroad (I discarded the US since I didn't have the money to pay for the GRE examinations at the time), due to delays from my university I wasn't able to apply for funding on time, thus instead of waiting another year I decided to enroll in one of the top programs in my country.

The doubts begin

However, over time I got more and more afraid of the potential job prospects of a career in Physics, after witnessing the vast amount talented PhD students and the lack of tenure positions (especially after the science budget took some cuts). I have met many PhD graduates who are still struggling to find a job in their late 30's, and even in an extreme case one who's literally homeless even after doing two post-docs abroad. Moreover, PhD graduates who go into the industry, at least in physics, had little to no advantage over those who have a Master's degree or a PhD in Engineering (in my country a PhD is rarely needed in the industry unless it's for the areas of Chemistry, Medicine, or Biology).

I do love Physics and do enjoy research, and I like to challenge myself with new ideas and engage in intellectual discussions with people here. Moreover, compared to entry-level jobs which are +60 hours/week here (which pay roughly the same as my scholarship), grad school is very flexible and allows me to take some time for my hobbies. Nevertheless, when I think that I'll finish my PhD when I'm 30 years old, plus 2-4 years of post-docs if I'm lucky, I'm afraid that if I don't manage to land an academic position I'll basically be applying for an entry-level job in the industry in my mid 30's, when I could apply now for an entry-level job (I've received several offers due to my MEng) and in 5 years move over the ladder or even find a job abroad back in Europe or the US. I'm not sure if my love for Physics is so strong as to sacrifice my 20's and early 30's in a career where there's no guarantee of success.

Could you give me your advice or opinions? It would be nice also to hear opinions of PhD students in Latin American countries.

My backup plan if I continue on my PhD would be to develop skills in Machine Learning and Data Science and eventually have my own startup by the time I finish my PhD, but again I won't be working on the field I originally aimed for, so I don't know if it would be worth it. My true vision for a PhD is to have the chance to work in the academia.

  • Sorry, we can't really make life decisions for you here. – Bryan Krause Jan 17 '19 at 21:55
  • Sorry for asking, since I saw others ask a similar question in this site I thought I could get some opinions. You can vote to close my question in that case. – Charlie Jan 17 '19 at 22:00
  • Key factor is how long you have been doing this and how much longer before you finish. Such a long text--can't find this. – guest Jan 17 '19 at 22:29
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    Yes, such questions, conflicts, etc., are a large part of scientists/intellectuals' lives. No easy answers, especially about trade-offs between money and satisfaction, location, ... – paul garrett Jan 17 '19 at 23:19
  • I'm on my 2nd semester, so it will be between 4.5 to 5 years to finish. – Charlie Jan 18 '19 at 0:33

It's good that you're thinking about this now, but unfortunately, only you know what you want with your life.

You've given a nice list of pros and cons of continuing to study. Let's summarize:

Work now

  • Longer work hours
  • Secure job
  • Better pay, or at least not worse than a future PhD graduate
  • Not exactly what you love doing

Keep studying

  • I love physics!
  • Nomadic lifestyle
  • No guarantee of job

One thing you didn't mention is whether you have a significant other. Nomadic lifestyles are bad if you intend to settle down, start a family, etc.

If you look at all this there's really only one thing that's in favour of "keep studying": your passion for physics. Is your passion for physics so great that you're willing to risk everything else for the chance to pursue an academic career? Unfortunately, only you will know the answer to this question.

Here're two things you can think of doing:

  • Keep studying, but emphasize picking up skills that are wanted in the industry in the event that you can't get an academic job. Look at the jobs available for physics graduates in your area, see what the requirements are, and make it a point to learn them during the PhD as a fallback plan.
  • Work for a few years, with the intention to go back to studying after having secured yourself financially.

Ultimately, only you can answer this question.

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  • Thank you for taking the time to answer, and how you summarized everything. It's true, in the end it's a tradeoff between pursuing a dream with no guarantee of success, or compromising for something which is more stable in the long run but that I may not love as much. To be honest, I broke up with my best friend and almost girlfriend because I decided to keep studying (which implied a nomadic lifestyle), and while I thought I wouldn't care at the beginning, now that I think it better I don't think I'll be able to settle down and start a family with this lifestyle, at least until my mid 30's. – Charlie Jan 18 '19 at 0:38
  • On the other hand, I like the idea of having a backup plan, especially since my specialisation is strong on programming. But also taking a break to secure myself financially could be a good idea too. – Charlie Jan 18 '19 at 0:41
  • The trade off of working for a few years and then returning is the loss of passion as well as energy as well as future job prospects. – Jeffrey J Weimer Jan 18 '19 at 0:52

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