Why do a PhD in physics?

I recently was asked to speak to a group of potential PhD students about why they would want to do a PhD in physics.  Here are the reasons I came up with:

  1. Curiosity. You’ve just spent the last 4+ years learning about how the universe works based on what others have discovered.  Now it’s your turn to discover something new.  If you’re not fundamentally driven by curiosity about the subject matter, a PhD is going to be a long and difficult road!
  2. Contribution.  You can enjoy that warm fuzzy feeling, knowing that you’re contributing to the sum of human knowledge. The technologies of the future are based on the discoveries of today, including, perhaps, your own.
  3. Skills.  Problem solving, critical thinking, independent investigation, writing: there’s a lot more to a physics PhD than just the maths and the physics.
  4. A job.  A PhD is the minimum requirement for a research or academic career. You won’t ever find someone who tells you that such a career is easy, but plenty will tell you how rewarding it is.  But you don’t have to stick to physics research: there are plenty of other options that would make use of the high level skills you will hone and develop.  Make money working for a bank, or perhaps become prime minister. (The world’s most powerful women has a PhD in physics!)
  5. Travel and meet interesting people.  Somehow physicists arrange to have many of their conferences in very nice locations.  And physicists are interesting, aren’t they?
  6. The title.  If this is one of your main reason for wanting to do a PhD, you should think again!   I admit, however, that it is nice to get the recognition for the hard work, and you might need every scrap of motivation to pull you through those final months of intense thesis-writing.