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Astrophysics - Safe Choice vs Risky Choice

  1. Feb 18, 2014 #1
    Hello all,

    I was hoping to get some advice from people who have already completed their phd and have faced the real world situation of the post-doc pressures and job market. I am at a cross-roads now that I have been admitted to some graduate programs, and I am really struggling to decide which direction to go in. I will be completing my B.S. in a few short months and I have already been accepted into to some top schools.

    On one hand I have been accepted into a top 10 school for astrophysics (I won't get too specific but it is outside the top 5). I'm not sure what field of astrophysics interests me the most yet, but I mentioned observational cosmology in my application and I do find this field very fascinating. Now my dilemma is this, it seems like a PHD in astrophysics from any school like this is like buying a lottery ticket. I would really like to know what the job situation is like for a good student who comes from outside those big top 5 schools (A lot of things I have read are scary).

    Now on the other hand I have been accepted into CU-Boulders astrophysical department, with a specialization in a field that will give me almost guaranteed employment with NASA, Harvard-Smithsonian, etc. once I get my PHD (Solar Physics to be specific, according to Boulder's website ~90% of their PHD graduates from this department have gained a research or academic position in their field). However, I'm not sure that I have the passion for this field of research. That's not to say that I wouldn't enjoy the research, I just don't feel an overwhelming urge to do it.

    I'm just trying to make up my mind between these two options and would like to know some more of the facts. I'm having trouble finding anything truly useful on the AIP website (The most I could find was doctorate's 1 year later, this seems like a rather useless statistic given the high turnover of post-doc jobs). I'm not certain about the average percentage of people end up getting to do research in their field, but I've heard that it is somewhat dismal, as in ~ 30-40%, and guess that just as many are likely to take whatever they can find in the field of industry.

    I know that it is silly to obsess over odds but I'm going to be investing the next 10 years of my life into physics and while I know I'll enjoy the process, I'm scared of getting screwed over and not finding meaningful employment after all that work. I know that I liked the field of solar physics enough that I feel productive and enjoy doing it for the rest of my life. What I don't know is what the numbers say about risking it and going for the gig at the top 10 school. I would really like to find out if the job prospects are as grim as they say (even for a potentially strong researcher coming from a top school). If anyone could weigh in I'd appreciate it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 19, 2014 #2
    Crystal ball is not working. I think you are overthinking this. You have no way of telling what the science funding situation will be like 5-6 years from now, nor the availability of post-docs in any particular field, much less staff positions at scientific institutions or universities in that field. If you're hoping for a smooth-sailing carreer path, science is absolutely not the way to go, in any discipline. But I can assure you -as someone who has emigrated over half a dozen times to radically different countries- hopping around is not so bad and it's actually an enriching experience.

    I've heard it from the mouth of 2 professors at this stage, though I'm taking it out of context: "a phd is the best time in your life to be a risk-taker". High risk endeavors can produce high yield. But even if you get forced out of the running, a physics/astronomy phd from a top school has a pretty good job market open to them right now. IME, after roughly a year of searching for a job with a BS in physics, you are infinitely better off with than without the phd, as now you'd have to compete with each and every Tom, Dick and Harry that just graduated with an engineering degree and job-specific skills for specific entry level positions, assuming you want anything that even remotely resembles a STEM job. There are no generalist jobs.

    Geographical inflexibility will stunt your employment opportunities much, much more than if you do a thesis on coronal particle acceleration or IC scattering of the CMB in galactic x-ray cavities. I think AIP (or APS?) had an article on this suggesting it was the biggest contributor to people abandoning science (including gov't institutions) or scientifically-oriented jobs (ie: policy).

    Edit: Anyway, visit the schools, make a gut-based decision if it comes down to it, hope for the best and enjoy your time in grad school. I'm currently in a similar position, choosing amidst 2-3 grad schools. One is top ~40 the other is top ~20 if that means anything to you, but they both have solid track records of people getting jobs in their field (comparable to what you said about CUB) and I really like the research (both very similar), so it's a hard decision.
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2014
  4. Feb 20, 2014 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    As they say, "past performance is no guarantee of future results". There are no safe choices. Things change - a hot field today could be dead as dust in 5 years. Or 30. Or not.
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