The Quantum Pontiff

Leaving Academia: Cry or Celebrate?

No, no, I’m not leaving academia (yet :) Pfffffft! That’s the sound of me thumbing my nose at the world.) But recently I was thinking about about people who get a Ph.D. in, say, physics, or are a new postdoc, and then are faced with what to do next. As Peter Rhode, writes in a post today (or whatever day it is in the upside down part of the world) entitled “Farewell physics”:

The academic system has some serious problems. Most notably in my opinion, there is very limited scope for promotion. For every permanent position there are countless postdocs competing for that position. It simply isn’t possible for all of us post-docs to progress right up through the ladder. Many of us will be stuck as postdocs for the indefinite future. Realistically, I could expect to spend the next 5 or even 10 years as a post-doc before a permanent position would come along, and even then I would have very little control over where I would end up. I’ve seen many outstanding colleagues in exactly this position….

There is a huge salary discrepancy between academia and the private sector. With the same qualifications one can earn twice as much in the private sector than as a post-doc.

Peter, like others before him, has decided that the academic rat race is not the path he wants to take, and is therefore heading out for greener pastures. Of course my first reaction, I’ll admit, is one of sadness: I’ve read some papers by Dr. (err DJ) Rhode, and enjoyed them. By contributing to quantum information science, he’s become part of a community I consider myself a (annoying, loud, insert random invective here) member of. But, in thinking about this, I realized, that I’ve got it all wrong.

For why should I feel sad that someone has contributed to a field, and is now going to move on to a new endeavor? Of course I understand why I feel sad: for many of us climbing up the academic ladder in physics and achieving academic success is a dream we’ve had for many years. And as a dream, it’s deeply ingrained in how we view our own identity, and giving it up is rarely, I think, an easy decision. But isn’t this what is wrong with the physics academic rat race? I mean, in a perfect world I’d like for there to be a cornucopia of academic positions, but since there isn’t, should we be more realistic and instead of feeling sad for those who leave physics, wish them luck and hope that that the education they’ve received will help them succeed in their next endeavor.

And indeed this brings me another point about a question Peter asks in his blog post: how to fix the academic system in physics? Personally, I’m skeptical that there is a way to fix it in terms of supply and demand, but I do think there is something missing from physics post Ph.D.: the celebration of those who’ve succeeded beyond the ivory tower. It’s not like there is a dearth of physicists who’ve left academia and are wildly successful outside of physics. But, as you struggle through getting your Ph.D. in physics, how many times did these examples come up? I’ll bet not much at all (besides as a hazy background murmur that there are jobs on Wall Street.) Indeed I’d say there is even a hard core group of physicists who don’t consider those I’ve linked to above successful because they didn’t revolutionize physics. That, to me, is simply silly.

I guess I’m also very biased in this whole issue because I see a strong causal link between obtaining a high degree of education, represented here by a Ph.D. in physics, and future success. This was particularly drilled into me while I was an undergraduate a Caltech, in large part due to my exposure to donors to the institution. These were people who had achieved great things but who also saw great value not just in the research potential Caltech represented, but in the human capital of industrious, hard-work, creative students at the university. And many of them had their Ph.D.s in science fields but were most definitely not stuck in academia. I’m baised also because I’m a big believer that a good physics education isn’t just about learning quantum field theory, but is also about developing a good nose for the scientific method, and a strong problem solving skill set. I value higher education for the intellectual challenge it represents and the desire to push progress forward. Which is not to minimize the actual research that comes out of academia: I’m just saying there is another facet of the system which doesn’t get stressed strongly enough.

So while it’s natural for a community to think of the loss of a member in negative terms, it seems to me that this is actually counter productive. And I look forward to the great lives those who move to new endeavors…maybe by the time they succeed academic departments will actually want to use them as example of the value of the education they offer.

Comments

  1. #1 JohnQPublic
    June 25, 2008

    Personally, I think you’re better off in academia. The corporate pyramid is equally small at the top and there is just as much, if not more, demand for it–and in the private sector you get there by your salesmanship, by learning the tricks of lawyers, not by your academic achievements or intellectual prowess. It only to those who the real change in salary comes.

    But a drain on our academic brain trust is not in the best interest of progress. If I had a choice, I would pick a place in history, however small, over corporate achievement.

  2. #2 Ian Durham
    June 25, 2008

    I wonder about this, though. We have *two* open tenure-track faculty positions in math (first advertised last fall) and until recently we had 3-year position in CS. I have worked hard to recruit a QIS person for at least one of these positions (with my cross-disciplinary background I got goaded into serving on all the hiring committees). We offered two prominent QIS post-docs a position in the math department and were turned down. Granted, the salary and research money may not be commensurate with larger research universities, but we *have* been averaging about a 7% per year salary increase lately. Are people really that reluctant to consider liberal arts colleges? Bill Wootters, Ben Schumacher, Michael Horne, Alex Wilce, and others have all made a successful career out of teaching at liberal arts colleges so I’m a little surprised.

  3. #3 Julie Stahlhut
    June 25, 2008

    Ian — it may be that some of the people turning down the offers are just not all that interested in teaching, which would make them a poor fit for a liberal-arts college anyway.

  4. #4 Coriolis
    June 25, 2008

    I have to say that in my eyes as a grad student in physics, the biggest problem I see is the overwhelming amount of bullshit that physics professors have to deal with (I guess especially in solid state which is what I like). It seems to me that professors are forced to spend far too long writing proposals, worrying about getting more grant money and attending useless meetings on non-physics stuff. Knowing how much effort and ability is required to succeed, and to think that even after all that I’d be stuck probably 40-60% of my time doing things other then working or discussing physics problems… is just too much. I don’t mean teaching btw, which is quite fun and interesting in it’s own way, but the endless grant-writing and associated nonsense. And of course being in a big research-oriented public school teaching isn’t much of an emphasis anyways.

    I don’t mind the structure of few people at the top – that is always true in practically anything. But, if you’re going to give up the much bigger salaries in the private sector and work like crazy, like most physics professors I know, then damn, at least you should be able to do the work instead of spending inordinate amounts of time dealing with bullshit.

  5. #5 Domenic
    June 25, 2008

    This is an issue rather close to me, as detailed in a comment on Aaronson’s open blog post that was pretty much ignored. But first, lemme answer Ian’s question:

    Are people really that reluctant to consider liberal arts colleges?

    Well, probably, yes! I myself have a rather visceral gut reaction to the idea of being employed at a liberal arts college, even after only two years here at Caltech as an undergraduate. I couldn’t imagine myself trying to work in such an environment—in a large part because of the interests of the students. I mean, I would want to teach advanced classes that people think are fascinating, instead of introductory classes that students quite likely could care less about. And I would want to be able to engage students (undergrads and grads) as researchers, instead of having them do whatever philosophy majors do during their summer.

    (Keep in mind this is just my gut reaction, so there might be some big misconceptions lurking there.)

    Anyway, I think I agree with Coriolis, and also want to challenge JohnQPublic’s statements since you don’t need to climb the ladder to have fun in the corporate world—being a programmer is great, if you’re working on the right project!

  6. #6 Dave Bacon
    June 25, 2008

    Domenic, I to would probably have had the same reaction you had while I was at Caltech. However, having met a plethora of amazing graduates from liberal arts schools in grad school, I can pretty definitively say that, at least for the top liberal arts school, your view is pretty misplaced ( ;) ) In fact I’d say the track record of the top liberal arts schools in producing first rate scientists is amazingly good.

  7. #7 Dave Bacon
    June 25, 2008

    Of course, I was a literature major :)

  8. #8 Joe
    June 25, 2008

    It is weird that leaving academia after grad school or a postdoc is often seen in a negative or sad light, when, as Coriolis points out, it’s the best time to get out from an admin-work point of view. (Not sure it can work any other way, as $$$ is involved…) The lack of admin-work for grad students and postdocs is essentially a gift from those higher in the hierarchy (well, it’s a gift if your position/boss lets you do more or less what you want), so it seems like you should *have* to pay it back….

  9. #9 Travis
    June 25, 2008

    People go into physics because they love doing physics. What I realized is that many professors are essentially managers, and they spend very little time actually doing physics. If I’m going to be a manager, why not do it in an environment that’s less dysfunctional, that respects my time more, and pays me more (the last two things are, not surprisingly, connected).

    Major research universities often publicly claim that professors should spend roughly a third of their time on teaching, a third on research, and a third on service. In practice, the “research” slice of the pie is larger, but much of what counts as “research” is actually just grant paperwork. The result is that a professor might only have 10 – 15 hours a week to spend on science. In a fast-moving field like quantum information, that’s barely enough to keep up with the field and what your own group is doing, so you only have a few hours a week to spend on your own research.

    In other words, many professors are managers who do their own research as a hobby.

    I wonder whether a reduction in grant paperwork would translate into an increase in research, or just a decrease in total number of hours worked.

  10. #10 Travis
    June 25, 2008

    JohnQPublic: post-doc salary is not enough to raise a family on in many parts of the country. Starting salary for a physics PhD on Wall Street or in consulting is enough. Even if you never get promoted beyond the first stage, you can live comfortably in the corporate world, but not as a post-doc.

    Let’s say your 27 and have just gotten your PhD. You want to have a family. You can either go down a career path that may well leave you too poor to have a family and ten years older with nothing to show for it, or you can take a path that will support a family right off the bat. The latter choice is pretty tempting even for a man with no biological clock.

    I haven’t even gotten into the other attractive aspects of consulting or Wall Street, although those are more subjective.

  11. #11 Ian Durham
    June 25, 2008

    Domenic,

    Actually, I doubt Bill Wootters teaches many introductory courses at Williams and he regularly publishes papers in PRA co-authored by undergraduates. Even I teach more upper-level courses than introductory ones and I’m at a small school (I taught a course solely on quantum cryptography this past spring).

    On the other hand, I think really putting my heart and soul into these introductory courses from time to time has made me a better researcher and I think there are simple, basic truths that are too often forgotten by physicists who never encounter them and we end up violating Ockham’s (Occam’s) Razor too often.

    Still, teaching isn’t for everyone and you have to be dedicated to it to be successful. At least one of the two candidates who turned us down seemed very, very interested in both teaching and research – his teaching portfolio was excellent and he professed a definite interest in it.

    Nonetheless, the vast majority of the students I teach are in science or engineering and the physics department has just under thirty students (out of just under 2000 at the college) about half of whom are pure physics majors with the other half being pre-engineering (i.e. in a 3-2 program).

    In any case, I’ll repeat it for anyone who is interested: 2 tenure-track positions in the mathematics department with the chance to build a small quantum information group with myself, one of my colleagues in physics, and one of my colleagues in chemistry (perhaps someone in CS soon too).

  12. #12 Dave Bacon
    June 25, 2008

    Travis: I object a little to the “10 years” and nothing to show, because you’ll have something to show for it. It’s just not the kind of thing that, as you say, has much to do with the normal course of life :)

    I’m also a bit skeptical of the joys of consulting, but that’s just because I’ve seen too many friends burn out of it (however, I know few who burned out of quant jobs. Yet. Maybe the great bubble popping sound will cause some forced burn out.)

  13. #13 Domenic
    June 25, 2008

    Thanks, Dave and Ian, for correcting my misconceptions! I’ll keep that in mind going forward.

  14. #14 JohnQPublic
    June 25, 2008

    “you don’t need to climb the ladder to have fun in the corporate world—being a programmer is great…”

    No argument at all. Indeed, I loved programming and still do. But over the course of many years you either have to make your place in a wider world somehow or you will find yourself in the dilemma of being considered an old codger who did not advance. It is rather like having a house on the market too long–its value declines just by the fact it has not sold and people ask why? The same will be asked of you: why did you not advance?

    “…post-doc salary is not enough to raise a family on in many parts of the country.”
    Sadly, this is true. I fully appreciate that situation. I can offer nothing other than to note just how wrong it is that academia is so undervalued. But there is always the prospect of parlaying some bit of inside knowledge into good money later (as I know some of my acquaintances did such as Bob Braden and others did who developed TCP/IP at UCLA in the early seventies.) Don’t underestimate the potential marketability of inside knowledge of leading technology. But I certainly understand where you’re coming from.

  15. #15 Dave Bacon
    June 25, 2008

    Domenic, well I hope I didn’t come off as too preachy (wait my blog is called what?)

  16. #16 Ian Durham
    June 25, 2008

    “Domenic, well I hope I didn’t come off as too preachy (wait my blog is called what?)”

    In nomen a patris, et in filius, et in spiritus sancto…

  17. #17 anon.
    June 25, 2008

    It seems like a number of postdocs do start a family (hell, even some grad students do), and certainly postdoc salaries are comfortably middle-class. What does “not enough to raise a family on” mean? Is it assuming an upper-middle-class lifestyle? (Just as one somewhat randomly chosen point of reference, Wikipedia tells me the median income in Berkeley is about $51k, so a postdoc would be pretty much median-income. You’re telling me that 50% of the people living in Berkeley are financially unable to start a family?)

  18. #18 Ian Durham
    June 25, 2008

    anon.: I’m a tenured professor living in Maine (a relatively cheap state for the most part) with two kids and I can barely make ends meet some months. Yeah, some post-doc positions might actually have a higher salary than I have, but the cost of living in the areas where that is true is likely a whole heck of a lot higher (e.g. Berkeley where it is rumored to be insane or even down the road from me about an hour in Boston).

  19. #19 Domenic
    June 26, 2008

    You’re telling me that 50% of the people living in Berkeley are financially unable to start a family?

    This seems somewhat reasonable, given the according to a random Google result, in 2002 in the U.S. overall, 59% of the population is not married.

  20. #20 mick
    June 26, 2008

    @Joe: Postdocs don’t have to do admin?

  21. #21 Demian
    June 26, 2008

    I guess it all depends on what you want in your life. After my first post-doc position, I gave a long-hard soul searching to move on to either cooperate sector or “lesser-glorious” smaller teaching position.

    Con: 1. Don’t have graduate students (or post-doc) to help me. 2. Well, it’s not Princeton or Cal Tech. 3. Usually carry more teaching load.

    Pro: 1. I like teaching. 2. Academic freedom [Doesn't need to follow fashion to get grants.]

    Cooperate choice was out in early stage since I realize that is not my calling. Also, I really liked Pro #2. [My primary area of research is quantum gravity, QFT on curved space and mathematical physics.] But, even getting a permanent position in smaller places wasn’t [and still isn't] easy. Some younger crowd may think that this is a default option after a string of post-docs, but no. Liberal art colleges prefer a person with teaching experience beyond T.A. level. So, I end up spending a year as a visiting assistant professor at one of a state university, teaching 12 credits a semester. It was hard work-couldn’t do much of research at all for a year,- but give me some boost on my resume to turn my career around. Now, I am heading to a better place for a longer-temp position [not a permanent quite yet though.] Smaller hours on teaching hopefully help me spending some time on research. Also, joy of teaching bright student body is always very rewarding. I will teach a half of an astronomy and a section of lab next semester, then waves and oscillation and quantum II in spring. Well, that’s not exactly a graduate class on string theory, but I still enjoy teaching them. [I tend to keep discovering my ignorance even when I am teaching the first year physics.] If you’d ask me right now, I wold say I prefer a smaller, good liberal art college over some of bigger places [including my Ph.D. alma mater.]

  22. #22 Travis
    June 26, 2008

    Anon, as Domenic pointed out, there are very few kids in Berkeley. Seeing a baby in a stroller is less common than seeing homeless people, which says something about how far the median income gets you. Postdocs and grad students who have kids are gambling on future earnings increases that they are not that likely to get if they stay in academia. If you think you could be happy doing something else, why gamble your family’s financial security?
    Dave: by saying “nothing to show for it”, I mean that, if you end up having to leave academia after 10 years as a postdoc, you’ll be little or no further ahead in transferrable skills than you would if you left immediately after getting your PhD. It’s thus quite a gamble to stay, although probably worth it if you really love what you do and can’t imagine being happy elsewhere. As for burn-out in consulting, I have noticed substantial differences between consulting firms that make me think this is a property of particular consulting firms, not the entire industry. Ask me again in a year or two :-)

    JohnQPublic: salesmanship is important for success in the academic world, too. I know brilliant scientists whose careers are stalled because they can’t or won’t “sell” their work. Conversely, there are people who do mediocre work but rocket up through the ranks because they know how to play the game. Many of the negative things you perceive about the corporate world are not specific to that world but rather are simply aspects of human nature, and are found everywhere.

  23. #23 Victor
    June 26, 2008

    I’m not a physicist, but researchers in the social sciences suffer from the same problems… I’d also submit that the situation is much worse in Europe compared to the US, especially regarding red tape/administrative overhead and salary differences between academia and the private sector.

    If I had stayed in academia, I definitely would have tried to get a position in the US after finishing my PhD. Now, however, I’m happy to have started my own company. It feels like I have even more freedom than in academia, the problems are more diverse and occasionally as intellectually challenging, and I’m not earning more money, so not much has changed ;-)

    And since we’re developing software for researchers, I’m still somehow a part of the academic community and don’t feel like I’ve lost the connection to what was a very important part of my life for the past few years.

  24. #24 Counterfly
    June 26, 2008

    Using the phrase “going forward” is consultant-speak. Icky, icky.

  25. #25 Dan M.
    June 26, 2008

    I’m a physicist who left academia a long time ago, when I graduated, early in ’82. At the time, the prospects for a career in high energy physics were particularly bleak. I remember a post doc who gave the invited talk at an important conference being unable to find a tenure track position at a major university….14 years later he still wasn’t tenure track and probably never would be. The only tenure track position that opened up in high energy physics while I was there was an affirmative action position for a female professor. She happened to have been the lead post doc on Ting’s charm discovering experiment, but that wasn’t enough. I decided that, since I had a family, I’d get a job that made money.

    I never regretted it. Immediately, I was able to make a contribution, make a difference. I did have to learn salesmanship, but I also learned that sales wasn’t the dark side. Rather, it involved interacting with people, learning their needs, and finding ways to show how you can fill their needs.

    Indeed, inventing new productive hardware/software is very satisfying. Seeing an idea go from a rough concept in your head and have it transformed into a hardware/software system that is used worldwide is very satisfying. I have colleagues (office about 20 feet from me) who have invented, designed, and supervised the production of hardware that, according to the Atlantic monthly article “The new old technology” was half of a savings of half a billion dollars a day for the world economy.
    That money, which use to be wasted, is now useable elsewhere due to the efficiency of their inventions.

    So, leaving academia is not going over to the dark side. There is both value and enjoyment in being the first to come up with something that is useful to a large number of people.

  26. #26 John Sidles
    June 27, 2008

    I want to second Dan M.’s fine post. I too graduated in particle theory in the early eighties … the job market at the time was horrendously bad … and my spouse and I had a child on the way …

    A career in medical research was the fulfilling answer. Not my idea … my spouse was wise enough to point me toward it … and I had the good fortune to partner with some wonderful colleagues.

    Surprisingly–and gratifyingly–with each subsequent year, QM and QIT tool-sets have proved to be more useful in medical research, to the point that (foreseeably) within the next 10-20 years these tools will (IMHO) dominate large sectors of the biomedical enterprise.

  27. #27 JohnQPublic
    June 28, 2008

    These private sector testimonials are encouraging. But the vast majority of employees with excellent academic credentials face a never-ending threat of being laid off–unless they learn the game of ambition. As a director in the labs of large computer companies for many years, I can personally attest to how people are evaluated behind the scenes when the word comes to shed 10% of your staff. The Jack Welsh model of A-C players, the Vitality Chart, is typical of what I saw at a number of companies. I managed to escape every layoff for over 30 years (I retired and never was laid off) because I learned the trick to being evaluated an A-player. And it meant shedding most of the qualities I see in academia.

    So, no it’s not the dark side and it’s not that there is a lack of accomplishment. Indeed, there is much. But in most of the private sector far more value is placed in one’s ambitious attitude than intellect. Yes, I am sure that is true in academia as well–but I’m sure to a far less extent. At least in academia you must demonstrate subject knowledge. But in corporate life one can farily easily rise to a very strong six-figure salary in the software industry with almost zero understanding of programming much less computer science. I don’t think that can be done at a university. At least I hope not. In fact, lack of software understanding in the commercial world at the management level it is typical. Most executives I worked with in the industry didn’t know a doubly-linked list from a loop. (And that does differ from, say, the automotive industry where most know how theirs cars are manufactured.) Does that matter? Well, it matters if you believe that those running the commercial software business actually need to know their business in order to improve it; it matters if projects are to be estimated and managed with an understanding of their inherent complex details. I believe it is management’s misunderstanding of the software they oversee is why so much software is hacked, bloated, and undocumented. No one would build a house with the loose standards of the software world, for example. As a result, most software is of poor quality compared other industries. As pointed out many times before, no one would put up with their car failing as much as their software does. But that is just my opinion.

  28. #28 Dr. Pion
    July 1, 2008

    For the majority of you who don’t know what Dan M and John S are talking about, you might follow the back-link from the article below to “part 1″, and look at the dismal history of physics jobs from circa 1969 into the early 90s. Been there, seen that. You will know the job market is bad when you see an ad like this one
    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2008/06/jobs-part-i-update.html
    in Physics Today.

    I was struck by Ian’s comments. I mean, why would anyone apply to a selective liberal arts college if they didn’t want the job? That simply boggles my mind, as does the attitude of a Caltech undergrad, who is highly unlikely to get a faculty position at Caltech (one of the few places where he will get to teach people like himself). Two observations: A good friend with a Caltech BS and an MIT PhD has to teach those rude undergrads in his job at Maryland, a top quartile R1. The odds are probably less than 1 in 100 of getting a job as “lowly” as that one.

    Most jobs are below, if not well below, the place where you earn the PhD. The data have always been available from the AIP, but rarely filter down to students. I’ve known about them for decades, but finally got around to summarizing them last year:
    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/physics-jobs-part-2.html

    Overall, only 30% of physics grads are employed somewhere in academia. A majority of those are at PhD institutions, but the turnover is very low for those jobs. With the large amount of hiring recently, as that big hiring bump from the 60s retires, there could be another crash like that seen in 1970 on its way. You may not realize it, but the current market is pretty good.

  29. #29 John Sidles
    July 1, 2008

    Dr. Pion’s post is excellent. Although when he says that “the current [job] market is pretty good”, this immediately raises the question “pretty good relative to what?”

    These days, first-prize for dismal job prospects probably goes to those biomedical researchers who are seeking an NIH R01 award … the average age of a PhD’s first R01 award is now an utterly dismal 44!

    Where are the *best* job prospects? Hey … figuring this out is a highly marketable technical skill in itself! :)

  30. #30 Ian Durham
    July 1, 2008

    Well, and what is best for one may not be best for another unless you mean ‘best’ simply in terms of sheer numbers.

    I also second Dr. Pion, though cautiously since two of the people who turned down our offers may read this blog. Why would you apply – and seem to put such effort into the application – if you weren’t serious about the position? We flew one of these guys out from the west coast to interview him. That ain’t cheap these days and we aren’t exactly rolling in the dough. On the other hand, that may be part of the problem. I’m sure the initial pay was less than many post-doc positions.

  31. #31 Dr. Pion
    July 1, 2008

    Pretty good compared to the era between 1970 and the early 80s, when the odds of getting any academic job in physics were sometimes in single digits, but not good compared to the anomalous time from 1950 to 1965 when 80 to 90% (or more) got jobs in academia.

    By “good” I mean that a new PhD might have a 30% chance of landing a job in one part of academia (but not necessarily at an R1) within 4 or 5 years, which roughly matches the odds that any physics PhD will end up in academia. But, as noted above, you might have to trade income for security. If you have never lived through a recession or a major shift in what research topics are fashionable, you might not appreciate the distinction.

    I like the comparison to the NIH grant situation. The situation in physics when Yeas ran that ad in Physics Today and wrote letters to the editor (early 70s) was not unlike that in bio-med today. The biggest difference might be that many of us were told about the horrid job situation when we started, while I have the impression that kids entering biochemistry have never seen graphs like the ones I showed in my blog last summer.

  32. #32 Cherish
    July 2, 2008

    People apply places where they don’t want jobs because they’re playing the odds. If nothing else comes along, then they’d probably take the job. But my observation is that those who are offered jobs at the “colleges no one wants to work at” (to paraphrase) are also being offered jobs at better places, as well, and are more likely to take those. As one of my professors noted when discussing some recent hires, all the colleges with an opening want the same five people.

    As far as feeling bad for people who go into industry, I usually don’t. Many of my friends from undergrad whom I believed were sure to go to grad school did not. They still seem to be happy and well-balanced individuals (and, in fact, often seem that way moreso than my friends who went to grad school and suffered for years…not sure if that was a predisposition or not). In a grad program in EE, most of my friends have gone into industry after their MS to earn more than some professors in our department with 10-15 years of experience.

    Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems like there is a stigma in physics about leaving academia that I don’t see quite as much in other areas. I’m not sure what gives, but I wonder if it’s the attachment to notions about how the world (academia in particular) works. In other disciplines, folks may be more pragmatic. (Or the other reason is that it’s easier to find a good paying job with a grad degree in engineering or chemistry, which makes it easier to get over disappointment that one can’t find a crappy paying job in academia.) :-)

  33. #33 Dr. Pion
    July 2, 2008

    I’m no expert, but I have followed this issue longer than some of you have been alive. It has been written about extensively in Physics Today (both the jobs issue itself and the poor connections to industry), and the PhD data are there for you to analyze yourself.

    My own analysis starts on the supply side
    http://doctorpion.blogspot.com/2007/07/physics-jobs-part-1.html
    where I give (verbosely) my answer to the accurate comment Cherish makes about the stigma of going into industry.

    The short version is that they are ignorant of what goes on in industry, so they hide ignorance with bluster and contempt. They are ignorant of industry because literally almost everyone went into big-science academia circa 1960 so there were no ties to industrial research. This is quite unlike the 1930s, when most faculty worked with industry because government did not fund research and thus fed their students into those companies the way engineering often does today. Physics now has an REU program, but internships? No. But it *did* work that way before WW II.

    Where is the alliance between GM and the U of M and Michigan State physics and engineering departments on cost-effective Lithium-Ion battery production methods? When will those Pointy-Haired Bosses at GM realize that they could build a Chevy Volt with NiMH technology and develop it on the highway with bleeding edge techno types like those of us who bought a Honda Insight in 2000 at a price well below cost? Its not like they couldn’t upgrade it later, but they don’t think like that even at $10 a share.

  34. #34 Dave
    July 5, 2008

    This is a fascinating and slightly depressing series of posts for me, an experimental physicist nearing completion of my PhD. I love the freedom and creativity that one can encounter in academic physics and have met with some success at every stage along the way. That said, I see how brilliant and hard-working most professors at good schools are, and find it difficult to imagine myself competing successfully in such an environment.

    The small liberal arts colleges seem attractive in that the positions do not seem quite as competitive and they might allow some time to do interesting research. The pay might not be stellar, but that isn’t the most important thing for me.

    The one sector that has not been discussed in these comments is the government labs. I think of the work in these institutions as lying somewhere between the freedom of academia and the profit-drive of industry. Also, the jobs pay well, and in many cases leave time for outside pursuits. In my case my passion for research is tempered by a passion for athletic pursuits – something in which I have been more successful than I ever will be in physics, and something I refuse to completely give up.

    But, like with most things, sacrifices need to be made. Being completely naive about the world, the first thing I’m willing to give up is money. Beyond a simple living, digits in my salary are not so motivating. Even so the prospects seem uncertain, and this series of posts has mostly reinforced that notion.

    Inspiration anyone?

  35. #35 Monika
    July 6, 2008

    Hey Dave, I totally hear you about the uncertain prospects. After being the quintessential B student, I got a PhD 11 years ago in theoretical physics from a perfectly acceptable although non-pedigree university, and after ~7 years on the academic migrant worker circuit, 6 interviews at liberal arts colleges and one at a large urban state university, the only offer I got was at the latter.

    My experience: The small liberal arts college jobs are fiercely competitive. They will only hire someone with loads of publications and pre-existing grants, in addition to extensive teaching experience before they even walk in the door. These jobs are as competitive as those at any research university.

    Although my original goal always was to go into teaching (no way was I going to even try to get a research job), I kind of dreaded coming to a large urban public university: I feared the heavy teaching load, little institutional support (Budget Cuts!!), totally under-prepared students, and the expectation to bring in grants and write papers, for a slightly-less-than exciting salary, especially considering the cost of living where I live).

    Like you, I also have a life outside of work (Mountaineering and skiing are an important part of my sanity), and have no intention to sacrifice those things to get tenure. The happy news is that I have found that I am very much appreciated at the Large Public Urban University that took me on. I work a normal workweek, have only a slightly more structured life than when I was a post-doc. I got lots of skiing in this past winter :-) and I enjoy my leisurely summer schedule (although I am putting in a good 3-4 days a week to mind my research students lately :-)

    The thing that troubles me now is that my profs from my grad school days would probably consider me a total failure, why get a PhD if you’re just going to teach, you may as well be teaching high school, blah blah.. that sort of attitude was extremely prevalent among the faculty and my peers. So I kept my teaching goals to myself and was a good soldier. Then when I was ready to get a “real job” I told my mentors exactly what my goals were, they were all very supportive of me, and wrote me letters of recommendation that would get me the interview.

    I find that this really is the perfect job for me, I am doing well regarding the pursuit of tenure, I have a couple small grants, wrote a couple papers, supervise some (really great) students, I get good teaching reviews, and overall the department & university are happy with me and I feel appreciated. My colleagues are a lot of fun, too. I focus on the students who really want to learn, I derive all my energy and enthusiasm from them.

  36. #36 John Sidles
    July 6, 2008

    There are a lot of really excellent posts on this thread … Mokika’s post above is outstanding.

    The “obvious” reality is that, in the light of (e.g.) NIH funding statistics, it’s hard to recommend a research career to any except the most fanatically dedicated students.

    But is this consensus reality really true? IMHO it is mistaken … as I will argue in the remainder of this post (with I am writing mainly as an exercise to help clarify my own thinking).

    Like flight engineer Gene Kranz says in the movie Apollo 13 (and also said in real life): “What have we got on the spacecraft that’s GOOD?

    Well, one thing that we’ve got on the spacecraft is abundant supplies of the precious commodity “trust” … in the sense that people (rightly) trust the math, science, and engineering community not to deal in falsehoods.

    My own scientific interests increasingly focus on “teleporting” trust (to use QIT terminology) into messier domains like politics, business, medicine, planetary stewardship, and ethics.

    If you actually look at the numbers … if you look at the way that global enterprises really work nowadays … “trust teleportation” is a hugely dynamic and rapidly growing science and technology industry. And you will find that the leaders of these enterprises worry obsessively about generating sufficient trust … and increasingly turn to math, science and engineering as a source of it.

    That is why I feel that one of the best times in history for young people to launch careers in math, science, and technology is right now … provided you are willing to contemplate non-traditional career paths … and provided you are willing to contemplate broad venues for putting your ideas into play.

    This is nothing new … the best career paths in math, science, and technology have always been non-traditional. :)

  37. #37 Clark Goble
    July 6, 2008

    You can get out of academics and do academic styled inquiry as a hobby. There are lots of jobs where ones physics background gives you a leg up. Start a small business in something you’re interested in. If you manage early retirement you can spend more time doing physics than probably most professors can manage.

  38. #38 Ian Durham
    July 6, 2008

    My experience: The small liberal arts college jobs are fiercely competitive. They will only hire someone with loads of publications and pre-existing grants, in addition to extensive teaching experience before they even walk in the door. These jobs are as competitive as those at any research university.

    Monika, wow, I’m surprised at your experience with liberal arts colleges. I will say that it is subtle things that get you noticed in liberal arts searches, though, and a commitment to teaching is one. The teaching loads at your top tier liberal arts colleges is pretty low actually and not all that bad at your second tier schools. I’m in my office only four days a week, actually, and, outside of my one large (20-30) introductory course, have courses that almost never hit double digits in enrollment (average 4-6 students).

  39. #39 Jonathan Vos Post
    July 7, 2008

    It is said that Plato was annoyed by students at the Academy asking: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”

    So he left Academia, cornered the market in Olive Oil futures, gave the money away to charities, and returned to teaching. Two words:

    James Simons!

  40. #40 Dave
    July 8, 2008

    Hey Monika,

    Thanks for your perspective. The experience of a person with your career is not one I hear very often (being entrenched in a research university), and is valuable in that I can see myself doing it and enjoying it. Funny, your outside interests are somewhat the same as mine – rockclimbing. Good to hear there might be a place for someone like me.

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