Working in physics: The best years of your life?

Embarking on a PhD is a daunting prospect for many graduates, and finding out exactly what to expect from a doctorate can be difficult. Michelle Jeandron gets the inside story from five physics PhD students.

Bright future

If you are coming to the end of your undergraduate physics degree, the chances are that you have considered — at least for a brief moment — staying on at university to do a PhD. Careers advisors will give you a host of reasons to take this path: better long-term career prospects; the chance to get paid to do something that you are really interested in; and more time to decide what career path you eventually want to take. But are PhDs really all they are cracked up to be, and what is life actually like for physics graduates who take this option?

The postgraduate experience largely depends on where and what you choose to study — and how well those choices suit you. A PhD usually takes three to four years to complete and at least three of these years will be spent doing hands-on research, so it is important to pick a topic that really interests you, be it medical physics, particle physics or astronomy. You also need to decide whether you would rather spend your days taking measurements in the lab or doing computer modelling or theory; or whether you want to work in a small university department or at a large facility such as CERN. “Being a scientist is hard work, and the requirement is a genuine interest,” says Erik Olofsson, a first-year PhD student at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, whose research involves modelling magnetohydrodynamic systems such as plasmas.

Equally important is that you end up in a location that you like, and that you are among people whom you get on with. “The worst part of my PhD was actually the weather,” says Bo Jayatilaka, who recently completed a PhD at the University of Michigan that involved measuring the mass of the top quark. “By choosing to work in hadron-collider physics, I was committing myself to living in the Chicago area — and so enduring brutal winters — for at least two years.”

Sheila Kanani, who is in the first year of an astrophysics PhD at University College London in the UK researching Saturn’s magnetosphere, believes that it is definitely worth visiting the places that you are thinking of applying to. “Talking to students already there will give you the best, unbiased, view,” she says.

Many physics students decide to embark on further study because they enjoyed their final-year undergraduate project — and indeed the option is often open to stay at the same university to do a PhD, sometimes even with the same supervisor. This has the advantages that you already know the place and at least some of the people whom you will be working with. Louise Wheatland, who is in the second year of a PhD with Lancaster University’s ultra-low-temperature group, chose to go down that path. “During my undergraduate physics degree at Lancaster I did some low-temperature work, which I really enjoyed,” she explains. “I wanted to stay in the city, and if I hadn’t got a place, I probably would have got a job for a year and then tried to reapply.”

Broadening your horizons is no bad thing, however, when it comes to finding the perfect PhD project, and there is no reason why you cannot apply to any university worldwide that has a research group in your area of interest. Indeed, a PhD offers a great opportunity to spend a few years living in a different country, experiencing a new culture and improving your language skills. Going abroad also means that you have a much wider variety of research groups and potential supervisors to choose from.

Subject matters
Having a research topic in mind is absolutely essential when applying for PhD positions in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, since you will usually begin working on your chosen research problem straight away. In the US, however, PhD students spend two years doing coursework and exams in all areas of physics and only then begin proper research.

“Most physics students in the US start their PhDs without a specific research field in mind,” says Jayatilaka. This adds at least an extra year to the process, but it makes the US a good option for those who want to learn a bit more physics before choosing an area to specialize in, or for students who want to undertake a PhD project in an area that they do not have much experience in.

As a PhD student, how you spend your days depends mostly on the nature of your project. Researchers in some theoretical fields spend much of their time working alone, but many PhD students — particularly those doing experimental projects — say that the best thing about their work is how social it is. “In the ultra-low-temperature group we all work together on the experiments, so it’s a nice little community,” says Wheatland.

According to Jayatilaka, teamwork is also at the heart of high-energy physics. “The collaborative and largely social nature of the field was an eye-opening experience for me,” he says. “Getting to live at the facility where the research is done and interact with dozens if not hundreds of people on a regular basis was fantastic.”

Some experiences are common across all locations and fields, however. All PhD students are usually expected to help teach undergraduates by taking tutorials and being lab demonstrators — when they are not being confused with them that is. “I still get mistaken for a fresher every year and asked if I’m lost, and I’ve even been mistaken for an undergraduate in classes where I’m a teaching assistant,” comments Karina Williams, who is in the fourth year of a particle-physics PhD at the University of Durham in the UK. Although perhaps not the most exciting aspect of doing a PhD, teaching does develop valuable communications skills and is a good way to earn extra money, with rates starting from about £10 per hour. “I’m quite a shy person so I’m not too happy about having to do teaching, but it is good personal training,” says Olofsson.

The high life
Money is no longer the problem for science PhD students that it once was, in the UK at least. Most projects will come with a tax-free allowance of at least £12,000 per year. Once tax is taken into consideration, this is nearly as much as many new graduates in the UK earn during their first few years in work. One of the best perks, however, is the opportunity for travel. PhD students are expected to attend lectures, workshops and conferences in their field, many of which take place away from home. “I have only had one full week in the lab so far — all the other weeks I’ve spent at least one day at a lecture or conference in different parts of the country,” says Kanani. “And next year I should get to go to Germany or the US for conferences.” Olofsson agrees: “In the six months since I started my PhD I’ve been to Oxford, Warsaw, and New York.”

If the postgraduate life sounds like the right choice for you, then you can look at available projects on www.findaphd.com, and among the recruitment adverts published by magazines like Physics World. You might also want to visit www.phdcomics.com, a US site featuring a regularly updated comic strip about life as a post-graduate student, which is a good source of light-hearted information about the problems and pitfalls encountered by PhD students.

“The comic strips often mirror exactly what’s happening to me and my office mates at that moment, for example fighting over office space or getting scooped,” says Williams. She also offers this advice to potential new PhD students: “The things that will help you get through the tough bits are your friends and co-workers, or possibly lots of cake. I’m especially lucky as my fellow PhD students are very good at baking cakes.”

About the author
Michelle Jeandron is Reviews and Careers Editor of Physics World.


This article originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Physics World

Image credit: Photolibrary

last edited: July 31, 2014



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The best years of your life?