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Physics Becoming a professor at a top university?

  1. Sep 7, 2016 #1
    How possible is it to get a tenure track position at a top 30 or above university in physics? I know that getting any tenure-track position is hard in itself, but I'm also wondering about a specific rumor I heard a bunch of times that "you can only end up being a professor at a school lower than or equal to in rank to your grad school." I've found some cases where this isn't true in faculty lists, but even more where it does seem to be true... So does that mean, e.g., if I go to grad school in physics at a "top 10" I can kiss away any dreams of teaching at a "top 5?" Just wondering if anyone can debunk this...
    If not, why is this so?
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 7, 2016 #2
    Extremely hard. Close to impossible

    There is confounding going in here. Somebody who did their PhD in a place like Harvard are likely to be more talented or harder working then people who did their PhD in the university of South-Dakota. So they are more likely to have better publications in their post doc and thus also more chances on a tenure position.

    Note that it also depends a lot on the research done in a particular school. Somebody doing research in General Relativity will not very likely be hired by a university which has no research going on in this field.
  4. Sep 7, 2016 #3


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    Micromass beat me to it.

    This is not worth worrying about. At no point in any of the hiring committees that I've been on has anyone ever brought up the rank of a candidate's PhD graduate program. To be fair, I'm not at a "top 30" school, but I highly doubt that even at such schools academic pedigree itself plays much of a role in the process.

    If you really want to get into academia, it's better to think in terms of research opportunities and learning skills that will result in successful grant applications.

    It's better to make the place that you're at great because you are there, rather than seek to get into a place that is great without you.
  5. Sep 7, 2016 #4


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    In your doctoral thesis. propose a model for high temp superconductivity that explains all observations so far, and predicts an upper temp limit that is confirmed by later evidence. That should do it no matter where you sent to school ...
  6. Sep 19, 2016 #5
    Adviser clout plays a huge role. There are two top advisers I know of in applied physics/physics at my rank ~40 undergrad physics school, and a large percentage of their students became professors somewhere, including top schools (one at a top ten school in fancy theoretical physics, two at a top ten school from the applied physics professor doing applied theory/solid state device physics in engineering).

    The density of advisers with clout is higher at a fancy school than a normal school. Also, don't disregard the value of the fancy school's social network outside of your adviser. Networking plays the largest role in success in academia from what I can tell.
  7. Sep 19, 2016 #6
    Where do these ideas come from? Is there a list somewhere? I've never understood this presumed pecking order.
  8. Sep 19, 2016 #7
    Yeah, there are many lists. But I think they are pretty silly.
  9. Sep 19, 2016 #8


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    There are a lot of different groups that make these lists. It's not necessarily a bad thing. Few people disagree that the quality of one's education can vary depending on the school at which it was obtained. Some schools have better resources than others, better professors (or professors that don't see teaching as a chore that breaks up research time), higher professor to student ratios, better facilities, etc.

    But the thing is these rankings may include factors that are not relevant to an individual student. A small faculty that doesn't publish much isn't necessarily a bad thing if your focus is learning first year physics as a premed student. Of if you are interested in medical physics, the biggest name in the world won't help much if the school doesn't have a medical physics program.

    I think too often students get preoccupied with the name of the brand rather than the specific details of their education. Unfortunately this is much like purchasing a sweater for it's logo rather than it's ability to keep you warm when you're wet. If you only need it to impress the clique you run with - great. But if your lost in the woods - you don't want to be hoping that the logo did your homework for you.
  10. Sep 21, 2016 #9
    From the CVs I have been looking through in the top 30 universities, I have concluded that in order to get a position in such an institution
    either you need to take a position at some point of your career in one of them, i.e. postdoc, visiting scholar,
    or the group you did your thesis has to be really well appreciated in the scientific community,
    or considering that you have done your thesis from a smaller university somewhere else in the world ( not in the US or in UK ) this university has to have a very good reputation, for example in France thesis from ecole normale superieure or ecole polytechnique is greatly appreciated worldwide, even if these schools are not ranked in the top 30 or 50 I think in any list.

    I don't think this is valid.

    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 22, 2016
  11. Sep 24, 2016 #10
    How do I figure out which people at my university are the right people to work with. Of course, besides subject interest.

    My study advisor told me that to get a good internship, you should have a recommendation of someone with a full professorship. Just having a full prof.dr. title seems to impress, he told me. Of course, some people are known in the field.

    I looked at the academic records of some of the PI's here at my university. I looked at H-index. I know some of them were successful getting grants. I know some had publications in Nature sub-journals. The older ones are full professors. Some have a personal chair.

    It is hard to figure out which professor have PhD's with the best careers, it seems. And how well a professors PhD candidates do may not be correlated that strongly with how the professor herself/himself does.
  12. Sep 24, 2016 #11
    It's not trivial and there are no easy rules, you'll have to get a sense of who's important by learning about their field, talking to their students, looking at impact statistics (h index/papers published/where they are published), getting a sense of their reputation with their peers. Each of these is either hard to get or hard to interpret. An h-index is probably largely meaningless except for very coarse information for instance, while I couldn't get a grip on what the reputations of various faculty were until I'd been around and actually sat down with people at other universities who worked in the same field. Sometimes people who don't publish much and aren't super stars are held in very high regard. In some cases I found that the reputation of the so called leading figure in a field I was interested in was very poor scientifically.

    You basically have to do your research. Consider asking about specific faculty on physics forums, there are professors and students here who might be able to give an informed opinion.
  13. Sep 27, 2016 #12


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    I would agree advisor clout a huge factor. From what I have observed in my subfield, most of the people getting the best postdocs/junior faculty positions come from a very small number of institutions and also a small number of research groups.
  14. Oct 3, 2016 #13
    There is no doubt that a good advisor, Dean of the School, and a program that looks out for the students' future is pretty much what it's all about. Nowadays, networking, which is also essential, is easier than it was in the '70's. While I was studying geophysics and not exotic realms of physics, some of the lessons apply to any discipline. I think that the people involved with my development always had an eye on where it was going to take me. My advisor knew I was interested in philosophy and had arranged a lectureship/postdoc at Yale in philosophy. As I was finishing up, the Dean sat down with me and said there were opportunities open for me at Harvard, Columbia and Caltech if I was interested. My networking skills sucked because of my introverted personality, but over the years people at several universities knew what I was working on because of my interaction with them at meetings and conventions. A couple lessons were learned over the years-- my most successful movements professionally were via contacts within companies I was interested in (that is, networking is a useful, almost essential process) and you have the tools and abilities to re-invent yourself to adapt to opportunities.
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