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I was a Physics undergrad+ Physics / Materials Science PhD and I ended up just quitting 4 years into my PhD. You can do it too. You don't owe your advisor anything and you've definitely put in your indentured servitude. I ended up getting a job as a data analyst / scientist and never looked back. You can work on interesting problems, use the same experimental design knowledge and methods, and get paid $100k more than a grad student.

Four years? Is it common for a Physics PhD to take that long? I thought most fields are closer to two years.

Four years would be on the very short end these days. Most doctoral programs in math and the sciences are a MINIMUM of four years, with average terms creeping up to 6. Never say never, but a 2-year doctorate is pretty much unheard-of.

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.

Don't some universities give MS diplomas out to people who make it so far in the program, but drop out before getting their PhD as a kind of "well, here's something for your work"?

Yeah those are usually referred to as "terminal masters", meaning that you terminated your education with as MS.

"terminal masters" more usually refers to a field where a Masters degree is the highest attainable degree, like a Masters of Fine Art (there is no Doctorate of Fine Art).

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.

That's been true for awhile. After I graduated in the late '80s I wanted to go back to school for a masters degree and was politely informed by multiple universities they were only looking for students who intended to get a PhD.

Ah I must have been mixing up Masters and PhD.

Stats for European schools can also be different. I know of some that have short PhD programs but require you complete a masters before applying.

I took 7 years from the start of grad school to my PhD. The main reason was that my first thesis project was an utter failure.

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.

My best friend and I both did PhDs in astronomy starting at the same time, me in the UK, him in the US. I completed in 4 years, he took 9 years.

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.

Indeed, my graduate coursework was full time for 2 years, and the failed thesis project probably cost me 3 years.

Luckily, AIP has a survey for this as well!


Only 3% of surveyed physics PhDs took 4 years, nobody took less and 6-7 years was average.

My Ph.D. took 9 years from start of M.S. program til defense.

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.

People who go straight from undergrad to PhD often take 5+ years (in the states and Canada, at least), especially in the experimental fields

For many in experimental tracks, when I was in graduate school for a physics PhD, 4 years seemed like the shortest you could get out in. There were a lot of people that started immediately at 22 and were almost 30 by the time they were ready to graduate.

If you go straight from undergrad into a PhD track four years is a reasonable minimum, yes. You can at some institutions at least opt to take an MS along the way (as I did) after your two years of graduate level course work is completed, and then continue to complete the PhD.

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