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I graduated with engineering and physics degrees last year, and started a PhD program in theoretical physics. While the program is a good one, it is not top-15 in the US or top-50 in the world. This means that, statistically, there is very little chance of me ever being a professor at a school with a comparable ranking. I get the sense that my program isn't really respected, and that our own professors don't expect us to accomplish anything significant. (At times it even feels like we are mostly here to fulfill the need for teaching assistants.) Since I am not in an applied discipline, I can't really motivate myself with the prospect of a research career outside the academia either. Furthermore, when I look at my peers who got into top programs either in engineering or in physics, I see that they are much more productive than I am. Whether this is because they are smarter/more creative/more motivated/more hardworking than I am matters little. Honestly, I am suffering from a deep inferiority complex due to this coupled with a few more things in my personal life, but that is a separate issue that is not really relevant here.

My question is, what exactly is the point of continuing the program? I suppose I am the one who should have an answer to that, but the best I can come up with is to view this as "entertainment" without tying it to any specific career outcome. Is it better if I just drop out and get a "real job" without delay? The demand for theoretical physicists is already low, and everything seems to indicate that I wouldn't make a good one anyway.

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    What's wrong with 'entertainment' or 'personal development'? Yeah grad school is a dumb idea for homo economicus, but we're not homo economicus. When I last applied for jobs as a professor, my backup plan was becoming a peace activist. I don't need to explain that there's no money there. Dec 20, 2021 at 23:27
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    Did you try checking how former graduates of your department doing? You can get an idea on what to expect after your own graduation based on that. Also, don't forget you can always to some postdocs to significantly boost your credentials.
    – SpiderRico
    Dec 21, 2021 at 10:51
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    As per usual with these questions... With only a few exceptions, nobody cares where you got your degrees. They care about what work you produce and what you do with the skills you've acquired. If you write a top-notch thesis at your local town's uni that nobody has ever heard of, that'll be better than a minimum pass thesis from MIT as far as prospects are concerned. Also, if you're doing your PhD for any reason other than that you want to for the sake of it, you're going to have a tough time Dec 21, 2021 at 15:19
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    Based on my experience (computer science in the US), I think it's crucial for PhD students to have a realistic idea of their prospects after graduation. In my field, jobs (academic or industrial) doing theoretical research are extremely competitive, and as a rule only go to those few students each year who have extremely strong records, usually from the top schools. Same with good postdocs. I strongly encourage PhD students who are interested in theoretical work to have a realistic awareness of this, and to have a tolerable backup plan in advance. Do it if you want, just be aware.
    – Neal Young
    Dec 21, 2021 at 20:55
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    No matter how prestigious your school, statistically, your chances of attaining a professorship at an equally prestigious school are low. This is simply a function of the number of openings available vs. the number of graduates. If you will not be satisfied with any other result, then you take a grave risk by continuing. But that's not to say that you should give up on your aspirations, just that you should come to a realistic view of your prospects, and have a plan B that will still be fulfilling in case plan A doesn't work out. Dec 21, 2021 at 22:53

13 Answers 13

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There are so many things wrong with your question :-)

  • The point of a PhD is not only so that you can become a professor. A PhD is also both an education that opens doors for future jobs in industrial research, and it is a set of letters that open door to promotions that would otherwise be more difficult to achieve (for example, to be the head of a research department in which a substantial number of PhDs are employed). In all of these regards, where exactly you got your PhD does not matter very much. Furthermore, it's not true that only those in "applied" areas are sought after by industry: theoretical physicists have long made a good living in quantitative finance, for example.

  • Even if your goal is becoming a professor, having your PhD from one of the top universities is neither necessary nor sufficient. It is probably true that the majority of those who are offered assistant professor positions in the top-50 universities of the US are in fact PhD graduates from top-50 universities, but the best people often find ways to move up over the course of their careers and find ways to be hired by top universities even though they were initially employed further down in the rankings, or got their PhDs further down the rankings. And even then, being a professor can be (and often is) a very rewarding career even if you are not employed by a top-50 university -- in fact, maybe even more rewarding than actually being at a top-50 university.

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    Be aware that there need not be a strong correlation between a good researcher and a top-50 tenure track position. "Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it. Only when we do not have to be accountable to anybody can we find joy in scientific endeavour." - Einstein
    – quantum
    Dec 20, 2021 at 21:53
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    Note that you don't have to be employed by a "top university" to have a rewarding career in academia and then retire vey comfortably.
    – Buffy
    Dec 21, 2021 at 14:33
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    @quantum I think if one were to make those notions precise, there would be a strong statistical correlation. Maybe what you mean is that there are many good researchers who are not tenure track at top 50 schools.
    – Kimball
    Dec 21, 2021 at 15:16
  • However, "neither necessary nor sufficient" does not cancel the fact that there's still a strong causality. It certainly helps, more or less, to move up your career in academia or a research division in a company if you've got a PhD degree in a decent institute.
    – iBug
    Dec 22, 2021 at 17:46
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    @quantum - and isn't that true of anything? Someone said, "get a job doing what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." Complete horsesh*t, of course, because it doesn't account for how management will suck the joy out of any good pursuit. Dec 22, 2021 at 23:24
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I think this is an excellent question that really cuts to the heart of the US university system (and other Anglosphere HE systems, namely UK, Canada, Australia, etc.). A strongly hierarchical HE system that clearly delineates between "top" and "non-top" universities inevitably invites such questions about doing research in "non-top" institutions.

My short answer is this: if you are extremely motivated, you can still make it to a tenure-track position in a good research university. You simply need to work harder than your peers and be more active. Not only this, a person who started at a low-ranking school and ended up in a higher-ranking one, is bound to be one of the strongest researchers around. So the challenge is quite appealing in this sense.

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    You “simply” need to work harder than a peer group that is consists of the most motivated and talented minds of your generation, worldwide, that is. Simple! Dec 22, 2021 at 4:10
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    @KevinArlin, yes, it is simple. It's just not easy. Actually, it's very hard. But then, even if you're at a top school, it's very hard to get a permanent position at a good research university.
    – Dilworth
    Dec 22, 2021 at 16:29
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Having a Master's Degree in Engineering, spending much of my career working with other engineers with PHDs, and talking to a few colleagues about the relative merit of a PHD, I believe I can provide some relevant feedback on this question.

First, when it comes to technical degrees, the school you went to has much less importance than it does for a liberal arts degree. It all comes down to where the rubber meets the road: what do you know and how well can you apply it. I got my undergrad degree from University that is not especially known as a top engineering school, but when we competed in a national engineering design competition, we placed very high (4th place) among our peers (over 100 other major schools), yet some very famous "top-tier" engineering colleges only placed in the middle of the pack. I later found out through a good friend who took a couple graduate level courses at one of those "top-tier" schools that those students were actually being short-changed because they were exposed to a lot of different glitzy programs but didn't get a very thorough exposure to those topics. On the other hand, our "mid-level" engineering programs, with much smaller budgets, focused heavily on the fundamentals with examples of practical applications, so we were well prepared to apply what we learned.

The next point has to do with how a PHD is viewed by the rest of the world. Those 3 letters tell people that you had the determination and endurance to go through a prolonged and intense program of study and see it through to the end. It opens doors, oftentimes without questions from those in non-technical fields, and even technical types will recognize what it took to get that degree, even if it wasn't from a "top-tier" school. In other words, the degree itself has value no matter where you got it from.

Third, there are lots of places where an advanced degree in a theoretical field is not only desired, it's necessary. Several colleagues of mine with PHDs are looking at how to do things and build devices that haven't been built before. Major corporations trying to solve some big problems need people that know the theoretical side of things to come up with new materials, new processes, or new applications for existing devices. For example, take some of the work that's being done in the areas of superconductors and other electronics, high temperature tolerant materials for aviation and space applications (think propulsion, heat shields, electronics, etc.), and more. The people doing the work in those fields are mostly PHDs. Another advantage of working in industry is that they usually have much bigger budgets than universities, even when accounting for government funding and research grants. And several of those colleagues I mentioned earlier have transitioned to university positions at prestigious institutions primarily because of their experience (and accomplishments) in industry.

Finally, the process of getting the advanced degree itself has value. I was an officer in the military, and I was told point-blank that even having a bachelor's degree demonstrated that I have the capacity to learn. Having an advance degree shows that you have an even bigger capacity to learn, and a greater capacity to conceive of big new ideas and (hopefully) be able to find solutions to big problems.

That pretty summarizes my experiences, but of course, your mileage may vary.

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  • A “theoretical field” like applied physics, perhaps. Somebody with a phd in theoretical physics won’t have the foggiest idea how to actually design any physical device, in general. Dec 22, 2021 at 4:12
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Focusing on the career reasons here (i.e. not academic ones like "you learn things"):

  • PhDs enable new career options. If you go to your local jobs portal, chances are you'll find results that specifically ask for a PhD degree. That means completing the PhD lets you do jobs you won't be able to do with a Bachelor's or Masters degree. This applies regardless of which university you did your PhD at.
  • You could still be the biggest fish in your local pond even if you are not the biggest fish in the ocean. For example if you're in Kenya, then the "best" university is the University of Nairobi. If you have a degree from that university then you're good in Kenya, even if your international prospects aren't that good. The same goes if you have a degree from a top-100 university in the US, since even the rank 100 university in the US is more highly ranked than the University of Nairobi.
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    I’m looking at my jobs portal, and I see exactly no jobs that want “a PhD, even if it’s not in a directly relevant field.” There are essentially no jobs that a theoretical physics PhD can get that a master’s holder can’t, other than college professor or researcher at a handful of national labs. Dec 22, 2021 at 4:15
  • @KevinArlin Counterexample.
    – Allure
    Dec 22, 2021 at 4:17
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    alright, alright, there are still a few quant firms hiring for “any quantitative PhD.” Of course you’re much more attractive to such a firm if you have a degree involving more coding and working with data, rather than just drawing Feynman diagrams on a whiteboard. For instance, I’ve seen similar ads that specifically exclude pure math as not quantitative enough. Dec 22, 2021 at 4:26
  • @KevinArlin Another counterexample. Also, I would think most theoretical physicists can code and work with data, rather than just drawing Feynman diagrams on a whiteboard.
    – Allure
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:14
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    I’ve since edited in a response to the rest of that list of jobs for machine learning experts. It is probably true that I cannot be convinced that a theoretical physics PhD opens many professional doors, because that is not true. PhD’s are a ticket to academic jobs. For the great majority of PhD’s, that’s basically it, and they’re not very good tickets. It’s completely irrational to pursue them for professional reasons, though it may be worth it for personal reasons. And I wish people would stop lying to impressionable 20-year-olds about this. It does harm. Dec 23, 2021 at 4:12
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The university you get hired at will depend significantly less on the university you graduate from than it will on the quality of your research and the "prestige" of your publications.

That said, the advisors that you will have access to at "top" schools are often engaged in prestigious research and have access to large pools of money that provide resources and collaborators for quality research. Science costs money and takes time, and doing research with 6 other grad students who are as ambitious and bright as you, and having access to all the data, computational power and equipment you might need will prove invaluable as you do research. This is more important in some fields than others.... some areas of physics are notable outliers where a lot of research is a worldwide collaborative effort, and not the cloistered race for antecedence that often marks some trending fields.

In short, the thing that you should really be considering here is "will attending so-and-so university give me access to the resources and collaborations I need to fulfill my research ambitions?" It is possible that a university's prestige leads you to suspect that you will find just these sorts of resources and collaborations there. If your peers seem to be finding those things at other universities, and you aren't finding them here, perhaps you should consider a transfer.

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I don't normally ever answer here, as I am not an Academic, and in fact, hold no higher degrees at all. This answer has to do with non-academic employment.

A little background of myself, first. I went to a community college and got an Associates. I was then in the military for 23 years as an electronics technician and ended up a senior non-commissioned officer.

Leaving the Army, I then changed fields completely and began my next career as a systems administrator in IT.

Now for my point. Many times during my current career I have applied for a new job or position with a company. Every single time the position included the requirements of a Master's or PhD, or equivalent experience.

Now, as I am approaching retirement age, I have 21 years of experience in IT. Sounds like a lot. If I cared to enter management, my years of experience might get me a position at the lowest level. But advancing in the management track would require me to go back to school, to get a Bachelor's, Master's, etc. That is just the way it is.

Let's say you make it through your schooling and are granted your PhD. You would have zero experience, and yet with that PhD, would immediately meet the requirements of jobs I am distinctly uneducated for. There is a mid-level management position available within my company right now, and looking at the requirements I see Masters, or PhD, and nothing about experience. If you and I were up for that position, I am unqualified while you would be.

Nowhere have I discussed from where you may have received your degree. The requirements for many positions are: have a PhD, not have a PhD from a top-tier university.

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No.

It depends somewhat on what you hope to get out of it, but in general the answer is no.

You could decide that my answer is blunt, abrasive and horrible, but two, three decades down the line you will come to understand why the answer to your question is quite simply: no.

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    Can you elaborate or explain your answer ?
    – Dilworth
    Dec 24, 2021 at 3:26
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Your question is a great one, but it's also in a sense wider in scope than academia. And it's also one that may get biased answers on Academia StackExchange. You need to first ask and answer the wider question of what would make you happy career-wise, then you'll have a simpler question: how to spend the next years of your life to optimize the chances that you reach those goals.

Regarding the first question, ideally you want something at the intersection of what you're good at, what you're passionate about, and what you can get decently and reliably paid to do. Would you make a better engineer or theoretical physicist? How passionate are you about theoretical physics (setting aside your other concerns)? (This is important, because if you want an academic career, you'll be competing with people who are really passionate about it.) Are there other things you are or might become passionate about? Regarding income, you already know the answer to the last question (prospects are not good, with little location flexibility), though potentially you could develop mathematical and statistical skills in your PhD that are lucrative in finance, for example.

Once you've answered the above questions, it'll hopefully be easier to determine whether to spend the next years finishing your PhD vs embarking on an industry career.

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Statistically speaking, one is a lot less likely to find a good faculty position if they graduate from a weaker school. It's down to luck and how you exploit your fewer chances when they show up. And they always do, even if you start from a much crappier place than the weakest American PhD school.

But, knowing a lot of people who overcame the odds, I always wondered what was exactly they did that helped. And that thing is that they made a lot of good connections. In addition, they worked hard on good problems and believed in their chance.

To give an example. One of my people I worked for as a postdoc, graduated from a very small school. He went as a postdoc to a stronger school, working with someone very famous. He found there a few strong colleagues to collaborate with, and, to the best of my knowledge, they still collaborate. This helped so much, that after that first postdoc, he had enough good results to show for and get hired as an assistant professor.

Not so long after he got the position, he worked with some of his collaborators on a problem which made him famous in the physics community. Then he found another problem of that kind and another and eventually he became full professor and lives happily ever after, or so he should, but he's too much of a workaholic. More than half of his former students and postdocs are themselves professors and researchers in strong places, and I don't know of any of them who left science after working with him.

To conclude, your chances are slimmer, but there is a recipe for success, and you can learn it from the people who are successful. If your goal is to be a faculty, better start building your network of collaborators, start learning to create good research projects, and don't underestimate how much you can do even from a weaker school. I myself had colleagues whom I thought they would never graduate, and some of them are now at top 10 schools in the world.

Now that you're in graduate school you may not see much beyond the course work, and the research projects you work on with your colleagues and/or adviser. But, opportunities will come, sooner or later, and you need to be ready and in a proper mental shape to recognize them for what they are and seize them.

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    "how you exploit your fewer chances when they show up. And they always do" I think that this is probably survival bias. Just because you've gotten chances, doesn't mean that everyone who finishes a PhD does.
    – nick012000
    Dec 22, 2021 at 5:11
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    @nick012000 If you ever get admitted in a PhD program in STEM, in US or any of the EU countries and start bemoaning your lack of chances, it means you're not paying attention, or not willing to take them. Dec 22, 2021 at 19:02
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I believe that the quality of the school is correlated to the quality of the students. But there are outliers... that is, good students at bad schools and bad students at good schools.

You can certainly still make a name for yourself. The only thing holding you back is you, not the school.

FWIW... I went to a community college before becoming a professor at a big German university.

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    I should add... There are certainly fields which may be impossible to break into at a small university if, for instance, the small university cannot fund the required equipment to be successful in a certain field. Dec 21, 2021 at 11:22
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Furthermore, when I look at my peers who got into top programs either in engineering or in physics, I see that they are much more productive than I am. Whether this is because they are smarter/more creative/more motivated/more hardworking than I am matters little. Honestly, I am suffering from a deep inferiority complex due to this coupled with a few more things in my personal life, but that is a separate issue that is not really relevant here.

This is absolutely relevant to finishing anything you start. It's also better known as "imposter syndrome".

To put it simply, imposter syndrome is the experience of feeling like a phony—you feel as though at any moment you are going to be found out as a fraud—like you don't belong where you are, and you only got there through dumb luck. It can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise.

https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469

If you don't have the drive to finish something because you are (falsely) comparing yourself to others you see as better than you, then it doesn't really matter what logic, statistics, job availability, or anything else say. Without that drive, you simply won't finish or, if you do finish, you'll likely resent finishing. The flip side is that if you don't finish your degree, you'll likely regret that decision, but your imposter syndrome will convince you that it is "proper", since "you wouldn't have been any good at it anyway".

Of course, that "logic" is all a load of bull.

Some of the common signs of imposter syndrome include:

  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear that you won't live up to expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Self-doubt
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

That list comes from the same article I listed above. I see a lot of that in your question. The fact is that you are doing better than you think you are. The simple fact that you got into a PhD program shows that you have more drive and intelligence than most people.

You are simply having a moment (or more) of self-doubt and probably some burn-out. This is natural, especially when people push themselves as hard as you are for as long as you likely have been.

Often, people with imposter syndrome will try to overcorrect by boasting about how well they are doing in public, then feel like crud in private. So the people you see as "smarter/more creative/more motivated/more hardworking" are likely also suffering the same problem you are.

There's also the opposite of imposter syndrome, which is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says that people will over estimate their own importance, intelligence, or smarts in a topic when they are actually ignorant in the field. Those people who boast about how good they are might not actually be any good at all. This effect also states that people who are very informed about a subject will know better how much they don't know, so will underestimate their skills.

The bright side is that you can recover from imposter syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect to build your self-image back up to where it needs to be. There are a lot of online resources as well as going to therapy, or simply talking to your friends and colleagues about it. Likely, they'll remind you about how well you are doing, even when you get negative feedback from advisors, professors, and whomever else is in a authoritative role over you. Even talking to some of them may help you find out that they are simply trying to push you to do better, since they may believe you can do better. They may just be pushing too hard or in the wrong way without realizing it.

My question is, what exactly is the point of continuing the program?

Why did you get into the program in the first place? Did you look at employment opportunities beforehand? I'm sure you did. I'm sure you got into it because you enjoy the subject. Not many people get into a PhD program just because they were told to. You just need to find those reasons again and they'll be your answer.

Also, you will want to finish your program to avoid the regret of not finishing it and the resentment of paying all money & spending all that time to waste it by not finishing. I have regret and resentment about not finishing my bachelors degree. I can't imagine how bad it would be to not finish a higher degree, so do yourself a favor and avoid that problem.

All of this stress, imposter syndrome, Dunning-Kruger effect, burn out, and negativity can lead to depression, and depression can lead to worsening depression. You need to get help with this. Society seems to make people think they need to handle everything without help, yet a common phrase is that "it takes a village". Generally, this is referred to when talking about raising a child, but really it's about anything. People help each other do many things. Farmers help others when they are sick and can't plant or harvest their fields. Neighbors help with performing house repairs or loaning tools, or simply watching their house when they are away.

We've lost a lot of that sharing responsibility in the past few decades, but there are plenty of people who still volunteer. What I'm trying to say is that we were never intended to "handle everything" by ourselves. This is why we live in communities, so we can share responsibilities as well as resources. We need the help of others to do our jobs, live our lives, or do anything, really. We shouldn't be pressured to deal with mental health issues on our own, either.

So yes, talk to you friends, colleagues, family, a therapist, get into group therapy, find a hobby, something to help you deal with the stress and insecurities of your life. They can help show you that you are doing better than you have convinced yourself you are. They will help you remember why you are doing what you are doing.

The people you love and respect, who love and respect you, will help you answer your questions far better than random anonymous people online are going to.

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There are already pretty good answers out there, so I would not add much so just take some time to read along.

Well there are two main issues that should be addressed separately. First the school you go to and your motivation, and I think they are or should be mutually exclusive.

Talking about the school, there are hundreds of schools in the USA alone where PhD level research is being done. And in the current times, most of the PhDs are based on some industrial projects so you get a chance to enhance your practical knowledge while expanding your professional network. And that is what counts during PhD that how significant and practically relevant is your topic. Theoretical PhDs are boring!

Regarding the motivation, yes you said it right that you should be the one who could answer the best. But yes it is lifetime learning experience where you can independently do research and present it to the outside world. And as someone said PhD is difficult in start, messy in the middle and rewarding in the end. So, I hope the same would be in your case as well.

Good Luck!

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    As a pure mathematician with a Ph.D. in pure mathematics, I find your claim "Theoretical PhDs are boring!" offensive :) But speaking seriously, a theoretical Ph.D. can be just as fascinating as an applied one.
    – Gary
    Dec 21, 2021 at 13:16
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    @Gary I think sometimes applied folk somehow miss the incredible frequency by which some mathemagical sleight of hand reveals deep and practical truths about the empirical universe. Applying the equations is so often an all-trees and no-forest sort of thing.
    – Him
    Dec 21, 2021 at 16:19
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    @Him can you give one example of when that happened this century? Dec 22, 2021 at 1:56
  • @user1271772 Obviously your mileage may vary, but, for example, I suspect that the recent replicability crises in various fields may be exacerbated in part by folks sometimes pushing numbers through a statistics software package that they don't fully understand the inner workings of. Of course, nobody can fault one for being a [subject]ologist instead of a Statistician, I suppose.
    – Him
    Dec 22, 2021 at 7:39
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    So you switch from saying there's an "incredible frequency by which some mathemagical sleight of hand reveals deep and practical truths about the empirical universe" to "YMMV... I suspect... I suppose". I was the one who upvoted you for your effort by the way, so the downvote isn't related to my comment. Dec 22, 2021 at 7:43
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My question is, what exactly is the point of continuing the program?

If you feel you are doing meaningful research, which will advance human knowledge or have useful consequences/applications (or itself is a useful application); and if you draw satisfaction from doing your research work, at least most of the time - then those are the points of continuing your research work. Hopefully there will be a Ph.D. in it for you, but the title is really not the point.

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