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Physics Are the Physics PhDs graying?

  1. Nov 5, 2008 #1
    So I was looking at the faculty pages of a few University's and it seems to me like the Professors are getting to that retiring age. On the website for the Plasma Physics department at Princeton, the earliest year that a Professor/lecturer/anyone got a PhD was like 1985, most of them were mid 60's to mid 70's.

    Anyways...it seems to me that they are getting older, so I was wondering, does anybody have any opinions as to what the future as in store for Physics PhDs? Will a lot of Professors be retiring soon? It seems that because a lot of Physics Professors are older makes it seem that in order to get a professorship, you have to put in 20 years as an assistant professor.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 6, 2008 #2
    They've been graying for some time now; at least, I've been hearing about it for more than a decade. No worries though; we've produced enough postdocs with no where to work that we can replace all those graying professors and still have some to spare.
  4. Nov 6, 2008 #3

    Andy Resnick

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    One absolutely cannot be an assisstant professor for 20 years- here, anyways, the "tenure clock" starts running the day of appointment to assistant professor and lasts 7 years- one must either have tenure (associate professor level) or be at a new job at the end of 7 years.

    This probably contributes to the use of a postdoc (or nontenure track appointment) as a 'holding pattern'.
  5. Nov 6, 2008 #4


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    You can however be a postdoc on temproarary contracts for your entire career.
  6. Nov 6, 2008 #5
    Ah...yes...I thought it was very intreresting that most of the assistant professors at Princeton got their PhDs in the 70s...they must have moved from postdoc to research scientist, worked at a few labs, then decided to settle down and go for a professorship.
  7. Nov 8, 2008 #6
    This only applies to the United States, these words have different meanings in other countries.

    I think there is a misunderstanding of the use of the term "assistant professor" by some people in this thread. An assistant professor is a full member of the faculty. They are expected to teach classes. serve on committees. run a lab (if applicable) and advise graduate students. These are all the same things that full professors do.

    Assistant professors can be thought of as new faculty who have received a full appointment but are still in a probationary period. At the end of that period (they very in length, usually around 6 years) a professor is said to "come up for tenure". Then they are evaluated by more senior members of the faculty as well as outside evaluators. Then two things can happen.

    They can be granted tenure and moved up to the rank of associate professor. Tenure makes them nearly impossible to fire without very extenuating circumstances. The other possibility is to be denied tenure. Typically a professor is not allowed to stay at an institution that has denied him tenure.

    Later on in a professor's career there will be a similar evaluation process to move up from associate professor to full professor. Here though, the stakes tend to be lower. It is not uncommon to be denied full professorship and remain an associate professor for one's entire career.

    Of course the precise meanings of these terms vary somewhat by institution. However, in general usage this is more-or-less what people tend to mean unless they are discussing the specifics of a particular university.
  8. Nov 10, 2008 #7

    Andy Resnick

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    That's true for tenure-track faculty positions. There is also a non-tenure track, and one can be assistant, associate, and even full professor on the non-tenure track. Tenure track appointments imply that the institution (not just the Department, or even the School) has made a commitment to the faculty member- to provide start-up funds and set aside lab space, for example.

    It's not clear to me how tenure will evolve, given the rise of extramural research dollars, and their importance to many institutions. A well-funded PI who is portable can elicit a bidding war between institutions, like free agency. The original goal of tenure, to allow academic freedom, becomes less meaningful when an award of tenure is increasingly based on the ability to secure funding.
  9. Nov 13, 2008 #8
    Often when the gray professors disappear, so do their positions. Universities are not cast in stone. They also change and evolve. We used to have the "Three R's", Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics as separate entities with their own departments. However, my old university decided to become a liberal arts university and the physics department no longer exists.

    So, don't count on university retirements for your next job. The university may decide to change direction or change emphasis.
  10. Nov 21, 2008 #9
    While universities do evolve, I doubt princeton is going to drop its physics department.
  11. Nov 22, 2008 #10
    That is a very good point. I wasn't asking about the University of Nobody-Gives-a-crap's...I was referring to places like MIT, Princeton, UC-All, U of A, Caltech, you know...techno places...U of A not really so much, but it is a D1 school with an alright science dept.
  12. Nov 22, 2008 #11
    I think there is no place for Science professors at this time. There is an excess of graduates and the mature professors tend to retire older. Besides, the common citizen just doesn't care about science and governments around the world just love to cut scientific programs from their budgets. Perhaps it's time to explore some other fields.
  13. Nov 22, 2008 #12
    Yeah...that does seem to be a factor for the job prospect...well you could always go to be an industrial Physicist...they tend to make pretty good money (at Los Alamos a senior R&D Physicist could make up to $260,000, a postdoc will start at about $60,000-$67,000, a level 1 R&D Physicist will start at maybe $80k or 90k and that's only for a few years then you move to over $100...though Los Alamos is very hard to get a job at due to the high standards of quality in their scientists, but that's just a tribute to how much the earning potentials are in industry)
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