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.