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I'm 31 years-old, which will be relevant to my question later. I moved from my home country after high school to do my bachelor's in Canada. I ended up moving to Germany to do my Master's degree in philosophy of science. In two week's time, I'll be submitting my Master's thesis to receive my degree in physics. Doing two master's degrees instead of moving on to a PhD in philosophy was a really tough call, but I really wanted to take GR and QM at a graduate level.

Now I'm at a crossroads because I failed to receive a scholarship from the International Max Planck Research School. I have a great working relation with my current supervisor and really love the research project we've been collaborating on, but he's been clear from the get-go that he can't guarantee me any funding for a PhD. He's encouraged me to apply everywhere in Germany and to move to another city for a PhD in physics.

I've made up my mind that I don't want to move at all. I've uprooted my life twice to further my academic career, and don't really want to do it again. It's one thing to do it in your 20's, but now that I am in my 30's, I really want to settle down and start a family. Moving all the time for precarious employment won't offer any financial stability to a potential partner, either.

At the same time, even if I do get funding, I've come to terms with the fact that academic wages for PhD students in Germany are straight up garbage. I've worked with blue-collar people who make twice as much from their main job as what I would be making with a funded position. After having worked side jobs for the past five years to put myself through my two Masters' degrees, the very thought of taking an unpaid PhD position to stay in my city makes me want to throw up.

But research and teaching are two of my biggest passions. I don't want to give up on my dream of publishing great papers, and people who know my work keep telling me that I have tremendous potential. I've been thinking about striking it out on my own after I hand in my thesis and getting a full-time job in industry because it's high time I improve my standard of living after having had to hustle for so long. All the same, I want to dust off the 5+ papers I left in the back-burner and submit them for publication. It dawned on me recently that you don't need a PhD to get papers published: Julian Barbour and Freeman Dyson both built successful careers without having graduate degrees. Moreover, the research I am truly invested in getting published is more philosophical and theoretical in nature; you don't need access to a lab for that.

How realistic, then, is this plan? I know it's all up to me in the end, but I am worried that people won't take my paper submissions seriously if I am not actively "working" for a research institution at the time of submission. At the same time, I am worried that deciding to do a PhD a few years later will be even more difficult. But I'm really torn because it feels like a terrible financial decision at this point.

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    "I've come to terms with the fact that academic wages for PhD students in Germany are straight up garbage." This is not true, starting PhD students make 52k€, provided they get full funding: oeffentlicher-dienst.info/c/t/rechner/tv-l/…
    – morxa
    Mar 3 at 10:37
  • It sounds like you have a lot of difficult decisions to make. I think its difficult to answer the question as there are many personal and professional factors at play. Perhaps asking a more specific question could be helpful.
    – realkevlar
    Mar 3 at 18:02

1 Answer 1

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Wow, that’s a tough decision.

TLDR: I promise, it doesn’t matter what field you end up in (e.g. journalist, high tech engineer, technical writer, finance) You will find the topic fascinating as long as you stay on the cutting edge. Stop worrying.

Long version:

that any I would say, but it just my personal thoughts inspired from 40 years post-PhD in physics .

  1. Once a physicist, always a physicist. You have been trained to think like no other field of study. You can’t take out your willingness to imagine there is a better way to do anything. You’re abilities to analytically criticize any idea and naturally realise the scientifically based truth (or falsity) is rare. No matter what you choose to do, you will always have this advantage over your almost all of your peers. This is also a painful liability for you in any inflexible job/environment where the boss’s truth or conventional wisdom is not allowed to be questioned. Beware.

  2. If you don’t get your PhD now, there an approx 90% probability that you’ll never get a chance until after retirement. Those are just stats. How exceptional are you? Enough to beat the stats?

  3. Sadly, having a PhD will often hinder your options for a satisfying career over your lifetime. See next.

  4. B/c of grade inflation in almost all other fields, a PhD is not impressive anymore. In some fields, which I won’t name, almost any average human can get a PhD. It is likely to not be of help to you.

  5. Master degrees make more money over any other education level; true in every field. A LOT more. Many more options are open to you.

  6. The world has moved away from physics research, which has already been mined out (diminishing returns) — unless you have billions of dollars for a large project. Even then, you would work only a tiny piece. The job you want might not exist anymore.

  7. Let’s be serious. Getting any gainful employment in philosophy of science is very competitive. Universities are very ageist ( ie favoring the youngest) when opening a tenure track or research position. If you stray from the most conventional education, like not getting your PhD before age 30, then - worst case scenario.

I’m not trying to discourage you if you’re willing, perhaps driven, to sacrifice, toil, and bet you’re career on a path that requires very good luck to succeed no matter how good you are.


And now for me most important advice of all.

I guarantee that you will find fascination in any field that is experiencing exponential growth. I’ve been a tenured prof of solid state physics, then left to join the software explosion in Silicon Valley, followed by starting as a tech engineer building a new kind of radio telescope, working my way up the ladder till my job title was astrophysicist (ironic b/c I had no interest in astronomy when I started). The capstone of my career was to get in at the ground floor of Machine Learning (with no experience) and finishing with NN and developing amazing new apps with ChatGPT. Which I still do part time.

I apologize for bragging but I do have a point. Forget your graduate research and find a place in the most cutting edge, exponentially growing field that you can. As a physicist, when employers are desperate b/c there aren’t enough people with Bona fides training in a new topic, they will happily hire a physicist b/c we’ve got the ability to learn.

For example, how about doing philosophy of physics in a completely new way that leverages AI. You’ll be the first in the field and anything you do with it is easily publishable. Or extremely valuable to a desperate employer.

I promise, it doesn’t matter what field you end up in (e.g. journalist, high tech engineer, technical writer, finance) You will find it is fascinating and will be happy with your choice.

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  • Thank you so much for your super thoughtful response! It is indeed very inspiring. I was glossing over the 8000 hours website and came across "AI safety" as a very high-impact and important career in demand. Technical knowledge in machine learning topics as well as humainities knowledge in ethics and Bayesian epistemology seem like great assets to break into this field. I'll look into that soon, but first I have to wrap up my dissertation :P Mar 3 at 21:48

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