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Becoming a professor is that impossible?

  1. Aug 26, 2010 #1
    For a couple of months now, maybe years, I've discovered that my real dream job would be becoming a university professor (I like both the research and the teaching parts). I've heard about how tough it is to land a tenure-track job. I'm not from the US, but I plan on getting a Ph.d there, starting 2011 (University not confirmed yet). Does this lower my chances of eventually getting the job?
    I believe that I would have to go through at least 2 postdocs to have a decent chance nowadays. But then, if after those 2 postdocs you don't get the job, you're pretty much screwed, because Universities want people who have gotten their Ph.d no more than a couple of years ago. This makes me hesitate a lot indeed... imagine going through the phd, then 2 postdocs, only to be rejected at all the Universities you apply to.

    I just want to know if it's really THAT hard as people put it out to be. Please, try to discuss a little your opinions, don't just post "yeah it's very hard". I know it's hard... but is it really a good, reasonable goal to aim for?

    Thanks a lot in advance, I hope you can help, I've being stressing out over it lately.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 26, 2010 #2


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    Well I'm afraid all I have is, it's really hard. Sorry :biggrin:.

    But what you can do is look up some posts by one of our members, twofish-quant. He is quite knowledgeable about this and has answered similar questions (yes, the question comes up frequently). Good luck.
  4. Aug 27, 2010 #3
    If you finish your physics Ph.D., you have roughly a 1 in 10 chance of eventually ending up a professor at a research university. In other words, get your physics Ph.D. with the assumption that you ***won't*** be a professor at a major research university.

    For most Ph.D.'s, being a professor at a university is not merely going to be hard, it's impossible. If you have 100 candidates and 10 job openings, it will turn out that getting the job will be impossible for 90 people. More than likely you are going to be in that 90.

    Anything is a reasonable goal *if you are realistic about your chances of getting it*. My goal has always been to be a captain of a starship. It's not going to happen, but that doesn't make it a bad goal, since I'm going in knowing that it's not going to happen.

    Your main goal in getting a Ph.D. should be to get a Ph.D. Your main goal in doing physics research is to do physics research. One of the really weird things that I don't quite understand is why people always do things for the sake of something else rather than for their own sake.
  5. Aug 27, 2010 #4
    Also one question that you really do have to ask yourself is why you want to be a physics professor.
  6. Aug 27, 2010 #5
    Hi there,

    This is the important question to ask. And before saying, I like teaching and research, go and ask some professors what is their major task. In some research institutes, the teaching is left to the graduate students, the research is left to the post-docs. From what I saw, the professorship is a race after subvention, research topics, collaboration, and publication.

  7. Aug 27, 2010 #6
    do you know the odds of ending up a professor at any kind of university? not necessarily a major research uni
    Last edited: Aug 27, 2010
  8. Aug 27, 2010 #7


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    Here are statistics for the number of academic physics departments in the USA who recruited new faculty members in 2003 and 2005, separated according to the highest degree offered:


    (from http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/highlite/acad/awfhigh.htm)

    Of course, not all the PhD-granting institutions are what most people would consider "major research universities." Also, many bachelor's-only institutions (small liberal-arts colleges etc.) do require their faculty to do some research, although on a smaller scale than at research-oriented universities, and on projects that undergraduates can participate in. (no graduate assistants or postdocs at those schools!)
  9. Aug 27, 2010 #8


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    I don't think it's that unreasonable of a goal to aim to be a professor, but at the same time, you have to keep your eyes open and be realistic about the opportunities that come your way.

    The data about academic employment opportunities that was have is for right now - or more to the point much of it is actually several years old. For a student entering undergrad now, realistically a decade or more is going to pass before you're going to be in a position to apply for a tenure-track position, and it's very difficult to to say what the situation will be like then. It's possible that tenured positions could go the way of the dinosaur.

    I think the real trick is, as others have alluded to, pursue an education for the sake of the education. As much as possible try to pick up marketable skills, because you never really know what the future holds.
  10. Aug 27, 2010 #9
    I've labored over this question many times in the past and don't think about it all that much lately.

    The reason that it's out of my head is because, as twofish always elegantly states, the numbers don't lie. 1 in 10 is pretty crappy. At this point in my life, I'm doing mathematics for the mathematics, grad school for the degree and hope I might be lucky enough to get a professorship one day. Note: that's hope which does not equal "am counting on". If anything, I'm relegating getting a professorship akin to winning the (albeit smaller) lottery.

    These days I'm thinking that I'll end up working for the government or teaching at a non research university or college. Going into finance wouldn't be my first choice, but if I had to, I would without hesitation.
  11. Aug 27, 2010 #10
    You mean does a PhD decrease job prospects? Absolutely not. You'll have oodles of marketable skills afterwards, assuming you play your cards right.

    Pretty much. Some people get lectureships after one post-doc, but some people are just very good and very lucky :smile:

    For some reason you seem set on hearing something other than "yes, it's that hard". You have done the reading - you know what people are going to say. They aren't going to tell you want to hear.

    Don't. You're way too far off to worry about that. For instance, if you're doing a PhD because you want to be a professor - then you shouldn't be doing a PhD. In short: Yes, it's that difficult and no, it isn't really a reasonable goal to aim for. But then, it depends what you mean by reasonable. It isn't as unlikely as winning the lottery, of course, and you can certainly give academia a shot. It's just that you shouldn't bet on it.

    Thought 1: Do a PhD because you want to. If you don't want to, find the job that is closest to approximating what you can see yourself doing otherwise.

    Thought 2: Think carefully about the point twofish makes. Why do you want to be a professor? You might think you know what it would be like, but you don't - though if you you do go for a PhD you will get a much better idea of what academic life is like.

    Now, I'm not in a tenured position but this is my experience: It isn't all roses like some people seem to think - it can be very difficult, and extremely stressful. Deadlines and grant applications are a total nightmare - I haven't met anyone that likes filling them in, and it takes up a huge amount of time. This and meeting people/networking to try to convince anyone to give you money so you can actually do research leaves a surprisingly small amount of time to actually do research. As for the teaching, it can be enlightening but it can also be frustrating. Putting effort into a course then seeing students slack/not care is disappointing, and being asked to take classes at the last minute can make you feel like an unprepared fool (because you are, in that case). Eventually you'll have to supervise grad students as well, taking up a few more hours per week (often many more - grad students might only see their supervisor for an hour or two per week but there is usually lots of behind-the-scenes preparation that goes into caring for a student).

    Now, the above might sound like a scathing assessment, but I just don't think the negative aspects are highlighted often enough. Yes, many people think that the benefits outweigh the cons - and that's why we do it, and why it's so competitive. But you should try to remember that once you're in the job, there are plenty of annoyances just like there are with any other position. Basically, don't be too disheartened by the outlook on prospects for aspiring academics. If you decide you'd enjoy it, then by all means it's something to try for. There are jobs out there that might fit your interests in a similar way - don't think that a university is the only place you'll be able to research and think for yourself. Depending on what your area/field is/becomes there is some stunning and innovative work going on at companies both big and small. Sure, the goals might be different a lot of the time - eventually going on to something that can make money rather than just for the pure knowledge of it, but that doesn't change the fact that you would get to spend a lot of time doing something you enjoy.
  12. Aug 28, 2010 #11
    For teaching universities there more space but there is still pretty fierce competition, and if you want a professorship at a community college somewhere, it's basically yours.
  13. Aug 28, 2010 #12


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    If you're looking for a position at a teaching-oriented institution (e.g. a bachelor's-only liberal arts college) you need to convince them that you really are interested in that sort of thing for the long haul (at least the forseeable future; lots of people have honest changes of heart), and are not simply looking for something to "tide you over" until you can find a "real" research-oriented position.

    I teach at such a school. Every time we've had to fill a vacancy, we've gotten 100 to 200+ applications, and almost immediately thrown out 90% of them for being too heavily research-oriented.

    Many schools like this do want people who can do research, but it has to be do-able with limited local support, and it has to be able to involve undergraduates. The whole point of doing research at these schools is to provide experience for undergraduates.

    When I was looking for a job after grad school, which eventually led me to where I am now, I think three factors were the most important: (1) I had taught a couple of classes at a community college while I was a grad student, in addition to being a teaching assistant for labs at the university; (2) I had gotten my bachelor's degree at a small liberal-arts college similar to the ones that I was applying to, and therefore had experience with that environment; (3) I was able to bring something else besides a pure physics background, namely extensive programming experience which enabled me to teach introductory computer science courses as well as physics courses. (This was in the 1980s when personal computers were not as common as they are now.)
    Last edited: Aug 28, 2010
  14. Aug 28, 2010 #13
    I meant, does the fact that I'm a non-US citizen harm my chances of landing the job?

    Anyway, thanks for all the comments, I really appreciate them. Btw, I want to do the PhD because I love physics. That's pretty much it. But you eventually have to think on where you want to work... you have to make money to sustain a family and such. I don't see anything wrong in thinking about where you would like to see yourself working. My dream job would be a professor because I love teaching and researching (I've done both to a certain degree). But if I can get a physics research position I'd be glad too. Even a teaching position.
  15. Aug 29, 2010 #14
    For academic positions, it hurts slightly, but US immigration law is rather favorable toward people with Ph.D. degrees, and there are more positions than US citizens. One thing that is true about the US, is that being a professor is not a huge status position and given the low pay and difficulty getting a position, most US citizens go for something else.

    It's important to realize that this is a totally different issue than becoming a professor. Most physics Ph.D.'s do not end up in academic positions, but I know of no one that finds it difficult to support a family. Something that is important to mention is that with a physics Ph.D. you end up with no debt, and with a green card, and you can do something that is totally unrelated to physics if you want to. This *isn't* true of a lot of other degrees where you are trapped by debt. If you get a physics Ph.D., you can decide to sell used cars, if that what you want. You *don't* have that option if you go to law school.
  16. Aug 31, 2010 #15
    And, remember, psychologists have shown that lottery winners end up no happier,on average, than other people - and many become unhappier. Thinking that the your only route to happiness is to become a physics professor is really, really silly.
  17. Aug 31, 2010 #16

    Vanadium 50

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    I disagree. They pass out instructorships like candy, but professorships are rare. The community college I am most familiar with just got it's second line position. The first was the chair. They have ~10-15 instructors.
  18. Aug 31, 2010 #17
    Uh, hold on a second dude, I think you've got a mistaken impression of something. It's true that there are jobs out there that demand new PhDs, but all of these are first time postdoc jobs (I once saw the "PhD no more than two years old" requirement on a medical physics postdoc). You don't need to have gotten your PhD two years ago to become a professor. Most PhDs do a postdoc or three, so they expect that you'll be several years out of grad school. If you've been doing postdocs from the end of grad school up to your application for a postdoc, they'll consider you. In fact, someone who got their PhD only a couple years ago would likely be rejected, since they would hardly have even had enough time to do one postdoc.

    Having said that, I agree with you that the professorship route is too risky. I've decided that after grad school, I'm not even going to apply for postdocs. To me it seems like a waste of my time on an investment that will likely yield no return (just my personal opinion, nothing more). I know some people who do postdocs and don't get professorships still feel that their time was well spent, since they got to do exciting physics and stuff. But to me physics is just a job, not a way of life, and I don't really care about making discoveries for their own sake. I just want a decent and secure job that pays the bills. So I guess I'm just not cut out for the postdoc route.
  19. Aug 31, 2010 #18
    I'll never understand what people think is so bad about working in industry. I can't believe some would rather take a job at a community college. You may not have a free choice on what you work on, but you still have plenty of influence. Plus there is way more $$$$$$ both for your research and your salary. Finally, I have found that industry is more satisfying because it is much faster paced, and significant accomplishments must be made on a daily basis to keep the money flowing.
  20. Aug 31, 2010 #19
    I guess the reason is that some people like the freedom to work on the problems that interest them. And while there's still funding to worry about, as you yourself said, you've got more of a choice to do what you want. Maybe it's just a matter of opinion. For some of us, freedom to work on problems of our choice isn't important. Just speaking for mysef here, but I'll work on whatever someone tells me to work on as long as said person keeps paying me. For others, this sort of thing is necessary for job satisfaction. Perhaps that's why some people don't mind moving from postdoc to postdoc.
  21. Aug 31, 2010 #20

    Andy Resnick

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    My experience in industry was largely enjoyable, and I was fortunate to work with some truly talented people. I agree, working in industry does not make one a 'second class citizen'.
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