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A high school student's aspirations

  1. May 21, 2009 #1
    Greetings everyone, before I begin, some brief information about myself.
    I'm a high school sophomore in the Chicago suburban area, I have yet to have a formal class in physics, but will be taking my first next year. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AP_Physics_B" [Broken])

    Now, not-so-briefly, my aspirations and some insight: I would like to become a physics major and go on to eventually teach at the college level. While one may say that it is too soon for me to know what I want to do with my life, I would have to disagree. As long as I can remember I've been fascinated with the workings of the universe in general, whether it be how the sun shined it's brilliant light, or why the how a mirror reflected an image of every object it's presented with. When in middle school I began to learn about general physical phenomenon, and my interest has grown exponentially since then; I've read several texts dealing with physics, as well as reading the discussions on these forums and other areas of the internet, all of which I find fascinating and utterly enticing. (I have also watched just about every show on Discovery, Science Channel and History dealing with physical or cosmological concept. While they may be geared towards the general populous and not a learning tool, I still find them entertaining) To learn and absorb new knowledge about Physics and the universe in general is always a thrilling experience, however, what gives me the most pleasure is explaining what I've learned to others that are also interested or confused in these areas. The fact that I have a passion in such explanation for physical phenomenon is where I deduced that a career in academia would be perfect for me. The job of a college professor seems to perfectly fit me at this time, and that is my ultimate dream.

    Additionally I have a strong background dealing with computers (Mainly Mac and Linux), and computer science in general. (Next year I will have taken my second formal computer science course, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AP_Computer_Science" [Broken]" series and was glad to see that a background in computer science is helpful for a physics major.

    My main inquisition is to the practicality of my aspirations, ie "How hard" it is to achieve. I have assumed it to be exceedingly difficult as there are only so many college-level teaching jobs available, and I honestly am ignorant as to the demand which these jobs have, or the amount of potential candidates for said positions.

    (The following assumes I would be teaching at the college level)
    Furthermore, I must admit that I am not entirely sure as to what a physics professor does other than teach. I assume that many of them also participate in other research projects and write papers on them, but again, I'm not entirely sure. Another area of interest for me is writing, I know that college professors will often write books about their area of study, physical or otherwise. (Michio Kaku being a notable example in the world of physics). As before, I am ignorant as to the practicality of this aspiration as well.

    I realize this post is long and probably ambiguous in some spots, but these forums are my best bet for advice on these matters at this point in time. It may be that all of my thoughts on this subject matter are premature, and I should focus on the foreseeable future instead of the long term, but unfortunately these are the thoughts that have consumed me as of late, and hence I authored this scrawling.

    Thanks in advance, any advice, input, commentary or insight is most appreciated.
    QuQu (My desired name is "Quizzical Quasar" but that seems to be too lengthy for most forum systems)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. May 22, 2009 #2


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    With respect to how hard it is to become a professor, I suppose the answer is really a subjective one. There are lots of people who will tell you it is virtually impossible, but I wouldn't listen to them.

    What I can say is that the road is very long and there is no guarantee of success. Also, between finishing high school and beginning work in a tenure-track position a lot of time passes - we're talking a decade or more. The world can change considerably in that time. So can you.

    So the best advice I have is to pursue the subjects you're interested in now and take time to explore and learn. Since you haven't even taken high school physics yet, you're right in that it's too early to decide on a career. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't learn as much as you can about the potential in that direction. Lots of people use the skills they learn in physics as a basis for very exciting and rewarding careers (and they don't all turn out to be professors either).
  4. May 22, 2009 #3


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    The main job of a physics professor is to do research. You can't become a professor without being able to do good research. Part of doing research is writing papers about the work you do, so if you enjoy writing (and/or are good at it), good for you. Don't worry about learning how to do research, though; that's something you'll learn about as you go through college and graduate school.

    Teaching is actually a secondary responsibility for professors. While researching skill is a requirement to get a job as a science professor, teaching skill (unfortunately) isn't, or at least is typically less important than researching to faculty committees (the people who give and take away professorships).

    As you know, there are only a limited number of jobs available, so it's a very competitive field. There isn't really any point at which you can know for sure that you're good enough to beat out the crowd and become a physics professor... well, at least not as far as the first year of grad school, which is where I am right now. (Though I suspect the same continues until you get a job and get tenure ;-)
  5. May 22, 2009 #4


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    At most small private colleges, professors' primary responsibility is teaching. They usually also have to do some research, but its main purpose (as far as the school is concerned) is to provide students with research experience, and to help keep the professors from burning out from teaching freshman General Physics over and over again for 20-30 years.
  6. May 23, 2009 #5
    Thanks for all the replies so far, I really appreciate it. I do affirm that it will be excruciatingly difficult, but I figure I might as well hope and aim for that now, since I can always change my path later.
    Although one thing I still have an unclear idea about is, what physicists do at the beginning postdoctoral work? I know there is an innumerable amount of specific fields of physics, but in any case, I'm still not entirely sure what else they all do besides work at places like Fermilab CERN or the JPL.
    (I also realize that by the time I would be in said postdoctoral work the field will no doubt dramatically changed and the jobs therein, but it would still be nice to get a general idea of my options other than being a professor, in the case that proves impractical.)
  7. May 31, 2009 #6
    Not sure what the policy is on the bumping of a thread...
  8. May 31, 2009 #7


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    I assume you're asking something like "what do freshly minted physics PhD's do" in general, as opposed to just the positions that are specifically called "postdocs."

    Here are some possibilities (not a complete list), based on people I knew in grad school.

    1. A lucky few get research-oriented tenure-track academic positions (i.e. assistant professor) straight out of grad school. A guy in my research group who finished his PhD the year after I joined the group, became an assistant professor at Princeton. He was both very good and very lucky!

    2. The usual path into academic research is via one or more "postdoc" positions. These are temporary positions (one or two years) that are associated with a particular research group or project. They're intermediate in responsibilities between grad students and professors. The research group gets relatively cheap labor (not as cheap as grad students, though :wink:) and you get a chance to deepen your knowledge of your specialty and publish some papers, which are useful for further job-hunting. These positions are usually at universities, but they can also be at government labs like Fermilab, or even (I think) in industrial research labs. At universities, postdocs (unlike professors) don't have to teach.

    3. There are also longer-term research positions available at government and military labs. I remember that Lincoln Labs in Massachusetts, which does a lot of defense research, often sent recruiters to my grad school.

    4. There are industrial research positions. One guy I knew who finished his degree in experimental elementary particle physics while I was working on mine, went to work for Shell Oil, switching from elementary particles to geophysics in the process, based on his computer-programming and data-analysis skills. In some other fields, e.g. condensed matter physics, you don't have to switch fields in such an extreme fashion.

    5. There are positions at smaller schools (usually private liberal arts colleges) which are mainly teaching-oriented. That's the route I chose to take when I finished my PhD. I first had a two-year position at one college, filling in for faculty who were on sabbatical, then became an assistant professor at my current college.

    6. Or you can leave academia and research altogether, and capitalize on skills that you're picked up, in a job some other field. In my time, it was fairly common for experimental particle physics PhDs with a lot of programming experience to go to work for software companies. I probably would have done that if I hadn't found a teaching job. More recently, some went to work on Wall Street, programming the financial models that created (among other things) the "derivatives" that crashed spectacularly during the past year.
  9. May 31, 2009 #8


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    Asking a more specific question might help - I'm not sure exactly what it is you want to know.

    Post-doctoral work is specific to the position. In general, a post-doc is hired on to assist with a research project. Generally, the idea is that the group will hire someone who has more experience than a graduate student and who can get up to speed on the project relatively quickly, such that results of the investigation can be written up and published before the grant money runs out.

    You may want to check out the jobs at sites like this to get a flavour for what kinds of employers target phyicisits:

    That being said, many people with a physics education can go on to be very successful in other fields because of their unique problem-solving abilities.
  10. Jun 7, 2009 #9
    Sorry late response, I appreciate the replies though.
    Well as far as the options jtbell laid out, I'd rather not completely transition into another field, finances, programming, etc., since physics is where my passion lies. I suppose my favorite would be assistant professorial work, unfortunately it seems that option is rather unrealistic...

    I may start another thread or just keep looking through others about the ever-present question about colleges; I would love to go somewhere like University of Chicago or Caltech, but those, especially Caltech would be reach schools given the extreme competition there is for acceptance there.

    One thing I haven't found a solid answer for is: how important is where you do your undergraduate studies versus where you go to graduate school? Obviously I realize that if ones goes to a lower reputation state school for a physics undergraduate degree, they aren't likely to get into MIT for graduate school, but other than that I don't know how much it actually matters.
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