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Failed my PhD in Physics after 3 years in graduate school. I spent the whole first and a half year on foundation (courses and some learning projects) since I jumped in from a completely different field without any prerequisites. Then I spent another one and a half year on serious projects. I suffered in the second year due to the pressure from research and meanwhile, some personal issues which made me very very depressed. I failed a course (just could not work on anything at that period) and make unsatisfactory progress in research. And one can guess, failed qualifying exam. I left at the end of 3rd year without a terminal master, which is a large dent. If I apply immediately after quitting I will get rejected from all programs without problem. So, here is what I am thinking:

  1. I still love research and would like to devote to R&D as my career.
  2. I fully understand I am responsible for my failure and would like to deal with my issue.
  3. I am fully recovered and actually learned a lot from this about managing emotion and deal with pressure.
  4. I am planning to work in industry in related areas for a year or two or three, and during the time, keep looking for PhD openings. Taking exams, looking for research intern opportunities in my spare time. If lucky, I will go ahead and work towards a doctorate degree.

I have many concerns and therefore, need advices about this plan

  1. does this sound doable in general? I've seen people doing phd in their 30s or even 40s, but I know these are not the normal cases.
  2. What kind of job you would recommend if I want to go back to graduate school in near future? Or, what would be my best strategy?
  3. How should I explain this part of my life to adcom when applying?
  4. I enjoy doing research and would like to pursue a R&D career in industry. But, just trying to see the whole picture, is age a problem? If I choose to do this and succeed, I will be in my early 30s to start phd and ideally, mid 30s to start my career.

All advices are welcomed and many thanks!

P.S. I do thought about my passion and whether it is physics after all these happened. tbh it was not a very wise decision I made 3 yrs ago. It turns out I am not very passionate about the research in this group either it was too difficult and I am not prepared, or I simply don't like it. But I do like some parts such the math tools, programming tools and HPC and I appreciate the experience I had in this group. I am considering about research in data science and healthcare/pharmaceutical domain, which would have more practical applications in industry and then more job opportunities than physics at least

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  • Industry doesn't employ physicists; it employs engineers. Now there are new technologies that don't have an established engineering field behind it, and it often makes sense for companies in these areas to hire physicists and retrain them as engineers. Almost by definition, physics research is research that does not have an immediate enough practical application to make money, so physics PhDs are not automatically employable in industry. The danger of doing a physics PhD in your 30s is that you may succeed in getting a PhD but not be able to get a job, and have to retrain again, in late 30s – Alexander Woo Apr 26 at 20:04
  • Is this for US study? – Buffy Apr 26 at 20:32
  • @Buffy Yes this is for US study. – Jimmy Apr 26 at 20:37
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    There are exceptions, but in a lot of places in industry you're probably better off with the X years experience there than leaving for a PhD. There are only a handful of jobs where a PhD is truly needed in industry, and a lot of those are figurehead and management positions where you aren't actually using any of the skills that a PhD trains you in (except perhaps some familiarity with the grants process), just carrying the title "doctor" to impress customers. Unless you're doing that industry job and looking around you and seeing the positions you want next are all filled with PhDs. – Bryan Krause Apr 26 at 20:59
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    This is not correct. Most industry positions start with higher pay and a level up if you enter with an MS. Nontrivial technical roles are starting to have MS as as a req. I'm not talking about physics but engineering discipline in general. – FourierFlux Apr 27 at 1:33
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Does this sound doable in general?

This sounds doable to me in general (which is rare, because most of the time when failed students ask questions like this I am pretty skeptical of their plans), but probably not at the same institution. The main thing I note from your post is that your previous candidature gave you a full suite of foundation courses in the field and over a year of practice in research. Yes, you failed, but you were coming in with a low base of existing knowledge/skills, whereas now have an additional three years of work under your belt before entry.

Now, if you were to apply immediately to the same institution then it will almost certainly be a no --- they have terminated your candidature so they are saying you are not good enough for the program for now. In any case, I note from your question that you feel you are not a good fit in that research group anyway. Consequently, you are probably best off applying at another institution. Your plan to work in industry for a few years while looking out for program opportunities sounds like a good idea. It will put some temporal distance to your previous program removal and also give you some new professional skills in the field, which is more likely to make you an attractive candidate. You should also note that time in industry may allow you to develop research ideas that are useful in the field, which might open up opportunities for a good PhD candidature working on a problem that comes from industry.

What kind of job you would recommend if I want to go back to graduate school in near future? Or, what would be my best strategy?

Obviously, a job in physics. If you can work an industry job as a physicist, or at least working on physics problems or related problems, this will give you additional experience and skills that will assist you with entry to a PhD program in physics.

As a secondary matter, you want a job that pays you a lot of money, to allow you to save up for your later time as a student. If you have any serious desire to go back to being a PhD student later then you will need to make sure you do not get used to having a high disposable income. Be frugal and save a portion of your money, so that when you go back to being a PhD student it is not too big a drop in lifestyle.

How should I explain this part of my life to [the admissions committee] when applying?

Pretty much the same way you just explained it to us ---i.e., you previously tried a PhD program, but you went in with a low skill base and it was too much for you. You now have three additional years of work, including covering all the foundational courses in the field and getting some exposure to research work. None of that sounds too bad to me, so I can't see an admissions committee having a major problem with it.

What the admissions committee is going to want to see is that you are mature and capable, and you are able to self-reflect on past failures and diagnose the problem sensibly. They will also be impressed that you take responsibility for that failure and do not attempt to pass if off onto someone else. Your story sounds like one where a student tries a PhD program before they have the skills to be ready, and it is too much for them. The gain of this experience, plus a couple of years in industry, is likely to put you in a much stronger position.

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  • Thank you very much for the suggestions. This is what I am planning for coming back in the future. My main concerns were (1) age, but most of my colleagues as well as @Buffy believe that is not a major problem, and (2) the explanation to my first phd experience, but your covered this part. This is actually very encouraging. As for the guest answer, is it true that it is difficult for PhDs to find job in industries since there are only limited spots but much more graduates in job market? My colleagues who received degrees are all having pretty decent industrial jobs, is this the general case? – Jimmy Apr 27 at 15:00
  • @Jimmy: How old are you? – Ben Apr 27 at 22:34
  • I'm 28. I spent 2 yrs on another master previously, which is not related to what I am working on currently. – Jimmy Apr 28 at 8:34
  • Assuming you spend two years in industry, you will be 30. That is not particularly old to start a PhD program. – Ben Apr 28 at 10:23
  • What about a little later than that, say 32, 33 to start? Is there a limit? – Jimmy Apr 28 at 14:40
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There are many more doctorates produced than jobs for them afterwards. This is because grad students are cheap labor. Given that, only the cream of the crop find desirable jobs after the PhD. And many experience exploitation along the way because of the power imbalance with supervisors.

You couldn't even get through a regular PhD. Let alone distinguish yourself. Don't stick your head in that trap again. It only makes sense for a small fraction, to which you do not belong. Go get a regular job doing something else. Move on.

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  • Thank you for the advice. Do we know each other? – Jimmy Apr 27 at 14:53
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I suggest that the sooner you apply the more likely it is to get accepted. You need letters of recommendation, preferably from academics so you can't afford to lose touch with people who know and respect you.

But you have a particularly steep hill to climb so you need to be able to demonstrate that you are capable of the work and stress that is required. I assume you are a bit better prepared now than you were originally, but you might want to consider if physics is the right field for you or something that you will enjoy and has a better employment prospect.

Convincing people that your past issues no longer hold you back will be the biggest problem and if possible you want to use others to speak/write on your behalf.

But a PhD probably isn't essential for a career in industrial research. Especially one in theoretical subjects.

If you still have contacts at the place you failed to finish at, you might want to discuss this with them, provided that they know you well and might be supportive, given that your psychological issues are under control. They may have some suggestions about various career paths. There may be some others, even from your undergraduate study who can help.

But, I think, the longer you wait, the harder it will get, unless you spend the intervening time in some ideal situation. And the process of applying will give you some additional feedback on your chances and what you might need to do to be successful.

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  • Thanks. I have the same worry about recommendation letters as this is the only thing I cannot do myself. Now there is the dilemma I am facing: (1) get research experience in the field I want and get good letters, let the result speak for itself, but very time-consuming and (2) get this done as quickly as I can since I am no longer a fresh college graduate, but the dent is very hard to explain. I can tell the adcom I am fully recovered and learned my lesson. But they are not as convincing as a machine learning research project, or even a publication with my contribution. But I do thought about – Jimmy Apr 26 at 22:50
  • Try to restore old contacts. Let other speak to your recovery. – Buffy Apr 26 at 22:52
  • my passion and whether it is physics. tbh 3 yrs ago it was not a good decision I made. It turns out I am not very passionate about the research in this group, but I do like some parts such the math tools, programming and HPC and so on. I am reconsidering about some data science and healthcare domain research, which would have more practical application in industry and more job opportunities than physics at least. – Jimmy Apr 26 at 22:57
  • "the longer you wait, the harder it will get" do you also mean aging will be a negative factor when the adcom look at my application? Is this common in the US? – Jimmy Apr 26 at 23:02
  • No, not age. Age is irrelevant. I meant that possible letter writers will remember less and less of you leaving you an island of one. You need to keep contacts up. – Buffy Apr 26 at 23:12
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You just answered many of your own questions. Go for it and remember Einstein also flunked out of college. You have the passion, the drive and great retrospection - age is irrelevant. If you love physics, your future will be your playground.

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