There and Back Again
There and Back Again
My Grad School JourneyBy:
Crystal Bailey, APS Education and Careers Program Manager
As part of my job at the American Physical Society (APS), I organize panels of grad students who provide advice and encouragement to physics undergraduates about to embark on the strange journey that is grad school. But I don’t often get to share my own story about physics grad school, which is somewhat of a “cautionary tale.” Let me explain.
I began grad school at Indiana University (IU) in 1999, and, after the most grueling year of my life, I took and, incredibly, passed my qualification exams (“quals”). Three years later, I was working on a cool research project, had finished my coursework, and was poised to begin taking data and writing. Then a few monumental things occurred. My first attempt at doing my experiment failed spectacularly, my already strained relationship with my advisor deteriorated significantly, and my musical partnership with two best friends took off—so much so that I decided to quit graduate school, move to Nova Scotia with my banjo, and “live free.”
After I had been out of the program for three years, I realized that in order to do what I really wanted to do with my life, I had to go back to school and finish my degree. So I returned to IU and started a new project with a fantastic new advisor. Of course, as it was then 2006, I had to retake my quals. The experience was painful; I don’t recommend it. But with that hurdle behind me, I was able to finish in 2009 and continue on to my career at APS.
In my view, the real reason I left graduate school wasn’t the experiment, the advisor, or even my beloved banjo. The real reason I left graduate school was exactly the same reason I started graduate school. With no future career outcome in mind that required PhD training, I had simply been “following my nose.” The fact is that less than 20 percent of physics PhDs eventually find permanent employment in academia, and there are hundreds of wonderful jobs available in the private sector for physics graduates. I didn’t know that. So after years in grad school with no light at the end of the tunnel (i.e., a career I wanted that required a PhD), I went in another direction. I don’t regret that decision. But in order to come back and finish the path—this time for a career I did believe in—I had to work even harder than if I had stuck out my degree in the first place.
The best advice I can give you is to learn about all the different careers out there as soon as possible, discover what you’re interested in pursuing, and plan your degree path accordingly. There are loads of great jobs out there for physics bachelors, masters, and PhDs. The sooner you expand your view to encompass those outcomes, the more informed your decision will be, and the better you will feel about the choices you make along the way. //
Find Your Path
Check out the APS Careers in Physics page at www.aps.org/careers/guidance/.