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Do Many Physicists leave academia for industry?

  1. Jan 22, 2014 #1
    I had dinner with my Physics Professor ( it's one of those student-faculty dinners organised by the school), and he told me that ( and I am para-phrasing as closely as I can remember ) that "most Physics PHDs can get a job in Physics if they want to, but many don't want to " -- > be it low starting salary, unsure tenure track, the research university that does want to hire them is not top-tiered etc etc.

    I was wondering if what he said is true, does anyone have any experience or have colleagues that went through this process ? I'm just an undergrad intending to major in Astrophysics, so I'm not sure if this is indeed the case.
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  3. Jan 22, 2014 #2

    D H

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    The answer is "it depends." It depends on ones specialty in physics and on what one means by "a job in physics."

    "A job in physics" at its narrowest scope means, at least to some, a professorship at a research university where one continues doing exactly the kind of research performed along the way to obtaining a PhD. If that's what your professor meant by "a job in physics", he was sorely mistaken. Do the math. It's very simple math, no differential equations involved. A professor has on the order of ten graduate students throughout his or her career. Only one will replace him or her -- and that's assuming the department doesn't reorganize and recategorize the retiring professor's job as a teaching position. You have a better chance of winning at Russian roulette than winning at Research Professor roulette.

    Broadening the definition of "a job in physics" to mean professionally doing research in physics in some manner improves the odds considerably. National labs hire PhD physicists, and so does industry. The extent to which those other employers hire physicists depends on specialty. Solid state? Absolutely. That, along with other specialties, are areas where jobs in physics are begging for candidates. Note very well: Astrophysics and high energy particle physics are not in that category.

    Another alternative is to teach (but not "do") physics. A PhD in physics is typically required for these positions. These positions are coveted almost as much as those research positions, and growth is limited by the growth of the population.

    A third alternative is to do something totally different than physics after obtaining that physics PhD. You can have fun obtaining your PhD, but you should realize that getting that PhD might well be the end of the line for that line of work. (This is particularly so in fields such as astrophysics and high energy physics.) There are lots of opportunities outside of physics if you make yourself marketable along the way to obtaining that PhD. Those non-physics jobs can be very lucrative, much more lucrative than a research or teaching professorship. You do however have to make yourself marketable to obtain these kinds of jobs, and your PhD advisor might well be clueless with regard to what that means. The burden of making yourself marketable lies primarily with you.
  4. Jan 22, 2014 #3
    Ah I see... ... my own interest is in Astrophysics, and from what you said, there isn't that much jobs for astrophysicists in the industry, academia or not. Why is this -- are there just very little national labs devoted to astrophysics ? What about Planetariums ... I don't think I would need a PHD to work in one, but still, it's nice to consider all possible job options
  5. Jan 22, 2014 #4


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    I think I once saw in the American Institute of Physics employment statistics that the total number of physics faculty positions at four-year undergraduate institutions (in the USA of course) is approximately equal to the number of such positions at Ph.D.-granting institutions. Give or take maybe 10%-20%.

    Most of those four-year institutions do require faculty to do some research so that students can get research experience. The level of "seriousness" of this requirement varies greatly from one institution to another, i.e. how significant and publishable the research has to be.

    I don't remember whether that number also includes two-year institutions like community colleges.
  6. Jan 22, 2014 #5


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    There is work in astrophysics at National Labs and in NASA (as well as at Universities, of course) but you are right, there isn't all that much. Why is that? Simply put, astrophysics has very little application so it is a harder sell to put money into astrophysics when you could put money into, say, research into advanced materials which could end up founding new industries.

    The Department of Energy and NASA would love to fully fund multiple astrophysics programs but there simply isn't enough money to go around in these times of declining budgets (flat is the new up) and the program managers have to make priorities. You can see what's happening to High Energy Physics in the United States as an example. It's a hard problem.

    DH is exactly right by saying "it depends". A postdoc in HEP or Astro isn't impossible to get, but a staff position at a National Lab is very hard, and a professorship even harder.
  7. Jan 22, 2014 #6

    Ben Niehoff

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    Running a planetarium does not require anything close to a PhD in astrophysics. At most, just a course or two in astronomy and some training in how to run the equipment. Actually, I think a lot of planetariums are now pre-recorded shows, which means you just need to know how to push the "start" button. It's a summer job type thing.

    There are not a lot of jobs in astrophysics, because astrophysics does not produce research that is directly applicable to industry. A general rule is that the money available to do research in any given field is directly proportional to the usefulness of that research in...you guessed it: making money.

    So within physics, the fields with the most job opportunities are solid state physics, materials science, biophysics, and medical physics. Quantum computing has some opportunities as well, but not as many as you'd think (it might take off in the future if anyone can get a decent-size quantum computer to actually work). At the bottom of the ladder are astrophysics and high energy theory.

    In the fields with money, new research professorships are still being created. In the fields like astro and HEP theory, you're basically waiting for someone to die (and hoping that their department doesn't use this as an excuse to downsize rather than replace).
  8. Jan 22, 2014 #7


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  9. Jan 22, 2014 #8
    If you look at AIP stats the answer is yes.

    Only a small percentage of PhDs get a tenure track position ~10% and only a small amount of non tenure track science positions exist and usually in only a few fixed locations Fermilab,Los Alamos, etc. Everyone else has the choice of either not working or working outside of academia.
  10. Jan 22, 2014 #9


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    A PhD in Astrophysics, if you do more with simulations and computational stuff, should include a considerable amount of programming. I'm not sure what the statistics are for Astrophysics degree holders getting software jobs, but in theory it seems to me that software jobs would be the way to go for Astrophysics PhDs if they can't get tenure track positions.
  11. Jan 22, 2014 #10
    There's an unfortunate view in the universities that your fate is in academia, finance or some programming job once you've majored in physics.

    One guy who worked in the same lab as me on a project ended up in some marine biology research where they had to canoe out to their lab each morning. My friend won the ISEF, went into nuclear physics, and did a short stint at Fermilab out of grad school, but ended up in a research position at a successful LED/solid state lighting manufacturer (Philips Color Kinetics). Another friend I knew spent some time hopping around after his PhD in astrophysics, before becoming a consultant for Deloitte's fund practice - he became a partner a few years ago. Someone else I knew finished a PhD in astrophysics, and ended up as a technology activist in a nonprofit. Another astrophysicist that I knew went on to design the metro system for a major city, and now he's a leading expert in the world at it. Another guy I knew ended up driving a cab, then a limousine. I could've gotten a job at one of the leading hospitals in the U.S. because they had a lot of data and no one knew what to do with it. I ended up dropping out of college to work in a management role leading a team of PhDs.

    In my current job, I spend a lot time trying to forecast what happens in the next nanosecond. I learned that it's incredibly difficult to forecast what happens in the next nanosecond, much less forecasting the job market 6-9 years from now. But I see physics as the science of problem-solving, and you got into physics because you loved it. Keep doing what you love; keep solving problems for people.
    Last edited: Jan 23, 2014
  12. Jan 23, 2014 #11
    I applied to work in a Planetarium, in a beautiful seaside resort, after doing my MSc in Astronomy; they didn't even bother to reply! I think the problem there is (i) not many jobs (ii) anyone can do it. It doesn't take much to flick a switch...
  13. Jan 24, 2014 #12
    Hi SpaceNerdz. You asked for personal anecdotes, so I've got one.

    The usual route for a tenured professor is: undergrad->grad school (PhD)->postdoc->maybe another postdoc-> assistant professor->tenure. Of course most people jump off this bandwagon at some point or another. I just completed my PhD in astrophysics last month, and in a couple weeks I'll be starting a new position as a data scientist for an energy company. My new colleagues will include people who studied computer science, statistics, and yes, even physics. Most of them have PhDs in their fields.

    Why did I decide to leave the academic track? It certainly wasn't disgruntlement! I love astrophysics, and I don't at all regret my decision to go to grad school (I do think I should have chosen a different field for my undergrad…but hey, no point rehashing decisions I made in high school). I've had a blast doing novel research in a cool field and spending my days thinking about active galactic nuclei, shock fronts, and particle production mechanisms. But I've also spent most of my time each day at work sitting down at a computer, looking at data, and writing code. When I was on the job hunt this past year, I applied to postdocs, programming jobs, and statistics/data science jobs.

    What I really liked when I interviewed for the data science job is that it had the same "feel" as what I was already doing. Basically I'll be looking at data, applying mathematical algorithms, and producing a final analysis product. That's essentially what I did in grad school. Only difference is that instead of thinking about active galactic nuclei, I'll be thinking about energy consumption (and the fact that what I'm doing helps the environment is definitely a nice bonus). I probably could have found a postdoc position if I waited a couple more weeks before accepting this one, but honestly I think I'm going to enjoy this as much as I'd enjoy a postdoc. It certainly doesn't hurt that they'll pay me almost twice as much as I'd make with a postdoc. But those of us who go to grad school usually operate on the philosophy that as long as you can make ends meet, doing what you enjoy is more important than making money. After all, you're going to be spending around 8-9 hours a day doing your job, so it would really suck if you're doing something you hate.

    So I guess I'm one of those people your professor talked about who's leaving by choice rather than by force. That said, I would second what D H said about clarifying what "a job in physics" means. I'm guessing he meant to include postdocs and certain types of industry jobs, because if he was referring to tenure-track faculty positions he'd be completely wrong (and physicists are very careful not to make incorrect conclusions from our data!) If you look up the statistics on the AIP website, this will become clear. I remember reading the stats from 2007, in which it stated that there were about 1,400 new physics PhDs from American universities, but only 300 available faculty jobs in America. This data was presented as a time series, so the value from 2007 was pretty representative of previous years (actually it was getting worse). So you can make some conservative estimates and do the math. If most PhDs go on to do postdocs, and if you factor in that American jobs get foreign applicants, you've got about ~1,500 people applying for 300 jobs. So you've got a 1/5 chance of getting a tenure track professorship. I do remember reading somewhere that there are enough postdocs for every PhD student in astrophysics, but I don't remember the source.

    I'd also second the notion that you should do a PhD because you want to study something you enjoy for 5-7 years, not because you want an academic job. Yes, at the end of the day you need some kind of job to pay the bills, and with a PhD in physics you'll almost surely find something. But the competition for academic positions is fierce, so this isn't an outcome you want to count on. Definitely try for it if academia is where you want to end up, I'm just saying that a tenure track job is not a sure bet by any means, so you don't want to restrict your job search to one type of position.
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