Graduate School/PHD Chances

My son graduated from a top public university in 2021 with a double major in Physics and Astronomy. His career goals post grad at the time were to attend a university to pursue a doctorate in physics. After receiving his doctorate he planned to stay in academia as a professor at a university to continue his research. After attending 1 semester as a graduate assistant working towards his doctorate at another top public university, his career goals changed as he realized the amount of work and effort needed not to mention the political aspects of working at a university as a professor was not for him. He started his 2nd semester, but it did not go well with his classes. He attempted to drop his physics classes, but was unable to do so due to the fact that he was a TA. For him to continue to get paid and fulfill his contract with the school, he had to be enrolled in his physics classes. He continued his TA job through the end of the Spring semester, but stopped going to his physics classes, which his father and I thought was a big mistake. He said after talking with his advisor, that it wasn’t a big deal that he would basically receive an F in those classes. Maybe we were wrong, but my husband and I told him that his transcript will follow him for the rest of his life if he plans to try and attend another university in the future. My son, doesn’t seem to think this is a big deal. We are very worried about his future. He is a very bright kid. Perfect SAT score, perfect GMAT score, took all APs in high school, received 5’s on all his AP tests, National Merit Finalist, and Honors program at his undergraduate college. He returned home for the summer as he is trying to figure things out. He has applied to numerous jobs that require a physics degree, but has been unsuccessful. No one has gotten back to him after his initial application was submitted. He is currently doing some coursework to receive certification that would allow him to be better equipped to apply for a job in data science as that is what he is currently looking at doing. He has also said he may return to school at some point to pursue a masters or change his subset of physics and try the doctorate program again. My question is would he have a chance at applying to grad school if he basically failed out during his first attempt?

Your son’s advisor told him that missing all of those physics classes and getting an F was not a big deal? Am I understanding this correctly? He was still able to be a successful TA despite missing all of these classes?

I am so sorry that this happened. PhD programs are difficult, stressful, and often anxiety producing. It is not uncommon to think about dropping out. Some come very close. There are labs out there that come with tremendous stress. It sounds like your son had difficulty coping (very very common) and received some poor advice from his advisor (or he misinterpreted the advice).

You are correct in that any future grad school applications will ask for all transcripts, and the F will be included. There is no way around that as schools will ask for every transcript for every class/school attended. He will eventually have to explain the F if he applies to schools in the future.

I would encourage your son to forget about grad school for now. Eventually he will find a job- can he reach out to undergrad profs? Once he works for a few years, gains some coping skills, and gets some good references under his belt, he can pursue grad school again. He will be able to address the F in his personal statement.

Young adults in their 20’s make mistakes - it doesn’t matter how smart they are. I know it must be difficult to see your smart, successful son deal with this problem.

I suspect that once he has better coping skills to deal with life stress, has several years of work experience etc, he will be in a better position to apply to schools and explain his mistake. While some programs may hold this against him, my guess is that others might not.
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At this point, the F’s are baked in, and he has decided that grad school (at least for now) is not for him. So why not move forward, not look back?

What type of courses is he taking right now- an actual certificate program or just an informal mish-mash of classes? The advantage of an official program is that career services at those universities are set up to help the program participants find a job… quickly!

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Kind of surprised that he was required to TA his first year. Many STEM PhD programs do not require this. Also, my impression is that most STEM PhDs do not go into academia. There are so many opportunities out there that pay more and don’t involve university politics and the pursuit of tenure.

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Yes, that’s what his advisor told him. Of course we’re only getting one side of the story. He did continue his TA responsibilities for his classes through the end of the summer and received payment. I can confirm this as I saw the deposit come through on his bank statement.

I think you are correct about the coping skills. It’s just so hard as a parent to watch all this unfold. He is a very private person as it is so he doesn’t share a lot of information with us.

He is taking online courses that will result in a certificate to beef up his programing skills a bit in python. Not sure what school it is through.

It’s very hard to watch it unfold, I agree. Part of the problem is that they are young and will make mistakes. As a parent it is hard. Also- some are just not ready emotionally to begin a PhD program at the age of 22. These programs often come with a tremendous amount of stress.

This is a blip in the road. He will eventually work, and as time passes things will improve.

He had to TA 2 classes each semester so yes, that was another level of stress that he had to deal with and try to figure in to his course load. He basically had zero time for anything other than school. His physics subset was theoretical physics and for several years he thought he wanted to pursue being a professor at a university and do research despite my husband I trying to tell him about the politics involved and how it would be a very long process to try and reach tenure, but he thought he knew better and it’s his life. Once in the program his eyes were opened and he saw other opportunities in the public sector where he could make a lot more money with less stress to get there. It’s just hard seeing him go through this. I know he’s feeling a bit depressed about the situation not going as he had planned.

In most respectable graduate programs an “F” equals expulsion. So, I cannot imagine his advisor would give him that advise. Anything less than a B or LP will lead to probation and a second one will lead to expulsion.
I am sorry to hear this. The good think is he can easily retrain in a tangential field of work. I would not worry too much at this point. More important to set a course and make sure he can handle it.

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Yes, at some point you have to let them make their own decisions.

My son is starting his fifth year of his PhD pursuit in aerospace engineering/applied physics. He is on track to get his PhD next May, with a PhD in scientific computing co-designation. He started out with some thoughts of a university career, but very quickly set his sights on industry or a publicly funded research lab. He has enjoyed his association with NASA’s JPL.

Your son is way ahead of me, Mr. Bad Example. I didn’t finish college until I was 30 and then got both a law degree and an MBA in the next decade, 150 credits mostly while working full time. My poor dad had just about given up on me.

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There are many opportunities outside of academia for a physics PhD. For physics undergrad… much less, especially in research.

Anyway to ‘salvage’ the experience and earn a Masters before he leaves? (Quitters are not well-received in the job market.)

Yup, that is to be expected if he was TA’ing as well as taking his own classes and getting involved in research.

My company hires “quitters” all the time, as have virtually every other place I’ve ever worked in corporate recruiting.

In the business world people understand the “sunk cost fallacy”. In academia, people stay in doctoral programs because “I’ve already put so much time into this, I might as well write my dissertation at this point.” That’s not how businesses function- you launch a product, it doesn’t do well, you assemble the data and the research to figure out why, and then you retool. If it still doesn’t work- cut your losses and move on.

I applaud the OP’s son for realizing- before he invested another 5 years- that a doctorate was not for him right now. Time to pivot and reboot, and it sounds exactly what he’s doing.

He didn’t quit. He learned that he needed a different kind of challenge, and so that’s what he’s pursuing. Honestly- this isn’t a 9 year old who wants to give up soccer because the coach is mean- this is an adult.

OP- if your son is looking at Data science/programming type roles, in an interview he will spend 30 seconds on “I started a grad program and decided it wasn’t for me” and then talk about all the other great things he’s done.

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People leave graduate programs all the time- it’s not unusual. As long as it is done properly and for the right reasons, it will not be an issue. The problem here is the F. The student will have to explain this if he returns to school down the road. Young adults make mistakes.

I see no reason why he would not be able to find a job within the next few months. The fact that he left a program that was not right for him will not be a problem.

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Your son has not withdrawn from the program/school, right? I wonder if that F can be changed to an ‘incomplete’ ? It sounds like he was not told of the options that were/are available to him; he might want to talk with the department chair, dean, etc.

of course people realize academic life may not be for them. But that is different than signing up for a course/program, and then just stopping (aka ‘quitting’, or not even trying) all class work bcos he doesn’t like it. Not a great message to future employers.

Now, the odds are that it would not come up in a job interview, but a sub-3.0 in a grad program can be a huge red flag.

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Great message to future employers- “I am so excited to learn more about this role doing XXX. I took a wrong turn after college, thinking I wanted to be an academic but my coursework in YYY showed me where my real interests are.”

Own it, move on. And then nobody is asking “What was your GPA in the grad program”.

Honestly, I’ve interviewed HUNDREDS of people who have left grad programs mid-way for all sorts of reasons and it’s not even a “pink flag” let alone a red flag.

A red flag- four jobs lasting less than a year each, and the narrative is “I learned that I hated that field”. You might have learned that after one job in a field you hated. A red flag- completing a doctorate, never getting anything but three post-doc posts, followed by a few years as an adjunct, followed by realizing you need to pivot professionally. If it takes 10 years to realize you need to pivot- that’s a red flag (but still understandable given the job market in academia right now).

The OP’s son? Not even on the radar as a red flag.

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He will get a job and move on. The problem will be if he applies to graduate schools in the future. He will have to explain the F. At that point he will be older, wiser, with employers who can write letters of recommendation. Some schools may hold this against him, but others may not.

One step at a time. He needs/wants to regroup and work. Leaving school will not be an issue when he goes on interviews. If asked what he did for the year he will say he was in a PhD program and realized it was not for him.

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Thank you so much for putting this into perspective for me!

He has withdrawn from the program.

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