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Is an MBA more useful than a PhD if I want to keep my options open?

I'm a 3rd year physics major at RIT and still have no idea what I want to do for a living once I graduate. I've heard that our MBA program is great, and I've been enjoying business-related work in my current job. Though I'm not sure what physics and business could combine to make me uniquely qualified for... I'd appreciate any thoughts!

#physics #college #physics-major #mba #phd #business #science #stem

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William (Bill)’s Answer

Given how much it costs to go to most schools, I will only advise a student to get a specific graduate degree only if they have a good idea of what they want to do and know how that degree will help them toward that goal. While an MBA from a top program is a nice thing to have on your resume, hiring managers will be looking at the total set of skills and experiences when considering whether you're someone they want to talk to and bring onto their team.

Having said that - some thoughts about what you can do with a physics degree in business role:
- Data Scientist - as a physicist, you are going to be very comfortable working with large data sets, throwing out bad data, understanding statistics, making hypothesis and drawing relevant conclusions from analyzing the data. Just about any large business these days is swimming in more data than they know what to do with, and many desperately need smart people to comb thru that data, turning it into timely information to make business decisions.
- Financial Modelling - again, your comfort with equations and numbers are skills that most people don't have. You have an understanding that most dynamic systems are non-linear, and that not only applies to physical systems, but markets, economic and social systems as well, so your skills will be valuable to investment banks, as an example.
- Product Management - while you're not an engineer, it should be easy for you to relate to what engineers do, so depending on the industry, your physics experience (particularly if you're an applied physics person and have knowledge of electronics, materials, etc.) could be directly applied into developing and launching products.
- Management Consulting - it might seem totally off the wall to pay a lot of money to have a consultant who has never worked in your industry to come in and tell you what you should do, but almost all large companies have hired firms like McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting Group, etc. to do exactly that. The method to the madness is that those firms pride themselves on identifying and hiring the best and the brightest - people who are intellectually adept and can pick up most anything very quickly - and then rigorously training them. A physics degree from a good school indicates you could have the mental aptitude they're looking for.

Note that for some of the roles I mention above - Financial Modelling, as an example - an MBA would be very helpful. But again, don't bother with the MBA until you know that is at least one of the things you are targeting.

William (Bill) recommends the following next steps:

Think about kind of things that you have no problem in getting excited to dig into, and then investigate jobs in that area.
Talk to as many people as you can about what they do for their job, see if it appeals, and ask about the path it took to get them there.
Find internships, volunteer opportunities, etc. which could give you firsthand experience in the areas you're targeting.
Be open to learning and tackling new things!

Hi William! Thank you so much for your insight. I feel like I have a much better idea of what to look into in order to make this decision Abby L.

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Michelle’s Answer

Hi Abby!

As it so happens, I have an MBA and my partner has a physics PhD! First of all, I would reiterate the advice that you should choose the career first, then pursue the schooling to get you there. However, I assume you're either not sure about opportunities or just exploring since you've asked the question in this way--so glad you're taking the time to weigh your options! I see Bill provide you with a great list of potential careers and others made the important suggestion to get some real-world experience before pursuing an MBA.

Since your interests happen to align so well with my and my partner's experience, here's a snap-shot of what our careers look like. Keep in mind this is ONLY our experience, but it may give you a jumping-off point in researching things you hadn't yet considered in each path:

Me: MBA, business associate for a global corporation (basically an internal consultant helping solve business problems)
Partner: PhD Physics, faculty at a university

Other careers I considered/had available: consulting, non-profit administration
Other careers partner considered/had available: high school education, industry research
Who went to school longer? Partner
Who has more student debt? Me
Who makes more money? Me
Who works longer hours? Probably about the same
Who has more time off? Partner
Who travels more? Me
Who has more promotion opportunity? Me
Who has more overall job opportunity? Me
Who has more work-related stress? Probably also about the same
Where I work: In a big shared office, from home, at airports, in hotels...basically anywhere I need to
Where my partner works: In a university classroom, his lab, his office
A typical work day in my life: meetings/conference calls, analyzing data, defining problems, developing strategy, creating presentations and proposals, negotiating, networking
A typical work day in my partner's life: teaching, grading, developing curriculum, research, writing/editing/reviewing/publishing, seeking funding, department service, mentoring students

Even though this is very anecdotal, I hope it helps a little in helping you think about what a career in each path might look like. Best of luck with this exciting decision!

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Stephen’s Answer

I agree with Bill that it's better to start with a career in mind and get the required education, vs. starting with education. This is especially true in business. I would not recommend getting an MBA unless you have a specific role in mind which requires it. There is an exception: if you are fascinated with a narrow domain, and are okay spending time becoming exceptional at a niche, you can become very highly qualified for a small number of jobs, vs. simply qualified for a large number of things. If you spend 5-6 years on, e.g., physics research, you will develop a few broadly applicable skills while becoming a true expert in something. In general, a PhD prepares you to be a professor, so in that sense, it gives you fewer options. However, certain fields--including physics--have better "industry" prospects for PhD grads.

The best way to keep options open is likely work experience! Do you see roles related to the one you're doing now which interest you? In addition to what you're learning about science, you also are getting practical experience thinking critically and working with data. There is a tremendous and growing need for "data literate" businesspeople as the amount of data we use to make decisions grows exponentially. Physics can lead to anything from the simply ability to think analytically and solve strategic problems to in-depth hard skills you use to design or implement machine learning algorithms.

Stephen recommends the following next steps:

Research careers related to your current education and experience.
Develop a career goal and take steps that help you develop the skills needed in that career. You might develop skills in your current job, in your next job, through independent coursework, or through a new degree. It's okay if you change your career goal later!
If you are seriously considering a PhD, research it as much as you can. It is a long term commitment, more like starting a career than taking an incremental step in your education.
Have confidence! You are setting yourself up for success, learning skills that will apply in a variety of settings.

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Larissa’s Answer

In my experience in the workforce, companies value experience over education. An MBA or PhD is not a shoe-in for your dream job, it definitely helps but you will need the experience. My advice would be to figure out what you truly want to do in your career path and think about an MBA or a PhD further down the road.

It is totally okay to not know what you want to do for a living, and you won’t really have an idea about what motivates you or what you are passionate about until you start actually doing the work.

The great thing about education, is that you can go back to school anytime you want. Don’t feel obligated to continue your education right after you graduate from college. There are so many great options for pursuing a graduate degree virtually, and again, in my experience, is much more valuable after you have been in the workforce for a little bit!

Lastly, start off slow with your career while you can! Take this time to explore the workforce and get a feel for what you’re truly passionate about. Often times people jump into high-paying jobs where they get little to no fulfillment, buy a new car or house, etc. and then find it harder to change jobs or career paths due to financial reasons. Find the career you truly want first, and with any luck you may find a company who will pay for you to further your education!

Good luck!

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John’s Answer

A Phd will limit you to specific positions and companies. An MBA broadens your capabilities and opportunities and the technical background from physics aides this. If you're interested in teaching at a University or working in a research company then PhD is needed. If business courses excite you and you're interested in business, people, management, communication and job flexibility then MBA path would be better.

John recommends the following next steps:

Chat with people from both paths. This will help you understand how their jobs are.

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Daniel’s Answer


I would advise you to look at pursuing a minor at RIT and joining a couple on-campus specialized interest clubs as a way to direct your physics major into a career direction. If you have excellent grades, the right PhD will cost you nothing...in fact all your tuition will be covered and you will be paid an annual stipend in exchange as a Research Assistant and a little work as a teaching assistant. In your field, specialization is key. There are a ton of opportunities in Material Science and Engineering, and your university probably has minor degrees in a number of MatSE fields. Just about all of the top technology companies employ MatSE PhD & MS graduates. You may still have time to get a MatSE internship for this summer, and for sure the summer after you graduate. The Department of Energy National Labs (11 of them) all hire college students for summer internships and pay big money. There you will see lots of opportunities to work on the most important problems of the 21st century. MBA's are a dime a dozen (I have one), and you have to either pay thousands for them or your employer might reimburse you if you are willing to work two full time jobs (daytime and school) for a few years. The value of an MBA is seen when you are ready to move into management. Until then it is just a piece of very expensive paper. I shepherded my son through this entire MatSE process from college to a National Lab and on to graduate school, where his cohort includes graduates with either MatSE, Physics, or Chemistry degrees.

Daniel recommends the following next steps:

Review RIT's catalogue of minors with an eye to Materials Science & Engineering - RIT offers a minor in Surface Mount Electronics Manufacturing
Find on-campus clubs that are aligned with MatSE in industry and academia - Quick look found Materials Research Society
Research the DOE National Labs to see the amazing research they are doing - especially Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia, Oak Ridge, & Argonne
Look at your schedule through graduation and see if you can handle the addition of classes to achieve a minor degree
Check out the summer internships at the DOE National Labs

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Eric’s Answer

A Physics degree combined with an MBA will provide you with greater flexibility to pursue a variety of jobs post graduate school. If you decide to go the PhD route in Physics, you will be more specialized in the field of Physics (and science) . The alternative is to pursue an MBA whereas after graduate school, you will have a broader range of opportunities to continue a career in science, in business or both. Regardless of which path you decide to pursue, a graduate degree can expose you to additional opportunities beyond just having a bachelor's degree. Good luck!

Eric recommends the following next steps:

Research the work and typical day of a data scientist
When you research MBA programs, inquire about ones that combine a Physics/Science concentration

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Jon’s Answer

I concur with what the advice the others provided. I did not go back and get my MBA until my late thirties after I was well entrenched in my field of choice, contact center operations. I knew the opportunities I wanted to explore. I had 10 years of experience in the field at a junior/mid management level and wanted to take my career to the next level. My MBA absolutely helped me do that, but again, it was within the context of my experience and education at the time. If you asked me when I was 19 what I would be doing when I was 39, I would have been way off. Take the time to get some experience under your belt and find out what makes you tick. If it is a particular discipline where a PHD is applicable, then so be it. Heck, you may find that you end up in a discipline other than Physics and get your PHD there. And one more piece of advise....Travel. I know that is tough right now but the perspectives I was able to gain from others across the world has been so important to my own development. Best of luck.

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Simeon’s Answer

I believe an MBA would be more of an alternative to your degree to open up your job prospects rather than necessarily something that will combine well with it. PhD is a little bit of a trap these days; all of my professors in graduate school recommended against the PhD route. There is a glut of PhD graduates who are floating around looking for any kind of professor work that will open up. I wish schools were more transparent about the opportunities they will have post graduation. Institutions make every degree sound valuable for obvious reasons. I'd recommend looking at job boards for your area to see how your degree options match up against the real companies out there that are hiring. Check out the prerequisites for the open positions.

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Ashwin’s Answer

A Ph.D is usually the logical next step if and only if one knows what is the area they want to focus on. Different specializations have different degrees during undergrad or postgrad but the highest degree across all specializations is a Ph.D. They are called Doctor of Philosophy because a. It is awfully hard to get a Ph.D b. Because of how hard it is, folks who do get this have a very balanced view of life and are put in positions of responsibilties like a teacher or scientist.
Consider a Ph.D only when you have identified the specific area or problem that is going to be the focal point of your life for the next 3-5 years. If it is exposure to multiple areas you can consider doing an MBA (if your focus is business/management related) or a Masters program (sciene/technology related) that is only course based (and not thesis based - meaning you dont need to submit a written thesis on a specific topic).
A dissertation based Masters is a good preview of what a Ph.D is likely to be.

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John’s Answer

Hi, the other posters have this pretty much covered, and I agree with John Oller's points in particular. I would add, in my experience, only consider an MBA once you have some relevant experience under your belt to get the most out of MBA studies. This is certainly true of European MBAs (posting from Europe, not the US) anyway. This comes from having an MBA, working with MBA alumni and hiring them.

John recommends the following next steps:

Get real world work/leadership experience first to get most value from an MBA -anything and everything is probably relevant, from leading a football team to volunteering opportunities