The Quantum Pontiff

Over at Information Processing, the bit processor, Steve, has an interesting post up about your chances of getting a faculty job in high energy theoretical physics. (In between the best posts on the financial turmoil around 1, 2, 3.) If you’re a high energy theoretical physics graduate student, and don’t want to get depressed today, I would recommend avoiding the post so as to keep up your illusion of safety, but if you want a good dose of reality, check it out.

From the post you can see that the odds of getting a high energy theory job in physics are more close to none than even to slim. This is, in a certain respect, a depressing post, on the other hand, I think the post is great because it suggests solutions:

How many professors do you think are / were straight with their PhD students about the odds of survival?

How many professors do you think had / have a serious discussion with their students about alternative career paths? How many have even a vague understanding of what people who leave theoretical physics do in finance, silicon valley, …?

Both of these paragraphs offer great advice on what we should be telling our graduate students. But do they go far enough?

The interesting thing about physics departments is the disconnect between where the graduate students end up and the major concerns of the faculty. Of course this is true to a certain extent in all fields, but because physics really does produce people who should be able to think on their feet and are incredible problem solves, most of the physicists I know make great employees outside of the academic path. And of course it is true that there is a reason there is little connect between what the faculty are doing and what their graduates wind up doing. I mean being a theoretical faculty member already consume likes ten buttloads of a normal workload, and the incentives are to produce good physics, not necessarily good employees of D.E. Shaw. But I wonder if there is a way to bring the connection a bit closer to home.

Crazy suggestions:

  • Should physics faculties considering hiring faculty who have spent time on Wall Street or Silicon Valley or industry, but who want to come back into the fold? The traditional line is that it is impossible to get back into the research, but there are certainly counterexamples.
  • Should a portion of a physics departments colloquium (or graduate colloquium) be occupied by physicists who don’t end up in a traditional academic position? Among the alumni of the program there should be ample fodder for this.
  • Should graduate students be given a document to sign when they accept attending a graduate program which says something like “You’re chances of getting a tenure track position are super super small. You should be doing this because you are totally aware of this fact.”
  • Should graduate curriculum include a course related to where the physicists might end up? Right after the first year quantum mechanics/classical mechanics/E and M classes, I think? Or before?
  • What about the crazy idea of sending graduate students to be summer interns at non-traditional institutions? In CS there is a huge tradition of internships during the summer and I think the community benefit greatly from this.
  • Insert your crazy idea here…

Comments

  1. #1 David
    September 24, 2008

    Should graduate curriculum include a course related to where the physicists might end up? Right after the first year quantum mechanics/classical mechanics/E and M classes, I think? Or before?

    Hark! A combined Ph.D./MBA program for physicists! Oh wait, they have that already! :)

  2. #2 Frederick Ross
    September 24, 2008

    How about earlier? Why not give these students a good grounding and an idea of career prospects before they go to grad school?

    However, if you want ideas, go look at chemistry departments with industrial connections. Some of those places are amazing at placing their students, to the point of making compsci look feeble.

  3. #3 steve hsu
    September 24, 2008

    UO Physics Colloquium — everyone is welcome if they can get to Eugene :-)

    Thursday, Nov 6 4:00pm John Seo Fermat Capital Management
    host: Steve Hsu

    Dr. John Seo is Co-Founder and Managing Principal at Fermat Capital Management, LLC. Based in Westport, Connecticut, Fermat Capital manages over $2 billion in catastrophe bond investments, making it one of the leading catastrophe bond investors in the world. Prior to forming Fermat Capital with his brother Nelson in August of 2001, John was Senior Trader in the Insurance Products Group at Lehman Brothers, an officer of Lehman Re, and a state-appointed advisor to the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. John received a B.S. in physics from the M.I.T. in 1988 and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard University in 1991.

  4. #4 Cesar Rodriguez
    September 24, 2008

    Departments should keep track of where their students end up working after graduation. These statistics should be public. Having some statistics of how previous students that graduated from that department are doing should definitely be a factor to consider when applying to grad school, yet this information is unavailable. Universities are still acting like their graduate degrees are training people for academia, while most people end up in the industry. Facing this fact is a way to have students with realistic expectations.

  5. #5 Cherish
    September 24, 2008

    They should be told in undergrad, and pretty bluntly. I figured that much out for myself part way through UG and decided to pursue other interests…but I feel bad for people who go to grad school and don’t realize how bad it may be. I also think there are some profs who really get the negative on when talking to students about other careers. When I told one of my profs that I was going to do an MS in engineering, his response was, “Why would you want to do that?”

    (Because if this attempt to get an academic job doesn’t pan out, I want to have highly marketable job skills so I can rake in the big bucks.) :-)

    Seriously, though, that sort of thing just shouldn’t be said. It sure doesn’t help the students feel good about alternate careers.

  6. #6 Ian Durham
    September 24, 2008

    They should be told in undergrad, and pretty bluntly. I figured that much out for myself part way through UG and decided to pursue other interests…but I feel bad for people who go to grad school and don’t realize how bad it may be. I also think there are some profs who really get the negative on when talking to students about other careers. When I told one of my profs that I was going to do an MS in engineering, his response was, “Why would you want to do that?”

    We actively encourage our undergrads to pursue all sorts of interesting careers and have set up our major to make it easy for them to switch mid-stream between pure physics, applied physics, or one of our 3-2 programs. I don’t know if there is necessarily a causal link, but our enrollment has doubled in the past four years.

    Departments should keep track of where their students end up working after graduation. These statistics should be public.

    We do our best to keep track of them, but it’s awfully hard since a lot of them just disappear. Luckily with the increased enrollment we’ve also seen more grads actually want to stay in touch. We regularly bring back our graduates to talk about what they’re doing now, whether they are in grad school or a job or something, so, sans hard numbers the students at least get to meet some of these folks in person.

  7. #7 Ian Durham
    September 24, 2008

    Steve: I mean this in a “poking fun” sort of way, but the bio you wrote of your guest includes the line: “John was Senior Trader in the Insurance Products Group at Lehman Brothers.” I’m not sure I’d be touting any connection with Lehman Bros. these days. :))

  8. #8 Dave Bacon
    September 24, 2008

    Bah I’d be proud of being a senior trader at Lehman. Of course if I was a senior trader responsible for toxic mortgage securities, I’d be less inclined to write about that. But equating all of Lehman (and during a possibly differing time period) with what led to bankruptcy seems a bit harsh.

    I know, I know, its not fashionable to not do anything but bash anyone with the word trader or speculator or even investor in their name, but what the hell, call me a capitalist pig :)

    Yeah its been a long day. Grumpy grumpy Dave after reading comments on the NYTimes website about the financial crisis.

  9. #9 Ian Durham
    September 24, 2008

    No, you’re right Dave, I usually abhor generalities, but I was speaking in jest. I have a number of good friends in the financial industry and they’re not all idiots, crooks, and thieves (hmmm, that sentence kinda looks funny…). Anyway, I too had a long day and hence my jokes are flatter than usual. :\

  10. #10 Dave Bacon
    September 24, 2008

    I’m probably sensitive to this because my father was a lawyer. Anyone who knew much about him would think twice about generalizing about the law profession.

    But yeah, grumpy grumpy. I need to go play tug of war with my dog to make me happy :)

  11. #11 Janne
    September 24, 2008

    It’s a fact of research fields in general that the majority of graduate students will at some point drop out of the academic track. I think it’s long overdue for PhD programs to recognize this fact and adjust accordingly. It doesn’t have to be very big changes overall to make a substantial difference. The obvious one would be to offer a few courses that give you the skills to use your subject in industry (the exact content would be field dependent of course) and information about the other careers you’re likely to end up pursuing.

  12. #12 John Sidles
    September 25, 2008

    The instructive case history of the Intel Corporation is analyzed by Burgelman and Grove—yes, *that* Grove—in their book Strategy is Destiny.

    Intel’s core business (computer memory) was quiescent … and Intel correctly understood that to signify that wonderful new business opportunities were opening.

    Similarly, the core business of academic physics is quiescent … which means that wonderful new physics-related opportunities are opening.

    As for identifying those physics-related opportunities, well, that’s the creative challenge, isn’t it?

  13. #13 steve hsu
    September 25, 2008

    Lehman has a proud history and tens of thousands of employees. About 6-9k were immediately snapped up by Barclays. Only the mortgage guys blew it — other groups were ok.

  14. #14 Math people are hot!
    November 30, 2008

    Whether or not someone with a degree in physics is working in a career which they are required to have a degree in physics; these people are still very intelligent. I don’t care how much science and math kids get at a young age, it is not going to make much of a difference. Either someone can understand math or they can’t. The people who say that someone with a math degree will never use it, is just jealous because they are dumb.

  15. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 30, 2008

    Math people are hot. Whenever I see a really sexy woman on TV, I think that if only she were good at differential equations and Clebsch-Gordon coefficients, she’d be a tenth as sexy as my wife.

    “Either someone can understand math or they can’t.”

    That’s a static analysis. I prefer a more dynamic model, or else I’d never have been an Adjunct Math professor at a teaching university.

    Even of people formally diagnoses with Clinical Dyscalculia, only 1/3 have neurological conditions that make Math learning infeasible. The other 2/3 (and these are the formally diagnosed folks with worst-case Math Disability) — they just never had a good Math teacher, and have accumulated layer after layer of wrong assumptions, broken algorithms, and misconstrued definitions, which must be peeled away, as their age is regressed to when they went off the track, and then sent forwards again in the right direction.

    It’s well known how to tach people who don’t know stuff. What’s VERY hard is to teach people who think that they do know stuff, but are wrong.

  16. #16 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 30, 2008

    ———————
    PYTHAGOREAN NIGHTMARE
    ———————
    by Jonathan Vos Post

    I was a child the first time I had this dream
    so there was no horror in the windy beach, the ocean,
    the salt smell in the lightning, and the storm’s voice
    was my father’s voice, dark, but to be trusted

    The Hurricane cried “Know me: I am in the zero.”
    and the crashing surf called “I am in the wave.”
    The tumbling sand-grain hovered by my eye,
    a perfect crystal — “I am in geometry.”

    The lightning laughed and showed me a magic life
    which was my life; a line of rocks which ran
    out into the foam, breakwater in the spray
    and each rock was a year, each rock further from the shore.

    I stand on the fifth rock with a chain of jewels in my hand;
    these are my counting numbers, these bright ones, I can take them
    anywhere, for long days, former friends, or railroad cars –
    I run them sparkling through and through my fingers.

    Another rock, the shore is misty, Algebra –
    where numbers put on masks, the candles lit,
    the presents wrapped, the cake is cut, the horns
    silent for a moment, ’til the singing starts.

    Jump, jump, here I pursue the nightingale
    through tangled woods, through rifts and booming caverns
    whose shadows hold infinity; soft predicate boots
    laced with quantifiers, bookmark feather in my hand.

    One of the last rocks — birdsong fills the night
    of moonlight on strange machines building a golden cage
    and finding themselves within; I too press against the bars:
    can I fit between them? They are the Undecidable.

    I hold my breath at the edge of the final boulder –
    dull fuzzy shapes assemble in the mist –
    dry books, some girl, a door — I gesture them away
    and thunder speaks the message I’d forgotten.

    Nightmare! Nightmare! How could I be fooled?
    This dream again — the windy beach, the ocean –
    moaning in sweat I grope for the light and glasses –
    touch them — shiver — and am barefoot on the granite.

    The Hurricane cries “Know me: I am in the zero.”
    and salt tears at my beard, sleet trembles on my thighs,
    everything else was false! This beach is my only home
    and I have been leaping, dazzled, away from shore…

    ———————
    0600-0845
    30 mar 75
    ———————

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