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Are jobs in academia really as rare as two-fish says?

  1. Dec 15, 2011 #1
    I'm finishing my first semester in university with a 4.0 GPA taking Honours classes, I'm working on a paper that will be published with a post-doc in Physics, and I have a summer research position lined up. I'm doing a double Honours Astrophysics and Mathematics program and I've already read ahead in many textbooks such as topology, real analysis, and convex geometry.

    Given this initial head start, if I continue to get lucky with my opportunities and finish my undergraduate with a very high GPA (3.9-4.0), would I be in a suitable position to get into a top grad school and then a professorship (later)? I know that is a massive assumption that I would be able to make it as far as finishing my undergraduate with a 4.0, but entertain the thought for a minute.

    Are there thousands of other students out there just like me, who would be applying to the top grad schools as well in a couple of years? Anyone who has been at the top, gone to graduate school at a top 10-25 school, is the competition really as fierce as everyone on this forum makes it out to be? I know it is quite premature to be saying any of this, but I would rather crawl up in a hole and die than not pursue an academic career... I would not be able to work on some menial tasks all day long that do not contribute to human knowledge or grant the personal satisfaction and excitement that deep thinking does.

    tl;dr: For someone who is having a good start in their undergraduate and "seems" like they have the potential to continue with that success, if I play my cards right will I be able to end up in a research position if I keep at it for as long as it takes?
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  3. Dec 15, 2011 #2


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    It's not easy to get a job as a professor. Many people start out strong, then things just don't work out at some point - I was in a similar position to you at that point in my career, but didn't get into a top grad school (too many people with similar resumes), got a good postdoc after grad school at a lower-ranked school, and just got a tenure-track position. It's not at a top school, but I'm happy with it. Friends of mine aren't so lucky; many aren't getting interviews at all. It depends on a lot of factors. If you can manage to keep going strong, do some really impressive research in grad school, get a great postdoc or prize fellowship, you'll be on your way to a good job in academia. But there are no guarantees, and everyone else thinks they're on the same path.
  4. Dec 15, 2011 #3


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    It all depends. It depends on your specialty, your location, the people you know, etc etc. If you are passionate and do quality science, with a little luck, you should be OK. Your current grades are pretty good, and if you keep going, you should get into a grad school OK. Competition is fierce, so that just means you need to try harder than anyone else.

    It's impossible to say "yes, you'll get a professorship", because it's way more complicated than just getting good grades and publishing (unfortunately). Can you give a good talk? Network with others? Work well in teams? Are you female? (Sexism is alive and well in academia). Do you work in a up and coming field?

    I was just at a end of year Research School morning tea, and it was mentioned that the school hired 10 new permanent (tenured) staff this year. That's pretty good. In my country, we have a lot of "top heaviness" in academia - a high proportion of researchers are approaching retirement in the next few years, and it looks pretty good for aspiring academics.
  5. Dec 15, 2011 #4
    There are orders of magnitude more physics PhD's than there are academic positions available. Many of those PhD's were granted by top institutions. What sets you apart? You haven't even published any research yet, so how can you say that you're any more attractive than the thousands of other PhD's vying for the same ten academic positions? Go for a PhD if you like physics, but don't get it for the job security.
  6. Dec 15, 2011 #5
    Seeing as how my small time school keeps hiring MIT graduates, I'd say yes. Its also not a job where you have a constant stream of people leaving.
  7. Dec 15, 2011 #6


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    Jobs in academia are not plentiful. Rare? maybe not, but can you find them and clamp on? Probably not unless you are a a star.
  8. Dec 15, 2011 #7

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    Well, more like one order of magnitude. If the average professor graduates 10 students over his career, and only one replaces him, that's 10:1. We can argue that maybe it's 15, but it's not 100 or 1000.

    There are about 7500 full-time faculty jobs total in the US, a little more than half of which are in PhD-granting institutes. Retirements are about 3% of this (turnover is higher, but shuffling faculty positions doesn't create any new jobs, so there are perhaps 230 new jobs a year. If one is considering only research universities, that's more like 130. There are about 1500 new PhD grads a year.

    1500 >> 130. Also, every one of the 1500 is smart enough to earn a PhD in physics. That I think is the real problem: when faced with these numbers, students react "well, I am smart and hardworking and have always achieved academic success despite the odds; this doesn't apply to me." Only 10% or so of them are right.
  9. Dec 16, 2011 #8
    Vanadium, is the situation similar for Mathematics? I'm not sure whether I wanted to go into Physics or Mathematics, which is why I am doing both for an undergraduate and taking an extra year (it can only help me).

    Thanks for the advice.
  10. Dec 16, 2011 #9

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    I have no idea, but probably so. The essential point remains the same: a professor has N students and only one will replace him.
  11. Dec 16, 2011 #10
    Given this, what makes you think academia is the only route? If you love the schooling, which it seams you do, pursue that PhD. Try and work on something relevant to industry so that even if you don't land your dream job of professor, you still have transferable skills.
  12. Dec 16, 2011 #11


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    Another thing worth mentioning is that luck plays a large role: in the research (a.k.a. serendipidy), funding to the field you work in (a major disovery in your field can open up lots of doors, and make it easier to get funding), access to people/equipment (it IS much easier to do novel experiments if you have access to rare equipment) and last but not least being in the right place at the right time; even a very impressive CV won't help if there are no open positions in your field.

    Hence, whereas hard work will (obviously) increase your chances, you will always need a plan B.
  13. Dec 16, 2011 #12
    I don't think gaining a professorship hinges on your GPA and where you went to grad school as much as it seems to. Yes, there are more professors coming from the top schools, but how do you know the reason they're good is because they came from a top school? They could've have gone anywhere and been every bit the academic star they are. Of course, if you have a GPA so bad that you can't get in anywhere, then you're obviously screwed. But I see enough professors (usually foreign) coming from obscure and random schools who are stars at my school.

    This leads me to believe it's really more about the science you do than where you do it. If you want to pick a point of your academic career and label it "most important towards getting tenured professorship", I would say it's probably post-doc.
  14. Dec 16, 2011 #13


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    The only reason you would spend your whole career doing "menial tasks" in industry is because you aren't good enough to do anything more challenging. (And the fact is that there are plenty of graduates who aren't good enough to do any more than that, whatever it says on their degree certificate). Of course you will have to do some grunt work at the start, but that's how you find out what are the real world problems that need deep thinking to solve them.

    The amount of personal satisfaction, excitement, or deep thinking you get from what you do is mostly a fuction of yourself.

    And don't forget that the further you progress as an academic, the more time you will spend on "menial tasks" like paperwork, fundraising, sitting in endless committee meetings, reading applications from the next generation of wannabee no-hopers, etc, etc...
  15. Dec 16, 2011 #14
    I think this is correct, and to add, I should note that having what it takes to succeed in academia seems to involve more than merely having great talent for the subject. One needs to find a niche to be productive in, so that other people are willing to even consider the possibility of offering a life-long position to you. That means they'd like you as a colleague for a lifetime, and that one of those precious few spots Vanadium described will go to you.

    Well you know, you eat and drink water - perhaps that doesn't contribute to human knowledge, and probably doesn't always grant great excitement.

    All said, you might end up with an academic career. But think of it this way - you may have no choice where you are ending up, and not everyone wants to accept every last downside to the life *prior* to getting a tenure-track position. They may take some temporary positions initially, but it starts getting to be ridiculous after a certain point, if nobody is taking you. When getting into a good graduate school is so hard in physics and mathematics, there is no way it isn't insanely tough to get past that stage. Even at the stage of graduate school, I get the feeling there are more candidates who are very prepared for X program than are spots, so some selection process need be made, come what may.
  16. Dec 16, 2011 #15
    Regarding AlephZero's comment - I believe it is true that one won't end up doing something totally menial unless that's all one is trained to do. But, I do think finding a very interesting real-world problem to solve and solving it, depending on what one means by this, can be something only a few people actually will end up doing, and not *just* because they are talented enough to notice these problems, but also that they were in the right place at the right time. Unlike in academia, where you can sit down and keep thinking and thinking, industry seems to be quite ruthless about keeping people productive... of course those who aren't productive in academia will eventually lose the game, but it can be some time before they do. There are a LOT more tasks involving some relatively menial work than there are creative solutions to fairly big real-world issues. I do believe quite a few people with the intelligence and drive to do something less "menial" might not end up doing so simply because of the hard facts.

    But I don't know for sure that this is the case - I only suspect it. This means I certainly don't know for sure that this is not the case.
  17. Dec 16, 2011 #16
    If you're really, really good and decide to go into academia, you may get to work on interesting problems. If you're really, really good and you decide to go into industry, you may get to work on interesting problems. There are plenty of people in the University of South XYZ running the same experiments 1000x. The only way that's not menial is if you manage to rip it out of context and romanticize it. But the same can be done (perhaps more easily) in industry or medicine.
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2011
  18. Dec 16, 2011 #17
    ^ Ah yes, you're very correct - there's a big difference between academia in different fields. I get the feeling one is more likely to get away with doing something non-menial in a field such as mathematics, as opposed to a field where someone can tell you what to do in a lab, and you have to do it.
  19. Dec 16, 2011 #18
    Here's my idea on the whole. Yes, it is a pyramid structure, with only a few on the academic top. However, not everybody sees becoming a professor as the best possible career. Actually, only a few of my PhD colleagues even considered continuing in academia after finishing their PhDs. So if you really want to continue in academia and you have a good track record (i.e. they have actually heard of you and read some of your papers even before you applied for a vacancy) then you will have a very good chance.

    But: you also must realize that this is an international thing. You should be prepared to do a postdoc on the other side of the world, take an assistant professorship at yet another place and realize that the chances of becoming a professor at your alma mater will be pretty slim.
  20. Dec 16, 2011 #19
    I don't think it matters what discipline you're in. Besides, there is a lot to learn from menial tasks. Wisdom rather than knowledge. I learned more about 21st century late capitalist existance hole-punching manuscripts than I ever did reading books on cultural theory.
  21. Dec 16, 2011 #20
    @ander: at the "lower levels," I am fairly sure it matters, in that you are less likely to be a smart person ending up having little say in what you're working on, assigned to work under some professor in a lab, if you are in a field that is more "pen and paper". At the end of the day though, everyone faces the music and getting a full time position seems to be tough, regardless the field, and certainly in some of the hyper-competitive "pen and paper" fields.

    I don't deny there is an experience to be gained from everything.
  22. Dec 16, 2011 #21

    True, and not all menial work is created equal. I (like you maybe) have a fear of ending up spending my life carrying out experiments I care nothing about in a lab somewhere. This is maybe caused by the story of my hs chem teacher who left a prestigious chem phd program because as I understood it he got sick of being a poorly paid lab rat for some professor.On the other hand I don't think I'd mind as much writing code all day.
  23. Dec 16, 2011 #22
    Yes and no.

    The bad news is that research professorships in physics are rather uncommon, and even if everything works out for you, you are likely not going to get a research professorships.

    The *GOOD* news is that most people that do physics research are *NOT* research professors. First of all, if you successfully finish a Ph.D. you will be a physics researcher. The requirement for getting a physics Ph.D. is that you complete a piece of original research, and the reason that universities have graduate students is so that they can get physics researchers cheap.

    The other *GOOD* news is that while most Ph.D.'s don't become physics professors, a majority do end up with research careers. Among the jobs available are:

    1) non-tenured research scientist at a university - At my old department, you had about 20 tenure/tenure-track faculty and about 20 or so non-tenured research scientists. I have a good friend that ended up director of supercomputing at a major university. He isn't a professor, and does not have tenure track, but it's a very important and impressive job.

    2) "backdoor" researcher - I know of several people that work as system administrators at universities. Their job description is that they just do network programming and system administration, but they've been able to publish papers, and being a researcher is an "informal" part of their job description

    3) research scientist at a national lab - know a lot of people that did this

    4) industrial researcher - Which is what I'm doing. There are industrial researchers that have the title physicists, and also people like me that do what is computational physics in all but name.

    5) People that end up doing nothing to do with physics. I know several Ph.D.'s that have ended up doing nothing to do with physics, but even they did physics for several years while doing their Ph.D.

    My point is if you absolutely want be a physics professor then it looks bad, but this obsession with becoming a physics professor is very unhealthy. If you want to research physics, then everything changes.

    That's the attitude that I want to get rid of. It's simply not the case that academia is the only place where you can "contribute to human knowledge." Also you *will* be spending a lot of your time in industry doing menial tasks, but you'll be spending most of your time in academia doing menial tasks to. About 95% of research involves lots of things that are menial. That's why having a ton of graduate students is important.

    It's not particularly difficult to end up with a *research position*. All you really have to do is to get admitted to graduate school and you'll be a physics researcher.
  24. Dec 16, 2011 #23
    It's not. Also academia and industry are not separate streams. I know of a half dozen people that I work with that have gotten appointments as adjunct instructors in big name schools. Conversely most professors that I know have something in the back room.

    Something about professors is that once you look at them closely they look less and less like dream jobs. It's wonderful to end up a senior full professor, but getting there doesn't look like much fun, and there are alternative better routes to that.
  25. Dec 16, 2011 #24
    As far as getting a research professorship, that's total false. You have N spots and 10*N applicants. As far as your specialty, your location, the people you know, the quality of your research, you are not likely to be any better than the other applicants.

    So it boils down to luck and 1 in 10 is not a "little luck."

    One problem is that most people that go into physics have usually been at the top of their class in the past. In high school, you can get ahead by studying harder than the next person. However, this stops working once you get to graduate levels since you are competing against people that are as good as you are.

    Now if you are looking at a career doing physics research then the odds are 2 in 3, and if you are looking at doing physics research your odds are 1 in 1. By definition you will get a physics Ph.D. unless you convince your committee that you are a physics researcher.

    It's possible to say that you probably won't, and that you should think about what happens if you don't.

    In the US, people have been talking about retiring professors for the last thirty years, and it hasn't happened. The problem is that everyone is in a budget cutting mood, so when a professor retires, that's an excuse to save money by not hiring anyone new.
  26. Dec 17, 2011 #25
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