Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Becoming a Physicist II - The Cost $

One aspect that I didn't discuss in my last post about becoming a physicist is how to finance your education.  Here are some thoughts and advice based on my experience...


Going to college can be expensive.  I know that first hand and this was a huge factor on where I chose to get by bachelor degree.  I didn't have the best grades (yup, that's right - you don't have to be a genius to be a scientist) but they were nothing to sneeze at either.  I ended up getting a large scholarship to a small school in western Maryland that almost no one has ever heard of (Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD) and smaller offers from more notable schools.  I chose Frostburg because I knew when I was in high school that I would need a graduate education to be the kind of physicist I wanted to be.  And, honestly, not many people care where you got your bachelor degree from once you have your doctorate.  A big name school can help you get into a good grad school, but it doesn't carry as much weight as you may think.  At Frostburg, I was truly able to spread my wings and distinguish myself more than I feel I could have at a bigger school.  (However, I don't know that for sure since I never really gave the big schools a chance.)  It was these distinctions that made me attractive to graduate schools (for example, I graduated in less than 4 years with a good GPA).

In the end, I got a good education and into a great graduate program with a minimum of cost.  Overall, I think I made the right choice for me.  Remember, your situation will be different from mine - you need to do what is right for you.


One of the questions I get asked most often when I talk to undergraduates about going to grad school is, "Great...  And how much will that cost me?"  They are almost always surprised when I tell them that you usually get paid to get a graduate degree in physics (or biology, chemistry, astronomy, engineering, etc.).  The only science centered graduate training that I know costs a lot of money is medical school (and since this is what most people are familiar with, they apply the cost for med school to any graduate science training).

When you are accepted into a graduate program (usually Ph.D. - many physics programs, at least, do not require you earn a master degree on your way to your doctorate), you are usually accepted with a tuition wavier (meaning you don't pay any tuition) and a stipend you earn through an assistantship (usually a teaching assistantship in your early years and a research assistantship when you are performing your thesis research).  I paid nothing for my Ph.D.  They paid me to work as a physicist (remember in my last post I mentioned that grad school is more like an apprenticeship than course work? - this is an example of what I meant by that).


When working to become a Ph.D. physicist (or pretty much any scientist other than a medical doctor), the major cost involves getting you bachelor degree.  After you are accepted into grad school, costs like tuition usually disappear and you start getting paid to do what you love (I hope you love it at this point!).

This picture (about Fall 2005) is of me and some of my best friends while we were in grad school.  We all gathered at one of our apartments and made pizza from scratch - crust and all.  It was a great time!  I also like this picture because everyone in this picture ended up getting married!  (The now wife of my friend third in from the left was taking this picture.)  My husband and I are the last two on the right.