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Endurance->permanent academia position?

  1. Dec 21, 2012 #1
    There's a lot of pessimism about academic work here on physics forums which is probably legitimate. However, what I find odd is that it would seem that somebody with a lot of endurance and time, doing several post-docs, assistant professorships or research professor positions would eventually, by accruing experience teaching and publishing papers, become the ideal candidate for a faculty position.

    Why does it take more than mere patience to get a faculty position?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 21, 2012 #2
    Because it's a game of luck? AIP publishes a lot of statistics on academic employment. There are several times more graduating phd's than available permanent positions at research universities. In an ideal world everyone would end up in the job they wanted, but there just aren't enough positions available for everyone who did a thesis and/or research on a given subject X.
  4. Dec 21, 2012 #3


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    There is some thruth in this, patience does help.
    However, you quite quickly (towards the end of your 2nd postdoc or so) reach a point where you will be required to secure funding to pay not only for your salary but also your research; and the competition for grants is almost as fierce as the competition for postitions, and without monety you can't do research, which in turn means you can't publish papers which in turn means that you stand 0% chance of success of getting a new grant or finding a permanent position.

    Note that most universities would be more than happy to hire a researcher that can bring in money, and it is not at all unusual for univerisites and institutes to create positions for succeful researchers.
    Hence, if you are succesful enough you can always find a position somewhere, but creating the conditions for that success is far from trivial and also requres a great deal of luck.
  5. Dec 21, 2012 #4

    George Jones

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    Yes. I don't know of any statistics, but it does seem from anecdotal evidence that the average length of time between getting a Ph.D. and securing a first tenure-track position is substantially longer than, say, 30 years ago.

    Even if one has patience, competition is so fierce, that the odds are still below 50%.

    Another reason for not using this method for too long: the two (or more)-body problem. Suppose Smith successfully defends a physics Ph.D. today. If Smith is in the U.S., Smith is probably about 28 (maybe younger in Britain).

    After doing all this, how old will Smith be? Each new position likely will involve a substantial change of location. Would a spouse/signicant other let this continue, particularly, if (eventually) kids are involved? I have seen a number of cases where spouses gave ultimatums: "Get a permanent job (of any kind), and stay with the family; take a new temporary position and quit the family. Your choice."
    Last edited: Dec 21, 2012
  6. Dec 21, 2012 #5
    You would think that would be the case but it isn't what I've observed. I know of several people that continue on with soft money positions at universities after doing everything you talk about.

    But I think the university looks at such an individual and thinks, "This sucker has stayed around no matter how poorly we treat him[her]. Why should we do anything different?"
  7. Dec 21, 2012 #6
    This is quite fascinating. Ah well, I'm still going to give it a shot, since plan B with a physics PhD doesn't seem so bad :P
  8. Dec 21, 2012 #7
    I think there's a sweet spot somewhere around 2-3 postdocs where someone has maximum chance of getting permanent university employment. After that it starts to look like "if this person is so good, why has he done five postdocs and not found a permanent position?"
  9. Dec 22, 2012 #8
    That's slightly sad, I feel like a lot of talented people are going to get screwed because they'll be passed their prime when all of the current old foagies start retiring.

    Well, here's to hoping I'm in the right place in the right time! Or that I can somehow get a job with my newly minted Physics PhD.
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2012
  10. Dec 22, 2012 #9
    The old foagies have largely retired- physics retirements peaked in the late 90s and dropped dramatically after the mid 2000s.

    And yes- many more very talented people leave physics than get to stay.
  11. Dec 22, 2012 #10
    Fascinating! What are the odds of obtaining stable, middle class employment with a physics PhD?
  12. Dec 23, 2012 #11
    Very high- people who can get through phd programs can generally figure out ways to get by. I made solid middle-class money bartending at the height of the economic crisis, and eventually moved into data mining. I've worked for an insurance company and now work for a consulting company, and I've had a steady trickle of other job offers in the field. Other phds I know have done similar things, moving into finance, etc. Some did a masters post phd (engineering, econ) to ease the transition.

    What are the odds you use any physics in your career? Probably very low, though it probably depends on your phd specialty. I occasionally use some of the statistics I took in undergraduate, but other than that I've had to learn an entirely different skill set.

    I use myself as an example, but I seem fairly typical compared to the other physics phds I know. After the phd+ maybe some postdocs, some time was spent bouncing around before retraining for some non-STEM, but still somewhat technical positions.
  13. Dec 23, 2012 #12
    That's heartening, it's just that I want to get my PhD in spite of the odds stacked against me of putting it to use. So it sounds like I can get a job, which means I don't have to get a masters in engineering and skip the PhD
  14. Dec 23, 2012 #13

    Vanadium 50

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    You can ask the same question about professional football players and symphony orchestra musicians. I suspect the answers are similar.

    I don't know about 30, but I would agree with 40 or 45. But the nature of the job has changed. Forty years ago, junior faculty were more like postdocs - they were less independent and the expectations of them getting their own funding was also less. You can see some of this in the duration people spend as associate professors: it's usually only a few years. The reason, I believe, is there is no longer a need for this distinction. In a department today, everyone has their own funding, and the only difference between an assistant and a full professor is tenure.

    Now, as far as taking a bunch of postdocs goes. If you are DoE OHEP funded, this won't work. After 8 years post-PhD, irrespective of your job title, you are classified as a research scientist, and the grant proposal is expected to justify why they need a research scientist and not a postdoc. For many people, this is not a problem. For some, it is - but it's the opinion of the Office that these people are not cost-effective and they are blocking the path of freshly minted PhD's by taking up a slot. Actually, 1.5-2 slots, because they are more expensive (getting back to the cost-effective argument).

    The people who are doing tasks that a postdoc can't aren't in much better shape, because these are typically jobs that do not lead to faculty positions: e.g. experts in detector operations. They can (and sometimes do) lead to National Lab positions. My point is that the career path for these individuals is different than that from that of university faculty.

    So, at least in HEP, the postdoctoral position is set up in an "up or out" fashion - it's not supposed to be a holding pattern where people spend a decade waiting to get a permanent job.

    For what it's worth, in my cohort, people got permanent job offers typically mid-way through their second postdoc: e.g. PhD+5. That's not too different than today. PhD+4 enters the market to practice, PhD+5 or 6 are in it seriously, and by PhD+7 the odds are starting to drop.
  15. Dec 23, 2012 #14
    So, what happened to the people who don't get a permanent offer by their second postdoc? Were they simply unlucky? Is this a timing window where you need x publications by y timeframe to land a job? Or did they not try hard enough?
  16. Dec 23, 2012 #15
    Its a combination of a lot of things, many of which are totally outside your control. The time from start of phd to end of two postdocs is 10+ years! Think of everything thats changed, especially in the high-tech world in the last decade. If you happen to have timed a boom in a subfield, great. If you happen to have timed a bust in a subfield, you are SOL. My cohort finished phds and postdocs in a terrible economic crisis that saw big international science cuts- no one could have seen that coming.

    Being talented and hardworking buys you a ticket- the rest is just a lottery.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2012
  17. Dec 23, 2012 #16

    Vanadium 50

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    Same thing as happens to NFL and symphony orchestra hopefuls when they haven't been picked up by a team or an orchestra. They find something else to do. Telecom seems to be gobbling up many of them at the moment.

    Each professor graduates ~10 students in his career, and ~1 is needed to replace him. Either 9 find something else to do, or we will become hip-deep in professors.
  18. Dec 23, 2012 #17
    To rephrase my question, why does Sally become a professor whereas Fred does not? Is it really a total lottery?

    Maybe I'm going off topic, but producing a supply 10x the demand smells like the system is broken!
  19. Dec 23, 2012 #18


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    It isn't necessarily. In the NFL and musician cases, the limited number of jobs is well known to all entering the system. In the case of musicians, they also know it's going to take a lot of luck, and not merit. I just read Judi Dench's advice to aspring actors, and one of the things she said was that the best actors are not always employed. Perhaps the question is one of honest advertising - whether the system makes it known that pursuing a career in science is more like pursuing a career in music than on engineering. (I think the odds in music are much worse, but just to continue the analogy.)
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2012
  20. Dec 23, 2012 #19
    Many physicists think that the only real science is theoretical cosmology or particle physics. That is a pretty damn big limit on what is science.
  21. Dec 23, 2012 #20
    I don't know anyone in a phd program who thinks that. A lot of undergrads do, but 4 years with nary a particle particle physics class tends to dissuade them. And condensed matter theorists seem to fair about as well as particle theorists in the job market.

    Experimentalists might have more jobs available, but there are also a lot more of them (some labs at my undergrad had 12-13 gradstudents AT A TIME), so its not clear to me how that scales. Most experimentalists I know left STEM after the phd + a postdoc or so, just like most theorists.
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