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Being a professor where you want

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  1. Aug 9, 2013 #1
    Whenever I look at the careers of famous physicists, current and past, they seem to only attend prestigious universities. They graduate with a PhD from some great physics school and immediately start teaching somewhere very well regarded, whether it's Princeton or MIT. I've also read "So You Want to Be a Physicist," where zapperz mentions that the majority of physics jobs are posted in Physics Today.

    I searched in Physics Today's Jobs just today and found one postdoc opportunity at Princeton. No matter when I search, I can't seem to find any assistant or associate professorships at any highly ranked physics universities. I assume that all of these great physicists do well, are known in their field, etc.

    My question is, how do these people snag jobs at universities like MIT, Caltech and Princeton if those universities never seem to publicize those jobs?
     
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  3. Aug 9, 2013 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Virtually none of what you wrote is true. Many successful physicists got degrees at places other than "Princeton and MIT", most do not go straight from PhD to faculty, and faculty jobs are advertised - although usually not in July.
     
  4. Aug 9, 2013 #3
    By "Princeton and MIT" I mean to say, large, big name, very prestigious schools where a faculty member could find lots of funding for research.

    I'm aware that it isn't typical to go straight from PhD to faculty, I'm asking how this small percentage of physicists prove themselves in order to achieve faculty positions at schools like these.

    I'm also asking how, even though big name universities don't typically have openings for professorship every year, these physicists seem to immediately find a job there -- is it their research? Their professional contacts?
     
  5. Aug 9, 2013 #4

    jtbell

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    Advertisements will appear this fall (September or October onwards), for positions that start in fall 2014.
     
  6. Aug 9, 2013 #5
    Its important to remember that the career of physicist was very different before the second world war, and the period between the end of WW2 and 1970 (Goodstein called this the golden age of physics) was also very different then today.

    When you read a biography of a famous physicist, odds are their career path was very different then the standard career path today.

    For a few telling examples of the differences- peer review in the pre-WW2 period was non-existent. Only one of Einstein's papers was ever peer reiviewed in the sense we think of it today. In the post-WW2 period, postdocs were rare, and most grant proposals were funded (funding was growing fast enough to accommodate the growing number of physicists). Post-1970, the field entered its big-crunch phase (also borrowing from Goodstein).

    Many of the famous scientists you read about had careers during that golden period when funding was plentiful and universities were expanding. That world, that career path, doesn't exist anymore and its not coming back.
     
  7. Aug 9, 2013 #6
    Not that I disagree with anything else you said, but what makes you think "it's not coming back." ?

    BiP
     
  8. Aug 9, 2013 #7

    jtbell

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    In the US at least, during the post WW2 period, universities in general were expanding rapidly, and new universities were being built, because more and more students were going on to university from high school. Also, there was some political urgency in competing with the Soviet Union to produce more scientists and engineers, and expand research in various fields. A related phenomenon was the "space race" which led to putting men on the moon. That growth had to stop at some point. Also, I think there was an economic recession around 1970.

    When I was in college in the early 1970s, one of the physics professors left and the college hired a new guy. He told us that when he started graduate school, jobs for new PhD's were easy to get, but by the time he finished, he considered himself lucky to get a small-college teaching job. He did end up finding a research position at Oak Ridge a couple of years later.

    I suppose it's possible that a new reason will emerge for compelling urgency to expand science and engineering, but it's kind of hard to predict things like this. Maybe China will become more belligerent... (but that's a topic for the P&WA forum, not here!)
     
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2013
  9. Aug 9, 2013 #8

    Vanadium 50

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    Consider HEP: the six "Snowmass" conveners, who are six of the most important people in US HEP at the moment. They are graduates of Aachen, Carnegie-Mellon, Cornell, Iowa State, Stanford and Wisconsin.

    If you pulled a half-dozen people out of a good department, that's also the sort of distribution you would see.

    They don't. Not any more. Can you give any modern examples?
     
  10. Aug 9, 2013 #9
    How would you imagine the glory days returning? We currently create many more physics phds then their are jobs for physicists. If you double the number of physics faculty overnight, everyone currently a postdoc has won the lottery and will get a faculty position, but then the problem immediately starts over again.

    All of our science institutions grew-up and make sense in a world of increasing funding (look at peer review- its great for vetting work, but when you use it to allocate scarce resources you open the door for all sorts of unethical behavior). When the NIH budget doubled, there was very little new faculty hiring, but the number of graduate students and postdocs increased.
     
  11. Aug 9, 2013 #10

    StatGuy2000

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    The natural response, therefore, to handling an oversupply of physics PhDs (and the consequent devaluing of the value of said PhD) is to do one of two things: (1) direct these physics PhDs outside of academia or research (their preferred area of work) to industry or to cognate work (e.g. in your case, working in statistical analysis); or (2) reduce the number of physics PhDs.

    Option #1 is the current default for many PhDs, but the consequence is that the majority of said PhDs are essentially unhappy that they have invested so much time and effort into pursuing a research field that ultimately for the majority did not pay off in related work.

    Option #2 is doable by the following: (a) limiting the enrollment of physics PhDs in leading universities, (b) cutting funding even further for basic research, (c) discouraging students from pursuing physics as a field of study through counselling or through social media, (d) restricting the # of international students intending to study physics, and (e) closing down the # of physics departments in the US, possibly even closing some colleges/universities.
     
  12. Aug 13, 2013 #11
    And I have never understood why physics departments do so much advertising for physics. Why do they want more and more physics PhDs if there aren't enough appropriate jobs for them? I don't think the field would die if not for their advertising, since there will always be people that go into physics for the love of it. I find it really dishonest on their part. Even if they do it to increase the pressure on the government for more funding, I don't think it's the way (assuming that somehow having more PhDs means they can pressure the government into spending more money on them).
     
  13. Aug 13, 2013 #12
    Because without students who pay tuition fee and wannabe PhDs who are basically free labour, they won't survive. It's all about money.
     
  14. Aug 13, 2013 #13
    It's not such a bad idea. If we want effective higher education, only 10-20% of society should be enrolled in it. Rest should get solid general education and then high quality vocational training. Otherwise everything will go "boom".
     
  15. Aug 13, 2013 #14

    jasonRF

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    I am an electrical engineer, not a physicist. But I often evaluate resumes and interview physics PhDs. It is usually hard to see how they would work out unless they have something like unusually good experience designing, building and testing hardware, on top of doing serious statistical data analysis. Most PhDs have some of this, but few are at "the next level."

    I think that Physics departments could keep the number of grad students that have perhaps, but they would need to confront all first year PhD students with actual statistics on employment, and encourage students (perhaps even force, via breadth requirements) to expand beyond physics for at least part of their formal education and maybe even for a several month project. Perhaps a minor in electrical engineering or statistics or computer science or whatever. When I interview a physics PhD that has elected to take a few engineering courses (this does happen once in awhile) I can say that it really makes a difference. Finally, and this may seem like a little thing but it isn't, every physicist (undergrad even) should take a serious course on probability theory, preferably followed by a course on statistics. I have seen physicists not get hired for this single reason. Departments are doing wrong by their students if they do not require it for graduation, in my opinion.

    jason
     
  16. Aug 14, 2013 #15

    StatGuy2000

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    At the risk of getting off-topic, given that statistical mechanics makes heavy use of probability theory, it never ceases to amaze me that physics majors (or physics PhD students) often do not take serious courses in probability theory. It reminds me of this lament from Cosma Shalizi, a physicist-turned-statistician now at Carnegie Mellon University on his blog back in 2004:

    http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/297.html
     
  17. Aug 14, 2013 #16

    ZapperZ

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    This needs to be corrected, because it is false.

    Most physics graduate students DO NOT pay tuition and fees. In fact, at some of the most expensive schools in the US (Stanford, Cornell, Princeton, etc.), most of the students accepted into their PhD programs receive some form of assistantships, predominantly from the schools. The amount of actual tuition and fees from full-paying students in these physics programs amount to almost nothing when compared to the departments' budget. So the enticements for graduate students in physics is DEFINITELY not about the money these schools get from tuition and fees.

    Secondly, and as a consequence of the above, schools simply don't want to attract PhD students for "cheap labor", because you can't create cheap labor without having funds to pay for them. What this means is that there is already work and projects that need to have such students. In the US, grant agencies such as the NSF often REQUIRE or mandate that part of the money be used to train future physicists in that particular area or with those particular skills. So the grant recipients will have slots open to hire PhD candidates as Research Assistants. In other words, there is a clear NEED for such work force other than just having warm bodies as "cheap labor". That is why one often sees advertisements for PhD students to work in such-and-such area.

    Zz.
     
  18. Aug 14, 2013 #17
    But I wasn't talking about graduate students but undergraduate who pay tuition fee. If you want to have PhDs, first you need to lure undergrads. So faculties lure young people with "physicists are great problem solvers and fast learners so Physics degree is very marketable yada yada ********". Later on those people are forced to do PhD because getting a job with bachelor only is almost impossible. At least you in USA can take engineering/statistic classes but in Europe you need to take all classes from Physics curriculum so if you want to learn sth about engineering/statistic you are forced to double major.

    But isn't it all about money? After all if NSF project required good scientists rather than PhD students cost would be greater (I can't see 35-40 years old working for 20k$ per year). It's not like there is real need for PhDs, rather NSF forces universities to produce more PhDs as cheap labour rather than taking care of already existing ones.
     
  19. Aug 14, 2013 #18
    I'm not sure about university jobs but I read (somewhere) that about 90% of all employment positions are never advertised; rather, they are filled via word-of-mouth.

    That old saying "It's not what you know; it's who you know" certainly has some validity in higher education.
     
  20. Aug 14, 2013 #19
    I roughly agree with Rika. Physics departments seek undergraduates because it maintains their undergraduate programs financially, and graduate students are cheap labor for the department (whether they are cheap for society is another question entirely).

    However I also agree with Zz that there is a demonstrated need for this work force. Inexpensive educated employees who demand little in the way of benefits, require no job security, expect weak long term career prospects but nevertheless work amazingly hard, are very valuable to their employer.
     
  21. Aug 14, 2013 #20

    ZapperZ

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    Please note that Rika was responding to Bardeen's comments about PhD students, not undergraduates. Undergraduates tend to not have direct financial support from their institutions (i.e. the student loans, financial aids, etc. often do not come from the schools), and thus, the schools do take in tuition and fees there, even though they still do not cover completely the full financial expenses of the school. This is not the same situation for Physics PhD students, who often do receive direct financial assistantships from the schools themselves, either from the department via TAships, or from individual professors via RAships.

    The problem here is that research work done when one is a graduate student isn't the same as jobs in the work force. Think about it. The students are actually PAYING (whether directly or indirectly) to do that work via the research course that they enroll in. In other words, the research work is PART of the students' coursework and training. The students pay for the number of credits enrolled for that thesis research course.

    In turn, the supervisor, or the school, will underwrite the students' tuition and fees, and pay a stipend to the student. This is not a job. In real work force, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will TAX the tuition and fees waver (in fact, the IRS did try to do that until Congress had to rewrite the law). So the work done as part of the students' PhD research work is considered as part of an educational training (which it is!), and is considered as part of the academic curriculum. It is just that it benefits both parties, you, and the supervisor/school. Thus, the supervisor/school award you financial incentives in return. It is not a job!

    Zz.
     
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