I really regret going to grad school for physics, I gave up a lot of earning potential, time to develop new skills and I've forgotten a lot of my CS background. Most methods in my area have already been developed and the pressure to publish (pushy advisor, several projects not producing the intended results, and proposal writing) has always been hampering away at my free time to think. I really dislike this system. At the same time, I'm sure exists in industry too (never had a real job). I'm not going lie, I feel a bit trapped, but I'm still a fairly positive person.
In the sciences, grad school is sold as a necessity but I'm starting to think this is a way of fueling the ivory tower.
I realize that this is a bit incoherent/ranty, but whatever. :)
I know a lot of graduate students and early professors who have a fear of private industry. I think they all know they can make more money outside of academia, but they don't realize they can work fewer hours and not have worry about a bad tenure committee screwing up their careers. A bad boss can make my work life suck, but he'll need to work hard to completely nuke my career.
Anyway, I understand how you feel. Despite my lackluster GPA, a couple professors want me to go on for a masters in math or statistics. You should see their faces contort when I tell them I don't want to go to graduate school or I don't want a career in academia.
You spent your life in academia, surrounded by people who spent their lives in academia, who have surrounded themselves with people who spent their lives in academia. Get some fresh air, fill your bank account, and then decide.
Some people think of this as 2 years for a Masters and 2 more for PhD, but in practice most hard science programs don't really offer a true Masters program. When I got my doctorate, a bunch of us figured out we could apply to get our MS diploma after we finished our coursework -- hardly anyone in the PhD program had ever bothered before. We all got them and put them on our desks as a kind of inside joke.
Although searching Google - I can find references to the usage you're giving.
But, I fully agree that a Masters in a hard science, especially from a top research school, is almost always a consolation prize for those who drop out. My program would not accept students into the program for a Masters, it was PhD only, unless you dropped out.
My impression from talking to a lot of people, is that the European schools simply manage the PhD process to make sure it doesn't drag out too long. It's expected to be shorter, so it's shorter.
The big difference was that the PhD in the UK launched you straight into research on day 1. No teaching, no courses. He spent the first couple of years in courses, and a lot of time throughout the degree in teaching. In some ways I envied his coursework, since I was basically on my own from the start (his grad courses sounded very thorough and interesting). However I do not envy the 5 extra years it took him.
That was all a couple of decades ago now, so things may have changed.
Only 3% of surveyed physics PhDs took 4 years, nobody took less and 6-7 years was average.
I was, relatively, fast at it as well. M.S. was 2 years. Ph.D. was 4 years of research, 3 years of writing. Though I spent the last 2 years of writing ABD working full time for a "startup".
I really enjoyed my time in grad school. I was a computational physicist, doing molecular dynamics. The reason I went into academia was lack of professor positions . The writing was on the wall. So I decided to go the industrial route.
With the impending closure of my latest venture, I am looking around at options, and am actively interviewing. As it turns out, it looks like my thesis advisor is retiring at my alma mater, and they have an open position.
I am thinking deeply as to whether or not I really want to do physics. The pay is terrible, and I am marked as an "undesirable" as I had left academia.
I'll keep looking for my next place. This said, the Ph.D. was a good thing to do. I learned a tremendous amount, not just about a narrow area, but how to compute, measure, and reason about things that are complex.
Seems like this is in demand now. Makes me happy.
One thing - if you decide to move to industry, make sure the first years you can learn from someone more talented than you - even if informally. This is critical, software is a craft.
I spent 7 years in grad school, then quit without a PhD. I don't regret it for a minute. I managed to spend 7 years studying topics that interest me, that I will not get to study had I gone straight into industry. Sure, while working you may have some spare time to study some math/physics. But nowhere near at the level you could/did in grad school. There's really no comparison.
If you're not happy in grad school, perhaps:
1. You don't like your research topic.
2. You don't like your advisor.
As an example, I did not have a very pushy advisor, so I learned what I did in a very relaxed manner. Bad idea if I were to end up in academia as a career, but it worked out great for me.
It does suck not finishing the PhD, but once I was in industry, I saw the jobs that most PhDs in my research topic would have ended up with - and most of those jobs are horrible. I worked with them for 4 years, and moved into programming. While the satisfaction of solving really challenging problems is no longer there, the programming job overall really is much better: More autonomy, more creativity, better work schedule, etc.
But bottom line: Grad school is for learning the stuff you are passionate about. If you're not doing that, either change your topic/advisor, or leave.
Sounds like you have plenty of "real job" experience ;-)