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I am a UK student, 23 years old, and started a PhD in theoretical physics last October 2018 at a top 15-20 university (my undergrad Maths degree was at a top 5 uni where I got a First Class Honours 1:1), I have since come to realise that I do not want to pursue a career in academia but want to go into industry.

Considering that a PhD in these disciplines cannot replace work experience and to mitigate that at best, you could train programming skills and general knowledge in the area which you are going to apply to (although you would have nothing to show for it, and which would be learnt on the job anyway). Then would a full PhD in theoretical physics/pure maths (~4 years) be considered a downside in the eyes of an employer compared to a graduate with 1 year of PhD, when applying for a data science/analyst/consultant/actuary job?

Any advise, especially from STEM PhDs and PhD dropouts who later went into industry, would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much!

closed as off-topic by Buffy, Richard Erickson, Jon Custer, user3209815, Scott Seidman Jul 12 at 12:20

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    Only you can evaluate your priorities. Pick one that seems to meet your goals and work toward it. Keep a bit of flexibility as you go. – Buffy Jul 11 at 19:51
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    It depends on a lot of factors, but I will say that 3-4 years is a LONG time to spend doing a difficult task that you're not motivated for. Even people who really want to go into academia have a hard time motivating themselves to finish their dissertation. – ekl Jul 11 at 20:29
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    While you do have something in mind you don't want, you are vague on what you do want. That's reasonable and normal - but you'll need to clear that up as a first job so you can decide whether a PhD is a necessity, aid, or impediment to getting what you do want. Reaching out to peers who've got something you are more interested in is a great way to start that! Just beware that the evils of the alternatives may not be so clear to you as the evil you know - one or the other can be easily inflated, and you cannot know which is which. A PhD is the least common path to most things, but not all. – BrianH Jul 11 at 20:49
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    @BrianH This is true, I am really searching for something that resonates with me. Time isn't on my side though as I'm going to have to compete with this years graduates for jobs, however, at least I know that I am taking control of my life. – Thomas Gibbons Jul 11 at 20:55
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    If you currently are married or in a long-term stable relationship, what does your significant other desire? Ask them rather than random strangers on the internet. If you are not in such a relationship but worry how they might work out in grad school and postdocs, note that many people (include a prospective future spouse) might find it an adventure to do a certain amount of relocating during the early years of their marriage. You shouldn't base career decisions on hypothetical people. – John Coleman Jul 12 at 11:57
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You do not want to pursue a career in academia. It is good that you have worked this out early enough to do something about it.

Was "the next step in the career" the only reason for doing your PhD? Or is it a genuine delight to you to be learning and to be looking forward to making a contribution to knowledge?

  • If there is no delight then if I were you I'd drop it at once. But I am not you, and that is not advice.

  • If there is delight then if I were you I would pursue that wholeheartedly. There is little enough delight in the world as it is and we shouldn't throw away what we have. But I am not you, and that is not advice.

  • If you are half way between the two - it is always possible to start a doctorate at 60. A friend of mine did. So bear that in mind.

But here at last is some genuine advice. It comes in two stages.

  1. Take a total and irrevocable decision to abandon all your academic pretensions and go straight for business. No second thoughts, no looking back, that is what you are going to do.

Live with that decision for a week. But do it seriously. Remember that you are not trying to decide, you have decided. That is the key.

  1. Take a total and irrevocable decision to complete your PhD and only go into business after that. As before: no second thoughts, no looking back.

Live with that decision for a week.


The reason why this exercise in self-deception works so well is that it frees all the important parts of your psyche to engage with a definite and unambiguous future and not some sort of vague undecided limbo. And they are able to tell you what you feel.

At the end of those two weeks, look back on how you felt. When did you have regrets over what you had decided, and what were they? When did the choice feel righter? In which week were you most looking forward to life?

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    Many people, including myself, would find the proposed self-deception impossible. There is a difference between making an irrevocable decision and pretending to make an irrevocable decision. I don't think that I could banish all knowledge of the pretense, but knowledge of the pretense contradicts the supposed irrevocable nature of the "decisions" you suggest. – John Coleman Jul 12 at 11:47
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First things first, figure out how useful a PhD is going to be. Without knowing this you can't make an informed decision.

Go to your local jobs portal and search for jobs that require a PhD in theoretical physics vs. those that only require an Honors degree. How much more attractive are those jobs? Are they more attractive at all? How much better-paying are they? Can you imagine doing those jobs? It's natural that jobs that require PhDs will have a more difficult job scope. You'll be asked to do things that you wouldn't be tasked with - at least initially - if you only have an Honors degree. That also means you'll be paid more (again, at least initially).

Once you've assessed that, then you can make an informed decision. For example you might get reach a conclusion that if you leave now, you'll earn $X/year, while if you finish, it'll cost you two more years as a PhD student but you can earn $2X/year upon graduating. That's a 100% increase, and likely means that if money is the only thing that matters to you, you should finish. Alternatively, you might find that although you'll only earn $1.1X/year after graduating, the job scope for Honors holders is dull and uninteresting. In that case you might want to finish as well.

One more thing: talk to your former classmates - the people who did undergraduate studies with you but didn't go on to PhD studies. What are they doing now? How much do they earn? Do they work in places that also employ PhD graduates, and if so, what do those PhD graduates do that they don't?

If you have the answers to all these questions, you'll be able to make a decision much more comfortably.

  • Can a theoretical physics or pure maths PhD ever be useful in the industry? I don't think there are any jobs that require theoretical physics/pure maths PhDs only and not also take in graduates. I have heard from so many PhDs that a PhD is only a negative when applying to jobs in the private sector unless your PhD directly involves work that that job requires, because you have spent 4+ years on a subject which has nothing to do with the job you are applying to and have 4+ years working in an academic environment so will be used to that way of thinking. – Thomas Gibbons Jul 12 at 21:22
  • @ThomasGibbons do you think, or do you know? Have you looked at the job advertisements? Making a major life-changing decision based on hearsay is very dangerous! – Allure Jul 12 at 22:00
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Having interviewed (on both sides of the desk) for most of the positions you list (albeit in the US), I should maybe answer.

A PhD will be useful. Most of these jobs will prefer a PhD, or at least give you credit for years spent pursuing a PhD. Many people start their career and say they will go back to get a PhD, but this rarely happens.

Physics is a good PhD to have. "Physicists and Physicians" are notorious for having very low unemployment rates (compared to biologists or chemists). But, physics is a big place. If you are doing data analysis on the computer, it should be easy to continually learn new skills (even having awesome Python and BASH skills is a good start). Other subfields might be less useful.

So, I would lean toward finishing. But of course, there are several factors that I don't know about:

  • whether your advisor is supportive about letting you do your research in ways that develop marketable skills
  • whether your advisor is likely to let you graduate on time
  • whether you are still interested in your research
  • your family and personal situation
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    I’m not sure that 4 years in academia beat 4 years in industry. Speaking with people in industry, a lot prefer the latter. – Spark Jul 12 at 3:39
  • Depends on the industry. In my (R&D) experience, the PhD is valuable. – cag51 Jul 12 at 14:13
  • @cag51 I have heard from many that a theoretical physics or pure maths PhD can only be beneficial when applying to academic positions, if you're applying in the private sector then the difference between you and a fresh graduate is that you're older, more specialised in a narrow field, used to solitary work, and expecting a higher pay. Further,my PhD is not at a top uni like my undergrad Masters degree is so I would be competing against top 5 PhDs. The reason why private sector hires PhDs is simply because of the surplus number available, but grad student+4 years will always earn more than PhD – Thomas Gibbons Jul 12 at 21:13
  • @cag51 Further, the experience gained during a PhD has little to nothing to do with real industry experience in the job you are applying to, so PhDs who decide not to go into academia are competing with graduates for graduate entry-level jobs. – Thomas Gibbons Jul 12 at 21:18
  • What you have "heard from many" does not match my experience or those of the people I know. Of course, your mileage may vary; things vary by location and field, and I am just some guy on the internet. But I'm not sure what the point of asking the question is if you already (think you) know the answer.... – cag51 Jul 13 at 1:42
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If you get your PhD, you will live with the achievement the rest of your life. If you stop it now, you will live knowing you never finished it. 2 years more in a working life of 40 years is nothing! Besides, everyone has a basic degree, so a PhD is one way of standing out from the other seagulls. Perhaps you just need a break. Go hiking for a few weeks; come back fresh and renewed and finish the PhD with more zeal than you can muster right now. A PhD does not force you into an academic career.

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Did the PhD and then straight into industry for much the same reasons.

Personally, do not regret getting the Th. Phys. knowledge. Your PhD is always narrow, but you do learn a lot more and this stays with you.

The PhD did give some help careerwise. How much kudos it brings is culturally specific. US values it more than UK more that Australia.

How much it helps in problem solving is very hard to prove either way, but a story you can tell when job hunting.

Incomplete degrees do not look good on CV. But getting out earlier because of a change of plan is way better than something that looks like a failure to complete. Lost count of the number of people that are in that situation I have come across. All have a story and lets just say it cannot always be the supervisor's fault.

So, make very sure that if you stay on, you finish it.

See if you can get a Masters instead.

Also, if you do stick it out, build some useful skills on the way. Learn to program, machine learning, financial maths or whatever suits. There is enough overlap with the physics that it should not impede you.

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In addition to Martin’s very comprehensive answer on 'larger-scale decision-making‘, I would like shift the perspective towards the process instead of the result. I claim that you can have a successful career in the industry with and without a PhD. So:

What is it that you would like to spend the next 3 years of your life on?

Is it a PhD project and a thesis - or a job in the industry?

Back then, this question was all I needed to make my decision. I had decided for the PhD position, although I was quite confident that I will not persue a career in academia, because that was what I wanted to do at that time. My PhD project was successful, I had a very good time and gained valuable experience (more on a personal than on a professional level, though).

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I quit a PhD after wasting more than three years on it... like you I realised that I wasn't going into academia early on in the PhD but was planning to go into industry where the PhD would not only be relevant but necessary to getting a decent job.

So I stuck to it when it wasn't going well and wasn't enjoyable way longer than was reasonable. But eventually I quit, changed direction and went into a career where a PhD was not only un-necessary but of no value. Do I regret giving up? Very very rarely. Do I regret having started it? Rarely. Do I regret not listening to the voice that said I should have given up much sooner as soon as I realised that it wasn't enjoyable and it implied that my career plans at that time were not going to be enjoyable? YES!

Do your research... decide what career you want to go into instead of academia, find out if a PhD would be of any benefit to you in such a career and make an informed decision. Don't rush into it. By all means start applying for jobs now... you are not committing yourself to take any of them... and discuss with some of your interviewers the value of a PhD to them - you might make those interviews a throwaway and right off your immediate chances of a job with them, but you have time to throw a few interviews to get a feel for the industry.

And remember, by the time you've been working in your chosen industry for a few years, having a PhD or not will become fairly unimportant because it will be historic. I've been working for 35 years and a PhD had never been relevant to my career

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