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Do I have what it takes to become a physics professor?

  1. Jan 9, 2016 #1

    I am a first year college student, and I have been interested in becoming a physicist since I was 12. I enjoy thinking about physics concepts like space-time and black holes and so on. I took my first real physics class for prospective physics majors this past semester and got a B+. I got a grade above the average on the first midterm, below the average on the second midterm, and on the average on the final. I did all of the assigned work, and I feel like I understand the concepts. Maybe could have done more practice, and maybe if I had studied more for the second midterm and not made a mistake on one of the lab reports I could have gotten an A-. I go to an elite liberal arts college, where a majority of the students in the introductory physics class already took the class in high school. If I were to become a physicist I would want to become a physics professor so that I could do research without any immediate practical applications. I have heard that to get an academic appointment as a physics professor you have to pretty much be a genius and also get lucky. I would not want to work in engineering or in industry. Do I have any kind of reasonable chance of success in getting a position as a physics professor if, going off of the information I have now, I am the "average" physics student at an elite liberal arts college? Is the type of person who ends up getting this job the type of person who would easily be able to get an A in an introductory physics class on pure intelligence? If I am not at the top of my physics class does that mean that I am too far behind?
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  3. Jan 9, 2016 #2
    I don't think that getting a physics professorship is reasonable at all. It is a very difficult position to obtain. Only the top students go to grad school, and even then, of all those top students only 1 out of 10 eventually land a professorship. It is extremely competitive. You need to be smart, hard-working, but also have to be able to make good connections and you need a very high dose of luck.

    If I were you, I would go for the professorship. It is your dream, so you need to try everything to make it work. BUT you also need to develop a solid plan B for the very likely event that things don't work out. If you would ONLY be happy as a physics professor, then chances are enormous you will be very disappointed, no matter how smart you are.
  4. Jan 11, 2016 #3
    I have worked with and for many physics professors. Almost universally, they need to obtain grants from sponsors who are interested in practical applications of their research. Immediate is an interesting term. How long should the sponsor wait for scientific success; one year, ten years, a generation, or a lifetime. You might keep in mind even once you obtain a college professorship, you may not have the autonomy to work solely on what you want. Almost, no one does.
    Einstein had his miracle year while working in the patent office. Perhaps this freedom, which academia seldom grants, is what is needed. Alternatively, Feynman worked on the Manhattan project, and this is not the traditional academic tract. During this time, I am sure there was immediate interest in his efforts at the lab.
    I think those who can work on what they want are either retired, or several steps beyond early "college professor" to include the rare tenured professor with no administrative duties, no teaching, and no educational outreach, etc.
    The only mathematician I have met that had this autonomy was Paul Erdos, but his life was exceptional.
  5. Jan 11, 2016 #4


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    mpresic, the implication from your post above is that research in basic science (in any field) is almost impossible in the US (I assume you are from the US), for the reason that basic research often cannot yield practical applications, at least not directly for the sponsors who are willing to fund such research (depending on the mandate of the said sponsor). Is that what you are concluding?
  6. Jan 11, 2016 #5
    Perhaps that goes too far, but having a specific application in mind is definitely a bonus. If I apply for a grant in a very pure math topic, then if I indicate that it might be applied in this and this way, then that is a very useful bonus to my application. I don't say that sponsors don't give money to research without applications though.
  7. Jan 11, 2016 #6
    I think my post was a bit depressing: Let me get back to the point.

    1. Becoming a college professor (presumably in physics) does not guarantee you get to do research in an area without any immediate application. The push towards publishing may motivate you to "get on the scoreboard" by collecting "the low hanging fruit". Success may depend on the practicalities of applied work even if the work isn't sexy. This is true especially when you are starting out.

    2. Scientists and Engineers at industrial and governmental labs may conduct "basic research". For example, the laser was invented at Bell Labs. The recent nobel prize in physics went to David Wineland at NIST (albeit NIST is associated with UC-Boulder.) There are many more examples.

    3. Both these roles are highly competitive.

    1a. Apparently the poster, received a B+ in his/her first honors physics class. I say, with a B+, you are closer to an A than a C, in the honors physics program in an elite liberal arts college. This is a laudable achievement. You will know a lot more about your trajectory after another semester.

    2a. I think there are students who obtained A's the first semester in honor's programs who for one reason or another, never make it through the (4 year) program. Likewise there are probably students below a B+, that pull it all together and eventually hit new heights.

    You now know you will not get a 4.0 avg. I think graduate committees will take the record of your full 4 years before making a decision for graduate school.

    For what its worth, I had a B+ 's in every course in my first semester at graduate school. At the end of my first year, I had passed the doctoral qualifying exams, had a summer of research and had an improving record (One A). It was a lot of hard work, but it is possible.
  8. Jan 11, 2016 #7
    I enjoy my fair share of esoteric topics, but at the same time, I'd keep an open mind in regards to changing this attitude. You may find as you gain more experience that the practical stuff becomes the stuff you're most determined to work on. That's what happened with me. After all, it can be remarkably satisfying to see your research applied practically. Not only that, but many (most?) physicists work in areas with (not necessarily too immediate, but nevertheless) practical applications. Physics, after all, was created to answer questions about our day-to-day life.
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